Category Archives: Boat Projects and Upgrades

New Microwave Cabinet

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.

The original microwave oven that came as standard equipment with the boat. Notice how it fits just perfectly into the space designed for it.

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.

The old oven removed from its cabinet. The two little rings on the “floor” are where the front feet of the oven sat inside to prevent it from sliding out. The hole towards the right is for the power cord.
The front piece of molding came off easily by drilling out the three bungs and removing the screws beneath.
Next was the messy part – removing the “roof” of the cabinet. The only way to do this was to cut it out as it was screwed in from the back on two sides and was a solid continuous piece on the third side. A Dremel tool and an Oscillating cutter did the job (although they made unavoidable marks on the surrounding surfaces). This expanded space could now accommodate dozens of different brands of microwaves currently on the market.
I found some scrap teak at the local sailors exchange to cover the marks made by the cutters. I also fashioned some captive “rings” to hold the feet of the new oven in place. They are the usual brown rubber floor protectors for the bottom of furniture feet. I just turned them upside down and drilled out a properly- sized hole for the new microwave feet to drop into. I then screwed down each rubber ring to the floor around its outside perimeter.
This angle shows how the new teak molding around the top edge interfaces with the original more fancy piece of molding.
All the new teak has been varnished and the new microwave is in place. This model was on sale at Lowe’s for $59. It is bigger inside and has 700W of microwave power (150W more than the original oven). I installed a teak “strap” across the rear portion of the top of the oven to keep it from jumping out of its foot holders in rough seas and from tilting out when we are heeling to port. This piece can be raised if necessary for an even taller microwave if there is a future need. While in port or at anchor, we store plastic containers on the top of the oven, and in effect have not lost any storage space with this improvement.

Jury-Rigged Stern Light

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.

The back part of the old stern light housing. The left side of it was worse off than the right side, but the holes needed to mount it to the arch remained intact.

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.

The new light we found at the only local hardware store. It is a 12 volt “all around” light in a style typically used as an anchor light for a power boat.
Here’s how I mounted the new light to the old housing. Drilled two holes in the bottom of the housing such that the light would stand straight vertically and leave room for a screwdriver to get to the screw holes on the back of the old housing to mount it to the 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.

Light-blocking “sides” cut from some scrap teak. The piece of teak on the left also helps reinforce the broken part of the old plastic housing. The aluminum mounting plate on the arch blocks all the light that would shine out through the holes in the back of the housing. It may not be exactly 135 degrees of arc, but it’s close.

Next we mounted the new light and connected the wires. It works!

Jury-rigged stern light mounted in place.



Watermaker Installation

 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:

This is the compartment under the floor at the foot of the master berth where we planned to install  some of the watermaker components. The existing black hose (for the deck wash-down pump) had to be re-routed to make more room. The white electrical wire for the watermaker was run from a new breaker on the main DC panel.
This is the hanging locker in the master stateroom. We had converted it some time ago to enclose a set of “soft” shelves to store clothes instead of hanging them. There was good usable space on the floor of this locker.

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).

A closer look in the underfloor compartment at the foot of the master berth. At the top of the photo you can see two thru-hulls. Originally, the top one was for the depth sounder and the one below it was for the speedo (paddlewheel style knot meter). We replaced the original depth sounder with a NMEA2000 sounder/speedo combo unit. We then replaced the original plastic speedo thru-hull with a traditional bronze thru-hull with valve and backing board. The green wire connected to the new bronze thru-hull is from electrical bonding circuit. Pre-existing in this compartment are the shower strainer and drain pump (left side) and parts of the Purasan system for the forward head (bottom left).

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:

The charcoal filter (blue), control panel (white with yellow valve), and feed pump (black) were all contained on a single module from Spectra. We mounted the Z-ion control unit (white with the word Spectra visible) on top of the feed pump module. To the right is the black 5-micron pre-filter. These components had to be mounted high enough so their filter housings could be unscrewed and lowered in order to replace the filter elements. The intake thru-hull can be seen on the left.
Looking at the starboard side of the compartment shows the plumbing from the intake thru-hull. The water first goes to a sea strainer (white top metal mesh filter) mounted on the wall in the left side of the picture. From there, a hose goes down (out of the picture) and connects to the bottom of the feed pump module on the right side. Also in this picture in the upper left are the electrical connections for both the watermaker and the Purasan system (located on the port side of this  compartment) situated above all the water pathways.
On the left side of the picture is the 5 micron pre-filter (black). This pictures looks into the port side of the compartment at the foot of the master berth where in a previous project we installed modular components of a Purasan system for the forward head. The newer looking hose running from the watermaker pre-filter snakes to the underside of the hanging locker and comes up thru a hole we drilled where the membrane unit is located.
The pre-assembled feed pump module from Spectra has a charcoal filter mounted on the left side (you can only see it’s blue top in this picture). This is part of the fresh water “flush” system for the Watermaker which is required to be run after each use. The charcoal filter removes any chlorine that may be present in the flush water which could foul the membrane. For a source of fresh flush water, we had to tap into our fresh water system at some point. Very conveniently, there was a fresh water line already running along the top of this compartment (on its way to the Purasan system) just above where we mounted the feed pump module. A tee connector and short bit of hose did the trick.

