Sailboat Solar – Installing Solar Power & a Solar Panel Arch on a Boat

WestMarine.com
This page describes our solar panel installation on our sailboat, a Hunter 44DS.  This setup has allowed us to anchor out almost exclusively.

Groovy's solar panels.

Boat solar panel arch installation

Happy panels in full sun, Sea of Cortez.

Marine solar mount installation

Full sun & no shade (3 panels working):   22.5 amps

Boat solar mount

One panel partially shaded (2 panels working):  15 amps.

Boat Solar panel partial shade problems

Shade straddles two panels (only 1 panel working):  9.5 amps.

Boat solar arch for panels

Polished welds and drilled/tapped/screwed joints.

sv Groovy's solar panel arch welds. sv Groovy - sailboat solar panel arch.

Liquid Metal

boat solar power mount on a sailboat

Comparison: Factory weld on our Hunter arch.

Sailboat solar panel arch

The arch extension arrives for a fitting.

marine solar panel mount extension.

Alejandro tie-wraps it in place.

Sailboat solar panel installation

Mark helps hold it up.

Boat solar power Marine solar installation

The extension is in place -- without its legs yet.

Boat solar mount installed on a sailboat

Jose checks if it's level.

Sailboat solar arch extension

The arch extension returns -- now with support legs.

Marine solar panel arch support

It's maneuvered into place.

Boat Solar arch on a sailboat Telescoping davits on a solar panel arch

Telescoping davit arm (marine solar panel arch)

Boat solar installation with solar panel arch.

Held in place with tie-downs.

Boat solar power arch installation

Looking good!

Marine solar power

Alejandro drills and taps holes in the arch.

The boat's solar panels are ready!

The solar panels are ready!

Boat's solar panel arch extension removed while Alejandro taps and drills.

Arch extension removed from Groovy while Alejandro drills

and taps the arch on the boat.

Installing solar panels on a sailboat

Heave ho!!

Installation of marine solar power system Marine solar power system installation

The second panel is installed.

Boat solar installation with solar arch

Three panels - yay!

Sailboat Solar power setup

Alejandro and Mark test the strength of the arch extension.

Boat solar powert

Mark begins the big job of wiring it all up.

Marine solar power system diagram

Component layout:  3 panels, combiner

box, controller & 4 batteries

Sailboat solar power design

Combiner box (upper left) and controller (lower right).

Boat solar power design and installation

Wiring the panels.

Sailboat solar panel system design and installation

All done.

Solar panels on our Hunter 44DS Groovy.

In use 18 months later in Puerto Vallarta.

Marine solar power system and design

Sailing in Huatulco.

Sailboat Solar Power & Solar Panel Arch Installation

This page describes the solar power setup we installed on Groovy, our Hunter 44DS

sailboat.  This was our third solar installation.  Our two RV solar installations are described

on the RV Solar Setup page.

We learned a lot from those installations.  The first one taught us the basics about the

components used for generating and accessing solar power in a moveable home.  The

second installation taught us two things:  (1) the importance of wiring panels in parallel

rather than in series if there is any possibility of the panels ever being shaded (all the

panels essentially shut down if only one is slightly shaded); and (2) the value of being able

to tilt the panels towards the sun in the winter.  We took the lessons we learned and

turned them into a multi-part Solar Installation Tutorial for RVers and sailors.

The company Kyocera

Solar liked our solar

panel installation so

much, they featured

Groovy on their website.

OVERVIEW

For comparison, our solar power installations have consisted of

the following:

Lynx Travel Trailer

(1) 130 watt/12 volt Kyocera solar panel

(1) Morningstar 10 amp charge controller

Various 150 watt to 800 watt portable and

semi-portable modified sine wave inverters

(2) Energizer 6 volt batteries in series (220 amp-hours).

Hitchhiker Fifth Wheel

(1) 130 watt/12 volt Kyocera and (3) 120 watt/12 volt Misubishi solar panels (490 watts total), wired in series

(1) Outback 60 amp MPPT charge controller

(1) 900 watt pure sign wave inverter permanently mounted

(4) Trojan 105 6 volt batteries wired in series and in parallel (440 amp hours).

Hunter 44DS sailboat

(3) 185 watt/24 volt Kyocera solar panels (555 watts total), wired in parallel

(1) Combiner box (combines 3 panel wires into 1 going to the charge controller)

(1) Xantrex 60 amp MPPT charge controller

(1) 600 watt pure sine wave inverter

(1) Xantrex 2500 watt modified sine wave inverter/charger

(4) Mastervolt AGM 4D batteries, (1) Group 27 AGM battery (710 amp-hours)

Notes:  (1) Our odd collection of panels on the Hitchhiker was due to the Kyocera 130 panels not being available at the time of

our installation (we brought one over from the Lynx).  (2) Our switch from the Outback to the Xantrex charge controllers between

the Hitchhiker and the boat was due to the Xantrex being cooled by non-moving fins rather than a fan.  In hindsight I would

probably use the Outback charge controller in the future only because it displays more information on its screen rather than

having to scroll through multiple screens to get the voltage, amperage, watts and charging stage.  (3) Our Group 27 start battery

on the boat is isolated from the set of 4D house batteries only when the voltage of the bank drops too low.

