VICTRON AND SOLAR POWER UPGRADE
“Above all, do no harm.” This has been my motto since I began the blog. I am a big follower of reviews, but I have become pretty good at weeding out the weirdos and kooks – especially when there are 200 reviews and only a handful of bad ones or conversely a handful of good ones. When I review a restaurant or business, I only do so when the establishment in question either exceeds all expectations and therefore has earned a 4- or 5-star rating or conversely, only after I have given management a chance to fix my issue with a server or meal and they have chosen to ignore my concerns and then I will make sure that my review reflects the good and the bad. I only mention a business in the blog when they have exceeded my expectations. Thus far, I have chosen not to share any information of a negative nature. Too much of that in the world as it is.
But by request, at what point do I have an obligation to other boaters to be fair and honest? This is a place where people can find information and I want to provide it and be relevant. So, I’ve decided to address, at least in a small way, our recent Victron/Solar upgrade today and follow up as this unfolds.
If you have been following along, I’m going to be brutally honest- including the cost. This is a touchy subject amongst people cruising in this class of boat, but it is an important part of the picture and further, if this is to be of any use at all, it should be included not only for relevance but decision making by others considering this upgrade. Also included is why we decided to make this costly capital investment, the process of installation and the search for answers when the job was, in our estimation, unsatisfactory. We will include the place we found help and the current dialogue we are having with Victron as well as the proposed steps to remedy our situation.
WHY VICTRON AND SOLAR?
I have alluded to some of the reasons why we made this decision in previous blogs but to briefly recap, it was born out of a desire to make whatever improvements we are able to reduce our carbon footprint, become more electrically independent using solar power, remain at anchor for longer periods without the use of our generator, reduce our generator time while underway, and increase the efficiency of the generator when it was needed to refill our Victron batteries.
The previous batteries had far less storage capability and were able to take in energy much more slowly (resulting in the generator having to be used at reduced loads for longer periods – bad for the generator and bad for the environment- bad for the fuel expense). Further, we added 6 solar panels which would power most of our needs for several days at a time without need to replenish the batteries on sunny days.
What I am going to attempt to explain below is what I understand as described to me by my brilliant husband, Alec. Alec is not afraid of the mountain of manuals that should accompany any such decision and he has worked tirelessly to make certain that he understood the technology that he was adding to Gratitude. He takes his role of protector of his family and Captain of his ship very seriously and we are the most fortunate crew to be under his command.
The cost of this new technology was approximately 50,000.00 Euro. For this rough price estimate, we received 10 Victron Lithium-Iron batteries, 2 -5000 watt Quattro inverters, 2-Skylla-i 100 Amp chargers, 6 solar panels each producing 360 watts and a solar MPPT controller. The cost of installation was additional. We opted to purchase this technology by hiring a Victron Dealer who is an authorized installer and who can test the system to ensure that it is safe, efficient, and will provide a full-service life. This dealer is intended to explain the system fully and diagram it so that “work arounds” at sea and away from a technician can be affected. Some of you may have heard of the fires involved in the lithium-Ion Batteries – in fact, if you are in the airline industry you may remember some airplane fires which occurred from lithium-Ion batteries and even some laptops and cell phones. The batteries that we installed are NOT these. Our batteries are Victron Lithium-Iron, and they are considered much safer technology, but they must be installed under a specific set of parameters and fully tested before putting them into “service.”
Alec wanted the installation done as soon as possible after our return trip from the US so that he could, while tied safely to the dock and living aboard, monitor, test and get comfortable with the new system. Agreeing with this priority, I even agreed to postpone Thanksgiving dinner. Normally a big deal to all Americans, but for us specifically, we love sharing this tradition with foreign friends. We cancelled it so that we could live in a hotel while the work was done.
