A lot of “landlubbers” that visit our boat are curious about all the antennas mounted on our cockpit arch. We didn’t install these all at once but have accumulated them over time when a need or new technology requirement arose. Follow along with the featured picture from left to right. Here’s what they all do:
TV – We used to have a much sleeker looking disc shaped “marine” TV antenna. It had a range of about 40 miles and was quite expensive. That antenna was one of the items torn off our arch in the Bahamas last year when a wayward sailboat side-swiped us while we were docked in a marina in Bimini. We decided to replace it with a much cheaper outdoor “house” antenna from Walmart. While not “marinized”, most of the parts of this antenna are not corrosion-prone and it was about 1/10th the cost of the previous one. In addition, this new antenna has a range of 70 miles which brings in all the HD “off-the-air” channels from Jacksonville, about 45 miles away.
GPS – This is our main GPS antenna (Garmin Model GPS 19x). It connects directly to the marine electronics data “bus” on the boat (NMEA 2000) and provides location information to all other devices connected to that same bus.
VHF – Spare VHF antenna. Our primary VHF antenna is on top of the mast, 60 feet up. In the unlikely event that our mast were to come down, we did not want to lose VHF communications. The wire from the spare antenna runs all the way to the back of the radio inside the boat but is not connected. If we ever need to use it, we just unplug the mast mounted antenna wire at the back of the radio and plug-in the spare antenna wire. Both our mast-mounted antenna and the spare on the arch do double duty with our Automatic Identification System (AIS) transceiver. Our AIS setup has proved invaluable in numerous circumstances and worth every penny of its cost. AIS uses the VHF radio band to transmit a boat’s name, size, location, speed, and bearing every few seconds. It allows us to easily identify/observe the boats around us (within about 20 miles) with much more detail than radar. However, while it is a requirement for all commercial vessels to transmit AIS information, it is optional for recreational boaters. Thus, we still need radar.
WiFi – Range extender (Model: Rogue Wave). This is much more than just an antenna. Within the silver-colored section at its base is a web server computer. An ethernet cable connects this antenna to our wireless router inside the boat. That same ethernet cable also delivers the necessary electrical power to the antenna to run the web server embedded in its base. Once the little server in the base of the antenna boots up, it searches for all the available WiFi signals up to 5 miles away. From a computer inside the boat, we can login to the antenna’s web server and choose which signal we want to amplify and send to our router. The WiFi signal we choose has to be unencrypted, otherwise we need to know its password. This works best for connecting to a marina’s WiFi when we’re in a distant slip or out in their mooring field.
GPS – Dedicated GPS antenna for Chartplotter at helm. In the event our marine electronics bus suffers a complete failure and/or the main GPS antenna described earlier stops working, this GPS antenna connects directly to the Chartplotter at the helm station. In our normal mode of operation this antenna isn’t used and is only there as a backup capability.
Radar – 18”
Diameter, 4kW Power, Range: 36 Nautical Miles (Model: Garmin GMR 18 HD). We use
the radar mainly at night to “see” other vessels around us. As many boats are
now transmitting an AIS signal, we often can “confirm” a radar contact with its
corresponding AIS contact. The radar is also useful during all hours for
tracing nearby rain/storm cells.
Sirius/XM – NMEA 2000 satellite receiver (Garmin Model GXM-51). We originally got this antenna to take advantage of the satellite-based marine weather service offered by Sirius/XM. We wanted a reliable way to receive up-to-date weather information if we were beyond the range of Cell/VHF/WiFi signals. This proved to be very disappointing. The antenna connected to the satellite just fine, but the weather information transfer was agonizingly slow. When we finally did get it, it usually proved to be inaccurate based on what we were experiencing directly in front of us. We discontinued the service. On the other hand, this antenna was also capable of receiving all the Sirius/XM music channels, a function at which it excelled. We can use our Chartplotter to select the different music channels and pipe the music through to the boat’s stereo system. There is a small monthly fee for this, but it works great.
Anemometer – Ultrasonic wind sensor (Maretron Model WSO100). When we first got the boat, the previous owner had installed a traditional anemometer on top of the mast – the kind with the spinning cups. When hurricane Sandy came up the Chesapeake Bay ( we were there at the time), the strong winds damaged the anemometer. We decided to replace it with this ultrasonic model that has no moving parts. When we first did this, we mounted it on top of a small pole that extended above the Radar dome. It remained there for several years. Then last year in the Bahamas the ultrasonic anemometer and the pole it was mounted on were both torn off the arch in the same incident with the wayward sailboat described above that destroyed our TV antenna. The ultrasonic anemometer you see in the picture now is a newer 2nd unit we had to buy. Its new mounting location isn’t as ideal, but still works well enough. It also measures air temperature, humidity and barometric pressure.
GPS – Dedicated GPS antenna for Chartplotter at Nav station. This antenna serves the same purpose as the backup GPS antenna for the helm Chartplotter mentioned above, but is instead connected directly to our 2nd Chartplotter at the navigation station inside the boat. Once again, in our normal mode of operation this antenna isn’t used and is there as a backup capability.
Cell Phone – 3G/4G Cell signal amplifier (Model: weBoost Drive 4G-M amplifier, Antenna: Wilson 4G omni-directional marine antenna). This setup, which includes a small amplified unit inside the boat, is meant to be used inside a car to boost a weak cell phone signal when driving in rural areas. We hoped it might work just as well on the boat. We purchased a larger “marinized” antenna to use in place of the short little magnetic antenna that came with the amplifier which was meant to be mounted on a car roof. While in the Exuma island chain in the Bahamas, this device worked beyond our wildest expectations. We were able to have a connection to the Internet via cell signal everywhere we went. This is the device that enabled us to post both articles and pictures to our blog site every single day while cruising these islands. While it is advertised as being compatible with the US-based cell networks (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint), it worked just fine on the BTC cell network in the Bahamas. We mainly used it to make one of our cell phones a “hotspot” to which our computers connected for Internet access.
