Caribbean Compass April 1999
Power to the People
A year and a bit ago Casey, a good friend of mine, bought a boat in British Columbia that had been forced to the bottom by the weight of its boathouse, pressed under several feet of snow. What started as a great bargain became his life's work as he peeled back the damage caused by all of the salt water that managed to find its way into everything. Everything.
The other day I stopped in to share his progress and, as always, to marvel at his good work. He had just finished his DC wiring and was well on his way to installing his AC circuits. Casey is a great fan of Nigel Calder, as I am, so his work on his boat's electrics reflects Mr. Calder's thoughts on boat wiring. Casey's efforts, so far, are neat and very orthodox. We chatted for awhile about the direction he should go now that he is about to interface 110 into his electrics. Casey has a lot of respect for my opinion obviously he has never read this column.
The subjects of whether to isolate or not, inverters with chargers, inverters without chargers, and electrolysis, all came bubbling up around us: "What sort of AC system do you have aboard the Baron, oh Great Seasoned One?" he asked.
"Er a drop cord," I mumbled.
"Say again, Horizon Man?" he begged.
"Um a drop cord," I whispered.
For those of you of insufficient technical bent, to use a drop cord is to admit that one does not have any AC system at all, and that any connection to shorepower is directly by extension cord to the gizmo requiring alternating current. In the beginning, I did try to work out a way to wire in a fool-proof shorepower system. The problem was that I would walk away from each drawing with the idea that things were getting more sophisticated than they needed to be. What did I need AC for anyway? This was before videos were common, so the only AC things aboard were a battery charger and some small power tools that I could replace with ones that used re-chargeable batteries. I saw the household plugs in the boat as nothing more than a threat to Katso.
Times would change so that by the time we left Mexico for the Pacific we had a small TV and a video. At this point we made a small concession to the power gods and installed an inverter just a small one, 250 watts with a plug mounted right on the front. We also realized that we might be happy to have the odd power tool with more "whumph" than the battery-powered variety, so we elected to carry along a small generator, one with an output of 500 watts AC and about 100 watts DC. As this machine was only capable of providing about 8 amps of charging current for our batteries direct, we bought a 30 amp car battery charger that we could plug into the AC side of the generator. We could also use this charger with our drop cord if we happened to find shorepower. This was as complicated as we wanted to have it.
In normal times, motoring and the solar panels kept us flush enough so the generator did little but rust in the sail locker. Before a long leg, we would drag it on deck, hook it to the charger, and top off our batteries so we could begin with a full bank. This did work most of the time, although I do recall the night before we left Bora Bora for Tonga. We had spent the day getting ready, dutifully charging our batteries and doing other neat stuff. Once finished, we dinghied ashore for a final supper with pals.
Returning home that night we were surprised to see a large boat anchored near us aglow with light a tall ship mayhaps, mateys. No, just the Baron. On the way out I must have dragged my shoulder across the switch panel near the mast and turned on every light that we had.
Another day in Bora Bora, who could complain?
Salt water and stupidity took their toll. In Fiji we joined with friends to show a movie to villagers in the Yasawa Islands. Maybe 100 people gathered around my pal's little color TV, enraptured with the chance to see a film, "Captains Courageous" or something. Anyway, I yanked the cord on my generator, it pumped out 180 volts and toasted the TV plus the first three rows of happy Fijians. Accidents happen, right? Try telling that to a guy with smoking eyebrows, who is several times the size of your average school bus, and bent on using your generator as a suppository for you.
While visiting with Casey I think that I, not for the first time, reflected on how different boats can be when some will spend most of their time near "mains" power while others may be months between plug-ins. When a yachtie decides to have an AC system as part of the electrics aboard, this new system tends to dominate all of the others. Inter-dependence also seems to prosper, the inverter becomes the charger maybe, etcetera.
While Casey may want to have all of the conveniences of home, he also wants to enjoy the lack of hassles that comes with a simple system. I'm not sure that these concepts are compatible. Most everything that we need aboard a boat uses DC, even most small videos and TVs. Things like microwaves and hairdryers can be powered through inverters if you have the battery capacity of a submarine. If you do not, leave them and maybe all who cannot live without them behind.
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