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Solar Panels

The allure of photovoltaic panels on board is extremely compelling: free electricity, without the noise or maintenance associated with engines or even wind chargers.  But installing panels so you get the most out of them is not as simple as many folks think.  A few simple tips will help you get the most out of your installation.  Subjects discussed in this article include:

Panel Location
Economic Justification
How many panels do you need?
Solar Panel Power
Computing Energy Consumption
Predicting Energy Production
Effects of Heat on Output
Photovoltaic Charge Controllers
Performance on Passage
Fixed or Tilting Mounts
How do Solar Panels Work?
Ocelot's System

Panel Location
Something a lot of people don't realize is that it doesn't take much shadow over your solar panels before they stop working.  Solar panels today typically consist of 36 cells.  Each silicon cell contributes just under half a volt (0.48v) when the sun is shining on it.  But if a cell is shaded, it becomes a (rather leaky) diode, so instead of contributing half a volt, it actually absorbs almost 3/4 volt (0.7v).  These numbers are inherent properties of silicon, the main element in solar panels.  So shading a single cell decreases the output voltage of a panel by over a volt (~1.2v).  This is usually enough to effectively shut that panel down, so it's producing no current at all.  Certainly shading 2 cells will shut a panel down.

4 120W solar panels fit nicely above the davits, and aft of the mainsail track
Four 120 watt panels fit nicely above our davits, aft of the mainsail track.
Note that nothing is allowed to shade the panels.

So it's important to make sure that your panels get shaded as little as possible.  Even a single rope over a panel will have a devastating effect on that panel's output.  We often see other boats with panels under radar arches, or next to wind chargers, and the owners wonder why their panels don't put out as much as they expect.  If you want to have a wind charger as well as solar panels, you have to make sure that the wind charger is as far away from the panels as possible, and no higher than necessary.  If your panels are under your boom, make sure your boom is swung out to the side whenever you're at anchor.

Are solar panels really worth it?
Photovoltaic panels are expensive but they are getting more reasonable.  We paid US$550 each for four 120 watt Kyocera panels in 2001 ($4.58/W).  In 2009 I see that we can get 135W Kyocera panels for about $420 in the US ($3.11/W), a reduction of 32% in 8 years.  Each panel will give us about 40 Amp‑hours per day, or about (40Ah/day) x (13v) x (30 days/month) = 15KW‑hours per month.  How long it takes to amortize that depends on how you generate your electricity and how much that costs you.  Those numbers are very different for each boat but it's not hard to figure out (only 3 values are needed - see below).  How much does it cost you to generate a kilowatt‑hour using your current scheme?  We generally figure that the total cost of running an engine is about twice the fuel cost, which makes things easier.  For the purposes of these calculations, I'm going to use a battery voltage of 13v, which is about our average battery voltage.

For example, our alternators probably average about 50 Amps and the engines burn about 1.5 liters/hour.  With diesel currently costing about $.60/liter, we figure it costs us about (2) x (1.5 L/hr) x ($.6/L) = $1.80/hour to generate (50A) x (13v) = 650W, or ($1.80/hr) / (.650KW) = $2.75/KW‑hour (very expensive compared to the $.10/KW‑hr we pay at home for domestic electricity).  So it would cost us ($2.75/KW‑hr) x (15KW‑hr/month) = $41.25/month to equal the output of 1 solar panel.  At that rate, we pay off a $420 panel in $420 / $41.25 = 10 months!  OK, generating electricity with alternators on big diesel engines isn't very efficient, and we don't get 30 sunny days per month, but you get the idea.  Plug in your own numbers for fuel cost, fuel consumption, and electrical output to arrive at your own amortization time.

But for us, the joy of not having to run an engine at all has been well worth the cost of our solar array.  Plus, your boat will gain resale value by installing solar panels, as they generally don't wear out.  Kyocera panels carry a guarantee that they won't lose power over time (like 20 years!) so your investment is protected to a certain degree, and they honor that guarantee.  In fact, Kyocera has agreed to replace our panels (flying the refurbished replacement panels to Malaysia at their expense, after 8 years!) as they've had some problems with internal connections in panels sold in late 2001.  That's quite an amazing commitment to quality, especially given these tough economic times.  (Kyocera is NOT a sponsor of this site, much as we'd like them to be.)

