One of the biggest snow jobs in boat gear sales is the myth of the smart three-stage alternator regulator. In fact, the alternator voltage regulators that have been available to us cruisers for about the last 15 years are not that bright...OK, they're downright stupid.
They're so stupid that they can't even perform their primary function of charging our batteries properly until full.
I know what you're thinking:
John is saying that a piece of gear with tens of thousands of units installed (that's a guess) in boats, and thousands more sold every year, that's so fundamental to comfortable live-aboard life, does not even work. Clearly he has lost his grip.
I totally get your scepticism. Heck, when our old, and sadly no longer made, Link 2000-R regulator died—the last cruiser's alternator regulator that was actually smart—I bought the then, and now, most popular "smart three-stage regulator" thinking that it would work, too.
I settled down and read the whole manual looking for the fundamental capability that would make it usable on a liveaboard cruising boat, and got to the end to find...nada. So I figured there were pages missing...nope.
What Matters in Alternator Regulators
What's that fundamental capability? The ability to measure when our batteries are full and reduce the voltage output by the alternator to float.
Sounds pretty simple, right? And it is. All you need is a shunt in a cable to the house battery to measure that current—often already there on a cruising boat to support a battery monitor—and a bit of simple logic in the regulator to turn the charge voltage down to float (typically 13.4 volts) when the above threshold is reached, but not before.
Easy peasy. But since the death of the Link 2000-R, and a rather complicated regulator from Ample Power (no longer in business), there has been no alternator regulator available, at least that I have found, that could do that simple fundamental thing.
How Could This Be?
Why? Beats the crap out of me. Maybe because few boat owners really understand how batteries charge and, even more distressingly, very few technicians in boatyards do, either, so the industry got away with selling stupid regulators for years, and they even had the nerve to call stupid smart—the power of marketing.
Stupid Is As Stupid Does
Rather than making that simple required measurement, these stupid regulators guesstimate using a combination of time and how much the regulator needed to juice the alternator field coil to maintain the acceptance voltage. That's bad enough, since different alternators have different relationships between field and output current (amperage) and, of course, how long a battery will take to charge will depend on how much it was discharged...duh.
Making Stupid Worse
The way the manufacturers of stupid regulators get around this fundamental weakness is by shipping the regulator factory programmed to chronically undercharge the batteries, to the point that the regulator will typically cut the charge current back to float in less than two hours, even though a lead acid battery bank discharged even just 25% will typically take at least four hours to fully recharge, no matter how big the alternator—if you don't believe that, see Further Reading.
Now this can be kind of fixed, in a klugy way, by reprogramming the regulator, which is what I did, and then wrote an article about it to help others, recently deleted since this new regulator makes it obsolete.
At Last, Real Smarts
But now, finally, we have, once again, a truly smart regulator. Let's take a look:
John, I have a Victron shunt already installed. Can I piggy-back on it for this application?
Bob, I think the shunt will work just fine, it’s a standard 500 amp, 50 MV, great regulator
As long as it meets the requirements of the regulator, then yes. Also I think, but have not verified, that the regulator can be programmed for different shunts. The manuals for both products are on line, so you can verify the suitability of the shunt before buying.
The only other issues I can think of is whether or not the Victron shunt has separate screws for the sense wires from the regulator. It may not since it uses telephone type cable to communicate with with the monitor. If not you could connect the sense wires with an added large ring terminal placed on the main bolts on top of the battery cable terminals, however I’m not a fan of doing that because it increases the chances of a poor connection.
The other issue would be if you are set up, as we are, with the house bank split into two with two victron shunts for two battery monitors. In that case you would need a third shunt for the regulator installed in the negatives from both banks brought together after the victron shunts and before the main buss bars where the alternator would connect.
These are great! I installed and tested a prototype 2 years ago at Skagit Valley College, now the programming is easier! Any battery type, AGM, FireFly, lithium. We are installing 2 more this summer, one on my own boat.
Good to hear.
I’ve been spec’ing them for the last year, primarily for lithium ion systems; I’m a fan. They are collaborating closely with Lithionics of Clearwater FL, the industry’s only UL Listed LFP battery manufacturer, yet another feather in their cap.
Good to hear that they are working out on lithium too.
When I suggested putting 2 LiFePO4 batteries on my J boat, I was told that the yard’s experience with these batteries was negative. Even with J installations on new boats. Is this perhaps due to a regulator not being programmed to LiFePO4?
Thats’ likely a factor, albeit not the only one. You can’t just swap in LiFePO4 without also replacing or reprogramming the controllers for all the charging sources. The performance curves are totally different, and a regulator configured for Pb-H2SO4 is virtually guaranteed to cause a spectrum of problems with lithium.
LiFePO4 is now a mature technology, and properly installed & configured setups are proving to be quite reliable (albeit still expensive).
Probably not. There’s a lot more to installing lithium batteries than just reprogramming the alternator regulator. In most cases with an existing boat to do it right means tearing out the entire battery wiring system and starting again.
For most of us, doing lithium right on an existing boat, is not worth the expense and agro. More here:
Hi John C,
That’s a question with many possible answers, some well founded, most not so. Most likely they were just using other less obvious words for “We are not competent”. Incompetent people, including the majority of professional boat techs, not admitting to their incompetence, is definitely the most normal reason for problems with lithium.
The second most normal reason, which is mostly related to greed and poor morale, but also the above reason, is that inferior batteries are chosen. Drop-in batteries look like normal batteries and are often marketed as being ready for, as the name says, just dropping them in where the lead batteries were. This is a flat out lie, a scam to sell more. The systems MUST be adapted, most likely changed significantly. Since a large number of installations fail at this point, bad customer experiences pile up.
Drop-in type batteries can be made almost as good as Prismatic cell type systems, but most are far from it! In general, prismatic cell systems last more than twice as long, are far more efficient and handle several times as much power, Amps, both in and out. The price, including a (real) pro to do the setup, is often even lower than equivalent drop-in, with the same service. Read what the guru Rod Collins say about drop-ins. This is a great but very (!) long article. You can scroll a bit down to the title “What about drop-ins?” https://marinehowto.com/lifepo4-batteries-on-boats/
Rod’s Marine How To article is very interesting, I’ve referred clients to it on several occasions. As always he does a great job with thoroughly testing this technology.