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:

Full view of the locker with the membrane unit placed on the floor. It just barely fit.

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.

A closer look. The white hose leading to the above-the-waterline thru-hull on the left comes from the shower drain pump (via a vented loop just above).

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:

We had to make two modifications to this locker. The first was drilling a hole in the floor for the water hose coming from the pre-filter to connect to the input of the membrane unit. Second, we fabricated a wood panel on which to mount the accumulator and pressure/flow gauges. The picture shows the back of this panel before being permanently mounted. The accumulator is on the bottom of the panel and the back of the gauges just above it. The coiled thin black hose on the left of the picture is the product water hose which leads to the boat’s water tank.
The membrane/pump unit all plumbed in. here you can see how the brine discharge hose goes from the membrane unit into a tee plumbed into the shower drain hose taking advantage of the existing close by thru-hull. This picture also shows our fabricated wood panel in place with the front of the gauges showing. You can see the plumbing to the accumulator tank just behind the panel below the gauges.

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:

The aft end of the water tank under the floor panel in the main salon. In the upper part of the picture just below the yellow label, you can see the blue handle of the diverter valve mounted to the underside of the floor. The product water hose comes from the watermaker and connects to the back of the diverter valve. When the valve is in the “sample” position (which it is in this picture), the product water goes into the coiled thin black hose on the bottom left of the picture. When the watermaker is first started, the output runs thru this hose into the bilge until the salinity level drops to a drinkable level. At that point (determined via a salinity tester), the blue diverter handle is moved to the right and the product water goes into the tank. The new tank fitting we drilled and tapped is the tiny grey plastic elbow on the tank in the upper right of the picture with the thin black hose connected to it. The white stuff at the base of the fitting is teflon tape where the treads of the fitting screw into the tank.

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.


New Lifelines, Gate, and Railing

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.

New cockpit railing extended up to the aft lifeline gate stanchion.


The new railing made for a good place to mount the grill.

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.

The threaded end of the eye bolt for the gate went into a hole drilled in the elbow fitting and then through an enlarged hole in the top of the stanchion. A nut was screwed on by accessing the threaded end of the bolt from the open end of the elbow before the horizontal rail tube was inserted.

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.

The stanchion on the left is the new one for the gate . The right side stanchion is original, and only had to have a brace added for stability.

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.

One of the mechanical end fittings that also serves as a tensioner. They were easy to assemble.

Storing Small Propane Bottles

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.

Here is the assembled and mounted PVC pipe. The far end has a PVC cap glued on and the near end has a collar glued on to accept a screw-in plug. Note in this picture the line of vent holes drilled into the bottom of the pipe. This will let any condensation or leaking propane safely exit the PVC pipe.
The bottles pull in and out easily. The 4″ diameter PVC pipe is big enough to reach your arm inside and grab the nozzle of the bottle to pull it out. This also is a good view of one of the two stainless hose clamps holding the pipe to the underside of the seat.







Here is a look inside the PVC pipe with two bottles inside (the 2nd bottle is behind the one showing). It’s a snug fit, but not too tight.
This is the PVC screw-in “plug” for one end of the pipe. Here you can see how I drilled a hole in the center off the plug in order to attach a short line to the plug preventing it from being dropped overboard.






Looking at the stern seat from inside the cockpit with the PVC pipe mounted underneath. A mirror image of this is on the other side of the boat providing stowage for a total of four propane bottles. We liked this idea better than supplying propane to the barbecue by way of plumbing from our main propane tanks. Fewer hoses and hose connections are involved and we can place the rail mounted barbecue wherever we want without the need to move any hoses.
Looking at the stern seat from inside the cockpit with the PVC pipe mounted underneath. A mirror image of this is on the other side of the boat providing stowage for a total of four propane bottles. We liked this idea better than supplying propane to the barbecue by way of plumbing from our main propane tanks. Fewer hoses and hose connections are involved and we can place the rail mounted barbecue wherever we want without the need to move any hoses.

Installing a Solar Panel System

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.

We chose our panels based on a geometry that would use the space on top of our arch most effectively. The dual back stays made this more of a challenge. The boom is pushed all the way out to one side in this picture which is why you don’t see it. Since the boom overhangs the panels by a little bit when it is centered, it was possible for the boom to come crashing down on the forward part of the center panel if our rigid boom vang were to fail. The aluminum crossbar just forward of the panels is our “insurance policy” in that event (the boom will hit the crossbar first).

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).

