“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain


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WiFi Antenna on the Cheap(well cheaper)

Two big thanks on making this post happen.  Travis on s/v Party of Five helped me put together the list of components and the basic installation and setup.  Huge thanks to Jay on s/v Doctor’s Orders, fellow C310 sailor, who purchased these components for us.  The support we have gotten from the C310 owners is unbelievable but Jay took it to a new level.  Thanks again. 

The list of components is as follows:

  • Bullet Titanium (2.4 GHz)
  • iCreatin Passive POE Injector or Gigabit POE Injector (B0135STO2S)
  • Trendnet 8dBi Outdoor Omni or Amped Wireless High Powered Outdoor 8dBi (he said 8 dBi is better than the higher powered ones for this use, so don’t go bigger)
  • TPLink AC1200 wireless router (you can just cut off the power cord at the inverter box and wire direct to the 12 volt system on the boat with a fuse in line)
  • ethernet cable (length depends on install but a 100 foot cord would be fine with all the components)

All can be purchased from Amazon for under $250. 

Assembly is fairly straight forward.  For the Bullet, open the box and only remove the Bullet.  There are other components in there but you will not need them for the assembly as a wifi antenna on a boat.  Attach the antenna to the top of the Bullet.  Next attach the ethernet cable to the bottom of the Bullet using the waterproof housing on the Bullet. You could put up the Bullet and antenna assembly as is or you could add some additional weather proofing.  For instance many boaters will use electrical tape or Rescue tape on their VHF antenna connections to make them more weather proof.  You could do the same here. Personally I like Rescue tape because it doesn’t leave an adhesive residue when you remove it.

Now you have a choice to make: do you fix mount the Bullet and antenna or do you have it go up on a halyard?  Fix mounting has the advantage of being always out and ready to use.  But if you put it on a halyard you can adjust the height.  Travis on s/v Party of Five describes wifi signals like a cone.  So as they progress out from the source they have different heights that will offer the best signal strength.  So being able to adjust the height will give you the best possible signal strength.  I went for the halyard style install but I did run a second ethernet cable to the stern so that I could actually have the ability to install it on the stern rail and then take it down to put on a halyard for a better signal when needed.

The next big install question is 12 volt or 120 volt for the power over ethernet (POE) point and router.  Both the POE point and the router in the list above are actually 12 volt units.  There is a converter in the boxy plug that converts the 120 volt wall outlet power to 12 volt.  You can see that by looking at the writing on the plug.  So if you are only going to use the antenna on the dock you could just plug into an outlet.  But if you want to use it at anchor or you just like having everything on 12 volt like me, you simply cut off the plug end and wire the ends into your 12 volt system.  The tricky part of this approach is knowing which side is the positive and which is the negative.  Luckily the manufacturers of these two pieces made it easy. There are white/gray dashes on one of the lines going into the plug.  That is the positive wire.  There are a couple of ways you can test this to find out which is which but thankfully the manufactures made it easy here.  So I cut off the plugs, added ring terminals to each end and then connected them into a Blue Sea System terminal block.  I often use the terminal blocks to put multiple lines together for one power run to the panel. 

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Next I had to find a location to mount the router.  I chose to mount it upside down on the underside of the decks above the port settee.  I used 3M double sided tape to mount the router.  I cleaned the surfaces with isopropanol and let it try for 30-60 minutes before applying the tape.  Then I ran some 12-2 tinned copper wire from the terminal buss to the electrical panel.  The 12-2 wire is actually a bit of an overkill.  The router draws 2 amps and the POE point 1 amp (you can get that info from the plugs that I cut off to make them 12 volt) and the run from the panel is approximately 20 feet so a total of 40 feet of distance there and back.  Using a wire sizing chart, like the Blue Seas Systems one here (large PDF), you only needed 16 gauge wire.  But 12-2 wire is what I had on the boat so I used that.

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Final assembly is to plug the ethernet cable from the Bullet into the POE point, plug the POE point into router and power up the system.  An important thing to note here is that the POE point actually comes with two pieces.  One is for the router end and the other for the Bullet end.  You don’t need the Bullet end, just throw that away. When you plug the POE point into the router, use one of the spots labeled “1-4”.  Don’t use the spot for internet source.  Seems a little wrong but trust me.