It believe it was written in 2017. In the world of lithium ion batteries that’s a very long time, and much has changed.
You say, “Drop-in batteries look like normal batteries and are often marketed as being ready for, as the name says, just dropping them in where the lead batteries were. This is a flat out lie, a scam to sell more.”
Today that’s not only an overly-broad statement, it’s also incorrect, or at least dated, and I know a few LI battery manufacturers who would even say it’s a lie. Yes, there may be some drop-in LI manufacturers who are unscrupulous, but that’s true of externally regulated LI battery manufacturers as well.
I sit on the ABYC Project Technical Committee tasked with writing the new, soon to be released, LI battery standard, TE13. My fellow committee member are among the most learned in the industry when it comes to LI batteries.
The Standard requires the use if a BMS, “A BMS should be tested and constructed to recognized or accepted standards. A BMS should be designed and tested to manage overcharging and over-discharging.”
Nowhere in the standard does it indicate that the BMS must be external to the battery. If a drop-in battery has a BMS that, “meets recognized or accepted standards”, it’s compliant.
One of the issues with LI batteries, or any new technology, is it changes rapidly, and as such there will always be a (larger) contingent of people whose information is outdated. That’s understandable, however, where LI is concerned it can be dangerous, as errors can lead to failures, loss of vessel power and fires.
Finally, Marine How To not only approves of drop in LI batteries, they sell them. Here’s what they say…
“With drop-in style LiFePO4 batteries gaining in popularity, and our customers asking us for them on a near daily basis, we examined nearly every drop-in LFP battery option available for our customers over a 13 month period. Hands down the Lithioncs 12V125A-G31-5CND-LRB was the clear winner on every front. This is a 125Ah G-31 (actually 1/2″ shorter than a typical 13″ long G-31) format battery that is capable of engine cranking and includes a Bluetooth Interface. It is also made here in the USA (with the exception of the prismatic LiFePO4 cells).
The internal construction of this battery is the best we’ve seen including massively thick nickel plated busbars and the proprietary Lithionics NEVERDIE® BMS which is designed and built here, in the USA. The battery even features an ON/OFF switch for storage, and for use during hook up to minimize errors and arcing during installation. Another unique feature of the NEVERDIE® BMS offers Power Reserve. This means the battery will self protect, at a safe level, but for an emergency you can re-boot it and have emergency level energy available.” https://shop.marinehowto.com/products/12v125a-g31-5cnd-lrb
I’m a fan of Lithionics batteries, and as I noted earlier they work closely with Wakespeed. I’ve been to their very impressive manufacturing facility in Clearwater FL. Knowing, and seeing, all that goes into their products, I trust them to make a safe LFP battery, internal or external BMS. But, they are not alone, there are other reputable manufacturers making internally-regulated LFP batteries.
That’s all great but I would still contend, as I think RC would, that the idea of drop in replacement of lead acid is a lie. The reasons that regardless of where the BMS is—and I agree that internal and external don’t make lot of difference—the boat’s electrical system must be modified substantially to accept a lithium battery.
Just one example is that if the alternator is charging the lithium battery and it reaches full charge the BMS will abruptly disconnect the battery, which on a boat set up for lead acid will result in blowing the diodes on the alternator and an inductive spike that will likely damage a bunch of electronics in the boat.
This problem can be solved but it’s not trivial. One solution is by having the BMS pull a relay that transfers the alternator output to a lead acid starter batter just before it cuts off the lithium. Another is for the BMS to talk to the alternator regulator and shut it down, rather than initiating a panic disconnect of the bank.
Also in most boats the shore power chargers will need to be changed to ones that can be controlled by a BMS or at least ones that have lithium programs. And that still leaves what to do about other charging sources like wind and solar.
All these problems are indeed solvable—both Victron and Mastervolt have complete systems that address these issues very elegantly, and I’m sure there are others—but the idea of just pulling the lead acid battery out and dropping in a lithium is indeed a lie, and probably always will be.
Or to put it another way. To me “drop in” means without redesigning the surrounding systems, and clearly that’s not true.
None of this is to say that lithium is not a good alternative for some, particularly new builds, but it’s also not a “drop in” panacea as some vendors would have the unwary believe—I stood and listened at the booth of one of these vendors at the US Sailboat show and over 10 minutes heard some real woppers being told.
Yes, the definition of “drop in” is not entirely standardized, that’s for certain. Many of the requirements you describe are necessary for external BMS batteries as well, so no real difference there, although I’d argue you don’t necessarily need a complete rewiring; but that depends a great deal on the robustness of the original design. The distinction between the systems is really the lack of an external BMS, and the associated wiring.
I’ve encountered, in the last two years, several seemingly successful drop in scenarios, although these were modern vessels that were somewhat LFP ready. They required reprogramming of chargers and regulators, but little else. I’m not advocating this necessarily, all of the large new build projects I’m now working on (I’m in Taiwan now working on two of them) are getting external BMS LFP systems, and at the moment that remains my preference.
From what I’m seeing, the biggest issue with LFP systems, new and refit, is the strain they place on the wiring, as it’s now being loaded heavier and for longer than with AGMs, which is leading to overheating issues, of connections and alternators, and even chargers in some cases. The batteries on the other hand, have been nearly trouble free.
“None of this is to say that lithium is not a good alternative for some, particularly new builds, but it’s also not a “drop in” panacea as some vendors would have the unwary believe—I stood and listened at the booth of one of these vendors at the US Sailboat show and over 10 minutes heard some real woppers being told.” And you hear those only about drop in LI batteries;-)? Seriously, I hear those carnival barkers too, and I cringe.
To hold all drop in integral LI batteries up as frauds, using material from RC, when RC currently sells them, seemed outdated at best, and the “it’s a lie” claim struck me as overly broad, you can design a system to accept LI batteries that have integral BMS, and it can be safe and successful. However, I agree they can’t be swapped with conventional LA batteries without modifications, the extent of which depends entirely on the vessel.
