¹Many people take lead acid to mean liquid filled but, in fact, the term covers AGM, gel, carbon-foam, and liquid filled, which all use fundamentally the same chemistry.
Just over a year ago I wrote a chapter in our Online Book on Electrical Systems For Cruising Boats on the then new Wakespeed WS500 and how excited I was that we cruisers finally had a regulator available that actually knew the state of charge by measuring the actual current (amperage) going into the battery, rather than guessing, like every so-called "smart regulator" has for the last two decades (since the Link 2000R went out of production).
After I wrote that piece the guys at Wakespeed were kind enough to send me a WS500 for evaluation, but since we were selling our McCurdy and Rhodes 56, there was not a lot of point in installing the regulator on her, so it sat in a box in our basement for the last year.
But now I'm in the throes of designing a new DC electrical system, with the WS500 at its core, for our new-to-us J/109, and, as part of that, I wrote to Al, founder and chief designer at Wakespeed, to see what cool things he and Rick, the marketing partner in the operation, have been cooking up over the past year.
Al, who is clearly a guy at the forefront of making this stuff work elegantly, was incredibly generous with his time, answering a bunch of my questions in the form of half-a-dozen emails that, taken together, are a fascinating white paper on the state of battery-charging technology.
Plus, Al is a live-aboard cruiser who understands our needs, not some corporate person interested in milking the last drop of profit out of some so-so gear.
So let's dig into what's happening at Wakespeed and the cool stuff I learned from Al, a lot of it about lithium battery systems:
A Regulator For All Of Us
As I discussed in my last article on the WS500, the best thing about Al's design is that it manages to be:
- Incredibly feature rich in order to support complex lithium-based systems owned by those who want the very latest and coolest.
- Just the thing for a simple lead-acid based system for those who want the damned DC system to work reliably and get the job done in the most efficient way possible but who don't want to worry about all the techie details.
I Just Want To Go Cruising
So for those of you who are charter members of the second group, all you need to do is:
- Read or reread my original chapter on the WS500 to find out why it's by far the best cruiser's alternator controller.
- Buy and install a WS500.
- Install a decent alternator.
- Install good-quality lead acid batteries.
- Set the dip switches on the WS500 for the batteries you selected as documented in the quick start guide.
- Stop reading right here and go cruising with a smug smile on your face.
For the rest of us tech-geeks, keep reading:
Hi, I am in pretty much the same situation, trying to decide how to improve the original alternator and battery installation on a Sun Fast 35 with a Yanmar with a 60 A alternator.
One question regarding the WS500 is if also could function a battery monitoring unit, if not as sophisticated as the SG200.
As I understand it, the WS500 “know/understands” battery chemistry, and it would not be unfeasible to export this information by a suitable method (Bluetooth would be nice….)?
I have no WS500, but have been following the project since well before it was on the market. Every bit of info I’ve gotten hold of indicates great people and a great product. The battery monitor function you ask about has been suggested by others too, as this regulator does use a shunt, just like battery monitors do. At the moment, it can’t do this, and I suspect this will not change anytime soon.
The functionality and electronics of an alternator regulator are not similar to those of a battery monitor. The only common ground is the shunt, as mentioned. It might be possible to use the same shunt as a measurement source for both functions at the same time, but the operations would be two separate items. Perhaps they could be in the same box, but that doesn’t seem to have any benefit. Bluetooth does indeed seem like the right interface.
I spoke to Balmar at the METS a couple of years ago about this functionality, and about the WS500. They then said they are working towards just this. Their present model, the MC-618, came about a year after the talk. It would be an intermediate stage, adding communication between the two, but no proper cooperation. They planned to, a couple of years later, release a regulator that uses the info from the shunt of the SG200 monitor to add current as an element in the regulator, so “it would have all the capabilities of the WS500”. This step hasn’t come yet, but probably will come.
I think adding current info to the regulator is essential and will make theirs much better, but that alone might not be enough to close the gap… There’s a lot of other smarts going on in the WS500. Its communication capabilities is a big part of that.
On Balmar catching up to Wakespeed, I don’t think there is much chance of that. My reasons for saying that are cultural, not technical, being that entrenched legacy companies like Balmar are just not agile enough to innovate in the way an operation like Wakespeed can and will. So my prediction is that Wakespeed will continue to increase their lead on Balmar, an assertion supported by some stuff that Al shared with me under non-disclosure.
After all, Balmar have not developed a single innovative product in 20 years, instead preferring, as most legacy companies do, to milk an existing and aging product line for profit. (Balmar bought the SG200 technology from another entrepreneurial company, so that does not count.)
The MC-618 confirms my thesis in that it has no added core functionality over what they were doing 20 years ago. Instead they opted to add sizzle in the form of bluetooth, rather than doing anything meaningful that would take real development effort. This again, is typical of the legacy company behaviour that I have seen so many times in my some 50 years watching and working in tech.
In my view the only way Balmar catch up with Wakespeed is to make Al an offer he can’t refuse for his company. That said, I hope that does not happen, since typical legacy company behaviour would be to then stop innovating and then screw the product up completely. Xantrex and the Link 2000R being a classic example.