How many solar panels do you need?
Practically speaking, most folks are limited by how much space they have for mounting solar panels.  So most will buy as many panels as they can mount, and fill in any electrical shortfall with with some other generating system.  So then the issue becomes maximizing your watts/dollar.  A casual perusal of the web shows that the bigger the panel, the better your watts/$ ratio.  So your best bang for the buck would be buying the biggest panels you can fit on your boat.  This is what we did, and 120W Kyocera panels were the biggest 12v panels we could find in 2001.

Both tilting and fixed panels mounted in different places on Peregrinata
Both tilting and fixed panels mounted in different places on 50' (15m) Peregrinata

Solar Panel Power
Most people know that Power equals Amps times Volts (P=IV, where I is the symbol for current - yes, it's silly, but that's the way it is).  So Current equals Power over Voltage (I=P/V).  Therefore, many folks think that if you buy a 120 watt panel, you'll get 10 amps at 12 volts.  After all, I=P/V=120/12=10 Amps.  But most of today's conventional solar panels have 36 cells in series, and develop their maximum power at over 17 volts!  This is so there's enough voltage to run a charge controller, and also to allow the batteries to get up to full voltage (15 volts if you want to do an "equalization" charge on wet-cell batteries) even when the panels get hot and their voltage droops.

Energy Budget - Consumption
Working out how many Amp‑hours of electricity you consume is tedious but fairly straightforward.  A spreadsheet will help a lot to tabulate and sum up your results.  Go through all the electricity consumers on your boat (computers, lights, pumps, fridge, freezer, watermaker, etc), find out how much current each one of them draws (consumes) individually and estimate how long they're active for each day.  Some things like water pumps are tricky but if you know how much water you usually go through in a day and you can work out how many liters/minute your pump pumps, then it's not too hard.  Fridges can be even trickier but you can wire a small battery powered clock to a voltage divider circuit to give you run time (this is also a good way to spot trouble before it gets out of hand).  Leave autopilots and running lights out for the time being, or create another spreadsheet for consumption while on passage, as the numbers are likely to be quite different.  That will give you an Amp‑hour (or Amp‑minute) figure for everything on your boat.  Add those numbers together and you should have how many Amp‑hours (abbreviated Ah) you go through in a given day.  That's the easy part 

Basic mount above davits on a monohull
Basic mount above davits on a monohull

Chris did this for us as part of a school project soon after we moved on board Ocelot and determined that the 4 of us used a bit less than 130 Ah on a normal day.  He published his figures on the Consumption pages of his Energy Budget, along with some of the assumptions he made.

Energy Budget - Production
Figuring out how many Amp‑hours a solar panel will give you is much more complicated.  The problem is that the glass fronts of the panels are fairly reflective, the panels are fairly temperature sensitive (they give less power in hot climates, a fact not widely published), and even a little cloud will dramatically affect panel output.  Most quality panels these days use an etched glass that minimizes reflections somewhat.  If you mount your panels so they tilt towards the sun, you can get more out of them.

If you go to Chris's Energy Production pages, you'll see that our 120W (nominal) panels give us just over 37 Amp‑hours each on a sunny day in St. Martin (where these numbers were gathered).  Our four 120W panels generate a total of about 150 Ah on a good day, so we often have some surplus power to help carry us through periods of low sunlight (cloudy days, etc).  This works out fairly well for us when we're sitting still or even day-sailing (when the few minutes of engine use at the beginning and end of the sail help to keep the batteries topped up).  It's a rare day indeed when we have to run an engine for the sole purpose of charging batteries.  If we pull into a marina, we usually charge them for our electricity! 

Cabin-top solar panels on Scud. Note boom pulled to side.
Hot cabin-top panels on Scud. Note boom pulled to side.

How much will my panels give me?
Most cruisers know that equipment performance on our boats often bears little resemblance to published literature, especially advertising literature.  Advertisers want to make their products look good, so they spin their prose to accomplish that.  But we've found that each of our 120W (nominal) panels generates a bit less than 40 Ah/day into our batteries on a good day.  So I would think that if you take the nominal wattage of your panels and divide that number by 3, that should give you a rough idea of how many Amp‑hours each panel will give you on a sunny day in the tropics.  This is somewhat crude and approximate, but since it's based on empirical measured data it's also probably fairly realistic (and I haven't seen anyone else do this sort of analysis).  I don't have any hidden agenda here - I'm just trying to provide some useful information.

