We recently replaced, and increased the capacity of, our house battery bank on Morgan’s Cloud. To add to the fun and games, our venerable Link 2000 battery monitor had just bit the big one after 23 years of faithful service.
While we were at it, it seemed like a good time to go through our entire battery system and upgrade it to the latest ABYC standards. For example, 23 years ago when I last went through this exercise, I was considered an early innovator (and not a little anal retentive) for fusing the batteries. But our old fuses and their mounts did not meet present standards, so it seemed like I might as well fix that too.
And, while I suspect that our battery box and the lid that kept the batteries in place in the event of a knock down were more robust than most, I was never entirely happy with the set up, so we decided to rebuild the whole area, including adding some aluminum extrusions to distribute loads to the hull ribs (aluminum boat).
Wait, there was more. If we were going to upgrade our battery size, it only made sense to add a bigger charger so we could charge the new bank with our generator in the same time as the old bank and load the generator more as well.
And then what about renewables? Seemed like it might be time to look at adding some solar panels…but what kind? And which controller/regulator to go with them? (In many ways the latter decision is more important than the former.)
Should Be Easy Enough…
Given my training as an electronics technician and my experience with boat electrical systems going back some 40 years, including three complete re-wiring projects, I thought all of this would be relatively simple to specify and design.
Not a bit of it. I spent days measuring, researching, and sweating over a hot computer to come up with a bill of materials.
“What took you so long, John?”, I can hear you ask. The answer? The seduction of complication. I spent over half that time “researching” the options—a euphemism for surfing the internet looking at cool technology:
- What kind of battery?
- Should I look at lithium? (More on my decision-making process on this in the next chapter.)
- These carbon foam batteries look interesting. (More in a later chapter.)
- How to construct the bank: serial or parallel; 12, 6, or 2 volt batteries? (Article coming on that.)
- Split the house bank in two…or not?
- Maybe I should build a new battery monitoring system using NMEA 2000 components?
- Or how about one of these cool network systems that control everything?
- And with that cool stuff I could monitor the entire electrical system from a computer;
- even if we are not on the boat.
- And check out this cool app for my iPhone.
I couldn’t believe how complex this stuff has become in the two decades since I last went through this process.
On and on I went…round and round…as the summer slipped away…while I got exactly nothing useful done. I was in the grips of analysis paralysis. And worse still, I had been seduced by complication and the urge to build a system that was as good as it could possibly be.
Cold Reality Shower
Finally, I sat myself down for a good talking-to that went like this:
John, my boy,
- You are wan…wait, that will never get past my editor…how about playing with…no, that won’t fly either…but you know what I mean.
- You have voyaged over 100,000 miles in this boat over 23 years with no significant electrical failures—there has always been electricity when we needed it—with the current relatively simple system.
- You’re as bad as those marine electronics hobbyists that you rant about.
- You are 65 years old and time is slipping by, do you want the greatest system in the world, or do you want to get back out sailing?
Back to Basics
So, after that self-inflicted battering, I decided that I would:
- Install the same technology batteries. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
- Install a non-networking battery management system that works just like our old Link 2000.
- Defer worrying about solar to…maybe next year…maybe never. (Given our abhorrence of deck clutter, the contribution from solar we can properly mount will be a small percentage of our quite large electrical usage.)
- Stick with the chargers we have, at least for the moment.
- Concentrate on simple elegance and meeting ABYC standards in the wiring.
- Make damned sure that the batteries will stay put in a knockdown.
In summary, I decided to duplicate the system that has served us so well for more than two decades but add a few important incremental upgrades. Or, to put it another way, focus my energies on the important stuff like making sure the batteries stay put and nothing bursts into flame, rather than getting distracted by cool features that will contribute nothing to safe and comfortable voyaging.
And, most important of all, I would get on with it!
The point being that I, who have repeatedly ranted against unnecessary complication, nearly got seduced by the idea of building the best system, when in reality, we already had a system that worked pretty much flawlessly. How stupid is that?
This whole exercise once again reminded me that trying to make gear on our boats perfect and insanely cool is probably the biggest obstacle to actually getting out there voyaging.
If I had given in to the seduction of complication: the fancy ads, the forum “wisdom” that says we should all have super cool renewable energy systems, lithium batteries, and on it goes…I would be a septuagenarian before we got sailing again…a broke septuagenarian.
And, further, I think that each of us needs to define simplicity based on our own skills and needs.
For example, Phyllis and I have made decisions like having a big freezer and a relatively big boat that requires a large autopilot—part of optimizing for cruising in remote places. And that in turn requires a certain amount of complication, our generator being the most notable example. This works fine for us, albeit at a cost in money and time, because of my skills and training.
What About You?
But the complexity trap is even more dangerous for the non-technical. So if that describes you—nothing wrong with that, we are all different and I’m sure you have skills I haven’t got—at least give some consideration to going voyaging with:
- No autopilot (use a vane gear).
- No large fridge.
- No freezer of significant size.
Which in turn will let you get away with:
- A small, simple, and cheap liquid-filled lead acid battery bank.
- A couple of properly mounted solar panels.
- A simple, easy-to-understand battery monitoring system.
And that in turn will let you get out there sailing many months ahead of the owner who elects to go complicated, and with way more money in the cruising kitty.
And, perhaps most important of all, you will enjoy sailing your boat and enjoying the places you visit way more than if you gave in to the seduction of complexity and the unrealistic goal of perfection. A course that would inevitably condemn you to a cruise blighted by an unreliable electrical system that you are not qualified, by training, or the desire to acquire the skills, to fix.
And let me make clear that I, even though I’m a techie, will not think one jot the less of you for taking the simple way. In fact, I will admire your self-awareness and willingness not to be bum-rushed by the crowd into a way that is not yours.