I would agree with Svein’s analysis and would not look for the WS500 to add the battery monitoring feature.
I also think we will see a trend toward BMSs incorporating a shunt and battery monitoring circuitry, like the Victron Lynx does today, which would make adding that to the WS500 ever less useful.
The other point is that battery monitors have become really inexpensive, in relationship to their capabilities, in the last few years so I think this is one of those cases where we customers are best served by continuing competition between monitors allowing us to pick the best value for money option at any given time. At the moment I think that best option is the Balmar SG200.
Thank you for the reply. I was trying to avoid adding another instrument, but agree that the SG200 seems like a good idea.
I look forward to the system design for a new charging system etc. for a J/109, as I think it is would be a nice starting point for a similar system on a Sun Fast 35.
Yes, should work well for the San Fast. Look for it later in the month as I need to get some A40 stuff out first, and also another of the rigging inspection chapters.
Great information on a great product thanks. Victron is currently offering current-based charge with Smart Solar in synchronised charging mode using the BMW-702 battery monitor that provide current information. All information is here:
BUT Victron doesn’t have any “DC charging” solution of which i’m aware. This is sad because they are the dream company to work with offering plenty of solutions but none specific to the sailing world and our challenges. Only way to incorporate Victron current sensing charging to a boat would be to have an AC diesel generator feeding enough chargers connecter to the VE.Smart Networking.
I agree about Victron, but my fairly well informed guess is we will not see a current based alternator regulator from them. Rather I think their strategy, rather than reinventing, is to work ever more closely with Wakespeed.
John, another good article.
I installed 9 months ago two wakespeeds on my cat which are interconnected to my Lithonics batteries with internal BMS. The regulators and the batteries are interconnected via Canbus. While if I was to do it over again, I would pick the same components, it was not a seamless or painless process. There were a number of bugs to be discovered and I found the team at Wakespeed to be very difficult to work with (perhaps they would say the same about me). Most interactions were met with it is not our problem. When they eventually fixed a problem I had informed them about, they never responded with a thank you for finding this and letting us know. I have heard from other customers with similar interactions.
Most of the issues have been resolved, but one remaining issue is how the regulator handles Canbus messages from the battery to stop charging. It is my opinion they still have issues here. First if the BMS issues disconnect message (ie it is going to pull the plug in the next second), only the regulator paired with that battery will respond. I think ALL regulators should stop charging (and not restart charging) if ANY battery sends that message. Sedcond, when the BMS sends a message to stop charging (this an early warning message for a disconnect), the regulator goes to “float” which in most cases will result in stop charging. However, if there is a problem with the voltage sense, the regulator will continue to charge as it tries to maintain the battery at the float voltage. In my opinion the regulator should discontinue all charging rather than go to float if it gets this message. Hopefully in a future release Wakespeed corrects these issues. In the meantime, I have connected the external disconnect signal from the batteries to a relay to force the regulators off rather than rely on the Canbus messages to do the job.
As for monitoring, with the Canbus option, it is possible to connect a Canbus via a bridge to the existing boat network or to a wifi bridge so all the status info of the batteries and the regulators can be monitored. It is a really nice feature.
It does sound as if yours was a difficult installation that did not go as well as we would all hope. It also sounds like there were communications mistakes on both sides (I have talked to the other side).
I think what your experience highlights is that this stuff is deeply complicated and further that even slightly unusual circumstances, such as twin engines, can cause issues since we are still in the early days of full Canbus integration. Also, this was nine months ago, and I know from speaking to Al that much of his focus during that time has been working with battery and BMS vendors to come up with plug and play systems, so I suspect things might be easier today.
For others, I think the big take away is that for these more complex systems it’s well worth finding an expert with relevant experience to stand between us and the manufactures, and to design and take responsibility for a full system. If it were me, I would talk to Bruce at Ocean Planet or Rod Collins when he gets better.
The point being that the primary work task at Wakespeed is developing the product and working with other manufacturers to come up with systems that will work, not end user support.
I know that’s not what people want to hear, but having been in and out of the end user support business myself for just over 50 years (started as a mainframe computer tech) I can share that striking the right balance is really hard.
To be honest, based on my experience, if I were Al’s business advisor I would suggest getting completely out of end user support. I know that sounds radical, but ambiguity is the enemy of customer satisfaction, so often it’s better to make things clear up front, even if it’s not what the customers want to hear.
For example, here at AAC hardly a week goes by without someone, often not even a member, emailing asking for a direct conversation with me about a gear problem or boat selection. At first I would try and help, but I soon became overwhelmed by the load to the point I had less and less time for my primary job, writing content for our members.
At first I tried to limit the interaction to a fixed time (an hour), but then inevitably when we hit the limit the person I was helping would get angry. So we found it way better to just put in a hard rule: I only interact in the comments.
All perfect fair comments. My issue is less about the issues i found, but more how it was it handled. Things that were obviously not working correctly were dismissed as operating to spec. I found there was a lot of resistance to seeing there were problems and absolutely no thank you for helping us. However the larger issue is the regulator still does not follow the RV-C spec for what to do when receiving notification from the BMS of a pending disconnect. The RV-C spec says on reception of a BMS disconnect message (DC source Status 6) all sources should immediately stop charging. That is not what the WS-500 currently does. It only listens to that message from the BMS it is paired with. Furthermore the message from the battery to warn of impending disconnect should also result in stop charging, but instead the regulator goes to float which may or may not stop charging. These problems remain even after 9 months.
