The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Tips, Tricks & Thoughts:

electrical

  • Galvanic Isolator On Test

    As part of following up on my disturbing discovery about our ProMariner galvanic isolator leaking DC voltage to the point that our saildrive is at risk from over protection, I had a long chat with a very well-informed technician at Dairyland, the original inventors of the fail-safe galvanic isolator.

    Based on that discussion, I’m thinking that all galvanic isolators may not be created equal.

    To prove that out, Dairyland have kindly agreed to send me one of their units at no cost to test and report on.

    I should have that done in a couple of weeks or so (depends on the postal service) and will report.

    In the meantime, I’m not using shore power. While the amount of leakage is probably not a problem, I’m reasonably sure that if the AC ripple on the ground was just a little higher (as is common) it might be. Yes, I’m that concerned. Our saildrive is nearly new and it was not inexpensive!


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  • Q&A—Do I Need a Fail-Safe ABYC-Compliant Galvanic Isolator?

    Question

    Do you know why so-called “fail-safe” ABYC Galvanic Isolators are much more expensive than the Galvanic Isolators that are still allowed here in Europe?

    Member, Henrick


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  • Galvanic Isolator Rectifying AC to DC? Potential Death to Aluminum?

    As usual immediately after launch, I checked our J/109 for stray currents using a silver chloride reference cell.

    All was good until I plugged in the shore power lead and got a jump in voltage from -1.093 (natural voltage of the aluminum anode I have on the sail drive) to -1.25.

    Note that all of these measurements were made with the single pole breaker off on the wharf and that turning it on made no difference.

    If you decide to emulate any of the following readings, make sure that the breaker on the wharf is off, the polarity correct, and you clearly understand what you are doing. Making a mistake could get you killed.

    At first I assumed that I had made some sort of wiring error, or something had changed, such as the neutral and ground connecting together on the boat—a no-no on boats without an isolation transformer. Nope.

    Next I figured the galvanic isolator had failed to short circuit. But no, it passed the standard test using the diode setting on my high quality fluke meter.

    What could it be?

    (more…)

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  • Don’t Buy Generation One Electronics

    I’m not sure how many times over the years I have beaten some variation of this drum here at AAC. Here and here come to mind, but I’m sure I have written it, or something like it, many more times.

    And yet, when a new cool piece of gear comes out, what do we all often do, me included, but get all excited about all the awards it’s won and its cool new features and run right out and buy it.

    Hell, I have done this more than once:

    Let me see if I can be gentle about this…that’s a really stupid thing to do.

    Oops…I guess I kinda failed the gentle test on that one. The good news for me is that, unlike with full articles, my editor does not see Tips before they are published!

    Whatever, here’s why buying newly released products, particularly electronics, is…unwise:


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  • ARCO Zeus Ground Loop Problem

    I recently received a link to this forum thread on lithium batteries that includes a concerning quote:

    Another note, during installation, there is a yellow and black wire on the Zeus alternator harness, “ALT GND” which is for a ground of the Zeus to the Alternator.

    In some installations, this has caused a ground loop, so we are advising to not connect this wire during installation and simply tuck it away.

    This is a serious smoking gun. Designing any electronic device with two grounded lines—connection to the negative in the case of boats—is poor practice and, further, being advised not to connect a wire that was provided for in the design is an indication of potential problems that will, I’m guessing, only get fixed with a hardware redesign of the Zeus.

    Read on for why.


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  • Solar: Lead-Acid Battery Saver, Potential Lithium Wrecker

    The above is a graph of battery voltage on our J/109, currently still out of the water but uncovered.

    As you can see, each day shortly after dawn our solar panel starts charging and since, other than the first day when I was aboard and using power, there are no significant loads and the batteries are fully charged, the voltage rises rapidly to ~14.4 (temperature dependant): acceptance for our AGM lead-acid batteries.

    And, after a predetermined time, and because the batteries were full anyway, our solar regulator drops the charge voltage a bit, and then at dusk it shuts down.

