So, as many would know through my other social media posts, I finally made the decision to install solar panels on Cool Change.
As a bit of background, it’s common for narrowboats to have the panels as it’s rare to moor in a marina with ‘mains’ power. Most of the mooring is on the towpath, often in quite remote areas, but just as often in an area with other boats. It’s bad form to run your engine or a generator while moored up and since many of the systems on board require significant power (the fridge, computer, TV, starting up the water heater, etc), solar is a great way to keep everything working without the noise and smell of a running motor. Keeping the fridge running is particularly important, I like my ciders cold.
The way this summer has been going, battery power has become even more of an issue for me since I am spending considerable time moored up, waiting for the rain to stop. Certainly much more than last year which was a record warm and sunny year. I therefore made the final decision to just get the damn panels installed. I have wavered and waffled at every boat show and chandlery, looking at alternatives and options. There are large, high power and very efficient solid panels, smaller ones that would fit better on the roof but not give as much output, and easy-to-install flexible ones that are simply glued down. Many of the flexible ones can even be safely walked on but they aren’t as efficient and often come with heat problems, further reducing their power output and lifespan. Being able to walk along the roof is particularly important for me as I mostly operate single-handed and need to climb in and out of locks. There are ladders in each lock but their location isn’t very predictable so can usually only be accessed from the roof.
First I chose a boatyard with a good reputation and close enough to where I was going. Aqueduct Marina near Church Minshull fit the bill, and could slot me in. Once I arrived we made all the measurements and ordered the parts, but as they would take a few days to arrive, I cracked on with other projects that I’d been putting off for far too long. Most importantly, I got most of the roof prepped and painted (since once the panels were installed this would be considerably more difficult). As I wasn’t allowed to grind, sand, or paint in the marina (the boats are very close together, after all), I had to pull out onto the canal and moor on the towpath each day to do the work. Unfortunately due to the rain I wasn’t able to paint every day, which slowed the whole process. I also had to return to the marina often to recharge the sander and grinder.
After finishing the roof, and during times I couldn’t paint, I installed a second foot step to climb on the roof, redid a bunch of plumbing that’s been annoying me, sanded and painted the deck at the stern, added some coat hooks, and a bunch of other little chores that I’ve been putting off.
As for the solar installation, I decided to go for the hard panels but somewhat narrower than usual (a special order of course). I wanted to position them on the centre line with enough space on either side to walk safely. As it turned out, they fit very nicely between two ‘mushroom’ vents, allowing safe access to much of the roof.
Another issue was always where to run the wires. I had already resigned myself to a slightly longer wire run than is recommended (voltage drop on long runs reduces the power received at the batteries) by having the panels mounted more forward on the roof. This space was clear and would make the installation simpler. Many people simply run the wiring along the outside, on the roof, to the stern where they can then access the control area and battery compartment. I didn’t want that, I wanted everything hidden and protected (from the sun, from stepping on them, from dirt and rain, etc). As it turned out, we were able to place the panel wiring directly over a cupboard in the galley. Drilling into the boat at this point made it possible to cover up inside and run the wires into the walls. From there back to the stern was a simple run, tucked up under the gunwale ‘ledge’ (this is a walkway that all narrowboats have, to walk along the outside of the boat when necessary).
There was potentially a better way, through a wireway on the ceiling, but we weren’t able to remove the woodwork without significant damage. I wasn’t interested in hiring a carpenter to fix it afterwards (although getting Darren over to do it did occur to me).
Finally, once all the wires were routed into the stern cabinet, the electronic control box was mounted and connected to the batteries. Now, the panels can continuously supply current directly, with the ‘smart’ box regulating how much. This box is monitored via Bluetooth from my phone, and some settings can be changed. Other things are set on the box itself, different charging profiles for different battery types, for instance.
I’m not going to show the battery connection, I’m too embarrassed about the condition of my engine compartment. It’s my next project!
It’s been a lot of work (compared to what I’ve become used to) but I’m looking forward to being out in the middle of nowhere, or moored outside a pub, and not have to run my engine for a couple of hours, twice a day, to keep the ciders cold.
I’d like to give a big shout-out to the beautiful Aqueduct Marina at Church Minshull. I’ve been treated extremely well, it’s all gone as smoothly as these things can go. Thanks to Brian for his expertise and hard work, it was a pleasure to work with him. Also to Chris for arranging things, to Nick for getting me a spot, Georgia for all her help at the front desk, and to Dave and David in the chandlery. It was pretty handy being able to drop in several times a day for tools, paint, and parts. I’ll see you all again in the fall when I drop the boat for the winter.