Thursday, March 29, 2018

Where Has All My Power Gone?

Anyone who anchors out a lot like we do, and doesn't run a generator all the time, really cares about power consumption.  The less power you consume, the longer your batteries last, the more effective solar power becomes, and the less you need to run your generator.  And every bit of power you consume turns into heat which, depending on your climate, makes the boat harder to cool.  On the other hand, I don't want to be camping when we are on the boat.  We want all the comforts and conveniences of home.

The goal is to have your cake and eat it too, and that means being mindful of power consumption, and making sure every watt consumed is serving you well.  This is front and center in our minds since we are now on day 55 without plugging into shore power.  Since leaving La Paz at the end of February, we haven't plugged in once.  We have spend a couple of weeks at the marina in Puerto Escondido, but the power is under construction and we have not had any for our whole stay.

It's along time without shore power, but everything is working just fine, and we honestly don't miss it.  We recharge, do laundry, and make water while underway, or we run the generator if we are not underway.  During the day most of our power needs are covered by our solar panels.  This is all possible because we have paid close attention to appliance selection and electrical system design to minimize wasted power, while at the same time not giving up any of the conveniences that we want.  With a little attention, we have our typical battery draw down to around 20A on average, when other boats of the same model are more typically in the 30-40A range.

One thing that has been really interesting over the past couple of years, and the subject of this article, is looking at where all our power goes.  Some of it you might expect, but I'll bet there are some surprises as well.

Below is a table in rank order of the primary power consumers while we are at anchor going about our daily business.  It is essentially the daily background load, but does not include any form of cooking, laundry, or any number of other things.  So it's not an exhaustive study - just a snapshot of a bunch of things that are on pretty much all the time.

Device Watt-hrs per day Notes
KVH V3ip 3360  
Sub Zero Fridge 930  
Ships Network 864
Bosch Dishwasher 770 1 full wash cycle
N2K network 593  
Water pump 486  
Panel meters 432 12 meters total
Ship's Mac 406  
Nav Mac 406  
SeaFire 300  
LPG 250 On
AIS 246  
NavPixel Monitor 234 Full dim
Nav network 234  
FCV627 Fish finder 180  
Peplink Balance 20 134  
Watermaker 96 Standby
Wifi Ext 62  
Netgear wifi stations 62  
LPG 37 Off

I think if you ask most boaters what the biggest power consumer is on their boat, they would say it's refrigeration.  And they would probably be right, unless they have a KVH sat device.  Our KVH V3ip Sat phone and data system consumes 140W continuously which is three and a half times more daily power than the fridge which is the next high runner.  Wow, what a pig.  After discovering this, I turn it off at night to save power.

The fridge consumes a bunch of power, but considering it's a full size fridge and freezer, it's actually not bad at all and comparable to any other quality marine fridge.

The next big one is the boat's network switch.  We have a 24 port gigabit ethernet switch, and because it's on all the time, it's power draw really adds up.  I have been working on putting the commonly used things on a smaller, lower power switch, and only using the big switch when specifically needed.  Turning it off would be almost like turning off the fridge from a power draw perspective.

Next is the dishwasher.  We typically run it once a day, and the chart shows the power consumption for a full wash cycle.  It's a lot, but we clearly get something in return.

Our N2K network adds up over 24hrs as well.  It would be nice to get it down lower, but we use most of it for tank monitoring, weather, anchor watch, and alarming, so there isn't much we are willing to give up.

The water pump is a lot, and I think it's higher than it needs to be because of the way our Headhunter Mach 5 pump works.  Most pumps cycle on when pressure drops below some level, run until pressure builds back up, then shut off.  The Headhunter does the same, but it keeps running as long as there continues to be water flow.  So, for example, it will run the whole time you are taking a shower.  It has the benefit of maintaining constant high pressure the whole time rather than pressure that cycles up and down, but I'd estimate that it runs twice as long as a conventional pump doing the same thing.

A couple of other surprises are the power panel meters, the SeaFire engine shutdown system, and the LPG system if you leave the gas enabled.  Down at the very bottom of the list you can see how much the LPG control power drops if you just turn off the gas when not in use, which you should do anyway....

Although they are not in the chart above, here are a few things you may want to watch out for on your own boat:

- A lot of entertainment electronics, especially older models, don't really turn off when you turn them off.   They may go dark, but many keep drawing the same or nearly the same amount of power as when turned on.  Cable and satellite TV boxes are particularly offensive in this regard, and can often be one of if not the largest power consumer in your house or boat. 

- TVs have improved significantly in the past 5 years with respect to power consumption.  First, to get an Energy Star rating, they have to actually stop consuming power when you turn them off, or at least drop down to a very low level.  If you look at the EPA ratings, it will tell you what the standby power draw is.  It should be less than a watt.  And LED TVs are much lower power than older LCD TVs.  So if you are looking an excuse to get a new TV, this might help.