Now that you have it assembled, the hard part starts: you need to configure the Bullet and the router.  I am going to give this in the easy way, which involves plugging the Bullet directly into your computer first.  I actually couldn’t do this because we have a MacBook Air and those don’t have ethernet ports.  So I did mine through wifi and the router which is harder.  If anyone needs this breakdown I can give that later, just email or PM me. 

The first step is to set you computer to have a Static IP address. This is different than how your computer will be setup for most people.  Here is how to do it on a Mac and here is how to do it on a Windows computer.

Once that is done, connect the POE point to your computer’s ethernet port. Now open up your favorite web browser (I prefer Google Chrome but IE, Firefox, etc. will do).  In the address bar type in “192.168.20.1” and hit enter.  This is the factor address setting for the Bullet.  That will bring you to an address screen that will ask for your username and password.  The factory setting is “ubnt” for both.  Once you enter that in and gain access to the Bullet the first thing you should do is change the username and password.  Click on the “System” tab and change the username and password. 

Program 1

This is the first place you will hit the quirk of working with the Bullet.  After you have changed the username and password you will need to go to bottom of the page and click the “Change” button (bottom arrow above).  Once you hit “Change” a new line will appear at the top of the screen asking if you want to apply the changes. You need to hit “Apply” before moving on to the next step. 

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This will come up often and was a big source of frustration to me when I would forget to hit “Change” then “Apply” after making some programing errors and I couldn’t figure out why my programing wasn’t working.

Next step is to click on the “Network” tab.  There are several changes that need to be made on this tab.

First, under “Network Role” change the “Network Mode” to “Router”.

Second, under “WAN Network Settings” change the IP Address to “DHCP”.  Also, make sure the “NAT” is enabled.

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Now under the “LAN Network Settings” is where things can get a little tricky.  Start by enabling the “DHCP Server” (red box in the middle of the screen shot).  Next go to the “IP Address”.  You need to choose your new IP address for your network.  This could be almost any numbers.  Most networking gear comes with 192.168.1.1, or some small variation on this number, as standard.  I am sure there is a reason for this but I am not a computer guy enough to know why that is.  But you will need to set the number for the Bullet and later the router to similar numbers.  You can see I used 192.168.50.1 while doing this write up.  I did change it after I did all these screen shots.  Someone could conceivably crack into your network if they knew these numbers (not sure how as this is way above my head).  My recommendation is to keep with the 192.168.XX.1 where the “XX” could be any number from 1-99.  This will just make things easier.  The “Netmask” can stay with the default of 255.255.255.0.

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Next you need to set the “Range Start” and “Range Finish”.  These are the numbers that are available to be assigned to your computer latter when you actually log onto the internet.  It needs to have the same first 3 sets of numbers you used for the IP address above.  Keeping with the numbers I used for this setup that was 192.168.50.  The last sets of numbers actually defines the range.  For ease of programing just use 100 to 200 here.  So the start is 192.168.50.100 and the finish is 192.168.50.200.  Remember to change the 50 to what ever number you choose for the IP address above.

****Now make sure to hit “Change” then “Apply”.

That completes the programing of the Bullet.  Now go back to the beginning and change your computers IP Address from Static back to automatic.

Next step is to program a Static IP address into the router.  You need to give your router a static IP address in the same range as what you gave the Bullet. So using the address of 192.168.50.1 for the Bullet, I used 192.168.50.2 for the router.  For the TP Link here is a link on how to do this programing.

Once you have programmed the router, now you can plug the Bullet into the router.  Remember, you don’t use the “Internet” source ethernet port but any of the ports labeled 1-4.  Doesn’t matter which one. And its the POE point that gets plugged into the router, the Bullet is plugged into the POE point and you have power to the POE Point and the router. Now power up.  Give everything about 5 minutes to startup and get ready for use.

Log into the Bullet by opening a web browser and typing the IP address into the top bar (i.e. 192.168.50.1). Then put in your new username and password. Now click on the “Wireless” tab. This is how you will go to use the WiFi antenna anytime you want to use the internet from your boat.

Operation 1

Click the “Select” button next to “SSID”.  This will bring up a list of available networks. 

