Saturday, June 6, 2020

Ice Cream On Board

Ice cream is often a special treat when you are on a boat.  No matter where you are, on a warm day it is nice to have a cool treat to enjoy.  But if your boat is like mine and your freezer doesn't really get cold enough to keep ice cream frozen, it is a rare treat that usually has to be purchased in a single-serving manner to be enjoyed at the time of purchase.  This isn't really a problem with my boat freezer, just a limitation of how a low power consumption 12 volt cold plate style boat refrigerator/freezer works.

Many people, in order to provide more freezer space for a long trip or just to keep things colder turn to portable refrigerator freezers.  These units often look like a cooler or ice chest, but inside they contain a small compressor driven refrigerator plate that usually runs on 12 to 24 volts DC.  The best units are well insulated, can maintain temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17.8C) and don't use a lot of power.  Of course the down side is the best of these also cost $800 or more for something the size of a medium size insulated cooler.

Of course I' say thrifty...and the price of these coolers was a non-starter for me.  Being stuck at the boat in the middle of this Covid19 pandemic, a better freezer option became a bit more important.  A better freezer would allow me to make fewer trips to the store as well as pre-chill items before adding them to my regular freezer (adding warm items to a cold plate fridge or freezer warms the items near them and is a potential food safety issue).  After doing a bit of looking, I found there were several other options for small compressor driven coolers at a much lower price point (from $200 to $300) and would run on 12 volts DC.  Of course, the question is how much "worse" are these than the much more expensive units?  Will they actually keep sub-freezing temperatures?  Will they use way too much power for use on a boat?  I looked through the reviews and finally chose one to give a try.

The unit I chose was the Joy Tutus 26 quart portable refrigerator.  I chose this unit because it claimed to be able to go to -7.6 degrees F, had a reasonable size with no handles that stick out so it would fit where I wanted to put it, claimed to hold reasonable temperatures for a while even with power disconnected, and had a company that at least had a web site and email addresses available (other than through Amazon) in case there were any warranty related issues. It was ordered through Amazon and arrived on time with no noticeable damage, although the driver apparently didn't see the right-side-up logo as it was sitting upside down (so, I had to turn it right side up and let it sit for 12 hours to make sure any compressor oil drained back to the compressor before startup). They claim the unit can run at up to a 30 or 35 degree angle, which should be more than sufficient for any boat or road trips taken with it.

The unit has a plastic exterior with non-skid feet and nothing but the 90 degree angle plug that sticks out to get hung up on anything (of course you need to make sure to not block the air louvers so it doesn't overheat).  The "buttons" are a touch-sensitive plastic panel that acts similarly to a smartphone touchscreen (doesn't appear to be mechanical).  Inside the cooler, the bottom pan is plastic and the side walls are painted metal and contain the cooling (evaporator) coils that seem to wrap all the way around the sides of the cooling chamber. A half-gallon milk jug does fit standing upright inside the chamber. The lid is also plastic with a foam rubber seal around the edge and uses magnets to hold the lid closed.  Unfortunately, the molding of the plastic lid may have resulted in a little bit of a bow and, with the seal in the lid having a tight tolerance, it leaves a very slight gap for about two inches in the front center of the lid (the seal failure is apparent as ice builds up at that location when in use as a freezer). Overall, for a relatively cheap cooler, the fit and finish aren't too bad other than the door seal. The unit comes with a 12/24 volt cigarette socket style power cord for direct DC operation and a "power brick" style transformer (like many laptops) so it can be used with 110/220 volt AC sources.

Operation is pretty straight forward.  Touching the on/off icon on the panel for 3 seconds turns the unit on.  The display shows the current temperature inside the unit.  Pressing the (+) or (-) buttons adjusts the temperature, pressing the setting (gear) button switches between Max and Eco modes.  If you press the setting and (+) at the same time for 3 seconds, the display switches the display between Fahrenheit and Celsius temperature display (but there is no indication on the display as to which way it is set).  After a minute or so with no buttons pressed, the touchscreen locks to prevent accidental adjustment or power off.  To unlock, you have to press the setting button for 3 seconds. The unit remembers the last setting and will resume where it left off after a power interruption (tested by unplugging for 2 hours).

After turning the unit on, the display read 70 degrees.  I set the unit for -8F in Eco mode and the display read 24 degrees in about 20 minutes, which is in-line with their claims for cooling (with the chamber empty).  After another 15 minutes it read 12 degrees.  At this point I placed a pre-frozen (~20F) half-gallon milk jug that was filled half-way with water into the unit.  I noted that the thermometer read 28 F at this time. After an hour from the initial turn on (with the pre-frozen jug now inside) the display read -3F and the inside thermometer was around 10F.  The unit didn't seem to get much colder according to the display over the next 40 minutes (the thermometer temperature did drop by a few degrees), so I switched it from Eco to Max mode.  It did eventually reach the displayed temperature of -8F, but it took a while and I honestly don't know the exact timing as I was only checking on it every 30 minutes to an hour at that point.

