Installing Renogy Solar panels
Ahoy! Greetings from the sea! Hi, My name is John. For those of you reading this that are new to our website, We are a family 3+ our dog living on a 39’ Westerly Sealord center cockpit sloop named Spyridon. We have been living aboard for 2 years and been cruising full time for a little over a year. I am here today to go over one of the major realities every full-time cruiser eventually has to deal with. How do we get our electricity sourced? Common options are generators, solar, wind, and sometimes all 3. Whatever the method, we are all faced with the need to feed our equipment however small or large that need may be. After cruising for 6 months we came to the realization that the Meager 130 watt solar panel which came on the boat was not enough for our full time cruiser needs. So we set about finding the solution.
Megan and I had experienced enough of running our little Yamaha generator to know that a bigger gen-set was not what we wanted. We are on a sailboat after all, and It felt morally wrong to run a fuel-based form of electricity. The last thing you want to hear when you’re having a great sail is the motor or generator running. We decided that solar was the way to go. Megan is not a big fan of the noise a wind generator makes either, solar it was. We decided on Renogy solar panels. If you want to know more about the process of deciding which panels (click here). Next we had to decide how much solar and where to mount it. First we calculated our watt hour usage, our budget, and space available for mounting. The first calculation is figuring our daily usage. This is done by taking the amp draw of all equipment on the boat and multiplying it by the approximate hours of usage per day. I prioritised bigger items like the fridge, radar and autopilot. Here is a breakdown.
These numbers are extreme because we don’t run radar unless there is poor visibility and we don’t always have autopilot on. That being said I wanted to know the worst case scenario.
With this data in mind I began looking at solar. First I decided where I wanted to mount them. Ultimately I decided on the davits because they had the least restriction from the sun, helping our output. So with this in mind I measured out what foot print I was willing to have hanging off the back of the boat. I looked at a lot of brands and packages and we ultimately decided on Renogy. I found that 4 of their 100 watt panels would fit nicely in the space that I had plus and most importantly they fit our budget. Now I know what your thinking. We aren’t even close to our rated needs. But as I mentioned before this was an overestimate of typical use. The other factor was it is really a compromise. 400watts was going to be plenty to keep us from having to run the generator when living on the hook unless there were several days in a row of cloudy weather. On top of that it would cover most of our needs while sailing during production hours. Greatly increasing the amount of time we could go without running the motor to charge the batteries. This was a huge upgrade for our quality of life. So we purchased 2 of Ronogy’s 200 watt kits. (place link for Renogy solar kits here) This got us 2–30 amp charge controllers, 4–100 watt panels and All the wiring for the panels. We had to purchase The connectors, wire from batteries to charge controlers and Thru-deck fittings for the wires. Also we had to purchase a fuse block to protect our boat and our new investment. We also had to buy what we needed to make the mounts for the panels onto the davits. With everything ordered We waited.
The solar kits showed up only a few days later. We were excited to get them in and started immediately. We were in CT and my Dad lived close to the boat. He was nice enough to come pick me up and take me to his place to use his garage. We picked up some aluminum angle and stainless hardware on the way. Then we set up our work space. We laid the panels out and covered them with paper and painters tape. This was done to not only protect the panels while building but to keep them from producing power until we were all tied into the system. Then we measured the aluminum-angle and cut it to size. Next we cut boards as spacers and for mounting the panels to the davits. (see pictures). Once they were all pre assembled and we were good with the fitment we disassembled them and took them to the boat. We then mounted the newly made frame of wood and aluminum-angle to the davits using stainless u-bolts. Once the frame was mounted we began setting the panels in place, bolting them to each other and the frame. Remember to use something like Tef-gel (place amazon link here) When using dissimilar metals such as stainless and aluminum. It will stop corrosion from happening. Now the panels were mounted and we were getting excited.
The next step was to figure out where we wanted to mount the charge controllers. We wanted them out of sight but with easy access for monitoring and maintenance. Ultimately We decided to mount them In the hanging closet in the aft cabin. (insert photo) There was an area that was largely un usable right in the top front that followed the lines of the combing. It fit the bill perfectly. I took a piece of teak from the old solon table and made a mounting panel. It fit both charge controllers and the fuse block nicely. With everything mounted it was time to run the wiring. First job was to wire in the charge controllers. You do not want to connect the panels to the controllers until they are connected to a load. This could result in damage to the controller. This is because the controller receives its power from the batteries to control output. In order to do this we needed the correct wire gauge. So more math ensues. To figure this out we use Ohm’s law. We take wattage/voltage = amperage. Or in this case. 400/14.4 =27.777amps. Now we can use this to determine wire size using this calculator on the Renogy webpage. This gets us to 6guage wire for the 15 ft run that I needed. Make sure you connect the negative lead through your shunt if you have a battery monitor. Otherwise you will not be able to see that it is charging. Now we connected the battery wires to a fuse block and then to each charge controller. Finally we drilled through the transom, installed the thru-hull seals and ran the wiring from the solar panels to the charge controllers. With everything connected we removed the coverings off the panels. We were now making power. Oh sweet sweet power. No more running the motor everyday to charge up the batteries!
We have now had our panels for a year and it has indeed made our lives better. The Renogy panels and charge controllers have been producing as advertised. We now hardly ever need to run the generator or engine to charge the batteries while on the hook. However as mentioned previously when we originally purchased this system it was less then our calculated needs. We were aware of this and went with what we could budget for. Although it has been a life changer, we once again long for more freedom from the engine noise while maintaining some comforts. On top of this we have made some upgrades to our boat that also make the need for future upgrades relevant. This includes a watermaker and a new dometic cooler. For more information on upgrades to our solar and other boat life things check out our Youtube Linked with our other social handles shown below! You can also check our website in the blog section for more sailboat/vanlife content.