Flying Pig's Excellent Adventure (An Unbelievable Electrical Upgrade
Story - was: "Battery Woes")
Well, you couldn't make this up.
Those following my earlier posts know that our 4 L16 batteries seemed
to be in poor health. Asking around got a pretty universal opinion
from those who should 'know what's what' that we'd chronically
undercharged our batteries.
Ouch. Yet, all the manufacturers had a potential resolution for this
condition: Repetitive deep draw and full charge, then equalize the
bank, for several times, and see how it did. Our charging system has
many different sources, but none of them individually will pump LOTS
of amps in at the bulk phase, using our Honda 2000 generator.
However, going to the dock would allow more oomph than our Honda can
manage, so both the inverter-charger and the shore charger could be
run (along with our wind and solar, if that was available during our
time on the dock) at the same time. Silly us - we told the marina
that we thought we'd be only a couple of weeks, tops. That was just
over 3 month$ ago at the time I started this saga...
Our earlier results have been covered in the previous segments of this
serial adventure, but the finish line was in sight. One pair (12V
total) was getting hot during charging, and the other wasn't. The hot
pair and cold pair were all tested for their individual cells'
specific gravity readings (SGRs). The hot pair were awesome - well
over SGR 1.3. The cold pair were marginal - around SGR 1.26. As
fully charged is 1.265 SGR (in all cases adjusted for temperature),
and all cells in a given battery were essentially identical, there
were no 'bad' cells - but one 12V pair had reached the end of its
I had a marine electrician who lived in the marina come aboard and do
a survey of what we had. He recommended changing out the 1-2-all-off
switch for something a bit simpler and smarter, adding a Balmar
SmartGauge monitor, and ditching all the cables which touched the
battery, all the way to the buss bars, including the starter battery
cables. He also offered the use of his commercial long-armed crimper
and heavy-duty cable cutters, necessary for the 2/0 cables I'd make
I did some mental and scribble-type looking at how we'd done our
previous layouts. Each successive replacement set had used the same
cables as were originally installed back in our initial refit, by
SVHotwire.com's owner (who did all the electrical work aboard at that
time, including our new solar and wind system). Reorienting the
batteries from strictly parallel (meaning they all faced the same way)
to such that the series connectors would be adjacent to each other
also meant that the parallel connectors would have a shorter run.
Doing it that way also allowed a 'cleaner' approach to making the
negative come in at one end of the total bank, and the positive at the
other. That my connectors (serial and parallel jumpers) were each
exactly the same length meant that electrons had the same distance to
go regardless of which battery pair was involved. That would mean
that both 12V pairs got the same exercise, whether charging or
discharging. Nice change, easier installation. So, we advance...
So, while I sourced the needed over-20-feet each of red and black 2/0
cable, the 20 or so lugs with the correct hole sizes, and heavy-duty
glue-filled shrink wrap, I made the offer of 'free' (pay only the core
charge I'd incur by not having them to exchange) good batteries to all
the places seeing this. Someone stuck up their hand, and the exchange
of dollars for future batteries was made the next day, thanks to the
power of the internet. But, they had to stay installed until the new
ones were installed or we'd have not power on the boat. We thought
that would be very quick...
However, what I thought would be a dead-simple
get-more-batteries / install / return-core turned into a comedy of
errors. Much research convinced me that I wanted to get better
batteries, and more amp-hours than I'd had before. Unfortunately, the
place I got my last (only 30 months ago!!) set didn't have the Trojans
I'd 'settled for' when the Rolls I'd have preferred wouldn't fit into
the battery box, so I went for the nearest location that had them,
and, coincidentally, the best price as well.
These suckers weigh in at 125 pounds each, so the logistics of getting
the new ones, and returning the cores, to a remote location are
interesting. However, given the dead pair, we took that out of the
system, and, still connected to the shore power, we were good to go.
Of course, we've learned that nothing's simple, so it took some time
to find and then get, and be ready for making up, all those cables.
In the meantime, I'd ordered the batteries from the vendor 90 miles
away. I offered to pay for them via check or credit card, but was
told that he'd collect when I came to get them. Time passes and he
threatens to send them back, because I've not yet picked them up. I
call and again offer my card; same response, but a reprieve; he won't
send them back.