Freezer holding 1/2 gallon milk jug and making
ice.  You can see the lid seal issue as well.

For the power consumption tests, I used a KillAWatt meter and the AC adapter that came with the unit as I don't have any convenient way to measure power consumption over time using the direct DC chord.  As a result, the following numbers should be higher than actual performance if connected directly to a DC source due to the inherent losses in converting power from 120v AC to 12v DC. After the one test getting it to go to it's maximum cooling setting of -8F for a short period, most of the rest of the testing used settings between -1 and -3F.  The only things inside the cooler were a small, simple, refrigerator thermometer and a half gallon milk jug filled half-way with water (ice). I kept the ambient temperature in the boat between 76 and 79F for the tests.

It has two power consumption profiles, MAX and ECO.  From what I can tell, ECO just runs the compressor at a slower speed...and in the grand scheme of things doesn't appear to be much more economical (I suspect it is actually less but did not run many tests in both modes) just limits the max power it can consume at any one point in time (I assume it runs longer to reach/maintain a given temperature).

In MAX mode, I saw power usage when the compressor was running between 37 and 57 watts with the large majority of that between 38 and 42 watts.  If you assume no loss in the transformer, that max range would be 3 to 4.75 amps at 12 v DC nominal.  So, actual DC usage would again likely be less.

In ECO mode, I saw power usage between 35 and 42 watts with the majority between 30 and 35 watts.  Again converting to 12v DC and assuming no loss, that would be between 2.75 and 3.5 amps.

Over a 72 hour and 24 minute period, the KillAWatt reported 1.89 kw of power used from a point where I turned the cooler on after it was at room temperature of 77F, set it for -3F in Max mode and placed the frozen jug of water in it.  During this time I made ice using two regular refrigerator ice trays 3 times and checked the internal thermometer readings twice a day and noted any differences between what the display read and what the thermometer said. I figure this activity would roughly equate to normal usage of a freezer.  1890 watts over 72.4 hours is 26.1 watt/hours.  At 12.5vdc (~12v nominal in ~80% charged state) that would be 2.09 amp/hours or around 50.2 amps per day as a freezer.  I assume power consumption would be less if being used at refrigerator temperatures.

If I were to take a guess, I'd say that the power transformer brick is probably in the 80% efficient the 12v DC numbers above would make for a very conservative over estimation of actual power used when directly connected to a DC source.  Unfortunately, I just don't have the means to run this test using the direct DC connection. 

The last test I ran was to see how long it would keep contents cool without power.  So, when the cooler was reading -1F and the internal temperature was reading 5F, I placed the frozen jug of water and thermometer in the cooler, let it sit for a few minutes to stabilize, and then turned it off.  I then turned it back on momentarily after an hour and the display claimed the temperature had jumped to 24F.  Another hour later, I checked again and it claimed the temperature was 29F.  Another 45 minutes later, I checked again and it was up to 34F.  At this point I opened up the cooler to check the thermometer and it read 42F. Not the 10 hours from 0 to 34 that the original listing stated, even when having the frozen block of ice in the milk jug helping out.  The initial jump may have been related to opening the cooler when putting the ice jug into the cooler and the fact the ice jug was stored in my boat freezer at 18F...but the rise still seems faster than it should, again indicating the insulation isn't optimal.

So, from an energy use standpoint, this portable refrigerator/freezer doesn't seem bad.  Yes, it may be a bit higher than the really expensive ones, but it meets my needs quite well.

Now, didn't I mention ice cream?  Well, I did perform an ice cream test.  After the initial testing, I plugged the unit directly into one of the boats new DC sockets and set the refrigerator to -2F.  I bought a half-gallon (OK, 3 pints...since you can't get an actual half gallon of cheap ice cream these days) of house brand rocky road for the final test.  Over the course of the next week or so, I had ice cream as desert after dinner. The ice I made for drinks was the other item normally in this unit.  In my regular boat refrigerator, if you put ice cream in the freezer it wold be OK the first evening, soft serve the second evening, and a milk shake by the 3rd.  With this unit, the ice cream remained frozen and at a serving temperature of about 4 degrees F over the course of a week.

Other observations about the unit.  So far it seems quiet.  I can just hear it if it is the only thing running on the boat.  But if there is any other ambient noise, it drowns out the quiet hum of the compressor.  It sits just outside the always open door to my berth and I cannot hear it at all inside the berth. That makes it quite a bit less noisy than the small bar refrigerators like you usually find in hotel rooms.  When acting as a freezer, some condensation does occur on the sides and bottom of the unit, so the insulation isn't perfect.  As previously mentioned, the lid seal seems to have a very small leak right at the opening handle notch as ice slowly develops there.  I notice that when I place items in the lower left corner of the chamber (as viewed looking down from the front of the unit) the displayed temperature tends to quickly jump, so I believe this is the general location of the internal thermometer.