SSB – A 50’ section
of our port backstay is electrically isolated from its top and bottom connection
points and used as an antenna for the single sideband radio. We mainly used this
capability to receive weather forecasts early each morning from Chris Parker’s
weather forecasting service. It worked well enough to give us another reason
for not needing the Sirius/XM weather service. This also gives us the ability for
long range radio communications.
One of the things we always wished was better on our boat was the view from the helm when sitting on the helm seat. We like the mounting position of our Chartplotter on the binnacle and don’t want to change it, so we need to be able to see “over” it. This works great when you’re standing behind the wheel. However, if you wish to sit, the helm seat is so low that not only does the Chartplotter get in the way, but the dodger and cabin top impede the view as well. Here’s what it looks like when sitting on the bare helm seat.
The boat came with a stiff factory made helm seat cushion that,
when snapped to the helm seat, will boost you up by about six inches. It still wasn’t
adequate. The cover on our seat cushion was starting to look raggedy so as
Paula undertook to make a new cover, she also added another two inches of foam
to make the seat even higher. Here is what that looked like:
It helped some, but was still not quite enough. It wasn’t practical to extend the cushion any higher because it started to become unbalanced (the height would be bigger than its width/depth) and it was beginning to make the backrest less useful. We thought about just permanently mounting a real captain’s chair to the helm seat, but there were two big problems with doing that:
It would completely block the passageway to get
onto the swim platform.
It would cover up (or at least impede) access to
the rudder post where the emergency tiller attaches.
So if we were to go with a real captain’s chair, it had to be easily removable and able to be stowed below. We also had just varnished the teak on top of the helm seat, and wanted whatever solution we came up with to be “friendly” to the nice finish.
We thought if we could mount a chair on top of a platform that could itself be easily secured and removed from the helm seat, that might work. To start with, we chose starboard as the material for the platform since it is weatherproof and wouldn’t scratch the varnish finish on the seat. We special-ordered a 1 inch thick piece from Boat Outfitters cut to the largest dimensions of the existing teak seat (21”x17 ¾”). The starboard color choice “seafoam” closely matches the light ivory Island Packet gelcoat color. Here is the piece as it came:
Next, we cut the starboard to match the profile of the
existing seat, and then used five stainless latches to secure it to the original
By stacking up a bunch of books on the existing seat, we
determined that the optimal height for the new seat would be 14” – 16” off the
teak surface of the existing seat. Since we already made up 1” with the
thickness of the starboard platform, we now had to find a pedestal/seat combo
that fell into the 13” – 15” range. We went with the shortest version of the Springfield
heavy-duty Mainstay Pedestal (hydraulic adjustable from 10” – 12”) and the Springfield
Newport molded seat. The molded plastic seat plus its cushion added about 3”
to the overall height when mounted on the pedestal. This setup gave us the
ability to adjust the seat from 14” (me) to 16” (Paula). The first step to
mounting the pedestal on the starboard was to drill the mounting holes and recess
the underside of each hole to accommodate a fender washer for the nut and bolt.
The version of the pedestal we got has a sliding seat mount allowing the seat to be moved fore and aft. It also swivels and can be locked in place at any position. The chair can be removed by pulling up the chair from the pedestal (once the interlock is released) for storage or if chair replacement is desired.
When in port or at anchor, the latches are released and the
entire package is stored below in the aft cabin opening up easy access to the swim
platform. Should we ever need to use the emergency tiller, the platform can be
quickly unlatched for access.
We’ve never been totally satisfied with the transom arrangement on C Ghost. We like the molded in swim platform, but the way the factory designed ladder is stowed and deployed hinders more than helps our activities at the aft end of the boat. Here’s what the original ladder looks like when it’s deployed:
To be fair, it is a very easy ladder to climb, having wide steps that also make good handholds. But as you can see, it renders the middle (and most spacious) part of the swim platform unusable. While it appears there is room on either side of the ladder, the upward curvature of the platform and narrowing of the standing area greatly limits the usable space on the sides. Also, the hinge in the middle of the two-part ladder, seen just below the level of the platform, happens to be at a height that pokes the tubes of most inflatable dinghy’s that land at the transom. And boarding the boat from the dinghy with the ladder down always seems awkward, especially because that third step is only a couple inches above the platform surface. It’s amazing how many times a foot manages to get caught in that little space even though we know it’s there.
Here’s what the original ladder looks like when it’s stowed – it first folds in half onto itself and then folds up to the level of the cockpit railing:
The ladder stows nicely out of the way, clearing the largest part of the swim platform to make it more useful. But this stowing arrangement makes it very difficult to get on to the swim platform from the cockpit with the ladder up. You have to do some gymnastics to climb over the railing and then either jump or take a big step down onto the platform. And once you are on the platform, you have to be careful of the sharp edges on the two hinges where the ladder attaches to the boat. It’s equally difficult to get back into the cockpit with the ladder up. One other safety situation we weren’t completely happy with was the near impossibility of deploying the ladder from the water if for whatever reason you found yourself in the water with the ladder up.
Despite all these negatives, we kept it like it was for
eight years before finally deciding to change it. The catalyst for this project
was the failure of one of the mounting brackets for the ladder while we were in
the Bahama’s last year. Here you can see the problem:
Knowing we had to go through an expense to replace/repair
the ladder, we decided to ditch the whole thing and change the design entirely.