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The two columns on this page that I pay the most attention to are the “Encryption” and “SSID”.  If you find “None” under “Encryption” that means this is an open network and you can join without a password.  Unfortunately you can see that there are no open networks near Maho Bay on St. John.  This is one of our favorite spots but unfortunately when we are here I have no communication.  No WiFi and no cell signal.  That means very little ability to check weather or hear if I have a new charter coming in that I have to get back to St. Thomas for. But such is the price to pay to swim with hawksbill turtles and catch lobster for dinner along some iconic beaches.

If there where an open network you simply click on the little circle next to the MAC address for the network and then hit “Select” at the bottom of the screen.  You will then go back to the programing screen and need to hit “Change” and “Apply” again like we discussed above. Give the antenna a few seconds and you should be online.

To verify that you are online you can check the “Main” tab.  If you go down near the bottom and click on “DHCP Client” you should have an IP address listed and the status should be connected.  Also there is a “Signal Strength” bar that will tell you how good of a signal you have.  If you opted for the halyard installation you can move the antenna up and down on the halyard and see where you get a getter signal strength.  It will change with height and higher is not always better.

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Now sometimes you might have a specific network you want to connect to.  This could be your marina or a local bar.  We will sometimes put up the antenna and see what bars have a good signal.  Then we go over to that bar and have a drink and ask them for the network password.  Most of the time they have no problem giving the password to a customer but don’t want an open network.  Some places have caught on to this and will take your phone to put in the password so you can’t log on from a WiFi antenna. Once you have a network name and password you log in a little different.  You go to the “Wireless” tab and hit “Select” next to SSID, but now you are looking for the network name.  Note the security type “WPA” or “WPA2”.  Select the network and connect.  But you have an additional step on the “Wireless” tab before hitting “Change” and “Apply”.  Down at the bottom of the screen you should see a section for “Wireless Security”.

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In the “Wireless Security” section, select the correct security type and put in the password.  Now hit “Change” and “Apply”. You should be connected and can check it the same as described above.

Now I will have to admit, the programing side of this was a little harder than I expected when we started this project.  The very first time we set up everything I had Travis from s/v Party of Five with me.  But the original Bullet I got from Amazon was defective.  So by the time I got the replacement Bullet, we were in St. Thomas and Party of Five had moved on to Grenada. So I had to spend some time researching how to do all the programing. But once you get through it once the operation becomes pretty simple.

Here is another downside, I have had this post in draft for almost two weeks.  But in the USVI finding an open wifi or even a bar’s wifi that can work for posting pictures was nearly impossible.  Everyone is shutting down their networks and a lot of bars are figuring out ways around making their network available to cruisers.  But in the US you will likely have much better luck.


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Renogy Solar Panel Problems

We have written extensively about our solar panels.  We went through all the research we did in choosing them and installing them in previous posts.

We have loved these panels so far.  They get us up to 100% state of charge by near noon time each day.

Over the weekend one of the Facebook cruising groups started with stories of problems with the panels.  There was one reported incident of the panels starting a fire.  That post pointed to the Amazon and Renogy listings now calling the panels “light weight” as opposed to their old description of “semi-flexible”.  In addition, the descriptions now said not to bend the panels and to mount them with a 2-3 inch space between the panels and the surface below. This was a change from all of the previous literature.

Our panels are mounted onto our Sunbrella bimini with velcro.  This was an installation made popular by the Solbian panels.  The Renogy panels, as well as many other of the lesser cost brands, are a take off of the Solbian panels at about a quarter of the cost. One of the advantages of this type of install is that the panels have good air flow below them and that keeps them cool.  This should be an advantage in performance.

This morning I called Renogy and spoke with tech support.  The first tech I spoke with said he had heard of one issue but didn’t think there would be a problem with our install.  I pushed further, asking questions about why they change the literature and were they still recommended for the install like I had.  Eventually he spoke with his supervisor and they said that our panels should be exchanged for their new ones that have an aluminum backing.

Being a full-time cruiser this type of exchange isn’t easy.  The tech support guy said he would email a return label and then ship the new ones when they saw the old ones being return.  This obviously wouldn’t work for us.  I asked to talk to his supervisor.