And speaking of the the temperatures I was testing, I found the internal chamber temperature measured with a thermometer at roughly the center of the chamber to be about 5 to 7 degrees higher than what was displayed by the unit.  This is not unexpected and, as anyone that has ever used a refrigerator that doesn't have a fan to circulate the air will know, is quite normal.

Is the unit as good as the much more expensive Engel or Dometic units, probably not.  But it does meet my needs and at a much more wallet friendly price.  Longevity is still a question, but if it lasts a while, I think it will make a nice addition to the boat.  I do really like having the ability to pre-chill leftovers before putting them in the boat freezer, having plenty of ice for drinks, and of course ice cream on board.  Now that I can make ice and store ice cream, I might have to give one of those ice cream maker balls a try.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Making the New Water Heater Last

On a boat, particularly in a salt water environment, a lot of corrosion occurs. We usually do what we can on a boat to prevent, or at least delay, the corrosion.  We use materials that are resistant to corrosion, we paint things, and we even use replaceable sacrificial metals to protect other metals.  Well...most of the time anyway...

If you recall in January when I returned to the boat, one of the items I had to replace was the water heater as it had developed a leak.  Well, I ordered one and did the replacement and have to say I've been happy with the results.  Hot running water is a nice thing to have...particularly for washing dishes and taking showers.  And I hadn't really thought of it much until a discussion on the longevity, or lack thereof, of boat water heaters occurred on the Leopard owners Facebook group.  The original poster was wondering...or complaining...about how he was only getting a couple years out of replacement water heaters.  And, of course, the heater he mentioned was the same one that I had just installed.  The usual types of replies about favorite brands and/or how nothing was made well anymore occurred, and then there was one reply that made me think...well duh, why hadn't I thought of that.

A sacrificial anode for the water heater. that
is made by the same company
Even cheap residential water heaters at the local big-box hardware stores come with sacrificial anodes installed.  Why on earth doesn't the boat water heater have one.  We have sacrificial zincs on propellers and propeller shafts, in engine cooling systems, on outboard motors, and just about any other piece of metal that touches the water.  But unlike every house on land, these water heaters don't seem to come with a sacrificial anode.  I guess that is why the boat water heater has a one year warranty when, for about the same price, a residential water heater comes with a 6 year warranty.  Well, as it turns out, you can actually buy a sacrificial anode rod for a boat water heater.  So, not wanting to go through replacing the water heater again in a couple years, I did.

Out with the old...
Since the boat water heater doesn't have a dedicated mounting location for the anode, they are designed to replace the existing drain valve on the water heater.  It was a bit of a pain to remove the plastic drain valve (it would have been much easier if I had known to do this before I installed the water heater...which is why I'm telling you about it now) as there is limited clearance with all the connections on the front.  Installing the anode with the integrated drain valve is easier. with the new.

While it may look like the drain valve is much smaller now, the actual opening inside that plastic valve is not much, if any, larger than on the replacement petcock. So I'm sure it will drain equally as slow either way.  Hopefully this $16 addition will extend the life of my new water heater by a few years.

Monday, May 4, 2020

New Sunroom

After building the hardtop for the boat, one of the next items needed was a replacement dodger.  For those that don't own a boat, the dodger is essentially the front windshield for a boat.  It isn't strictly necessary as, unlike a car, you aren't cruising along at speeds fast enough that something flying in from the front isn't likely to cause injury...but anyone that has spent much time at the helm of a boat on a less than perfect day may disagree.  When we completed the hardtop in Virginia it was around Christmas and we were in a hurry to head to warmer locations.  At the time I jury rigged the old dodger so we would have at least minimal protection.

The jury-rigged temporary dodger.
During that cold and rainy trip south, it became very apparent that just a simple dodger up front wasn't really sufficient to protect someone at the helm from bad weather.  The cold rain always seemed to be blowing in from the starboard side and that made manning the helm a miserable experience.  So, back before this virus when I was looking at heading to the Bahamas in February, a better dodger and side least for the starboard side...was very high on the upgrade list.

Having an enclosure made was not going to be an option as that would be too costly for something just to improve comfort for the upcoming trip (small sailboat enclosures usually cost more than $4000 and I'm sure mine would be much higher due to the size).  A while back we purchased a Sailrite sewing machine and part of the justification of that purchase was to tackle projects like this.  My goal was to create a cost effective and serviceable solution that could be used when needed and taken down most of the time. Just like the hardtop, this would be my first time attempting to create something new for the boat, so higher end materials were less of a concern.  If I really screwed things up, at least I wouldn't feel as bad about it if the materials didn't cost a fortune.

First thing was to come up with a design. At first blush, it seems like a fairly straight forward process...create some fabric and clear vinyl panels that would enclose the front and at least part of the sides of the cockpit.  Of course, the devil is in the details.  I wanted to utilize the existing lower mount for the old dodger and then there was what to do about the sheet winches that are right in the middle of where enclosure panels would normally go.  Ideally, having all the winches inside the enclosure so you can stay dry while adjusting sails would be good, but in the end I could not figure out a way to make that happen.  In the end I came up with a design for a front panel and two smaller side panels that would wrap around behind the winches so that one could at least operate the winches with the panels in place.  I also planned for partial panels along the sides so the helm would be protected.

