Electricity Part 2 – A bucket for your energy

Fancy switch: check. Shelf for battery: check. New wires: check.

Batteries: kind of… check?

In my last post, I talked about cleaning up a mess of acid and fixing up the storage area for our batteries. As I mentioned in that post, for our first year on Milou we used simple flooded lead-acid batteries. These are pretty good, but there are much better technologies available today when it comes to storing energy.

My concern at the time was that on the boat my daughter will be sleeping directly above the batteries. Traditional batteries are flooded with battery acid–pretty mean stuff. The acid is fine as long as it stays in the battery, but if the boat tips to much, acid will leak out under my kid’s bed. If the batteries get too hot; or over-charge; or if a lead plate on the inside breaks, causing an internal short, then the battery will vent acid in the form of hydrogen sulfide gas–a corrosive, flammable, toxic gas.Hydrogen-Sulfide-Chemical-Label-LB-1592-071Because I love my daughter and the rest of my family, I wanted to find a better solution. Of course, better always exists, it just usually costs more. To replace the old shorted-out batteries with the same technology–two group 4D lead-acid batteries (4D is the size, they are big)–would cost about $700 for 400 amp hours.

Before we go any further down this road, let me explain amp hours. I like to use the water analogy for electricity. Amperage is analogous to flow–that is, how much water is going through the pipe. Voltage is analogous to pressure–that is, how much push the water has in the pipe. A battery is like a bucket for electricity. An amp hour is a way to measure how much water, or electricity, a battery can hold. A 400-amp hour battery can give 20 amps for 20 hours. For comparison, the biggest energy hog we will have will be our new, custom, super-efficient refrigerator (yes, that is another story, still not done with the fridge install). It will draw one to three-and-a-half amps. According to our friend and boat guru, Eric, 400 amp hours is what you want. In lead-acid, you don’t really get all 400 amp hours. Lead-acid batteries do not like to be discharged more then 50% or they get hurt; ideally, they would only be discharged to 70-75%, which means that a 400-amp hour lead-acid battery is really only good for about 100 usable amp hours.

How the boat came to us 2 big heavy yucky batteries and the green starting battery.

How the boat came to us–two big heavy yucky batteries and the green starting battery.

So I wanted a safer battery that would not spill acid or vent poison gas, and that would also give us a lot of amp hours. There are two other traditional  options: gel cell, and absorbed glass mat or AGM. Both are sealed batteries that still use lead and acid, but both are better at containing the acid. In a gel cell battery 400 amp hours costs about $1400, twice the cost of the old-school battery. In AGM, 400 amp hours is closer to $1700, but they are a little better–they last longer and can take a charge better.

Scope creep.

I thought, “Doesn’t Tesla make those awesome electric sports cars with lithium batteries, can a guy get those?” (And just for future reference, when your train of thought begins, “Doesn’t Tesla…” that’s a sign that things are going to get expensive.)

Then I ran into this beast of a Cruisers Forum thread. I tried to read the whole thing but I could not stay awake through all 4000+ posts. What I gained was there are people out there using Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries (LiFePo) in boats, and a lot more using them in motorcycles and motorhomes.


The yellow is a really big cell phone battery for a boat.

After some internet searching I found a company called Balqon (insert joke here). I went ahead and ordered 400 amp hours of LiFePo house batteries and a 12-volt LiFePo starting battery for around $1900.00. They fit in the space of the old lead-acid with room to spare and they weigh half as much, maybe less. The reason it took a year for us to use the new batteries is that when you order Chinese-manufactured batteries from the lowest bidder, it takes a year (ok, only 9 months) for them to get to your front door.

Enter man with a nice hat.

Enter man with a nice hat.

LiFePo is not a perfect drop-in replacement for lead-acid. Each cell has a voltage range of 2.6v to 3.8v. To get to a nominal 12v you have to string four cells together in series for a total of 10.4 to 15.4 volts. This matches up pretty closely with the lead-acid voltage range


Then this.

