Charge!: Chargers, Plugs, and Receptacles On Boats

27 Mar

The cigarette lighter plug/receptacle has long been the de facto standard to connect portable 12-Volt devices, and it sucks. Nobody smokes anymore. It’s bulky, insecure, makes poor electrical contact, and can’t carry high current. It’s got to be the only electrical connector in the history of electrical connectors with a compression spring that is constantly trying to break the connection.

I suffered many a night when the only difference between a good sleep and waking up in a pool of sweat, ravaged by mosquitoes, was a 12-Volt fan plugged into a cigarette receptacle above my bunk. If I so much as twitched, it disconnected. If the boat rocked it disconnected. It spontaneously disconnected, because the little spring was always trying to push the plug out of the receptacle. And this was with a stainless steel receptacle from West Marine and a Marinco plug, both purveyors of quality marine equipment.

The receptacle above my bunk looks all marine and stainless steely, but it wants to spit out plugs:


We’re stuck in this backward compatible nightmare simply because cars started coming with cigarette lighters way back when. There has to be a better way. Some enterprising company has to invent the better mousetrap, sell it to the world, and commit to it for twenty years or so, long enough for the world, or as least us boaters, to banish the cigarette lighter receptacle forever. Blue Sea Systems? Marinco? Cole-Hersee? I’m calling you out!

Currently there’s just not much out there to adopt, even if we all agreed to lop off all those cigarette lighter plugs and make a collective switch. There are lots of good in-line connectors (connectors that connect two pairs of wires together), but we don’t want some pigtail hanging out of our nav station: We want a streamlined, sexy little receptacle.

The closest thing I’ve found is the EmPower plug/receptacle, used on some airlines. It’s 15-Volt DC (close enough to 12) but limited to 75 Watts, and 75 Watts at 12 Volts is only 6 Amps, and that’s not much. I’m guessing the connector itself could take much more, but the in-flight systems limit it to 75 Watts so you can’t actually charge your laptop, which is apparently a fire hazard at altitude. Anyway, the EmPower plug/receptacle is barking up the right tree:

Some features this future dream receptacle and plug should have:

1. Compact: It can have a way smaller footprint than a cigarette lighter receptacle and the plug shouldn’t stick out nearly as far.

2. Polarized: Can’t be any way to plug it in backward and reverse the polarity.

3. Rated for 20-30 Amps: Should be able to plug in a 450-Watt portable inverter and have it work.

4. Secure: Yes, but don’t need to go overboard. I think a home 110 AC plug/receptacle is about right in this regard: You can vacuum the whole room and shake the cord every which way and the plug won’t pull out of the wall, but if you accidentally roll the vacuum cleaner down the stairs the plug will pull out. I don’t think there needs to be a locking mechanism, per se, as with a shore power cord, but if you’re using a plug-in spotlight in full combat mode, it shouldn’t come loose when you move about the cockpit (another personal pet peeve).

5. Circuit protection?: I say no. Many cigarette adapters have a fuse in the plug, but this isn’t the place for circuit protection. There’s not a circuit breaker in the plug for your toaster. The circuit supplying the receptacle should be protected by an appropriately-sized fuse or breaker, then any further protection should be in the device itself.

6. Easy install/adaptation, especially for the plugs: Installing the receptacles can take however long it takes, but installing the plug on a new device should be quick and easy. This way, if some of us are are to adopt this new dream connector and ditch our cigarette receptacles, and we buy some new device that comes with a cigarette plug, it should be a joy, rather than a chore, to lop it off and replace it with one of our dream plugs.

Anything else?

Back to reality and what we’re stuck with. Marinco and Blue Sea Systems make the only cigarette receptacles/plugs worth their salt. They’ve taken lemons, and made lemonade, so to speak. I have several of them aboard, and they really are better. The receptacles themselves are superior, in and of themselves, but used with their plugs it’s the best deal going. The plug twists and locks – sort of – into the receptacle, and at least holds the spring in compression and prevents unintended disconnects. Not cheap at about $30 for a receptacle/plug combo, and another $15-$20 for additional plugs:

It’s worth having at least one of these receptacles, then the corresponding plugs for your mission critical devices. For me these are the portable inverter, the spotlight, the fan, and a 12-Volt vacuum cleaner.