Here are the three Blue Sky controllers mounted on the forward bulkhead in the starboard cockpit locker. Their outputs all go to the big red and black terminals in the upper right of the picture. From there, two large wires carry the power to the battery bank. All three controllers “talk” to each other and to a remote display over a separate communications cable. This way, they can coordinate their actions for such things like a three step battery charging regimen.


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.

Here are the five Odyssey batteries (Group 31 size) That we fit into the IP420 battery storage area under the starboard settee. There appears to be room for a sixth battery in this compartment, but we couldn’t figure out how to get it in. Turned out we really didn’t need a sixth one anyway.


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

Remote Panel
This is what the remote panel for the Blue Sky controllers looks like. It provides a wealth of information about the health and status of each panel as well as complete control of the battery bank charging parameters. In this photo, the batteries are fully charged and sitting at their “float” voltage.

Technical performance:

  • 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.

Toilets, Hoses, Smells

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.

Old toilet removed
The forward head compartment of the Island Packet 420 with the old manual toilet removed. You can see rust stains from the old bolts. The white hose is the original seawater supply for flushing. The larger hose in the back with the blue taped fitting is the original waste hose. The new toilet had a more compact footprint so these holes had to be glassed over and new gelcoat applied..


Toilet Hose
This is the compartment under the floor in front of the hanging locker in the master stateroom. The left side of the picture is the aft end of the compartment and the top of the picture is the port side. The seacock on the left is for the toilet discharge overboard in the original setup. The seacock on the right is for the discharge from the macerator pump used in the original setup to empty the holding tank overboard. The main point here is the grey hose in the center of the picture at the bottom of the compartment. This is the original toilet discharge hose from the forward head. In order to pass through two under-floor bulkheads from the toilet into this compartment, the hose is routed through a PVC pipe (which you can’t see) that terminates at bottom of the bulkhead on the right. It was impossible for me to get enough leverage with just my arm strength to pull the old hose out through this PVC conduit since it was so tight fitting. Therefore, I built myself a “jig” with good mechanical advantage to pull the hose out. The jig starts with a pulley I temporarily added on the left (aft) bulkhead. Through this pulley, I fed a line which attaches to the old grey hose via a hose clamp. Once enough “pull” was put on this line from above, the hose would inch its way out of the PVC conduit. After about 7 inches or so of movement, I had to loosen the hose clamp and slide it further down the hose to be able to move it the next 7 inches.


Hose pulling rig
Now you may be wondering how I applied enough “pull” to the line attached to the old hose that comes around the pulley and goes up. It turns out that directly above this compartment is a deck hatch. Very conveniently, our spinnaker halyard (blue/white line at the top of the picture) had a fair lead from the masthead straight down though this hatch to just above the waste hose compartment. While I could have used a deck winch to apply the pull, I opted instead to attach a “come-a-long” between the halyard and the line attached to the hose so I could watch the progress as I applied the pull using the come-a-long. At the same time I was pulling out the old hose, I was also feeding in the new PolyX sanitation hose. This was easily accomplished by joining the toilet-end of the old hose to one end of the new hose before the old hose disappeared down under the floor where the toilet sat. As I pulled out the old hose, the new hose fed through right behind it. This was a long and tedious process, but it worked and nothing broke.


Treatment unit finished installation
Here is that same compartment, viewed from a different angle (bottom of the picture is the aft end and left is the port side) all cleaned up with the new hoses and the Purasan treatment unit installed. In the center of this picture at the bottom of the compartment you can see the new hose coming from the toilet and going into the bottom left of the blue treatment unit. This new arrangement also includes two diverter valves. The first one, which is visible in the upper right of the picture, sends the contents of the holding tank to either the deck pump-out fitting or to the macerator for pumping overboard. The second diverter valve (not shown) sends the output of the treatment tank either overboard or to the holding tank (for when in no-discharge zones). The treatment tank is held to the aft bulkhead in the compartment with bungee cords.


Purasan control box and tablet dispenser
Just aft of the under-floor compartment containing the treatment tank shown earlier, is another compartment which I used for mounting the Purasan control box and chemical dispenser. The view in this picture is toward the port side of the boat.  Only two small holes had to be drilled through the bulkhead to the other compartment for wires and a small hose. The chemical dispenser is mounted just enough to the center of the compartment so that the lid can be easily be screwed off to add new chlorination tablets.


New electric toilet test fit
After all the hoses were replaced and the Purasan installed, I test fit the new electric toilet. Unfortunately, the most optimum place for it required closing up all of the holes associated with the original toilet and drilling new ones. There turned out to be a fair amount of gelcoat work to cover the old holes and deal with the visible rust stains.


Finished toilet installation
The finished installation of the new electric toilet with all the gelcoat work done.