    Lead Loves It

    This is absolutely wonderful for lead-acid batteries because that chemistry is:

    • Tolerant of being held for long periods at acceptance voltage, even when already full.
      • Lead-acid battery internal resistance rises a lot with state of charge, so even though the voltage is still at acceptance very little current flows (amps) so little or no damage is done.
    • Quickly wrecked due to sulphating from being left in a partial state of charge.

    We might even say that solar makes lead-acid batteries wonderful again.

    Lithium Not So Much

    But this same pattern would shorten the life of lithium batteries because:


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  • Don’t Fill Lead-Acid Battery Space With Lithium

    In this Tip I’m building on the last Tip in which I concluded that huge battery capacity makes little sense for most usage profiles.

    It’s tempting when replacing a lead-acid bank with lithium to simply default to installing all the lithium capacity that will fit where the lead-acid batteries were. And indeed that might make sense if the boat had far too little battery capacity in the first place.

    But defaulting to that strategy without doing a bit of basic math could cause us to not only spend way more money than we need to, but also to forgo a wonderful benefit of lithium batteries.

    Here are a couple of rules of thumb that will help when deciding how much lithium capacity we should install in place of lead acid:


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  • Wakespeed WS 500 or ARCO Zeus or…

    I’m deep into a comparison article between the Wakespeed WS 500 and ARCO Zeus alternator regulators.

    And while researching, a little bird landed on my shoulder and tweeted in my ear—no it wasn’t Elon—that if you are considering either a WS 500 or a Zeus you might be well rewarded by doing nothing and waiting a few months.

    As a very English friend of mine used to say after having spoken out of turn:

    Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more.


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  • Huge Battery Banks Generally Make No Sense

    I’m working on the second part of the Adventure 40 electrical system specification.

    One of the fun things about this project is that since we are starting with a blank page, rather than upgrading an existing boat, which I often write about, design fundamentals become more apparent.

    Here’s one that just came to mind:

    (more…)

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  • WakeSpeed And Victron Get Even More Cuddly

    I’m on the Beta test list for software Upgrades to the WakeSpeed WS 500 alternator regulator.

    Not because I like testing new software—only marginally more fun than having a root canal, in my view—but because I’m a huge fan of the regulator and firmly believe it’s currently by far the best option for charging most battery banks on offshore yachts, both lead acid and lithium, and so I like to keep up with what my friend-over-the-phone and chief-of-all-things-technical at Wakespeed, Al Thomason, has been cooking up.

    The latest release announced that the WakeSpeed will now work with Victron Distribution Voltage and Current Control (DVCC). This matters a lot more than it might appear to at first glance:


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  • Cover The Negative Terminal On Batteries

    One of the things I love about my job is that, despite having maintained and refitted boats for over 50 years, I’m still learning, often as the result of the discussions we have in the comments.

    This has certainly been the case here as I think about reducing short-out risk on batteries, particularly lithium. One realization leads to another.


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  • Another Danger With MRBF Fuses

    The great discussion on my recent article about proper battery fusing and particularly the potential danger of MRBF fuses failing closed, instead of opening the circuit in the event of a short circuit, reminded me about another big downside of these kinds of fuses that actually negates the supposed advantage of being able to install them on the battery terminal.

    Take a look at the graphic above. As you can see, the fuse comes with a little rubber cap that I bet is there to satisfy the ABYC requirement to insulate all battery positive terminals from possible shorts.

    First off, having used these fuses on the small lead-acid bank on our J/109, I can tell you that little cap is pretty useless. It refuses to stay in place and does not properly cover the exposed parts of the battery lug.

    Wait, it gets worse: The other problem is how the heck can we insulate the metal part that bolts to the battery terminal?


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  • Lithium Start Batteries

    There are now battery vendors advertising drop-in lithium batteries rated for engine starting.

    If ever there was a solution looking for a problem, this has gotta be it.


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  • Great Source: How Lithium Batteries Charge

    I have been deep into researching lithium batteries, and particularly how they charge, while writing new buyer’s guide chapters for our Electrical Systems Online Book.

    One of the best sources I have read is a post by Eric Bretscher, over at Nordkyn Design.

    Before you go read it, a few thoughts:


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  • An Interesting Sailboat Electrical System Upgrade Case Study

    Scuttlebutt have an interesting two-part story about upgrading the electrical system in a J/105. Worth a read, even though this is a racing boat.