Again, I think it is a product I would install again, but if the CANbus is used, at present, external guardrails must be used to prevent the system from damaging BMS disconnect with the alternator under load.
Having heard from the other side of this, there seems to be a difference of opinion on what the specification calls for. That said, I certainly don’t have the knowledge to adjudicate who is right. I would also guess that, as is common with frustrating situations like this, there have been misunderstandings that further added to the confusion.
To me the big take away is that we are still on the leading edge of this stuff, so no matter how well intentioned the parties involved are there will be issues, and the more complicated a system is the more difficult the issues are to solve and the more likely it is that the parties involved will get frustrated with each other before a resolution is reached. This is just another reason that I think for systems like this it’s a good idea to have an expert inserted between the owner and the manufacturer, if only to help keep the emotions cool.
For others: It also confirms, at least for me, that if going offshore following the guidelines in this article will generaly result in less frustration and more cruising: https://www.morganscloud.com/2013/10/25/want-to-get-out-cruising-dont-be-a-pioneer/
The response you were apparently provided highlights the issue I have seen in my interactions with Al. A total stubbornness to own up to a problem. Sigh.
The spec is not vague on this point. This is taken directly from the RV-C spec. “01b – Limit reached Indicates whether DC Source (e.g. battery) has reached its upper operation voltage limit and charging sources should terminate.” Notice that “sources” are plural not singular in the spec.
The problem is 99% of installers are not in position to figure this out and if Wakespeed has takes the position that they will not interact with customers then who is going to solve issues? This is why my problems never got solved. I insisted that problems get solved and Al deflected by asking requests come from the installer who while good was not going to dig into the RV-C spec and see what the answer should be. I don’t expect you to solve this for me or adjudicate, but potential buyers should be aware they might get little or no support from Wakespeed. I communicated with Wakespeed in a very non-confrontational manner, just the facts ( I would be happy to supply you with an example). As I have pointed out in the my initial post, I have heard from other wakespeed purchasers who had similar interactions.
I will also acknowledge that not all the issues with the install were Wakespeed related. As I found out, the battery I selected with the internal BMS also doesn’t follow the spec which requires a 2 second warning prior to disconnect. Instead it gives the disconnect message at the same time as the disconnect which is not very helpful.
As for being early adopters, I couldn’t agree more. I figured Lithium batteries and regulators were a stable mature product in 2021… boy did I learn the hard way they are not. My “complicated” install was two engines, a solar charger, inverter/charger and two batteries. It was certainly not my understanding at the onset this was bleeding edge. What was bleeding edge was the CANbus communication for the regulator and it is still not implemented to the RV-C spec.
Yes, I think that’s the big take away: this stuff is still bleeding edge.
Sorry you had to be the one to find that out the hard way. I just hope that others will take the warning that while this lithium battery technology has many exciting advantages it is still far from mature or plug and play.
And don’t get me started on the claims of the “drop in” vendors!
We love our Wakespeed, we installed it before starting our cruise. We are currently on month nine, having left Seattle in 2021 and now in Mexico. I can confirm everything in this article. Find a place to mount it, do a little wiring, flip a few dip switches, and go. I can also confirm that a few shortcomings are frustrating because if there was a bluetooth capability it could be so awesome.
The lack of an easy way to remotely monitor, update, or upgrade the Wakespeed sucks. Yes, you can use a Canbus to NMEA bridge or find a bunch of other ways to do the connections to get data, but I really don’t want more hardware on my boat.
Upgrading the software or checking data is almost as bad as having to deal with the magnetic reed switch (the magic screwdriver of Balmar). I’m a software tech person with 25+ years of tech work under m belt and trying to upgrade the firmware on the Wakespeed made me yank out a bunch of hair. I couldn’t use my Mac (not currently supported), and the Windows machine on the boat is fixed in place, I didn’t have a cable long enough, and the only extension I could fashion used a USB hub that made for a weird port ID on Windows 10, having to deal with Putty, and a command line batch script, and yada yada yada, someone with no experience, or less patience, would never get through this. Finally I had to find a longer cable in Mexico, and got the upgrade to work. This cabling and COM PORT hell, not to mention, having to unscrew the cover of the unit, which I installed in the coolest part of the engine room I could find, meant I also had to do boat yoga to do this job.
Having complained about all that, the charging situation for the alternator is night and day compared to the Balmar, and I love the Wakespeed, even with these updating flaws.
Thanks for confirming my concern, and that the WS500 is, despite that, still the best solution.
I had an interesting chat with Al about this and other things yesterday. He is aware and I think a BlueTooth dongle will arrive at some time, however he did explain, and convince me, that refining CAN Buss integration is a better use of his resources.
His point being that the future is with integrated systems where gear from different manufactures are networked and working together, with each manufacturer concentrating on what they do best, so, for example, monitoring and updating would happen using screens from vendors other than WakeSpeed, who focus on that stuff.