Then this.

of 10 to 14.5.  The way a LiFePo battery accepts charge is also a little different. They are very good at sucking up electricity and equally good at pouring it out. Lead-acid batteries are not so eager to accept electrons, so engineers have figured out all sorts of fancy ways to charge them–things like temperature-compensated four-stage charging. With the LiFePo battery, I have to trick the various charging systems into simple one-stage, constant-voltage charging.

One nice effect of the different chemistry of the LiFePo is that their liberal-with-electrons nature means you get more usable amp hours from a given battery. Our new battery gives us 200 usable amp hours, twice what we had in the original battery bank.


All of our electrical storage in one place: house bank; starting battery; black box is an alternator to battery charger; positive and negative bus bars (still need to add a charging bus bar); windlass breaker; and an amp shunt for reading amps in and out, like a fuel gauge for a battery.

This battery upgrade is actually more expensive that it looks on the surface. We needed to install a configurable alternator-to-battery charger that wouldn’t be necessary with old-school lead-acid batteries, and we sized up our alternator to make charging off the engine more efficient with LiFePo. But the trade off–doubling our useable amp hours, while saving weight and space, and making everything more efficient–seemed worth it to us. If we were starting out on a boat with a functional lead-acid battery set-up, we might have hesitated more; but designing a system from the ground up gave us more options.

Next up, the eagerly-anticipated Electricity Part 3: Managing and Filling the Bucket; or, How Does the Electricity Get In There?


Boat Fashions

Clothing on shore:

Do these colors go together? Did I wear this last week? Is that a stain on the front? How do my legs look in these tights? Is that hem coming undone? Is this a flattering neckline? Can I wear black and brown together? Are these shoes appropriate? Does this shade of blue make my skin look green? Is this too much like what I wore yesterday?

Clothing on the boat:

Am I warm?

F. and T. keep it cozy.

F. and T. keep it cozy.


Sounds great, but how much poop does she hold?

For the most part, people ask us the same questions. How big is this boat? How long will you be gone? Where do you plan to go? (Bafflingly) are you taking the kids? A couple of weeks ago, though, we had a practically-minded contractor friend ask us what, exactly, we did with all of the poop. Let me explain.

Original toilet, New pump. New hose.

Original toilet, new pump, new hose.

When Milou was built, Ze French were not concerned about protecting delicate bays and estuaries from human waste. The content of both heads (toilets, to you lubbers) were pumped directly overboard. Simple, effective, and now illegal in many, many places.

The retro-fit in place when we purchased Milou involved a soft bladder-style tank under the v-berth. As we’ve mentioned before, winterizing work on our boat that first year was…inadequate. Despite of the hefty fee we were charged, the decommissioning yard in Texas failed to do a number of things to protect the systems on our boat, and one of them was a failure to empty out the poo.

Poo, Imported from Texas. Frozen and thawed. Cracked fitting. Leaking Lone Star sewage.

Poo, Imported from Texas. Frozen and thawed. Cracked fitting. Leaking Lone Star sewage.

It turns out that when you park raw sewage in a plastic tube in Wisconsin over the winter said tube will crack and leak.

I should mention that our boat used to smell pretty bad. The previous owners had opted to just let a huge diesel leak continue unchecked (different story), which gave Milou a sour diesel smell. A little diesel odor is not so terrible–it’s a smell I associate with boats–but our diesel smell was a little over the top. When the bag of sh-t under the V-berth (our bed) began to thaw, it added this lovely smell to the mix. The bag had to go. It took up all of the prime storage under the V berth, and even when it was all the way full it only took up about a quarter of the volume of the storage area in which it sat. There had to be a more efficient way to store poop.

Up there under the mattress is where the poop used to live.

Up there under the mattress is where the poop used to live.

