Solar Power Rangers

 

Viktor and Ivo installing solar panels.

Viktor and Ivo installing solar panels.

 

We sailed back to Florida all the way from Guatemala, braving currents and winds, risking our lives, in pursuit of one thing and one thing only: energy. Turned out we need more solar panels and more batteries in order to produce enough electricity for the fridge, lights and ventilators,  watermaker, electrical heads, and electronics without using the engines or a generator (which we don’t have anyway), or any other fuel-consuming machine. It also turned out, that outside of the United States everything is a lot more expensive if you find it at all. So here we are, back in Key West, installing solar panels.

Our fridge, which has two compartments: one is a fridge and the other a freezer with two cold plates, is the biggest consumer of electricity on board; it draws somewhere between 8 and 10 amps per hour (Ah).

The electronics: GPS, autopilot, radar, sonar, wind vane, AIS, and VHF radio take roughly somewhere between 10 and 15 Ah when in use while sailing. When at anchor, they are tuned off.

The lights: salon, cabin, anchor, cockpit, and deck lights are all LED and consume very little electricity, using one tenth the power of conventional lighting. For example, the anchor light will take 3 amps, not per hour but for the entire night.

Our watermaker, Catalina MK II, takes 16 Ah producing 16 gallons of water per hour, 1 amp-1 gallon. But we use it very rarely, as we also collect rainwater every time it rains through an extremely efficient system Ivo came up with: two hoses attached to the hard top (the roof of the boat) run down to the water tanks. When it rains hard all night, we fill up the two tanks: 220 gallons of pure rainwater. But when it doesn’t rain for a while, then we turn on the watermaker which we bought and installed ourselves. This is a fun little contraption that takes the salty water from the sea and separate’s the liquid from everything else thus producing pure drinkable freshwater without any salts and minerals in it.

Maya collecting rainwater in a bucket. When we want to fill up the water tanks we plug hoses to the opening on the hard top.

Maya collecting rainwater in a bucket. When we want to fill up the water tanks we plug hoses to the opening on the hard top.

The electrical heads, two of them, which we installed first thing after we came back from Guatemala replacing the old regular ones, consume 16 Ah (but of course, we don’t use them constantly).

The air conditioning system which came with the boat went in the garbage with all its bulky tubes and insulations as soon as we moved in. ACs on boats need lots of electricity and the people who use them are usually those who stay plugged at the marinas and pay marina and electricity bills. We are not such people. Except in Havana Cuba where we had no choice, we have never stayed at a marina; always at anchor. And when it gets too hot, we turn on the small ventilators which consume 0.5 Ah, or jump in the water.

When we bought the boat she came with two solar panels 170 watts and 3 AGM house batteries 300 Ah. Initially, we bought and installed 3 more Kyocera solar panels, adding 750 watts, and we replaced the 3 AGM batteries with 10 deep cycle led acid batteries 6V, 370 Ah. Thus, when we started cruising, we were producing almost enough electricity for our needs, but had to be very cautious about it, constantly monitoring the amperage in the battery bank. What’s more, after two or three overcast days and when sailing and using all the electronics, we had to turn off the fridge or we risked the battery bank dropping below 50%.

Now, we solved our electricity shortage problem by buying two more humongous solar panels, 320 watts each, and replacing the 10 deep cycle batteries with four lithium batteries, all together  700 Ah. Total of 7 solar panels: 1390 watts of pure solar energy. That should be enough! Seen from above, Fata Morgana looks like a solar panel field floating in the sea. With so many panels, we produce electricity even at night, when the full moon illuminates the liquid world around us.

Fata Morgana from above

Fata Morgana from above

We got the new panels from eMarine Systems located in Miami Florida. They specialize in alternative energy systems and have some of the most competitive prices on the market. After spending much time answering our questions and helping us take the right decision as to which panels, how many to buy, and how to install them, Bob Everhard the sales manager of eMarine Systems, agreed also to become one of our sponsors by giving us a bit of a discount from the price. Thank you, Bob, for supporting our journey and our goals: to achieve self-sufficiency, to travel without polluting the environment, to live off the grid entirely.

