How to wire boat running lights to the battery

Written by mike schoonveld
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Boats operated between sundown and sunrise need to display running lights. Most larger-sized boats come from the manufacturer equipped with the proper lights installed and wired into the boat's electrical system. Smaller boats, often propelled by paddles, oars or small electric motors, are not equipped with running lights. However, installing and wiring these lights is an easy chore for a small boat owner.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Bow light
  • Stern light
  • 3-Position Switch
  • Solderless connectors
  • Connector crimper
  • 18-gauge red wire
  • 18-gauge black wire

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    Wiring the Lights

  1. 1

    Install bow and stern lights. The bow light has a bicolor lens which causes the light to be seen as red on the port (left) side of the boat and green on the starboard (right) side of the boat. The stern light is white and should be visible 360 degrees around the boat and mounted (usually on a mast) so the light is displayed 1 meter higher than the bow lights.

  2. 2

    Run a black wire to connect each light to the battery. Depending on where the battery is located in the boat, this can be a wire direct from the battery to each light, or a wire running from one light to the other light then to the battery. Route the wire in an out-of-the-way location as best you can.

  3. 3

    Connect the black wire to one of the wires coming out of the light using a solderless butt connector to join the two wires. Strip a quarter inch of insulation from the end of each wire. Insert one wire into one end of the connector, and the other wire into the other end, then with a crimping tool, or pair of pliers, squeeze each end of the connector until it clamps solidly onto the wire.
    If both wires are black or some other colour, it doesn't matter to which wire the black wire connects. If the wires on the light are different colours (commonly black and either red or white) connect the black wire being installed to the black wire on the light fixture.

  4. 4

    Run a red wire from the battery to the location you plan to put the three-way switch. Make sure the back of the switch is accessible. Run a red wire from each of the lights to the switch location. Again, route wires in an out-of-the-way location as best you can.

  5. 5

    Connect the red wire to the remaining unconnected wire on each light using a solderless butt connector.

  6. 6

    Install the proper solderless connector at end of each red wire terminating at the switch (usually either a ring end or a female spade end) depending on the style needed to connect to the switch.

  7. 7

    Connect the wire from the battery to the power post on the switch, then the wire from the bow and stern lights to their respective terminals on the switch. Most running light switches come with installation instructions or are marked somehow as a guide, detailing which wire connects to which post on the switch.

  8. 8

    Add the proper sized ring end solderless connectors on the end of black and red wires terminating at the battery (usually a 5/16-inch ring end will fit the stud and wingnut connector on marine batteries).

  9. 9

    Connect the red wire to the positive battery terminal and the black wire (or wires) to the negative terminal.

Tips and warnings

  • Test the lights for proper function. One position on the switch is off, one position turns on both lights, the third position turns on only the stern light required to be displayed when the boat is at anchor after sundown.
  • Wiring an in-line fuse somewhere into the red wire between the battery and light switch is a good idea in case one of the power wires gets shorted out. The fuse will need to be accessible. The closer it's mounted to the battery, the better.

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