About a year ago Brian discovered a California company selling 100 watt flexible solar panels for an amazing $200 each. Like any good engineer discovering a new tech toy to play with Brian of course bought one.
Fast forward a year, and the panel is still stowed nicely in its original packaging and taking up space in the vberth. We also have a small energy deficit so the generator gets hauled out at least once a week for a few hours to top off the batteries. Now that we’re in La Paz and the pace of life has slowed waaay down we decided to haul the panel out and set it up. Just another easy boat project (like that exists) and a couple days later were on step 7!
Step 1- Do we have the right equipment on board? Will the existing charge controller handle another panel? We opened up the electrical panel at the nav station and took a look at the controller’s sticker. The result- yes, the charger can handle 25amps. Sweet! The existing two panels have never put out more than 16amps and the new one is rated for 6. I can do that math. The 2 wires for the existing panels are attached to the controller with simple ring terminals and the screw is long enough to add another pair of wires. Before going through the effort of running wires all over the boat we rig up the new panel with a pair of test wires and hook it up to the controller. The amps coming in jump up to 18 right away, 2 more than we’ve ever seen, so test passed, its time to run the wires.
Step 2- Running the power. 2 8gauge wires need to go from the far aft end of the boat to the nav station, which is about 15′ forward. PITA time here. We don’t have any fish wire on board and going to the home depot will take all day, so we improvise and use a piece of thin pex tubing with a wire taped to the end to fish it. Our boat has a beautiful one piece fiberglass headliner and very few access points in the ceiling. Several hours of cursing, grunting, and yelling “do you see it yet?” back and forth we’re both sporting some massive fiberglass splinters and the wires are run.
Step 3- Mounting the panel. The really, really, good part of this panel is that its thin and light enough to lay directly on our bimini canvas with no additional support. A while back I purchased 6 Tanax clips from Sailrite for this purpose. They’re pretty slick little fasteners and look very nice. We placed the panel over the bimini, marked where the attachments would go, and popped a hole in the bimini fabric for each one. They’re easy to install and sailrite provides a great video on how to install them. Next up was to put the panel back up and snap it into place.
Step 4- Electrical connectors installed. In case of a storm we want to be able to fold up the bimini and reduce windage. Therefore its important that the panel can be taken down quickly without cutting wires. We used quick release connectors for a solar supply store that are (supposedly and hopefully) totally watertight. When the panel comes down, we can unclip it and pop a cap on the end still attached to the boat.
Step 5- Connect the panel to the charge controller. This part is pretty simple. Attach a ring terminal to the end of each wire and screw it down over the existing wire.
Step 6- Test and fix. We’ve yet to do an electrical project where we didn’t make at least one bad connection due to inexperience. This project was no exception. The nifty quick disconnect fasteners are two parts, a metal crimp fitting and a plastic casing. Turns out we didn’t shove the wire and its associated crimp far enough into the plastic casing, so the metal parts weren’t touching. Oops. Fix and test and….wait for it….21amps incoming!!
Step 7- Pretty it up. Zip ties and flexible electrical conduit are a must for external wiring projects. One, because it looks terrible to leave wires flopping all over the place, and Two, the sun here will destroy an unprotected wire in a few months.