Hi Steve and Stein,
Let’s leave it there shall we. We are a long way off topic and we already have an article on Lithium batteries which is, at least as far as I can see, still valid, so we are just going over old ground that we have already covered and getting away from the real point that regardless of chemistry we need alternator regulators that measure current.
Any more on lithium should be here where your valuable thoughts will be available for years to come, not buried in another subject: https://www.morganscloud.com/2018/05/05/battery-options-part-1-lithium/
I think we agree on most of these issues. The reason I use the strong words “lie” and “scam”, is that this is still very much the actual reality an uneducated customer will find. There’s no doubt that “drop-in” batteries can be made very good and that it’s probably what will eventually be the standard for most users. Still, large prismatic cells are arguably a better choice than hundreds of 18650 cells with loads of connections and enclosed electronics. Even if the latter is done well, just mechanics will be an issue, plus heat management, etc.
The trouble with lithium drop-in isn’t the good stuff, though. Not even that there is still a lot of obviously poor products being offered. The main problem seems to be the quantity of deeply flawed information available to potential users. Even a great product will fail if the info is wrong. The comment I reacted to is describing how he got turned off using lithium at all, because the “professional” opinion he was given was that they had bad experiences with it, probably meaning they had no experience at all and no competence. That seems to be the norm among leisure marine “tech” people, with a few bright stars of competence like you, here and there. Customers using Facebook posts and forums as their primary information source is a problem. “Professionals” doing the same is worse.
I’m not a professional on this, but quite competent for an amateur. I’m in contact with a lot of people about this and other boat related issues, partly as the admin of a 10 k member Facebook group, no less. 🙂 The amount of misinformation there has been limited because I hammer down on it and marketing is not allowed, but I notice how much shit is out there and how hard it is for normal boaters to find reliable good info on lithium. Very hard!
Rods article I agree is from around 2017, which absolutely does mean a lot has changed, but the article is being constantly revised and kept up to date with his current view on the issues. I also direct people there all the time. Frequently I read parts or the whole again, to be sure I don’t claim something wrong. Less than two months ago there must have been a major revision. Some passages were removed and others added. Probably more than I would notice. He’s been using a 400 Ah lithium house bank in his own boat for about 12 years (?) now, which due to frequent testing has been run way harder than most would do in a boat. It still gives more than 100% of the rated capacity. Winston prismatic cells. He’s got a LOT of experience.
Lithionics seem to have the right competence and attitude for great products. Victron seem similarly good. Battleborn mostly likewise. Probably many more good brands. These are most likely very good choices for the normal user, provided that they also have an actually competent installer to change the boat systems as needed. The latter seems to be very rare among the normal budget boaters. For nerds like me, I really think there are significantly better options at far lower prices than the mentioned brands, but that does need a different level of understanding.
When it comes to Wakespeed, I really like their thinking and product. I haven’t bought it yet, but probably will. By the way, I talked about the WS500 with a very nice guy in Balmar at METS Amsterdam last autumn. He said that they are working with connecting the smart shunt from their SG200 monitor to their regulators. In the future, they will have the same functionality as the WS500. Probably not this year…
One more issue: I criticise “drop-in” batteries and glorify prismatic cells. I may exaggerate the judgement on some issues, and as mentioned, false info is a bigger problem than poor products. Still, when looking at the alternative to drop-in; prismatic cells, there are some fundamental reasons why this is a better solution.
I already mentioned the very high number of cell and other connections in drop-ins, that can’t be serviced, and the issues with poor cooling of equally unserviceable electronics inside the same box. Even when this is done as well as possible, it’s still an inherently weaker solution than prismatic cells, giving far less performance. There is another problem, however, that I’m far less comfortable with:
The integrated nature of drop-in batteries and the large number of components means that the user has very little control over the system. We will have to trust the electronics to take care of the system. The system has automatic balancing of the cells. For this to work properly, we have to charge the battery full quite frequently and leave it on charge for some time so the BMS balancing feature has time to distribute the current slowly to the right cells.
This is a major problem, since lithium cells should be kept operating around half full and rarely be discharged too low or charged too full. Also, if we need the full capacity, we can charge it all the way up, but then we should absolutely never let it rest there. We need to start using it immediately. A pack that is mostly kept around 50% and almost always between 20% and 90% full, SOC, seems to triple its life, compared to the same system run to 100% on most cycles.
A system with prismatic cells can be easily programmed to stop at any level. It doesn’t need automatic balancing systems. The cells can easily be run at lower charge Voltage, like 13,8, without any reduction in speed. This stresses the cells far less than what drop-in cells live with. The cells in both systems are just as good, but the drop-in layout gives some unfixable problems. The only “benefit” they give is an illusion of a simpler to install and simpler to use system. None of those are true. As I see it, the only true benefit of drop-in batteries is that they are easier to buy. There are fewer items to buy.
Edit: I notice that I’m going too far into detail on an essentially off topic issue. This comment probably belongs in another thread…
? Not necessary to connect temperature sensor to alternator?
No, as I say in other chapters of this online book, all regulators, either stupid or smart, should have battery and alternator temperature sensors attached.
Another regulator which may offer the same functionality (control by amperage sensing at the shunt) is the Mastervolt Alpha Pro III regulator in combination with a MasterShunt at the batteries. Section 6.3.11 of the Alpha pro manual states: “The MasterShunt ….. measures the actual current that goes into the battery. When only a
small percentage of current is measured, the Alpha Pro III considers the battery to be full and switches to maintenance charging (float)”.
The same may apply to the Chargemaster battery chargers.
I say “may” because their manuals are maddeningly vague about what actually happens when their charging devices are connected to the MasterShunt.
That certainly sounds like they are doing it right. Pity about the manuals though. Still a call to the company would probably settle it one way or another.
I also have the MV Alpha Pro regulator. Via a free piece of windows software (mastervolt) and a somewhat costly USB interface this regulator can be heavily programmed and monitored to suit just about any configuration. The same regulator may be used on either a 12 or 24v system by flipping a switch.
That’s great, but do you have it connected to a shunt to measure net current into the battery? If not it’s not really any smarter than any other regulator, so that’s what we really need to know before we can add it to the list of really smart regulators.
