Monday, February 2, 2015

Re-thinking solar …

More than a year ago, back when we were still reeling from stopping the boat from sinking, rebuilding the rudder and steering system, and replacing the standing rigging, there was a short debate about getting electrical power on the boat when she was away from shore. You know, out where we were thinking we wanted to live. (A thought that that turned out to be completely righteous. May it be many a moon before Kintala is attached to dry land once again!) I crunched the numbers every way I could. Putting even a modest amount of solar collectors on board came out considerably more expensive than buying the Honda 3000i and feeding it a little gas now and again. So the Honda took up residence and Kintala went on her way. Since our journey started out with weeks of motoring down the ICW, taking the internal combustion route seemed even smarter. As our first year unfolded we found ourselves dockside for months at a time. Solar panels were for out-island explorers and we had yet to make that grade. Solar power was kind of cute, green, touchy-feely, and got good press. But the hard core math of using dollars to fill the batteries with magic juice could not be denied.

The unfolding year, for all of its trials, also brought the chance to dabble in some solar harvesting. Kintala found her way half way to the modern age. The cost of our install added up to several hundred dollars, but included rebuilding the Bimini frame to support the weight of the collectors. The cost of the panels and controllers has fallen dramatically in the past year plus. Those residing over our cockpit and the fancy bit of electronics mounted in the aft cabin that controls them, can now be had for less than $400. The Honda cost just shy of $1000, so the material costs of Soichiro Honda vs. Ra now come out slightly in favor of the Sun God.

Total installation cost may still tilt the balance the other way for some. I don't know what the labor costs would be for hanging and wiring panels on a boat. Back in my old life projects like that usually costed out at one half labor, one half parts. So adding $1000 plus of labor to the cost of a solar system still favors Mr. Honda's technology in the cost-effective power battle. There are other thoughts come to mind when considering the balance as well. Powering up the boat with the Honda 3000i is shoe-tying simple. Plug in the shore power cord. Pull on the Honda cord. Done. Mr. Honda's little generator has been stone cold reliable and when it is carrying the boat all of the AC circuit is powered up as well. Charging an assortment of computers, iPads, phones, spot lights, radios, and other communications gear, is done out of hand. And it is done out of hand day or night, rain or shine … so long as there is a little gas in the tank.

The solar takes no cord plugging or pulling. It works its magic all by its lonesome and without the noise and vibrations Mr. Honda brings to the task … so long as the sun is shining. Charging the computers is not part of Kintala's DC capabilities at the moment, and we have just two ports available to juice up the aforementioned iPads, phones, etc. Something is usually missed in the rotation, making whatever that something was inoperable just when one reaches for it. At some point in the future the computers will have an inverter available to feed them their daily requirement of magic. It is on the boat, just not wired in. Even when it gets integrated into the electrical circulatory system, rumor has it such things just honk down the battery power. The Honda doesn't even notice the added weight of carrying a computer or two, so these are things to be sorted out after the deck monkey gets around to installing the thing.

Going with the Honda was the right thing when we did it. But now, if I was outfitting a boat, the Sun God would get the nod and solar power would be high on the “this makes life easy” list. With cost now falling to where it is, going without sun power doesn't make near the sense it once did. I would go with Ra and the boat's engine as back up if money concerns forced a choice between Ra and Mr. Honda, though keep in mind that only works if labor is personal effort and not cost out of pocket.

So the current evolution of my “magic boat” is DC generating capability out the kazoo. Solar, wind, and lots of battery bank. (Wind … I wish the wind generator people would get the memo on falling cost per watt.) AC power needs would be kept to a minimum, with a truly magic boat being able to thrive without any shore power capability at all. Indeed, my “magic boat” is never tethered to dry land, so a shore power AC system would be a waste anyway. (Besides, how many boats have been lost by fire caused by AC / shore power faults? We have heard of several just in the short time we have been out here.)

My conversion to sun power is complete. It is cost competitive with the Honda, needs no gas, and makes no noise. But it does need daylight. Lots and lots of blue sky daylight. Those who dream of high latitude cruising, (a dream I understand but don't see in Kintala's future) may need to take a different look. For tropical dwellers though - even those on a tight budget - big black panels gazing at RA is the way to go. Not to mention it's a bit more friendly to our turtle neighbors.


Suzie said...

Our solar panels were worth every penny and that was back in '05 so it was a lot more expensive. There are very few places in the Bahamas where you can use a marina so we relied heavily on them. You are bringing back lots of memories for this old sailor! Thanks!

SV Pelagia said...

I find it hard to think about cruising without our solar panels (yet we did just that for many years before getting the panels in 2013 - but that involved a lot of motoring). In Mexico's Baja, we have only used our Honda generator twice (yes, 2x) since Nov 2013. Solar is on my top 5 best addons to Pelagia (Honda doesn’t make the top 20).

Solar is especially useful once multi-night passages under sail are required (especially if using autopilot rather than windvane)

Of course, this MAY be revised once we return home to British Columbia this Summer (but I doubt it)

All the best! said...

We charge our computers on 12V. Do a search on Amazon for "12V car charger for ComputerBrandOrModel". We've had them for MacBook, Toshiba, Acer and our old Asus eee Pad Transformer tablets. Here's an example (search with Amazon code: B003WVZFKY).

We have had good luck with PWR+ and Amazon. Good customer service if necessary.

We charge our cell phone, BlueTooth speaker, 7" tablets, with USB. We even run our AcuRite weather station using USB (had to buy a USB to barrel plug). We just bought a second unit that has 5 outlets (amazon code B00L34ARD2).

For our computer chargers we prefer the style that has a transformer box rather than the type that has the transformer integrated into the cigarette plug. Sometimes the cigarette plug would start to melt as that type of plug often does not make good contact.

With the box type, we replace the plug with Anderson PowerPole connectors for a tight and secure connection.

Also, we have found 10" fans, such as O2Cool that we can snip off the AC transformer plug (output 12V) and wire up to our 12V bank. With appliances we always check the plug for the output voltage.

Hope this helps...

Deb said...

Thanks for the input. We have checked into the 12v chargers but we're kind of short on 12v plugs and we're overloaded with electronics. We already charge our iPads, phones and vhf on the 12v plug. It's just easier to plug everything in at once and run the generator for an hour to charge it all.

alford jasim02 said...

Really nice article! I am glad to know about these solar panels. I need to buy a generator as my home power backup. Someone suggested buying Honda generator eu2000i as it is portable and quite reliable. I wonder if you can share some reviews about this model!

Deb said...

@alford Jasim02 - The Honda EU2000i would be a great choice for home use. It has the capability of being hooked in series for more power and I think you would need to have at least two or three to run a house on it. We bought it because the plug allows us to hook directly into our shore power system. We can't say enough good about the generator, but we just don't use it much anymore because the solar panels are working so well.