At the same time, we wanted to reinforce the part of our cockpit arch that overhangs
the transom so it could easily handle the added weight of our new larger dinghy
when it hangs in the davits.
We began this project with a new swim ladder design. We wanted the ladder to not impede the middle and most spacious part of the swim platform in either it’s deployed or stowed position. We wanted to make it much easier to get onto the swim platform from the dinghy, and then up into the cockpit from the swim platform. And we didn’t want the ladder to interfere with landing the dinghy at the transom. Lastly, we wanted to be able to deploy the ladder, if needed, from the water.
To accomplish all this, we built a small separate platform on which we mounted a hinged telescoping ladder.
This platform/ladder combo was then mounted on the starboard side of the boat’s swim platform. The hinges on the new ladder platform allow it to be stowed up against the transom when not in use. The telescoping ladder has four steps and goes down 4 feet. This model has a handhold at the top of the ladder and we installed an additional handhold on the transom just above the ladder platform. A stainless clip screwed into the transom holds the ladder platform up against the transom when in the stowed position. We also mounted a folding step on the transom next to the new ladder arrangement. This step is used to easily get on and off the swim platform to and from the cockpit and folds up out of the way (with no sharp edges) when not in use .
Another problem we always had with the dinghy was how it would rub against the engine exhaust flapper when launching/retrieving from the davits or just “docking” the dinghy at the transom to get on/off the boat. Not only did this prematurely weaken the hinge part of the flapper, it left black marks on every dinghy that landed at our transom. To solve this, we fabricated a couple of rigid bumpers out of starboard and teak and glued them to the hull on either side of the flapper. The smooth surface of the starboard lets the dinghy tubes ride up and down smoothly when raising/lowering the dinghy from the davits and also prevents hitting the flapper when landing/docking at the transom.
The one issue we haven’t addressed yet is the obstruction of the name on the transom from these changes. When we cruise, the dinghy is usually in the davits and totally obstructs the name anyway, necessitating a boat nameplate hung on the outboard side of the dinghy while it’s in the davits. Even so, we know we need to fix this – just another project.
When we bought C Ghost, it came with a small microwave oven tucked into a cubby hole that looked almost custom designed around the oven. We never thought much about it until a couple months ago when the oven started making weird noises and then stopped working. I replaced an internal fuse and got it going again, but only a few days later it stopped working for good after 17 years of service with two owners.
We thought this would be a simple matter of buying a new ~$70 microwave and plugging it in. Nope. Not even close. As it turns out, this brand of microwave is no longer made and the dimensions of this oven were apparently unique in the world. In particular, the height dimension of 9.3 inches cannot be found on any small microwaves on the market today. When I looked on the Island Packet user forums, a number of people with older model boats have exactly the same problem. Some just choose to do without a microwave once it fails, while others go to great lengths to have their broken oven repaired. No one it seemed, had tried to enlarge the space where the oven fits.
We thought of trying to get the oven repaired, but there were a couple other things we didn’t like about it that wouldn’t be addressed with a successful repair. First, the inside volume of the oven is very small and we wanted one slightly larger. Second, at only 550 watts, the oven is underpowered – so much so that it can’t even pop popcorn. So we decided to enlarge the available space (increasing the height was all that was actually necessary) to give ourselves a lot more choices.
Today we set about to find a solution for our missing stern light. Two days ago while we were walking in town, another sailboat trying to dock near our boat lost control in the wind and current. It never hit the hull of our boat, but its rigging got caught up on several items mounted atop the arch over our cockpit (which sticks out beyond our transom a bit). We lost our TV antenna, anemometer, and stern light. Also, a spare VHF antenna mounted on the arch had a piece broken off. Out of all these, we were most concerned about jury-rigging a stern light before we set off again.
The only thing remaining from the old stern light (a really nice LED light I installed just before we left Maryland in the fall of 2016) was the back part of its housing. It was cracked in several places, so I super-glued the cracks thinking I might be able to use it as part of a new temporary light fixture.
There is only one hardware store on North Bimini and it was closed on the weekend. We could see through the window however that it had a small assortment of boat stuff in addition to regular hardware. We waited patiently by the door today until the proprietor came along around 11AM and opened up. They didn’t have any stern lights but did have an “all around” white anchor light made for power boats. Its advertised visibility was 2 miles, which meets one of the requirements for a stern light. It also was small enough that I could mount it on the remnant of the old stern light housing, greatly simplifying the attachment to our aluminum arch.
A stern light also must have an “arc of visibility” of 135 degrees, so I had to construct the jury-rig to block out the part of the new “all around” light that’s not supposed to show. One side of the old stern light housing was still mostly intact so it provided a guide as to how much light needed to be blocked on each side. I had a scrap piece of teak trim which I cut into two pieces and attached to each side of the old bracket. Because the new light was a little taller than the old housing, I had to make sure the new light-blocking “sides” extended all the way to the top of the new light. The stern light is only supposed to shine aft (not forward). The existing aluminum mounting bracket on the arch, which luckily was not torn off, blocks all the light from this jury-rig that would improperly shine towards the front of the boat.
Next we mounted the new light and connected the wires. It works!
When we bought C Ghost, it did not have a watermaker installed. We knew we wanted to have one eventually, but decided to wait until our cruising plans dictated we’d really need one. With our intent to cruise to the Bahamas later this winter and potentially be at anchor for extended periods and away from a fresh water supply, the time had come.
