Adding solar power to Violet Hour is something we’ve been meaning to do since returning from our cruise last summer and having trouble keeping our batteries charged because we weren’t motoring enough. Most sailboats in the PNW do a lot of motoring, which allows their engine’s alternator considerable time to charge up the batteries. We prefer to sail, and were sometimes getting less than 15 minutes of alternator time per day.
Surprisingly, it’s common to hear sailors say they were “motoring to charge up the batteries.” This is apparently one explanation for SMDs (sailboat motoring downwind). This seems incredibly silly to me, and is something I’ve always vowed to never have to say. Burning diesel to convert it into electricity while pushing an 18,000 pound boat through the water is terribly inefficient. As a believer in Muscles Over Motors, motoring your sailboat around just to run your fridge seems downright sad.
Solar panels will allow us to sail more while still keeping the fridge cold enough to not need to buy bags of ice or allow premature spoilage. It may also allow us to anchor out more since we’ll no longer have to visit a marina once a week to top up batteries (although we may still visit marinas to make groceries + laundry easier).
Solar has come down in cost a lot in the last 20 or so years. A 200 watt system is only about $1000 ($1400 minus the 30% solar tax credit*), if you can install it yourself. In other words, enough energy to power a fridge for 5 years with zero pollution costs less than half what the average American spends on gasoline in one year. From this perspective, solar is a no-brainer.
*A quick note on the solar tax credit if you’re not familiar with it: It’s a tax credit to incentivize clean solar energy replacing dirty energy sources. It might start getting phased out in 2020-2022. It can be applied to your second home, which a boat counts as if it has a galley and head. Anyway, our boat is our first (and only) home currently. Also, a tax credit is not like a deduction – credits are for anyone who pays any federal tax at all. (note: I’m not a tax advisor – do your own due diligence of course).
The system may even pay for itself after about 5 years. The electricity cost savings are small, because Washington’s plentiful hydro-electric plants provide cheap energy rates, but all the little savings add up:
- Reduced electrical consumption at dock while living aboard.
- Abstaining from shore power hookups in BC marinas once or twice a month ($5-8 per night typically).
- Skipping 1 or 2 marina visits per summer cruise ($50-60 per visit).