When I got the supervisor on the phone I again pressed on the change of the description and the new “no bending” recommendation.  At first she said that we install our panels over the bimini supports.  This was an absolutely wrong recommendation and I knew it.  When you do this you create a hard point for the panels to flex over and crack the panel.  Since she told me the fire issue was related to the cells being damaged by bending and that’s what caused the fire. I then hit her with a whole bunch more questions.  Eventually she got their senior tech engineer.  They agreed that installing them over the bimini support was wrong.  They don’t see a problem with the aluminum backed panels being installed on a Sunbrella bimini as long as they don’t bend more than 20-30 degrees (they don’t).  They also don’t think that mounting on the Sunbrella is a problem.  It seems the issue is more mounting them to hard biminis and dodgers or right on the deck.

Once we got that settled, Renogy was very accommodating on setting up a return.  We are waiting out some offshore weather in Sandy Hook, NJ.  We had thought about going into a marina for a couple of days to shower, do some laundry and get provisions.  We had found a pretty reasonable one in Great Kills, NY on Staten Island.  So we gave Renogy the address of that marina and they are sending out our new panels 2-day air.  They are going to include the return label in the package.  We can swap them out quick in the marina.

I am putting this out there so anyone else with these panels knows to followup with Renogy.  They seem to be keeping a little quiet but when you press them they acknowledge the issue and setup the return.


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Let the Sewing Begin!

It was not until we shelled out $800 to have the dodger repaired, that I kicked myself and said – “get a sewing machine”!  We have a number of projects and it is not feasible to pay someone else to complete them all.  Obviously, I have a long way to go before I will be as good as a canvas shop or a seamstress – but practice makes perfect, right?

First up:  Buy a sewing machine and figure out how to use.  My mother (aka sewing guru) bought me a Singer Heavy-Duty sewing machine for Christmas. With her help as well as Sailrite, the Facebook group Sewing on Boats, and various You Tube videos, I am building up my knowledge.

Next:  Practice sewing on something that is already pretty wrecked. The weathered pirate flag was perfect for this, as it is normally flying high up the mast (far away from eyes to critique my awful sewing).  By the time I was onto my 7th seam, I had finally gotten one straight.

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Feeling more confident, I began my first big project:  the Bimini – (apparently, I am of the Go Big or Go Home mind set)

  1. Remove & replace ensign glass
  2. Repair the couple of small holes in the Sunbrella material (I used Tear-Aid – that stuff is awesome!)
  3. Solar Panel Project:  create a method to attach the solar panels to the bimini.

The ensign glass project took me almost four hours to remove all the stitches and the old glass from the dodger, measure and cut the new glass, and apply and sew on the Velcro to the new glass.

Cutting the Sunbrella, adding velcro and sewing everything on for the solar panels took much, much longer.  In the end, it came out good and cost substantially less then it would have been to have a pro do it.

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Out with the Old and In with the New

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The Final Product

The Final Product

Dodger – The stitching and zippers on parts of the dodger were starting to come apart from the fabric (even though we shelled out $$ to have the entire dodger restitched two years ago!).  So, down came the dodger and I restitched almost all of the dodger with the good uv-resistant thread.  I also added some material around the dodger frame in order to mitigate the rubbing of the ensign glass.
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Fender covers – I had an old pair of blue sweat pants that were ready for retirement, so instead of tossing them out or donating them I made two fender covers.

IMG_2483Fender CoversCustom-fit Sheet:  I took a flat queen mattress sheet and added elastic all the way around so that we now have another custom-fit mattress sheet to for our odd-shaped mattress.

And then another bimini project…our friends Pam & Chris on Wind Chaser ordered a bimini for their Catalina 30 which required a slight alteration in order to be useable.  Of course the alteration was to split the bimini in 1/2 to add a zipper and, oh yeah, a “cone” to go around the backstay.  This was my first sewing project that was not my own personal item to potentially mess up.  It ended up being a very simple project and I was handsomely rewarded with a handle of Captain Morgan…oh and their happiness! 🙂

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Wind Chaser's New Bimini

Wind Chaser’s New Bimini

The big and scary project (I mean my ultimate sewing goal):  Chaps for the Smitty Ditty II, our Highfield Classic 290.


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Solar Install

We finished the solar panel install about two months ago.  This is a project that started over a year ago and had me doing tons of research and learning all about solar and charge controllers.  Here are the previous posts on this subject:

Just to review, we went with the Renogy (aka Chinese Knock Offs of Solbian Panels) semi-flexible panels, a Rogue MPT-3048 charge controller (possibly the last one ever purchased since they discontinued the model) with Renogy wires and MC4 connectors.

