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Considering Solar Power? Now May Be the Right Time

December 1, 2011

Considering Solar Power? Now May Be the Right Time


This past season NFTB watched as our contributing photographer, Gavin Ashworth, added

Solar Array atop M/V Cachibache. Note the first prototype support, created with wood and black paint

solar power to M/V Cachibache, his Saber 36. The idea to add solar power to a vessel already equipped with diesel propulsion, and a generator, might seem odd to some…until you look closer.  The project developed during a conversation with Chris Melo, a neighbor at anchor and sailor/marine engineer interested in “green boating” The pair began to envision how solar power could improve the life of a power boater and help preserve the environment. Now that the job is nearly complete, we visited Gavin to understand why and how he chose to add solar energy to his boat. Below is our conversation.

Q. What prompted you, a power boater with a generator onboard, to consider adding solar power?

14.1 Amps of solar power silently flowing into the batteries

GA. The main reason is that I spend a lot of time on the hook (6-8 weeks per year) and wanted to stop running the generator for 3 hours a day just to keep the refrigerator going and the  batteries charged.  By using solar panels I have cut generator use to less than an hour each day.

Q. What type of research into solar technology did you do before making the decision to go ahead?

GA. Sailboaters are less likely to be comfortable with engines running, and more likely to

Solar power connections at the mast

utilize solar power.  Most of my information came from a fellow boater, Chris Melo, who created a spreadsheet for me to determine how much power I could obtain from solar panels. He mentioned that, if a boater prefers not to tilt solar panels toward the moving sun (to achieve maximum efficiency), then it is important to put as many solar panels on the roof as possible.  As I am often swinging at anchor, and adjusting panels to the sun is a relatively tedious process, I decided to go with as much solar panel surface area as I could carry on the rooftop.  Chris worked with me to design the solar array and its battery connections. Because of his experience with boating solar power he was able to recommend reliable regulator and controller units, as well as wiring for my particular application.

Q. Did you do a cost-benefit analysis before deciding on solar power?

GA. For me the decision was mostly about lifestyle. Having a noisy generator running is

The Solar Boost controller chosen for the project

not my idea of rest at anchor. Now, when the sun is high, I have as much as 14.5 amps silently filling my batteries. I had previously needed to run the generator in the evening, after returning to the boat to find low batteries. Night charging raised potential issues with neighbors, and isn’t the way I prefer to spend a quiet night at anchor. I wanted to have as much power in my batteries at all times with the lease hassle. Having said that, I am sure that over the years solar power will pay for itself. My generator uses ¼ gallon per hour, and when you add the cost of oil changes, engine servicing, engine wear and tear, and the potential for engine damage after sucking in jellyfish or debris, the cost of solar power diminishes over time.

Q. How did the issue of battery capacity influence your decision to add solar power?

GA. If I had significantly increased my battery capacity without adding solar power, then I would have been concerned about maintening a larger battery bank. Boaters in the US northeast, like myself, are best advised to store batteries off the boat. This involves removing them to an area of controlled temperature, placing them on a trickle charge, and returning them to the boat each spring. Now I keep the house and starting batteries on the boat during the winter. They are continually trickle-charged, and are full and ready to use in the spring.

Q. What is the cost of installing solar power on a typical 36-40 foot boat?

GA. Without changing the battery bank, the installation cost could run from a low of $1400 to a high of $6,400. In my case, the more expensive bid included solar panels, all wiring and control features, and securing the panels to the roof. I chose the less expensive route, which included purchasing the panels and the “solar boost” controller, doing most of the installation myself, and paying an expert to do the final connections.

Q. What type of fine-tuning of your solar power system do you plan for next season?

Example of solar panel supports (aka prototype No. 2)

GA. I’ve gone through two prototype frames to hold the panels. The first, as shown in the accompanying photo, uses only 2×2 pieces of lumber painted black. My second prototype involves stainless steel tubing with connectors I acquired through John LeMole of Gemini Products ( I met John at the Newport Boat Show. He provided great advise regarding the creation of a canvas roof support for the panels. John’s solar panel attachments can be seen in the attached photos, and run either fore and aft or side to side on a canvas roof. My prototype number 3 includes replacing several stainless steel pieces that now make up part of the frame with one single unit that will hold the panels. I’ll get a company to bend the tubing, which will cut out 8 joints and create a more solid panel platform.

Where did you purchase your solar panels?

GA. I acquired my solar panels from the altE store (Alternative Energy store), located at 43 Broad Street, Suite A408, Hudson MA. Their phone number is (877) 878-4060.  My two Kyrocera panels (135 w 12v) cost $386 each. To attach the panels to the batteries I purchased one Solar Boost regulator (3024L 40A/12v 30A/24v) for $338 and one IPN remote charge control display for $81. The panels come attached to their own frames. The company was very helpful, and their technical department answered all of my questions.  Other costs included wiring (#10 purchased on line by Cowboy Enterprises) and S/s tubing from Defender and West Marine.

Editors Note: Contact information for Chris Melo, marine engineer/boater and solar energy expert, is available through his blog:

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