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.

27 March 2016

Satellite System for Sailing: Fleet One Project

Bob Damiano

Cell phones don't work off-shore.  We're going off-shore.  So... this requires some sort of long-distance communication system to get data (such as weather reports, GRIBs, etc).  The two ways to go are with an SSB (Single-Sideband) radio or some sort of satellite system.  For various reasons, we decided to go satellite.  Maybe because I always wanted to be an astronaut. With satellites, you can either buy or rent a Sat Phone, or install a full-on sat receiver system.
After weighing options and considering what we want Argon's future mission to be, we decided on a KVH Fleet One satellite system.  We purchased this system (along with solar panels) from Cay Electronics.


The parts

The big bits are the satellite receiver and the terminal.  The trick is to connect these two things together somehow and mount them so that they work and don't look stupid. The cool thing about the Fleet One is that the antenna gets its power over the coax wire!  There are no power wires to run. Our total run is about 58 feet (40 from the nav station to the base of the radar mast and 18 to the top of the mast).  I like to leave nice big service loops at the disconnects to save my back when I have to work on it. The other major part was to add a dedicated wifi router to the terminal so that any computer (or phone) can connect. 

Initial Testing

We asked for the data plan to go live March 1st.  This way we would have time to debug any issues and get used to using it during the season.  It turned out that there was zero debugging to do. It just worked perfectly out of the box.

I set up the dome in the cockpit and connected it.  Even under the shrinkwrap and down low, it got a very strong tracking signal and I was able to download a GRIB to my android phone (over the wireless LAN).  I also sent texts (both directions) and made a very short phone call (both directions).

The data is very expensive:  $10/MB.  Our rule is that no phones or computers can do the "connect automatically" thing to this.  It will require typing in a password each time we connect to the Lan so there are no accidental big downloads.  This system will only be used off-shore to receive updates from shore support, texts from family/friends and weather info. We will also be able to send messages back to shore as well as our position for anyone interested in tracking us.

The test stand.  Notice it's under the shrinkwrap!

First GRIB download over the Fleet One

How to mount it?

Argon has a transom radar mast.  Last year when we added the Bullet Wifi Router, we purchased an antenna "wing" from Edson to mount that antenna on.  We purchased the Fleet One system at the Newport Boat Show in 2015 where Argon was featured in the Tartan Booth. There, Will Keene (CEO of Edson) actually came out to the boat and drew in a notepad the basic design for a mounting system for the KVH antenna.

A couple days after the show, we had this CAD mockup in our inbox from Edson:

Edson's mockup for the KVH antenna hoop
We liked the looks of this design and Edson went to work building one for us (it is now a regular item in their catalog).  When it arrived, we realized that we still needed to purchase a standard base for the KVH antenna. Here is a shot of the top of the hoop with that base installed.

The Standard Edson Base for the KVH mounted on the hoop

Strength Concerns

The Edson Wing is designed to have whatever antennae mounted by drilling/tapping into a plate of aluminum. I think this is fine for our bullet router or a small GPS antenna or something like that.  But this thing is pretty big (and expensive) and I just didn't like the thought of a few tapped holes in aluminum being the support.

I wanted to Thru-bolt that sucker somehow. Problem is, the top and bottom plates of the wing are not parallel.  This is the problem with wing-shaped things. So, I ordered a couple squares of King Starboard from Boat Outfitters who will very quickly cut any custom sized piece of starboard you need.  My plan was to drill some 1/4" clearance holes at a slant, and then use a wood boring bit to drill a flattened out countersunk area for a screw head.

The Starboard Squares drilled and countersunk

Here are some photos of the antenna hoop thru-bolted with the starboard squares.  This thing is really strong!

Underside of the wing with the 1/4-20 bolts going up through the wing.

The hoop thru-bolted to the wing and very strong


The wiring is fairly straightforward. The RG223 Coax is connected with TNC connectors. I have crimpers that work more or less pretty good for TNCs.  It took a bit of trial/error (and a reorder of TNCs from I-Com, but I got it.

getting ready to crimp some RG-58

While we're at it... AIS GPS Antenna.

Last year when we installed AIS, we took a bit of a shortcut and installed the GPS antenna right inside the nav station inside the boat.  My feeling was that if my crappy little android phone could always get a great GPS signal inside the boat, this thing should too.  And it did - it worked fine.  But since we were taking the mast down anyway and since there would now be a spare place to stick another antenna, Linda convinced me to move the AIS GPS antenna up there.  So another 40' length of RG-58 and a few more TNC connectors is really all it took.

And another while we're at it...

There is a cockpit light at the top of the radar mast.  It was a big honkin current sucking halogen light.  Since I've been on a quest to rid Argon of every non-LED bulb there is, and since the mast was down anyway, we replaced it with a new 4w LED fixture.

The Fleet One base unit and the Linksys router that will be the Lan for it.

A small wiring project

The included IP phone

Ready to put it all together

The night before, here is everything wired up and mounted including the bullet, and the AIS GPS antenna
Getting ready to attach wing to mast

Putting the wing on the mast and re-mounting the radar dome

Notice the sexy new cockpit light

Up she goes

A crew of always-helpful marina neighbors came by for the lifting procedure. We really try to do this without dropping the mast overboard. 