    To me the takeaways are:

    • How terrible the electrical systems are in production boats, to the point of useless, at least for offshore use. They were running the engine 8 hours a day to keep up with demand!
    • Replacing the stock alternator driven by a single belt is job #1 in any electrical system rebuild.
    • Replacing the standard internal regulator that ramps down charge current way before the batteries (lead or lithium) are even close to charged is part of job #1.
    • Details like properly crimping battery cables are vital.
    • In most cases the best bet with a production boat electrical system is to tear the whole battery and charging system out and start again.
    • Read the manuals, several times.
    • Most of what you see out there on YouTube about lithium is bogus.
    • A dedicated and isolated start battery is the only way to go. Off/one/two/both switches are just silly.
    • Seems like Electromaax has some good kit. I spent a little time on their web site and was impressed.

    All useful, but the biggest takeaways are:

    • Just getting the alternator and regulator right reduced charging from eight hours a day to one.
    • They would have got the same benefit with an appropriately sized lead-acid bank, but it would have been bigger and heavier, so in this case lithium was a clear winner, but only for that reason.
    • Without the alternator and regulator upgrades, upgrading to lithium would have been a total waste of time and money—getting charging right is the key to success.

    Much more on electrical system upgrades:


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  • How To Blow Up Your Alternator

    Anytime I write about batteries and charging someone is bound to bring up one of the clever gadgets that fool a stock alternator into charging at a higher current for longer without resorting to external regulation.

    Some of these gadgets, particularly the VRC-200 from Nordkyn Electronics, are undoubtedly very clever—here’s another one I wrote about.

    And I can certainly see using one of these as a quick and relatively inexpensive way to make the stock alternator charging a small battery bank on a boat used for weekends, and perhaps the occasional week cruise, charge more quickly and efficiently.

    But for an offshore voyaging live-aboard boat, these things are not a good idea.

    Most alternators that come with our engines will not last long if pushed hard day in day out, particularly if trying to charge a large bank (lithium or lead-acid)—stock alternators are simply not designed for that kind of duty cycle.

    That said, the Nordkyn will extend alternator life by monitoring its temperature, but that’s going to mean that most of the time the alternator will not be putting out much because stock OEM alternators heat very quickly as soon as they come under load.

    Of course you could use the Nordkyn with a heavy duty alternator, which would be a good combo.

    But my thinking always has been, and remains, if we are going to the trouble of installing a high-capacity bank, we might as well do the charging right with a rugged alternator designed for the job, installed right, and with an external regulator that won’t be subjected to the heat inside the alternator.

    And then if we are going to do the alternator right, we might as well go the whole hog and do the regulator right too.

    Fun Demo

    By the way, Victron have a fun demo showing how fast they can burn out an alternator when charging lithium batteries. There’s a lot of good stuff to learn here, particularly the counterintuitive fact that low engine RPM will do more damage.

    That said, we offshore boat owners should understand that even a big lead-acid bank can fry alternators too—our 800 Ah at 12 volts (9 kWh) AGM lead-acid battery bank on the McCurdy and Rhodes would happily lap up 250 amps for an hour, at least, if we had had an alternator that big, and regularly sucked 150 amps for two hours out of the alternator we did have.

    Anyway, have a watch, it’s interesting:


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  • Beware Lithium Battery Sales

    In the last few weeks I have been getting a series of emails from Battle Borne aggressively promoting sale pricing on their lithium batteries, see the above.

    As far as I can see, these are batteries that don’t have any way to communicate with external charging sources or even a way to inform you that they are about to load-dump and turn your lights out.

    In our opinion, this type of battery is:

    And further, our advice is that only batteries that can communicate through CANbuss (wires), not Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, with charging sources and monitoring systems should be used on boats, particularly offshore boats.

    Much more here:


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  • Wind Generators Can Be Dangerous

    A few weeks ago I wrote an article on renewables in which I opined that the days of wind generators are, for most cruising usage profiles, over. Too much windage, too much noise, in return for less generated electricity, particularly when it matters, than many people believe.

    The interesting thing is I got surprising little pushback.