Note that our panels do not really provide enough power for us when we're on passage (sailing day and night).  Being a catamaran, we can't fit a wind-powered self-steering system.  Our targa-bar upsets the wind-flow too much, so we have to use an electric autopilot.  Our autopilot consumes about 4 Amps or almost 100 Ah/day so our daily consumption goes way up.  Also, the panels themselves are generally shaded by the sails for about half the day so they're generating much less power.  This means that we usually run an engine for an hour or so in the morning when we're on passage, but historically that's only 7% of the time or about 25 days/year.  One possible solution here would be a towing or wind generator, but that's a whole new subject.

Fixed or tilting mounts?
One of the biggest sources of power-loss in a solar system is reflection off the glass that covers the cells.  If the sunlight is reflected away, it's not going into the silicon to make electricity.  Most good quality panels now microscopically etch their glass covers to minimize reflection, but there's really no substitute for pointing your panels directly at the sun.  There are 2 problems with this: moveable mounts are usually weaker and more expensive than fixed mounts, and the panels have to be adjusted by hand several times every day, especially if the boat is swinging at anchor (although leaving the panels horizontal should allow them to perform as well as fixed panels).  Note that, on land, the optimal angle to maximize output is to point your panels south if you're in the northern hemisphere (or north if you're in the south) and angle your panels to the same angle as your latitude.  This will minimize reflections over the course of the year.

Common mount above davits on a catamaran
Common mount above davits on a catamaran

We chose to mount our panels in a fixed, horizontal orientation above our dinghy davits.  Our panels are big enough that they present a respectable amount of windage, and making them movable would have been pretty difficult.  This minimizes our hassle factor, but does limit our output somewhat.

How do solar panels work?
Traditional solar cells are extremely pure silicon in an extremely uniform crystalline matrix.  One side of the cell has a tiny bit of boron baked into it, and the other side has a bit of phosphorous baked into it.  A silicon atom has 4 electrons in its outer shell, while boron only has 3 and phosphorous has 5.  This means that the matrix on the phosphorous side has too many electrons, while the boron side has too few.  Sunlight hitting the phosphorous side tends to kick loose these extra electrons, which tend to travel through the silicon and fall into one of the electron "holes" on the boron side.  This produces a flow of current (electrons) which is picked up by thin metal traces laid down on the surface of the solar cell.  The cells are connected in series to produce the desired voltage.  OK, purists will scream that I've glossed over some very complicated topics here, but this explanation is only meant to give some insight to interested laymen.  Those who want more information can read it on Wikipedia.

Ocelot's panels from below
Ocelot's panels from below

The effects of heat on solar panel output:
How much current a solar panel delivers depends not only on how much light is getting to the silicon, but also on how hot it is.  This inconvenient fact is often ignored or glossed over in promotional material.  The specifications for our panels say they'll deliver 120W when they're in 1,000W/m2 of sunlight.  Noon in the tropics will sometimes produce 1KW/m2  of sunlight so that's a reasonable number for manufacturers to use.  But the small print says that we'll only get that much power if the panels are at 25C (77F).  This is highly misleading, as there's no way that a panel sitting in 1,000W/m2 of sunlight will stay that cool, especially in the tropics.  We haven't put a thermometer on our panels but they get pretty hot, even though they're exposed to the breeze.  The more reputable manufacturers will publish a table or graph of how current (and therefore power) decreases as temperature rises.

For instance, Kyocera's specifications for their 135W panels say that at more normal operating conditions of 800W/m2 of sunlight and cell temperatures of 49C (120F) their maximum output power drops by 30% to 95W, current drops by 20% from 7.63A to 6.1A, and the maximum power point voltage drops by 12% from 17.7v to 15.6v.  This last is especially useful for correctly programming a maximum-power-point tracking regulator.  One reason we like Kyocera is that they don't seem to be afraid to publish these more realistic numbers.

But from a practical perspective, it's important to keep your solar panels as cool as you can while still leaving them in the tropical sun.  Don't bolt them down to the deck.  Instead, mount them in places where they get good airflow around them, to cool them down as much as possible.

