Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Boring Generator Saga

Remember these?
It all started innocently enough… a light came on intermittently when we started the generator… Must be the alternator.  We investigated and found that there was a bracket that holds the alternator belt taught that had cracked in two.  We replaced the bracket and adjusted the belt and voila!   Um, it’s not fixed…

On came the red light and off came the generator covers again.  We discovered a steady stream of water coming out of a hole in an aluminum block on the back side of the generator.  That isn’t normal…  More investigation told us that the block was actually acting as a sacrificial anode and had sprung a leak after who knows how many years of active service.  We spent some time figuring out how to replace that as the four bolts holding it on had corroded and the holes would no longer engage the bolts.  We learned about placing helicoils inside the holes to create fresh threads.  We made an executive decision not to use 5200 (recommended by Fischer Panda) as a gasket in replacing the plate and opted for a less permanent solution… and voila!  Um, it’s not fixed…

Now there is no light, nothing.  It's deader than a doornail…  We both took our trusty flashlights and began to look over the generator closely… searching for anything that looked out of place… knowing not a whole dang lot about it in the first place but hoping something would be “obvious” to the untrained eye…  Turns out that my untrained eye is pretty observant as I found THIS!  It appears to be a connector of some sort that has burned out.

The other end leads to this regulator
Even I know that this isn’t a good thing.  And from previous problems of an electrical nature we’ve had, I guessed that it must have had something to do with the recent water ingress… there has to be some corrosion somewhere… and… here it is!

Our corroded Wiring Harness
We found this bunch of wires with some grody corrosion and it was at this point that we realized we were in over our heads.  I sent some pictures to the Tech department over at Fischer Panda and they advised a new regulator and wiring harness.  The funny thing about Fischer Panda is that you don’t get to know the cost of things until you open the package upon arrival.  The price of this little baby was hefty and when we got a look at it, we understood why.  The wiring harness is a complicated looking piece of equipment that connects all of the generator’s functions to one another.  I guess I know why my question (“Is this something we can do ourselves or should we hire a serviceman?”) went unanswered… Serviceman it is…
A wiring harness
Lee was really nice and seemed to be very knowledgeable.  We were relieved when he went right to work.  We had the wiring harness and the new regulator already and he enlisted Bruce to be his assistant.  This is a very good thing as Bruce was able to ask questions as they went and gained valuable knowledge about our previously mysterious generator.  I waited patiently in the cockpit while the guys worked.  All. Day. Long.  My job was to feed the parking meter every two hours as Lee’s work truck was parked in downtown West Palm Beach.  

See the hole?  And the broken mount?
By late afternoon, the sounds coming from the worksite down below were not encouraging.  They were able to get the wiring harness all hooked up and the regulator was replaced… but the discovery of a hole in our exhaust elbow kept us from the finish line.  FYI, this little hole had been allowing deadly carbon monoxide to leak into our engine room… DEADLY…. More parts ordered…

During all of this time we had to use our diesel engine to charge our batteries.  We had some days of sunshine, but equal numbers of cloudy days during which we reduced our power usage as much as possible.  We were almost prisoners on the boat as we scrimped on lights and anything else that would reduce the stored amps that we would have to replace the next day.  Our attitudes suffered as the wait for parts continued on.  It is difficult to remain optimistic when weather windows one after another passed us by while we sat here… waiting.  I tried improving my state of mind by reminding myself of our many blessings:  We have balmy temperatures while literally the rest of the country is in a deep freeze.  We are in a really convenient place with a free dock to use while repairs were under way.  We have a free trolley for getting to the grocery store.  We have internet.  And several of our Cruiser friends have far more to complain about than we do, namely Our Way Too… still dealing with a lighting strike after six months… and more recently, Firefly, lost on a reef in the San Blas islands…  Clearly we have little about which to complain in comparison.

Finally the parts arrived.  So far, we are into about $1,500 in parts alone… and $110 per hour for the serviceman.  Now at this point I’m not complaining (much)… we’ve had relatively little trouble from our 15 year old generator thus far, and maybe it’s time to breathe some new life into the old girl.  Bruce was in awe of Lee’s knowledgeable and efficient management of our growing list of issues and knows beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we would NOT have been able to get this done without him…  But…

The exhaust elbow, which should have been a snap… took longer to liberate than expected.  Finally it gave it up and the new one was installed, along with new hoses and such… Everything was tidied up and it was time to test it all.  Push that start button and hear it purr and voila!  Um, it’s not fixed…

WTF!!!?  Long story short, several hours of poking around and testing continuity left us with the realization that the wiring harness, although the “correct” one for our generator… was not the same.  In the fifteen years since our engine was made, Fischer Panda has made multiple changes to their generators.  Unfortunately for us, they don’t send along any kind of crosswalk that tells where things go and what the changes are.  Not loving Fischer Panda right now as I can literally hear the sound of my savings account dwindling to nothing… or maybe that’s the train running through West Palm…  Anyway, I was reeling with the unfairness of a life in which the company created parts for our engine that weren’t really for our engine… and didn’t see fit to educate their “Authorized Servicemen” as to their proper installation.  So essentially, we are paying for Lee’s “education”.  Coincidentally, he had an identical service call to make on his next job… so to the unknown sailboat owner after us… you’re WELCOME!  

