Meeting onboard power demands can be a challenge
5/3/2021

As boat owners demand ever more power-hungry equipment on their vessels, everyone from boat builders and boat retailers to equipment manufacturers and marine electronics dealers are under the gun to deliver. Below is part one of an article veteran journalist Zuzana Prochazka wrote for Marine Electronics Journal. It lays out some of the challenges to supplying adequate power needed to keep electronics and other equipment operating properly. The article also advises boaters about the consequences of over-equipping their vessels.

By Zuzana Prochazka


I always tell my charter guests that a boat is a self-sustaining city that must manage its own waste, water and power. I usually get a few nods or maybe just a blank stare and then they’re off—taking 20-minute showers, cranking the stereo, leaving the lights and fans on, and opening the fridge for long inspections of what might make a good snack. But it’s not just the newbies whose expectations of staying aboard mirror those of life at home. Seasoned boaters are increasingly subject to bouts of "buttonitis,”a unique malady that overcame Jane Jetson from the 1960s TV cartoon show of what life would be like in the future. Our push-button lives feed on power, so our self-sustaining cities are being asked to do more and that leads to hurdles at various points in the value chain.

Adequate onboard power is necessary for marine electronics and electrics and substantially increased needs are popping up everywhere: 16-inch MFDs, 4kW radars, 2kW fishfinders, deep-drop reels, autopilots, underwater lighting, 12-speaker stereos with three amplifiers, air conditioning, desalinators, galley refrigeration, electric winches and heads, powered window screens, spotlights, hatches and doors, joystick controls, and thrusters along with security and geo-fencing systems and a whole lot more. Today, you’ll find gyrostabilizers on boats down to 30 feet and heavy hull sides and transoms that lower electrically. TVs in every cabin and satellite communications and entertainment have crept down to mid-sized cruisers that are now being asked to do what was once the realm of superyachts powered by multiple gensets. Even tow boats today are sporting some sort of digital switching system where everything is commanded with touches and swipes on a screen. The result is a power-strained vessel where equipment sometimes works sub-optimally or not at all—and that can be beyond inconvenient, it can be dangerous.

For everything to work properly, boats need more robust and efficient power generation and distribution systems including fuel-efficient generators, high output alternators, chargers that can manage disparate battery banks, and more dense batteries that can store greater amounts of energy and discharge at a slower rate. Lithium-ion batteries in various chemistries from providers such as Mastervolt and NexGen are becoming more accepted as the technology gets better, safer and more affordable.

New power generation equipment is under development, such as Nigel Calder’s 9kW "alternator on steroids” called Integrel (Intelligent Generation of Electricity) that is marketed by Triskel Marine. It’s meant to be a sort of genset replacement for boats that don’t have the space and owners who don’t have the budget for an AC generator. Meanwhile, monitoring specialists like Victron and Simarine are pouring money into R&D and bringing out some interesting products. Victron Energy has just launched their GX networking products that monitor and control battery sensors, chargers, inverters and solar panel controllers for both efficiency and safety.

Of course, there are other considerations in power distribution, including the sizing of components and wiring/cabling for safe voltage and necessary amperage. The days of a simple 12-volt system are going by the wayside as more boats have 24- and even 48-volt systems, like those using Side-Power’s series of 48-volt tunnel thrusters. That’s not even touching on the much higher voltage systems needed for electric propulsion like Torqeedo’s 100kW Deep Blue inboard motor.

Electric propulsion aside, however, adding equipment spec’d by the owner can be tricky. Consideration must be given to galvanic protection, stray current protection, ground fault devices and the possibilities of general overheating and/or a meltdown. Even if a boat doesn’t catch on fire, there’s always inconvenience such as climate control that isn’t working or a fridge full of lukewarm beer.

Many questions

Perhaps the best way to break down the power game is with a few questions and some perspective from the field.

Is the problem an engineering one at the boatbuilder level?

Some feel that adaptation and integration of advanced technologies aren’t being done well and the answer seems to lie at least in part with realistic engineering at the boatbuilder level. When a boat is designed and built, it’s set up with a certain amount of equipment, space and a power system. Then comes the options list, and down the line probably even more equipment will find its way aboard in the form of desired upgrades and retrofits over time. An owner with deep pockets may load up a boat, and then when he keys the VHF mic as the autopilot and radar are running and someone flushes an electric head, things go wrong. One or all systems may go down intermittently because the power structure isn’t built to operate all equipment at peak draw simultaneously.

Ed Sherman, retired Vice President/Education at ABYC, notes that, "Most [builders] do not add expansion capability to their electrical systems because it does add cost. I generally recommend design parameters that include a 15-20% expansion capability, because we know the owner will want to add more accessories.”

Additions create problems down the line too, especially for older boats. Ed Wiser of Boat Doc Marine Electric & Electronics says, "Boatbuilders consistently use wiring that does not meet ABYC standards, is too small for the expected load, is unprotected and unsecured. Worse yet, the wire is routed in a way that makes doing an upgrade very difficult.”

To pile on, the equipment that’s on today’s boats is often quite sophisticated and can’t be installed by your average electrician, especially one that’s forced to work quickly in a builder’s production line environment. Finally, new boats are packed tight so there’s not much extra room. "Space for cable runs and extra batteries is at a premium,” says Kevin Sherburne of HWH Electronics.

Whose problem is it? "Well, there’s a lot of finger pointing between the boatbuilders, the equipment manufacturers and the service team in the field,” adds Sherburne. "Boatbuilders aren’t adequately anticipating a client’s needs so problems show up in the field and lead to frustrated customers. Each boat should leave the factory only after all systems are turned on, tuned, proven to operate as intended and then tested under load simultaneously. Optionally, customers could be trained with reasonable expectations set to properly monitor and adequately manage limited power resources safely while on the water.”

Next week: Batteries, chargers, load shedding and boater education

About the author

Zuzana Prochazka is a freelance writer and photographer who contributes regularly to over a dozen sail and power boating magazines and web publications. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and captained flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as an international presenter on charter destinations and technical topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards Committee for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which judges innovative boats and gear, and Executive Director of Boating Writers International. She can be reached at totemgroup@msn.com

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