    Anyway, here’s another reason to think seriously before installing a wind generator: the things can be seriously dangerous, as this cruiser found out the hard way.

    So if you do decide to install a wind generator:

    • Make sure it’s high enough that no crew member, even standing on the side deck or lazarette, can extend their arm into the spinning blade.
    • And, further, if the thing runs amok in high winds, it’s better to let it destroy itself, rather than risk limbs trying to physically stop it.

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  • Kilowatts and Horsepower

    I’m as concerned about climate change as anyone, and maybe more than most, but obfuscation and pretengineering does not help us get to a sustainable future.

    A good example is the way that electric-drive vendors use horsepower when talking about the diesel engine they want to replace and kilowatts when talking about their offerings.

    You see, horsepower and watts measure the same thing: power.

    1HP=.7457kW

    It’s that simple,

    I was triggered to write this by an electric-drive company claiming that installing their serial-hybrid drive—diesel generator driving an electric motor—in a long thin efficient motorboat would save 30% in fuel burn over the standard diesel engine that comes with the boat.

    But here’s the smoking gun, they promised 8.5 knots top speed with the generator driving the electric motor, but with the standard diesel that boat can do 18 knots and cruises efficiently at 10.

    Yup, all they have done is decrease the power, probably by more than half. Of course that will save fuel.

    But here’s the thing, in most usage profiles for cruising boats, simply putting in a right-sized diesel engine and settling for say 9 knots cruise and about 11 knots wide open—still faster than the electric—instead of 18, would almost certainly save more fuel as well as costing way less (think less than half), and weighing less, than an electric motor, generator, and a huge lithium battery bank.

    The latter to run silent for an hour or so…and then have to be charged with…the diesel generator, in most cases.

    Wait, it gets worse, weight is a killer on a boat like this, making the hybrid setup an even sillier idea since it will weigh way more than the right-sized diesel and so make her even less fuel efficient and take up more space.

    What fevered mind came up with the idea that burning diesel to create rotation (generator engine), and then turning that into electricity (generator alternator), and then turning that back into rotation (electric motor), is more efficient than burning diesel to make rotation (diesel engine) in the first place—conversion losses are a bitch (they compound)—one conversion always beats three.

    Sure, electric is great, as long as we stay close to a source of renewable produced power, but staying close to the dock is not what people will use this boat for—and no, a practical amount of solar panels are not going to help much.

    Which brings us a full circle.

    It’s always a danger signal when a sales person talks HP one moment and kW the next. They are probably trying to hide something, and now you know what that is.

    And no, there is nothing magical about a horsepower or a watt just because it was produced by an electric motor. The whole torque thing is most-all BS too when applied to cruising boats—great though if you want to get a heavy train moving from a standing start.

    More about all this here, including a very cool calculator, which will let you see if your usage profile will benefit from an electric drive. It’s a bit out of date but the basic physics does not change…conversion losses are a bitch…wait, I already said that.


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  • An Even Better Alternator Regulator?

    There has been a lot of excitement recently about the release of a new alternator regulator that takes direct aim at the WakeSpeed WS500‘s position as the only truly smart regulator, primarily because it measures the current (amperage) that goes into the battery and then acts on that information, rather than making a bunch of guesses about the state of the battery that are usually more wrong than right, like, for example, the regulators from Balmar—I explain all this in more detail here and here.

    The new regulator is the Zeus from ARCO, and both Panbo and Rod Collins, who advised during the development, are pretty excited—I recommend that you read Rod’s article for an insider’s view on how this new regulator came to be.

    I’m super excited too since the new regulator fixes a problem that I have been beating on Al Thomason, inventor of the WakeSpeed, about since the WS500 came out: no easy way to program it and see what it’s doing over Bluetooth—Al and I seem to chat every six months or so about one thing and another and I’m sure he is getting sick of hearing it!

    And the Zeus seems to be easier to install and program in a bunch of other ways; for example, the harness it comes with will work with both N- and P-type alternators.

    But here’s the thing.

    I know from our chats that since the WS500 was released, much, possibly most, of Al’s energies and smarts, which are prodigious, have gone into making his regulator work seamlessly, mostly over CAN bus, with the ever more sophisticated lithium battery management systems from companies like Lithionics and Victron, as well as many others.