Control Panels
Next to the toilet are the control panels for both the toilet and the Purasan. The Purasan can be wired to the toilet control so as to automatically activate every time the toilet is flushed. However, I found this to be inconvenient when initially calibrating the Purasan and testing everything out. Therefore, I wired in a switch, shown at the right of the Purasan panel that, when toggled, allows the toilet and Purasan to be operated independently for troubleshooting and/or calibration purposes.


Vent hose enclosure
Getting at the vent hose coming from the holding tank was more of a challenge than I thought. The vent hose comes up from the holding tank through the hanging locker on the port side of the stateroom, and exits the boat just above the locker. The top of the locker is shown in the bottom right of the picture. There is a teak enclosure on the top of the locker (behind the HVAC duct in the picture) that hides both the holding tank vent hose and the pump-out hose. This enclosure also creates a surface for an AC outlet. The enclosure had to be removed to replace the vent hose and hull fitting. This was the only carpentry work required for the whole project.


New vent hose and pump out hose
With the teak enclosure removed, I now had good access to the outboard ends of both hoses. Connecting the new pump-out hose was straightforward. The vent hose was trickier because I needed to drill a larger hole in the hull and attach a new right-angle fitting for the larger diameter hose. These larger components necessitated cutting out a little bit of the teak molding and wall panel forward of the enclosure to get everything to fit (including tools). It was well worth it though as the tank is now far better ventilated.

Storing and using a vise on-board

I’ve always found a bench vise to be a very useful tool. Its uses on a sailboat are every bit as great as in a home workshop. For a long time however, I couldn’t get past a couple nagging problems when using a bench vise on our boat. First, it’s big and awkwardly shaped making it difficult to conveniently store on the boat. Second, it really needs to be held down firmly to get the best use out of it and I could not find anywhere on the boat to accommodate a permanent mounting (without raising the ire of the 1st mate!). I tried just using a smaller vise that was easier to store, but it wasn’t beefy enough to do a number of the jobs I needed done. Plus, I still had the mounting problem.

Base of the aft cabin berth with mattress removed. You can see lids to two of the four storage areas underneath.
You can see lids for two of the four storage areas on the base of the aft berth.

One thing we decided to do once we moved aboard the boat was to turn the aft cabin into a storage area instead of a sleeping area. It is very useful for storing our rolled up inflatable kayaks when they aren’t on deck or in the water. We also wanted easier access to the rear of the engine compartment without having to take all the bedding out every time and also to be able to get at all the storage compartments lying under the mattress.

Empty Compartment
The compartment I chose for the vise

I got permission from the 1st mate to commandeer one of these storage compartments for my vise arrangement. The compartment I chose had a just large enough opening and depth to fit a good size vise. That solved the storage problem. The lids to all these compartments sit in recessed “lips” of the berth base so their surfaces are flush with the rest of the base.

Closed and ready to stow
Vise mounted on underside of lid with drill press base just behind it.

I turned my compartment lid upside down in its recess and bolted the vise to the underside of the lid. This made for a nice firm mount that is prevented from shifting around by the recessed part of the base. It worked so well, I was able to fit the base of my dremel tool drill press on the same lid just behind the vise. This picture shows the vise with the jaws completely closed and overhanging the drill press base, which is necessary for it to fit through the opening when stowed.

Drill press
Drill press installed in its base and ready to use

The vise can be swung out of the way on its own built-in pivot whenever I want to use the drill press. I can also orient the lid in the other direction (back-to-front) if I need more space to work with larger material on the drill press or the vise. The drill press itself, another awkwardly shaped item, conveniently stores in the bottom of the same compartment so it’s always at the ready. This setup makes for a nice “workshop” when needed.

Hanging storage
Vise “hanging” under the lid for stowage

All I need to do to stow the vise is carefully (it’s heavy) turn the lid right side up again and set it back in place, and the vise simply hangs from the underside of the lid in the compartment. The vise in these pictures is large enough to easily crimp a terminal onto the end of 4/0 AWG battery cable, which was one of the first things I used it for.

Adding a Fireplace

I apologize in advance for the length of this post. I wanted to include enough details and pictures for other Island Packet owners who may be considering a similar upgrade.

There were two main reasons we wanted a “Fireplace” onboard the boat. The first was practical – to be able to heat and dry the boat as necessary when not connected to shore power. While there are multiple ways to accomplish this, the most attractive way, at least to our eyes, was a solution where a flame is on display. We were both well aware of the multitude of reasons not to do it this way, mostly related to safety and also what could be rather invasive modifications to the boat. This was not a “casual” boat project. After several months of consideration and research, we had a few critical choices to make upfront before making a final decision on an installation.

What fuel did we want to burn?

