Shore power is a jungle that takes equal parts captain and physicist to navigate. Add on the complexities of European power arrangements, and one is truly overwhelmed. In this article, I will organize the options, explain why each is used, and what you can and can not do. The options I will cover are 15/20, 30, 50, 16, and 32 amp service.
US Households: 15/20 Amp, 120 Volt, 60 Hertz
In US houses, outlets provide 15/20 amps of current with 120 volts over 60 Hertz alternating current (AC). All US appliances such hairdryers, vacuums, TV sets are engineered to run off this set of variables. US vessels provide these 120V AC outlets throughout their interiors, so those aboard can use the same electrical appliances. Logically older vessels plugged into a shore power supply that provided 15/20 amp, 210 volt service like any other appliance. The vessels were another appliance connected to the shore system. But with ever increasing complexity, vessels soon needed more than the 120 volts times 20 amps equals 2,400 watts of energy. Remember from physics that Watts = Voltage x Amps. Either the voltage or amperage needed to increase.
US Small Vessels: 30 Amp, 120 Volt, 60 Hertz
The most common shore power connection for RV’s and vessels is 30 amp. The marine outlets are a special circular shape compared to flat household outlets, and the cords have tubular male and female plugs. The three prongs consists of hot, neutral, and ground legs. This combination provides 3.6 kilowatts of energy to power air conditioning units, appliances, etc. for most smaller vessels under 60-feet in length. But larger vessels with even greater power demands need more wattage.
US Large Vessels: 50 Amp, 120/240 Volt, 60 Hertz
The need for more than 3.6 kilowatts led to the wide availability in the US and Caribbean of 50 amp shore power. This shore power system quadruples the available energy supplying up to 12 kilowatts. The plug has four legs with two hots, a neutral, and a ground. Two two 120 volt hot legs are used to achieve the 240 volt supply while 50 amps and 120 volts are provided by connecting one hot leg with the neutral leg for 6 kilowatts. One notices that the cord size and expense sharply increases for 50 amp compared to 30 amp cords. Handling that much more amperage necessitates larger gauge wire. Household wire for 15/20 amp circuits is 12 gauge, 30 amp supply requires 10 gauge, and 50 amp requires 6 gauge copper wire.
EU Small Vessels: 16 Amp, 240 Volt, 50 Hertz
In Europe, shore power outlets most commonly provide 16 amps of current with 240 volts at 50 Hertz. Likewise appliances run on this set of electrical specifications. European vessels have 240 volt interior outlets. While the wattage is about the same as US 30 amp supply, the voltage and frequency differences make US and European vessels incompatible. US vessels need to adapt when traveling in European waters and vice versa.
EU Large Vessels: 32 Amp, 240 Volt, 50 Hertz
For larger European manufacturer vessels, the power supply is 32 amps with 240 volts at 50 Hertz. This accordingly supplies double the energy for 7.7 kilowatts. Now one might think of jury rigging a large EU vessel to hook into 50 amp, 240 volt supply. This modification is not easy because not only is the frequency at 50 Hertz compared to 60 Hertz different, but the wire aboard rated to handle 32 amps will not be able to handle the 50 amp current. The conversion is easier for a US vessel which has larger gauge wire to switch to European shore supply.
To accommodate the differences inside the US as well as between the US and Europe, there are a wide array of adapters. These adapters are not miracle savers though. If a shore power is expecting to provide 15/20 amp service then by bumping that up to 50 amp, one will likely overdraw the circuit and cause a fire by trying to run all the same appliances. Y-adaptors split supply while maintaining amperage or combine two supply to provide higher amp service. At the other end, inside outlets need to be engineered such that either they correctly accommodate EU vs US appliances. With the ever increasing sophistication of yachts, 100 amp supply is another level for US shore power.