- Some things may not be as bad as you imagine.  Take a microwave oven.  Yes, they draw a lot of power when on, but you typically only run them for a short time.  If you run a 1000W microwave fro 5 minutes a day, that's only 83 watt-hrs per day, and would rank near the bottom of the list above.

- Refrigeration can be bad, or not so bad at all.  A lot of people dump on sub-zero for being a power hog, but our particular model really isn't that bad, and is actually comparable with the most efficient alternatives of a similar size.  On the other hand, I helped a friend who was having battery trouble on his boat, and his fridge was consuming eight times as much power as ours.  In his case, I'm quite sure there was a problem with his fridge, but just looking at the EPA ratings you will quickly see that there can be significant variation in the performance of similar sized units, both for fridges and freezers.

- LED lighting makes a huge difference.  Most 12V and 24V bulbs can be swapped for LEDs, and LED bulbs for 120VAC fixtures are readily available too.  Our lighting power load is so low that I simply pay no attention to it at all anymore.

- As a corollary to LEDs, florescent lights do use a lot of power.  Our engine room lights draw several hundred watts, and if left on are worse than the KVH.  They are excellent candidates for replacement with LEDs.

If you are interested in digging into your own boat (or home) to see where the power goes, there are a few tools that will help.

First is a Kill-O-Watt meter which simply inserts between any plug-in appliance.  It shows instantaneous power figures, and also totals up the power consumption over time which is particularly handy for things that cycle on and off like a fridge or water pump.

The next is a clamp-on ammeter.  These are commonly available for AC power, but less common for DC power.  If you want to measure the power for any DC device, you will need one that can measure DC current.

And for major appliances, I have found the EPA EnergyStar guides to be quite accurate.  They have accurately predicted the power consumption for several refrigerators and freezers that we have had over the years, and at a minimum provide a good comparative guide.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Voltage Sensing for Balmar MC624 Regulators

When charging batteries, the charge voltage really matters.  Being off by one or two tenths of a volt can result in batteries that never get fully charged, lose capacity, and serve a shorter life.  Most charge controllers have a remote battery sense to address this.  The sense wires carry essentially no current, so experience no voltage drop along their length and can accurately sense the voltage.  You can connect them directly to your batteries, or to your battery bus bar, and get a really accurate reading that isn't impacted by the load or charging current in or out of the batteries and through the main battery cables.

Balmar makes a good voltage regulator for engine alternators, and there are 12V and 24V versions.  The 12V version (MC-612) has a remote voltage sense, but for some reason the 24V version (MC-624) does not.  Instead, it senses the battery voltage through its main power and ground wires.  This creates some interesting challenges in getting a good battery voltage reading.

The diagram below shows a typical regulator installation.  In this example, the batteries are in the laz about 15' away from the main engine and alternator, and the regulator is mounted in close proximity to the alternator.  While underway with electronics running, ventilation fans running, and other power loads, the alternator current can be 100A or more, even as the batteries approach full charge and are not accepting much charge current.  The regulator senses voltage at the alternator, but even with 4/0 cable as shown, there will be a 0.2V or larger drop to the batteries, which is too much for accurate charging.  It really should be a tenth of a volt or less.

Typical regulator installation near engine and alternator

One way to solve this problem is to wire the MC-624's power and ground wires directly to the battery or battery bus bar.  This brings the battery voltage directly to the regulator.  On the surface this would seem like a good solution, but you actually end up with the same problem, just in a different way.

The diagram below shows an installation with the regulator power wired directly to the battery.  But the power wires both sense the voltage and carry the current to power the regulator itself, and more importantly, it's the source of power for the field wire that causes the alternator to product power.  In this example the regulator is drawing 10A, 1A of which powers the regulator, and 9A of which power the field on the alternator.

The power wires need to cover the 15' distance to the batteries, and when you run the calculations to figure out what wire size is required to carry 10A with no ore than 0.1V loss, it's #4 wire which is pretty darn big wire.

But there's another way to solve the problem.  Rather than bring the battery voltage to the regulator, you can instead bring the regulator to the batteries.  Instead of mounting the regulator next to the alternator, mount it right near the batteries or battery bus bar.  That makes the power wires to the regulator very short, yielding excellent voltage sensing with the 12 ga wires supplied with the regulator.  Then make the longer 15' run back to the alternator with the Ignition, Field, and Stator/Tach wires.  Of the three wires, only the Field wire carries much current (9A in our example), and it is relatively insensitive to voltage drop.  Even with a half volt drop in the Field wire, there is no noticeable reduction in alternator output.  I have been using 14 ga, 3 conductor cable and it works great with no loss of alternator output.

Regulator relocated to DC power panel and bus bar
Short wiring distance to DC bus bar