Wind, Solar, Water, Diesel: what 's the best mix?


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Daria Blackwell
Daria Blackwell
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While cruising for several years, we found that one of the most 'lively ' discussion topics among cruisers was, "Which method of generating power works best?" Occasionally, there would be an enthusiastic proponent for one form over another, but more often than not, the discussion was far more complex. I think it might be useful for us to share our experience with different forms of power generation and different equipment options within each category.

So far, we 've learned:

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[/ul]diesel generators are still a very reliable and relatively economical option as long as you can carry enough diesel

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[/ul]solar panels are not as reliable as most would think, especially when the climate tends to be cloudy (Ireland/UK) or days are short (Caribbean) or when parts of the panel are obscured (which can shut the whole panel down)

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[/ul]wind generators tend to be noisy/vibrational and don 't work very well downwind (tradewinds sailing) or in protected anchorages

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[/ul]towed water generators attract BIG fish

That said, we have a diesel generator that works rather flawlessly. Although upon adding AIS, a second navigation system, watermaker, etc, we know we 'll need more power.

We are considering adding a wind generator that can be hoisted into the rigging to catch wind or towed overboard while underway. We are also eagerly awaiting the new generation of solar panels that is supposed to provide a dramatic improvement in efficiency. Does anyone have advice and experience to share that would help us make some decisions on the best gear to add in these departments?

Vice Commodore, OCC 
robwithers
robwithers
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A serious contender now has to be fuel cells. They are small units that charge the batteries whenever necessary at low to medium currents (5-10A). They are therefore working most of the time, but since they are so quiet and compact, its not a problem

You can see some installations at:Fuel Cell Systems.

I should add that I haven 't had experience of them myself, but my neighbour has and attests to their efficiency and effectiveness.

One consideration is that you do need high purity methanol. This is available in many places - but not universally (e.g not in Caribbean)

I would be interested to know the real-life experiences of some owners as I contemplate the retirement of my aged, over-powered and noisy fixed, diesel generator
Daria Blackwell
Daria Blackwell
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Thanks Rob. Fuel cells sound almost too good to be true. Will definitely investigate.

Vice Commodore, OCC 
dcaukill
dcaukill
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I agree with your assessment of technologies.

My view is that you should fit as much domestic battery capacity as you possibly can and a simple, proven, diesel generator with the out put to charge them as fast as they will take it (that means a charging current about 25% of rated capacity I.e. A 400 AHr bank can be charged at 100Amps - you will need a smart charger to manage the batteries).

My boat is large, so that I 'd need a big solar array to make any material contribution but wind generation is still an option. however I can get most of the power back into the batteries in the time I need to make water so that I get good efficiency out of the generator.

There is a fixed towed generator made by Witt & Sea (german) (a much smaller version of the Duogen (and without the vane!) that I will look at this winter. It is transom mounted, is said to make a big contribution with little drag. But then I will have to learn to live with less water!
Daria Blackwell
Daria Blackwell
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Many thanks for your note David. I imagine we 'd have difficulty with any transom array as we have a Monitor windvane self steering system mounted there. Please do keep us informed of your learnings this winter.

Vice Commodore, OCC 
gregs
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Our experience found solar to be quite good in most areas when used to top up the batteries and sized to carry the daytime sailing load plus add 30amp hrs. That is to say when used with a diesel generator. Our batteries lasted 9 years they were marine grade gell batteries grp 27. So they were nothing special and only a few were bad but we went to replace them all. On days of little sun we just did not get the batteries toped up as well but then we get some sun and it would top them up nicely. We didn 't see much success with wind or water generators and only solar was usually under-powered. Diesel generators worked great but you need away to add the last bit into the batteries.
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greg
S/V ErinBrie
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We have 400Ah of batteries and a 100Ah charger attached to our generator. With a fridge and freezer we had to run the generator for at least 2 hrs per day on passage to keep things reasonable even although we had a wind generator.

The wind generator would supply about 2/3 of our daily needs when we had more than 20kt of steady wind. Below that (most of the time) its contribution was modest.

2 years ago we installed 440 Watts of solar panels with a dedicated MPPT charger - lifechanging and so liberating! I had to rewire the hot water heater through the inverter so that we could have 'free ' hot water rather than wasting the energy as most days our bank was full by 1pm. (S Bahamas/Cuba area). We can now leave our appliances on and not worry too much.

As important to us is that we now only run our generator for a few hours a week when we need to make water although that will change shortly as I 'm about to install a dive compressor.
Daria Blackwell
Daria Blackwell
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Thanks for that. Sounds really good. Would you mind sharing the brands of wind generator and solar panels you installed?

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Hi Daria,

We have Trina solar panels, an Outback charge controller and an Eclectic Energy D400 wind generator.

Our solar is mounted slightly lower than I would like on the davits and so they are partially shaded until 8am or so in winter but they perform admirably. I recall that our best day ever was 2.7kW of solar input - the wind clocked from W through N to E! Nice to see the batteries on float!
Blueprintbill
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Water towing generators attract big fish ? Has anyone ever had a fish attack one ? It would have to be one hell-of-a big fish ! I towed one trans-atlantic west to east with only great success. Pulled it in when we started the engine and got a tangle of the line, which when disconnected from the generator and dumped back into the water in the reverse order it was brought in ( hanging onto the propeller ) it would promptly sort itself out. A great bit of kit, kept us on batteries powering radar, lights, SSB, etc. no problem. I love the thing.
Bill R.
SV Blueprint
Nicholson 31-113
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