Our choices were wood, propane, or diesel. Each of these had pro’s and con’s and we were initially open to any of the three. The advantage of wood is that there is no need to do any plumbing to get the fuel into the heater. You simply open the door and put it in. You still have to run a chimney through the deck, but apart from that, the installation is rather simple and it can be operated without any electricity. The disadvantage is that you’ve got to store your wood fuel (typically pellets) somewhere, and you have to regularly dispose of the ash. This was the least expensive option. Propane had the advantage that the heater was physically the smallest of the three options and therefore had more mounting possibilities. Since our boat already has two propane tanks in a built-in locker on the starboard deck, we wouldn’t have to find room to store the fuel. This option does require electricity to operate a solenoid and a blower. The disadvantage for us is that we also heavily rely on our propane supply for cooking. Paula is a great cook and the stove is used often so we’d have to keep a close eye on our usage of the heater. The Diesel option was the most complicated to install, the most expensive of the three, and was physically the largest (fewer mounting options). It did have two huge advantages for us though. First, we have a lot of diesel storage on the boat (160 gallons). Second, if the installation could be done using a small “day” tank that gravity fed diesel to the heater, no electricity would be required to operate it. We decided to pursue the diesel option if we could find a suitable place to install it.

Where to put it?

All three of these options required cutting a hole in the deck for a chimney pipe. While it is possible to put bends in the pipe to marry up the optimal place below deck with the optimal place above deck (and we’ve seen a few outrageous examples of this), a straight chimney is by far the best. For the traditional style diesel heater we wanted, there was only one suitable mounting spot in the boat that would accommodate a straight chimney run without being too close to any rigging where it emerged on deck. The only problem was that it put the heater right in front of the door to the hanging locker in the main salon. So our choice was either to sacrifice the hanging locker or switch to the propane heater option (our 2nd choice), which, because of its’ smaller size, afforded several other mounting locations. The interior design of the IP420 includes three hanging lockers, so eliminating one of them wasn’t going to be a complete tragedy. Also, if we were clever with how the now closed off space could be used and accessed without a front door, it wouldn’t be a total loss. This was a big decision because it makes a not so insignificant change to the interior layout in the salon and the modifications we had in mind can’t really be undone. This was our “home” though and we planned to have the boat for a long time, so no more hanging locker.

Original hanging locker with louvered door in the salon

For the combination of aesthetics, size and functionality, we liked the Newport diesel heater from Dickinson Marine. Our research told us that while it should fit, there were going to be some tight tolerances, so the first thing I did before any deconstruction of the hanging locker was build a wooden mock-up of the Newport to do a test fit. In hindsight, this was probably the most important part of the project. We had to do a lot of positioning and repositioning in every dimension in order to satisfy four competing requirements:

  1. It had to satisfy all the specified safe distances from the walls and floor.
  2. The chimney had to be a minimum of 48” long. We didn’t want a long length of pipe protruding above the deck for practical reasons, and since a lot of the heat is retained in the chimney, we wanted most of the chimney length below deck.
  3. I mentioned earlier that, if possible, we wanted to try and use a gravity feed system to deliver diesel to the heater. This imposed the requirement that the bottom of a small diesel “day” tank be at least 12” above the metering valve on the heater for the gravity feed process to work.
  4. We wanted the heater oriented in such a way so that its’ aesthetics and flame would be visible from anywhere in the main salon and galley. At the same time, it couldn’t intrude on the doorway area into the master suite or be too close to any cushion fabrics in the salon.
Wooden mock-up of the Newport heater with chimney

After finding the exactly ideal position for the heater (we ended up having less than an inch to play with in any dimension) and convincing ourselves it would properly operate, we started the actual installation.

We began by removing the hanging locker door and the teak molding around the door frame. We were careful not to break the teak molding as we removed it since we intended to re-use it as trim later in the project.

Door and teak trim removed from hanging locker door frame

The door opening now had to be closed up flush with the frame as it would become one of the two mounting surfaces for the heater. Before doing this however, whatever clever thing were going to do with the interior space of the locker would be most easily accomplished now while we had full frontal access to the space. Our thought was to divide the locker space into upper and lower halves with a shelf in between. We carefully made a cut-out in the top of the locker to access the upper half of the space.  The piece that was cut out served as the “lid” to the compartment.

Cut-out on the top of the locker for access from above. HVAC ducting is visible in the back of the locker (which remained).

A second cut-out in the forward facing wall behind the seat-back next to the heater would access the lower half. The upper half of this space would have to be deep enough to accommodate the diesel day tank, but not so deep that our arms couldn’t reach in from the top all the way down to the shelf. Because of where the access hole had to be cut for the lower half, it wasn’t going to be an easy space to get into, but was big enough to hold a few items that we might want to be intentionally hard to access (use your imagination).

In the stowage space behind the seat-back closest to the heater, another cut-out provided access to the “lower” half of the original locker space. The cut-out piece was retained and used as a “door”.