There were four main factors in our watermaker decision – where to install it, power draw, capacity (how much water can it make), and cost. We knew well in advance this was going to be an expensive addition and had planned for it when we bought the boat. We also knew we wanted it to run off 12V DC so we wouldn’t need to run the generator or engine every time we needed to make water. Ideally, its power draw should be low enough so it could run off the energy from our solar panels on sunny days (for more on that topic, see Solar Panels). Having been at anchor for up to 10 days on previous cruises, we had a good idea of our consumption habits, both in “miserly’ mode and “luxury” mode. Our goal was to find a watermaker that could operate within our solar energy budget and in the process, produce enough fresh water to get us as close to “luxury” mode as possible. The last piece of the puzzle was finding a watermaker that could fit on the boat without intruding on our living space or consuming an inordinate amount of precious storage space. As it turns out, this last requirement was the hardest part of the project.
After a lot of research, it became clear we’d need a “modular” style system to meet the space requirement. Self-contained watermaker systems, while much easier and idiot-proof to install, were just too big for any available space we had. Modular units allow the individual components of the system to be spread around different parts of the boat making much more efficient use of space, but also complicating the plumbing and overall installation.
After careful measurements of the space we made available, we decided on the Spectra Ventura 200T system. This unit produces 8.3 gallons/hour with an energy draw of 10 amps @ 12V DC. In theory, running this system for 2 – 3 hours a day (daily use is actually recommended for this technology) would keep us in “luxury” mode. The Ventura 200T comes as four major components and several smaller parts. Here are pictures of the spaces we made available on the boat to install these components:
The last time the boat was out of the water, we re-purposed an existing thru-hull to be the intake for a future watermaker. On the Island Packet 420, there are two thru-hulls in the underfloor compartment at the foot of the master berth. One is for the depth sounder and the other for a paddlewheel style speedo. We replaced the dedicated depth sounder unit with a combo depth sounder/speedo unit (converting it to a NMEA2000 sensor at the same time). That freed up the thru-hull previously dedicated to the speedo. We replaced the speedo’s large plastic thru-hull with a smaller diameter bronze thru-hull and backing block (some epoxy work was needed to make the original hole smaller).
In that same compartment is where we mounted two of the four main watermaker components, the feed pump module and pre-filter, as well as a seawater strainer. Also shown is the optional Z-ion disinfectant unit used during the “flush” cycle. Here is how they fit:
Next was the installation of the largest component of the Ventura 200T system, the high pressure pump/membrane. The space we chose for this was the floor of the hanging locker in the master stateroom. We had previously converted this locker into a closet with soft shelves for clothes as you can see below:
Locating the pump/membrane unit in this locker allowed us to “tee” into the existing shower drain thru-hull, which is also in this locker, with a very short hose run for the brine discharge.
The last main component is the accumulator tank, pressure gauge, and flow meter combo. These gauges are mechanical, not electronic, and must have water lines plumbed to them to operate. Wanting to make these waterlines as short as possible, we decided to mount the gauges and accumulator tank on a wood “panel” fashioned to fit just inside the locker door on the aft side:
Lastly, the product water needed to make its way to the water tank. This was harder than we thought it would be. The best part about using the spaces we did for the installation was that we had very short hose runs, particularly for the high pressure lines. However, the only accessible part of the top of the water tank was much further aft in the boat, under the floor panel in the main salon next to the nav station. Also, operation of the watermaker necessitated running the first few minutes of product water into a separate area/container in order to test it before diverting it into the tank. We wanted to make sure this part of the operation wouldn’t result in water possibly spilling where we didn’t want it. The answer was to run the product hose aft from the master hanging locker behind the port side settee and then make a left turn to the center of the boat toward the tank fill inlet. Our original thought was to tee into the tank inlet hose in order to get the watermaker product into the water tank. That was going to be difficult however, since the existing tank inlet hose was much larger than the watermaker output hose, and the clearance under the floor where the tank inlet hose enters the tank was minimal. We decided instead to “tap” a new hole in the top of the tank and screw in one of the supplied fittings from Spectra to connect to the tank. This was a little scary, but turned out great. It also allowed for the placement of the product water diverter valve just under the floor in that same area so that the “sample” water at the start of each cycle could drain straight into the bilge:
Since we were in our marina, and the water still has a lot of sediment from hurricane Irma, we tested the watermaker with an “artificial ocean” (made with measured fresh water and sea salt) in a five-gallon bucket. We had to tighten a few hose clamps and re-tape one fitting with more Teflon tape, but all eventually worked very well with no leaks. The product water tasted good with well-below the recommended salinity. At least with the artificial ocean, the production rate and power consumption were as advertised. We’ll report again on how it works in actual daily use once we get to the Bahamas.
Before we left Maryland, we decided to replace all of our lifelines as we had noticed a lot of rust developing underneath the vinyl covering of the old ones. We didn’t want to take any chances on the trip south and this looked to be a reasonably straightforward do-it-yourself project. I say “reasonably” because, after thinking about it, we chose to incorporate a few additional modifications to the boat once we had the old lifelines off. The first of those was to add railing in place of lifelines around the entire cockpit area (the boat originally had railing only around the stern and a small part of each side of the cockpit). This accomplished several goals – 1) increased safety, 2) an additional sturdy thing to grab, 3) more rail mounting options for accessories. We used stock bimini frame hardware to do the job.
The only real challenge was connecting the ends of the new rail to our arch (aft end) and to the lifeline gate stanchion (forward end). The connection to the arch was simplified by an existing “tab” on the arch tube where the original lifeline connected. All we had to do was drill a slightly larger hole in the tab to accommodate the rail end cap fitting. The forward end connection to the existing gate stanchion was more complicated. Not only did the new rail have to securely connect to the stanchion, the lifeline gate “eye” had to be incorporated at that exact same spot. Drilling a hole at just the right place in a 90 degree elbow fitting, and enlarging the existing wire hole in the stanchion itself, allowed the eye bolt to feed all the way through both parts and be secured with a nut inside the elbow fitting. The bolt and nut had to be exactly centered inside the elbow so that when the rail tube was inserted it would “seat” all the way into the elbow, with the nut and bolt ending up inside the inserted rail tube. It turned out nicely.