I went to the site and didn’t find information about dual alternator control with 1 house bank. Does anyone know ?
Two 120 amp Balmar with one 660ah Firefly house
Hum that should theoretically be doable, with two regulators connected to the same shunt, or possibly with one regulator if it has that capability. Seem to remember that’s what the guy at Pambo was doing, so have a read of that and then maybe contact Wakespeed to make sure.
Anyway, should not be a big problem.
Hi Scott, the data sheet says it can be used for single engine dual alternator set ups by splitting the field connection. I’ve written to ask them for more details, will share here if/when I get an answer.
That sounds good, and I can see no theoretical reason why it would not work.
One of the big benefits of the CAN is the WS500’s ability to connect with other WS500 regulators in the system via a simple CAT5e cable when multiple alternators are used to charge a single battery bank. When two (or more) WS500 regulators are connected via the CAN in a twin (or multiple) engine application, each regulator will act independently (if only one engine is running). When subsequent engines are started, one of the regulators will be dominant, and the other(s) will act based on the charging decisions of the dominant regulator. No special switching devices or complicated wiring are required. Each regulator is only responsible for delivering the field current required to drive its respective alternator — so charging remains well balanced.
One thing I’ve never understood is how its possible to separate the charge current from load current. Given that, once the charge current is getting into the 0.5-1% of capacity you’re into territory where you really cant differentiate between charge and load – or can you.
Anyway, I’d agree that this method of using current should give most a much better chance of fully charged batteries without too much fiddling around
That’s the whole point of this post, this regulator can tell the difference. The first three chapters of this online book explain how all this works.
I read as much detail as I could find on the product website and I have previously read your book. I dont understand how its possible to differentiate charge from load current without some very clever circuitry which the product documentation doesnt even hint at. In its way its not dissimilar to what RC describes as the Link 2000 ‘gotcha’, where that device could be fooled that the batteries were charged. I’ve also read Panbos summary and can visualise his overcharge problem.
I have a Link 2000, so I’m used to a current counting system. To really differentiate between charge and load you’d need two shunts, one on each line and a comparator circuit, wouldnt you?
So, I’m not knocking this charger, I think it adds a lot of value for the ‘average’ boater. But there is this area that I cant visualise, sorry.
No, two shunts are not required.
The way to understand it is the batteries are on one side of the shunt and the loads and alternator are on the other side. Therefore the shunt only sees the amount of current that’s left over to charge the batteries after the loads have taken what the need. Once again the water and plumbing metaphor that I use in the first chapters about ohms law helps visualize this.
Fair enough, got it – thanks
The point about this regulator seems to be not that it does anything special to separate the charge going to the battery from the load, but that it bothers to USE the current actually going to the battery as a way of controlling the alternator power. The shunt setup looks totally normal.
John, Can you please confirm my understanding that it can just SHARE the same existing shunt that is already feeding the battery monitor ( if the right specification)?
Yes, that’s it. Many yachties think their regulator is using a shunt just because there is one installed, but 99% (guess) of the time said shunt is only connected to the battery monitor, and not, as you say, being used by the alternator regulator.
As far as using an existing shunt, yes, all good as long as: https://www.morganscloud.com/wp-admin/comment.php?action=editcomment&c=294048
Actually you cannot really tell them apart – as soon as you put a load on the system this will reduce the “amperage” going into the battery. An example: a 200Ah bank would, at a given moment, accept 1A of inrush current, which makes it for the 0.5% acceptance, and the smart regulator would switch from bulk to float. Lets assume however that the fridge had activated and is currently drawing 3A, so the sum that the shunt (and the regulator) sees is 4A and the regulator would continue to feed bulk voltage. Which doesn’t hurt at all, the fridge would be fed by the charger and the battery bank would still only draw 1A. As soon as the fridge stops, the current will drop to 1A and the regulator would switch to float voltage.
Thinking a bit more about my post I need to correct the assumption that the shunt “will see the sum of charge plus house load”. If it did it would be wired incorrrectly. So please disregard my above post as it is plain wrong.
The correct position for the shunt is directly on the battery, with nothing being connected in between, so that every current going in AND out will always have to pass the shunt.
So the correct sequence as seen from the regulator would be regulator – house load negative – shunt – battery.
And if wired correctly it is now clear that the shunt will only see the 1A that goes into the battery so the regulator would indeed switch to float voltage, regardless if the assumed fridge would draw 3A or not. And since the float voltage is still above the nominal battery voltage (it wouldn’t charge at all if it weren’t) the 3A for the assumed fridge will still be delivered from the regulator instead of the batteries. The regulator would deliver 4A, but if it depends on the shunt and not “own” or “built-in” measurements it would do this at float voltage, not at bulk voltage.
these new regulators sound like a valuable development, definitely to be welcomed.
One word of caution for anyone thinking of installing one with a new(ish) boat, where the engine warranty is intact – do check that installing one would not affect your engine warranty. Some engine manufacturers can be awfully picky about ‘smart’ regulators.
Good point, although a sad one. For others: one of the reasons Colin and I are such fan boys of the Beta Marine engines is that they are more than happy to provide a large externally regulated alternator, that will work with this regulator, on their engines. I have also heard that Yanmar have finally smelled the coffee on this one, leaving Volvo as the notable hold out.
Not sure that’s an entirely fair criticism, as Volvo do not preclude other alternators being used (though I can’t comment on warranty issues). Volvo sell an engine mount / adaptor kit (including new serpentine drive belt) for our 17 year old Volvo D2 55, specifically for mounting a MasterVolt 130 Amp alternator (the factory fitted unit was only 60 Amp on our engine). The MV alternator then uses their own “Alpha-Pro” smart regulator that regulates the battery charging regime. So the MV alternator is not only approved by Volvo, they actively support it as a “system” tested alternative, for upgrading their older engines. Can’t comment on new engines – but our model comes standard with 120A alternators now I believe.
That’s good to hear. I based my comment on the trouble Boreal have had in this area in the past with, as I understand it, Volvo specifically saying that changing the alternator to an aftermarket one would result in a voided warranty.
