On August 1, we crossed the 3 month threshold in the countdown to our ready date. (If your memory or math are good, November 1 is our target ready date) Since we solidified our Great Loop ambitions earlier this year, we’ve been working to complete a list of 60 boat and personal readiness projects. August 1 also marked completion of three major projects – the biggest and most expensive ones on our list, and which consumed the last two weeks of July. In this post, I’ll share some info and insights on these three: Inverter Install, Solar Install, and Electronics Upgrade.
Our non-boater friends might be wondering privately… “wtf is an inverter?”. An inverter converts the 12 volt DC (direct current) emanating from a boat’s battery bank to AC (alternating current) electricity like you use in your house. Cruising boats have systems which run on either (sometimes both) AC power and DC power. Most galley appliances, HVAC systems, some lighting, and things like TV’s, hair dryers, power tools, and phone chargers all run on AC power. Many of the boat’s native systems, like pumps, winches, lighting and instruments run on DC power. At the dock, AC power is delivered when plugged into shore power. While underway or at anchor, and not plugged in, one must run a generator to make AC power. This of course burns more fuel, generates more CO2, and if you happen to be at anchor, is noisy. An inverter and charged batteries solves this dilemma.
Several friends told us that an inverter system is the single best improvement you can make to your boat before cruising. As it happens, our friend Brent Hodges, who owns Quality Marine and is a live-aboard and avid cruiser himself, has installed dozens of inverter systems. We’ve hired him to do several projects on our boat, including renewing and rewiring our battery bank last year, so we hired him to do this install.
Brent recommended a 2800 watt Magnum Energy inverter/charger, along with a battery monitoring system and control panel in the pilothouse. Inverters lose efficiency as temperature increases, so we found a great spot to install the Magnum behind the small stairs that go below to the staterooms. (Now we need to find a new place for the wine cellar). This spot also happens to be about as close as you can get to the batteries, main breaker panel, and is directly opposite a bulkhead from the engine room electrical panel. This saved a lot of wire, and wire for this is BIG and painfully expensive. Below, the perfect spot.
It took Brent about 3-1/2 days to run wire and install all the “stuff” that goes with this thing – fuses, breakers, disconnects, bus bars, etc…. Now, this not only charges our battery bank from the shore power when we’re plugged in, but gives us AC power to all our vessel systems except our AC units, when we’re not. The charging technology is very advanced, so it should help with the life of the batteries we installed last year. Below are after photos of the engine room panel that show why I hire a pro to do this work.
For air conditioning underway or at anchor, we’ll still need to run our 8kw Westerbeke generator. We hoped that a fix to our engine driven 3kw generator would run one AC unit when underway, but we couldn’t get that it work – the AC needed too much power. The engine genny is pretty cool though, as its output voltage is directly proportional to engine rpm – it makes 120 vAC at 1650 rpm, which correlates to about our 7 knot cruising speed. Too bad, as that would have been an elegant way to have AC while under way. As it is now, it’s redundant to what the inverter does when underway, but on boats, just like on spaceships, redundancy is good.
Bored yet? Hang on, it get’s cooler
Just as we were finalizing plans to take the inverter plunge and scheduling Brent to do the work, a friend down the pier was finishing some upgrades before sailing to the Bahamas. One of his upgrades was installing a bunch of solar capacity using flexible panels atop his bimini, and “wing” panels that fold out (think of the space station, just not so big) from his rail.
Unfortunately, the wing panels he bought were so big they would actually make his boat look like the space station. I was intrigued and he loaned the box the panels came in, to use as a template to see how they’d fit on Cirila. I’ve long wanted to add solar to the top of the pilothouse, as this is essentially unused rooftop. I hauled the box up there and was thrilled to discover it was the perfect spot for two of these panels. These are state of the art Panasonic panels – each about 5′ x 3.5′ and making 330 watts each when conditions are good. I told you it would get cooler.
