Next Up: Some FAQ's
Well, here it is the 26th of April and no batteries yet. In some ways this has been a good thing. I’ve been able to spend quality time rehabbing the electrical system and installing the new equipment. I took my time, powering up after each major change.
It's amazing how much I've removed.
Now it's a waiting game.
Next Up: Some FAQ's
For our battery replacement project some components will be added to support the lithium battery chemistry and some things will be removed that won’t be needed.
Here is a list of the components I’ve ordered.
100Ah LiFePO4 cells
12 cells will be wired into a 300Ah 12V configuration.
The BMS (battery management system) monitors and protects the lithium battery bank.
30A DC to DC charger
This is an important device. It protects the alternator, isolates the start batteries from the house battery, and charges the lithium battery bank.
25A AC to DC charger
This is a fully encapsulated and silent shore charger that replaces a VERY noisy one. It will charge the lithium battery bank.
280A Fused distribution block
A little expensive but you can’t beat the compact design.
I’ve received everything but the batteries. I’m hoping those will arrive in the next several weeks so I can finish the project before we head off the dock for the summer.
Next up: The devil is in the details.
We are in a unique period of history where nearly all things are possible if you apply enough energy. We can travel to the moon, make fresh water out of salt water, and live in the most extreme climates. As cruisers, our desires aren’t so grandiose. We just want enough energy to stay on anchor for as long as we wish without running a generator.
When we purchased Odyssey I was very excited about the three large AGM (Advanced Glass Matt) marine batteries (380 Ah total) that had been installed for the house bank. With 190 Ah of useable energy (You should only discharge an AGM down to 50% of rated capacity) I dreamt of weeks on anchor, basking in all the electricity I could ever want. This has worked well for us.
But now our AGM batteries are failing so I’ve decided to replace them with Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries.
So over the life of the battery, lithiums cost a lot less (per Ah) than an AGM. You can save even more if you build the lithium battery pack yourself, which is what I’m going to do.
Next up: Needful Things
I make sure our batteries are topped up whenever we head out for an anchorage, and once anchored our solar panels are often able to keep up with our daily usage. We always seemed to have enough power.
Until we didn’t.
At first I was in denial. Then I checked everything four times. How could we possibly run out of power with such a large battery bank? The question was impossible to answer because I really didn’t know how much energy we were using.
A battery monitor would do this so I studied up on what was available on the market. Sadly, the idea of wiring in a shunt and then finding a location for one more gauge seemed like a daunting task, especially considering the hundreds of dollars many of them cost.
Then I found, on one of my favorite Youtube channels DIY Solar Power with Will Prowse, a review of a new device for monitoring batteries. Victron was marketing a Smart Shunt with Bluetooth that would do everything I wanted. It uses a phone or tablet for a display, and is easy to install.
It turns out that a good battery monitor was exactly what I needed. Finally I was able to see not just the rate of use (Amps A), but the amount of use (Amp-hours Ah). I can’t express how fundamentally important this was for understanding the overall function and health of our boat’s electrical supply system. I could write an entire post about this (and later, maybe I will).
The Victron shunt provides a large amount of information both numerically and graphically, but the most valuable information was the net Ah consumption; how much power did we take out of the battery and how much of that did the charging system put back?
A real-life test happened on our first anchorage of the year. During three February days I carefully watched the system, looking at all the data and happily relating that to the largest and smallest loads. It became obvious on the first day that the batteries were not doing well. The amount of power we were using verses the voltage of the batteries didn’t match up. It took another day for me to wrap my head around what I was seeing. On the third morning we didn’t have enough power to run our hydronic heater.
That cold morning, when the heater refused to run due to low voltage, the shunt reported the batteries were only down by 60 Ah. But wait! Our three house batteries are rated for 126 Ah each or 378 Ah total. We should have had lots of power left, but we didn’t. Yup, time for new batteries.
One note. On return to the dock and charging for several days, the batteries indicated they were fully charged (accepting zero current) but the monitor showed they were still about 20 Ah short.
One additional note. In case you were wondering, I thankfully have an ACR installed to isolate the start battery so I can always start the engine, even with dead house batteries.
Next up: The Lithium Dream
Im not one to anthropomorphize the equipment on our boat nor any other object. The sea isn’t a harsh mistress, the weather doesn’t hate me, and talking to my outboard won’t make it run any better.
With that said, I’m pretty sure the house batteries have deceived me.
Our three house batteries provide the electrical power for Odyssey whenever we are anchored out. Together they can store a large amount of energy.
Before we go off the dock I make sure the batteries are fully charged. Then, away from the dock, I keep an eye on the voltage. If it gets too low it’s time to figure out how to recharge. During the summer it rarely gets too low because we have solar panels that help charge the batteries when we are out.
This has worked well for us until recently when I noticed the battery voltage was dropping faster then expected, and it was getting worse. In an effort to understand what was happening I installed a device that, when installed correctly, shows the net energy the battery has delivered. Compare that to the rated capacity of the battery and you should have a pretty good idea how much energy is left.
But what if the battery capacity isn’t what it should be? What if, due to age and abuse, the amount of charge the battery should hold has dropped? It would still charge up, but out on anchor it would act like a much smaller battery and you would run out of power quickly.
That’s the situation we found ourselves in last week on our first cruise of the year.
On our second morning the heater low voltage alarm went off moments after we switched it on. The battery voltage had dropped below 10.5 volts! Looking at the shunt information, we had only used a small fraction of the battery capacity and yet we were out of power. Not good.