USB connectors are now ubiquitous for charging all kinds of devices, and powering a few, but USB operates at 5 Volts, so forget about powering 12-Volt devices. Still, it makes sense to install one of the marinized USB receptacles for phones, iPads, and the like. Without one you’re looking at additional adapters and claptrap, or running an inverter, just to charge a phone:

Or one of these combination panels, with the cigarette receptacle and the USB ports:

They sell combination AC outlet/USB sockets, so if you’re running AC all the time this is kind of nifty. I installed one at home, and it cleans up our charging station somewhat. We just need the cords now, without the adapters:

This article was syndicated from The Adventures of the Vessel Condesa


  1. Clark

    Hi Jack, I’m with you on that, but just not sure how to resolve it, other that there being a fuse in the device itself. I can’t think of any other situation or device where the circuit protection is in the plug, and the fuse would make the plug bigger…just like the cig. plug we’ve got now.

  2. Jack Wickman

    You might reconsider your idea of having no fuse or breaker in the plug.
    If your outlet can deliver 30 amps then your wires should be 10 AWG.
    This will be a pain for small, low power devices.
    The 15 amp outlets in home AC power require only 14 AWG cords.
    A fuse in the plug that limits the current will allow smaller, more flexible wires to be used from the outlet to the device.
    Maximum current for different gauge wires are roughly:
    30 amp 10 AWG,
    20 amp 12 AWG,
    15 amp 14 AWG,
    13 amp 16 AWG,
    10 amp 18 AWG,
    These values are for copper wires and can vary slightly with temperature and insulation material.

  3. Clark Beek

    Some great ideas coming in. I’d especially like to mess with the Euro DIN connector. I thought the Andersen connectors were only in-line. We used them at my old company, and I’d never seen an “in-dash” sort of receptacle. As far as the adoption problem, I think a certain percentage of people like me would make the change if there were something better…I would think the exact same percentage that took the trouble to change to the Marinco or Blue Sea plug/receptacles, just because they’re a bit better. I’d say I’ve got over $100 invested in Marinco plugs/receptacles, with three receptacles and 5 or 6 plugs. A lot of boat appliances, small inverters in particular, come with both a cig. lighter plug and alligator clips. If the dream plug took off, might ship with a third option too, or at least offer it as an accessory. The outboard motor connectors from Blue Sea are solid, but they’re even bigger than cig. lighter.

  4. Chip

    I don’t presently use Powerpoles outside, though there are what are marketed as moisture-proof solutions for using them. There is quite a selection at, and maybe others.

  5. Jack Gill

    I do like the DIN standard set up,they were on my old BMW RT 100 m/cycle and Porsche 356 Carrera,but at the time didn’t use them – low priority and didn’t have the male plug. Although I believe they’d be a better choice than the cig.lighter the payback for conversion isn’t there, too many accessories out there all using the cig lighter plug;maybe having a few DIN to CL adapters would help the transition,but if you’re guided by the KISS principle forget it. For now I’ll stick with the old CL receptacles such as the Blue Sea twist n lock.

  6. Sam Densler

    Mike and Chip,
    The powerpoles look like an interesting solution, thank you. Do you use them for any exterior helm applications, and if so, how do you seal them when not in use?

  7. Chip

    I’ve gone with Andersen PowerPoles myself. Lots of options for panel mounting these, and easy to have multiple “jacks” in one panel mount. Properly crimping the PowerPoles onto your power cable takes a bit of practice to do well, however.

  8. Bart long

    The Motorcycle industry is adopting the Euro DIN plug. I have them on my Victory. They almost meet all your requirements. They are only rated at 16 amps, which is pretty good. I have attached links to examples at amazon.

  9. mike

    Andersen powerpole connectors, now widely adopted by ham radio operators, are the solution I have adopted on my boat. They can be mounted inline or panel mounted. Simple, polarized, cheap. The smallest size can carry 30amps. I left one cigarette lighter receptacle wired in parallel with a nearby powerpole connector for legacy purposes.

  10. Sam Densler

    We at Serene Bay Marine have invested in several designs to address this issue but our market research has indicated that an overwhelming majority of boat owners will not justify the expense to replace what they agree is a bad design with something that will require them to not only replace the receptacle on their boat but also the wiring from their panel (it is the wimpy wires used in most runs to cig sockets that limits the current), and even worse, it also necessitates the replacement of the plug on the end of their existing devices (that also have the matching cig lighter plug). Unfortunately this is a case of transition too hard (like english to metric). So on our vessels, we have a combination of both cig sockets and USB sockets and make do with those :-(

  11. Chuck Popenoe

    I’ve changed all my cigar lighter receptacles to 2-pin Jones connectors. Not sexy or pretty, but they are MUCH more reliable than cigar lighters!

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