Final Installation and testing

The best part about these projects is when they are done and not only does the new thing work, but you haven't broken anything that already worked. Radar, Wifi, GPS, and of course Satellite are all working perfectly.  And I don't think it looks very stupid at all.

27 February 2016

Sailboat Water Pump Repair

Captain Bob Damiano

Water, water everywhere.  But I can't flush!

Back when I owned a house, I would often proudly state "I don't plumb".  Every time I would get involved in plumbing, it would be a disaster.

Then I got a boat and as the saying goes "You can't call the plumber out at sea"

Argon has a ShurFlo Fresh water pump.  These pumps all work more or less the same: They have an impeller and and some sort of pressure switch that makes the pump only come on when the pressure falls below a certain point.

In our first season, we were anchored overnight in Dutch Harbor, Rhode Island and had a suddenly silent water pump.  This is a bit of a thing for us because our head flushes with fresh water! No pump - no flush. Makes for a very unromantic cruise in a hurry.

I took apart the pump and figured out generally how this pressure switch works. I flipped it a few times and put it back together and it was great - for about ten minutes. With a meter, I verified that the little microswitch itself is what failed. It was making very intermittent contact. We called Jamestown Distributors and fortunately they had a replacement pump in stock. The next day, we were back in business with what I figured would be a spare water pump. 

What are the odds of that happening again?

Pretty good actually if you fast forward two years.  Now, we're living on the boat and in the middle of washing my lunch dishes, the pump died.  Having seen this movie before, I took apart the pressure switch, flipped it a few times, put it back together and it was fine - (all together now...) for about ten minutes!

This time I called tech support at ShurFlo and explained as calmly as possible that this is the second microswitch that has failed in as many years (the first after just a few months of use). I got a part number for an "upper assembly" (which is on the bottom) for this pump that includes a new switch. I found it in stock at west marine and ordered it overnight.  (So now, we also have an upper assembly spare - sans switch).  This time, I also found the actual switch online.  It's a little Omron microswitch that I've used millions of in my past life as an electronics tech at Universal Instruments.  These things are supposed to be good for millions of actuations.  I ordered 5 spares from Mouser Electronics.

Why do they fail then?

Below is my rough child's crayon rendering of how this pump is wired in.  As you can see, the pump's 12VDC supply is interrupted by this little microswitch in the pressure sensor.  This is a spectacularly bad design -but common with these pumps. These switches are not designed to switch motors on and off directly. I can see now why they offer this "upper assembly" maintenance kit. The only thing in that kit that looks like it could fail is the switch. The kit is fifty bucks. The switch is $0.75.  No profit in that.

Forensic evidence

I did autopsy on the switch by drilling out the fastener that holds it together. Sure enough, there is lots of evidence of arcing on the contacts.  It's hard to photograph but here is my best shot:

Improving the System

This is why god created relays (the eighth day I think).  In your car, when you flip on your lights, the little cheap switch in the dashboard does not switch all that current to the lights. Instead, it energizes a relay coil which draws very little current. The relay's contacts actually switch on your lights.  I intend to do the same thing here:

Notice the addition of the Automotive Relay.  Our little microswitch will now only switch 133mA for that coil. The Relay will switch the 15 to 20 Amps in the motor circuit.  I would have much preferred to use a Solid State Relay for this, however DC Output SSRs are sort of rare and I have never seen one that can switch more than 10A.  I'd want something with a capacity of at least 30A for this to have some reserve capacity.  This relay's contacts are rated for 50A.

The Automotive Relay wired in and successfully energizing the pump

ShurFlo suggested we add an Accumulator Tank to our system.  Think of this as a water balloon which the pump inflates.  The idea is that with the tank's elasticity, the pump will cycle on and off much less often.  Okay, that sounds good too so I ordered a small Jabsco 1Liter Accumulator.  It won't offer very much elasticity but it will definitely smooth out the pump on/off cycles.  Now that the switch is being treated so kindly, I don't expect to have more problems. Anyway, I ordered spare relays and switches just to be sure.

So here is a shot of the whole finished project including the relay and the accumulator.  The accumulator alone would have certainly lengthened the lifetime of the switch because it would actuate much less often. But abusing this switch less often is still not such a great solution to me.  The addition of the relay treats this switch very gently and well within its design spec.

The whole system put together with the Automotive Relay and Accumulator

And......... Flush!

19 February 2016

True Virgins: DIY Compass Deviation

Captain Bob Damiano

Most boats have a compass on board.  Most boaters never use them. That's sad.  There is some confusion about exactly what that compass is pointing at and why it doesn't agree exactly with the chart or the COG displayed on your fancy GPS or Autopilot.

As the world turns:  True North
This is simple.  The world is a spinning thing and things that spin have an axis of rotation.  It's that axis that defines True North (and south).  Polaris (the north star) is exactly above the north pole of this axis - hence the name.

