Greening Gizmo, 17 amps of solar panel!
Happy day! You may recall that I planned to put solar panels on Gizmo last summer, but in fact I didn’t know what to expect in terms of output or even if that output would support my Sea Frost refrigeration system. Well, wow, you’re looking at 17.3 amps of solar juice at around local apparent noon today, and I’m seeing 12 amps as I write this four hours later. And though I’ve been running all sorts of gear all day, and the refrigeration for two days, the battery bank is at 12.6v, which is a healthy number I rarely see unless I’ve just been out cruising. I’m thinking of having a cold beer to celebrate!…
While the two Kyocera 140 Watt KD140SX-UPU off-grid panels now residing on Gizmo’s extended house top are purportedly able to generate nearly 10 amps apiece — according to the table at eMarine — I’ve had many cruisers tell me that they never see close to the max from their setups. But then again I got that 17 amp number with the panels tilted about 40 degrees toward the midday sun. As explained in that earlier entry, a tilting rack makes sense for Gizmo because her home mooring float puts her stern nearly due south. But you may notice that I gave up on using stock panel mounting hardware to build the rack, and I’m very glad I did. My friends at Rockport Steel, who also build fine boats, whipped up a custom aluminum rack that is not only lean and light but also strong enough to serve as a crutch when Gizmo’s substantial mast is lowered for winter covering (or a low bridge)…
I also used 10 gauge cable for each panel to make the twenty foot run from the cabin top to the Blue Sky 2512i MPPT charge controller mounted very near the battery bank in the engine room. I wanted to minimize voltage drop and the 10-2 was the maximum that can be easily wired to the controller’s terminal block. I’m pleased to report that when I check the cables during that 17 amp period, my laser temperature sensor saw hardly any heat in them. The controller itself, though, was 96° in 73° ambient and the three foot 10-2 cable run from the controller to batteries was a little warm, particularly the inline 20 amp blade fuse. I could shorten the latter but I think I’m good (and will keep an eye it).
I didn’t end up buying the eMarine marinized Blue Sky controller that I wrote about last year partially because I’m cheap but also because I was planning to switch over to Victron’s new BlueSolar MPPT 70-15 when they become available in the U.S. this fall. The Victron looks well designed for boat use — fully potted with big cable terminals and a built-in blade fuse — and I’m also told that it will be possible to gateway it to NMEA 2000 (which is already native to their larger 150/70 model). It will be a long time before I get over the thrill of seeing more juice flowing into my batteries than I’m using, with no noise whatsoever, and N2K could let me enjoy that all over the boat. However, now that I know that the Kyocera panels and Blue Sky MPPT controller can capture more than 15 amps for at least an hour or two on a good day, I’m not sure I want to limit myself to the small Victron’s 15 amp max…
Gizmo has always been a great candidate for solar power as she almost never gets shore power and I disliked her generator installation so much that I removed it completely. And it probably helps that I’ve become so conscientious about battery conservation that 17 amps looks like treasure. While of course this is the beginning of a long test, I’m very optimistic about what these panels seem able to do and how it’s going to change Gizmo life at rest. And I think this $1,500 setup — $400 for the rack and the rest to eMarine for all the components you see — is going to seem a good deal after a while.
I’ll have to add the photo I’d like to close with later, but picture a profile of the boat with a halyard attached to the tilting rack. For an old-time sailor it’s a thrill that I can now honestly issue the command, “time to hoist the panels, laddies”!
I understand your thrill, Ben. To many it might not sound so but it is really enjoyable to watch the juice flow into your batteries. The first thing I upgraded my boat with when I returned to the sea (after too long time on dry land) was an 80W solar panel, regulator and cables. The size of the panel fitted perfectly on my sun roof. I did not go for the possibility to raise it more towards the sun as you nicely did, mostly because I couldn’t find any good way to do it on my roof. At a local camper/caravan dealer I found these ( http://www.innosund.se/popup_image.php?pID=397&image=0 ) which lift the panel enough to enable mounting on the curved roof. In my case a NASA BM-1 Battery Monitor ( http://www.nasamarine.com/proddetail.php?prod=BMN-1_Battery ) is the one filling me with joy far out in the archipelago. This fairly small system has at its best charged the battery (I have one start battery and one for the rest, don’t know the English word for it, both 12V) with 4.1 amps this summer. By themselves the sun and the system has raised the battery to 14.7 amps, enough for cold beers (refrigerator), good books (cabin light) and food as well as warmth (Wallas stove/heater).