I also have a Mac and needed to interface to a Victron Multiplus charger/inverter over a USB connection. The Victron software at the time was Windows only. I used Virtualbox running an instance of Windows 10 on the Mac to interface over USB to the Victron. Would possibly work in your situation as well.
A great article, John. Thanks for going deeper.
Couldn’t find your list of lithium battery’s ok with the ws500
umm clew me in.
just starting process of total switch over frm gc bank and old Cummins 105 amp alternator
See link under title “All Documented” in the article.
I had a different experience with this Wakespeed. It was installed by my electronics technician in parallel with the Balmar regulator so we could try it out. When we tried it, it charged and sensed everything correctly but on throttling back the engine, charging stopped. The engine had to be stoped and restarted to restart any charging.
My technician reprogrammed it several times but could not get it to work correctly. I sent it back to Wakespeed and they said they adjusted and reprogrammed it.
Multiple visits by my electronics technician seemed to get it working but it wouldn’t reliably continue charging on throttling back the engine. I had to stop and restart the engine to get it working.
I could not trust it and changed the cable back to the Balmar.
Charles L Starke
Well that’s annoying!
Were you using the WS500 feature that senses RPM via the stator wire and then uses that to turn off charge when the engine is idling? If so, that would be my wild guess of the area to check, particularly since the Balmar just passes the stator through so if that’s where the problem lies it would account for one working and the other not. Of course the other possibility is that it’s just a defective WS500.
If it were me, I would try building and installing a new config file from scratch with the Wakespeed app and see if that fixes it.
This, together with Allen’s comment does highlight a fundamental here being that the more features and capabilities that are added to a device the more opportunity there is for perplexing issues that are difficult to fix. On the WS500 I think the trade off is worth it, but it’s always worth thinking about this as systems get ever more complicated.
Hi John & Phyllis. Great article, thanks for putting this stuff out there.
We are building a new sailboat and need to get smart about many things.
I have been looking at integrel but decided to go with a 24v system instead.
Have you heard of electromaax alternators and their external AT3 regulators. They claim to be the best in the marine Industry. I like their external rectifier approach.
Thinking of 500- 600ah lithionics or firefly batteries with two high output 24V alternators. Either electromaax, APS or mastervolt? Don’t hear that many good things about balmar anymore.
The WS500 seems the most advanced out there.
I don’t have any information Electromax, but I do like the idea of external rectifiers. As to whether or not to use their regulator, check if it uses current to determine state of charge. I took a quick glance at the manual and it appears that it does. If so that’s great. That said, it will take a deep dive by someone to figure out if their regulator is as functional as the the WS500.
A good way to come at this, particularly if going Lithionics is to buy through Bruce at Ocean Planet who can advise you on all of the interrelated issues and put together a full system that will work in practice. I had a long chat with him about this stuff and there is no question that he has all of this stuff figured out.
I have had a ws500 now for about 6+ months of full time living. I have 700 Amp hrs of drop in lithium and didnt understand the implications of the bms’ cutting off and dumping the alternator field voltage to my system. After some lost electronics and switching my ws500 to charge the starter battery instead of the house and then using 4 Dc-dc chargers to charge the house I have a system that works just ok for a lot of extra money. In my opinion most lithium set ups have internal bms’ so I’m not totally happy with my ws500. Also it’s very difficult with the software to understand what limit the ws500 is hitting when it cuts back on either temp of the alternator or over voltage etc. a cable to a laptop while the engine is in use is a major hassle especially when you have to physically open the ws500 case and connect a cord. I have a 170 amp Balmar alternator and the ws500 has only ever let it deliver 100 due to unknown restrictions because the software is a hassle and I have yet to figure it out. My ws500 was setup by the folks at wakespeed for my specific starter battery and alternator while it was in the shop being repaired for another issue. In all honesty I’m sure I can get it sorted but am now tired of it and have given up.
I went through the same trials as you and sent it the unit back to Wakespeed for repair and reprogramming to my specific new AGM batteries and Balmar alternator.
I could not get reliable function and I also gave up and went back to my Balmar controller.
Charles L Starke MD
Your issue with the Wakespeed is completely different and not relevant to Cory’s issue. I know your pissed at Wakespeed, and I sympathize, but this is not helping.
As I wrote, before, I think your problem probably lies in RPM measuring, or you may just have a defective unit. That happens, I have had two Balmar regulators die on me over the years.
I got your email expressing irritation with my response, and I hear you, but, as you know, I don’t discuss these things offline since I believe in total transparency in the comments here, warts and all.
Anyway, you are right that I expressed myself poorly in the above, sorry.
What I was trying to point out is that you have a legitimate issue with Wakespeed in that the WS500 should work in your set up.
But that’s completely different from Cory’s situation where the fundamental architecture of his installation (“drop in” batteries that don’t communicate) make it impossible for the WS500 to do an efficient job or prevent load dumps. Therefore drawing a parallel and implying that his situation and yours in some way prove that the WS500 is a bad product is just not helpful.
All that said, do be aware that your problem could easily lie in your installation, not the WS500, since the unit may be programmed to use RPM, an output that the Balmar, that is working, does not use. If that’s not the case, I would suggest asking Wakespeed for a replacement unit since that’s the quickest way to confirm that you have a defective one.