I cleaned up the piece since it has now become a primary chapter in the Online Book. When we do that, we take out anything that’s not directly relevant for the long term.
Indeed, good advice, but it goes beyond the warranty. The truth is, virtually every engine manufacturer has a limit to how much HP/kW you can pull off a crankshaft, the smaller the engine, the lower that threshold, and with good reason. In two cases I’ve seen broken crankshafts as a result of alternator over-loading.
Colin & Steve,
If I hadn’t lost lab time with students(C-19), we’d have finished our alternator testing project.
The WakeSpeed regulator can also monitor engine load and reduce output of the alternator when the engine hits 80% (user defined) – that test was great, and worked perfectly! It’ll really be helpful when putting a large alternator on a small sailboat auxiliary.
What we didn’t finish, but will, is actual load on the engine. We’re setting an alternator up on a shaft that can rotate and attaching a digital force gauge to get actual HP on the engine crank. Stay tuned this fall for results.
Now that will be interesting. I will look forward to hearing the results.
Re. lithium ion batteries, agreed.
About 3 years ago I replaced the original controller on my Betamarine engine with a Balmar programmable one (considered to be “smart” at that time as I recall). I set it up per Rod Collins and it was a big improvement. How much of an improvement is this new regulator design over the Balmar?
To answer you question, HUGE! The point being that all RC’s changes required to the Balmar are because it’s fundamentally designed wrong for purpose. The Wakespeed is designed right from the ground up, so it does not require all that kluging around.
That said, if you really manage a Balmar you can kind of make it work, just as I have for years, but I would guess that, as I say in the post, the loss in efficiency over time would be about 30%, although that is wild approximation because it depends so much on usage profile. The Wakespeed will also be way easier on your batteries and extend their lives, both by making sure they get fully charged when you run the engine for longer periods, and also by making sure they are not held at acceptance for more time than they need.
Great content as always!
Very timely as we have decided to (finally) have an external regulator installed to our Yanmar 4JH45 Common Rail engine’s alternator. For that, the WS500 seems like the ideal solution (until a better one comes along at least!)
However, our main issue now is that it’s a Valeo 125a 12V internally regulated super dumb unit, and in order for it to accept external regulation it will require:
1. Modification to a P-type
2. A ready-to-install kit such as the Balmar 30-SR12-02 Internal Smart Ready® Regulator Conversion Kit (not sure if it will work with the WS500 though)
Has anyone experience with either option?
Ideas and suggestions are highly appreciated!
The guys at Wakespeed are very helpful. Send them an email and I’m sure they will tell you exactly what the best course of action is.
I’m no specialist and have not installed this unit, but have from the horse’s mouth that the WS500 is ready for both P and N type. No need to modify the alternator in that respect. That job would also be relatively easy. You just have to change which brush goes to earth and which you bring out. You also need no extra units to disconnect the internal regulator and connect the external one. You open it up and connect the wires. The hassle involved varies between alternator models, but it isn’t too hard.
The WS500 has a temperature sensor to prevent overheating. If your transition to external regulator is because you move to lithium, it’s still considered smart to use the WS500 software to tune down the alternator power perhaps 20-30%. That is probably smart with other battery types too, if your battery bank is big. The alternator will live longer and charge smoother. It’s not made for running full speed for a long time, which it will with big banks, especially lithium. They have so low charge resistance that they can swallow any power given to them, but that means the alternator has to supply that power. With small lead battery banks, the resistance will increase quickly so the charge speed goes down and the alternator load does the same.
This stock alternator is almost certainly not suited for external regulation, and the heat load that this will place on it. Just because it’s high output, over 100 amps, does not mean it’s designed to maintain that output for extended time periods, while charging a house bank for instance. This article https://stevedmarineconsulting.com/alternator-charge-regulation/ covers the subject, and includes a photo of a stock alternator that was externally regulated, and the results.
If you can confirm with the manufacturer that it is capable of sustained high output, then it would be a different story.
Good point, although the WS500 has an alternator temperature probe and seems to manage less robust alternators well using that.
That said, I agree that modifying stock alternators is not generally a good plan. More here: https://www.morganscloud.com/2013/11/06/10-tips-to-buy-and-install-a-liveaboards-alternator/
Hi John, Steve and Stein,
Many thanks for the feedback. Excellent points and I have contacted Balmar and got some additional info about their Internal Smart Ready kit’s capabilities:
“I am not aware of any alternator model or brand that acts any different when externally regulated on internally regulated. There have been thousands of internally regulated alternators converted. You need to install the alternator temp sensor to protect the alternator incase of an over temperature should occur.”
I believe Balmar did enough research on this specific Valeo 125aA alternator to determine that it was capable of doing the heavy work and worth the effort to convert it. Having temperature compensation is certainly an important part of this of course.
Temperature regulation is indeed provided with the WS500 as John and Stein pointed out.
As for the WS500 being ready for both P and N type alternators, it does seem so according to it’s data sheet:
I did get SOME limited response directly from Wakespeed regarding what modifications are required:
“The Valeo 125A alternator will require modification to disable the internal regulator and allow external connection between the positive brush and the regulator’s field output wire. We do recommend converting the alternator for P-type regulation.”
In short, as far as I understand, I would need to get my Valeo modified somehow, and thus I’m looking at the Balmar Conversion Kit (less hassle and chances to messing up?), but have not been able to hammer out a clear response from Balmar if their kit will work with ANY other external regulator other than their MC-614. I understand their reluctance for a straight yes as naturally they would prefer for customers to purchase their not-so-smart regulator…
I agree with Steve in the issue of using a stock alternator. The key thing is to zero in on whether or not the alternator is rated continues duty. (Whether it is internal or external regulated is a red herring.)
Most stock alternators shipped with engines are not rated for continuous use since by far the majority of engines are sold into applications where the alternator is only called upon to recharge a start battery and maybe supply a few light loads during operation, not recharge a deeply discharged large house battery and/or supply the big loads modern cruising boats have.