Time for new batteries.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be replacing the old AGM batteries with LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate) batteries, building a system from the ground up. This will include new equipment, a wiring change, and assembling the battery bank from individual cells.
I hope to document our progress with the design, reviews of the new equipment. I hope you enjoy the process.
Manzanita Bay is officially our first real destination spot in the area, and what a wonderful find. Anchoring just outside the bay gave us an incredible view of the snow covered Olympic mountains. It’s also a well protected spot with excellent holding.
This was our first cruise of the year. That’s a little sad considering it’s already the middle of March, but we need three days of fair weather before considering to go out and the weather for the last four months has been some of the wettest and windiest on record in Puget Sound. Why three days? That gives us a minimum of one entire day on anchor to enjoy all that anchoring out has to offer.
Lucky for us, not only did we have glorious sunshine for the entire trip, but due to the next frontal system arriving later then forecasted, we stayed for a bonus day. (We did pay for that extra day by being chased back to port by high winds and big seas, a herald of the soon to arrive storm.)
If any existed who could still read a barometer’s warning they would stay at the dock tonight, so pressing is the coming storm. With all the modern technology at my finger tips, I also know to stay sheltered in the bay.
Tonight isn’t fit for ship or crew.
So with nowhere to sail and the blue-black glow of night upon me, I walk the docks with collar up against the wind, restless, thinking of the past. Past captains and past glories. I’m not expecting revelation or existential experience, but I’d wish for some connection with the sailors, fisherman or pirates who have come before me. They and their sons have navigated these waters.
Through the building wind I struggle to hear something, anything, to help me understand, to know just a little about the struggle of others that have come before. When the wind peaks I can almost feel it. Did they hear the winds as I hear them?
Moisture thickens the air and drips from every line. Rare is the window alight that hints of a crew below, warm and safe, preparing for the next passage through the winter gales.
I walk past a tug, its history of cargo and people forgotten. It once traveled as we could only imagine, but those times are gone. On the bow an old anchor rusts from abandoned purpose.
Further down and just as silent sits a silver-clean sloop, holding the dreams of some racing skipper. This fine ship sits idle in the cold of winter, waiting for the fair winds of spring and an eager crew to haul her sheets and trim her sails.
Past, present, it all blurs together as I stand in the dark listening as the gale blows through the Sound.
Where are the sailors of old whose stories could have been told? To speak with them around a warm galley stove, with rum or wine, oh the adventures they would tell.
Cold and without any answers, I walk back and climb into my own warm boat. Still lost in the past I slip into bed and cuddle my wife, hoping I dream of dark black seas with white crests. Hoping that in sleep, I might finally begin to understand the courage of captains past.
We had a lot of excitement yesterday when small craft advisories were posted for the area. The SSE wind built a big chop early in the day, and by afternoon the swells were making their way deep into the marina. Combined with the wind it was quite a ride. Toward nightfall the wind kept building but slowly backed to the SSW, putting us on the lee side of the land, which quickly calmed the water around us. After midnight the big gusts arrived, maybe in the low thirties, pushing the rigging and holding us to a starboard tack while tied to the dock. What fun to lay in the dark, listening to the wind and feeling the boat respond like a living thing. I love it.
Well, I still have a problem with the heater. Same problem. It’s randomly tripping the 10 amp breaker on the Surewire board. Unfortunately the breaker isn’t labeled and so far the techs at Sure Marine (the people who actually make the board) can’t tell me what the breaker is trying to protect.
Without that info, I can’t fix the problem. They say they will call as soon as they figure it out.
Most winters we find ourselves tucked into a marina, out of harms way of winter gales. As the temperature dips into the low forties my mind always strays into project mode as we sit in our warm little boat. There are so many things I’d like to do, and every winter I plan on getting a few of them done.
But because we use our floating home constantly, things wear out or break. The repairs take priority so the projects just have to wait.
The most recent repair involved our beloved hydronic heating system. A hydronic heater heats water and then circulates it throughout the boat. Small radiators located in various spots then blow out warm air, feeling very much like a central heating system in a house.
So when our hydronic system stopped working in the middle of December, fixing it becomes the priority.
Luckily I knew enough about the unit to get it running, and I may even have found the root problem. This is not the first repair/maintenance I’ve done to the system and I’m sure it won’t be the last. So far it’s doing great, time will tell. I’ll post some specific articles on its ups and downs soon.
You may ask why don’t we just run space heaters at the dock? Well, we do most of the time, but it isn’t the same. Imagine keeping your house warm with space heaters in each room. It would work. But in the morning it's nice to just turn on the furnace and let the whole house soak it all up.
Another bonus is that the hydronic heater is diesel fired and very efficient. This means we stay warm when the power goes out during a storm. It’s also our only source of heat when on the hook.
Our system came from Sure Marine in Seattle and uses a Webasto 90ST heater core.
Just because the potable water hose you just installed looks the same as what’s already installed on your boat, it doesn’t mean it is.
I recently modified our water system to allow us to hook up to the dock water supply. What a wonderful idea, right?
Everything seemed wonderful as I filled a glass at the sink to take a sip and then passed it to my wife. Wow, that was plastic flavored water at its worst. My wife grimaced and asked “Is it always going to taste like that?”
The offending hose was only three feet long so it should clear up after a day or two, right? Not a chance. We were not willing to live with that taste so I found the RIGHT hose and quickly swapped it out.
If it smells like a garden hose it will taste like a garden hose. Get the right stuff.
Happy water, happy boat, lesson learned.
Live as if you were to die tomorrow.
Learn as if you were to live forever.