Next, we wanted to add an additional lifeline gate nearer to the forward end of the boat. The hardest part of this job was positioning the new stanchion base for the gate in such a way that its 4 deck bolts did not interfere with other existing bolts and screws in that area of the cap rail. We wanted a full backing plate underneath the new stanchion and that’s what dictated its final position.
For anyone else planning to add a stanchion to an Island Packet 420 (as well as most other models), be aware that the original stanchions are not standard sizes. Also, the bases are all at differing angles with the stanchions (not exactly 90 degrees) depending on where they’re mounted on the boat. Garhauer Marine will custom make the stanchions at a reasonable price and they are very familiar with the Island Packet specs.
The rest of the lifeline project was made easy by using mechanical, as opposed to swaged, end fittings on the new wire. We opted to use 7×19 uncoated wire this time so we could directly observe the condition of the wire as it ages. We used SUNCOR mechanical fittings which were conveniently sold in a kit meant for adding a gate as well as separately. No special tools were required other than a good cable cutter for the 7×19 wire that leaves a nice clean edge without unraveling the wire.
Some time ago, I read an article in “Good Old Boat” magazine about a nifty way to store the small propane bottles that are used to fuel marine/camping barbeque grills. It turns out that the standard size small propane bottle fits nice and snugly inside a piece of 4” schedule 40 PVC pipe. All you need to do is find a suitable place outside the boat to mount a length of this 4” PVC pipe and then install the proper end fittings to keep the bottles captive inside and easily retrievable. It took me a while to finally get around to doing this project, and now I’m kicking myself for not having done it sooner. This was by far one of the easiest and least expensive boat projects to date, with great value.
The first step, finding a good place to mount the PVC pipe, was the hardest part. We wanted it to be both out-of-the-way and easily accessible. Our boat came equipped with seats on each side of the stern, built-in to the aft railing. Underneath each of these seats seemed like it might be the perfect place for a short piece of PVC that could hold two propane bottles (for a total of four). I bought a four-foot piece of 4” PVC, two end caps, and two screw-in plugs. I cut the pipe into two lengths of 17” each and glued an end cap on each piece. On the other end of each piece I glued a collar that would accept a screw-in plug. Finally, I drilled a line of ¼” holes along the length of each pipe for ventilation. The last step was how to mount the assembled pipes under the seats. In our case, the stern seats themselves are mounted on a section of railing which doubled nicely as a surface to wrap a large hose clamp around and hold the PVC pipe captive. One hose clamp on each end of each pipe and the job was done. As a finishing touch, and to forestall future frustration, I drilled a small hole in the “head” of each PVC plug and ran a small line through it with a stopper knot. The other end of that line is tied to the stern rail so the plug can’t be dropped overboard when loading or unloading a bottle.
That’s it! Four propane bottles stored safely outside the boat that are easy to get to and won’t get banged around.
I read a lot of articles from solar component manufacturers and other boaters on how to plan and design a solar energy system for our sail boat. Our goal was to see how close we could get to being self-sufficient at anchor with just solar power without sacrificing all the comforts we enjoy at the dock when connected to shore power. The ease of attaining this goal is different for everyone depending on your personal definition of “comfort”. For the purposes of this article, the situation on our boat is best described by our oldest daughter in one word – “Glamping” (glamour camping). Just about all the literature says the first step in the planning is to carefully list the power requirements of each electrical item on the boat and then estimate the amount of time you would typically use each item in a 24-hour period. Without going into all the math, suffice it to say that these two pieces of information can then be used to determine how much solar energy you would need to capture and store on the boat to keep up with the daily demand. While a lot of people agonize over getting these numbers correct, I found it all too easy to get mired in what can be a very tedious and possibly useless exercise and not “see the forest through the trees”. Our case was a perfect example. Given the energy needs for our desired comfort level, including typical use of electronics and appliances as well as continuous operation of both our fridge and freezer, a very quick back of the envelope calculation revealed that there wasn’t enough usable real-estate on the boat for the amount of solar panel surface area we would need to be completely energy self-sufficient. With that fact established, the “plan” then devolves simply to doing the best we can and measuring out how many solar panels can possibly fit on the boat without them interfering with other boat and sailing functions. We didn’t care if the panels were different shapes and/or voltages, the important thing was to piece them together in such a way as to obtain the maximum possible panel surface area without looking aesthetically ridiculous (yes – we’ve seen ridiculous). Once we knew how many panels we could fit into the space we had available, we used the specifications of each panel to calculate exactly how much total energy we’d be able to produce in optimal conditions. The rest of the planning, and consequent level of compromise, flowed readily from that.