External regulation conversion is relatively easy, but unless you are a savvy DIYer, take it to an alternator shop for the conversion. They should not charge more than $50. It is literally no more than disabling the internal regulator by disconnecting the field and bringing that wire outside the alternator. Ideally, this should be done using a stud rather than a wire, as the stud is more secure and reduces the likelihood of the wire breaking from vibration.
I remain somewhat skeptical that the Valeo is ready for continuous duty, but you don’t have much to lose by trying other than the cost of its conversion. Frankly, the “I am not aware of any alternator model or brand that acts any different when externally regulated on internally regulated.” statement shocks me, there is a decided difference between intermitent and continuous duty alternators, that is irrefutable.
Hi John and Steve,
Thank you for the great insights!
I totally agree on stock alternators not being up to the task or even intended for high continuous output, and exchanging it for a truly rated unit would be ideal. However, at least in my case, not living onboard full time or spending more than 7-10 days at anchor every couple of months away from shorepower, and thus not demanding as much from my charging system, perhaps taking advantage of the gear I have currently and setting it up for regulation with as much protections as possible (house battery bank temperature sensing, alternator temperature sensing, belt load managing, alternator downrating, advanced charging profile setting) could be an option.
Also as we are jumping over to a REAL full-time liveaboard cruiser within 2-3 years from now, investing more than the necessary in a proper new heavy-duty alternator and it’s accessories might not be the best use of resources. There’s also the issue of voiding the engine manufacture’s warranty when changing the stock alternator to a new one, which I’m not 100% certain about, but have read and heard this might be an issue specifically with Yanmar engines.
You’ll find out pretty quickly if this alternator is up to the task, the overheated example in the article I shared lasted less than a season of heavy battery charging.
Regarding the warranty, I suspect you’ll void that by altering the stock alternator, changing it all together won’t make a difference.
As an aside, on warranties, I hear fear mongering from folks in the industry from time to time, i.e. anything you change leaves the owner with no coverage what so ever. Changing or altering the alternator means of course the engine manufacturer is no longer responsible for it, but it does not mean the engine’s warranty overall is voided, if a piston fails unless it can be demonstrated that occurred because you changed the alternator, the warranty remains valid.
Under the terms of the Moss Magnusson Act (in the US), engine manufacturers cannot force customers to use their filters for instance, unless they provide them for free, which of course they never do. I have nothing against stock filters, but many are exorbitantly priced, and high quality after market alternatives may exist.
I did not know that on warranties. A very good piece of information since I have heard a bunch of that sort of scare mongering.
Thank you all for very valuable inputs. The WS500 seem to be the perfect.
Please forgive me if you have already covered it but I have not found suggestions on how to charge the engine’s starter battery. Of course you can skip the separate starter battery and use the house bank for that purpose too. If the house bank is well charged and maintained there should always be enough energy in it to start the engine. However, if I like to have a separate starter battery, how do I charge it with a WS500 alternator regulator? A separate DC-DC charger like Sterling Battery to Battery Charger BB1230 DC DC?
thanks for the great article and I am looking forward to installing the WS500 on my boat in a few weeks. We finally in Nova Scotia now have D.J. Williams as a new dealer/installer in the province. He can be reached at (902) 456-3240.
David is a great guy and will set you up right.
Reading through the articles and in the process of upgrading my charging system I am a bit confused about what to do. On one hand we have the Sterling type alternator regulators ( https://sterling-power.com/collections/alternator-to-battery-chargers ) that claim that as the batteries get charged towards 80-90% the internal resistance increases hence the amps go down on a conventional type alternator regulator. By increasing the voltage towards the end of the charge cycle Sterling proclaims you can charge your batteries much faster to 100% by doing so. On the other hand there is the wakespeed that keeps charging, although at a much lower pace, by measuring the amps going into the batteries till they reach 0.5-1.0% of the battery capacity. If I get this right the combination of the 2 would be the ideal world?
I’m no electrician or such, so see my words as coming from an amateur having looked into these issues quite a bit.
The short answer to your last question is: No. That combination is not at all usable. If you have the WakeSpeed, the Sterling A2B charger is redundant. Using it will only sabotage the Wakespeed regulator.
An A2B (alternator to battery) charger is a shortcut to a somewhat better charge output from the alternator. It works by letting the alternator see a low resistance (low voltage) so it keeps putting out max amperage. Then the voltage is transformed in the A2B to what the batteries need.
Just to avoid confusion, there is also something called a B2B charger. Battery to battery. This is far more different from an A2B than the name would indicate. A B2B is a very nice and useful item in many cases, like keeping secondary battery banks charged, but is of course not used between an alternator and a battery.
This method will often give a better charging curve than the internal regulator of the alternator would alone, mostly because the A2B is usually better at giving the correct voltage at the correct time, but will normally lead to on/off charging. The reason being that the internal regulator is still operative in the alternator. It normally has a overheating protection circuit that will reduce its output to reduce the heat. The A2B will often push the alternator to higher output until the charging is turned off, until the alternator is cooled down, and then this is repeated. Not very efficient and not good for the alternator.
A smart regulator, like the WS500, (there are many other good ones, but probably not quite as good) is the real solution that takes no shortcuts and gets the maximum output your alternator can supply without getting damaged. You can adjust the output. It will also give a perfect charge cycle and take the best care of both batteries and alternator. The downside of a smart regulator is that you have to bypass the stupid regulator that is in most alternators. The bypassing consists of disconnecting and reconnecting a couple of wires. It’s a bit different depending on which alternator. You can find descriptions for yours online. It’s totally doable for an amateur.
Just to make it absolutely clear. Do not use both an A2B charger and a smart regulator in the same system.
Thank you for your in depth answer. Already thought it to be that way but very glad I got confirmation. Reading further on the Sterling site they do seem to have an A2B charger in which you have to bypass the internal Alternator regulator. Guess the wake speed is the one to go for. As it outputs only for one battery which bank splitter do you use if I may ask? The argofet from Victron? At least that one does not have the 0,7V drop. Cheers Frans
Great answer. One thing I disagree with is that there are many good alternator regulators. As far as I know the WakeSpeed is the only one that measures current and therefore it is head and shoulders ahead of all others, not just a little better, as I explain in the article above.