So in defeat, Lee left our generator in a state of utter disrepair and went off to discuss possible plans of action with the head technician for the entire USA over at Fischer Panda.  Hopefully by the time he returned… he would have a plan.  Hopefully he WOULD return… Oh and to make matters worse, not one but TWO parking tickets were left on Lee’s vehicle, which WE would be paying for…  I rationalized this by counting it as less than spending one day in a marina so thank you West Palm Beach for the (almost) free dock!  Are we on candid camera???

The next two days were dark ones.  Our spirits were about as low as they’ve ever been in our Cruising career. I heard Bruce mumble things like “I just don’t know if it’s worth it”…  We took turns being despondent about our situation, luckily we alternated wallowing so that one of us could talk the other back from the ledge at all times.  Now in hind sight, I realize that this whole thing, while costly, wasn’t really that big a deal in the grand scheme of things.  But in the midst of it, realize this.  We had the fear of the  unknown potential cost, without any certainty of success.  This cost coming on the heels of recently replaced mainsail track and roller furling parts, combined with the replacement of our windlass… was rapidly leaving our financial situation in dangerous condition.  Where would it end???  

There was also a simultaneous side trip down memory lane with the Bahamas Department of Agriculture going on… If we didn’t get to the Bahamas by the 30th of January, we would need new pet permits for our cats.  It was looking more and more like that was going to be the case.  So… we bit the bullet and sent off new permit requests along with the associated fees, via DHL which cost more than the permits themselves…  Two days later I learned via Facebook, that the address and fees listed on the official DOA website were inaccurate.  Not only was there a new address… but a new VAT was now required but not mentioned on the website.  So basically I just sent my money out into oblivion with no hope of getting permits.  A phone call did not remedy the situation as they said I could send the additional $1.50 (yes, that’s a stinkin, dollar and a half standing between me and success) via Fed-Ex… cha CHING!!!  Fortunately for my tender sanity… the permits magically appeared by fax a week later.  Well that’s ONE good thing that happened this week!  I immediately relaxed as it no longer matters how long it takes us to get there…  

So, back to the generator saga…  Lee called us a couple of days later and said he was coming back.  Yay!  That must mean he has a plan, right?  He arrived mid morning.  He and Bruce worked all day long, removing all they had previously done and re-installing it all again.  Finally as evening approached, Lee popped his head up and they started the generator.  It ran!  Yay!  Lee packed up and left with a big check in hand while Bruce and I finished up.  We still had to get a sensor from Panda, which Bruce could install.  We still needed to change the fuel filter and re-prime the fuel lines.  Bruce started the engine twice after Lee left, and on the third try… dead.  Out of gas.  There was no fuel getting to the engine and it had been running on residual.  

We found this bag at a yard sale for $2.50.  The wheels gave out on us!
We called Lee for advice and he told us that we needed to replace our fuel pump.  Bruce and I went to work testing that theory… (again) long story short… We did some troubleshooting ourselves and found the fuel pump WAS working, but there was no power from the generator to make it engage.  Lee advised us that our battery was too weak to engage the fuel pump… we need a new battery.  An epic day later during which we sourced, acquired and schlepped said very heavy and expensive battery back to the boat for installation… and voila!  Um, it’s not fixed….

Once again, Lee comes back mumbling something about how we broke the generator again… WHAT!!!!  Danger!  Overload!!!  

Another hundred bucks and half a day later (that’s all he could bring himself to ask of us…) the generator is finally fixed and running.  It seems that there was a built in safeguard that shut the fuel sensor down if not properly grounded… the new wiring harness provided for no such proper grounding of said wire… So Lee built a jumper wire for it and now it works.  Two days have now passed and the generator continues to function properly so we are optimistic.  Our power-miserly ways have relaxed and we are back to waiting for a weather window to leave for the Bahamas.  

One of these can make everything better...
We are considering ourselves lucky that we didn’t die of carbon monoxide poisoning… and that we now have essentially a new generator with all new wiring.  It should serve us well for some years to come.  We are also now much more familiar with the care and maintenance of our generator.  Bruce feels more in control of our fate and will know what to check for should future problems arise.  Hindsight brings a happy ending and again, attitudes are righting themselves as we realize how lucky we are to be able to experience this life.  Thanks so much for listening.  


  1. On the bright side at least it happened in a place where you could get parts and a qualified repair person. When stuff like this happens to us, it's usually in the middle of nowhere.

    What caused the corrosion? Was there a leak at some point that got the harness wet?

    Mark and Cindy
    s/v Cream Puff

    1. Yes that's exactly what we keep saying... every time something else breaks down that keeps us from living the dream! Followed by "I wonder what will break down next???" The aluminum anode plate that sprung a leak is how the water got in. There must have been some minor leaking that we didn't see before we saw it just spurting into the case. The corrosion seemed to happen very quickly after we began to have trouble. Why is it never easy?

  2. Very difficult story. Hope this is really fixed forever. No Panda Fisher for the White Pepper. Just a cheap old Honda. Hurry up and get over here. The weather is finally getting nicer.

    1. Yes, we had heard Fischer Panda was temperamental but it came with the boat. We really have been lucky so far in that it hasn't cost us much until now. I'm hoping that this will hold the old girl for some time to come. We are trying to get over there as fast as we can. The weather that's beginning to be nice there will hopefully let us get there as well... It is nice to see your pics though so keep 'em coming.

  3. So sorry that this repair just kept going on and on and on. So frustrating. The air and water in the Bahamas will be so much sweeter when you get there!

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