Cruising Sailboat Generator and Energy Decisions

Photo Credit to our Roving Reporter, Dr. Emmy

Right now we’re on the dock; but as of next October we want to be heading toward life under a giant sunset somewhere.  Our equipment and energy choices will have an effect on that life, as we have no desire to sit on a dock somewhere for an extended amount of time.  Here’s the story of the curveball thrown at us in the last 3 weeks and how Fate seems to have intervened to help us with some of our equipment and power choices.

Over the Colombus Day weekend we enjoyed several days off the dock swinging on the hook in Glorietta Bay, San Diego;  not knowing it would be the death knell for our 6.5 kw Onan Generator.  Onan as a Company isn’t around anymore as they were bought or folded into Cummins, which still makes RV and Marine application generators.  The generator on Tulum 5 is a 6.5 Onan kw 1977 model which is tucked into our engine room beside the engine, with reasonable access.  When out on the hook over this last Columbus Day weekend, we needed power, so we fired up the generator and put it under load, with it lasting approx 17 minutes.  After about 17 minutes, the kids alerted me to the white smoke starting to billow from the engine room and upon opening the hatch, the boat was quickly flooded with the acrid smelling white smoke.  It wasn’t steam, it was smoke.  With an incredibly hot generator and lots of smoke, we shut it down and vented the boat; didn’t attempt to run it again on the hook.  Getting back to the dock, we noted that the coolant tank was bone dry, even though it had coolant previously.  Knowing that she needed some love anyways, I started a service on the generator- fully replacing both fuel filters, the oil filter, changing the oil and getting OEM spec coolant to go inside the generator.  I put in new zincs and checked the impeller, all seemed fine.  While I had the water pumps torn apart and out, I took off for the Onan Dealership in Point Loma (Coleman Marine Diesel) to get another impeller while I had the old one out of the pump.  This is part of the death knell for this 41-year-old generator, as Coleman didn’t have and was unable to get me either the impeller or the pump as needed nor was any other marine store in the Point Loma area.  Calling Cummins customer service didn’t help much either, as they no longer stock or make parts for my model generator.  After working through this for several days, I took the time to discuss this with the owner of the Onan Dealership (including pricing for a new generator and the install- the quick figure including labor was approx $20K) and the odds of my current generator running for a long time to come.  He brought up the fact that parts would be hard to come by in other countries and made the suggestion that before I put another cent into my Onan; I put it all back together and see if it ran.  If it ran, then I should get it professionally serviced- if it didn’t run, I should weigh the alternatives.  After these frustrating few days, I spent the afternoon putting the entire generator back together, cleaned up my mess and hoped that she would start and run like a champ.  After going through the normal starting steps (battery switch on, salt water intake opened, fluids checked) I primed her for at least a minute and let her rip.  After some sputters that indicated life, dense white smoke poured out the back and she died.  Trying several more times and tightening and loosening the belts I had put back on, she gave up the ghost and only the starter would click.  This is utterly fucking frustrating after all the work I had put in.  I am still frustrated and I know all the saileery sailors reading this have comments and suggestions and will tell me that it can still be fixed.  I considered this and before making any decisions I talked to the four people who often give me decent opinions or slow me down (I LIKE 70% solutions violently executed vice 100% solutions too late).  After discussing with my parents and Hotwife last night and then bouncing this off two more marine professionals (Cedillo Marine and Yachtfinders-Windseakers), I think the 6.5kw 1977 Onan may have sung its last song.  Between me and Hotwife and after getting sound advice, we’re going to take out the Onan and buy a Honda 2000 portable gas generator that we’ll store on deck and use just like shore power when we need it.

Previous to all this and not knowing the existing generator would be dying soon, I had researched and considered buying new solar capability for Tulum, including a new MPPT controller, any new solar panels and a possible wind generator.  My qualification for the controller was that it had to be MPPT, had to be able to control the charge from solar and wind and be able to be remote so I didn’t have to go through the back of my clothes locker to check the energy output.  After doing the research, I found all this in several Blue Sky Energy controllers.  Knowing this was a commitment to renewable energy and a fairly large and complex purchase, I wanted to be sure of the company and quality and they happened to have an office in San Marcos, Ca.  So in August, before the kids were back in school and while I was still playing Mr. Dad full-time (like all day) I piled them in the adventure-mobile and we drove up there to visit the company, personally.  I’m not sure why now.  It was a sales office with a very nice lady in the front who was very, very nice in giving me literature and explaining that most of the sales folks were gone….but I could wait?  With two kids tearing up my car, this wasn’t an option, so I took the materials and promised to call back.  After spending several hours on the internet looking at other brands and looking over the Blue Sky materials, I called and got on the phone with the RIGHT person.  He told me what I needed that met my requirements and then sent me links to everything and where to buy it all along with pricing and purchase options for the equipment I would need from Blue Sky Energy.  I can’t say enough good things about how great it’s been to deal with a customer service oriented company like Blue Sky Energy or Mr. Ryan Gurin (who’s gone above and beyond to help me).

We’ve taken the renewable energy plunge.  We’ve bought six soft (flexible) solar panels for the top of the dog house (cockpit enclosure), the MPPT controller from Blue Sky Energy and all the other stuff we’ll need for this solar project.  I’ll be taking the install step by step and detailing it on the blog like I did the windlass install.  I’ve read lots of articles from other people about energy afloat and their burn rates and what they use and what they’ve bought, but little about the actual installations start to finish.  This is what this blog will highlight, the installation start to finish and the knowledge that comes out of that.

For now, we’ve going to start tearing out the old Onan piece by piece and prep for the new solar panel project.  Between solar to help with our DC and a portable generator to help with AC as needed, we think the energy gaps on Tulum can be bridged.  We’ll look at wind power as needed but will have the equipment backbone for it if needed.  Then we’ll move onto the next project.  Retirement is SO much fun.

* This post was written and edited by Son of a Sailor.

* I have no financial ties to Blue Sky Energy.

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