But first Michu had to remove the poop bag. It had about 25 gallons of waste in it–200 pounds, more or less. The fill, drain and vent hoses were all very stuck in place, so Michu made 6 wooden plugs, cut the hoses with a hack saw and quickly sealed them with the plugs. Then he realized that the thing was to heavy for him to lift. He filled a 5-gallon bucket and made three trips to the marina bathroom in order to dump them. Luckily, it was very early spring/late winter and nobody was there to smell him doing it. He was then able to wrestle the wiggly bag of gross out of the boat.

We replaced it with this:IMG_2189

A rigid polyethylene tank, 25 gallons, and all new hoses. It is mounted in the space where the air conditioner (also frozen and busted, after we paid to have it winterized) used to sit; getting rid of the AC gave us some closet space and made room for the new poop tank.


Top of the waste tank. It is bolted down on mounting feet and then sandwiched in place with a plywood lid. When the going gets rough, the poop will hopefully stay put.

The poo still needs to be pumped out when the tank fills; it can also be discharged overboard if we are three miles or more offshore and not in the Great Lakes. Our fancy tank monitoring system consists of opening a closet door and looking at the side of the translucent tank to see how much more room we have to go. Last summer, we filled it 3/4 full over six days; we will probably need to empty it about every seven days.

Our aft head, sandwiched between the kids’ berths, still pumps directly overboard. It’s disconnected while we’re cruising the Great Lakes and coastal U.S, as it’s 100% illegal, but can be hooked up when we’re in remote locations. It also acts as a spare-parts holding area for the forward head.

Living on a sailboat is not for the squeamish. Dealing with waste is probably the most direct way to confront that reality; but hopefully our upgrades will make for a robust and contained system.


Tech geniuses

I know: looking at this fine website, you’re tempted to believe we are tech geniuses. Let me just disabuse you of that notion right now; Michu is an RN, and I used to be a chef before I started staying home with the kids. It’s frankly a miracle that I’m able to broadcast these words at all.

Tech support. Don't worry, the 9-year-old's on it.

Tech support. Don’t worry, the 9-year-old’s on it.

Hopefully some of you have tried to sign up for our reminder newsletter via email (it makes us feel loved!). Hopefully not all of you have received a glaring red “error” message. If you have: we’re working on it! And sorry for the delay. We know you’re all on pins and needles, waiting to hear about our new house battery bank.


AAAAAAAND….Fixed. On the backs of the geniuses at Midphase, not through my own devices. Sign up, y’all.

Electronics overload

Kindle Paperwhite (times 3)
Garmin GPS
VHF with AIS and DSC
Bluetooth speaker
DSLR camera


In real life, we are not complete Luddites, but all you have to do to know where we’re at is to take a look at our phone. It is not smart. It’s barely intelligible. We have a tracphone, to which you can anonymously add minutes like a criminal, and we share one phone for the whole family.

As we plan for the next two years, however, we are suddenly feeling a need to have 500 different ways to connect with each other, other sailors, the world we’re leaving in our wake and the rest of the anonymous interwebs. Our boat is being loaded down with more computing power than was installed on the Apollo spacecraft; the autohelm alone has more processing oomph than any computer we owned in the 1990’s, and the new camera is smarter than our desktop Mini over there.

How much is enough? At what point can we find balance between the mostly-unplugged life we’re anticipating afloat, and the ability to access weather info when we need it? How often do we really need to check in with our land-life family and friends? Do we need to pay the big bucks for the Iridium GO package, or can we hang with just a WiFi extender antenna?

Yeah, we don’t know. We want to have options, but we need to protect our budget. We need emergency contact ability, but I’m not sure we need eight different avenues to call the Coast Guard. We want to keep friends up to date, but wow, do we dislike Facebook. Mostly, we feel a pressing need to figure everything out right now, because we won’t be ordering an extra iPad in Cuba, or trying to pick up another digital camera in the San Blas islands. We are in the throes of Cyber Monday, and the pressure to purchase is intense.

But really, whatever we have when we leave will be sufficient. Humans adapt. If we don’t have all the toys (and we certainly won’t have ALL the toys), we’ll just use what we have. The best boat to cruise is the one that you own, and I figure that goes for the extra bits as well.