One suggestion I would make to Wakespeed, and others, is that when a unit is sent back, always replace it, even if programming changes are made. Yes, that adds to support and warrantee expenses, but it’s still less expensive, both in money and reputation, than repeated returns.
I learned this one the hard way when I was running a computer support outfit. We kept a fleet of known good spares to quickly swap out in ambiguous situations, and that actually, in the end, saved us money.
These are all good suggestions. Thank you. I’ve been frustrated and beating my head against the bulkhead after many visits from an electronic technician and returning the unit to Wakespeed for repair and reprogramming and still finding dysfunction.
We have both been seduced by the theoretical benefits of the Wakespeed but real world experience is the key to nirvana.
Charles L Starke MD
I understand your frustration, but as you mention, your core problem is having drop-in type lithium batteries, with their BMS etc inside the box. This is an inherently poor design. The only reason it exists on the market is that the customers are used to 12V batteries, so salespeople happily serve a familiar item, even though using separate 3,2v cells and external electronics indisputably is the only smart solution.
Some drop-ins have a method to communicate with external controllers. Notably from serious companies like Victron, Mastervolt and Lithionics. (Comparing them to the market average is an insult to these brands…) The WS500 can communicate natively with Victron equipment, some external BMSes and more, but with dumb and mute batteries… I actually think scam is a fair description. Even with a communication ability, drop-ins are not a good solution, neither for performance, durability and certainly not for price.
If I understand your setup correctly, the right solution for you would probably have been to keep the WS500 charging the house bank, and then connect the start battery in parallel to that via an automatic isolation switch, like a Victron Cyrix or Victron Argo Fet. The battery would easily absorb the voltage spike from a BMS disconnect. This would mean that the lead acid starter battery would perhaps live a bit shorter, as it would probably see a bit too low charge Voltage. That depends on how much internal Voltage loss your drop-in batts have. Some of them ask for high enough Voltages for lead acid to thrive.
Alternatively you could keep the batteries separate and use one small B2B charger to keep the start battery topped up from the house. Then use a Sterling Power Alternator Protect device. A cheap little thing that seems to do the same spike protection job as a connected battery. I have no experience with it, but I’ve heard from trustworthy sources that it works well.
If your 170 Amp alternator gives just 100 Amp, that sounds like less than I’d expect, but it might be that the regulator is set to throttle down at a relatively low temp? A dumb internal regulator would usually throttle down considerably more quite early in the cycle. The rule of thumb is that most alternators can handle up to 80% of their rated power. If this is a small frame alternator (almost all boat alternators are), it could get quite hot at a lower temp. The WS500 has an alternator temp sensor for that purpose.
This is a complicated topic. I may have missed important info and drawn the wrong conclusions. Anyway, I’m certain that this type of problem will become ever more prevalent, as greedy and incompetent salespersons make a gradually larger imprint on the lithium market.
I feel your pain, but I have to agree with Stein, the fundamental problem you are experiencing is because the vendor of your batteries lied to you with the words “drop in”.
And yes I know that there are a lot of “drop in” batteries being sold. But then Bernie Madoff had a lot of investors too. Bottom line, I agree with Stein, scam is the right word.
That said, you should not feel bad about this. These guys are very convincing. I listened to one give his pitch at the Annapolis boat show and he even had me half convinced. Their secret is the ability to tell whoppers with a straight face and if you don’t have the fundamental training I do, there is no way to detect the lies. Not your fault.
The reason your alternator is putting out so little is almost certainly because the Wakespeed software is bending over backward not to damage the battery or cause a BMS shutdown without any help from the battery or the BMS. What Al calls “a box within a box”.
Bottom line, if you battery BMS can’t talk to the Wakespeed, it’s not really fair to blame the latter for marginal performance.
The only place I disagree a bit with Stein is I don’t like the answer of relying the Sterling device. First because repeated shutdowns may still damage sensitive electronics and second because even allowing load dumps is, in my opinion, un-seamanlike for a cruising boat.
Or to put it another way, the only lithium battery system I would ever own, or recommend, on a cruising boat is one that will never, ever, load dump. That is perfectly doable, but it’s not drop in.
Thanks for your replies, you are correct on most topics. My two cents. I actually planned for the sterling device and I either fried it or it was doa so I was able to go with dc-dc chargers. Regardless I had to remove it, as it was dead and hard to replace in Canada. Second, while I agree with your opinion on lithium bms, the drop in type are considerably cheaper when I look. Mine are Lynac lithium and have an internal bms, the same Victron battery I’m sure is a lot more! I Iike my ws500 and would not go to the Balmar, I had decent to great service from th3 folks at wakespeed but they have some work to do in my humble opinion. Knowing what I know now, I would most certainly buy individual cells and build an external bms.
Hi Cory and John,
It seems like we all have the same views on this. I also agree with the load dump issue John mentions. Most drop-in batteries are sold with the claim that the internal BMS and balancing circuits will take care of the cells, so we don’t have to do anything with the systems we got on the boat, that were made for lead acid batteries. This is the core “drop-in” idea. It’s a total and non disputable lie, always. It’s true that such a battery can survive for a reasonably long time on a boat, enough to void warranty, but performance and durability will certainly be far below what it should have been.