More time passes, and another threat. I call, again, but he'd sent
them back early. He went on to say that he would not take credit
cards over the phone, and would not accept checks. However, if I
wanted to drive up and give him my card, he'd start over. Note that
this information was not offered until it was all over. While I'd
have rather not have driven 180 miles round trip, the savings at his
pricing were substantial and worth the effort.
The admiral is of the "Lord give me patience. But I want it RIGHT
NOW!!!!" school, and when things go sideways, the solution always
devolves to throwing money at it. And, thus, the identical batteries,
ordered through our previous vendor, who likely had to pay at least
what we'd have paid, plus extra shipping, as they weren't Trojan
dealers, before their talented and muscular installer did his thing,
were $400 more, and added another couple of week$ on the dock.
But, good thing we did it that way...
The new batteries arrived as promised, and because I'd wangled a
stern-to slip rather than the Tee where we started, getting the old
ones off, and the new ones on, the boat was considerably easier than
before (same guy, recall) when we had to swing them a longer distance,
using our dinghy davits hoist for the heavy lifting.
The swap was made thanks to the strength of the installer; at one
point I could have managed them, but no longer - I can't lift 125#
over the battery box, when the headroom demands either bending at the
waist or kneeling on the engine room floor.
New cables had already already been installed, everywhere other than
the connecting points, so getting them up and functional didn't take
long. However, new batteries arrive from the factory in somewhat less
than fully charged condition, and require some cycling to achieve
their fullest capability.
So, back to the deep drain, pump as many amps in as possible and then
equalize after floating, cycles. Hm. Same characteristics. Same
pair hot and other not. Out comes the SGR baster (most specific
gravity tools are basically a turkey baster with a float inside). One
battery is awful. Installer comes out, and initially doesn't believe
it. That we had a similar situation in our first installation (30
months ago) makes me wonder - but we can't blame the cabling, this
time. So, to shorten the $tory, there's a dead cell in one of the
batteries, confirmed after charging that pair only for a few days.
All the while, we're $till on the dock.
However, eventually the replacement battery arrives and is installed,
and all works as expected. And, to our amusement, all the remaining
super-efficient fluorescent lights aboard (almost everything has been
replaced with LEDs) are notably brighter than before.
But wait. In the course of our addressing all things energy, we have
been investigating upgrading our solar panels. I'll save you over a
year's worth of looking to say that we determined that Sunpower had
radically better efficiency ratings than anyone else (and the prices
to match, but, you do what you gotta do). Initial contact eventually
led to their product manager, and we'd been ready to order two panels
which, at only about an inch wider and longer than what we had in
total footprint, doubled our wattage.
In anticipation of this, I'd offered my existing panels and the
shunt/ammeter for 30A, to a fellow cruiser, and he'd eagerly accepted
them. Off they come, along with my frame, which will require some
slight alteration in order to accept the new ones. Of course, that
'small modification' has some very stringent siting of the mounting
holes, and costs a half-boat-unit despite having very little added
Before the fabricator gets the frame, however, I take a side grinder
and mount a hard buffing wheel. Diligent application of jewler's
rouge with the buffer soon has removed the surface rust and the entire
frame is brilliant. While I'm waiting for the panels to arrive, I'm
up on the now-naked arch-and-davits, with two types of polish, making
those tubes brilliant as well. Once the frame is reinstalled and the
panels in the way, I'll have to hang from a bosun's chair to polish
off the inevitable surface rust. (If it doesn't have a very unusually
high chromium content, even brilliant stainless steel will eventually
mark with light surface rust in a salt water environment.)
Much more time pa$$e$, and we're still on the dock, because getting
panels from Sunpower is not straightforward. They are very conscious
of their edge over other manufacturers' panels, and control their
distribution to make sure that they're installed properly and will
perform as they should. Shortening the story, we eventually are led to
a local supplier.
Confirmation of what we need, and the modifications of the current
frame are done, and the panels are ordered and paid for, including the
minimal amount of time needed for them to be installed. That qualifies
us for the marine warranty which is good for all but direct salt water
contact (despite the panels meeting the most rigorous salt exposure
rating in the industry); buying and installing them outside their
normal dealer channel does not give the factory warranty for either
fixed or mobile platforms.
The panels didn't go out for nearly a week, and of course, have the
shipping time from California to SE Florida. They arrive and are
carried out to the dock, to be installed on the modified frame I've
had fabricated and reinstalled on our arch. But wait!! The mounting
specifications I'd so laboriously (and, I'm sure, to them, tediously)
confirmed in order to have my fabricator site the attachment points
precisely required 4 holes per panel. These have NONE.
