Switches & Panels

Electrical boat switches allow you to control your boat’s electrical systems and devices from the helm and also to turn the power on and off to your battery and select between batteries in multi-bank systems. » Read More

Types of Boat Switches

Most marine electrical switches fall into one of several categories: rocker and toggle switches, push button switches, and battery switches.

Rocker Switches

The most widely used switch style on boats is the rocker switch (also sometimes called a toggle switch). Rocker switches are normally found on dashes and helm stations and used to control systems including pumps, lights, windlasses, blowers, wipers, and livewells.

Among the more popular manufacturers of marine-grade rocker switches are Carling, Cole Hersee, Blue Sea Systems, and BEP Marine. These switches consist of the switch base or body — which is normally hidden behind the panel — and a removable switch cover with a label that is used to actuate the switch. Switch covers are made in several different materials, shapes, and covers. With few exceptions, marine rocker switches and switch covers are all interchangeable. In other words, you don’t have to use a Carling cover with a Carling switch.

Toggle switches do the same thing as rocker switches but feature a slim toggle control instead of a larger rocker control.

Push Button Switches

Push button dashboard switches serve the same purpose as rocker switches but are preferred by some boaters for their appearance. They are lower profile than rocker switches, usually made of stainless steel, and usually feature colored LED lighting rings. Stainless push-button switches cost more than rocker switches but give your dash a clean, modern look.

Battery Switches

Boat battery switches (also called battery selector switches and battery disconnect switches) are larger switches that serve to connect or disconnect your battery bank(s) from your boat’s electrical switches. With a single-bank system, a battery disconnect switch can be used to isolate the battery from the electrical system when the boat is not in use, preventing discharge. With a two-bank battery system, a battery selector switch can be used to:

  • Disconnect both banks from the electrical system.
  • Connect both banks to the electrical system simultaneously.
  • Connect either of the banks one at a time.

Boat Switch Functions

Boat dash switches have different functions, which can be confusing. Among the more commonly used switch functions are:

On/Off Switch

An on/off switch is just what it sounds like — a simple switch like a light switch. These switches are used for accessories like livewell pumps or blowers.

On/Off/On Switch

On/off/on switches have three positions instead of two. The center position is completely off. The top position powers one circuit. The bottom position powers a separate circuit. On/off/on switches are often used for things like navigation lights, where one on position turns on the bow lights and all-around light, while the other on position turns on just the all-around light.

Bilge pumps are also often wired using an on/off/on switch, with one on position turning the pump on manually and the other on position connecting it to the battery via the float switch for automatic operation.

Momentary On/Off Switch

A momentary switch, sometimes written as (on)/off, only stays on while you’re pressing it. A horn, for example, would use a momentary on/off switch.

Momentary On/Off/On Switch

A momentary on/off/on switch also connects only while you’re pressing it, but has two different on positions. Think of the rocker switches used to control trim tabs, for example. Windlass switches are also usually momentary on/off/on with one on position for up and the other on position for down.

Lighted Boat Switches

One of the main reasons push button dash switches and panels are exploding in popularity is that most are LED lighted. The lighted LED switch ring is not only attractive but also conveniently indicates whether the switch is on.

Rocker switches, though, can also be lighted. Switch bodies are available with indicator lamps, which turn on only when the switch is on, and with backlight lamps, which are independent of the switch. Backlight lamps are often connected to the nav light or circuit so that when the nav lights are switched on the backlighting behind the panel switches comes on too.

Note that illuminated boat rocker switches require both a switch body with integrated lamps and a cover with an engraved label or plastic lens that allows the light through the cover.

Boat Rocker Switch Covers

Switch covers for Carling, Cole Hersee, Blue Sea, and other marine rocker switches are largely interchangeable. Most are based on the Contura design. Replacing switch covers is an easy and inexpensive DIY way to upgrade the look of your console.

Rubber or Soft Touch Boat Switch Covers

Found on many production boats, rubberized “soft touch” covers look and feel great to begin with, but the material tends to deteriorate over time. It can get soft and sticky, fade and discolor, and it’s easily scratched or cut. Replacing rubber switch covers with hard plastic covers is quick and easy.

Printed Hard Plastic Boat Switch Covers

Hard plastic switch covers stand up better to wear and the elements than soft switch covers. Most have text labels and icons printed on their surface. While less expensive than the alternative, the printed labels tend to wear off over time. They also don’t allow backlighting.

Etched or Engraved Boat Rocker Switch Covers

Etched — as opposed to printed — switch covers have a few advantages over printed switch covers. First, the engraved labels and icons are permanent; they will never wear or fade. Second, the etching allows light to pass through the switch cover from behind, meaning that with a lighted switch body, the labels are visible in the dark.

Some engraved switch covers have a second translucent area etched near the bottom of the switch. When used with two-lamp rocker switches, this serves as a convenient indicator that the switch is on.

Marine Switch Panels & Dash Panels

Boat dash switches are typically wired together into a cohesive panel controlling the boat’s electrical systems. This panel can be mounted in a cutout directly into the fiberglass or aluminum of the helm station, or into a panel, usually made from marine acrylic or plexiglass. A separate panel is great for covering old cutouts when upgrading your switch panel.

Many off-the-shelf switch panels in standard configurations are available commercially, with or without the switches and wiring included. If none of the off-the-shelf options fit your switch or helm configuration, you can also have a custom switch panel (or an entire dash panel) made from acrylic.

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Commonly Asked Questions about Switches & Panels 

What does a boat rocker switch do? (show/hide)

What is the nav switch on a boat? (show/hide)

What is a rocker switch panel? (show/hide)

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