A BIG thank you goes also to Balqon and their staff for all the patience and professional service in dealing with us; corresponding with Ivo via E-mail over a thousand times, answering all his questions. These are the guys who have the best and the cheapest lithium batteries in this part of the world.

And finally, we would not be able to do so much work on the boat in so little time without the help of the guys at the new West Maine store in Key West. Thank you all!

Next stop: Bahamas!

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The Solar Ark

„The overriding goal is to get away from the notion of ‘waste’ – everything natural is food for somebody or something, and therefore a resource.“

– ARVO

Close your eyes and imagine a place:

A mountain desert. Harsh climate. Desolate landscape.

But that is not the place you had to imagine, I’m sorry. Go back, and close your eyes again, and imagine a different place:

In the mountain desert, amidst the desolate landscape, surrounded by beautiful highlands, imagine an oasis. But don’t imagine the typical boring clishe, the one with the small lake in the middle and two palm trees, please. The one I am asking you to envision is much much more complicated and will take a lot more effort and ingenuity from the part of your imagination. But I’ll help you, don’t panic. Here are some of the most important items you need to place in your mental picture of the oasis: 

(You can now open your eyes in order to continue reading and see the visual aids)

 First, imagine HOMES built with a deplorably low budget using natural or recycled materials (such as rock, flagstone, recycled brick, tile, glass and lumber, straw bale, pallets, earth block [adobe], and pumice), powered by sun and wind. Imagine wind turbines and solar panels sending little packages of canned sunlight and wind puffs which come out of the wall outlets of these homes to power ultra-efficient appliances: a light-bulb, a washing machine, a well pump, a ‘solar fridge’. The sun bill of these households never goes up one cent, imagine…

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  Next, imagine a complex of integrated GREENHOUSES where lemons ripen without any supplemental heat while outside temperatures can dip to -25 degrees and where, surrounded by plants and rocks, you can take a greenhouse shower, rain water heated by the sun cascading down from a log.

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Imagine a BEAUTIFUL BACKYARD which we will now call Flushing Meadows as it is irrigated by Greywater from the showers and toilets (after a proper sceptic treatment, of course).

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Imagine a truly sustainable to perfection  ORGANIC FARM where frogs eat the nasty insects, ladybugs dine on pests, earthworms take care of the waste material turning it into prime soil, bees provide honey, wax, propolis and pollen while pollinating the orchard, and when they die, god bless their innocent little souls, become a source of protein for the chickens. And the chickens eat everything and everybody. Cannot blame the chickens, because they make eggs and are tasty, but also, they poop. And that’s good too. In this particular oasis, chicken poop makes biogas for heating and prime liquid fertilizer, which is used to grow duckweed algae as a protein-rich feed, for who?- For the chickens themselves!

Arvo with Carlos

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And finally, imagine, in the middle of it all, A SMILING GERMAN GUY NAMED ARVO who looks dramatically like Klaus Kinski, holding a female raven named Carlos.

Klaus Kinski

Klaus Kinski

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Congratulations! You have now successfully imagined The Solar Ark . And if you like this vision, let me tell you, it is real! And you, if you just imagine it possible, can become a part of it. All you need to do is to get to New Mexico where this oasis exists for more than a decade now. Or, you can simply think about all of this, maybe consider it possible to change your ways a little?

Thanks to Baba Ghanoush, we met Sherri and Nathaniel who told us about all this and who are heading to New Mexico in June to become part of The Solar Arc Project, to live there, to learn, and to help Arvo build and maintain his oasis.

Note:

I took the liberty of getting information and pictures from The Solar Ark’s website which you can visit right here for more information and details on accommodation for visitors and students, the educational program and topics covered, cost, and possibility for work-exchange (you don’t have to pay anything to learn and stay there as long as you work!)

This is something Ivo and me would totally do and we would be perfect, as we come from Bulgaria where everyone had orchards, and chickens, and outside toilets, and wells, and little wood shops. Maybe one day we will do this, when we get tired of sailing the world…

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