The installation of the day tank was the first order of business for the interior of the locker. We bought a 2-gallon stainless tank (also from Dickinson) for this purpose. Before installing the tank, we wanted a way of knowing how full it was when in use, so I needed to add a fluid level sensor. Having had good luck with level sensors from WEMA, we ordered a custom length sensor to fit the small day tank. I cut a hole out of the top of the tank and drilled and tapped screw holes to mount the sensor. The tank also needed three fuel plumbing fittings to be attached before mounting. The two fittings on top served as the diesel input and the air vent. The fitting on the tank bottom was the diesel output. The tank was then mounted in the forward inboard corner of the locker as high up as possible.

Our 2 gallon “day” tank with fuel level sensor installed on the top. Also visible are the fuel inlet and air vent fittings.
Day tank installed as high as possible in the locker to achieve the minimum height for the gravity feed to work. You can also see the plywood support braces to attach the new wall.


Next was the diesel plumbing job between the main diesel tank and the day tank. I very much underestimated the complexity of this part of the project. The goal we had in mind was to be able to fill the day tank whenever we needed by way of an electric pump that would pull from our main diesel tank. For heater installations that do not use a gravity tank, Dickinson recommends using a Walbro fuel pump (FRD-2) to pump the diesel directly to the heater. We decided to use this same pump in our installation.

The Walbro pump mounted on upper part of the aft wall in the locker. You can see the shelf (white) now dividing the upper and lower halves of the locker.

The other part of the diesel plumbing that had to be done was to connect the new fuel line coming from the Walbro pump into the main tank and also to connect the air vent line coming from the day tank. Our boat has a diesel powered generator in addition to the propulsion engine, so there are two fuel supply lines already plumbed into our main diesel tank. We decided to tap off the existing fuel line for the generator rather than add another hole to the fuel tank. While this was easier to do, it created the need for a few extra valves and some rules to follow in order to keep air from entering the fuel line going to the generator. In essence, whenever we needed to pump diesel into the day tank, we needed to first close the valve on the fuel line going to the generator and then open the valve on the fuel line going to the day tank. Once the day tank was filled, the valves were returned to their original positions (day tank valve closed and generator valve open) so that the generator could be operated if/when needed. Obviously this setup imposes the limitation of not being able to fill the day tank when the generator is running. After thinking about our usage habits of both the heater and the generator, we determined this would rarely, if ever, be a problem. We also decided to tap into the main diesel tank air vent line with the air vent line coming from the day tank. This meant we did not have to cut another air vent hole in the hull. One last part of the diesel plumbing was to add a drain line for the day tank. We realized that should we ever need to, we had no way of easily draining out all the diesel from the day tank.

To remedy this, we tee’d off of the gravity feed line coming out of the bottom of the day tank and ran a fuel line all the way back to the main diesel tank. Controlled by a valve near the tee connection, once the valve was opened, all the diesel in the day tank would just gravity feed right back down into the main tank. This day tank drain line tapped into the diesel “return” line coming from the generator again avoiding having to drill into the main diesel tank. We fantasized that if we ever ran out of fuel while motoring, we could open this drain valve on the day tank and provide ourselves another gallon or so of diesel to keep the engine going.

The “drain” line tee’d off of the outlet fuel line coming out of the bottom of the day tank. Note the drain line valve which will be accessed from the top opening once the new wall goes on the front of the locker.

The last item of plumbing was to install a valve in the air vent line just as it comes off the day tank. As with all new things we install on the boat, we think about what might happen when we’re heeled over a lot while sailing. In this situation, I thought about the possibility of a full day tank “draining” some diesel into the air vent line as the boat heeled. In theory, any diesel that got into the day tank air vent line should simply flow right back into the main tank since that’s where gravity would take it once we were on an even keel again. Still, I was nervous about little pockets of diesel potentially being created in the slight dips of the air vent line throughout its length back to the main air vent line since I was unable to achieve a perfectly straight “downhill” run of the air vent line from the day tank. Much like we have to remember to close the sink drain sea-cocks before going sailing, closing the day tank air vent valve is also part of the protocol. Obviously this adds yet another limitation on the use of the heater when that air vent valve is closed. Again, we carefully thought about how/if this would impact our overall goal for the use of the heater, namely did we anticipate using the heater while sailing close hauled at the typical latitudes where we would be sailing? No.

With all the plumbing done, we did a test to try and fill the day tank.  When we first turned on the pump, it anemically put only a few drops of diesel in the day tank and it was immediately obvious it wasn’t going to work as we’d hoped. It turns out the standard version of the Walbro pump we bought is only capable of 4 feet of vertical lift and 15 feet of horizontal “pull”. Given where we mounted the day tank relative to the main diesel tank, we were at both of these limits. A bit more research revealed that Walbro sells a “heavy duty” version of this same pump, capable of pumping greater distances. Luckily, they also sell an “upgrade” kit  if you already have the standard version of the pump (it’s actually just a stronger spring). We bought and installed the upgrade kit and voila, the pump now worked perfectly. As a bonus, it would be a simple re-connection of just one fuel line if we ever decided to bypass the day tank and have the pump directly feed the heater.