After some negotiating, I bought the panels and two Victron controllers needed to tie them to our energy grid. This launched a cascade of urgent prep work to get the panels physically installed so Brent could wire everything when doing the inverter install. First I had to design a mounting rack. Then, while JR of Vannatta Welding was fabricating the rack, I prepared the pilothouse roof, which was showing its age from spending over 30 years in the sun. This involved sanding out micro cracks in the gel coat, pressure washing, and painting it. I brushed on a two-part urethane enamel made by Fabula, the same company that makes the Honey Teak® brightwork finish I use. Two days later, JR delivered the rack, we hoisted it up top and installed it. The next day I mounted the panels discovering that my rack design was not conducive to installing bolts in certain places without either breaking an arm or falling off the boat. I spent the weekend recuperating on anti-inflammatories and Scotch, as I was very sore from the week of climbing and crawling. Then Monday it was back to work – Bret arrived at 8:00 to begin the inverter install. I was quite proud, as I could not have managed this better with a 6′ Gannt chart on a conference room whiteboard.
The solar panels dovetail beautifully with the inverter installation. When at anchor, the battery bank provides DC power to our lights, pumps, etc, and AC power to everything else via the inverter (except air conditioning). All the while, when the sun is shining, the solar panels are putting juice back into the batteries. If the batteries need more charge, we can top them off with the generator, or with the engine alternator if underway. The refrigeration is the biggest AC power draw, but since it is a plate system, we can turn it off for a couple days and it’ll still be cold. Ideally, we’d like to be able operate normally, off-grid, with penny need only for air conditioning. We’ll know soon.
Now the sexiest part…
Cirila had a disjointed collection of navigation instruments and electronics. Upgrading these before our adventure was high on our list. Our chartplotter consisted of a purpose built Gigabyte brick computer running Coastal Explorer software. We had our AIS transponder and GPS feeding data to this computer, and it was all viewed on a monstrous 34″ curved gaming monitor. It all looked very slick when it was working, but was frustratingly unstable. The computer would reboot at its own discretion, or communication with the AIS would drop out, meaning we lost GPS as well, or the monitor would go haywire, or tip over when we hit a roller. It was always something, and something was never at the dock. Meanwhile, our radar was a standalone, circa 2002 Raymarine system, with its own GPS fix coming from a vintage Garmin unit. Dawn finally convinced me that this just wouldn’t do for a 6000 mile trip, so I set aside my pride and stubbornness and started shopping.
The first improvement actually happened back in April when I finally ditched the Gigabyte brickI, sold the monster monitor, and replaced it all with an HP Spectre 3-in-1 15″ laptop. I wanted to keep Coastal Explorer as my planning and logging software and it would also be useful as a redundant navigation system. The SiTex still feeds it AIS and GPS data and the communications now seem far more stable. Dawn grew concerned that this WAS the electronics upgrade, and was relieved when I told her I was just waiting for West Marine’s “Triple Points” weekend.
Triple Points weekend arrived for 4th of July; a big wad of cash departed our savings account the same weekend. We decided to integrate around Garmin’s marine platform, and ordered a GPSMap 1222 plotter for the lower helm, a 1042xsv for the flybridge, and Garmin’s new Fantom radar to overlay data on the charts. The plotters use the latest Garmin + Navionics bathymetric data, our existing SiTex provides the AIS data, while existing transducers provide the sonar. All that data is shared across a new NMEA 2000 network, which we did not yet have on the boat.
Amazingly, all these goodies arrived during recuperation weekend – yes, the weekend before Brent came to start the inverter work. I had long planned to do the electronics install myself (how hard could it be?) but now now had the certified marine electro-wizard aboard to advise me as I progressed. I spent several days removing old equipment, pulling out old wire, and figuring out exactly where to mount the plotters. Here’s what the pilothouse looked like during this stage:
About the time Brent was finishing up the solar connections, I finished installing the new radar dome, and mounting the plotters. Thus, Brent was available to teach me some new tricks about pulling wire, then he wired a fuse block and neutral buss, and made all the power connections to the breaker panel. When we flipped the switch, it all worked!!!!
Prior to this, we used to navigate from the upper helm using an iPad. Now we have instruments at the flybridge helm, with integrated, radar, depth and AIS. We also have this in the pilothouse, front and center, with Coastal Explorer and its C-Map and NOAA charts running right along side. We’ve still got a few things left to integrate into this new network, but its a massive improvement. The captain is happy, and most importantly, so is the Admiral.