No, the amp based Wakespeed is the ideal and can’t be improved on because it conforms to the charge profile of the battery and actually measures what is going into the battery and then varies voltage to achieve that optimal charge profile.
On the other hand the sterling alternator to battery charger is a kluge (albeit clever one) to fool an alternator with a stupid regulator into doing a better job for those who either don’t want to do it right by changing to an externally regulated alternator or fear that so doing will void their engine warranty.
If you want to understand this in depth, reading the first three chapters of this online book: https://www.morganscloud.com/category/electrical/online-book-electrical-systems/
Just found out that Balmar has come out with the MC618, that along with the SG200 battery monitor/shunt, it supposedly offers similar capabilities as the Wakespeed WS500 unit in terms of battery charging, and maintenance based on voltage, current, and temperature. In the not too near future, I foresee boaters satisfying their electric/electronic needs based on platforms and not individual products. For example, the Wakespeed WS500 very shortly will be fully integrated with the Victron platform.
I was not able to find anything about a new shunt connected regulator on Balmar’s site? Can you link me to your source?
That said, assuming this is true, I will be glad to see that Balmar is finally bringing out a truly smart regulator instead of yanking our collective chains as they have done for years.
And yes, it only makes sense to share the shunt between battery monitoring and alternator regulation. I much prefer this integrated approach to the black boxes that claim to do it all.
I have no more news, but I can confirm that Balmar had plans already 2 years ago. I spoke with one of the core guys a the METS trade show. He said as mentioned here, that they will have an updated version of their alternator regulator that according to them would do everything that the WS500 can do.
He said the updated product would come in two stages. The first stage would be the 618 and be connected to the SG200 battery monitor. This would not do the full WS500 job, but would make it possible to read and control both items via their smartphone app. The next development stage he said would be about now, and be the full on WS500 competitor. He meant that the regulator could have significant advantages over the WS500 from having access to the smarts of the SG200 monitor. Just as a reminder, this is statements from 2 years back. They are probably not accurate.
The Balmar SG200, seems the be the very best battery monitor on the market. It even gets a reliable state of charge level with lithium cells and even then manages better than 2% precision and never needs to be reset, even after unlimited partial charge cycles. To do this it uses some secret software magic that made Rod Collins almost not believe his own test results. Obviously this is on my “must have” list. Even more so if it can work with an updated regulator.
One very important advantage of Wakespeed is that they are very active with integrating their system with other systems. They communicate with Victron systems as if it was a Victron product. Same with the REC BMS for lithium cells. I don’t know if Balmar is as good at this, but it might be.
John, I just bought the Balmar SG200 battery monitor based on Rod Collins involvement in its development and his endorsement of it. In fact, I bought it from Rod’s web store.
I talked to Balmar today about a few installation instructions I wanted to clarify, and they tried to upsell me from the MC-614 alternator regulator I have to the new MC-618. The MC-618 does interface with the SG200, which allows you to program it via a Bluetooth connection, if you buy the Bluetooth module for the SG200. However, it is otherwise the same as the MC-614, so it is not equivalent to the WS500 you have written up so well here.
Which brings me to my point. Now that I have read Rod’s articles and bought the SG200, I figured I was set to program the MC-614. I contacted my battery manufacturer (East Penn) for charging parameters and got some help, but not quite enough to satisfy me. Remembering your article on the MC-614, I came looking and well…hello, WS500!
The WS500 sounds great, but I feel like I have sort of already committed. I suppose I could install an additional shunt in series with the Balmar shunt and scrap my MC-614, but I hesitate to do so, and have steeled myself to the notion of not having the best regulator. That said, can I get a copy of that excellent guidance I remember from the pre-WS500 version of this chapter?
As I mentioned in the comment just above yours here, I spoke to an informed person from Balmar at the METS trade show a couple of years ago, who said that the next model after the 618 would have all the functionality of the WS500, using the SG200 shunt. My impression (not reliable) was that this would be about a year after the 618, so not too soon, but perhaps worth waiting for?
Anyway, there is an article on Marinehowto that contains detailed instructions on how to program any Balmar regulator. Rod Collins is extremely competent on this type of stuff, so I’d just follow that: https://marinehowto.com/programming-a-balmar-voltage-regulator/
Balmar have been promising that for an age. I hate it when companies come up with vapour ware to stop people buying from a more innovative company like WakeSpeed.
Frankly I feel like we should buy from WakeSpeed since without their innovation Balmar would have continued to sell battery wrecking stupid regulators forever.
I totally agree on buying the WakeSpeed regulator. I think it’s a great product and they have now even had some time to develop the details. If Balmar is leaking info about future products to reduce the sales of WakeSpeed, they might hurt their own sales more, as those considering a 618 would then rather wait, and while waiting, might come across the WS500…. That’s what killed Commodore Computers company back in the day, as you may remember. They were easily the best in their niche, (80ies home/gaming computers) but then they said the next model would be a revolution. That totally stopped all sales of their current models, of course, and they ran out of cash.
The WS500 communicates natively with Victron equipment, which is more useful than it might seem, as several other companies implement the same communication standard. One example is REC BMS, one of the best for those who want to go into lithium with separate cells and not use the always lower quality and more expensive assembled batteries (“drop-in” type). That means the WS500 communicates smartly with the BMS and they can do pretty important stuff together. They can also both use Victron shunts, and their own shunts can feed the Victron BMV 712, and most other items. Also, Victrons superior Bluetooth platform can be used to gather info from the WS500. I don’t think it can be used for programming yet, but that might come. WakeSpeed also have their own Bluetooth platform, but reportedly not as smooth yet.
My guess is that when Balmar, in a year or probably more, come with a product that can compete better with the WS500, it might not immediately be a smoothly working item, and it might take time until it’s communicating well with other items in the same system. Also the Bluetooth platform, again, seems to be not on par with the competition, but I have no experience with it, so that’s just what I hear.
I don’t have that chapter anymore. But as I say, and link to, in the article above, Rod has a good guide to programming Balmar’s “stupid” regulators. In fact his is better than mine was.
