Troubleshooting our solar panels.

Perhaps the biggest “must do” task on our list before we left was making our bimini and installing solar panels.  While our 50 watt solar panel has kept up well over the past few years, we knew we would be demanding more from our electrical system when we cut the docklines.  We have minimal power requirements and weight is always a concern given Pegu Club’s size, so we decided to go with flexible solar panels.  While they aren’t as efficient or durable as hard panels, the weight savings alone (8 pounds for two that could be mounted directly on the bimini vs. 33 pounds plus a stainless frame for two hard panels) made it worth it to us.

We had ordered a bimini kit from Sailrite several months ago, and now it was time to get to work.  The kit came with the stainless steel tubes already bent, so all we needed to do was figure out what size we wanted the bimini to be, then cut them to the proper length.  Don’t let the simple description fool you into thinking that this was a quick process.  It most definitely wasn’t.  However, by the time we were finished cutting we had a bimini frame that Jeff could stand underneath, which made for a happy Jeff. 

Jeff drilling holes to insert rivets; the frame temporarily attached.

Next it was time to pattern the bimini and sew it.  Sailrite’s website estimates that the average beginner can make a bimini in 12-16 hours.  I’m obviously a below-average beginner because it took me way longer than that!  

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The inside of the boat was a flat and smooth place to trace the pattern.  

Day after day I set up on one of the picnic tables at Shenny.  Evening after evening I took everything down.  Honestly, I have no idea how long it took because I lost track of the days.  Maybe a solid week?  Regardless, by the time it was finished I never wanted to see my Sailrite again, but we had a decent looking bimini in place.  A professional could have done a much better job, but I preferred to have an extra $3,000+ in our bank account.

To install the solar panels I cut a vinyl-style of material into strips matching the outer dimensions of the two panels and sewed them to the top of the bimini.  This was to prevent the panel edges from chafing the Sunbrella.  Then I sewed heavy-duty two-inch wide velcro onto each strip of vinyl.  The other half of the velcro was adhesive which we stuck onto the back of each solar panel, and then attached the panels to the bimini.  Based on how difficult it was to pull it off when we were making small adjustments, I feel confident that they are going to stay on but I suppose only time will tell.  If we look back and see them flapping in the wind, we’ll know it didn’t work!

Although both of the solar panels were now attached to the bimini, we had only wired one to the battery late in the afternoon the day before we left.  The MPPT controller was blinking, indicating that it was waiting for power from the solar panel, but the sun had already gone down so we expected that.  The morning after we arrived at Block, I took a look at the controller and it was still waiting for solar panel power.  Uh-oh.  It wasn’t supposed to be doing that during a sunny day.  

I told Jeff that it wasn’t working and it’s an understatement to say that he was not a happy camper.  After spending the last month working on the boat every day, we had both been looking forward to a relaxing day of doing nothing.  Unfortunately without working solar panels, the relaxing day was not going to happen.

We did some trouble shooting and finally called Renogy.  Technical support said to put a voltmeter to the leads and to see if the problem was with the panels themselves.  When we turned on the voltmeter we discovered it needed a new battery, and of course it took a 9 volt which we didn’t have.  At this point Jeff was getting more and more unhappy, but I pointed out that at least we were someplace where we could buy batteries.  I suggested that we relax for the rest of the day, walk to the Block Island Grocery to buy the battery, and troubleshoot some more the next day.

That evening I texted a fellow Bristol owner, Eric from Delta-T.  We had met Eric and his wife in real life a few years back when we sailed Little Bristol to Narragansett Bay, where they keep their boat.  I wanted to know how crowded the Newport anchorage would be when the boat show was in town, and I mentioned that we were having solar panel issues.  Eric offered to help and he began trouble shooting with me via text.  He looked up the manual for the controller online, and then we went step by step through it – was it set for the right type of battery, were the wires in the right place, etc.? 

After awhile it was clear that everything appeared correct as far as the controller was concerned, so he said the only other thing he could think of was that we had mixed up the wiring from the panels, or they weren’t plugged in all of the way.

The next morning Jeff and I pulled out the voltmeter and connected the solar panel wires to it.  Eric was right.  We had the wiring mixed up.  Hooray!  THAT ended up being an easy fix.  The controllers blinked for awhile, and then they stopped.  Damn!  

We quickly figured out that the inline fuse we had installed was too small, so we walked to the hardware store and bought larger ones (but not too large).  I’m happy to report that both panels are now fully operational and we can go back to our regularly scheduled programming of relaxing and having fun!

This was the first time we’ve ever had to trouble shoot an electrical issue, and we had previously stablished that electrics isn’t our strong suit.  However, thanks to Eric taking us through the process step by step, eliminating each possibility until we were left with only a few possibilities, we’ve learned HOW to trouble shoot electrical problems.  Good thing, because I highly doubt that is the last time we’ll have to do it.  It IS a boat after all.  

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I haven’t taken a picture of the finished bimini.  How about a picture of the completed mainsail cover instead (which I sewed before tackling the bimini)?

3 thoughts on “Troubleshooting our solar panels.

  1. A good clamp on multimeter (not very expensive, we have $30 one) can go a long way toward troubleshooting electrical issues, particularly solar panels (you can see when and how much current is flowing by just clamping the jaws around 1 wire of a DC pair).

    Like

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