    Here’s an example of how tightly Al has integrated the WS500 with Victron’s products, including their system monitors.

    We are talking close cooperation here. For example, in a multi-BMS multi-battery Lithionics setup, if one of the BMSs goes offline, the WS500 will know that and automatically adjust its charging profile accordingly.

    The point I’m making is that it’s all very well for ARCO to claim that they have all this cracked on day one, and much more besides, but is that real when one of the smartest engineers in the business has a five-year lead on them?

    And process control programming and communication, which is what this is, is an iterative process of try, debug, try again, debug…

    And further, keep in mind that with this stuff one bad bug could take out thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars worth of equipment in the blink of an eye, or render your system down until sorted out.

    And one of the things that I know Al has focused on, because he’s a deeply experienced process control engineer, is failsafe, so if his regulator ever gets confused about what’s going on it defaults to shutting things down, or at least switching to less potentially damaging charge parameters.

    This is actually one of the reasons it can be a bit frustrating to get the WS500 working the way we want it to. The default configurations are very conservative.

    So sure, if you have a nice simple and robust lead-acid battery-based electrical system, give the Zeus a try, if you wish.

    But if you have, or are contemplating, installing a sophisticated lithium battery-based system, I suggest sticking with the WakeSpeed WS500 for a while while ARCO make the almost inevitable early-days mistakes on someone else’s boat. And also until the manufacturer of your battery and BMS tell you they are 100% happy seeing their batteries charged by the Zeus.

    And one final thought. The Zeus page claims to make it super easy to change parameters with your phone. Sure that’s cool, but with ease of change comes the temptation to play around indiscriminately and changes can lead to big problems, so be careful.

    All that said, don’t get me wrong, I’m still super-happy to see a competitor to the WakeSpeed WS500—bet we see that Bluetooth capability I have been bitching about for four years real soon.

    Disclosure

    I like Al Thomason and he has been good to me by tirelessly sharing his smarts in phone calls and emails.

    On the other hand, I’m on record as more than a little sceptical about Firefly/Battle Born, the company that bought WakeSpeed, so I think those two kinda cancel out.

    You should also be aware that Al has arranged for AAC to get two WS500 regulators for free, one of the early ones (now working on our J/109), and a month ago, one of the newer ones with a NEMA 2000 output that I will install this winter and play with next summer.


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  • No, Lithium Batteries Don’t Burn Boats

    Every so often, someone sends me a link to this article, originally published in Professional Boat Builder and repeated at Sailing Anarchy, that starts with the line:

    Lithium-ion batteries start fires.

    First off, the author does not differentiate between lithium cobalt oxide (the battery type in your phone) and lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO), the chemistry generally used for service batteries on boats, which is much safer and less volatile.

    In fact, recently, ABYC tried to set one of the latter types on fire and had no luck.

    Second, he goes on to say that a large number of boat fires are caused by batteries.

    I don’t think that’s true.

    What I would agree to is that a large percentage of fires on boats are caused by poorly designed and installed electrical systems, and that includes those installed by the “professionals”:

    The electrical system on our new-to-us J/109, as installed by the builder in 2004, was a fire looking for a place to happen, mainly because of inadequate fusing.

    And then in the years after she was built and before we bought the boat and rebuilt the electrical system, “professionals” had made the fire risk far worse with stupid changes and additions.

    This is a distressingly common situation, and don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because your boat has passed survey that the electrical system is safe. Ours did and wasn’t.

    And don’t get me started on the dangers of electrical systems designed and installed by boat owners who watch a few YouTube videos, source lithium cells from some vendor on eBay, and have at it.

    So to me, the correct statement is:

    Lithium batteries don’t burn boats, poor battery and electrical installations burn boats, regardless of battery chemistry.

    Me

    I have written a lot more about this in this Online Book, including how to decide if lithium batteries are right for your boat:


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  • Sneaky Power Users

    We were on the boat for a couple of days last weekend and one evening I decided to check email and the weather on my iPad.

    But when I picked it up, it turned out I had forgotten to charge it—it was as dead as John Cleese’s parrot.