The boat has a DC refrigerator and a DC freezer which together eat up some 100-130 amps or more every 24 hours, depending

on ambient temperature.  In addition we listen to music on the stereo with multiple speakers and a large subwoofer, we watch

DVD's many nights on a 22" TV, we use two laptops for several hours everyday.  We also have a water pump, electric flush

heads and VHF radio which we use at anchor.  Our cabin lighting is a combination of fluorescent and LED, and our anchor light is

LED.  So our typical daily amperage use at anchor is between 180 and 250 amps.

In December, around the winter solstice, on the southern mainland of Mexico (Zihuatanejo) our solar setup collected about 170

amp-hours per day.  In June, around the summer solstice, in the middle of the Sea of Cortez (San Carlos) our solar setup

collected about 250 amp-hours per day.  In hindsight, it would be nice to have at least 750 watts of solar power to meet our

power demands in winter.

PARTIAL SHADE KILLS SOLAR POWER PRODUCTION

The biggest problem with installing solar power on a sailboat is accidentally getting a little shade on the panels.  While swinging at

anchor, the mast, boom, radome and other things high up all conspire to throw pockets of shade on the solar panels and make

them quit working.  It is quite shocking to find out just how little shade is needed to reduce the panels to zero output.  We had

experimented a bit with partial shading issues on our fifth wheel solar installation (see bottom of Solar Setup), but we never park

near shading objects so it is not a problem on that moveable home.  A sailboat is a whole different story.

An interesting paper Shade Effects on Conventional PV (5th article down) from the Physics Department at the University of

Arizona describes how shading just half of one row of "squares" on a solar panel -- as often happens in the morning or afternoon

hours on a commercial installation if the rows of panels are placed too close together -- the panels shut down or reduce their

output significantly.  The opening sentence says it all:  A panel that is 8% shaded loses 94% of its productivity."  Deep down in the

meat of this paper the math lost me (sigh), but for a layman's explanation of just how devastating shade can be on solar panels,

this website delivers the skinny.

We placed our panels as high and as far back from the boom as we could.  We also pull the boom aside while at anchor, but the

panels still get shaded by the mast/forestay/radome when the sun is forward of the shrouds and they get shaded by the sails

when sailing.  As an experiment, we took some notes about how partial shade affects our panels.  This data was taken on

February 3rd at 10:00 a.m.  The shade was caused by the mast, forestay and radome (affixed to the front of the mast).  The

shade moved slowly back and forth across the panels as the boat swung at anchor.

Panels in full sun:

22.5 amps

One panel partly shaded:

15.5 amps

Two panels slightly shaded:

9.5 amps

As another experiment we sailed and noted the amperage

produced by the solar panels as we sailed on two different

tacks.  On one tack the mainsail shaded one entire end panel

and half of the middle panel.  On the other tack the boat was

heeled away from the sun but there was no shade on any of

the panels.  It was far better to be heeling away from the sun

than to have the panels shaded.  This data was taken at 11

a.m. on January 31.

1½ panels fully shaded by sails:

10 amps

No shade, tilted away from sun:

24.5 amps

So it seems to me that shade is the number one enemy of solar panel power production on a sailboat, and orientation towards

the sun is a lot less important.  If the solar panels are installed in such a way that a nearby radome or wind generator is always

partly shading one panel in the array, as too often happens in solar panel installations on sailboats, the result will be dramatically

reduced power production.

THE ARCH EXTENSION

Our boat came with a fantastic arch that supports the traveler.  We used it as a base for an elegant stainless steel extension that

supports the three panels.  We hired Allejandro Ulloa of Ensenada, Mexico to create this arch extensions.  Alejandro is an artist

and a master craftsman.  And he is extremely professional.  We gave him a sketch of what we were looking for, he responded

with a written quote for half of what it would have cost in San Diego, and we were off and running.

Alejandro prides himself on the beauty of his work.  He polishes the welds and installs tubing that

seems to flow like liquid metal as it rounds corners and changes thicknesses.  In our opinion, his

arch extension dramatically increased the esthetics of our boat.  It also added functionality

besides just supporting the panels.  It makes a great spot for hanging on when you're sitting in

the rear jump seats, it has a

telescoping davit system,

and the panels provide

much needed shade.

If you need to have an arch

or any kind of stainless steel

structure fabricated for your

boat and you are heading to

Mexico from the US or

Canada, spend some time in

Ensenada and look up

Allejandro Ulloa (email:

alejandrossw [at] hotmail [dot] com,

Mexican phone: (646) 171-5207).  He can

be contacted through the excellent Baja

Naval boatyard as well.  There are other

stainless steel fabricators in Mexico but we

haven't seen anyone nearly as skilled or

as professional in their approach.

