One Bad Apple…

We have been meaning to get some solar power on the RK for some time now. When we were in Ft. Lauderdale in February of 2019, we stopped into a marine solar establishment that was recommended to us by our friends Mark and Cindy on S/V Cream Puff. We were interested in semi-flexible panels that can be placed on our canvas bimini top. We spoke to a salesman who seemed nice enough, and he did his best trying to educate me, but I walked away knowing I had a good deal of research to do. We also walked away knowing we were going to need a canvas guy to sew ‘pockets’ onto our bimini that the panels would sit in. The salesman recommended a company and we gave them a call. They showed up to the boat the same day, unheard of in Ft. Lauderdale (or almost anywhere), and he told us the threading on our top was old and worn and didn’t think it made sense to put money into a top of that condition. He recommended we start with a new bimini to do the project correctly. He also told us they were too busy to complete such a project within our time frame. We were very impressed with the knowledge this guy had and the suggestions he made for designing a new top, so we figured we would come back next year to do the work. In early October, when we were in Hampton VA, we gave them a call and booked a time slot for mid November.

When we planned to stop in Brunswick, GA, we thought we would stay a few days and then head south to Ft. Lauderdale to get this work done. As we were coming into Brunswick, the thought occurred to me that we should try to find out if there was a canvas company that serviced the Brunswick area that we liked as much as the Ft. Lauderdale group. Ft. Lauderdale is an expensive place to stay and not nearly as friendly as Brunswick to get around on foot or bicycle. The marina staff recommended a company out of Fernandina Beach, FL – Topstitch Custom Canvas & Upholstery. They come to Brunswick two times a week and everyone we spoke to said they did great work. We had them come to the boat for an estimate, Stephano seemed knowledgeable and friendly enough, and the estimate was reasonable. Time frame? Three to four weeks – sounds good, let’s get started.

I really liked their approach to the project. We were making major changes to the existing design – raising the height, adding clear panels forward for better visibility, enclosing the entire cockpit for protection from the elements, adding flexible solar panels, etc. They took on the project in small logical steps. They made sure the frame was modified properly first, then they patterned the main section, installed it, and made sure it was 100% right before patterning the next section. All of this attention to detail meant we were very satisfied with the final product. It also meant that the project took almost eight weeks rather than the original estimate of three to four. But I’m not complaining.

Stefano of TopStitch securing the frame with tape before patterning

Juan from TopStitch placing the reinforced plastic in place. This material is affixed using double sided tape to make the pattern for the canvas.

Stefano installing the clear forward window panels

Rear and side panes installed

TopStitch sewed plastic awning tracks into the canvas top and cordage onto each panel’s lengthwise side. The panels then simply slide into these tracks for easy installation and removal.

While this work was going on, I was busy getting the electrical connections ready for the solar panels. We ended up getting them from Sun Powered Yachts out of Hawaii. The guys we met in Ft. Lauderdale last year were less helpful this year when I reached out to them. The sales guy I met last year even gave me a bit of attitude on the phone when I was asking some questions. Sorry, but I’m not going to give our hard earned money to someone with an attitude.

Lyall at SPY was very pleasant on the phone and he took the time to answer ALL my questions. He is also the owner and the operation is much smaller than the unnamed dealer in Ft. Lauderdale. His prices were comparable and I felt like he would be there for me after the sale, which he was. I couldn’t recommend him more highly.

As part of this install, I was adding battery balancers to our battery bank. Because our boat is 24 Volts, our battery bank is comprised of 6 pair of 12 Volt batteries with each pair connected in series. Even though the batteries are identical, each individual battery is going to be slightly different in its capacity. This means that when charging the pair, one will report as being full before the other one is completely full. With time and multiple charging cycles, this difference can become large enough to negatively affect the battery life. Additionally, individual cells in batteries can fail over time, drastically affecting the charge the rest of the batteries get. Just like with apples, one bad battery can ruin the rest in the bank if not caught early. The only way to check for this is to routinely test each battery individually. However, if you have balancers installed, an alarm will go off if this occurs. To me, adding two of these devices made great sense.

What did not make sense to me was the wiring diagrams I was looking at for the installation of both the battery balancers and the solar controllers. The solar controllers take the voltage the solar panels generate and adjust the amount of current and voltage they send, to the batteries to ensure they are charged properly.

All things electrical are not my forte, but I’m learning. My research helped, but I still wasn’t comfortable enough to start. I had read a posting on a fellow Amel owner’s blog S/V Harmonie about installing the balancers. I reached out to Bill on S/V Harmonie, and he graciously put together a detailed email with instructions, labeled photographs, and diagrams to assist me. I wouldn’t be surprised if he took an hour or two of his time to put this together – Thanks Bill.

With this in hand, I was ready to go.

As all wood on an Amel is African Mahogany, even pieces used to mount components in the engine room, or in other hidden away areas, I purchased a small 1′ x 2′ piece from a west coast vendor. I cut this in half and mounted the two balancers and solar controllers. I also mounted the balancer alarms and reset switches as well as a small fuse box.

Assembling all the components on the African Mahogany board

Finished product

This panel was mounted to the forward exterior side of the battery bank compartment, and all the balancer wires were fed into the battery bank and connected.  The bank was divided in half – three pair of 12V batteries in each pair and one balancer per each half of the bank.

Panel mounted on forward side of battery bank

Balancer wires run to each half of the battery bank

I then ran the wire for the solar panels themselves. I ran these four wires from the center of one of the bimini support frame members and down through a hole I drilled through the ceiling above the battery bank. This was the first, and hopefully last, hole I will drill in the RK. Something just seems wrong with drilling holes in a boat!

Four wires for the Solar Panel connections enter the center bimini frame member

The wires exit the bottom of the frame member and into a drilled hole which is hidden by the frame

Four wires exit the hole below and are sealed with a cable clam

These wires ran down an existing wire channel and connected directly to the MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking) Solar Controllers.

This may all sound simple and easy, but almost nothing on a boat is easy. Researching for this project, ordering all the components and tools needed, and the installation, took me somewhere around 120 to 160 hours to complete. Granted, about half of that was research and a good deal was walking or biking to the hardware store to get bits I needed (and I am on the anal side of doing projects like these), but it does take a lot of time to get things done on a boat.

Panels installed and wired (two other Amels right behind us, 5 total in the whole marina (1% of the world’s population)

After all this effort, it was a great feeling when I plugged everything in and it all worked! Having the solar panels has definitely reduced the amount of time we need to run the generator and they also make it possible to bring the batteries up to a full charge on a more regular basis. Without them, this is really only possible if you run the generator for a very long time, take a 5 or 6 hour trip motoring or motor sailing, or plug into shore power. As the batteries will last longer the more often you can bring them back to full charge, in the long run, the investment into this project will pay for it self in short order.

Cool thing is that you can monitor the Solar Panel output with a Bluetooth app on your iPhone or iPad

Each panel is rated at 170 watts or 340 for each pair.  We are still a couple months away from prime solar time and the panels are exceeding their rated output.  Four hundred nineteen watts was the max power recorded on the port panels yesterday. It should only get better from here.

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