From there I came up with an estimate of how much clear vinyl and material was needed for the project.  5 yards of vinyl and 4 yards of material looked like it would be enough.  Checking online, I was able to find a supposedly marine grade vinyl for about $85.  Sunbrella, on the other hand was about $25 to $35 per yard.  I decided to check a discount fabric store in nearby Wilmington and found they had a roll of Sunbrella in an off-white color that just about perfectly matched my gel-coat for $17 at yard.  Another $100 worth of zippers, snaps, thread, pattern material, and other sewing notions from Sailrite as well as reusing a few zippers from the old dodger and it looks like I could make an enclosure for around $300.  On that trip from Virginia, I'm sure my wife and I would have gladly paid $300 for the added comfort of a dry helm out of the wind.

Creating the dodger pattern.
After watching and re-watching several of the how-to videos from Sailrite, I began the process of creating patterns for the front dodger. Of course, creating patterns by myself, outside, in the wind was a bit of a challenge. Trying to get the plastic stretched tight and marked before the wind would come along and blow it all down took several tries and in the end was not perfect...but good enough. Creating the dodger in the salon, when the dodger spans the distance across the salon and galley was an interesting task.  I cut the Sunbrella material into the numerous strips I needed using a straight edge and wood burning tool. Fortunately some of the tricks I picked up from the how-to videos as well as judicious use of the Sailrite seam-stick basting tape for canvas helped a great deal with the assembly and sewing tasks.  After a lot of sewing, I had a new dodger that took advantage of the extra viewing area afforded by the new hardtop.

Cutting long strips of Sunbrella
Next came the two small panels that ran behind the winches.  It was a pretty straight forward process to pattern and create those small panels out of the Sunbrella material.  These panels extend past where the existing mounting hardware was, so I had to add snaps to hold the bottom of the panels.  While on the Sailrite site I found that they had a new type of snap called a Snad that utilizes 3M VHB tape so I wouldn't have to drill holes in the hull for conventional snaps. The only downside to the VHB based solution that I've found thus far is that it takes up to 72 hours for the snaps to fully bond to the surface.

Sewing the dodger.
After getting the winch panels done, I realized I actually had enough material to make full side panels for the cockpit instead of the half-width panels that I originally planned to make.  I was having a difficult time determining how to best secure the half panels, so this solved that problem...but created another.  Snaps were less likely to hold such a large panel in place in the wind so I had to come up with another solution to attach the panel to the arch.  While trying to figure out the best way to attach the panels, I went ahead and created the panels.  When I made the hardtop, I included a design element that would hopefully aid in the installation of a full enclosure.  The bottom of the "handrail" edge around the hardtop can be slit at the bottom creating an awning track.  This track would then allow for installation of enclosure panels using a pre-manufactured bolt rope that slides into the slot. The solution for holding the panel to the arch is essentially the same solution.  I took the old awning track that came off of the arch when I installed the hardtop, cut it in half, and attached the segments to the arch.  One more zipper per panel and more of the bolt rope, and viola, the panel is attached.  The boat now has a 3/4 enclosure, with the back left open.

The end result isn't perfect, but it is functional and doesn't look too bad.  The vinyl isn't as optically clear as the expensive stuff (it has minor distortions that I think are due to the manufacturing process) but it is good enough and well worth the trade-off for keeping warm and dry. If I keep up with the maintenance of the vinyl (regular polish and UV protectant...same as is recommended for the much more expensive vinyl products), I have confidence that they will last a long time and will be a nice addition to the boat.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Provisioning Tricks and Tools

Provisioning for a longer trip is always an interesting task on a boat.  Having to plan what to cook for an extended period of time, how much to purchase, and how to store the provisions are tasks that anyone cruising on a boat must tackle (unless you are lucky enough to be anchored somewhere that has a boat "drive up" or delivery service like Pizza Pi).  In this time of COVID19 restrictions, even though many are not actively cruising, longer term provisioning is a similar task for anyone that doesn't want to visit a grocery store often regardless of if they are living on a boat or on land.  But where do you start.
My galley...which never looks this clean.
Unless you are one of those rare people that could appear on the food show "Chopped" where people whip up decent meals from random ingredients, you will probably need some recipes.  The old school card catalogs, recipe binders and books are one way to have recipes handy, but they can take up a lot of valuable space on a boat, are subject to water damage, and require a lot of manual work for  planning and provisioning.  One tool I have found helpful is a recipe app for my smart phone and tablet.  While electronics are still susceptible to water damage, having the data stored on multiple devices and taking some precautions to protect them will help ensure they are available when you need them.

