Tech Talk: Installing 380W of New Solar!

Isn’t solar power just awesome?  Using pure sunshine, something that is entirely free, that we all have access to, and that doesn’t cost us a dime to charge our little boat batteries and keep us happily floating and going?  I care none if this makes me appear the quintessential sun nerd.  It just warms my heart (get it ; ) to be able to operate the electronics on our boat from a source that is not only eco-friendly for our poor ailing earth, but that is also super affordable and … (drumroll) easy enough that Annie can install it!  Win.  Win.  Let’s dig in. 

So, as many of you know, our brave little boat survived a hurricane!  Whaaaattt?  Say it isn’t so.  So.  These things happen.  And, while thankfully she pulled through not too scathed, the solar panels on her bimini did not.  (And I know many of you are thinking: What the heck were you doing leaving your bimini up for a hurricane?  Because we didn’t know until hours before that it was going to be a hurricane and we thought the solars might be necessary to power the bilge pumps if she did, God forbid, start taking on water.  Were we right in this thinking?  Likely not, but I can only say that with the beauty of hindsight.  Sally just caught us all off guard.)  Including our solar panels.  Here is a quick run-down of our pre-Sally set-up. 

We had three panels (one 100W and two 50Ws) Velcroed and stitched (for good Annie measure) to our bimini providing us with 200 watts total of solar power.  We combined the wiring for the panels into one heat-shrunk tube, affixed it to our bimini frame and then ran it into the deck on the starboard side via a gland that Brandon with Perdido Sailor helped us install. 

(Phillip and I were too scared back in 2014 to cut holes in our deck without supervision.  Thankfully, that’s long since gone to the wayside since I have become quite the proficient 610-hole-filler as needed.  Annie get your gun.  Pow!).

Once inside the boat, the solar wires then ran hidden in various lockers and cubbies down to this area beneath our aft-berth where we installed two MPPT controllers.

If you are curious what MPPT controllers are, in Annie-speak, they decide how much solar power the batteries need.  Our wet-cell bank has three stages of charging: bulk, absorption, and float.  I like to think of it as slowing down when coming up to a stop sign. You don’t go from 20 mph to stopped, instantly do you? I hope not. Typically, you first slow pretty rapidly (consider this bulk), then more slowly as you get closer to your stopping point (consider that a full battery) so the car doesn’t jerk at the end (that slower charge toward the end would be absorption), and then you’re sitting idle at the stop sign with the car ready to go once traffic is clear (that’s float).  I hope that helps some.  As a woman cruiser who tries (very hard) to be an equal to her male counterpart, I find I have to learn things at my own pace, in my own way, and find metaphors and analogies that make things *click* for me as sometimes (unfortunately many times) the way Phillip explains it just sounds like Hebrew.  I’ve often thought about writing a fun Your Boat, She-Splained book for women that helps explain systems that often seem overwhelming, though once you understand them, you find they are quite the opposite and totally manageable.  Ladies, let me know what you think of that idea (as I unapologetically digress).

Back to the solar.  Along with the MPPT controllers under the aft-berth, we also installed switches that allow us to turn the solar panels on and off.  For whatever reason, our battery charger did not seem like it when the solars were putting in at the same time as the charger was receiving shore power.  The charge would get funky.  So, we always turn our solars off before we plug into shore power and, just to avoid any other interference, when putting in juice from the alternator on the engine and simply turn them back on after we’ve killed the engine for the day.  It seemed the easiest fix. 

So, with the panels, switches, and MPPT controllers, it was a pretty simple set-up.  On a good sunny day, Phillip and I could generally put in 6-8 amps/hour at peak sunny hours, which translated to roughly 30-40 amps in a day.  With Phillip and I using approximately 40-50 amps on a typical anchor day, the solar panels would allow us, usually, to lose less power each day. Although we did still lose, not gain, we did so at a slower rate than before we installed the solar.  With the solar, we were able to stay on anchor for 3-5 days, depending on the sun, without having to crank the engine to charge the batteries.  It was honestly quite perfect as, after about four-or-so days, we either need to get back to the dock to work and/or re-provision, or, when we’re on an extended cruise, Phillip and I are ready by then to crank the engine, weigh anchor, and go scout out a new anchorage for the next few days.  While Phillip and I were perfectly content with this set-up (and quite honestly we liked that the panels were generally out-of-sight, out-of-mind) after Hurricane Sally we knew we would need far more solar! 

Why?  Shore power was in no way guaranteed, anywhere!  There wasn’t a dock, it seemed, in Pensacola that hadn’t been completely mangled by Sally, and those that had survived had been scooped up immediately by any limping boat that had weathered her and was desperate for a home.  Phillip and I had no idea what new dock Plaintiff’s Rest might call home once she splashed back after her repairs or, quite possibly, whether we would have to just leave her on the hook in a bayou and dinghy back and forth to her.  Knowing that latter option was a very likely scenario for us, we wanted her to be as powered-up as possible in case anything happened (a small water leak or other issue) while we were away and she was off shore power.  That was our initial reason to go from 200W, previously, to 380W.  But after Phillip and I saw how much power we could have been indulging in with the simple (and easy) addition of a 170W panel on the dodger, Phillip and I are now kicking ourselves for not having installed one there sooner.  But, c’est la vie. 