Panels on the bimini and a write up of attachment system will be coming soon via a post from my Bride.

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Wiring was run inside the bimini bow pocket.  Down the support and into the hull.  I put the positive and negative wires from the panels together with a 16 AWG by 2 wire (for a future LED light install on the bimini) in a 2 inch diameter, non-adhesive heat shrink tube.  The tube was six feet long.  I then heat shrunk the whole tube.  This kept the wires in one bundle and made the install look a little more professional than having multiple wires visible running along the exterior of the boat.

The panels are currently wired in series.  We purchased the set of MC4 parallel branch connectors.  The bimini bow pocket on our factory bimini is large enough to allow us to switch between series wiring or parallel wiring and still have all of the wires in the pocket.  This way we can alternate between series wiring and parallel wiring and use the one that produces the best power on our boat in the given situation (i.e. on anchor vs. at a dock).

The wires pass through the hull using a Blue Sea Systems Cable Clamp.  I didn’t put this hole far enough away from the stanchion.  As a result I had to drill through the metal plate.  Funny story about drilling this hole.  I first drilled it too small for wire bundle.  I had to run off to the local box store and get a 3/4-inch drill bit to allow me to redrill the hole larger.  When I went to try and redrill the hole, the drill bit caught the edge of the existing hole and spun the drill out of my hand.  It landed right in the water! I let out some of the loudest string of foul language most people had ever heard. I was rushing and the cost I paid was a practically brand new Makita 18 volt lithium-ion drill with a brand new $50 drill bit.  Always tie of your tools when working over the water.  When I ordered the new drill off of Amazon, I also got an interchangeable end tool lanyard.  I now will not use my tools on deck without this.

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I installed the Rogue Controller next to the battery charger. I mounted it on a piece of starboard and through bolted the controller.  The bolts are in the lazarette and easy to access.

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Down in the battery compartment I reconfigured my positive buss.  Using a Marinco Pro Installer Link Joiner from Defender I created a positive buss that had inputs for the shore power charger, alternator, charge controller and the positive feed to the battery no. 1 spot on the battery selector switch.  I then linked over to my Blue Sea Systems Automatic Charge Relay (ACR).  The ACR brings charging juice only to the reserve battery.  All of the different lines are protected by appropriately sized ANL fuses.  All of the lines were labeled and then the labels were covered over with clear heat shrink following Maine Sail’s method.

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Rogue recommends you install a breaker in between the panels and the controller.  I used a Blue Sea Systems 60 Amp Circuit Breaker. I used a 65 amp terminal block to make accessing the wiring easier.  By doing this I was able to wire the controller to the terminal block prior to hanging it.  Then run the wires to the terminal block from the panels.  I ran 4 AWG wire from the controller to the positive buss and negative buss at the batteries.

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By the time everything was installed, it was late in the day and I didn’t have very good sun to check the operation.  But at 10 AM the next morning things were looking good.  The panels were producing 34.6 volts of power at 3.9 amps and the controller was delivering 13.5 volts of power at 9.4 amps to the batteries.

IMG_3397It’s now been 8 weeks since we put the panels to work.  I have kept the panels in series during this time.  We have not had to turn on the shore power charger yet.  We are typically back to 100 % SOC by 2-3 PM each day.  This is using cabin lights, fans, a 12 volt TV, refer, etc. each day.  The only thing we use our 120 volt power for is to charge our phones and tablets and run a large box fan on warm nights.  Otherwise we are entirely off the grid.  With the inverter installed we could now be 100 % off the grid and soon will be when we cut the lines in 27 days.

 


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Upgraded Battery Selector Switch, Installing an Inverter and a Chart Book Holder

As I have mentioned before, we have been completing a lot of projects as we push towards our departure date.  Here a few that have been banged out in the last couple of weeks.

Upgraded Battery Selector Switch

My go to guru for all things electric, Maine Sail aka Compass Marine, has said on several occasions that all battery switches not made by Blue Sea Systems are essentially crap.  This means that our stock Perko battery selector switch was on the list for an upgrade.