(Magnetic) Compasses don't care about rotation
The magnetic compass on your boat is aligned to Earth's magnetic field. Unfortunately the magnetic north pole didn't align conveniently to True North. Ask your geologist friend for the full explanation for this or read the wiki article below.  That magnetic axis is not stable either. It wobbles and so the difference between True and Magnetic north varies slightly every year.  Variation is also affected locally by the magnetic composition of the crust in different places.

Here is a WIKI page that explains in some detail why variation (declination) occurs.  It even has a cool animation showing how it changes over time.

So wherever you are, there is some difference between what your compass says is north and what your chart or chartplotter says is north.

The difference between True and Magnetic North is called Variation.
Take a look at any nautical chart and look at one of the compass roses. It will show a Magnetic and a True ring.  In the center will be some text like:

VAR 15.00 (2012)
Annual Decrease 4'

Because it's different everywhere and because it changes over time, it's not possible to just offset a compass to make it display True North.

So, just add or subtract Local Variation to my compass reading
Well... sort of.  And in fact for coastal cruising, that's just fine.  The problem is that your compass and it's installation are not perfect.  Your compass has inaccuracies and these inaccuracies are different at each direction you point. This inaccuracy is known as Deviation (and that is what we aim to measure). Some of the deviation is due to the compass itself but more of it is probably due to how and where it is installed on your boat and what other magnetic junk is installed around it. Entertainment speakers are a good culprit but so is that big honkin' diesel engine.

True Virgins Make Dull Company (Add Whiskey)
This is the mnemonic (well, one of them) to remember how to convert fully from True Degrees to what your compass says.  Linda and I were introduced to this topic in the ASA105 class we took at Black Rock Sailing School in Boston.  Later, this same topic was covered - although not as comprehensively - by the Coast Guard Merchant Mariner (Captain's) License class and exam.

TVMDC  (Add West)

T = True
V = Variation
M = Magnetic
D = Deviation
C = Compass.

From True, add Variation (add for west, subtract for east), this gets you to Magnetic.

Coastal cruisers can more or less stop here. Anyone who is using a compass to do really critical offshore navigation can definitely not stop here.  They must account for deviation to get that last few degrees of conversion done.  Missing Bermuda by 3 degrees from the mainland is... missing Bermuda!

Add Deviation (add for west, subtract for east) and this finally gets you to the Compass reading.

Determining the D
Deviation for a ship's compass is usually shown on a table or a graph. The deviation is different for every direction you point, so the number you plug in for D depends on your heading.  There's lots of ways to measure this and there are professional services you can hire that will give you a nice deviation chart. I'm enough of a cheap geek to want to do it myself.  You can also hire a service to correct your compass by adding compensating magnets to it. That all goes out the window when you install those new cockpit speakers.

Because Deviation changes with direction, it's important to measure it at many different points.  Here's my very low-tech way of doing that with some off-the-shelf software and a spreadsheet.

  1. While Underway in smooth water or very still at anchor, point the boat at some distant fixed landmark. 
  2. Using some GPS application (see below), measure the TRUE angle from your current position to that landmark on the chart
  3. At the same time (as soon as possible) read the ship's compass.

In the spreadsheet, I note what landmark I'm using, the TRUE angle and the MAGNETIC heading from the compas.  The spreadsheet computes the Deviation at that heading (using TVMDC + w)

I used the Navionics Phone App but you could use something like OPEN CPN or anything else that can plot your GPS position and display angles to landmarks on nautical charts. If you have a chartplotter that lets you measure ranges and bearings, you can use that as well.  Honestly, the phone app is faster and if you measure ranges to distant objects, it really doesn't matter if the GPS is 5 meters off.

Take measurements at as many directions as possible and plot them.  It doesn't hurt to retake them at the same headings later as a check.

Here is what our spreadsheet looks like in Google Drive.  Since I'm using the phone to take the measurements, I also enter the data directly into the Google Drive app in the phone.  No pencil/paper involved.

Using Navionics, measure the TRUE angle from your current position to a fixed landmark.  That is entered in Column B.  Column C (Degrees Magnetic) is determined by adding (remember Add West) our local 15 degrees of Variation (from Column H).  In the screenshot below, we're measuring 046T from our position to a water tower that we can see.(The boat really is pointing at that tower despite what our little arrow looks like)

Measuring a 046T bearing from our anchor in Provincetown Harbor to a water tank we could see visually and on the chart.

Now,  Read your magnetic compass (as accurately as possible) and enter that value into the PSC (per ship's compass) column.  Argon has two compasses so we enter the reading for each in Columns F and G.

The Deviation then magically appears in the Deviation Column(s). It is found by subtracting the Ship's Compass reading(s) from the Degrees Magnetic.  If you had a perfect compass and no metal objects anywhere near it, these two would be equal and your deviation would theoretically be 0.  That's a big IF and lots of theory. In reality, you are most likely to see several degrees of deviation at many points of your compass.  

What did we come up with?
Below is shown our actual table as measured in 2015. The Red and Green lines show the Port and Staboard compasses. We will certainly collect more points (especially around that spot at 150).  Reading a magnetic compass on a bouncing boat is not that easy so it's a good idea to do the readings several times. It's possible that that anomaly at 150 will smooth out as we take more readings.