Now it was time to build up the new wall where the door to the hanging locker had been and mount the heater. We used epoxy treated plywood to enclose the locker and then cut and mounted fire rated tile backing board to each wall where the heater would be attached. We chose light colored brick as the finish covering to go over the backer board.  We’ve seen other installations where very colorful tile was used for this, but we liked the brick idea and the color went very nicely with the existing color scheme of our salon.

First the fire rated backer board went on each wall, followed by the brick and mortar.

It was a good thing we saved the intact pieces of teak molding from the original locker door frame because they were able to be re-used for trim around the edges of the brick. We then drilled holes through the bricks at precise locations to mount the heater. With the wall work all done and the heater ready to be mounted, the most feared part of the project was next.

There are three words that describe the feeling of cutting a big hole in the deck of your live-aboard boat – terrifying, terrifying, terrifying. There was no going back after this step so it had to be done right. First was finding the point on the deck that represented the center of a straight chimney pipe run with the heater mounted in its proper position below. Next came cutting out the actual hole, which had to be 2” wider in diameter than the chimney pipe itself in order to create a 1” air gap all around the chimney pipe. In our case with the Newport heater, the chimney pipe was 3” in diameter so the hole was cut to 5”.

The location of the hole is just aft of the port side block for the staysail boom sheet. There is plenty of clearance even when the line is taut.

Dickinson specified three possible ways to “line” the inside edge of the hole to finish it off – epoxy, caulking, or a metal liner. I used a metal liner, cut from a piece of 5” stainless flue pipe, since it would reflect the heat away better. Epoxy as a stiffener wasn’t really necessary since the chimney did not impose any compressive loads on the deck (plus, the IP polycore deck coring is already very robust).

I had to fabricate a wood spacer block that accounted for the camber in the deck at the point where the chimney emerged and made everything look straight and neat. For this I used an 8” winch pad that I shaped with a sander to match the deck contour. Eight coats of varnish were applied prior to it being glued and screwed onto the deck. Dickinson provides a stainless steel “dress ring” to go against the interior headliner that both looks nice and vents some of the hot air between the chimney pipe and the metal deck hole liner.

The shaped and varnished wood base and the stainless steel deck hole liner mounted in place. The metal ring with the holes in it is the “dress ring” up against the headliner on the interior.

They also make a chimney pipe deck fitting with a neoprene ring to mount on the wood spacer for a water tight seal.

Dickinson’s chimney “deck fitting” mounted on the wooden base with the chimney pipe run up into it from underneath. There is a neoprene washer between it and the wood base.

For our rain cap we went with the traditional “Charlie Noble”. When were not using the heater, the Charlie Noble is stored down blow and a small stainless cap is slid onto the deck fitting so there’s no chance of water intrusion and no “lip” to snag a line with.

A “Charlie Noble” mounted on top to keep the rain from coming in but allowing the smoke to get out.

With everything mounted and all the plumbing connected we tried it out and were very pleased. Everything worked great. The heater comes equipped with a low current “draft assist” fan which turned out to be very useful in establishing a draft when the heater is initially getting started. It also serves to fine tune the air/fuel mixture to get the perfect flame. Between this fan and the Walbro pump, our installation can’t be said to truly meet the goal of not requiring any electricity. However, the draft assist fan, while quite useful, is not required to operate the heater. And the pump does not need to be operated while there is a sufficient supply of diesel in the day tank. So our goal was not entirely un-met.

Finished job with a nice fire going. We added a sheet of stainless on the wall behind the upper part of the chimney to better reflect heat back into the room.

For the really techie minded readers, I took a picture of the operating heater with a thermal imaging camera. You can see how the heat radiates off the different  surfaces.

The little black square in the middle is the fire itself. Apparently black, not red, is the “hottest” color.

It’s been over a year since we did this installation and thus far it all has worked wonderfully. This past spring we had a lot of 45 degree rainy days here on the Chesapeake and the heater silently kept the cabin very warm and dry.

Fuel Polisher

Here is how I installed the Filter Boss “Commander” Fuel Polishing system from KTI Systems, Inc. in an IP420. The first decision was to evaluate mounting locations in the IP420 engine compartment and then choose which version of the Commander series would best suit the available space. I chose the 60GPH version, the smallest.  You can buy it pre-assembled in a “horizontal” version (components pre-mounted on a board to optimize vertical clearance) or a “vertical” version (components pre-mounted to optimize horizontal clearance). You can also buy it as a “modular” system which gives more mounting options for tight spaces. While it would have been nice to be able to use one of the two completely pre-built assemblies, neither of them would fit in any area of the engine compartment and still allow easy access for filter changes and clearance for hose runs. Therefore I opted for the modular version. The folks from KTI Systems at the Annapolis Boat show were very helpful and worked with me in regard to the available space in the IP420 engine room (I had measurements with me). They offered to make a customized mounting with the Commander unit and the fuel pump mounted horizontally on a plastic board and pre-plumbed. The filters themselves were left separate. This was the most optimal way to go as you will see in the pictures below.