Alejandro built the extension in his workshop and then brought it

to the boat to size its supporting legs.  This was a thrilling process

for us, as we began to see it taking shape on the boat.  The entire

arch extension was wrapped in plastic for this phase to protect

the finish.

Mark helped wherever he could and I took endless photos.

Alejandro returned on another day with the finished arch extension.

Now it had tabs for the solar panels, and the supporting legs had

been cut and welded at the right length.

We wanted the arch extension to double as a davit system.

Alejandro designed clever telescoping tubes that snap into place in

an extended or contracted position, and he fabricated two beautiful

cleats.  We have found that we use the davits in the contracted

position most often because they hold the porta-bote tight to the

swim platform where it fits perfectly into the swim step cutout in the

transom.

We anticipated

mounting the solar

panels ourselves,

as the quote

Alejandro provided

was for building

and installing an

arch extension,

not for installing

panels.  We

weren't sure how

we'd get them mounted, but we knew

we'd figure it out.

Meticulously adhering to the

"measure twice cut once"

philosophy, Alejandro

dismantled the whole thing

for some adjustments and

then mounted it one last

time for the final installation,

tapping and drilling and

screwing each of the arch's

feet into place in a bed of

3M-4200.

Then, to our amazement,

Alejandro and his assistant

began mounting each of

the panels.  Mark quickly

jumped in.  These are not

light panels, and it was

quite a stretch to get them

in position.  Alejandro was

concerned about possible

corrosion due to the

dissimilar metals of the

panels' aluminum frames

and the stainless steel arch

extension, so he placed a

plastic insulator in each

attachment point.

When it was all

finished, Alejandro

wanted us to be

confident that the arch

could support a dinghy

and engine.  He and

Mark swung from the

davits.  Both are

lightweights, but they

were still twice the

weight of our

dinghy and

outboard.

WIRING

Alejandro's work was done, but we still had a big project ahead.  We ran the wiring

inside the arch so it wouldn't show (it wasn't easy snaking it through!!), and we placed

the combiner box and charge controller in a transom locker.

The installation

looked beautiful

and it worked, but it did not work as efficiently as it

could have.  The whole system produced about

20% less power each day than it was capable of

doing.  We learned we'd made two vital mistakes.

One advantage of using 24 volt solar panels is that

we had half as much current in the wires as we

would have had if we'd used 12 volt panels.  Rather

than 36 amps (at 12 volts) at peak production we

had just 18 amps  (at 24 volts).  This allowed for a

smaller wire size, which is much easier to work with

as it is a lot more pliable, and it's cheaper to boot

(marine grade electrical wire is exorbitant).  Our

salesman at Northern Arizona Wind and Sun had recommended we use 10

gauge wire throughout the system.  This turned out to be inadequate

because the distance between the panels and the batteries is so long --

about 50'.  For wire gauge sizes, amps and

distances, see this chart.

Our second mistake was placing the charge

controller in an aft transom locker.  Our batteries

are next to the centerline of the boat at the lowest

point above the keel in the main salon.  The

charge controller needs to be close to the batteries

as possible.  The distance from the charge

controller in the transom locker to the batteries

was about 30' -- too far.    The combiner box was

fine back there, but the charge controller had to be

moved.

Although most of our circuit runs at 24 volts -- from

the panels to the combiner box to the charge

controller -- allowing for smaller wire, the portion

between the charge controller and the

batteries runs at 12 volts.  Therefore, the

cable between the charge

controller and the batteries

needs to be not only as short as

possible but very large as well.

We moved the charge controller

into the cabin in a hanging

locker about 10' from the

batteries and and switched to 8

guage wire to connect it, and we

saw a dramatic improvement.

When the distance between the

charge controller and the

batteries was 30' and we were

using just 10 gauge wire, the

resulting resistance in the wire created a large

voltage drop between the charge controller and the

batteries, artificially raising the voltage at which it

thought the batteries were operating.  The charge

controller would see the batteries at 14.4 volts whereas when we measured the batteries with a volt meter

they were actually at 13.2 volts.  This threw everything in the system way off, and ultimately resulted in a

daily loss of some 10-30 amp-hours that never made it from the panels to the batteries.  Once we moved the

charge controller to within 10' of the batteries and installed bigger wire, the resistance dropped.  The

controller saw the batteries within 0.2 volts of their actual voltage, and our daily power production increased.

Note: In three years of cruising Mexico, our boat was plugged into shore power for a total of 6 weeks

while it was in in-water storage in San Carlos. It was never plugged in while we lived aboard (even during

the 3 months we stayed at Paradise Village Marina in Puerto Vallarta).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The solar power setup aboard Groovy has inspired stories and articles all over the internet.  Here are a few of the websites and online magazines that have featured stories about Groovy and our marine solar power installation:

New to this site?  We have more info on Solar Power and tons of other great stuff — please check out our Home page and our intro pages for RVers and Cruisers to learn more about us and discover what’s where on our site.

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