How to Set Up a Wire Free Winch

Steve Cassano — 4 March 2019

I’ve had my trusty WARN XD9000 for over ten years now. This trusty old unit is always there, sitting proudly, cradled by my bull bar, ready to get me out of trouble or to help other 4WDers out of sticky situations.

Back in the days when I bought my winch, they came with wire rope, a bulky solenoid box with a few cables connected, and an ungainly lead for the control. The solenoids were encased in dubious plastic; you usually had to mount them very close to the winch, or even attach them to it, for simplicity and ease of installation.

Since then, winches have advanced a long way. Nowadays there’s built-in solenoids and wireless or bluetooth connectivity, if you have enough coin. Unfortunately, my old WARN – just like many others from that former era – don’t have these luxury features. The good news is, there’s a few things you can do to improve upon your old school winch, making it safer, faster and more convenient to use.


THAT BULKY AND UGLY SOLENOID BOX

The solenoid’s main purpose is to manage the high amperage between the battery and the winch, so as to power the winch in or out as required.

Most people place and use the solenoid at the front of the 4WD. That’s the default position. However, this positioning does pose a few inconveniences. For example, it can hinder airflow and interfere with the installation and use of driving lights (if you have them fitted). It’s also the case that not all front bars will accommodate this default position nicely.

Add to this that many older solenoids are encased in flimsy plastic and they’re not dustproof or waterproof. If you’re hitting hard tracks over the years, this can be a recipe for disaster. As older solenoids travel in this default position, they can fall prey to internal corrosion and subsequent failure when you least expect it.

With these older solenoids, you also need to plug the control’s cable in when it’s time to use the winch. Plugging in a cable – sounds easy right? Try doing it when you’re halfway through a bog hole or you’re precariously hanging off-camber on a slippery track.

There’s the difficulty of trying to recall where you placed that intolerable cable. Then once you’ve found it, you have to uncurl it, walk it around the front, clean the mud away from the solenoid, fiddle with the connector, secure the cable (so you don’t run it over), and drive with it dangling from your hand. 

Not only is the old way of doing things tiresome, it’s also unsafe. It’s high time you modernised your winch.

REPLACING THE SOLENOID

One solution is to replace the original solenoid with a more compact, water and dust resistant unit. This won’t cost much to install. You can easily source one for under $50, including enough dust caps to protect the connections at the solenoid and the winch too.

When I was doing this on my rig, my priority was to install it under the hood, away from the elements. I sourced a replacement 12V heavy-duty winch solenoid, rated up to 500 amps and suitable for up to a 15,000lb winch. In my case, I chose the four post version, which should suit most winches – but please check with your supply source first.

Given these replacements are small, at approximately 80 x 90 x 40mm in size, it’s a breeze to find a suitable place to affix them under the hood. Try against the firewall or any panel where a secure fitting is guaranteed, but keep it as close as practical to the winch in order to minimise cable length. I found a neat spot on the right side near my brake booster and affixed it using existing mounts and an angle bracket I had lying around.

CABLING THE SOLENOID

Cabling the solenoid is, for the most part, quite a simple process. It shouldn’t cost you much more than $100 either.

When I was cabling mine, I chose to ditch the original WARN power cables that were connecting the winch and the old solenoid. Instead, I replaced them with two gauge cable to minimise voltage drop, which I advise you to do as well. I needed eight metres in total, for the three cables of equal length spanning between the solenoid and winch. I was able to reuse the original WARN cable, cut to size, as the connection between the solenoid and the positive of the battery.

Although this isn’t mandatory, I also maximised connectivity by running an earth cable of the same gauge from the winch body directly to the battery’s negative, rather than earthing to the vehicle’s body.

So, before you start, you’ll need around eight metres of two gauge cable (this will vary depending on the solenoid’s position). You’ll also need 10 Narva style copper lugs in size 35-8 to secure the connections and 200-300mm of 10amp wire to use for earthing connections. To press and affix the Narva lugs firmly, you’ll need a large crimp tool. I sourced a quality hex crimp tool online for under $40, but you could alternatively borrow or hire one.

When cabling up the solenoid, ensure it is positioned (as described above) and that the cable is cut to length, crimped and laid out. Then secure the cables between the solenoid and the winch, making sure to follow the instructions about which cable goes to which mounting post. Make sure all the cables are protected from excessive heat or suspect sharp edges (I found that using split conduit and cable ties helped with this).

Leave connecting the main power cable from the solenoid to the battery positive until last, once all the other connections are secured (and if you are installing a wireless control too, as described in the next section, do not do this until the very end).

That’s a mighty step towards improving your old winch. But how do you set up your old school winch so you don’t need a cable?

WIRELESS CONTROL

Fortunately, you don’t need anything fancy to set up a wireless remote. I found plenty of examples online for under $12. Yep, just $11.95 delivered. At that price, I ordered two, just so I have a spare (or so I can sell it at a profit to jealous mates).

The package includes a battery-operated wireless controller featuring an on/off switch, plus momentary winch-in and winch-out buttons. Fortunately, there’s simple instructions.

There is also a small receiver, the size of match box, making it easy to mount. The receiver comes with five short coloured leads, representing: winch-in, winch-out, earth, antenna and power. Mounting it within 30mm of the solenoid is best, though you could extend the leads if you wish.

CONNECTING THE WIRELESS RECEIVER

On the side of the solenoid, there’s three smaller connections, representing winch-in, winch-out, and earth. All you need to do is match and connect the receiver’s winch-in and winch-out to that of the solenoid, then simply connect the earth wire of both the solenoid and receiver to an available earthing point.

The penultimate step is to connect the power wire of the receiver. In my case, I needed to extend this power wire in order to reach the battery. Some 10 amp cable did the job. I also ensured I went by the fuse box (although if you don’t have a fuse box, an inline fuse holder will do). A 3 amp fuse did the job nicely, as little amperage is drawn by the wireless receiver.

Depending on the model you have purchased, there may be ring or blade terminals to connect the leads. Therefore, having a variety of spare terminals comes in handy.

The final step is to connect the main cable between the battery and the solenoid – then you’ll be ready to use your winch in just moments.

Of course, in each case refer to the user manual that comes with the receiver; there will be minor variations.

IMPROVED WINCH CINCH

That, my fellow 4WDers, is all you need to do to modify your old winch in order to make it simpler, easier and safer to use.

These mods may not suit everyone or even be possible for all situations, but I’ve had this setup for quite a few years and found it to be very rewarding – particularly given it can be finalised in less than two hours. And then, with these changes implemented, you can tackle all sorts of insane offroad tracks, knowing that your winch won’t let you down.


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nuts and bolts guide how to winch technical

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