Sunday, April 6, 2014

Nothin' To It - Solar Installation

We were ready to plunk down our money.  Months ago, back when I had a job… I decided that I wanted wind and solar power installed on the boat before we left to go cruising.  That was August, 2013, back when I thought we would be cruising off the edge of the earth.  We still had expendable cash and money was no object.  I wanted quick and easy and the price really didn’t matter…  I wanted Solar Stik.  

We contacted the company and were ready to place our order.  Upon receiving the specs and looking over our mounting options… we realized that there was no way it would work on our boat.  So… with the “easy” option removed, we did some more research in to Solar panels and Wind Generators.  We came up with more questions than answers and got so overwhelmed with information, we decided to just take off cruising without either of them.  We have a generator… the boat has been successfully cruised for years without either… lets just wait until we get to Florida and revisit the issue before we head off to the Bahamas.  We switched off our search for alternative power sources indefinitely...

Getting these solar panels to the boat was FUN!
Now here we are six months into our Cruising Career, and what have we learned? We learned that if you’re coastal cruising in the ICW and near shore, you will most likely be using your engine…  A LOT!  Even without a generator, you probably won’t need wind or solar energy.  So save your money.  We did just fine with running the generator to supplement times when we were at anchor for a few days or weeks.  

But things are changing for us now.  We haven’t been plugged into shore power since February 1st.  We have spent days and weeks at a time either on the hook or on a mooring ball between passages.  We are poised on the verge of jumping off to the Bahamas and it’s time to revisit the alternative power issue.  We've been running our generator about two hours a day to keep things charged up.  The switch was flipped back on again and we began our research anew while on the mooring ball in Ft. Myers Beach.  

Panels stored in the v-berth
We spoke to friends and read articles on the internet.  We spent days trying to decide what size panels we would need and how we would mount them.  Bruce had pretty much decided that the Kato mounting accessories that work with our Kato dinghy davits were his first choice.  We called Kato and ordered the mounting kit.  We did not order the optional bar to mount the panels on as we didn’t know the width of our panels.  We figured it would be easy to find one locally… we were wrong.  We ended up placing a second order for the bar after we picked our panels.  It just isn’t easy sourcing parts when you have no car and are not familiar with your location.  We ended up ordering the bar from Kato and having to wait for it...

During our internet search for information we lucked onto a company called eMarine Systems.  I called their toll free number and spoke to Corey in Sales.  I told him that we are ready to buy a solar panel system for our boat, and that if he can answer our questions there's a good chance he will make a sale today…  Corey jumped right on it and was SO nice and accommodating.  He really did explain things to me in a way that I could understand, enough so that I felt prepared to make the decision and feel good about it afterwards.  And I’m a GIRL!!

Corey asked some questions about our current setup, guided us about wattage choices and controllers, and in the end, he helped us zero in on a solar panel/controller combination that would suit our needs.  He put together a complete package of items we would need to do the entire installation… a “kit” if you will… and sent us a quote.  We called him back and gave him our credit card number, then sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed Ft. Myers Beach while we waited for all of the new toys to arrive.  

We had three days of deliveries before it was all aboard and ready to install… then we chickened out.  Now what???  We don’t know how to install solar panels!  We need advice, we need assistance, we need hand holding.  Neither Bruce nor I felt qualified to open those boxes and dig in to this project alone.  So, we put it off until we got to Marathon.  We knew that there would be help nearby if (when) we needed it.  

We left Ft. Myers Beach headed for Marathon.  We plunged into life in Cruiser Mecca and forgot about our looming project for a while.  But when the day for our visitor’s arrival came closer, we could put it off no longer.  We opened the boxes and started poking around.  We read the information that came with the controller and the panels… but there weren’t any real “instructions”… What to do?  The obvious first order of business was to install the mounting hardware on our davits.  Jerry from Encore came over and helped get us started.  

Installing the mounting hardware
The guys got the mount installed in a day, leaving the installation of the brackets onto the panels themselves for the next day.  Bruce and I went to work on that the following morning and ran into a snag.  The mounting brackets we received from eMarine were for a two bar mount… we had ordered a one bar mount.  This meant that the pre-drilled holes used to affix the bar cleats were in the wrong place.  We would have to re-drill 12 holes.  That caused us a day’s delay in that we didn’t have the appropriate drill bit.  