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After checking the measurements I was glad to see that the Blue Sea Systems 9001e Selector Switch would fit exactly in the same spot.  The only down side is that the Perko switch had 5/16″ terminal studs while the Blue Sea Systems switch had 3/8″ terminal studs.  This mean cutting off the old terminals, putting on new ones and new heat shrink.  Using the same hydraulic crimper I had purchased last year (cheapy for Amazon) I made the new terminals.  Luckily there was enough excess wire to do this without too much difficulty.  I also had to add larger terminals to the wires from the analog volt meter and the bilge pump.

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I did have to get longer machine screws to mount the switch to the electric panel.  But the whole size is perfect for a direct change.  This took about an hour and cost about $60 ($40 for the switch plus terminal lugs and heat shrink).

Installing an Inverter

After some back and forth I decided to go with the Xantrex ProWatt SW 2000 true-sin wave inverter.  Our primary uses for this will be running power tools at anchor (i.e. heat gun, drill, jig saw, dremel), using our small 2-hp shop vac, and recharging our cordless tools (i.e. Dyson DC44 cordless vacuum, impact gun, drill, etc.).  Finding a location to mount the inverter was a little bit of a challenge.  According to the manual, Xantrex recommends mounting the panel within 6 feet of the batteries (12 foot total run) and using 0 AWG wire.  However the location of the batteries on a C310 make this a bit difficult.  The only places I could find were the port lazarett or on the bulkhead in the rear berth.  But we want to use that port lazarett for dry food storage and mounting it here would mean that I would have to open the lazarett every time I wanted to use the inverter. The bulkhead in the rear berth is where I think we will install a water-maker, if we choose to get one. While it’s not ideal, I found that with a 10 foot distance (20 foot total run) I could mount the inverter below the navigation table.  This was not perfect but it will do.  To accommodate the extra length I went up one wire gauge size to 2/0 AWG wire. I had already installed the fuse holder in the positive buss bar when I did my last battery system upgrade.  So I ran the wires, put on the end terminals and installed the inverter.  I used a 300 Amp ANL fues from Blue Sea Systems.

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Initially I had thought to tie this into the boats 120 V outlets but after thinking more about it I decided it was fine just to use the two outlets on the inverter instead.  This made the install much easier and cheaper. After the install I ran a couple of tests.  I can run my heat gun on low but not on high, which is sufficient to shrink heat shrink electrical connections.  I had no problem running a drill or jig saw off of the inverter.

Chart Book Holder

We insist on always having paper charts with us and easily available.  Typically this is easily accomplished from one Maptech Chart Book covering a large area.  As we start to head south we will need more and more chart books since our cruising area is expanding.  To keep these charts readily available but out of the way we bought a teak magazine rack from Defender. We mounted this on the bulkhead between the head and the saloon area by a couple of through bolts.  It’s now a convenient area to keep charts, cruising guides and some other items.

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Chinese Knock Off Solar Panels

Here is an excellent article about comparing the real deal Solbian with genuine SunPower Cells vs the Chinese knock offs.  Must read for anyone considering going this route if you want to make an informed decision.

Essentially there are a lot of panels that look like the SunPower Cells but they are not all made with the same quality controls and they don’t  handle the bending as well.  Articles like this is why we struggle with the decision to go with a lesser brand vs. the Solbians.  In the end we went with Renogy semi-flex panels ordered from Amazon that were Prime eligible for free shipping.  We paid $197 each for two 100 watt panels.  More panels will be added in the future but these are the two to go on the bimini.

One thing my research pointed to was that testing the panel once you get them is imperative to getting good performance out of the array.  On line I have read reports of people ordering two panels and getting one in excellent shape while the other had oxidation and damage.  Others had received panels that looked the same but performed very different.  So I did a thorough inspection of the panels when I got them.  One thing I noticed right off the bat was that the connection on the Renogy panels, compared to the Solbians I had seen at the boat shows, were a little underwhelming.  The Solbians have a nice junction box but the Renogy had a cheaper plastic connection filled with sealant to make it waterproof.  I like the Solbian approach better but you get what you pay for.