That said I still suggest you get a WS500. I also think that you could use the same shunt as the SG200, but have not verified that, but Wakespeed will be able to tell you.
What about those who are designing a house bank essentially from scratch, find all this technically out of their league, live a few towns over from Rod Collin’s business but cannot use his services because he is booked out 18 months, and simply want someone to design a complete and PROPER AGM (leaning toward Oasis CF) system so I (okay, I am in fact talking about myself, as was obvious all along) can buy the parts and have my AYB electrician install them to according to plan? Who do you respect, who, for example, actually agrees with the conclusions in this article, and is available for paid consult? Perhaps even a knowledgable cruiser who wants to help a fellow and earn some clams doing so…
Sorry I just don’t know of anyone in Maine other than RC. Bottom line, you have identified a real problem: the general lack of knowledge in the “professional” boat electrical systems support. There is one guy here in Nova Scotia, but that does not help you.
What we really need is an in depth apprenticeship program, but the closest thing you have is ABYC and the last time I looked their electrical training all focuses on code, not system design and is pretty sketchy anyway: https://www.morganscloud.com/2016/05/06/the-marine-electronics-industry-has-really-lost-the-plot-now/
Right now I think the best bet is self study starting with this book:https://www.morganscloud.com/category/electrical/online-book-electrical-systems/
Really try and wrap your head abound the early theory chapters (not fun I know) before moving on to specifics.
The advantage of this approach is that even if at the end of it your don’t feel you want to DIY the system, you will be in a much better position to select a person to do the work for you and much less likely to be the victim of some idiot with an inflated idea of his own knowledge.
The other advantage of this approach is that once you are out there you will be much more able to fix anything that goes wrong.
I write to find out if anyone has installed the Wakespeed or has any information on its reliability/ durability. Winter approaches, bringing winter projects. I currently use a Balmar, programmed using advice from Compass Marine. Thanks.
I have not tried the WakSpeed myself. Since it’s not been on the market more than a couple of years, no proper long term experience exists. However, I have communicated with several who have the device and they are more than happy with it. We should always beware of confirmation bias, the urge to defend our own position, but the owners seem enthusiastic, not defensive. I’ve also not heard of a single complaint yet, which is pretty impressive. Even a hypothetical perfect item will get haters sooner or later. Since they seem to be absent so far, we can only assume the product is pretty good.
I have a Wakespeed regulator that they sent me for evaluation that I will be installing on the new-to-us J/109. I will report next summer, but it looks like a good quality piece of kit. I would take the risk and go for it since I’m guessing that if they were having issues we would of heard by now.
I wanted to report that I did install the WS500 Nov 2020 (Outbound 46 with two 120A alternators mounted on a single Yanmar).
Splitting the field output & installing a millivolt sensor line on the existing shunt was straight forward. When dual regulators are involved, it’s important to NOT also split the red power and black ground but to simply choose one alternator (the closest one). It’s also important to get the polarity right on the shunt (use a multimeter and label pos)
While there is just one temperature sensor, it’s a well engineered product and the difference in the Absorption phase is remarkable. Those with Firefly carbon foam AGM house batteries who periodically ‘reset’ by discharging to 10.5v and attempting to push 35-40 amps per battery will notice a big difference in time to complete the process.
While the online documentation isn’t clear about the dual installation wiring points made above, I received great phone support. It really is the only smart regulator on the market.
We are upgrading our entire electrical system this winter. I recently spoke with one of the partners at Wakespeed (who used to work for Balmar) and he told me that Wakespeed has entered a partnership with Victron and has provided Victron with data on the WS500. They are working towards having a firmware update to the Victron BMV712 that will allow you to view data on the 712 showing what the regulator is doing. They are also working towards releasing a Dongle so you can easily program the Wakespeed using bluetooth (currently you can plug a laptop in to the unit via USB but depending on location that can be a pain). The WS500 is the only regulator I’m aware of that actually uses current flow, voltage, battery temp, and alternator temp to tweak the charging regimen. As you’ve mentioned, sometimes getting different components to play together nicely can be a challenge. The fact that Wakespeed is working with and sharing data with Victron settles it for us; we are going to get the WS500 and the BMV712.
I recently rewired my Downeast 32 and re-powered with a Beta 35, 120 amp alternator and serpentine belt. (love the Beta 35 and a great choice for the Adventure 40)
During this refit, I decided to go with one lead acid starting battery and one lithium ion, 300 amp hour house battery.
I use a Balmar regulator to charge the house bank and a Victron 30 amp DC to DC charger to charge the starting battery.
Everything worked well except the house bank did not want the charge the Balmar was sending (seems like the house was fully charged and the Balmar was still sending. After many re-programs of the Balmar, I reached out to the company for support. They told me I would have to use a different model Balmar (I am using the one that supports Lithium) but the model they suggested was one I could shut down the charge once I found my battery fully charged.
I am going to give Wake Speed a call this week to see if their product can solve this problem – from reading your article, seems like it will as it is SMART.
I’ve read all your online articles on batteries and commented on many.
The bottom line here is that any external regulator will dramatically improve battery charging – but why do you need an even smarter regulator because you should never use an engine to try and fully charge your batteries on a cruising boat. It’s a noisy, expensive and very inefficient use of fuel, as well as putting unnecessary wear and tear on the engine. A 5 HP auxiliary generator can charge a very large battery bank, so a 50 HP main engine is complete overkill.
It’s easy, and fairly quick, to get batteries up to about 80% of their maximum capacity, above this the battery’s ability to accept charging current reduces dramatically, so the last 20% can take a very long time.
An external regulator will only improve charging “dramatically” if properly programmed. For example Balmar regulators come from the factory with very conservative programming that will wreck batteries quickly due to sulphating. I used to have instructions to fix that here but deleted them because the Wakespeed is simply a better way. The reason being, as I explain above, even after reprogram a regulator without a shunt is simply guessing at the battery state of charge.
As to when this is useful, most cruising boats will often motor for hours at a time, sometimes for days at a time, and this is a great time to do a full charge on the batteries (typically about five hours but as long as 10 if the batteries are sulphated), but only a regulator measuring current with a shunt can do this consistently right.