Everyone likes power, right? Edison knew it. Torches, lanterns and candles are great, but bulbs are just way cooler (and much safer on a boat). We love the silence of the sea, the serenity of being at anchor and are pretty frugal with our amp hours. But, our trip to the Keys in 2014 told us there are a few electric gizmos we consider a must, and that we must find a better way to power them. Some of our more Edison-esque priorities are …
Laptops and phones:
The radio and, most definitely, the fridge!
Ice just puts the “happy” in our hour(s) if you know what I mean.
But, if you want to enjoy all of these fun electric things, you must find an efficient way to POWER them. On the Niagara, our house battery bank consists of four (4) 6 volt Trojan T-125 wet-cell batteries, wired in series and in parallel, which charge on either shore power or the engine via the alternator (much like a car battery). We did replace the batteries in the fall of 2013, so they’re solid.
And, we do have a handy eMeter, which helps us monitor our usage and the remaining “juice” that we have left to enjoy our power-driven amenities.
But, with the engine as the only option to charge the batteries when we are away from shore, this meant we often had to crank the engine while on the hook and let it run idle to give the batteries some juice.
Now, there are a LOT of things we like to do while at anchor:
(Total gratuitous shot of Phillip, I know. It’s my blog. I don’t care.)
Sitting around watching the engine run so we can charge the batteries, however? Doesn’t really rank very high in our “fun” category:
Not to mention, it’s just hard on the engine. Diesels do not like to run idle without a load.
So, one of our primary projects after returning from the Keys was to install some solar panels on the boat that would allow us to use power from the sun to charge the house batteries while at anchor. Sounds simple, right? Well, it wasn’t. Thankfully, Phillip bore the brunt of the research end of this project. (Because let’s face it, he is definitely the brains of this outfit. I’m the brawn. We’ve got a great thing going.) There were so many different types of panels, manufacturers, installation techniques and set-ups to consider. We were debating between rigid panels versus flexible panels:
The high-end Italian-made panels versus the much less expensive Chinese “knockoffs.”
Think real Gucci versus what the guy is selling out of the back of his trunk around the corner. But, who’s going to know, right? Maybe there really are three “c”s in Gucci.
Without venturing too far outside of my meager solar knowledge (I’m sure Phillip is cringing at what I might be about to say right now and how far it might be from reality), one of the primary concerns for solar panels is their efficiency–that is, how much of the sun’s energy do they convert to solar power. While the fancy Italian models (Solbian) were boasting 22%, the knockoffs (Renogy and Aurinco) were still clocking a good 18% for a third of the cost (roughly, for purposes of our project, about $900 versus $300). We checked out a lot of cruiser’s forums discussing the Renogy flexible panels (mostly with good reports) and debated to no end about the pros and cons of each:
“You mean there are eight different products I have to choose between and everyone’s got a different opinion about each of them? Who ARE these boat people with all of their complicated decisions?”
The great solar debate quickly became exhausting. I felt like we needed one of those Don Draper decision trees (if you have not seen this – don’t rush it – it may help you make every important decision in your life going forward):
Finding the magic problem-solving power of the drink to be futile in the face of our dilemma, I decided in the meantime to take up another vice/hobby to help relieve some solar stress — the AERIAL SILKS!
A good friend of mine had been encouraging me to take it up for quite some time and I promised to give it a go when we got back from the Keys. The minute I started, I knew …
I should have done this years ago!
It was way too much fun to even remotely be called “work,” and I was trained by the best. My silks instructor, Garret, is (sorry, but there’s really no other way to put this) a total silks badass:
It was also the perfect outlet for my inner circus!
With regard to the solar project, though, we found my new hobby quite emPOWERing and inspiring. After a few weeks of silks training and further solar debate, we decided the Renogy flexible panels were the right choice for us.
The reviews were encouraging, the price was better, and the flex (up to 30 degrees) would allow us to mount them on top of our curved overhead canvas without having to add the stainless racks that would be necessary for rigid panels. The flex decision, however, did not end our debate. (We referred back to the Don Draper chart, but sadly found a drink and a nap didn’t solve this problem either.) We now had to decide how many panels to buy and whether to mount them on the dodger or the bimini or both.
Unfortunately, if a solar panel is shadowed, even if only partially, it greatly hinders the solar power output for the entire panel. While the dodger offers a wide canvas area for mounting, it’s sun exposure would be partially blocked by the boom, which meant output from panels on the dodger would be limited. We were also unsure where we would feed wires in from panels on the dodger down below deck to the charge controllers. (Solar panels require separate MPPT controllers which regulate the amount of solar power coming in to ensure it does not overload the batteries and/or burn the boat down, in that order. Don’t worry, we’ll get there. That’s a-whole-nother solar dilemma. It will require two Don Draper drinks and repeated insults to fellow crew members).
The bimini, while offering a large canvas area for mounting, unfortunately had the “window” to contend with. Our bimini has an Eisenglass cutout in the center, right above the helm, to allow the helmsman to view the sails and the windvane, which is mounted at the top of the mast, from behind the wheel. We certainly didn’t want to block this, but it’s large rectangular shape made fitting two panels on either side of it very difficult.
Needless to say, the decision had our heads spinning … I reverted to more silks therapy,
and Phillip took a nap. Both seemed to help.
Eventually, we decided to mount the panels sol-ely (no solar pun intended!) on the bimini. This would allow maximum direct sun exposure. It was also the largest canvas area available and the most protected, being above our heads and out of range of lines, sheets, gaffs, boat hooks, falling tools or other objects that could potentially damage panels mounted on top of the dodger. Our plan was to reduce the size of the Eisenglass window to accommodate two square panels on either side.
We measured the available space on the bimini, allowing a sufficient opening for the “window” above the helm to see the sails and wind vane, and decided to buy one large 100 watt panel (approximately 42″ x 22″) to mount on the front of the bimini:
and two (2) 50 watt panels (approximately 22″ x 21″) to mount on the back on either side of the Eisenglass window:
The larger 100 watt panel promised an approximate 5 amps/hour input in direct sunlight and the two 50 watt panels combined promised another approximate 4 or so, for a (hopeful) total of 9 amps/hour going in. To be conservative, we estimated 8 amps/hr input. For anyone interested, here’s where you can earn your shooting PBS star for the day. As a general rule of thumb, we use approximately 4.5 amps/hour on the Plaintiff’s Rest while at anchor. With a 480-hour capacity battery bank (which we do not like to drain past 50%, or 240 hours), we could generally make it about one and a half days (~ 180 amps used) before we had to crank to recharge the batteries. With an estimated input of 8 amps/hour during ten (10) peak sunlight hours from the solar panels, this would offset our amp hour usage by about 80 amps per day, allowing us to go an approximate 4, if not 5 days, without having to crank the engine to recharge the batteries.
Four and a half days without having to run the engine would qualify as a pretty significant improvement to our lives on the hook. And, wasn’t the learning fun?
So, we finally had our panels and, presumably, we could make them fit around our Eisenglass window. Now came the simple task of mounting them. How do you go about doing that? Like everything else in the boat industry, it seemed there were eight different ways to do it and everyone had eight different opinions about it. We knew we were going to get those darn things on there somehow, but it would require more research, more therapy and another debate — snaps versus grommets, velcrow versus stitching. On and on. The possibilities had us tied up in knots.
Many thanks to the folks who make these posts a little more possible with PATREON.