This core fake claim means that the BMS is expected to take care of the charge regulation of the cells. That’s another useless strategy, which leads to the mentioned load dump issues, since that’s the only thing a BMS can do; turn all off when something isn’t right. To get correct charging, we need regulators etc to give the correct voltages at the right times. The BMS is the safety guard. The emergency backup, or fuse. It’s meant to never do anything, just watch that no other item does something wrong.
There are other types of BMS in existence that can indeed do som voltage and current modification, so it can actually correct the incoming power some, but I haven’t seen compelling reasons why to use such an afterthought solution. The charging regulators need to be programmable. They need to monitor the cells directly, and they need to communicate with the BMS. This is a situation where an Alternator Protect device could be a solution. To protect against an event that is expected to never happen.
You’re right that the Victron battery packs are really expensive, but they are also a completely different level. Using their systems properly really works. They’re not sold as drop-ins and the only thing they have in common is that the cells are inside a box. They also mostly don’t have the BMS inside, but it’s connected directly to the outside.
Inside you find Winston cells, which are great, but you can buy them dramatically cheaper separately. The box and the few additional components inside are certainly not worth the extra price. I really like Victron, but I’d never buy their batteries. As most others on the market, they don’t make batteries, just repack them. If you buy separate cells sometime, I think you’ll find that the whole high quality system, including connectors, BMS, and more, will be cheaper that even low end drop-in batteries. With a bit of effort you might even find a lower tag than good AGM.
I agreed with you until you started recommending that Cory home brew a system from different cells, no matter how good the quality. Cory is already deeply frustrated and is clearly not a super geeky—if he was he would not have bought “drop in”—so sending him off to buy another non-turnkey solution is, to me, a mistake.
For example, who is going to properly top and bottom balance this pack and buy the constant voltage/current equipment to do it right. Yes, I know balancing is not that complicated, but not doing it properly is just one step of many that can be done wrong any one of which will lead to problems, and at that point the different vendors will just point the finger at each other and duck all responsibility.
I’m guessing you will now come back and say all this is easy, but one thing I have noticed about super-geeks—takes one to know one—is that they constantly underestimate the difficulty of doing a geeky task for a non-geek.
Gents, again thanks for your comments. I intentionally didn’t get into too much detail but John called me out…lol he said I wasn’t super geeky and that made me sad. Haha. A Mechanical engineering diploma, and a a double degree in computer science and geographic information sciences along with 30 Pius years work experience might make me a little geeky. 🙂 I just want to sail and not spend my time here in Mexico sorting issues.
Hi John and Cory,
My intention was absolutely not adding to the pain. Rather trying to give as much info as possible. However, when I type I should reread what has been said further up.
It’s a fact that balancing and all the other stuff, while not hard to perform, still amounts to a daunting task. Most people have to figure out loads of details and then perform them while doubting if they got the right info, or understood it right. Yes, it’s easy, but only if you know how to do it. 😀
Yes, I think your last sentence sums the issue up perfectly. That and Cory’s latest comment that also points out a great truth: clearly he could do a fully home brewed system, but he has chosen not to, and that’s a perfectly valid, and often very smart way to go too.
One thing this discussion highlights is that I need to write a separate article for the Online Book on why “drop in” is BS. I have written it several times in passing, but clearly if a guy as smart and well trained as Cory can get sucked in by this con, I need to do more. Anyway, thanks, as always, for being a key part of a very useful discussion.
That said, I love your last sentence. Shows real smarts. It took me way longer than you to learn that just because I could do something, and had the training, did not make actually doing it a good idea, particularly when there is sailing to enjoy.
I still make that mistake from time to time, most notably on our J/109 refit.
All this discussion begs the question if there is a worthwhile external BMS to work with WS500 other than The Victron solution. After all, the entire market of individual cells has gone down substantially (EBay/Amazon), drop-ins are winning the war because they are a lot less dangerous rather than DIY, and there is a “disconnect” between already existing quality battery cells, a missing quality built external BMS, and a WS500.
A huge market potential!!!
There are options, see Wakespeed’s site, but the key point is that if we home brew such a solution we are on our own. Or to put it another way companies like Victron, Mastervolt, and Lithionics charge more because they provide, and take responsibility for, a full system that also integrates the WS500. To me that’s worth every penny of the price increment.
Or to put it a third way, it’s not realistic, in my view, to expect any company to take responsibility for a full system without the added revenue.
To put it a fourth way, taking such responsibility without the added revenue, and control or all components, would be a sure route to bankruptcy, no matter the huge market potential.
Hi John M,
REC BMS communicates natively with both the WS500 and Victron equipment. That’s definitely a well established quality BMS maker. Daly can also do that, I think. A Swedish maker has also come with an interesting product, X2. https://batterybalance.com. This one also has additional control electronics so it is supposed to work as an actual charger. It uses any other source as a power source only, an modifies the charge sequence. I don’t know how well it does the job, but it’s in use on some long distance cruising boats. Several other makers too, but I’m not in the process now, so I’m not fully updated.
