How to Wire Boat Lights

Most recreational boats have 12-volt DC electrical systems, and the lighting industry has responded to boaters' needs for interior lighting with energy-efficient 12-volt LED lighting. Uniformly waterproof and drawing less current than a standard fluorescent or incandescent lighting fixture, these lights provide bright light in interior spaces without the glare so often seen from either fluorescent or incandescent lighting. Most of these lights can be installed in a few minutes with a screwdriver.

Determine where you want your lights. Cabins should have--at a minimum--an interior light above the doorway to the cabin. Cabins should also have a low-intensity reading light on the wall above each bunk. Other spaces can be lighted as desired.

Decide what path you want the wiring to take. If your boat is equipped with a circuit breaker panel as the center of its power distribution center, begin tracing the path for the new wiring there. If your boat uses a common bus bar, begin tracing your path at that point.

Determine what bulkheads or walls stand in the way of your wiring. Remove the interior panels of walls, with a hammer or screwdriver as appropriate, to determine if you can have a "clear run" for the wiring. Most interior walls and bulkheads will already have "pass-through" holes for existing systems; this will simplify the wiring job, because no new holes will have to be drilled. In this case, wiring will require only that you fish the wires through the existing pass-through holes. Do not reinstall the interior panels until the wiring project is complete.

If the bulkhead does not have a pass-through, one will need to be drilled, which means you will have to remove the interior panel at the bulkhead and drill. If you drill a hole for the wires, use a file to remove any burrs from the edges of the hole; burrs will cause wear on the wiring, which may lead to a short circuit or even a fire.

Drill a hole in the wall, centered on the chosen location of the new light unit. Have your assistant standing by at the first pass-through or obstruction to ensure that the fish tape goes through the hole. As your assistant passes the tape through or around one pass-through or obstruction, he should move to the next pass-through or obstruction. Feed the fish tape into the hole and toward your assistant and keep feeding the fish tape until the tape reaches the point where the wire will be joined to your vessel's power distribution center. Have your assistant attach the wire to the fish tape and pull the wire back through the pass-through holes until the wire reaches the point where you wish to mount the light. Pull at least 1 foot of wire out of the hole.

Connect the "pigtail" on the light to the wire with electrical screw cap connectors, and over-tape the screw connectors with electrical tape. Push any excess wire back into the hole, and mount the light using the screws provided with the light. Go to the power distribution center and connect the wire.


  • LED lights cannot be used for navigational lights; however, the procedure for wiring is essentially the same. Navigation lights and radios must be on a circuit separate from any other use.


  • If you have several lights to be mounted, you can run one wire from the power distribution center to a central location, install a common bus bar and then run wires from the individual lights as needed. Exposed wiring on a boat looks sloppy and presents both a fire hazard and tripping hazard. If the wiring can't be run through walls, it should be covered with a flat plastic wiring channel. If a flat channel is used, the edges should be caulked to make it watertight.


About the Author

Will Charpentier is a writer who specializes in boating and maritime subjects. A retired ship captain, Charpentier holds a doctorate in applied ocean science and engineering. He is also a certified marine technician and the author of a popular text on writing local history.