In addition to storing the recipes, these apps can often help with meal planning and creating shopping lists to simplify provisioning tasks.  I originally started using an app called Pepperplate and found it to be adequate, if a bit glitchy at times.  Unfortunately, just as we were preparing for the Bahamas trip, the makers of Pepperplate suddenly sprung a paid subscription model on their users with no way to export their recipe data.  That behavior didn't sit well with me so I quickly tried to find a replacement  (they later provided a simple export after much backlash and a significant hit to their reputation among their users).  The requirements for the replacement application were:

  • It must work on Android and preferably on Apple devices and Windows as well.
  • It must store recipes in a local database so it works even with no internet connection.
  • It must have some ability to generate meal plans for multiple days or weeks.
  • It must be able to generate shopping lists from recipes and meal plans.
  • It must have the ability to import/export recipe data.
  • It should have the ability to synchronize data between multiple devices.
  • It should have the ability to import recipes from popular online recipe sites.
  • It should have the ability to scale recipes to vary number of servings.

With limited time, I narrowed it down to the two applications Paprika and RecetteTek.  Paprika is rather well regarded, but the trial was limited, purchase is per platform or per device and per major release (as best I can tell), and I didn't have time to dive very deep into its functionality before purchase as we were preparing for the trip at the time and I needed to manually rescue my data from Pepperplate before they shut me down.  I decided to give RecetteTek a try as it seemed to have most of the features I wanted and was free so my crew could also use it to help with planning without incurring an additional cost.  I'll do a review on it at some later point.  In general, these apps help make planning and provisioning easier and you end up with a shopping checklist of items to purchase without ending up with a bunch of missing ingredients or excesses.

RecetteTek with some of my
recipes and provision entries.
Another trick I figured out that is related to the recipe app is provisioning for other non-recipe or non-food consumables.  I created a "recipe" in the app that simply includes a list of snack and condiment items like popcorn, chips, candy, mustard, salt, and pepper as ingredients so they can be easily added to the provisioning grocery list.  Another has non-food consumables like toiletries and cleaners with estimated quantities of consumption for one person for one week (so you can simply scale the "recipe" for number of crew and length of time and then add it to the shopping list).  This way I don't forget to get the ketchup, dish soap, or toilet paper.

Obviously storage space is limited on a boat, and cold storage is at a premium so canned and dry goods, and recipes that can use them, are a great help.  Still, one likes to have fresh...or at least frozen...items around.  Of course, even if you are lucky enough to have refrigeration on your boat, that system has some quirks too.  Unlike the big refrigerators you find in the average American kitchen, the efficient boat refrigerators are often top loading, smaller overall size, and lack an air circulation fan.  The result is you can put a lot into a smaller space and they can run fairly efficiently on 12 or 24 volt power, but it takes a lot longer to cool or freeze items.

I've found 3 tricks to deal with the boat refrigerator.  The first is to realize the refrigerator is most efficient and works best when it is full, not empty.  So, if I don't have a lot of stuff to fill the refrigerator or freezer, I will place old milk jugs full of water in it to take up space and provide more thermal mass than the air alone.  Another trick is to never put anything warm in the refrigerator or freezer.  Since there is no circulation fan, all cooling is of a radiant nature and warm items take a very long time to come to temperature.  In the process the warm item can also warm up surrounding items which makes the whole thing less safe. The last trick, particularly for the freezer, is to package as much as possible in single serving or single use packages. Smaller packages take less time to cool before putting them in the fridge, can freeze faster than larger packages, can often make better use of refrigerator space, and doesn't require you to repeatedly thaw and refreeze items when you need some.

Turning a broccoli crown into multiple freezer packs using
the hints from the National Center for Home food Preservation.

One last thought about food this is what prompted me to actually start writing this post.  In this day of COVID19 I've found I'm taking a better look at how I am storing food on the boat.  I know that some things that we regularly refrigerate don't actually require refrigeration.  I didn't realize that cabbage, which seems to be refrigerated in the store, actually does better sitting on my counter than it does in a bag in the fridge. With the shortage of canned options, I've also been freezing some fresh stuff for later use.  I found this website that has recommendations and best practices for freezing all sorts of things (like the broccoli above).  The website also has many tips and tricks for food storage.

I hope this is helpful for your provisioning it for a long cruise or just waiting out the current virus scare.  If you have other tips or tricks, I'd like to hear about feel free to let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Keeping Busy

At this time I believe that most of the U.S., despite the lack of a federal mandate,  has some sort of restrictions on the gatherings and movement of people in an attempt to slow the spread of the Corona virus pandemic.  Most have some variant of a "stay at home" or "shelter in place" order.  The result of which seems to be a lot of the point that people are <gasp!> even cleaning their own homes.  For a boat owner, finding something to do is pretty easy.  I've heard it said many times that if you think there is nothing to fix on your boat, you simply aren't looking hard enough.  In my case, it doesn't seem to take a lot of looking.

