Circuit Breakers vs On/Off Switch

Written by Captains Chris & Alyse Caldwell

Do you remember your parent’s old screw-in fuses? You know the kind that blew on Friday night when everyone was home creating lots of electrical demand. But because they did not have a spare replacement, maybe some folks used a penny to complete the circuit, bypassing any protection that a fuse was designed to offer….well, first we must say DON’T DO THAT!

Next, we will fast forward to our modern homes with circuit breakers in a panel usually housed in the laundry or utility room. Today if a circuit is overloaded then a circuit breaker will POP! and can be easily reset. But stop for a moment and think about why the breaker popped. What was overloaded and why? Ask a qualified technician about the reliability of reusing a circuit breaker that has popped and he will recommend replacing it. It has done its job and may not be as reliable the next time you need circuit protection.

Now let’s go aboard your boat. The circuit breaker panel is designed for the same electrical protection purpose as the panel in your land home. Energy management aboard a boat is a honed skill and the circuit breaker will often protect us from ourselves. Unfortunately many boaters use the circuit breaker as an ON/OFF switch instead. Why do people turn off the horn, the radio or GPS Radar at the circuit breaker panel when most electronic equipment can easily be powered down directly on the device itself? We train on many different brands and styles of boats and constantly have difficulty using some accessories when we need them because the circuit breaker is in the OFF position.

When warming up your systems in the morning before you start cruising, be sure to confirm that your first line of defense and communication is turned ON- your horn. Imagine yourself in a collision situation and needing the horn to communicate…Not working! Uh-oh…so you bend over to study the electrical panel to locate the circuit breaker…quickly…quickly…where’s the horn’s circuit breaker…Precious seconds go by with your eyes off your course and the other vessel… BOOM! Too late.

We encourage boaters to have their GPS and RADAR on standby even while at anchor. Make sure the VHF radio is alive too.  DO NOT POWER DOWN or turn off these valuable navigation tools at the circuit breaker. Each of these important pieces of equipment should be ready to use right up until after you return to the dock. Anchoring overnight can quickly go astray if not only are you dragging but then your equipment also has to warm up before you can see how far you are from the shoreline.

Learn proper use of the circuit breaker and fine tune your own vessel start procedure. Keep all systems alive and use their individual ON/OFF power buttons to operate them…and save a penny for your thoughts!

Captains Chris & Alyse Caldwell are USCG 100 ton Masters and Cruising Coaches who offer Personal Boat Training Online or Onboard your boat anywhere! The Caldwell’s help build your cruising confidence with hands-on training and with their training videos filled with tons of tips for the boater who loves learning. If you have additional questions for Captain Chris or Captain Alyse, please email them at