So, how did we come up with the plan for the new install?  This is my right and proper cue to introduce to you my Solar Savior, my Sun Sensai, the one, the only: LYALL with Sunpowered Yachts.  He came highly recommended by my good friend and exceptional sailor, Pam Wall, whose recommendations rarely disappoint.  Lyall certainly did not.  He was there for me every step of the way, answering my many tedious questions, sending me diagrams and photos and wiring instructions, even immediately shipping new parts when I had ordered the wrong ones (the blonde is real).  If you are going the solar route, save yourself infinite time and headache by letting Lyall be your first call.  He’s also got a lovely British accent that I can just never get enough of.  (This girl’s a sucker for an accent, can I get an “Amen!” from the ladies? : )

With Lyall’s help, we decided on two 50Ws on either side of the iso-lookout as we’d had before on the bimini, a 110W forward of the lookout on the bimini, and a new 170W on the dodger for a total of an impressive 380 watts.  While Phillip and I did debate the aesthetic of the huge, somewhat sci-fi-looking panel on the dodger—as we often stand and look out over the dodger while sailing so it would now become a major part of our “view”—we decided the extra power and security and safety it offered was worth the minimal diminution of our “pretty view” to the bow and the overall look of the boat. 

Lyall recommended this corrugated plastic material to install underneath them for extra support. You can get it at any Home Depot or Lowe’s.

Lyall walked me through the amperage parameters on the two EPSolar MPPT controllers we already had and determined they would work to regulate the new panels, although we discussed upgrading to new Victron contollers if that would be necessary.  Thankfully, it was not.  So, as long as the wiring running to our bimini was still good (meaning only the panels were damaged in Hurricane Sally, not the wiring), the install was really only going to require affixing the new panels to the canvas on the bimini, wiring them to the old wiring running up the bimini frame, installing one deck gland for the wiring of the new 170W panel on the dodger, and running that wiring down to the MPPT controllers.  It honestly was quite simple and Phillip and I were thrilled to find—when we brought the panels to the boat and hooked up the bimini wiring for the first time—that the wiring was working perfectly.  We were ready to install!

My only hang-ups were (and I do this often but can rarely remember the lesson) I ordered a length of wire from the dodger down to the MPPT controllers below that was too short.  Yes, I measured (but that’s never an offensive question) but I always forget that when you start running wires behind things they may not always be able to go the direct straight route you measured as they have to take funky turns and can only come through in certain places.  You know, it’s a boat.  Nothing’s easy.  But, the minute I told Lyall this in an email, he immediately shipped out the longer length of cord, without even charging me, saying he’d figure out when I shipped the other back.  I mean … can you even find customer service like that anymore? 

The second little glitch was the wiring of the two 50Ws on the bimini in parallel.  Lyall recommended this over wiring them in series as this would increase the amperage of the panels without increasing the voltage.  This was beneficial as we would be wiring the 110W and the two 50Ws to the same MPPT controller.  Lyall explained it would be better to combine the two 50Ws and 110W on one MPPT controller with the 170W by itself on the other MPPT controller because of the big disparity in the 50Ws and the 170W, claiming combining those two on the same controller would really bring the 170W down.  Lyall explained it as “you’re only as strong as your weakest player” which made total sense to me.  The wiring in parallel, however, did require two additional Y-branch connectors, which Lyall was happy to send me.  See diagram below and the need for the connectors. 

Phillip and I did have to make some extensions here and there as the length of wiring that comes on the panels (roughly 17”) was not long enough in a couple of locations to reach to the bundle of wires on our bimini frame (that could not be extended).  But, here is where mistakes sometimes make the happiest of accidents.  The “too-short” wire I had ordered ended up working beautifully for this purpose as we could easily cut it and re-attach the fittings to create the necessary extensions.  So it was kind of a blessing in disguise that I’d goofed.  (Reminder to all to not be so hard on yourself when you do that, sometimes you’re just setting up for a happy accident … ride it out before beating yourself up over it).  Installing the gland on the companionway roof wasn’t terribly hard either, just one drilled hole (for the wire to run through), pilot holes for the screws to mount it, and some butyl and we were in business.  Installing and mounting the switch below the aft berth and inserting the wires into the MPPT controllers took less than half an hour.  Once those tasks were knocked out, Phillip and I were ready to plug the new panels in, turn their switches on, and watch the juice pour in! 

And boy did it … not.  Unfortunately it was a very cloudy day the day Phillip and I first turned them on.  So initially we blamed it on that.  But, then the sun came out yet the input was still very disappointing until we realized … duh, the batteries were already full.  We’d only just turned off shore power less than a half-hour before and had hardly ran anything.  Dummies.  Once we figured that out, though, we came back on a super sunny day with the batteries needing juice, and we were tickled pink to see our new 380W bank putting in almost 14 amps an hour

My mind immediately began calculating.  We spend about 50-60 amps a day.  14 times 6 peak hours equals … 84 amps?!  Meaning, on a good sunny day, we would be putting in MORE than we used.  Meaning, adding “cushion” for cloudy days.  With this much solar, Plaintiff’s Rest could, in theory, stay on hook as long as she wanted.  What an incredible thought!  Needless to say Phillip and I were thrilled.  Feeling a little dumb that we hadn’t installed a big-ass panel on the dodger years ago, but hey, we’d never felt super power-starved before.  And, now, we were power rich baby!  All thanks to the sun.  And Lyall, my Sun Sensai!  If you go with Lyall at Sunpowered Yachts, mention Pam Wall’s boat Kandarik for a 10% discount.  You’re welcome! 

Overall, this entire solar panel project I think cost us around $1,000 including the panels, wiring, gland, and other little tidbits.  A very affordable price in our opinion to add such a critical and valuable component (more power supply) on the boat.  I hope many of you start planning your own solar panel install projects soon!  Next up, I’ll share more of our Hurricane Sally repairs.  You’ll be surprised to see the transformation of our rudder.  Stay tuned!

One thought on “Tech Talk: Installing 380W of New Solar!

  • Wow!! Amazing blog. you are really a great writer. your solar panel procedure is really great. Solar panel installation is important for saving money and the environment.

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