It turns out that the current generation of residential panels uses
clips for mounting to special frames - and, of course, couldn't be
articulated, or bolted to a fixed frame as the installation most
cruisers would have would require. So, despite their installation
instructions having been pretty specific (see 'tedious' above) about
siting the mounting tabs, there were no holes. Commercial panels,
however, DID still have that feature.
Unfortunately, the commercial panels were not available through the
channel we'd been working with. I don't know how it was done, but
dispensation was made to allow two commercial 360w panels to be sent
to the dealer, and installed.
More time pa$$e$ on the dock. Better yet, we're in a prime location
during the peak of the annual northward migration, and the dockmaster
is very unhappy that we are taking what would normally be daily-rate
space, AND that he's having to turn folks away. But, eventually, the
commercial panels arrive.
The top one of the two, on their very special pallet, with their very
special bracing, is broken. The centers of the break points seem to
be where the strapping was attached. Sigh. Most folks in my position
would have been murderous by this time, but I've learned that if I
can't change the outcome, and it won't kill me, rolling with it is
So, we install ONE of them. Fortunately, due to the foresight of my
original installer, svhotwire.com, my existing incoming wiring, along
with the controller, was able to handle double what was initially
there. However, 12 years ago, CM4 connectors didn't exist, and there
were butt connectors on the 8GA wire. The installer crimped on the
needed CM4 connectors. Those have the happy quality of, if needed,
easy disconnection. But... Unfortunately for me, when I went to
adjust the controller to the specs of the new battery the following
day, I found no voltage or amps.
Backtracking, I found that the installer, probably due to my chatter
causing momentary inattention, had put the connectors on in reverse
polarity. Our controller, thankfully, was protected against such
eventuality, and no harm was done. But I'd have to wait until the
replacement for the broken panel arrived in order to make that
replacement panel and terminations installation at the same time.
However, the panel, now disconnected, put out a lovely 68.5 volts and
the 6+ amps which, translated through our solar controller, would work
out to 20+ amps at 12V. So, once we get the correct connectors
installed, and the second panel up, we should see very nice
More time pa$$eS and the replacements are eventually installed, all
the pots twiddled to the right place in the controller, and, despite
it being only a week into spring (thus making the best sun angle 23°
lower than in the summer months), we begin generating at an hour after
Our orientation and shadowing from a whip antenna and the KISS wind
generator will prevent our ever seeing absolute peak on these 2x360w
panels. But we can still get close and not overload our controller.
As it had to be down for the installation, I tested our whip antenna
which will shadow at least part of a panel any time we are relatively
south facing. Raising and lowering it, at about 3:30 the day of
installation, we had no change in output. The shadow would have gone
from about corner-to-corner, shading every row. But because the whip
doesn’t shade any cell completely, none of the strings which make up a
segment of the panel was knocked out. (Solar panels are strings of
solar cells. Complete shading of a single cell makes it dead,
knocking out however many cells are in that string. To minimize the
effect of shading, bypass diodes are placed in between strings so that
if one goes down, the rest continue to function.) The first couple of
days were overcast...
The day we prepared to leave the dock, I was seeing 36A consistent,
and 38A and 34A occasional pulses. As the sun continues to rise in
the sky, I'm sure the output will increase proportionately. And, in
fact, in the last week in April, we saw 50A, pegging our new meter
(the previous one was maxed at 30A and we never came close to that).
I was able, furthermore, to get all the pots in the controller
twiddled successfully, and despite - after much consultation with the
Blue Sky support guy - thinking we’d only see 15.8V in equalizing, my
Balmar smart monitor was registering 16.1 or 16.2V – which is right
where our Trojans need to be. All three days, the bank was refilled
from overnight usage, and floated off to where the Balmar Smart
monitor showed 100% (I’m confident of the Smart Monitor; not so much
the amp counter TriMetric, which can’t deal with battery capacity
diminishing with age). Of course, as it filled, it went up to the
high 14V area, and then back down to 13.5, all the while diminishing
amps despite it being bright day. In fact, I temporarily induced a
large load to kick it out of float to see that higher number of
incoming amps, covering that load, so it’s doing its controller thing.
So, kudos to a 12 or so year old product, and to the Blue Sky support.