Promised over a 15-day period, the installation took 22 days. Alec discussed with the dealer/installer which materials should not be used for the installation such as wood and mild steel for the battery enclosure. In direct opposition to parameters that Alec gave the installer, he did exactly what he pleased. Normally Alec would oversee the installation and ask questions the entire time, but the workers were heavy smokers and the combination of odors emanating from them made it impossible for Alec to climb into the laz (a small and confined workspace) and work with them for the day. I hate to even mention this because it sounds so punitive, but it is important because most would ask “Why didn’t he oversee the install and ask the appropriate questions” as items are being disconnected and this is the reason. I’m sorry but the odor was just too much. So, he decided to wait until it was completed to go through the system and ask questions later. Our boat is wired for America and is 60 HZ whereas European power is 50 HZ. Plugging our boat into European dock power with all our American appliances and electronics could cause serious damage. Alec explained this several times to the installer and advised them that at no time could they have power applied directly to the boat. It must go to the chargers then to the batteries and from the batteries to the inverters and then the boat. Just to make sure everything was safe, Alec turned off and isolated every item he could on board Gratitude at the circuit breakers. We returned to the boat to find electrical power connected to Gratitude and our Bose system and our sons Wii no longer working. Thank God Alec had protected our oven, washers, and dryer and most of the rest of the boat. But we lost the Bose entertainment system and Jacks Wii. Thanks to Joe and Renee aboard Aquilla Renee for bringing Jack another one on their return from the states. But the Bose is gone. “”
Afterward, every time Alec called to ask a question, he was either referred to the manual (which he had already read cover to cover) or told “it was fine”. There were specific concerns that Alec had where the installation was clearly in opposition to what the manual suggested and the response from the installer was the same “it’s fine”. When the grill failed to work, Alec had to – without benefit of a revised electrical diagram which should have been provided, find where it had been disconnected and reapply power to the propane solenoid. In a similar fashion he had found that our hydraulic alternators had been disconnected without the benefit of explanation or information. Frustrated but not deterred, Alec attempted to contact Victron directly to ask for support. He was told that he would have to file a report and they would send it to his dealer and installer. Clearly, this wasn’t going to work since the problem was with the dealer. If we had found an installer on Craigs list and bought the components online, I would understand Victron’s reluctance to help but we used THEIR installer and in the strictest sense, they should be completely ethically and legally responsible for the installation of their products by their dealers. Trying to get help from Victron Europe and America produced the same result. “Contact your dealer or we can put you in touch with your dealer”. Giving up on that course of action, Alec sought out information from Victron Facebook group, the Nordhavn Owners group (NOG) and anyone who could help.
FINALLY… THE CALVARY ARRIVES!
Friends, Phillip, and Donna aboard Beyond Capricorn 1, whom we met in Croatia last year crossed the Atlantic, got water on the inverter which required the continuous use of their generator resulting in a much higher fuel burn and subsequent diversion to French Guyana. Not ideal – but thank God they were safe. They found Lloyd Chung in Trinidad and Tobago when they were seeking repairs. Amazed and impressed by his knowledge and familiar with our struggles, he put us in touch with each other. Lloyd agreed to help us figure out our system, for the cost of an hourly charge, by hooking in remotely from 5000 miles away. Over the following week, he made needed updates to firmware, wiring upgrades, reviewed and changed settings, made a diagram of our system, proposed future improvements and, to the best of his ability explained the installation to Alec. Lloyd worked at 0300 his time, when Alec was up at 0900 and he worked constantly monitoring the system, the solar input and discovered the reason why we weren’t getting the benefits we had purchased this upgrade to obtain. While trying to troubleshoot an issue with our Inverter battery chargers, Lloyd reached out to his Victron rep and together they discovered that while there was no problem in the inverter battery chargers, there were issues identified in the installation. Victron offered to send a technician to help but our departure for Corfu, Greece was arranged. Given that there were no glaring safety concerns, we all decided to wait until we are in Athens to have an audit of and fix of the issues with the system.
The jury is still out on what Victron will do to make this right. We have paid Lloyd for his services as we promised – but we aren’t sure what “fixes” Victron will propose and what, if any, will be our financial responsibility. We are due to arrive in Athens on 20 July, 2022, so hopefully we will have a qualified technician onboard by the 21st. In the meantime, here are some statistics which have given us hope….
We have been underway now for over 24 hours and have used our generator only for 3 hours. As we are 3 hours from our destination with hazy but not overcast skies, we still have 75% state of charge which is quite good. The use of the blowers in the engine room and the wheelhouse electronics taking the lion’s share of the energy usage. Normally we would have, at a minimum, used the hydraulic alternators which would have resulted in a higher energy consumption of nearly 1 gallon per hour.
So, stay tuned. Ill update after we finish this 6-month project hopefully in Athens and I’ll also update with new photos and new statistics at anchor, with and without a/c and the final verdict on this capital improvement.