Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Outback Inverters - Not Anymore

 This earlier article about inverter power boost is background for this article.  As I mentioned, my power system design relies heavily on inverter power boost to help manage loads when they temporarily spike above the available shore power or generator capacity.  This almost completely eliminates the need to do manual load management on the boat, and was a mandatory feature in any inverter I was going to select for use on 6837.

When evaluating inverters, Victron was high on the list.  They have power boost, and I knew people who were actively using it, so I was confident that it worked.  But I found it incredibly frustrating and time consuming trying to find all the info I needed on Victron's products.  It's not that the info isn't available.  Quite the contrary.  They are the most open inverter vendor that I have encountered.  But it's a maddening treasure hunt to try to find it all.  Most vendors have a product web page with links to all the pertinent technical information.  Victron has that, but it only includes links to a superficial manual, and a few other scraps of info.  Everything else is scattered across three or four different web sites (Victron.com, Disqus, Victron Community, Victron Professional) with no organization whatsoever.  And some documents are PDFs, while others are just HTML web pages which makes assembling a document library very difficult.  In fact, it's something I shouldn't have to do at all.  The manufacturer should do all that for me to aid in selling their product.

I spent weeks pouring over manuals, web pages, searching, learning something, searching more, trying to figure out how to piece together a system that would meet my needs.  At the same time, I discovered that Outback Power had a new version of their inverters that now included the power boost function.  I had well over a decade of experience with outback products, including their inverters on N6062.  They have one of the most confused user interfaces that I have ever encountered, but once set up they just work, and work well.  I had previously rejected them because they didn't have power boost, but with this new revision they now met my requirements.  By this point, I was so fed up with trying to figure out Victron that I decided to switch my focus to Outback. 

Outback Features from 2017 Datasheet

Having been schnookered before over advertised features that I later find don't really work, I decided to check out Outback a little more closely.  I found a user forum, and was able to confirm that people were using the product and that this power boost feature was working for them.  Great, decision made.

Four Outback VFXR Inverters Powering N6837


Dial forward to commissioning of N6837, and I had a bunch of issues getting the Outback system working properly that in the end turned out to be software bugs.  No problem, that happens, and all seemed to be working OK after updates.  Well, not entirely, it turns out.

After taking delivery, we moved to BC and spent a few days out in the Gulf Islands.  During the second day at anchor, it was time to recharge the batteries, so I started up the generator.  The inverters connected to the generator, started charging, then disconnected a few minutes later.  Huh?  This had worked fine on shore power.  After a bunch of messing around, I found the only way to keep the inverters connected to the generator was to run them in "Generator Mode" rather than "Support" mode.  Generator Mode is more accepting of different generator wave forms, but as the mode names imply, it means that the Support feature isn't active.

I also discovered another problem which is that the voltage sensing in the Outbacks is very sloppy.  For starters, voltage settings are only in increments of 0.2V, and sensing doesn't appear to be more accurate  than +/- 0.2V.  There also is no remote sensing of battery voltage, so inverter load or charge current will induce further voltage inaccuracies.  With lead batteries this doesn't really matter, but with LFP it does.  I found that when charging off of shore power at a lower charger rate, the batteries would charge to full just fine.  But if I charged off the generator at a much higher rate, the outbacks would think the batteries were full well before they really were.  And if I adjusted the charge voltage for the higher charge rate, when I charged slower it would overcharge the batteries.  There was just no setting that worked well in both cases.

But wait, there's more.  The inverters claimed to put out 82A of charge current each.  With 4 inverters, that means 328A of charge current, assuming I have the requisite AC input power, which I do.  Well, I never saw more than 250A-260A of charging current out of those inverters, so that wasn't living up to specs either.

The charging issues were frustrating, but not having power boost mode was a killer.  After much back and fourth with Outback, their insistence that I had a crappy generator, they finally fessed up that the boost function didn't work with stacked inverters.  WTF?  OK, I can actually be patient, so I offered to work with them to get it fixed, told them that my boat was just a short distance from their headquarters and that I'd be happy to have them aboard to instrument and sort this out.  Nope, they said that engineering was in the middle of a new product and wouldn't spend any time on this.  I pointed out that this feature was prominently advertised and that I built this system on the presumption that they weren't just making that up.  Nope, they couldn't help me.  OK then, I said I wanted to return all the equipment for a full refund.