    Not a problem, we have a USB charging port on the boat and a USB C (it’s a newish iPad) cable.

    I plugged in the iPad and, since this had reminded me, my iPhone 13, then at about 50% charge, into a different port.

    The photo at the top of the Tip shows the total current draw before plugging in these devices:

    • Five LED lights on below,
    • AIS with drag alarm,
    • propane sniffer,
    • boat monitoring system,
    • and two anchor lights
      • will be another Tip and is why the radar is on (in standby).

    The photo below shows current with both devices charging, and no other changes.

    Yikes, these two handheld devices are drawing 3.5 amps at 12 volts, or 160% of what it takes to power a small boat at anchor at night.

    Yes, I know, in a couple of hours or so both devices will be fully charged and only require a trickle of amps to keep them there.

    Still, suppose Phyllis charged her iPad and iPhone, too, and then maybe we have guests with devices, and then there’s the iPad we use for navigation. And many boats have one or two laptops…

    It’s stuff like this, albeit not by itself, but added to other sneaky users of amps, that push cruisers into expensive electrical system upgrades including: excessive arrays of solar panels and/or the clutter, noise, and weight of wind turbines; or a generator.

    Worth thinking about.


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  • Good LED Steaming/Deck Light

    We fitted a MarineBeam LED Steaming/Deck Light on the mast on our J/109 a year ago, and so far I’m impressed.

    Small, light, relatively inexpensive, and amazingly bright, with incredibly low current draw.

    Of course we don’t know how reliable it will be over time, but so far so good.

    By the way, I have never used deck lights at sea. Too dazzling and disorienting, and, worst of all, our own bodies throw shadows just where we want to see. Much prefer, and recommend, head lamps.

    The primary reason we have a deck light is to reduce the risk of someone running into us because they did not look up and see our masthead anchor light. Yes, it happens.


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  • Tidy Up The Wiring

    One of the most satisfying jobs we can do in a refit is to simply tidy up the wiring.

    I took the above picture a few days ago. Certainly not perfect, and not as nice as I could do if I tore the whole works out and started again, but a heck of a lot better and easier to troubleshoot than it was when we got the boat two years ago.

    Everything is now properly fused and labeled, and I also must have taken 50 pounds of unused or over-length wire out of the boat.

    Cleaning up gave me space to move the AIS that some lazy tech had installed in the head to where it belongs, and to install a boat monitoring gadget (far left)—more on that coming in an article.

    And best of all the high-voltage wiring is now safely covered. Here’s how.

    And here’s a pic of the dog’s breakfast I started off with when we got the boat.

    Much more on electrical systems.


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  • Battle Born Batteries Get The Memo

    Great to see that one of the largest vendors of lithium batteries has finally got wise to the fact that when used on boats, lithium batteries with an internal BMS must be able to communicate with external devices and the user to be safe and compliant.

    That said, Battle Born are making a lot of noise about the phone app (user communications) but are ominously quiet about CAN bus communication, which is the best way to manage a safe and functional marine installation.

    However, given that Dragonfly, the parent company of Battle Born (not to be confused with Firefly Batteries), bought Wakespeed last year, hopefully Al Thomason, designer of the best alternator regulator out there, the WS5000, will pull levers behind the scenes to make sure they actually do this right, rather than just produce a pretty phone app to bamboozle the non-technical.

    One other point, Battle Born are making a big deal out of now being ABYC compliant with this announcement, but kind of glossing over the fact that, as I read the standard, all of the tens of thousands (guess) of batteries they have sold to yachties over the years without these features are not compliant.

    I wonder how long it will be before insurance companies start requiring ABYC E-13 compliance before renewal? Could be a lot of secondhand Battle Born batteries looking for a home, and some very pissed off boat owners.

    Seems to me that the very least Battle Born should do is offer a very nice discount on the new batteries to anyone who bought the old batteries, say in the last two years. Some sort of trade-in would be even better. Heck, maybe they could even upgrade the old batteries with the new communications technology.

    Anyway, moral of the story: Don’t buy batteries with an internal BMS that can’t communicate with charging sources or warn you before things go wrong.


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