I was wrong on this one. In Camden two years back I assured Ben he was wasting his time thinking thru a solar panel addition.
Although solutions were available to get usable power as far North as Maine without panels that followed the sun, it sure seemed to me that the cost/benefit would not be there for a system that could trickle charge his enormous battery bank and run the fridge, in a sometimes foggy harbor.
Looks like taking advantage of the orientation at the dock and other details, made a big difference. Taken with the ability to eliminate the weight and future maintenance costs of the generator, this solution now looks like a no brainer.
I forgot you said that, Dan! Time will tell more but I was pleasantly surprised to see 4-5 amps in rain and quite overcast skies while underway late last week when I first wired the controller. By the way, I did crack open a can of beer after posting the entry, but it was frozen! That’s a problem I can cope with.
PS I was quite happy with eMarine. They know a lot about marine solar installs and their pricing is very fair, especially when you take into account the shipping. They use UPS where a lot of the bigger distributors seem stuck on freight services. Total cost for shipping the two panels, controller, controller box, and monitor was $128 from Florida to Maine (included in that $1,500 overall cost) and it all came in a few days.
Come to think of it, though, I didn’t include the cost of cable and fasteners, which was about $100. I should also note that these particular Kyocera panels — called KD140SX-UPU on their brochure — include the waterproof junction box that allows for 10-2 cables. There are similar panels that come with pre-made cables and connectors that don’t have the same gauge.
Btw, you might consider 2 x Genasun GV-10 MPPT controllers vs. either the BSE or Victron. In some testing with Nigel Calder we found that in nearly all cases you get more output with two small controllers than one larger one, especially in any partially shaded situations.
New record! I saw 18.4 amps at 11:30, which is about an hour before local noon during Daylight Savings. It was about 14a before I hoisted the panels to about 45 degrees, but 11:30 is when Gizmo’s stern is due south. An hour later, at about true noon, the output is about 17.5a.
At any rate, it’s looking like this rig can get darn close to the claimed maximum output of 19.4 amps (which would be 15.8 if I didn’t have an MPPT controller like the Blue Sky).
With the help of friend Jim Chambers, we also installed the exact same panels in July. Once the physical mounting was done on the home made hard Bimini on our Mason 43, and the wires led to the location of the controller at the nav station, we checked the open volatage which was 20.4 for the two of them in parallel. As recommended in the literature that came with the panels from Civic Solar in California, we first connected the controller to the batts. We run two 8D flooded truck batts and two Sears 31 deep cycle, all in parallel. After making the ground connection from the panels to the regulator, I thought it would be interesting to see how many amps would be coming down from the panels. I suggested that we put my little digital PSM4 in series. It is rated to 10 amps and I expected about four. Jim said not to do that but I am hard headed and curious. The second I connected the second lead to the wire from the panels there was a big blue spark, it might not be too much of an exaggeration to call it a small “arc”. The meter flashed to 16 amps. That may have been the end of that function on the meter.
We now are running our new fridge all of the time, without regard to running the engine. On a sunny day we regularly see the batts reading 14.2 and 14.4 with nothing coming in but the solar power and with radios and other stuff on. Like you, we are also seeing some input on cloudy days and with the sun very low in the sky. Need to buy a digital ammeter to put into the circuit to see what is coming down. We cannot move the panels to tilt them to the sun but it does not seem to matter.
Question, Since Leslie cleans out the fridge when we are not going to be on the boat for a while, do I need to install a switch in the lead down from the solar cells to keep from cooking the batts?
We are probably more surprised that you are that this is working so well as “green” is not a color that would be associated with me.
The purchase from Civic Solar took a bit of time but they only charged about $700 for the cells with another hundred for the shipping. The cells came nicely double packaged with no damage at all. The controller is rated for 20 amps. Have to check and see if I used Ancor 12ga or the 10. 12ga is legal for 20 amps but I had only expected about 5. Now that I know that I can expect to go over 15 amps, may change to the larger ten.
Fair Winds, Garry
Has the efficiency of solar panels improved in the past ten years? I understand they have a twenty year life expectancy – does that mean they become less efficient as they age?
