30 March 2016

Solar Panels - Argon Off the Grid

Bob Damiano

People would ask us: "Do you have a genset?" "Do you have a wind turbine?"  The answer to those questions were and still are "no".  But now we have a big "yes" to Solar. Argon is now sporting 337w of Solar generating capacity via three Solbian Flexible Panels.

On one of our more extended cruises last year, we had some trouble keeping our batteries happy while being unattached to shore power for a few weeks.  I was working about half time during the trip and my work laptop is quite a power pig (note to boss: Not complaining. I REALLY Like this laptop!).   It has a 130w power brick and I believe it is normally drawing around 85w. The other big draw of course is the fridge.  When it's running, it seems to use around 80w.  

Argon's Future Mission

Seeing that we have some bigger plans for cruising in the future, it was definitely time to consider some sort of renewable energy source.  We considered Wind and/or Solar and finally decided on a solar-only approach.

So, last year at the Newport Boat Show, we consulted with Cay Electronics about their solar offerings. We liked the idea of the new Flexible Solar Panels we see because we have quite a bit of available area on top of our dodger and bimini. We finally decided on three Solbian Flexible Panels:  one 137w panel on the dodger and two 100w panels on the bimini.  We also went with individual controllers for each panel so that we maximize the output from the panels even if one is shaded.  We went with Genasun GV-10 Controllers.

Canvas Work

All of Argon's canvas was done by Kinder Industries of Bristol, RI.   There was already a fair amount of canvas work planned for this year.  For one thing, we learned the hard (and expensive) way that we designed our original dodger to be too low. We thought it would look "sleek".  It turned out to just not "dodge" very well.  So a full re-do of the dodger was in the works anyway (which of course means a new connector piece).  We're also getting side panels made so that the entire cockpit can be enclosed.  This will be nice for those cold overnights.

Kinder had some experience with these flexible solar panels, so we had them do the modifications required for mounting the panels.  We worked closely with them to determine how best to mount and run wires to the panels.
new dodger on the sewing table at Kinder

bimini at kinder


The wiring is simple from a circuity point of view. Panels connect to the controllers and controllers connect to the batteries.  Actually physically running the wires is not so straightforward.  For one thing, it has to get from outside to inside. This requires putting holes in your boat - conceptually a bad idea.

The entry point for the bimini wires was pretty simple.  There was a good spot to come through the cockpit combing.  For that entry point, I just drilled a hole and covered the entry point with a clamshell. 

For the dodger, it required finding a point that there would be decent access to on the inside.  For this entry point, I used a product called "dri-plug" which was recommended by Cay.  For some strange reason, these are only available from distributors in the UK.  Jolly good then.  The dodger wiring was the trickiest part.  It did give me an excuse to buy a dremel tool though as I needed to cut away some of the headliner above the trim.

measuring where to drill the hole

right there

messenger line is through

cut away some headliner above the trim

And there is the final dri-plug installation

At the other end

Ultimately these panel wires connect to the controllers.  I found a great place to mount the controllers in the battery compartment.  They are close to the batteries but the best part is that we can see the LED indicators on the controllers through the battery compartment vent.  The LEDs give a basic health and charging status indication and it's nice to be able to see them without opening anything up.  Between the controllers and the batteries are some inline fuses as suggested by Genasun.  The wiring is all 16GA stranded marine-grade wire.  It is theoretically UV resistant but we're trying to keep it as covered as possible thanks to some canvas sleeves Kinder made for us.

The controllers wired up and ready to mount

controllers mounted and wiring neat and tidy

Finished Panel Installation

In March, it all came together with Phil Kinder making a couple trips up from Bristol to do final fitting/installation of the new dodger and the modified bimini.

Does it work?

Chilly March means the heater is still on a lot.  During warmer days, when I can turn off the heat, I flip the shore power breakers off and go "off the grid".  I should probably grow a unibomber beard to get the full effect but it's still cool.  During the day, with the boom shadowing at least one of the panels, the system is keeping up with my work laptop as well as intermittent fridge cycling.  The batteries are staying nicely charged up.  Maybe one of these days, it will be warm enough to not need to fire up the heater in the late afternoon for the night.

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