Solar controller display panel
Solar controller panel and battery voltage

Solar Charge-Controllers
Solar controllers are essentially battery chargers, limiting the voltage that is fed to your batteries so they don't over-charge.  You can destroy a battery bank very quickly if you over charge it for long enough, especially if you use Gel or AGM type batteries.  So a charge controller, while not strictly necessary, is usually a good idea.  Many basic controllers can be had for $50 or so.  A good solar controller will be fairly sophisticated and will provide you with multi-phase charge cycles.  First a bulk phase, where all the power is fed into the batteries, then an Acceptance phase (often called other things as there's no standardization) where the voltage is limited to a pre-determined value, and finally a Float phase where the controller decides that the battery bank is fully charged so it drops the voltage to about 13.5v so the batteries stay full but not over-full.  Good controllers will have programs for all the different battery types (wet, gel, and AGM) and some will come with temperature sensors for the batteries, as a battery's finish voltage is temperature dependent.  Also, a good charge controller should not sense the battery voltage through the charging lines, as these may develop some resistance (corrosion, etc) which will affect the controller's ability to accurately determine the battery's voltage.  We're talking small fractions of a volt here.  Instead, the controller should have separate sense lines that sense the voltage of your battery bank but don't actually carry any current.  (Good alternator regulators and AC battery chargers will have similar features.)

But the best solar controllers are maximum-power-point tracking (MPPT) controllers.  These run the panels at their maximum power point (typically 15.5‑17v) and use a DC‑DC converter to then charge your batteries (13‑15v).  The DC‑DC converter is typically better than 90% efficient, and it's able to give you more current into your batteries than your panels are actually producing.  This sounds like magic but it's not.  If your panel is producing, say, 6A at 16v (96W), the DC‑DC converter changes that to something like 6.6A at 13.8v (91W) to charge your batteries.  Power is conserved (in fact, a bit is lost as heat in the converter) but there's still a 10% net current gain into your batteries.  Most advertisers claim a 20% boost in current, but our experience is that you'll typically see more like a 10% gain.  The main problems with these types of controllers is cost (expect to spend several hundred dollars) and that the DC‑DC converter is a switching type that generates RF noise that you'll hear in your SSB radio.  We have to either turn our solar panels off or bypass the controller when we're using our SSB radio.

Interior of our Solar Boost 50 Controller
Interior of our Solar Boost 50 Controller

If you're always going to use all of the power that your solar panels generate, then a solar controller isn't strictly necessary.  But most of us leave our boats now and then for extended excursions ashore.  If you over-charge your batteries, you can kill them very quickly.  Most solar controllers are fairly cheap and many provide some useful performance instrumentation (battery voltage, solar output, etc) as well.

What solar system do we have on Ocelot
Being a catamaran, we have a lot of relatively usable space for mounting photovoltaic panels.  Above the bimini, above the davits, above an aft-mounted electronics arch, or even above the saloon are common mounting locations, but we've even seen them bolted to the deck (which looks quite dangerous to both panels and people).  We've also seen monohulls attach solar panels to their lifelines.

We chose to mount our panels above our dinghy davits, where they should even be out of the way of the boom most of the time.  We had to remove our radar arch to accomplish this and move some VHF and GPS antennas around, but that was fairly easy.  We strengthened the davits themselves because we didn't want them breaking if the dinghy was suddenly filled with water from a breaking wave (as happened to us north of Columbia).  The forward end of the panels could be held up by our targa bar, so all we had to add was an aluminum bar at the aft end of our davits to support the back end of our panels.  Electrical connections could go through the targa bar.

The width of our targa bar, 2.6m or just short of 9', defined how wide our solar array could be.  The length was defined by our aft support at the far end of our davits, which was about 1m from the targa bar.  The panels could stick out past the aft support if the panel frames themselves were strong enough, but total panel length shouldn't be more than about 1.5m or 5'.  With these physical restrictions, it became apparent that relatively long and narrow panels would fit the best.  Researching what panels were available in 2001, we decided on four Kyocera 120W (nominal) panels.  They're each about 25.5" x 56" (.65 x 1.42m) giving us an array width of 102" (2.59m).

Our solar controller is a Solar Boost 50 from RV Power Products (now Blue Sky Energy) in California.  It's really designed for RV use, not marine use, as the case is just painted steel.  But it's a maximum power point tracking controller that provides us with a 3‑phase charging cycle and special programs for wet, Gel, or AGM batteries.  It has separate sense leads, temperature compensation, a control head that shows us battery voltage, panel current, or current into the batteries, and it has lots of adjustments so we can tweak it just the way we want it.  It was also one of the very few maximum power point tracking controllers available when we were looking back in 2001.  It has worked very well for us ever since we installed it in early 2002.  The only problem we've had (besides a bit of rust on the case) is that it generates enough RF that we have to turn it off when we use our SSB radio, but we've found that we have to turn ALL our DC‑DC converters off, including our computer power supplies, fridge motors, and small inverters, as they all generate a fair amount of RF.

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