A pleasure talking to you a week ago when I was in Camden with the BYC cruise. I did the solar thing two years ago on Moon Shadow and it’s been great,, one 120w and one 65 w panel with a Blue Sky controller and it allows me to keep the refer running all season on the mooring. I generally get 50-75% of rated capacity out of the panels using the MPPT controller (7-12 amps generally).
Sorry about your multimeter, Gary, but I don’t think you need to worry about overcharging if you have a good controller. I assume that my Blue Sky will go into float mode when the batteries are truly topped off. But then again I’m very new at this, and I’m monitoring the situation on Gizmo pretty closely.
And to everyone interested in alternate power for their boat, I just had a guy tell me how impressed he is with a neighbor’s inexpensive Coleman 600 watt wind turbine. That’s more than double the output of my panels! He said it’s really quiet and comes with an excellent MPPT controller. I see them at Home Depot for $677 and what looks like a marinized version sold by West Marine under the Sunforce brand: http://goo.gl/R34Y1
I would steer clear of VICTRON in the US market until the company decides that a customer service person and repair be allowed here. We promoted the product extensively to our clients until Chris left. Not knowing any better we designed a phoenix system into an electrical system for Prominent Yacht builder on the east coast. When the unit failed to behave correctly we were told all customer service will come from the Netherlands. Further, the distributor that we purchased from used to be allowed to repair. Now you must pack and ship back to the Netherlands Footing the freight and time on a warranty claim. There is a lot more to the story (they will not refund) if any one is serious about purchasing VICTRON I would be happy to discuss. We now are recommending MASTERVOLT (Yes I know, they cost a little more. But they are technically a little better) as they have a much better customer service network and are now owned by a US company.
TTA MARINE Inc
I have heard other complaints about the current state of Victron support in the U.S. Oddly enough, the U.S. distribution center is near me in Thomaston, Maine, and I know the longtime but now former manager Chris Richmond. In fact, he’s now handling my marine insurance (at Allen Agency) because he wanted to stop travelling so much, and I know he’s missed in the marine electronics industry.
At any rate, Victron apparently decided to change things when Chris departed. The new guy in Thomaston, Justin Larrabee, seems quite good at distribution but also seems to be in the process of learning the Victron product lines, which are extensive and complicated. I got good technical help with my new Multi inverter/charger ( http://goo.gl/K4cMR ) from the Netherlands, but I sure don’t like the idea of sending stuff over there for service.
At the same time, though, Victron seems to be getting more and more involved with NMEA, like using N2K in their latest gear and also being part of the OneNet developement group. If there are serious problems with U.S. support, hopefully Victron will fix them.
I forgot to mention that Steve Dashew is doing a lot of solar panel and controller testing:
He’s pretty happy too, just having recorded 1.9 kWh of solar generation on a very foggy and overcast Maine day. I haven’t gotten to visit Wind Horse yet, but am quite interested to see what he’s doing with Maretron gear and also to learn more about the 97 foot vessel with massive panel power he’s designed.
Just wanted to comment that my biz partner, Steve Dashew aboard Wind Horse, has had excellent results with his recent solar panel addition – in Maine, in the fog. His blog posting on the subject is:
We are using Wind Horse as the test-bed for our new FPB 97 under construction – which will have 22 qty., 320 Watt panels. This promises to offer amazing efficiencies and gains in the daily cycle of power supply/demand.
welcome to the world of solar. Maybe your house is next?
We lived aboard our Tayana 37 full time for 14 years. Right from the start we relied on solar. Four 55 watt panels allowed us all mod cons including fridge with no generator and very few engine alternator hours. We eventually added a freezer and a wind generator to supply the additional power.
There is a problem with solar that people need to watch for. We see a lot of boats fitted with solar who complain that their batteries are dead in a very short time (1 or 2 years from new).
Modern batteries especially AGM like to be brought up to full charge on a regular basis. If they are not they tend to sulphate and battery capacity goes down rapidly.
The problem is that it’s easy to get a battery to 90% but that last bit can take a long time. Often boats with solar are only producing roughly the same daily energy that they are consuming and sometimes it is less. The result is what we call short cycling. The battery goes down to say 50% overnight and then during the day it might only get up to say 85% before going back down again. Sulphation starts and continues to get worse.