It is important to note that the raw energy coming straight out of the panels cannot be directly consumed by our gadgets. It has to be “conditioned” first to present a constant voltage level both to the devices it is powering and also to the storage batteries. There are unavoidable inefficiencies in these other components of a solar energy system that “rob” a percentage of the energy from the panels before it can be consumed. Here again is a part of the solar energy discussion that can easily descend into a mud pit of engineering terms and theology. Suffice it to say, after determining the size and number of solar panels to buy, there are only two additional decisions that will make a big difference in the outcome of the project. The first is the style and number of solar panel “charge controllers” you install (you must have at least one). The second is the size and type of battery bank you already have or will be installing/upgrading. In each case there is a value decision to be made that will trade off cost vs. maximizing the amount of energy that can be harvested from the panels. There are people that stop right here in the design process and simply buy the least expensive controller and batteries to finish off the system because they don’t believe there is enough gain to justify any additional cost. While this can work (sort of) for some people and is certainly better than having no solar panels at all, our goal was different. As my earlier quick assessment of our glamping energy needs showed, we needed to capture and use as much of that raw energy coming from the panels as possible since we knew in advance we wouldn’t have enough even if the rest of the system was 100 percent efficient. Therefore, we wanted maximum performance out of the controllers and batteries so as not to fall even further behind and be forced to use the engine or generator more often. In the two appendices to this article, I address the details behind the choices we made for both controllers and batteries. Unlike the solar panels themselves (the more you can fit, the better), there is definitely a point of diminishing returns for your money in the realm of controllers and batteries and this is discussed in the appendices. For now, here is the list of all the components we chose for the solar energy system on our boat and brief reasons why:
Solar Panels – The previous owner of our boat added a large cockpit arch that serves several critical functions including being a bimini top, davits for the dinghy, a mount for antennas and radar dome, and a frame for side curtains to enclose the cockpit. We decided to also use it as a platform for our solar panels. To use all the available space on top of the arch (plus a little bit of overhang), we chose three large rigid panels with the following dimensions: two 140 watt 12V panels, each measuring 59”L x 26.3”W and one 220 watt 32V panel measuring 59”L x 39”W. All three panels are made by Kyocera.
Controllers (see appendix A for more details) – Being that one of our panels was 32V and the other two were 12V, a consequence of our prioritizing optimal panel dimensions over voltage consistency, we had to purchase at least two controllers (for the two different voltages). We ultimately decided to buy three controllers, devoting one to each panel and connecting their outputs together. This was costlier (3 controllers instead of 2), but it resulted in more tolerance for partial shading and greater overall energy output which was our number one goal. The controllers we used are from Blue Sky Energy (2512ix-HV), and include the latest MPPT circuitry (Maximum Power Point Tracking).
Batteries – (see appendix B for a discussion on battery choices) – Five batteries in total. Our boat previously had a bank of four traditional AGM batteries which were able to store 90 amp hours each for a total of 360 amp hours. As they were near the end of their lives, and not as optimal anyway for our solar energy glamping goals, we replaced them with five TPPL batteries at 100 amp hours each. This not only increased our energy storage capacity to 500 amp hours, the TPPL technology lets us regularly tap much deeper into that capacity without damaging the batteries. TPPL’s can also accept a higher charge current until they’re almost full if the sun happens to be shining brightly in the last part of their re-charge cycle. This makes a big difference in our solar energy context in that we can store more of the sun’s energy that would otherwise be wasted with typical batteries that do not absorb energy nearly as well in the last phase of their re-charge cycle. The batteries we bought are the Odyssey model PC2150S.
Connecting these three main components together (panels, controllers, batteries) was fairly straight forward simply by following the directions that came with the Blue Sky controllers. The main thing we had to pay attention to was ensuring the correct wire sizes were used between each component for the maximum expected current to be carried. In addition, all the wire runs had to be fitted with proper over-current protection (fuses and breakers).
Performance – We have been very pleasantly surprised with the results of our system. To help meet our glamping goals even more, over the last few years we’ve replaced all the lighting on the boat with LED bulbs and/or fixtures and also switched out some of our older electronic gadgets with energy efficient replacements. As long as we have an average of 3 sunny days out of every 5, we can be solar self-sustaining at anchor with only two power hungry exceptions, running the air-conditioner and the water heater. While there are several alternative ways to make hot water (e.g. “Sun Bags” or heating water on the stove), there is no way around the fact that the power requirements of continuous air-conditioning far exceed what even the large solar panels on our boat can provide. If we want air conditioning at anchor, we have to run our diesel generator. On a cloudy day, the panels can’t keep up with all the energy we use and we have to rely on stored energy in the battery bank. Given the size and very deep cycling capability of our TPPL battery bank, we can live comfortably off the batteries for three cloudy days in a row (mind you we are glamping, not suffering). If the sun hasn’t come back by then, we need to run the engine or the generator on the fourth day. A much different scenario occurs when we have a string of sunny days in a row. Once the panels have fully re-charged the batteries, we can get into a condition, usually around 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon, where the panels are not only keeping up with our energy needs of the moment, but are producing a surplus with nowhere to put it. We could’ve made our battery bank even bigger to store this extra energy when it occurs, but that comes with a cost ($$ + weight) that we didn’t deem valuable enough for the few times this happens. When it does happen, we take advantage of it by doing some energy hungry tasks at the same time the surplus exists. For example, it’s an opportunity to flip on the inverter and use our small shop vac to do some cleaning or turn on the ice maker and make ice without drawing down the batteries from their 100 percent state of charge.
Shadows/Shading – This is actually a bigger deal than it may seem. Most modern day solar panels have circuitry built into them that make them somewhat tolerant of partial shading. However, we’ve observed three situations with our panels that can hinder (sometimes greatly) performance:
Keep them clean – usually a rain storm will be all that’s needed to clean the panels. But if there isn’t any rain for a few days, and the birds are good with their aim, the output can be noticeably diminished. Pollen can also coat the panels between rain storms and reduce output.
Shadows from other parts of the boat – As the sun moves across the sky, the panels can be subject to shadows from the mast, stays, antenna’s, etc. To the extent that you can move the item causing the shadow out of the way, doing so can make a significant difference in the output. In our case, the end of our boom comes very close to back edge of our largest panel. Depending on which direction were facing at anchor, a shadow from the end of the boom will always be cast on one of the panels in the morning and afternoon. Therefore, we make it a point after anchoring to lash the boom out to one side or the other of the boat so it can’t cast a shadow on the panels.