I don’t really think the individual cell market has gone down. There’s less noise on Ebay, Amazon, Aliexpress, etc, but that’s at least partly because there has bee so many scams with used cells etc. All those sources should be seen as reliable as the roulette in a casino… For lithium cells we need to know much more about the entity that provides the cells, and be able to solve potential faults with them, to make sure there won’t be any such faults. There are several good sources no matter where we live, but they have their own customer contact systems, outside of the above mentioned flea markets.
Drop-ins are “winning the war” because that’s what conservative and uninformed customers are used to, and because the salespersons make much more money that way, by upping the price while lowering the quality. There is absolutely nothing in a DIY solution that is more dangerous than with a similar drop-in solution. Arguably the opposite, as single cell voltages are 3,2V while a drop-in battery is 13,3V. In reality, the designation DIY is not really relevant in this context. The DIY install is not significantly harder or more time consuming than installing a drop-in correctly. The difference is that the DIY can actually be installed really well, while a drop-in can only be done fairly ok, if you do much more than the seller claims necessary.
The conclusion is that they are both really DIY, because boats are not yet made for lithium. They all need to be updated and adjusted somehow. That is usually the same even if we want to use lead acid batteries, as most boats are very poorly set up for those too. Anyway, in general we need to have more knowledge than the drop-in pushers have themselves.
I have unfortunately had a very disappointing experience with Wakespeed. I fitted a WS500 last year after reading about it on here, after an initial glitch, due to me transposing the shunt wires, it seemed to work fine but I had the sense wire connected to the original brush box incorporating a built in regulator.
I was advised by Rick at Wakespeed that I should disable this regulator or it could confuse the WS500, so I fitted another brush box without a regulator and wired that as instructed in the manual, but then there was then no output from the alternator at all.
I tried to resolve the issue with Rick last November but also found the support extremely disappointing, in fact my emails were just ignored, so I can completely relate to Allen’s comments. No one in the company seemed remotely interested in the problem or helping me resolve it, I tried again this year eventually got passed on to someone a couple of weeks ago who actually responded to my emails and helped me resolve what was a very simple issue.
It may be a good product but unless you are lucky enough to get it working without any assistance, it is a very frustrating process trying to get any support from the company, I would certainly not go down this road again.
But wait it gets worse…..although the regulator is now working well, I still need to know if it is still necessary disable the diode trio in the alternator? Again I cannot get an answer from Wakespeed on this, would you know the answer John?
That is disappointing.
I think what we are seeing here is that Wakespeed are a development and manufacturing company with huge growth so they need to either get out of end user sales completely and delegate support to a group of carefully chosen dealers or alternatively create their own support department.
The problem with the latter is that support should really be unbundled from the purchase, otherwise it will become a huge money sink that could even put them out of business—I went through exactly this issue back in the day when I was a computer dealer. In the end we got out of the hardware business and focused on paid system design and support, and the business continues to thrive today.
On the other hand, we yachties don’t like pay-for-support, although, at the end of the day, we would probably be better off if we did. They key point here is that what you are asking Wakespeed about is really not support of their product, but rather alternator selection and modification assistance.
As to your specific situation. No, you still need the diodes in the alternator since that’s what changes the output from AC to DC and is nothing to do with the function of the WS500.
But taking a step back, I would strongly suggest you replace that alternator with one designed for external regulation and preferable one that’s rated continues duty. The reason being that internally regulated alternators are not designed for the harder duty that a smart regulator like the WS500 will impose on them, and so will eventually fail, probably sooner, rather than later.
More on alternator selection here: https://www.morganscloud.com/2013/11/06/10-tips-to-buy-and-install-a-liveaboards-alternator/
(I do need to update the above article, but it should still be helpful.)
i believe the diode trio Toby refers to is not a part of the main power diodes that produce the alternator’s output DC, but are rather an auxiliary set of diodes that power the alternator’s internal regulator and field coil.
Woops, you are right. In that case whether or not one could remove them would depend on how we were powering external regulator, but in most cases where said regulator is powered (initially) off the battery I’m thinking that said diodes could be removed. That said, I can’t see hem doing any harm. Do you agree?
Thanks for the correction.
Actually, I am not an expert in the subject and should not give advice, but I agree with your earlier advice. “I would strongly suggest you replace that alternator with one designed for external regulation and preferably one that’s rated continues duty.” It can be fun to mess with things that one does not really understand, and sometimes fun is the objective, but built for purpose is usually best.
I appreciate what you are saying, I am sure it can be expensive providing support for a technical product like this, but I also think providing a product without any real detail on how to modify a factory installed alternator, or trouble shoot problems, makes the whole process extremely frustrating in the absence of that technical advice. I would be more than happy to pay for advice if only I could find someone who understood the product.
The Diode Trio issue is a case in point, there is a brief reference to having it disabled on page two of the Wakspeed manual, also in an old Xantrex external regulator manual it says in very bold print ‘Caution if the diode trio is not disconnected extremely high voltages can occur and damage equipment’. I have not been able to get any consistent advise from any Wakespeed distributors or alternator repair technicians on this or find anything on the internet. So where do I go from here if I cannot have a brief conversation with someone at Wakespeed.
