Just like when I installed a 40KW (40,000 Watts) solar system at our winery, I don’t hesitate to go BIG and put in a system that attempts to meet 100% of our needs. So when I finally got around to installing solar on our catamaran, I’m going BIG again. 900 Watts may not sound big in comparison but onboard that’s BIG.
The thing about energy on a boat, the use and needs vary tremendously. At anchor, the sun powers up my 720Amp Hour battery bank before noon leaving the solar system on float the rest of the day. The six solar panels are still producing power with no where to go. This means there is extra energy during the day to run the watermaker as needed and near everything else. I tried to calculate however the worst case scenario – under sail 24 hours each day with autopilot, radar, navigation, in addition to all the normal refrigeration, music, toilet flushing, water system plus at night with running lights. In this case we would start the night with a full battery bank and survived until sunrise pulling down what could be 300+ amp hours. Then our solar system would have to recharge the battery bank as well as keep up with the daytime ongoing use. That will be the challenge that only real time will tell if it works. The 1200nm Downhill Hill Run coming up in November will be the first test.
But from now on when at anchor, mooring or even at dock, our electrical needs should be fully met with the sun’s magical energy. This will not only make for a quieter existence but allow us the freedom to explore away from the boat for more than a half day. Now that opens up some great possibilities.
I procrastinated for over four years to install solar mainly because of cost. I originally envisioned solar power onboard but our dealer talked us into the need to have air-conditioning ($24,000+) which created the need for a diesel generator (another $24,000). Needless to say that set us back financially and took the wind out of solar plans. Sadly (and I knew it from the beginning) we don’t need nor use air-conditioning. I do like having the generator onboard however, if needed, and for my dive tank compressor. It was Diana that kept at me over the years to go for the solar despite the generator.
I could only guess that a near 1000 Watt solar system on our Cat might cost $10,000 or way more if I had a company take on the project. As most of my projects start, there was lots of homework to do. Fast forward after a couple years of serious thought about a solar system onboard, it was time to start. The first decision was I would take on the project to minimize the costs, realizing full well that I may end up putting way more hours in than if I hired a company but I figured labor costs would be the major costs. And if you include all the hours of planning/designing, acquiring all the parts, pieces and equipment, the installation and endless trips during installation to get more stuff, you could certainly justify paying out Big bucks to have someone else do it. The only way I pay myself is with the satisfaction that I saved almost all of those Big bucks by doing it myself.
Acquiring all the stuff which came from multiple sources included a trip to a warehouse on the Mexican border east of San Diego to pick up the panels (saving $400 in shipping), on the way back stopping at Downwind Marine to purchase the Blue Sky charge controllers and display, internet orders and I’m thankful for the close proximity of the San Pedro West Marine for wire and connectors. I was so lucky to find Tea to build the SS racks needed to hold 650 square feet of panels high up, out of our view shed, extending our roof line aft.
Hiring a neighbor sailor for two days to help me install the racks and secure the panels in place, the rest of the job was in my lap. The wiring… in any other application, like a new house, the wiring would be without challenges, not so on a boat. Everything you have to do is awkward, demanding contortions for which only child labor is suited. To make matters worse is my eyesight. After you wiggle and contort yourself into place with each hand full of tool and part you look up at the spot and it’s all blurry. Bifocals suck when you’re looking up in a small space. Three hands would help a lot too. The simplest of jobs like finding the head on a screw with your screw driver became a frustrating challenge. Oh I let off steam quite regularly just to keep myself from exploding. But most of the time I settled into a slow steady form of progress.
After six days from the time we installed the racks it was time to let the sun fire up the system. Off came the double-folded brown tarp, that covered the panels from the sun so no power was being generated while I was wiring, after dark settled in. The system awaited the next morning’s sunrise. A sunrise that never came. A freak summer front had sneaked into SoCal and kept a dense cloud cover overhead all day. Not a problem, this system took right off, albeit modestly and by 1030 was producing 15+ amps per hour. Our battery bank took on a charge with the help of the Blue Sky charge controller that walked my bank to 100% capacity despite the cloud cover. On a sunny day we can hit 40+ amps.
With scars and all to prove it, I’m happy to say I did it, it works great and I saved at least $5k if not $10K too. And the joy comes every morning as I watch the sun rise and the display unit shows those amp hours accumulating. Diana is already tired of me announcing the amp hour production every hour or so.