I think I've previously written about the work that I needed or really wanted to get done before making the trip.  A few things were known and there were many more that were discovered once I returned to the boat.  In hindsight, it is probably a good thing that there were so many items that resulted in delays to the trip, otherwise my crew and I may well be stuck in the Bahamas right now or figuring out how to make a direct sail back to the U.S.  If you are curious what is going on in the Bahamas right now with regard to boaters, you can click HERE to see the current (as of 4/15/20) situation.

Work on the boat does continue, albeit at a slower pace.  Part of that is due to the fact that it appears I will have a fair amount of time before this pandemic subsides so I'm not in a particular hurry now.  Another reason is that getting supplies has been complicated by the COVID19 pandemic response and other issues. There is also the conflict between the need of help for some tasks and physical distancing requirements/recommendations. 

The first delayed project has been the rigging.  Getting the rigging at a price that wouldn't scuttle the trip before it started was one of the first delays.  Now that I have the rigging, social distancing and travel restrictions prevent any further progress on that task for the time being.

The rigging finally arrived.  180 lbs or so.
Unable to find a suitable replacement dinghy at a reasonable price, the decision was made to try and refurbish my well sunburned dinghy.  Patch material, refurbishing paint, and replacement valves were ordered.  The patch that has leaked for as long as I have owned the boat has been re-patched and now holds air and another patch has been applied.  Initial base coats of the rubber paint has been applied and the dinghy now looks significantly better and holds air.  Unfortunately more base coat was required and the new can was found to have been partially solidified when it arrived, therefore a replacement had to be acquired.  It finally arrived yesterday, so naturally it is cold, rainy, and windy outside today.  But progress will continue on that project.

Dinghy original condition.

Dinghy after first base coats of restoration paint applied.

The partial cockpit dodger/enclosure was a project that I had planned to do before getting to the boat.  A trip my wife and I made from Virginia to Southport in early January, just after completing the hardtop build, emphasized the need for protecting the helm from the weather.  The front dodger was created a little while back and is up and functional.  After completing that part, I found I had enough material to do complete panels for the sides, so I altered the design and created those side panels.  Unfortunately, I was lacking a couple of zippers to complete the build and those arrived only a couple days ago.  So, that project is almost complete, again just waiting on the weather so I can do a final fit and determine the exact position for attaching the zippers and a couple additional snaps. 

Test fitting enclosure panels.
Since it appears that I will be on the boat for a while as the temperatures rise here in North Carolina, I decided to revisit continuing issues I have had with the raw water pump for the air conditioner.  After several attempts to repair the existing pump, the motor finally seized up and a replacement had to be ordered.  As is my usual luck, despite ordering the correct pump, the one that was shipped to me was not a 115 volt A/C pump but a 230 volt one.  That had to be returned and the correct one re-ordered from a more trustworthy supplier than Amazon.  The replacement arrived about a week later and was installed and I'm happy to report that the air conditioner is again operational.  Hopefully it will stay that way for a while.

My boat was a former charter boat and was equipped with several 115 volt AC plugs, but only one 12 volt DC plug.  Since the native boat power system is 12 volt DC, it is rather inefficient to convert power from the 12 volt battery bank to 115 volt AC using the inverter and then back to  DC voltage to power things like phone, radio, and flashlight chargers.  I have now installed two new 12 volt DC sockets to provide a more efficient means of utilizing the house battery power.  With the earlier addition of solar, the boat is now more self sufficient than ever before.

New 12 volt socket with USB charger in it.
There are other projects that I initially intended to defer until after the trip that are now getting some attention while I have time.  I wasn't happy with the velcro that was used when I initially recovered the salon cushions and have since reworked those covers.  I'm continuing to retrofit some of the lights with LED strips to further  lower power consumption.  I've finally managed to identify one of the leaks the boat had during heavy rains and will be looking at repair options for it.

Social distancing and my lack of desire to go to stores any more than absolutely necessary has also given me a chance to use supplies and practice techniques that come in handy when living in a remote anchorage or on passage.  Learning better techniques to store various fresh vegetables and what can be easily frozen to extend shelf life is a continuing process. I'm also getting better at controlling the boat oven for baking more delicate items like breads.  I've even tried Nido powdered milk that came recommended at The Boat Galley and have to admit it is almost as good as fresh and certainly suitable for baking and as a coffee creamer.

Speaking of not wanting to go out shopping, since I have a sewing machine handy, I offered to sew masks for the local hospital if they were in need.  Thus far, they have not indicated a need, but I am on their list of people to contact if the need arises.  I did create a couple masks for myself for if/when I need to go to the grocery store.  One of the other boaters here at the marina has a daughter that has an immune disorder, so I also made a couple masks for them. It was an interesting exercise to try and figure out materials I had on hand that would make a reasonable mask.  What I found was that non-woven fabrics were generally considered better than woven fabrics for trapping smaller particles.  What I ended up using for my own design (again, with what I already had on board...which was very limited) was the non-woven material used in some types of reusable shopping bags for the outer layer and a cotton bed sheet for the inner liner.  Since I have a spool of stainless steel safety wire, I used pieces of it to create the bendable nose bridge.  Although I can make no guarantees about the effectiveness of the masks, I'm reasonably confident they are far better than nothing. 