This upgrade has literally changed our lives. Our new SmartGauge
tells us the actual state of charge of our batteries, despite the
inevitable aging which reduces their capacity over time. Thus, when
it “learns” our battery, via a computer algorithm, it will tell us
exactly what the state of charge is at any time. Our chronic
undercharging, a product of the nature of charging lead-acid batteries
which makes them require extended periods of time at relatively low
power input but a relatively high voltage, will be no more.
Best yet, for our peaceful existence, our means of overcoming
inadequate solar and wind charging has been to run a Honda eu2000i
generator, connected to our shore-power input. In the past, that was
necessary every other day or so, as the existing wind and solar couldn’t
keep up with our electrical load. It’s a nuisance, in that the
generator has to be carried out to the back deck, AND, despite it
being relatively quiet, a noise intrusion on our days. Worse, we cut
it off at the float level, because otherwise it would have to run all
day long. Between the noise and the fuel and oil expense, not having
to use it would be most welcome. Our previous, now-12-years-old,
Kyocera panels were not only reduced in output (solar panel
manufacturers guarantee a certain percentage of output for their
typical 25-year warranty, but it drops off, eventually, to a notable
reduction in output), they were much less efficient (by more than a
third) than our new panels. As a result, we likely more than doubled
our input on any given day. Best yet, it was effectively in the same
"footprint" as the original panels.
Fast forward nearly a year. In the winter period in Vero Beach, where
not only was the sun at its lowest level of elevation, but it was
generally calm (no wind generation) and frequently cloudy or raining,
there were a few instances where we gave our solar panels a kick start
with the Honda. As soon as the Bulk Phase (where the batteries can
accept the most charge input) arrived, frequently only a couple of
hours or less, we’d shut it down. The new solar panels finished the
job. The end result is that it’s very rare for our batteries not to
be full on any given day. And when they aren’t, unless they’re pretty
seriously discharged (typical cruisers charge at 50% depletion, but
rarely exceed 80% of full charge), an hour or two (vs the normal
full-tank run of over 4 hours) on the Honda is all they need to catch
And, indeed, as I write, we have been in the Bahamas for two months,
in the height of winter. Wind and sun are the norm here, and we have
never once run the Honda to charge. In fact, it’s a bit amusing to
me, as overcharging has never been a concern, but now, when we reach
100% on the SmartGauge, I turn off the KISS wind generator until
nearly sunset. Our overall load is more than the KISS will normally
produce, but not by much if it’s breezy. It gives me great pleasure,
when I get up, and walk past the SmartGauge on the way to making
coffee, after breezy night, to see our charge state in the 90% or more
range. One night was perfect – not so much wind as to cause our KISS
to shut down to prevent overheating, but enough to continue to produce
the amps we use overnight. That meter showing 100% when it's still
dark out warms my soul!
It certainly appears as though our objective of reducing our Honda
2000 usage to only once every many (rather than average of 2) days is
likely to be met, in spades. And, the performance of the solar
controller as it floats off and then maintained the battery bank at
full charge suggests that when we are away from the boat (an
increasingly frequent event) for an extended period of time, the
batteries will be maintained, and not cooked or undercharged. And,
unlike before, such as during Hurricane Matthew (when the old panels
were still up and able to contribute) or a month earlier when we were
at anchor in Charleston, we should be able to confidently leave our
refrigeration (by far our biggest load) operational.
So, it's been an extraordinarily tortuous path - but it certainly
appears that all is well that ends well, despite the consumption of
several boat units beyond what it 'should' have cost. It’s literally
changed our lives, and we couldn’t be more pleased.
If you happen to be on a boat, and are flummoxed by the various
corporate regulations of buying Sunpower Solar Panels, or would just
like to see how I did it, if you’ll send me an email
with the subject line “Solar Upgrade” so that
it lands in the right box, I’ll send you copies of all my
correspondence, which will include where to email folks who can
actually make it happen...
Thanks for sticking with me. Pictures of the excitement can be found
Pictures: Flying Pig Shake-and-Break-Down 2016-2017
Morgan 461 #2
SV Flying Pig KI4MPC
See our galleries at Web-Folio -- Your Portfolio on the Web
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"Believe me, my young friend, there is *nothing*-absolutely
nothing-half so much worth doing as simply messing,
messing-about-in-boats; messing about in boats – or
In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter,
that's the charm of it.
Whether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your
destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never
get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in
particular; and when you've done it there's always something else to
do, and you can do it if you like, but you'd much better not."