Partial shading from clouds – You might think there is nothing you can do about this, but there actually is. On a partly cloudy day, it is often the case that one or two panels are partly or completely shaded by clouds and other(s) are in full sun. This is where having made the investment to have a separate controller for each panel really pays off. Since our panels are not connected directly to each other (they connect to their respective controllers first), the high output of the sunny panels is not influenced at all by the low output of the panels in shadow. If we had tied the outputs of all the panels together first and sent their combined output to a single controller (thus saving some money on controllers), the full power output of any sunny panel would be blunted to a degree by other panel(s) in shadow (see appendix A for more on this). This results in less overall energy harvesting and a less efficient system that leaves “money on the table” so to speak.
For #1 and #2, we have been able to see the difference each of these makes by watching the “amps” number on the remote display for the controllers go up as soon as we remove a shadow or clean a dirty spot on a panel. Sometimes this can increase the output by 30 percent!
Total combined advertised wattage of all three solar panels: 500W
Maximum current we’ve observed from the combined output of the three controllers: 37 amps @ 12.6V – this is with the sun shining directly overhead in the month of June and no clouds or other shadows on any panel. Astute readers will notice that 37 amps at 12.6V only combines for 466 watts, short of the 500W advertised. Even in the most optimal conditions, this is a result of inherent inefficiencies in the panels, controllers, wiring, and batteries. Warmer temps (this was in June) will actually decrease panel output as well. Nevertheless, we did pretty good at minimizing these inefficiencies, which could easily be much worse.
Appendix A (Charge Controllers) –
Solar panels output constantly varying amounts of voltage depending on the time of day, cloud cover, shadows, bird poop on the panels, etc. The electronic component(s) and/or batteries being fed by the panels require a very specific and constant voltage level and would never work right if connected directly to the panels themselves. Therefore, you need a device that converts that constantly varying energy flow coming out of the panels into something stable and constant that can power your devices or charge your batteries. This is the job of the controller. Some controllers are much better at this than others and this is a product where you absolutely get what you pay for. The “goodness” of the better controllers comes from the fact that they are able to harvest more usable energy (up to 30 percent more) out of the fluctuating output of the panels than their cheaper cousins can. The technical name for the circuitry that sets apart the good controllers from the cheaper ones is called Maximum Power Point Tracking or MPPT. 30 percent is not an insignificant figure so an investment here has merit. The only other decision to make regarding controllers is how many to use. If you only have room for one solar panel, the choice is made for you – one controller. But if you have more than one panel you have a choice. In most cases you can wire all your panels together (in serial or parallel), and connect their combined output to the input of a single controller. While this method works, it can suffer from a shadow or dirt spot on one panel limiting the maximum amount of energy that can be harvested from the other unaffected panels. What happens in this configuration is that the output voltage from each panel is effectively averaged with the others, which can negate the benefit of MPPT circuitry in capturing all the power possible from panels in full sun. A better, but costlier solution is to use a separate MPPT controller for each panel and then just combine the outputs of all the controllers together. You may be forced to use multiple controllers anyway if you have different size panels with correspondingly different nominal voltages. The number of controllers to use is a subtler cost tradeoff decision because it really depends on how shadows travel over the panels during the course of a typical day at your specific location.
Appendix B (Batteries) –
The main function of batteries in this context is to store any extra energy coming from the solar panels that isn’t being consumed by electronic devices. To achieve our goal of complete solar energy self-sufficiency, we would need to store enough excess solar energy for later use at night and on days when it’s overcast to still live the glamping lifestyle even when the sun isn’t shinning. While the primary decision here is total amount of battery capacity needed for our goal, there is also a very important choice to make in the type of battery chosen for this specific use case. The battery type used directly affects the size, cost, and weight of the resultant battery bank more than is generally appreciated. The ideal battery bank for a solar energy system would act just like a very highly absorbent sponge. The analogy goes like this – say you need to sop up a puddle of water quickly and transfer it into a bucket. You immediately go for that favorite super absorbent sponge that can soak up a lot of water really quickly until full, not drip any on the way to the bucket, and then let you easily squeeze almost all of it out in one hand with complete control of the water flow. All those qualities of how a great sponge handles water are analogous to how a great battery should be able to handle energy from the sun. Some types of sponges will not sop up nearly as much water relative to their size or do it as quickly as the good sponges. The same thing is true of different battery types. However, the choice to be made here is not as clear cut as the “you-get-what-you-pay-for” choice was with the charge controllers. The battery type that is most closely analogous to the perfect sponge is the Lithium Ion battery. These batteries can soak up a lot of energy very quickly until full, store it for a while without losing hardly any of it, can be squeezed of everything it has stored and then have the whole cycle repeated over and over without shortening its life. No other battery type even comes close to doing this as well as Lithium Ion. As a huge added bonus, these batteries are only a third of the weight of the other types. If this were purely a technology choice, it would be a no-brainer decision. The problem is that Lithium Ion batteries, in the size/capacity necessary for our glamping needs, are prohibitively expensive. Just about ten times the cost of the next best choice. So unless your project budget is essentially unlimited (ours certainly wasn’t), lithium batteries are out of the running. The only reason I mention them here is to highlight the fact that in the search for the nearly perfect battery for an on-board solar power system, the technology exists and is available, we’re only waiting for the price to come down out of the stratosphere. At the other end of the price scale are traditional lead acid car batteries. While cheap, they are not a good choice for our solar energy context. They can deliver a lot of energy for short bursts (e.g. for starting a car), but otherwise do not have the characteristics of a great sponge. The last 20 percent of their capacity can only be refilled very slowly, and they will be damaged if more than 50 percent of their energy is repeatedly squeezed out. That leaves only about 30 percent of their capacity realistically usable for storing/using solar power in our glamping context. There is a middle ground choice, sort of, between these two extremes. I say “sort of” because it’s still a far distance away from the much superior Lithium Ion battery, but definitely better than the traditional lead acid car battery. Deep cycle AGM batteries (Absorbed Glass Mat) will allow a little faster refilling of the last 20 percent of their capacity, and good ones can be drawn down repeatedly to as low as 35 percent without long term damage. Within the AGM family, there is a relatively new sub-type called TPPL (thin plate pure lead). While a bit more expensive than typical AGM’s as well as a little heavier, these type of batteries can re-charge the last 20 percent very quickly (2nd only to lithium ion). They can also be drawn down to 20 percent capacity repeatedly without shortening their lifespan. When we installed our new solar energy system (2015-2016) TPPL’s were the next best choice technologically to lithium for our particular needs. They are at the top end of the price range for AGM’s, but still far cheaper than lithium ion.
