Wind and Solar Are Fine by Osprey
Sail Green: Osprey's energy refit took an alternative tack, and the benefits have decidedly paid off. A special "Hands-On Sailor" from our December 2009 issue
Recharging with Solar
Osprey came with two 110-watt and two 85-watt solar panels. Other than the engine's 120-amp alternator, those panels were the only source of electricity on the boat. We didn't like their prop-up installation outside of the lifelines; it looked cluttered, exposed them easily to damage, and made docking even trickier than it already is. In the first winter that we owned the boat, we installed an arch at the transom and mounted the two 110s on top. We removed the 85s altogether. Once we began Osprey's full refit, we asked our canvas maker to install 1.25-inch bows for the bimini and dodger so that we could mount two 130-watt Kyocera solar panels (www.kyocerasolar.com) on top of the bimini.
Choosing the solar panels wasn't as complicated as our decision about the wind generators, because all solar panels more or less do the same thing. We knew Kyocera had a great reputation for quality, and many of the cruisers we talked with highly recommended them. The two Kyocera panels together would produce about 20 amps at "high sun," meaning between 1000 and 1400. The older panels, Shell 110s, produce about 10 amps total at high sun. We use a Blue Sky Solar Boost 3034IL regulator (www.blueskyenergyinc.com) to run the panels. The factory numbers have turned out to be accurate on clear days. We determined the panels' production by measuring it on sunny days when there was no wind input at all.
Although not as difficult to install as the wind generators, the new solar panels on the bimini presented their own challenges. To mount the panels to the bimini, we had to make special brackets and fittings to accommodate the structure's curves. The solar-panel wiring was easier to install than that of the wind generators largely because the wire was smaller and more easily worked.
However, one of the most time-consuming and meticulous aspects of the entire installation involved the three regulators-two for the wind generators and one for the solar panels-that are the real brains of the system. They had to be synchronized so that the charge, accept, and float voltages were the same. Having three regulators is probably overkill, but after considerable research, we felt that it was more important to have the redundancy built in so that if one failed, one of the other two, with some rewiring, could pick up the load. After nearly a year, this system, although complicated, has worked extremely well. And as this is written, Osprey has been sitting on the anchor for four days in Chesapeake Bay, and we haven't had to start the engine yet to charge the batteries.
The cost of the Kyocera panels themselves wasn't especially higher than other brands; they cost about $750 each. The Blue Sky regulator cost $350. There was considerable extra cost, though, because we had to beef up the tubing for the bimini and other canvas so that it could support the panels. We figure this added $1,500 to the expense of the solar-panel installation. We felt this was worth the money, because we knew the added strength of the frames would give us peace of mind when we were sailing in rough conditions.
What We've Concluded
It's all well and good to estimate power consumption and output, then base your decisions on those numbers. But you never know for sure if reality will match the math. We'd hoped that the combination of wind and solar as we'd set it up would meet our basic energy requirements. But we hadn't even factored in the energy draw from our watermaker when we ran our initial numbers. We assumed that we'd need to use the engine and alternator to power the watermaker, which draws 18 amps. Over the first full winter of living aboard, which happened to be in the breezy Bahamas, our expectations were more than met. The wind generators in particular have become invaluable, since they can produce power day and night, cloudy or sunny, as long as we have breeze. More often than not, we have more than enough power to run everything on the boat, including the watermaker. The only reason we need to start the engine over the course of a breezy week is to make hot water for showers, and even this could be changed if we had a water heater with the necessary adaptors. Of course, when the wind is down, the solar panels come increasingly into play, and if there's no wind or sun-rare in our experience-we depend more on that old standby, the engine and alternator.
We're extremely happy with our green combination of electricity generators, but it wasn't easy to accomplish. It required all of Johnny's expertise to design and install the various elements, and admittedly, it's probably more than most cruisers would want to tackle. But because we're a family of four people and one heat-seeking gecko, we wanted it overbuilt, and we had the resources to do it. Nor was the system cheap. A quality generator of 8 or 9 kilowatts, which would take care of Osprey's energy needs, would cost about $15,000-$10,000 for the generator and about $5,000 for labor and extra parts-and take about 60 hours to install. Our wind and solar systems, including all of the modifications we made to accommodate them, cost about $12,800. However, this number doesn't include an estimated labor cost of about $10,000 because we did the work ourselves, except for fabricating the arch and frames. Also, it took about twice as long to complete all the installations as it would have to add a generator.
On the face of it, going the green route cost us a lot more in time and money. Going green involved significantly more engineering, and there was greater complexity throughout the whole system. We feel, however, that the higher initial investment will pay for itself when compared to the ongoing fuel and maintenance costs of a generator. Also, there's something intangible yet extremely satisfying in knowing that we're accomplishing our personal goals of self-sufficiency, setting a different example for our children, and-trite as it sounds-treading more lightly on the planet.
Wendy Mitman Clarke, her husband, Johnny, their two children, and the gecko planned to head south from the Chesapeake in the fall, bound for the trade winds and warm sun that will keep them well powered up.