The solution is to bring the batteries up to 100% on a regular basis. Not easy,it might mean using shorepower occasionally, a small genset or engine hours with a smart alternator regulator.
Equalising (controlled overcharge) of the batteries can remove the sulphation and restore capacity. Some people will do this regularly (maybe every couple of months).For AGM batteries people say you should not do this, but some manufacturers (e.g. Lifeline) recommend it to restore lost capacity.
Some MPPT solar controllers have an equalize setting, but you need to start with the batteries full, and turn off all your loads to make sure you have plenty of power available for the equalize cycle.
It is possible to get good battery life on solar, but you have to actively manage your charge regime.
Some pretty good info on charging here http://goo.gl/0SdrM
After reading a couple of the posts above, I felt compelled to jump in.
Having been a very happy client of Victron Energy’s product over the past 10+ years, with over 5 yrs. using their products aboard our FPB Yachts – they have allowed us to successfully re-define the efficiencies available electrically aboard larger passage-making vessels. To date, their products have proven to be well engineered, reliable, and provide us unique features and possibilities that help make our boats better.
Our only complaint has been idle current overhead in their inverter/chargers, but that is universal to the product, and not VE specific.
The FPB 97 will have more than 20kVA of VE Multi-Plus units working alongside 22 qty., 320 Watt solar panels. Without air-con loads and proper load management, it is possible to imagine nearly unlimited run time at anchor, sans generator/alternators. Under power or during a passage, with our 600A of H.O. alternators (Electrodyne w/ remote cooled diode packs) we can run just about everything, anytime – day or night.
We have been advised by our battery manufacture (Hoppecke), and others with skin in the game, that as long as we treat the batteries (OPzV) to a vigorous full-cycle charge from the onboard AC or alternator charging sources – every couple of weeks – the batteries will not be negatively impacted.
They do make batteries specifically for solar applications (OPzV-Solar) if this vigorous full-cycle charge is not readily available or practical on a regular basis. They are designed to better resist the sulfation issue Derek rightly points out in his comment above.
All the best,
How does one use multiple controllers as you are advocating? Since each one is trying to monitor battery voltage thinking it is the only agent charging the system, each will therefore be interfering with the other as it tries to deliver voltage-regulated power to the batteries. Can you explain how multiple controllers would be used?
It’s funny how often I get asked that question!
Think about how many different charge sources that could be running on your boat at the same time…alternator, solar, shore charger, wind, etc. Ever wonder how they all manage to work?
As long as there’s a battery there to absorb the current, the voltage will rise only slowly preventing voltage spikes/bouncing.
This is never a problem with the Genasun MPPT regs, have had six or more with the outputs in parallel on boats with a lot of panels!
As the battery voltage tops off, the various sources indeed regulate back their output. Whichever have the higher voltage setting will “win” and be the last to scale back. Unless there is a sub-par regulator involved there won’t be any “fighting”.
A gremlin to watch for, but not a damaging one.
Depending on how you have your engine voltage regulator set up and your BlueSky set up, the Bluesky may interpret the voltage regulator dropping to a float state (or dropping offline) as requiring the BlueSky to go to the Acceptance state.
When the BlueSky does this, the MPPT firmware will kick in and begin cycling to seek the best power point. If you have a Blue Sea 12v panel display with alarm, it may trigger a high voltage warning as the BlueSky adjusts for max power. This is a transient phenomenon, but the alarm is a simple 1-0 switch.
The Blue Sea alarm will sound for 2-3 sec and then stop for one. This may repeat as many as nine times depending on regulator and controller settings, battery state and temp, etc etc.
It took a while for us to discover this as most of our engine time any given outing was quite short. When we moved aboard and left for the Caribbean we ran the engine long enough each day it pretty much became a daily occurrence.
The solution was to silence the panel alarm, but we didn’t want to do that, so now we count repetitions.
If doing a solar installation, I’d also recommend including a battery monitor with a shunt that can provide State of Charge information. I’ve used the TriMetric Battery Monitor on both my boat and cabin installations. These monitors will tell you with certainty how charged your batteries are and show the power produced and consumed real time.
It’s not sufficient to rely on battery voltage to determine whether they are charged. During the day, the voltage in your batteries will rise as the panel applies power, but that does not mean it’s charged. Similarly the voltage can appear low when devices are consuming power. The battery monitor calculates SOC via a combination of voltage and amps in/out. The Trimetric has the ability to provide charge details for both House and Start batteries — and there are other similar units — highly recommended.