New sound proofing on door
New sound proofing on door

I started by removing the previous pump and single filter setup that came with the boat. The sound proofing material on the door had seen better days, so I removed that as well and replaced it with a new piece.



The custom assembly mounted on inside of engine room access door. Both the Commander unit (white) and the fuel pump (grey) came mounted on a thick plastic board and pre-plumbed to each other with metal tubes.

After “dry-fitting” all the components in several possible places, I decided to mount the custom Commander/pump assembly on the inside of the starboard door to the engine compartment (the galley side in the IP420). I mounted it as far as possible to the upper right side of the door. This way, I had room to mount one of the two Racor filters to the left of the assembly, and would have a good amount of clearance between the bottom of the assembly and top of the engine when the door was closed. This also was the best spot for the subsequent hose runs to the Commander unit. Another decision at this point was what size fuel hose to buy. The boat already had 1/4” fuel lines coming to/from the tank to the previous Racor and then connecting to the engine. All the fuel ports on the Commander are natively 3/8”. I choose to replace all the fuel hose with 3/8’’, except for the hose that supplies the engine itself. This way, I can get a lot more flow when polishing the fuel since the whole route to/from the tank and through the all the Racor and Commander fittings is 3/8”.


One of the two Racor Filters mounted next to the Commander assembly.

Next, I mounted one of the two Racor filters to the left of the assembly on the door. The mounting position of the filter was carefully chosen so: 1) The filter wouldn’t hit the edge of the door frame when closing the door, 2) It wouldn’t hit or be too close to anything on the engine when the door was fully closed, 3) There wouldn’t be impossible bends in the short hose run between the filter inlet and the Commander outlet ports. Fortunately, there was just barely enough room to satisfy all these criteria.



Close-up of the short straight hose run between the Commander and the Racor enabled by this mounting position.

If you look at the close-up picture, you can see it was possible to mount the filter close enough to the commander to get a perfectly straight short hose run from the Commander outlet to the filter inlet. To get these two components this close together, it was necessary to cut off part of the metal mounting “ear” on the Racor which was butting up against the Commanders mounting plate and preventing the nice straight hose run. I did have to buy several 90 degree fittings for the Racor ports as well as the Commander ports.



The only other reasonable place to put the 2nd Racor was on the inside of the other access door on the port side of the engine. Of course, mounting it there meant I had to route the fuel lines across the engine. Rather than go under or around the front of the engine, the shortest path was up and over.

The 2nd Racor filter mounted on the opposite side access door. You can see the fuel lines going up and over the top of the back wall of the compartment.
The 2nd Racor filter mounted on the opposite side access door. You can see the fuel lines going up and over the top of the back wall of the compartment.


This hose routing also made it easier open both access doors fully without the need for a lot of slack fuel line near the door hinges. Note the section of the back wall of the engine compartment with the sound proofing removed. While this area appears to be a potential mounting spot for the Commander assembly itself, that part of the back wall is actually a removable panel on the IP420 (aft side engine access), preventing anything from being mounted on it.

Here you can see better how the lines are routed to the 2nd Racor and also what it looks like with that aft access panel removed (mentioned previously).
Here you can see better how the lines are routed to the 2nd Racor and also what it looks like with that aft access panel removed (mentioned previously).


Back at the starboard side, here is how all the fuel lines come up to the Commander. In addition to the 2 lines from the 2nd Racor coming in from the top, the line to the engine and the supply and return lines from the tank come up from the bottom.
Back at the starboard side, here is how all the fuel lines come up to the Commander. In addition to the 2 lines from the 2nd Racor coming in from the top, the line to the engine and the supply and return lines from the tank come up from the bottom.


A closer look at the hose connections to the Commander. In order to get adequate clearance above the engine, I had to install a right angle fitting for the tank return line coming off the bottom front of the Commander.
A closer look at the hose connections to the Commander. In order to get adequate clearance above the engine, I had to install a right angle fitting for the tank return line coming off the bottom front of the Commander.


Here is what it looks like from the inside of the engine compartment with the access door closed. You can see there is good clearance between the bottom of the Commander and the top of the engine.
Here is what it looks like from the inside of the engine compartment with the access door closed. You can see there is good clearance between the bottom of the Commander and the top of the engine.


Looking into the engine compartment from the front with both filters in place and both access doors closed. Sound proofing is back in place on the aft access panel as well.
Looking into the engine compartment from the front with both filters in place and both access doors closed. Sound proofing is back in place on the aft access panel as well.


Everything worked just fine and I had no leaks. I did have to fill the distant Racor with diesel first as the pump could not self prime it like it was able to do for the closer Racor.