Friday, 11 March 2016

Of Sunshine And Smiles

I'm walking on sunshine and don't it feel good!  With a nod at Katrina And The Waves (or Katrina And The Minidisk, as I fondly remember her) I am basking in the delight of my new solar power installation. The weather has even changed from the recent unremitting cold, rain, sleet, snow, frost and wind to calmness and sunshine. I have heard the kingfisher this morning, the moorhens are very busy and have even overcome their winter shyness. The sun is streaming through the fenestration on the port side and the temperature in my cabin is an acceptable 20.8 degrees.

For a few months now I have been looking forward to having solar power installed. My son, on my recent visit to the USA, is one of the people who has asked how much money I anticipate it will save me. To each enquiry I have had to admit that it will probably save me very little.  My mains hook-up at my rented mooring records each unit I use and I pay a monthly amount for the total number of units consumed. As it happens I actually use very little electricity and pay amounts that turn my friends that peculiar shade of envy green.  Looking at all the preparations and the expenditure on the components and labour on my solar system a rough estimate suggests that I should break even in about thirty years.  Both the boat and I will probably by gone by then.  So why oh why?  Firstly, I anticipate there will eventually come a time when I feel confident to leave this mooring (and seek some new rendezvous?) without fear of breakdown and that is when I shall reap the full benefit of my installation.  It has always struck me as utterly crazy that, in this day and age I am expected to burn diesel simply to keep my fridge working and top up my batteries if I am not connected to mains electricity.  Many boaters run their engines for an hour or so in the evenings when away from their marina moorings. so, secondly, I wanted to do something that didn't result in yet more diesel fumes, engine wear and unnecessary fuel use.  Using the navigation app on my ancient phone uses up the battery as fast as a bucket with a hole in it leaks water.   Therefore, thirdly, I want to keep my phone and computer batteries charged without worrying about them when I'm away from base.  Until now that could only be done using the inverter when the engine is running.  Yesterday, though, I entered the new era. Tim, from Onboard Solar, trekked over from Derbyshire, drilled holes in my boat, fitted panels on the roof, an MPPT controller and, for good measure, a solid 12v outlet in the engine room so I can keep my phone charging while I'm using it to navigate.  He worked amazingly quickly and efficiently and now I am even more aware of how useless I am at practical stuff.  

Two weeks ago I spent close to three hours sitting and gazing at four new leisure batteries trying to work out how to fit them into the not quite available space and how I would then connect them without wrecking them. I have half a sheet of unused ply and some batten that I bought from the timber merchant in the next village that I was going use in an attempt to make an extended battery box in the engine room (don't ask how, I never got past the half-formed notion stage).  Since then I have wasted more time and money on following the advice of the man in the local car parts shop who didn't have battery cabling for sale, but sold me some heavy jump leads and the wrong size of terminals that I have been trying to make into inter-connects for my new batteries.  I fully understand and subscribe to  the "measure twice, cut once" philosophy of diy. I shall endeavour to measure thrice in future. Watching Solar Tim at work reminded me of the importance of having the right equipment to do the job. A bad workman may blame his tools. I also blame the lack of them.

B.S. (Before Solar)
So, bullet in mouth and biting down hard, I got back on to the web and, with advice from Solar Tim on what I really need, I hit the credit card.  I hope that this time I shall actually be able to use the bits and the tools I have ordered. I cannot explain why I find myself fascinated by tools, often wondering what they are for. I may see something in a shop and think "that will definitely come in handy", but in the end it invariably doesn't. I have made many pointless purchases.  Moving on to the boat and having little spare space has helped contain the urge to buy tools I shall never learn how to use. There remain many objects in my toolbox for which I remain hard-pressed to account.