Another wonderful thing about solar panels is that they improve with age, at least for a while. I see 22 amps sometimes now, and I don’t think the maximum solar conditions I’ve been in are all that different than August in Camden.
The best thing, though, is that this panel setup has required nearly zero maintenance or management since install. Sometimes I wash them, sometimes I raise them; that’s about it. Gizmo does yet have accurate and detailed battery status monitoring — though I’m working on it — but powering refrigeration, lighting, and radios for extended periods on the hook rarely requires any engine run time. Adding the inverter, computer and monitor is pushing it, especially in cloudy conditions and so I often shut all that down at bed time.
Ben, a question about your installation of solar panels.
Did you connect your two panels of 140 Watts in series or in parallell?
I want to install on my Trawler three Kyocera 250 watt panels with a charger controller MPPT 60 Amp.
I risk have a little shadow a few hours of the day due to the proximity of the arch and antennas.
What is the best solution to minimize the problem based on your experience: Serie or Parallell?
Thank you for your cooperation.
Just a question about your installation of solar panels.
Did you connect your two panels of 140 Watts in series or in parallell?
I want to install on my trawler three Kyocera 250 watt panels with a charger controller MPPT 60 Amp.
I risk have a little shadow a few hours of the day due to the proximity of the arch and antennas.
What is the best solution to minimize the problem based on your experience?
Thank you for your cooperation.
Jacques, my panels are parallel. You can see the separate feed lines going into the MPPT controller in the photographs. But I did that to minimize voltage drop, not as a shadow strategy. My panels often get partial shadows from mast and other fly bridge structure but the power loss seems proportional to shadow. I think the newer panels are protected from the drastic drop offs that older panels suffered.
Thank you for answering me so quickly.
I’d like your opinion on the about mv/Viking Star I found on his blog related to the installation of solar panels .
The final outcome is shading . Here you need to get creative and try to minimize it . The MPPT controller, combined with built -in bypass diodes in the panels Will help a LOT with shading, but still shading for reduce output Will Dramatically During the peak summer months I Noticed about a reduction 30Ah per day If We Were docked pointing North as Opposed to South, I expect this WAS due to the shadow from our mast When docked pointing north . Just one more ‘ consideration ‘ when pulling into dock now . . .
BTW : There is a good argument for using a separate MPPT controller has the for each panel installed on a boat , to help work around this partial shading situation. Given That MPPT controllers are Becoming more and more common , and the prices are dropping, doing so Would be a good consideration for future installations. Purpose if you do use a single controller, like one Viking Star, make safe to wire the panels in SERIES to maximize output falling on Partially shaded conditions. And note this is a dramatic departure from what WAS recommended A Few years ago (Parallel ) . It is due to Both the use of the MPPT controller and Increased presence of zoning / internal bypass diodes on large panels modern . If connected parallel – a shaded panel entry while Will drop out if a modern panel is connected in series the partly shaded panel Will lose the shaded segments , the goal unshaded segments Will Contribute to continuous (due to internal zoning panel and bypass diodes) .
You can find the entire document here: http://mvvikingstar.blogspot.ca/2012/10/solar-panels-on-boat-modeling-and.html
What do you think of this?
I’m too ignorant in power to make a difference in all of this !
In 2012-2013 I started using solar on my boat each 250 W panel with a separate MPPT from Victron ( then the 70/15)
It looked as if they were not being sold in the US, but a call to the Netherlands proved me wrong and I got my first 3 from Justin Larrabee, after I corrected him on his own inventory.
I have used the 70/15 since january 2013 they have acted perfectly, until in 2014 they Victron came out with the new color controller, and the 70/15’s were not communicating with that control unit ( they were 6 weeks too “old”)
Justing quickly swapped them for the newer 75/15 units. and they have been producing 30 – 40 amps on a sunny day here in Ohio.
Just like Ben I have removed my generator and used that space for wine and batteries.
Next season another 7 250 W solar panles each with a separate MPPT, for optimal efficiency.
The cost of 10 small ( 75/15) MPPT is about the same as one large one, but the efficient and redundancy is higher.
Yes the total cost wil be higher because of the extra set of cables.
Enjoy generating energy silently…