Jerry to the rescue
Enter again, friend Jerry.  He brought some tools over and helped us get our holes done and we were once again making progress.  

Securing the mounting brackets
Bruce and I hefted the giant panels, one by one, onto our bed for installation of the mounting brackets.  We bolted them on tight and then wrangled them out of the cabin, through the cockpit, across the back deck and up onto the waiting davit mount.  

Not sure how we got them up there... but we did it!
This was no easy task let me just tell you.  They weigh about 30 lbs. each and I was desperately afraid that we would bump the glass face and it would shatter into a zillion pieces.  Of course that didn’t happen, and after a bit of sweat and a few choice words… we had both panels in place and LOOKIN’ GOOD!

Looking up at the inside deck
Now comes the hard part.  We have to figure out a way to get the power from the panels, to the engine room where we planned to mount the controller.  Even more difficult… figuring out where to drill a hole in our precious boat!  I’m a BIG proponent of "measure thrice, cut once”, so with the help of my trusty camera (who can get into places my big head can not…), and multiple trips to the transom and back down below… 

Here is where the hole ended up...
I took pictures of underside of our exterior transom from behind our bed in the aft cabin.  This gave me the layout of what was in there and where we might safely drill a hole to pass the wiring through.  

O marks the spot
To say that I was nervous would be an understatement.  Bruce drilled the hole while I listened.  It took a while to drill through the thick fiberglass, but suddenly, we’re THROUGH!  And we didn’t HIT anything!  And the hold is in the right place and all is well…  

Bruce fed the thick wire through from outside, while I pulled it from the inside and directed it across the holding tank beneath our bed and over to the hole in the bulkhead where other wires passed through.  

Working blind at my direction...
Bruce came down below fed the wire into the hole, and then pulled up the flooring for the last few feet.  This was MUCH more easy than we thought it was going to be!  How often can you say THAT about a boat project!!!?  

The home stretch
We ran the wire loosely and didn’t pull it all through until the final hookup.  The next job was to mount the box for the controller inside the engine room.  Bruce found a spot for it and it took both of us squeezing into the tight spot from different directions to get the holes drilled for screws and to mount the box.  

Bruce’s strength and my dainty fingers got it done, again with more sweating…  Oh, and we found an automatic fire extinguisher inside the engine room that we never knew was there!!!  Bonus!

Dainty fingers at work
Moving on… we had to attach the wiring from the panel to the controller and then place it into the newly mounted box.  I took that job, since my fingers are more nimble.  Four little wires firmly attached!  Snap in the wire leading to the remote panel which goes will display the status on our power wall… We’re almost done!  

Attaching the panels to the batteries
Bruce took the next job, attaching the wires leading out of the controller to the batteries themselves.  Here we ran into another snag.  The diagram (that’s all we had to work from… a diagram) showed a single battery bank.  We have two battery banks (total of three batteries, two purchased more recently and one that is a bit older).  More internet searches and phone calls… we would need a battery combiner.  Still more internet searches and a final phone call to Cory at eMarine  Systems.

Fuse will probably be replaced with a switch
Cory told us that the Perko switch already installed for use with our inverter would act as a battery combiner.  All we need to do is to make sure that it is switched to “all” when we’re solar charging and we can hook directly to the batteries.    So… back to work.  Bruce hooked the ground to the single battery, and then, after installing the 30 amp fuse, attached the hot wire to the double bank.  Plug in the remote panel…  

The last connection...
The final step…  Hook the panels to the wiring!  We took out the fuse so that the power wouldn’t start until we could get back down to the remote panel to watch what was happening. Why, I have no idea…  If something was going to blow up… wouldn’t THAT be where the action is?  Bruce snapped the black to black and red to red, then we returned to the battery banks and, with breath held… he inserted the fuse…  

We've seen over 20 since then...
Suddenly the remote panel came to life.  It lit up like it knew what it was doing and told us that we were already bringing in 15 amps of beautiful power from the sun.  We DID IT!  With no detailed instructions.  The “kit” that eMarine Systems sent us was just that easy… no instructions were needed.  

While we were securing the wires in their final positions with bundle ties and putting the boat back together, we kept glancing over at the panel and gleefully calling out the climbing number!  I can’t tell you how relieved we are to have this project behind us.  It had been looming menacingly for so long, and we are proud to have it done!  We are happy with our choice of vender and the products we bought.  And if WE can do this… anyone can… Nothin’ to it!

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