Aug 082012

I would love to be able to live without the need for electricity.  It shouldn’t be that hard should it?  After all, up until a hundred years or so ago, we all did just fine without it.  But alas, no more.  We are as dependent on that power coming out of the walls as we are on food, water, and air.  We can get by without electric, but life would be not near as easy.  We pay our money, and gets our juice.  And so it is here on the Fritter.

Sailboats are just like cars or motorcycles or rv’s.  They require some sort of power for the essentials like lights and radios, and if they are big enough, for other things.  And like other vehicles, sailboats operate primarily on a 12 volt system.  If you ain’t familiar with all the ins and outs of the differences between a 12 volt system and say, the 110 volt system that powers your standard house, well, you’ll find no education here.  In spite of all the training I had in motorcycle electrics, I’m still not that good at explaining all the ins and outs of volts, amps, and currents.  I do know just enough to either get me in trouble, start a minor fire, or electrocute somebody, but that won’t stop me from posting all about it.

Anyways, the 12 volt system is pretty simple.  On a boat you have a power source, usually a large battery or bank of batteries.  Marine batteries are the most common on the water.  They are designed to provide more power, and built to handle the damp, salty environment.  They are very heavy and expensive.  From the battery are the leads, or big frickkin wires that go to a panel.  From that panel go more wires to a control panel with on/off buttons and fuses for the different systems on the vessel.  Then additional wires go to the actual systems, lights, radios, whatever.  The batteries don’t charge themselves so they need some sort of generator.  Vehicles have that, it’s called an alternator.  The alternator is powered by the engine and will continue to recharge a battery as long as the engine is running.  On a vessel, you can also charge the battery by engine, if you have one, or use some alternative methods which I will discuss further down.  All in all, the 12 volt system is pretty efficient, easy to maintain, and will power most of the basic needs of a small vessel like the Fritter.  As for other things though, it gets complicated.

If you are living aboard a vessel, chances are you will need to power other things besides lights, radios, and bilge pumps.  You may have appliances, computers, air conditioning units, and other power hungry items.  12 volts won’t cut it in keeping all that stuff running so, you will need to bring in power from shore.  In most cases, if you are at a marina or slip, there will be shore power available.  You can run a heavy duty line from a box on shore to the vessel, similar to a rv in a campground.  If so equipped, your vessel can then charge the batteries while at the same time provide power to any other appliances using an inverter and the correct plug ins.  It’s no different than plugging into the grid anywhere else.

However, not all vessels are the same, and thats where we come to what the Fritter has, and what I would eventually like to do, electricity wise.

What I have:  The Fritter is a 33 year old sailboat.  Most of the original equipment has been replaced or will need to be replaced, at least as far as electrics are concerned.  There is no plug in for shore power that I have found yet.  There is a 12 volt system on board but how much of it is still working remains to be seen.  There are two batteries on board, one is still good, the other is dead, according to the previous owner.  As far as I know he did have all the navigation and anchor lights working recently along with some of the 12 volt cabin lights.  I haven’t had time to fiddle around with any of it yet.  In addition to the 12 volt system there is a working window unit air conditioner on board and one of those little cube refrigerators.   There is shore power in two versions.  The 50 amp heavy duty for vessels so equipped, and two 110 outlets that I can plug into, which I have.  After a trip to Home Depot and $60 later I had an industrial strength cable running into the Fritter with a standard power strip.  Into that I currently have the ac, the fridge, the computer and iphone plugged in.  All seems to be working fine so far.  I have no idea what my electric bill will be but I suspect it will be around the same as the past apartment.  For cabin lights, I have one single LED flashlight for the moment that puts out a surprisingly large amount of light and is easy on the batteries.  Should I need to run anymore appliances I may need to add another cord.  For now it all works.

What I want:  For my meager lifestyle, generating enough electricity shouldn’t be a big problem.  I would very much prefer to not to have to hook into the shore power if I could but for now it is not feasible.  The ac unit and the fridge simply use too much to be powered by batteries.  The ac unit is pretty much set.  I have to have it, at least for the summer.  I may be able to get by without it in winter but winter is a long way off.  The fridge is needed too but there is an alternative which I will discuss later when I post about the galley.  The iphone and computer can easily be charged off an inverter running from the batteries.

For the batteries themselves, I could probably get by with two standard marine batteries.  One for powering the lights and other systems, the second would be what is called the house battery.  The house battery would take care of the cabin and all the stuff in there.  As I mentioned before, marine batteries are heavy and expensive.  I would love to go with lithium ion which are much smaller batteries but way more expensive.  Golf cart batteries are a consideration too.

To charge these batteries is where the real cost comes in.  On a sailboat there are two options:  solar and wind.  Most every sailboat that houses live aboards here in the marina, and elsewhere has either a solar panel, wind generator, or both.

A combination of the two is probably best to take advantage of the local climate.  The sun is out pretty much every day around the Keys and the wind is always blowing.  While there are continuing advances in the technology of both systems, each one will set you back at least a $1000 or more.  Then you have to hook it all up.  While the initial cost is high, and if your monthly electric bill is only $30 or so, it would take a long time to recover your investment.  But, the upside is you would have plenty of power and it will stay on when the grid goes down due to a storm, a drunk driver running into a transformer, or the local nuclear power plant having a meltdown.  Other than the ac, you can keep all the systems running on your vessel and not be tied to any shore power.  The whole thing makes sense and the same logic can be applied to an rv or a house, if you can get by the local zoning and HOA bullshit.  But for a sailboat, solar and wind is a no brainer.  It’s the initial cost that holds things up.

In addition to solar and wind generators, there are other things I would do.  Converting all lighting to LED would use virtually no power and last for years.  Using things that don’t actually require electricity to run, like a bowl and a spoon instead of an electric mixer, things along that line, would also eliminate the need to generate a lot of power.  The technology is there to do all this, the money, is someplace else.

Reality:  If I’m going to accomplish any of this I will have a lot of work on my hands.  I will need to trace and probably re wire most of the systems on the boat.  Many of the wires are in places that are not easy to reach.  I will need to replace both batteries most likely, and then start converting lights and other things over.  It’s a long process and expensive.  One thing I need to look at in all this is if it is worth it to drop a lot of money on a boat that I only spent $2000 to buy.  Making all these improvements isn’t going to add that much value to the Fritter later on down the road.  I can get by just fine with the shore power for now but I will need to get the navigation lights, radio, and bilge pumps working, just so I am legal on the water.   But I will need to do something in the near future to at least make the Fritter somewhat independent of shore power.

The whole idea of getting rid of the grid and producing one’s own electrical power is one of the things that attracted me to living aboard.  In spite of the costs, it is feasible to set up a boat to be independent of the need to be hooked up to land.  It’s now a question of when I can afford to do all this and if it is worth the cost to do it on the Fritter.

Capt. Fritter

  One Response to “Living Aboard, Electric Power…”

  1. good grief.
    it sounds all too complicated.
    no wonder more people don’t live on boats.
    but then that’s a good thing.
    keeps the masses at bay.
    there are some things i am not willing to give up.
    a flushing toilet. a sufficient light to read by. running water.
    i could do it otherwise. but at my age i don’t want to.
    i think you can or could (using the collective ‘you’ here) still
    live the minimal life without giving up on the basics.
    the idea is not to waste. i think waste is the key word.
    perhaps totally off the grid and major waste are just extremes
    of the pendulum. granted… the waste is winning and the off grid
    people are admirable. the idea in my mind is simply to know
    enough to use just enough, and no more just because you can.
    (it’s true… those small led flashlights can amazingly light up a room!)