Outback Datasheet Continues to Advertise "Generator Assist" in 2022 Even Though They Admit it Doesn't Work.  This Datasheet is still on their web site as of today, Jan 23, 2024.

That started a 6 month cat and mouse game to get return approval, tear out all the Outback equipment (at my expense), convince them that I had returned the equipment, and actually get my money back.  Not once in the whole process did they do what they said they would do, respond when they said they would, or in most cases ever respond at all.  I uniformly had to hound them multiple times to get any response at all.  In the end I told them that the next email was going to their parent company CEO, with a CC to their legal department and the SEC.  I pointed out that they are a public company prominently advertising that they have an important competitive feature, when that feature doesn't work, and they know it doesn't work.  I'm no attorney, but that sounds like securities fraud if I've ever seen it.  A couple of weeks later I finally got a refund check.

Bye Bye Outback


Regardless, to this day they continue to claim they have this feature.  Here is what's on the web site today (Jan 23, 2024) for the VFXR products, still highlighting Generator Assist as a feature even though they know it doesn't work.

Web Site Still Highlights Generator Assist

Needless to say, I'm done with Outback products, and they have earned a well deserved place on the Wall of Shame.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Inverter "Power Boost" Feature

 Many modern inverters have a "power boost" feature that is super useful.  I'm really talking about combined inverter/chargers, but I'm just going to call them inverters for simplicity.  When you are plugged into shore power, or running a generator, that power source is limited, typically to 30A or 50A.  If you overload it, a breaker trips.  To keep this from happening, it's your job to manage the power loads on the boat to keep them under the limit of the power source.  This typically means limiting how may appliances are turned on at once, not heating water while cooking dinner, etc.  Doing this isn't the end of the world, but it's kind of a pain.

For some time now, inverters have been able to help with this by varying how much they are charging the batteries.  In addition to all your boat loads, the inverter itself is an additional load when it's charging your batteries, and can consume close to, if not all of the available incoming power.  These smarter inverters have a setting where you can tell them what the incoming power limit is, and they will only use for charging whatever capacity is left over after powering the other loads.  So if your shore power is 50A, and your boat loads are consuming 30A, the charger will consume no more than 20A, ensuring that the shore power isn't overloaded, and no breakers trip.

This has been a great help to boat operators, but it has limitations.  In particular, the inverter can control how much power it consumes, but it can't control what boat loads are placed on the inverter.  So going back to our example, if the boat loads are 55A, there is nothing the inverter can do to reduce that, and you will trip a breaker.  But then along comes "power boost".

Those clever inverter engineers realized that not only could they reduce the internal charger consumption to manage the shore power load, they could actually turn the inverter back on and use it to supplement the shore power to support even larger boat loads.  So these super-smart inverters will see a boat load of 55A, and they will use the inverter to draw from the batteries to supply 5A to supplement the 50A from shore power, and now the loads work without tripping any breakers.  Then when the loads subside, the inverter goes back to charging to replenish what it took from the batteries.  Pretty cool, right?

This takes another huge bite out of power management on a boat.  You can now exceed shore power capacity by whatever your inverter capacity is.  You just need to be sure that the average consumption is less than the shore power capacity so you don't continually draw down the batteries.  This simplification to load management is so great that I depended on it in our power system design.  For example, our shore power connection is 50A, yet I know that the HVAC system can exceed this for periods of time.  But this power boost feature allows that to still work with a much more common 50A power connection vs a much less common 100A connection.  We almost never have to do load management.

Commissioning - Testing, Finding, Fixing

Spring 2021

The other primary goal of commissioning is to test everything, find issues, and fix them.  These are complex boats, each one-of-a-kind in many ways, and completely built by hand.  That leaves a lot of opportunity for things to be not quite right, so EVERYTHING needs to be checked and tested.  And I arguably went over the top on this.  I had been locked out of the yard for the last 9 months of the build because of COVID, including all the sea trials and system shakedown.  My original plan was to find as many issues then so they could be fixed quickly by the yard before the boat even shipped, but that wasn't possible, so everything had to be done once the boat arrived in Seattle.