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After I was satisfied with the initial inspection, I moved on to testing the performance.  It took a couple of weeks to finally get

IMG_2965 decent enough weather to do the test.  It was cold and very sunny when I set up the panels for testing.  Using a saw horse I angled the panels towards the sun and ran a couple of tests.  The open voltage readings (multimeter connected directly to the MC4 connectors for the panels) on the panels were 23.4 and 23.5 volts.  Next I hooked them up to a Group 27 AGM battery we had for work.  The battery had been depleted to roughly 50% state of charge.  The negative lead for each panel was connected directly to the negative battery post.  The positive leads went to a cheap “A/B” style switch I had for work stuff.  The common side of the switch was connected to a multimeter positive lead and the negative lead was connected to the battery post.  A second multimeter was connected to the battery to get voltage readings. This setup allowed me toggle between each panel and see if they were performing the same.  (Sorry, its unlike me but I forgot to photo the setup.) For both panels I was getting 16.2 volts at the batter with a current of 6.3 amps.  I let each panel run to the battery for about 15 minutes before recording the reading.

These results put my readings slightly above the I-V Curve published by Renogy.  I wasn’t too surprised to out perform their curve because it was only 20 degrees F when I was doing the test.  The published curve is for 77 degrees F.  And since heat reduces the efficiency of the panels I expected to be on the high range of the curve, being just outside the curve gives me some hope to get close to the curve in a real world application.

Next step will be to mount the panels to the bimini and wire them up with the charge controller.  Unfortunately that will have to wait another month or two.  My Bride has been working to replace the window in the bimini that broke last year.  That is complete and she has repaired some other areas as well.  But we can’t put the bimini up to check the panel placement until we take down our winter biodome (aka clear shrink wrap).  In the mean time I can work on installing the charge controller (I was able to get one of the last Rogue MPT-3048 charge controllers available thanks to Compass Marine) and getting the rest of the install ready.

In the meantime, onto to other projects on the Epic To-Do List.  This weekend I will be changing the macerator pump.  That will be a shitty job (pun intended).

Testing results


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Planning Our Solar Array

A cold and rainy January morning was a perfect time to finish up my research on our solar system.  In a previous post, Trying to Make Sense of Solar, I laid out some of the options and design considerations.  But just to review and make a clear list of what I plan to add here is a quick summary:

  • Living on the hook I am estimating we will use between 50-125 amp hours per day;
  • We are willing to run our diesel engine up to 1.5 hours a day allowing are alternator to generate about 65 amp hours, plus producing hot water as a by-product;
  • That would mean that we would want to generate about 50 amp hours of solar power a day;
  • Given that we are going in a small boat, efficiency is important, so we would like get the increased 15-20% efficiency you get from an MPPT controller over a PWM controller.
  • We may decide to add a watermaker to our boat and would like the ability to expand our solar array to offset some of that power consumption.  So that would mean we would want to size certain aspects to allow for the easy upgrade in the future;
  • We like the aspect of the semi-flexible panels since they would allow us to disassemble and store the panels more easily in the event of a storm, and;
  • We are NOT independently wealthy and are trying to do this cruise in a very cost effective manner, so we can’t afford to splurge on the best available product for every component.

All that being said, here is what I have come up with for the our solar array:

  • Two (2) 100 watt semi-flexible solar panels mounted on our bimini;
  • A 30 amp MPPT controller with a remote panel, and;
  • An ability to expand the system by added two (2) 100 watt semi-flexible solar panels on the life lines or on deck.

Semi-Flex Solar Panels

My go-to source for electrical, Compass Marine aka Maine Sail, has a great write up on installing semi-flexible solar panels on a bimini.

Photo from Compass Marine

Photo from Compass Marine

The steps involved with this process would include reinforcing the bimini structure, adding velcro, zippers or snaps to connect the panels and probably adding some wear patches to the bimini.  You also have to be careful of the layout.  The panels can’t cross over the bows that hold up the bimini or else you will create a flex point that can crack the panels.  Below is a mockup of how I could layout panels on our bimini. We could actually fit two 100 watt and one 50 watt panels.

SOLAR PANEL LAYOUT- 450 Watts

In the above mockup there are two additional panels on lifeline mounts.  These would be the expansion panels if we choose to add some additional solar.  I got this idea from a Solbian rep at a boat show.  You connect the panels to the lower lifeline with some snap hooks and then use some line to position them.  These could be angled to get a little more efficiency than laying flat if you are on the boat to make the adjustments.

For the lifeline mount I would want to reinforce the panel by mounting it on something light weight.  For that I would go with something like this thin-walled polycarbonate sheet that I heard about from a fellow cruiser (thanks Dani and Tate).