So, in these strange times, I continue to keep myself busy.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The New Normal

Well, this is certainly not a post I envisioned when I headed out to the boat to prepare for the trip to the Bahamas.  Up until recently I've been working hard to get the boat back into proper cruising shape and I think it is about there.  There is one big item left...but more on that later.

Unfortunately, while I was busy working on the boat, the SARS-Cov-2 (Coronavirus or COVID19) virus was busy spreading across the planet.  For a while, perhaps fueled by some of the mis-information that was available at the time, I had held out hope that the spread would slow or not reach the more remote places and small towns where I am or intended to travel.  Unfortunately that turned out not to be the case at all.

Around the time the replacement standing rigging finally arrived at the boat, it was increasingly evident that the trip was not likely to happen.  My help had gone back home several weeks prior while we awaited the creation and delivery of the rigging and it was obviously unwise for him to return to the boat once the rigging made it to the boat.  It also seemed like a bad idea for me to pack up, drive more than half-way across the continental United States and return home.  The idea of all that public contact by staying in hotels (if they were even open), eating fast food, and getting gas and supplies for the trip would only increase my risk of coming in contact with the virus and possibly spreading it with me.  So, I decided that I would "shelter in place" and take the time to continue working on the boat...albeit at a slower pace.

In some aspects, the cruising lifestyle lends itself rather well to physical isolation.  If you are on your boat and are well provisioned, it is fairly easy to isolate yourself from society for a relatively long period of time.  Unfortunately, if like me, you have not yet provisioned for a trip, all of the panic hoarding of supplies has made it almost impossible to provision now.  Trying to get groceries and supplies for a week or two can be an exercise in frustration.  Not only are you met with bare shelves, but physical isolation seems nearly impossible as everyone seems to crowd the stores trying to find coveted items like fresh meat, canned goods, cleaning goods, and toilet paper. Fortunately I was partially stocked for a trip with four people, so I do have enough to get least until our supply chain can catch up and some of the panic hopefully subsides.

Amid all the bad panic behaviors, there is also what seems like a sizable contingent (at least here in relatively rural North Carolina) that still believe this is a hoax, or just another flu, or will somehow disappear in a few weeks, or for other reasons that escape me, seem to ignore hygiene and physical distance recommendations of the scientific community. While I'm not at anchor and completely isolated, I am glad that I am at the farthest slip out at the far end of the marina, so there is very little traffic around my boat.

My hope is to reschedule this trip once all of this blows over.  In the meantime, I have a number of projects to work on...guess that is another advantage of owning a boat in these times...there is always something to fix or improve on a boat. I should also have a bit more time to catch up on blog posts. 

Hope you are all staying safe and finding good ways to pass the time.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Power of the Sun

As I eluded to in my last post, there is one project, or upgrade, that made the list along with the repairs, and it is something that I had wanted to do since before we built the hardtop. When Doug, my crew that came to help out with some of the repairs on the boat, came up with a system that wouldn't cost too much more than the fuel I anticipated we would use with the generator on the trip (at Bahamas prices), I decided it was a worthwhile investment.  I'm, of course, talking about adding solar power to the boat.

SoelCat 12, an autonomous solar electric catamaran
No, this is not my boat.

When I was designing the hardtop, I intentionally moved the sail viewing window forward just a bit in order to allow for the larger size panels you often see in residential applications as well as building in wire chases that could be used for solar.  At the time, getting panels for around $1 per watt was a very good deal.  Now the power output has increased and prices have fallen and you can get 320 watt panels that should put up with the marine environment for under $0.60 a watt.  He also found a MPPT solar controller that was getting pretty good reviews for $150.  A couple lengths of 6 gauge wire from the controller to the batteries, the special 10 gauge wire for hooking up the panels, a couple breakers, a wire gland for sealing the wire chase hole in the hardtop, a special tool for installing weatherproof MC4 connectors on the wires, and a couple other odds and ends for installation and I'd get "free" power from the sun.  Since Doug would be passing nearby the solar panel supplier on his way to the boat, it would also save me the (not insignificant) shipping cost for the panels.  The whole system would end up costing me around that magic $1/watt number that used to be reserved for just the panels.

The first step in the process, after getting all the materials to the boat, was to drill new holes in my beautiful hardtop.  Having worked so hard on that top, I had mixed emotions about drilling 5 holes for each panel in it...but if I wanted solar it had to be done.  We brought one of the panels to the boat, attached the mounting brackets to it, and marked the four mounting hole locations for each panel.  We carefully determined where the middle of the wire chase was on the underside of the top and marked the larger hole for the wire chases.  Using my drill guide, I drilled oversized holes until we reached the bottom fiberglass skin, cleaned them out, filled them with epoxy (the top is foam cored, so I needed to create a sealed "sleeve" for the holes that would also act as a compression post to tighten bolts), and drilled the smaller final size hole at each location.  It all sounds simple enough, but this is a boat project so we had to fight weather, wait for epoxy to cure, as well as other issues so making the holes ended up taking 3 or 4 days to complete.