When we took possession of our boat, it was equipped with two manual toilets with which you pumped the waste into either an on-board holding tank, which periodically had to be pumped out, or overboard. The overboard option for untreated sewage is only legal if you are far enough offshore (3 miles). Both toilets functioned well enough, but much like on our previous boat a smell develops from them if the boat is closed up and left unattended for any period of time longer than a few days. We had done several experiments on our previous boat to try and determine the sources of the smells (it’s not always what you think!) and also did a lot of reading. As you might imagine, there is no shortage of experts on this topic, a sweet smelling boat being a main ingredient of “comfort” while living aboard. The best resource I found online were the writings of Peggy “The Head Mistress”. She adds her commentary to many of the boating Q&A forums we read and is by far the most experienced and logical thinker on this subject. Armed with Peggy’s advice and our own personal experiences with our previous boat, we devised a plan that included four key elements:
Replace all the existing sanitation hoses – while our boat came with reasonably good quality hoses, they were more than ten years old when we started this project and had become one component of the smell problem. In the time since our boat was built there have been several new hose products that have come on the market employing more advanced technology to eliminate odor permeation. The best of these hoses are not cheap and it is tempting to cut costs here. Don’t. As we later found out, you do get what you pay for. We went with the Shields PolyX hose and are very happy we did. Not only have they remained odor free, they are more flexible than traditional wastewater hose which eased the installation a lot.
Re-plumb the toilets to use fresh water, versus sea water, for flushing – this is a controversial subject in many of the boating forums, not because it isn’t an effective odor eliminator, but because some view it as a waste of fresh water. The decision of whether or not to take this step is dependent on a number of variables including available water tankage, time spent at the dock verses on the hook or underway, ability to make water, and tolerance for a small bit of odor always being present. On our previous boat we noticed that when arriving at the boat on a Friday afternoon, after it was closed up all week, there was an obvious smell coming from the toilet. After flushing it a few times the smell mostly went away. The source of this smell, confirmed by Peggy, was actually organisms in the sea water sitting in the hoses and the bottom of the toilet all week, not anything to do with sewage. While there are some mitigations that can be employed to combat this, using fresh water for flushing (just like in a home toilet) instead of seawater absolutely eliminates this source of smell. Given our intended cruising plans and lifestyle while living aboard, plus the fact that we have a large fresh water tank and are now pre-plumbed and pre-wired for a water maker, we were able to rationalize this decision.
Install a sewage treatment system and new electric toilets– An obvious source of sewage smell is carrying around the sewage with you everywhere you go until you come to a working pump out station. We had no choice but to do this on our previous boat because of its smaller size and because we never went offshore beyond the three-mile limit. Our current boat has enough room for a sewage treatment system which obviates the need to carry the sewage around with you except when in a “no discharge zone”. We opted to install the Purasan EX system from Raritan Engineering which is Coast Guard approved and chemically treats the sewage to be far cleaner than the typical on-land municipal sewage treatment plant. In that respect, it’s better for the environment than using a holding tank since the pumped out sewage simply goes right to the municipal sewage treatment plant. This was simpler to install than you might think (shown below) and has worked extremely well. We also had a decision to make about new toilets. There were three basic choices – manual, electric, vacuum. On our previous boat, I twice had to disassemble parts of the sewage system to free a clog. Nasty, Nasty, Nasty. Oh and one more thing – Nasty! Needless to say, our goal was to minimize the chances of a clog as much as possible. We liked the idea of an electric toilet since the first thing it does in the flush cycle is grind up the waste before it even enters the discharge hose. In addition, the configuration of the grinders creates a pumping effect which forces the ground-up waste through the hose. Because of that, a smaller diameter discharge hose can be used which has the added benefit of having a smaller surface area for odors to emanate from if the hose has any permeability to it. The Purasan unit receives the ground-up toilet discharge and then subjects it to two additional grinding cycles of its own along with the chemical treatment. All that happens before the sewage is forced through a long length of hose to a vented loop prior to going overboard. We’ve had this in operation for over three years now without any clogs.
Improve the air ventilation to/from the holding tank– With our holding tank remaining empty most of the time now, it is no longer a contributing source of smell. However, when it is used (in no discharge zones) it is critical that there is enough air flow from its vent to the outside to mitigate any smell from the tank on the inside of the boat. The existing vent hose and connectors on our holding tank were wholly inadequate for this. We doubled the size of the vent hose and replaced the connectors at both ends with much larger ones to greatly increase the air flow.
Below is a picture essay showing how all these improvements were done for the forward head. The aft head was actually a lot easier to do because the hose runs were not as complicated and the work space under the floor was easier to negotiate.