For panels, as much as I would love the Solbians, I can’t justify the added expense.  Instead I have been looking at the less expensive semi-flexible panels.  Based on reviews from others, like Dani and Tate on Sundowner,  I have decided to go with Renogy 100-watt panels.  These panels go for about $220 each on Amazon.  But they have gone on sale for under $200, missed the Black Friday sale at that price.  So I am hoping to get them on sale.  And they are Amazon Prime eligible.  According to the data from Dani and Tate, it appears that 5 amps per panel per hour is a realistic expectation for full sun.

One down side to the cheaper panels seems to be consistency.  From reading reviews and recommendations, mainly from Maine Sail, on the sailing forums it appears that the best practice is to do some side by side testing as soon as you get them in.  To do this I will make a 2×4 A frame that I can temporarily mount the panels on.  I will then hook up the each panel separately to the charge controller and a battery.  I will let each panel run for an hour and record the performance to make sure they are in the same ball park.  I plan to record the starting, mid charge and ending volts and amps at the battery and the charge controller.  If the results from each panel are not within the expected range I will send them back until I get a set I am comfortable with.  This is another good reason to go with the Renogy because they are Amazon Prime eligible and that will help if I need to send them back.

Charge Controller

As I stated above, I want to go with an oversized MPPT charge controller.  I looked at the Rogue MPT-3048, MidNite KID, TriStar 30, TriStar 40 and Blue Sky SB3024iL.  This list primarily came from an article on the Compass Marine site about adding a small panel plus some recommendations I got from cruisers.  I briefly considered some lesser brands such as the Renogy but decided that this piece was important enough to not mess around with off-brands.

Some of my key concerns were that I wanted flexibility to change the charge profile, the ability to equalize, a temp sensor and a remote panel.  I plan to mount the controller in the stern compartment near the shore power charger and holding tank.  I am concerned about the heat aspect. I don’t want to mount this unit in the cabin and have it dissipate heat into the cabin while we are in the tropics.  I would also like some secondary ability to know what is going into the batteries besides the our Victron Battery Monitor.

In the end I found that the Rogue MPT-3048 had the best balance of options for the cost.  It comes standard with a temp sensor and voltage sensors.  The cost for adding the remote panel wasn’t bad.  It didn’t hurt that it was among the cheapest.  Still talking over $400 when all is said and done.

Installation & Cost Estimate

Here is my proposed wiring diagram.  Getting a little busy and I might need to find a way to clean it up a little.  I am attaching a PDF as well in case anyone wants to add comments on my wiring.

JK WIRING DIAGRAM_ADDING SOLAR

JK WIRING DIAGRAM_ADDING SOLAR

I plan to mount the charge controller on a piece of starboard next to the shore power charger.

Charger Controller Location

The positive and negative solar busses will be mounted here as well.  This will mean I will have about a 12-foot run from the controller to the batteries.  Not ideal but I think have the heat go into this area will be preferable.  Remembering that you count both the positive and the negative to determine the length of the run so that would mean I need coverage for 24 feet.  According the Blue Sea Systems Sizing Chart (large PDF warning),  4 gauge wire would be sufficient for up to a 30-foot run.  Using the same sizing chart, 4 gauge wire should be protected with a 100-amp ANL fuse when bundled.  As shown on the wire diagram, I plan to use the same 50 amp fuse that protects the ACR in my current setup.

The bimini frame will be reinforced with cross bars on the edges and cross bars replacing the stern straps.  With this configuration we won’t technically need the forward straps but I will probably just keep everything there.

I plan to wire the two panels on the bimini in parallel.  From what I have read, you want to wire solar panels on a boat in parallel as that handles partial shading on a portion of one panel the best.  If they are in series shading would degrees the output of the panels more.  I am going to use the MC4 connectors for the panel wiring.  This seems to give a good connection that can be disconnected easily when needed, yet another good Compass Marine article on this subject.  I also plan to use the Renogy MC4 branch connectors to make the parallel connection at the bimini.  I like how you can choose which side to make the male and which to make the female so you can make it dummy proof so you can’t connect them in reverse polarity.  The Renogy panels come pre-wired this way.

Photo from Amazon

Photo from Amazon

As I said above I plan to only install the two panels at this time.  But I did include the possible expansion panels in my plan so that it will be easier to add these should the time come.  Here is the cost estimate for the installation.

Solar Cost Estimate Solar Cost Estimate

So let us know what you think!