I was determined to really check everything carefully, figuring that more time spent during commissioning would mean fewer issues once we started cruising, and that seems to have paid off.  It took a long time to get everything sorted out - 9 months to be exact - but it was worth every day since we subsequently had a nearly trouble free 6 months of cruising.  Nothing stopped us, or even slowed us down which is how we like it.

My "checklist" of things to confirm/test was just short of 700 items, and I went through each and every one of them.  Every piece of equipment was inspected to confirm it was as intended, was installed correctly, and worked as expected.  Much of it went quickly, but along the way you inevitably find problem that need to be fixed.  Here is a sampling of some of the things that we needed to work through:

  • Standard equipment on the boat is an electric selector valve to switch between the two water tanks.  It was stuck and just threw an error when we attempted to operate it.  The valve had to be replaced.
  • I had ordered higher capacity vent fans for the heads, but that got lost along the way and the boat was built with the standard fans.  So they needed to all be replaced.
  • There was no fuel return for the diesel boiler.  It can be installed either with or without a return, but servicing is much easier when there is a fuel return enabling it to self-bleed, so I had specified that in the build.  So a return line had to be installed.
  • I have two identical alternators on the main engine, and the panel meters were showing unequal output from them, yet a clamp meter on the positive cable showed they were equal.  It was a while before I dug into that problem, and it turned out to be a negative cable connection that was supposed to be isolated from the alternator frame, but was making contact and allowing a bunch of the return current to flow through the engine block and the boat's ground system.  That was a good one to find and fix, and now the meters always read the same.
  • One of my contract requirements was that all machinery be mounted on rubber isolation mounts.  It makes a huge difference in how much machinery noise is transmitted through the boat.  There were a few places where the yard missed this, so they had to be added.  On my previous boat (N6062) you could hear the freshwater pump running throughout the boat.  On this boat, with the isolation mounts, the only place I can hear it is in the master bathroom which is directly over the pump, and only if I'm really listening for it.
  • We have a hot water circulating pump that circulates the hot water on demand so you quickly get hot water at a faucet without having to run the water forever, wasting a bunch.  There were a handful of issues with how it was plumbed, the location of check valves, etc. so it needed to be reworked a bunch.  We also relocated the pump to a more accessible location.  Also, the pump was super noisy.  At first I thought it was just because there were no isolation mounts, but even after installing them it was still really noisy.  It turns out it was a Grundfos look-alike pump, not the real thing.  My specs called for a Grundfos, so it was replaced and is now silent.
  • We had a bunch of very odd error messages from the Outback inverters about mismatched version numbers, lost phases, etc.  All inverter versions were the same, everything was wired correctly, and this turned into a huge time sink trying to fix it.  After a lot of experimenting I finally discovered that the Cat5 cables linking everything together were not terminated correctly, and on close inspection you could see clear issues, and some even failed with a cable tester.  Whoever installed the cable plugs was clearly doing it for the first time.  I rebuilt all of them, and that got everything working - or at least working a lot better.  It was months later that I cam across a firmware update, and one of the fixed issues had to do with reports of firmware mismatch. Sigh.  There is more to the Outback story that I'll post about later.  Spoiler alert - they are no longer with us....
  • The exhaust for the diesel heat had not been built to specs.  i think the yard was just accustom to building them a certain way, and didn't look at what the boiler requires.  So the exhaust had to be rebuilt.
  • In a conversation with Glendinning about my power cord reel, I discovered that it was installed somewhat backwards.  Glendinning wants the power reel directly above the bucket, but mine was installed at the cord inlet.  Apparently if installed that way the cord is much more subject to jamming and tangling, so we had to rearrange the cord reel installations (two of them).
  • Lewmar overhead hatches.  What a disaster.  Everyone of them leaked.  Then I came across two pallets of them in the shop that had similarly leaked on other new boats.  Lewmar claimed to have found and fixed the problem, and sent us new hatches, all of which leaked.  So we removed them all and replaced them with Manship hatches.  No more leaks.