Carefully locating the center of the wire chase.

While waiting to complete the holes in the hardtop and get the panels mounted, we installed the solar controller, breaker, and wiring from the controller to the battery bank.  The solar controller and breaker were mounted in the engine room next to the original battery charger for the boat. The wiring was run from the large main bus bars below the main electrical panel (think of a bus bar as the extension of the positive and negative posts of the battery bank), through the breaker, and on to the controller.  The controller connection was another interesting problem to solve.  Our calculations showed that we should use 6 gauge wire for the charger, but the charger terminals would fit at most a 9 gauge wire (remember the larger the gauge number, the smaller the wire).  Since the controller is rated for 60 amps, it has two connectors for each of the positive and negative battery outputs and the instructions said to run two wires to the battery...probably done to save in production costs of the charger.  Well, I didn't want to double up wires. It turns out if you take a 6 gauge wire, strip off the cover, divide the wire strands in half, and re-twist them into two conductors you end up with two 9 gauge wires.  So, that is exactly what we did to the end of the 6 gauge wire cable.  Marine grade wire cables use thin diameter strands of wire for the conductor (for added flexibility) so it was a fairly easy process. Seal it all up with quality adhesive lined heat shrink tubing and viola, a custom single cable that hooks up to the controller. A few zip ties and zip tie mounts and the cables were installed.

Drilling and filling holes in the hardtop.

Once all the holes in the hardtop were ready, we mounted the solar panels and sealed the top sides of those holes with butyl tape.  We then used an electricians fish tape to pull wires from each of the solar panels through the unsecured gland boxes, the chases in the hardtop, and to the access panel in the top corner of the targa (arch at the rear of the boat).  There we used two Y adapters to connect the solar panels in parallel and ran the resulting single set of wire down the rest of the arch, into the engine room and over to the controller.

Making the custom connection wires.

After wiring the controller up, were now ready for a test.  Of course, we were ready at about 5pm and the sun was a short time away from setting, so this wouldn't be a real test of power generation, but it would be enough to verify everything is hooked up and working.  We flipped the breaker on the battery connection and the controller came to life and recognized it was connected to a 12 volt battery bank.  A few parameters were set in the controller and then the solar panels were connected.  We have power generation!  It was only about 150 watts coming from the panels and a couple amps going into the batteries (I don't recall the exact numbers), but it was proof that the system works.

Solar controller mounted next to the original charger.

The next day we did a second test.  It was fairly sunny and right around noon and....wait a minute.  It was only showing 150 watts from the panels and under 10 amps going into the batteries.  Oh yeah, need to turn off the regular charger and drain the batteries a was doing a constant voltage topping charge because my regular charger was taking care of the batteries while I'm plugged in at the dock.  I used the inverter and a space heater to pull some energy out of the batteries and then tried again.  That's more like it.  Even with the boat sitting so that one panel tilts a bit north and the sun was at best about 45 degrees from overhead, we were seeing 460 watts coming from the panels and 31 amps (at proper charge voltages) going to the batteries. Yay!

Data from the Android App.

I finished tidying up the wiring and checked the connections with my non-contact thermometer to make sure there wasn't any resistance causing heat build up.  We then reinstalled all the access panels and I glued down the wiring glands on the top so it is again waterproof.  The only thing left to do on the install is figure out some sort of skirting for the panels so lines don't accidentally get hung up under the panels.

Panels Installed except for line deflection skirting.

In the days since the initial install, I have run a number of other tests and found that, as long as I'm not running electric heaters or air conditioners, the setup seems to keep the batteries charged.  Of course the real test will be sitting at anchor when I have to use the inverter (or...shudder...the generator) for 120 volt AC service. 

I also found a glitch in the solar controller.  It was rarely going into its float charge state.  I contacted their technical support (which only seems to be available via e-mail) and found that the charger has a hard coded value for the switch over point from topping charge to float charge and doesn't take into account the recommendations of most of the battery manufacturers or size of the battery bank.  For most solar installs that have loads that take power most of the time, this isn't really an issue as charging time is limited by sunlight hours.  The only time it comes into play is when the battery is fully charged and there isn't a load (like a boat in storage). I was informed that, at the price point of the charger, the manufacturer would not change the programming of the device to better align with the lead acid battery manufacturer recommendations. Fortunately there is an easy work-around by simply setting the controller to limit the charge voltage to the lower values used for float charging when the system isn't actively used.  With the WiFi feature of this controller, it is easily done.  Not the ideal solution, but good enough for my purpose.

Overall I'm happy with the result.  One of the things I really hated was to have to start the generator in an otherwise peaceful anchorage in order to recharge batteries.  With this addition, I hope I won't have to do that very often.  Not having to burn fossil fuels in order to produce energy is also a good feeling.