When I started to discuss and research my solar options I realised that I was going to need to change my inverter.  An inverter changes battery electricity into the kind of electricity that most people get when they plug something into a wall socket. I could attempt to go all technical on you and point out that the inverter changes 12v DC into 230v AC, but I suspect that, at best, I would sound unconvincing. During our initial telephone discussion, Solar Tim advised me that I needed a 2.5kW pure sine wave inverter to be able to come off the grid given the things for which I use electricity.  I have an inverter at present (which I think I may have switched on three times in the past four years) that came with the boat but, brothers and sisters, its sine waves are not pure and my tablet threw a hissy fit yesterday when I tried to use the inverted electricity coming from my sun-kissed batteries to charge it up. iPad beeped every other second as it couldn't decide whether it should be on, be off, charge or discharge. Likewise my dvd monitor flashed its red standby light at me and went into a sulk. Who knew that impure sine waves could evoke such standoffish responses?   As I have searched over the months for an inverter that met the criteria originally decreed by Solar Tim I have become increasingly confused. I have attempted to understand incomprehensible web-sites and viewed hours of YouTube videos that claimed to explain these mysteries to people like me - well-meaning but ultimately incompetent bodgers.  There was only one inverter I could find that seemed to fit the requirements closely enough and it was on sale for about £1600. I nearly went ahead and bought one.  However, it was not 2.5kw output, but 2.6 and it came with its own specific controller.  I thought I should check with Solar Tim that this would still be compatible with the rest of his plans.  I sent my guru an e-mail.  He wrote back, "I'm in India.  We need to talk when I get back ..."  That couldn't have been clearer. I was on the verge of making an expensive mistake. I stepped back from the brink of another ill-advised purchase.

P.S. (Post Solar)

After the work had been completed yesterday (in less time than I have hitherto spent staring at dormant leisure batteries) Solar Tim headed for e-Bay and quickly found me a secondhand, though unused, and even more powerful inverter rated at 3kw.  The owner was a two-hour drive away, so I bought it and arranged to pick it up immediately at a fifth of the cost my research had turned up.  The inverter had been sitting in a cupboard since being purchased.  It clearly sounded like my kind of tool. The owner turned out to be even more of a newbie than I am and apparently about as technically confident.  I liked him immediately.  He had also only been living on his boat since last October and had spent all his time in a marina. I liked him even more. This did mean that I had to like myself a little less - pride is so unbecoming.

So here I am on Day 2 P.S. (Post Solar).  I unplugged my mains charger yesterday and haven't plugged it in since.  Last night in the dark I watched the readings on the controller as, after interpretation, I discovered there was no charge coming from the panels and no charge going into the batteries.  The darkness was obviously working and I found it riveting.  The battery charge hovered just under 12v.  Scary.  By 8 o'clock this morning  there was a little charge coming from the panels and about half an amp going into the batteries which were recording 14.1v. Joy and jubilation!

Update (expect more of these) 11:53am Day 2P.S.  2w of charge are being generated by the panels, the batteries are practically fully charged and reading 14.1 volts. 

Regarding Katrina and the Minidisk:
Several years ago the ceilidh band was booked to play at some sort of 18-30 event in the function hall on the site of a holiday centre at a local seaside resort.  We were the support act.  Amazingly we were booked to play for two hours before the main attraction of the evening - Katrina (sans The Waves).  I couldn't really get my head round that until the delightful Katrina hit the boards.  Her band for the night was the instrumental accompaniment on a pre-recorded minidisk. Her set lasted for maybe three or four songs - about fifteen minutes - although my ageing memory may be faulty.  We shared the dressing room and she was a perfectly delightful person.  We found plenty to talk about. The punters out in the pit seemed perfectly happy with her performance and I suspect her leather ensemble in the tradition of Suzi Quattro or Chrissie Hynde didn't go entirely unnoticed. It would have been inappropriate to have enquired what sort of fee such a performance could command, but that has never prevented private speculation.

Seeing these photographs I feel embarrassed sufficiently to apologise for the state of the boat's paintwork.  My infrequent and failed attempts to rub down and repaint have not stopped repeated outbreaks of rust bleeding through.  It is all in hand, so never fear.  Come summer, the boat will be divested of widows, exterior furniture and solar panels to spend a month being blasted back to bare metal and rebaptised with layers of primer and coats of the under and top variety.  I wish I could make a decision about what colour(s) I want though.

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