  • In testing all the horn buttons I found one where the spade terminal had pulled off.  Simple fix, I thought.  Nope.  It turns out the buttons have screw terminals, and the yard got creative and tried using spade lugs pushed over the screw terminals, but they weren't secure.  So we replaced all the horn buttons.  i really like these orange buttons that make the horn stand out from other buttons on the console.
  • On sea trial there was a distinct vibration in the main drive line, and on further inspection we found the shaft was not running true.  After a bunch of additional head scratching and measuring, we concluded that the coupler was probably not machined correctly.  So the boat was hauled, shaft pulled, coupler separated, and it was clear that there was a poor fit between the shaft and coupler.  The contact area was minimal, and the couple appeared to not be seated true to the shaft, which would explain the wobble in the shaft.  Off it all went to the machine shop for refitting, then everything went back together along with a laser shaft alignment to be sure everything is true.  Now it runs great.
  • A very concerning problem was a low oil pressure alarm during our first sea trial.  There was just under 40 psi which seemed OK to me, so we assumed it was a false alarm of some sort.  But it happened again when the Scania distributor was on for their sea trials and application review.  On further investigation I found that the pressure was indeed low, with Scania wanting it in the range of 60-70 psi.  Long story short, it ended up being a faulty oil bypass valve in the oil filter housing.  Pressure went right to where they belonged after replacing it.  The filter was replaced and old one dissected to be sure there was no sign of contamination, and there was none.  Problem solved.
  • Toilets.  You would think manufacturer's would have this one figured out by now, but it seems not.  The first problem were the new designer toilet seats with no visible hinges.  Great, but they don't open far enough to rest against the wall that the toilet backs up against.  If they do get pushed back against the wall, it flexes and stresses the hinges and structure and guess what?  They break.  One broke the first time someone did a pretend sit-down test of the toilet.  So those all needed to be swapped out for the non-designer seats that work and don't break.  Classic designer crap....looks great, doesn't work.
  • Toilets.  Then there are the internal vents in the toilets that let air in behind the flush water.  When you flush, it sends a slug of water down the drain pipe.  That slug pushes air ahead of it which vents out the holding tank vent.  The slug of water also pulls in air behind it, and that air needs to come from somewhere.  There is a little "air admittance valve", aka a vent valve built into the toilet to accomplish this.  Without it, air will be pulled through the water trap in the toilet and go glug, glug, glug, or worse yet it will suck the water trap dry allowing fumes back up through the toilet.  So this vent valve is pretty important.  We had the same Tecma toilets on our last boat and they worked great, but this time the toilets all went glug, glug, glug after flushing.  Thee was a lot of back and forth with Tecma over this, and I was ultimately able to prove that the vent valve wasn't opening easily enough, so air was being pulled through the water trap.  Long story short, I ended up sourcing vent valves with a much lower opening pressure, and that 80% fixed the problem.  But it's still not low enough - just as low as I could find.  I don't know what changed between my last toilets and these, but the vent valve on the new ones just doesn't work.  In all other ways I really like the Tecma toilets, but this was pretty pathetic.
  • In the bottom of the day tank there is a water alarm sensor, and it was leaking.  This one took a few attempts before we realized what was going on.  It turns out that the probe on the end of the sensor was bottoming out in the fitting used to insert it in the tank, and that was preventing the o-ring from sealing.  A quick trip to the local hydraulic and fitting shop produced a different style fitting with sufficient clearance.  Problem solved.

This is just a sampling, but gives a sense of what's involved in shaking out a complicated boat.  It's massively different from a mass-produced automobile, and still significantly more complicated than a custom home.  This ends up being a major source of frustration with new owners who don't know what to expect.  I was thankfully coached on this by others when we built N6062, and that build taught me even more.  After selling N6062, I read back through my maintenance and repair log, and every single thing that emerged as a problem during our ownership of that boat showed itself in one way or another during commissioning.  Some of the clues were subtle, and brushed off, but they were there.  That's why I spent so much more effort on N6837, and tracked down every little strange thing until it was explained or fixed.