I have sent two emails over the past week to ask if this modification is necessary, without any response, I would much rather keep the alternator intact if possible so in the event of the WS500 failing so I can reinstall the original brush box with its own regulator.
What I do not understand is that with my P-Type alternator D- is connected to ground and DF only to the positive feed of the WS500 neither brush is connected to D+ so how can the diode trio influence the field voltage? Or might this only be a problem with an N-Type when there is brush connected to D+?
I am guessing most WS500 units are installed without disabling these diodes as no one seems to know about it, and that is probably what I will stick with, but it is all very unsatisfactory not knowing what might happen if I am wrong!
I agree, very frustrating. That’s why I think it would be best if Wakespeed removed the ambiguity and just said up front that they can’t do one on one installation support and then delegated that to dealers and installers. They would of course then need to support said dealers, but given that you are willing to pay for help, there would be revenue in the system to upgrade the whole support chain.
The other option for the would be to set up a separate fee for service system design department.
Either would remove the ambiguity between support that it’s reasonable to expect from a vendor for “free” and system design that should be paid for.
The key point in all of this is that there is no such thing as free support, only support that’s included in the price (bundled) and support that’s paid for (unbundled).
As to your specific problem, after getting it wrong last time, I’m going with “I don’t know”. Bottom line being that I have always bought, and recommended, alternators that are designed for external regulation, so I have no experience with modifying internally regulated alternators, therefore I should not have guessed, as I did the first time round—lesson learned.
Yes, I think both of those options would work well. To be fair to Wakespeed they have given me some support and the main issue was eventually resolved with their help.
At least the unit is working now and I am sure sooner or later I will get a response from them to resolve this current dilemma. As you say I should have not tried to be a cheapskate and bought an alternator set up for external regulation in the first place!
John, a couple of points have occurred to me. While it would be nice to have the engine alternator charge lithium batteries to 100%, I think the “box within a box” programming strategy for the WS500 is a pretty good solution. Why? Because most cruising sail boats have other charging sources that are more resilient that alternators. I’m thinking, of course, of solar and inverter/chargers and wind. We can let these other sources provide the last 5%. Further, lithium batteries last longer if they’re NOT fully charged all the time. (See the charging system on your iPhone.) That’s why I program the charging sources on the boats I design systems for to a voltage a couple of tenths LOWER than the acceptance voltage specified for the batteries. In a cruising situation (off the grid, either anchored out or sailing), the batteries in a system will seldom be fully charged in any case.
One other thing: Dragon Energy, the maker of BattleBorn drop in lithium batteries, recently acquired Wakespeed. Perhaps we’ll see a well engineered/integrated drop-in lithium solution soon.
Sure the box within box works most of the time, but the regulator is still operating blind, so I will always prefer and recommend lithium batteries that communicate, preferably CANbus, to me all other “solutions” have KLUGE written all over them.
One other point, we definitely don’t want to program sources to charge at lower than acceptance for lead acid batteries. Extensive testing at LifeLine has shown conclusively that so doing is bad for them.
And yes, I agree, the acquisition of Wakespeed by BattleBorn will probably result in a fully integrated system. In fact Al called me the day before they went public to warn me that they had sold and in the conversation he hinted at just that.
Hi John, thank you for your great thoughts. I wanted to comment on your statement that lead acid batteries are self limiting the rate of charge they will take. I’m not sure that is correct. Here’s my story. Mastervolt regulator, Mastervolt Gel batteries. On a passage from Albania to Malta, we are motoring at night and the battery temperature monitor goes off: 50C or more. Why? The batteries are hot to the touch so yes, the temperature is more than 50C! I didn’t diagnose the problem until several months later when the same thing happened again. The sensing wire of the regulator was loose on the alternator. Result: the regulator read the voltage as 27V (24V system) when in fact the voltage was 31V! So the alternator kept pumping in the amps into the batteries when they were 100% full.
I had to replace the batteries after this episode although they were only 4 years old. I’ve opted for Lithium batteries from MV with the MV BMS. The BMS limits overcharging and measures voltage at the batteries. I wish I had something similar with the gels! If you’ve had Lithium once, you will never install lead acid again. They are a game changer.
Sorry to hear about the battery write off. Very frustrating, I’m sure.
However, that statement is right as long as the voltage does not exceed acceptance. I explain this in detail in this chapter: https://www.morganscloud.com/2016/06/04/how-batteries-charge-multiple-charging-sources-too/
I also specifically warn about the problem you experienced here: https://www.morganscloud.com/2022/03/19/8-checks-to-stop-our-dc-electrical-system-from-burning-our-boat/
Keep in mind that the chapter above is not intended to be free standing, but rather is a part of a complete online book: https://www.morganscloud.com/category/electrical/online-book-electrical-systems/
As to a warning system with gels, an over voltage alarm would have warned you of this problem well before any damage was done. Most battery monitors have them as do a lot of sailing instruments and I would, and do, recommend said alarm regardless of battery chemistry since lithium systems can have failures too, and in fact have more potential points of failure than lead-acid due to the complexity of the BMS etc.