Solar power is just about everywhere today, from rooftops, to cell phone cases, to cars, and now even boats. Solar power can offer a lot of advantages in many applications and grant its users a freedom that other power sources don’t offer, a major appeal to boaters. However, can it be relied on to power you and your family back to shore? In this piece we’ll take a look at some of the solar power options for your boat and how you can add them to just about any boat.
The Solar Power Advantage
Boaters are stewards of the environment and it’s imperative to do as little to harm that environment as possible. Whether it’s the ocean, coastal waters, or lakes and rivers, minimizing your impact on them should be a key goal of boat ownership. Solar power offers a clean alternative to fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel at a reasonable price. Solar panels aboard can keep your boat’s battery bank charged allowing you to run numerous accessory devices without having to use a generator.
Not needing a gas or diesel generator and the associated noise and pollution is itself a major advantage. However, solar panels used to maintain battery levels also give you a degree of freedom. No longer do you need to plan your voyage around marinas with available fuel. For sailboat owners planning long cruises this is especially important, part of the reason why many have been early adopters of marine solar panels. And once installed, panels can maintain your boat’s batteries for decades to come.
Going Solar, What You’ll Need
For most boaters, solar is an excellent option for their battery charging needs however, there are a number of factors that need to be considered before installing solar panels on your boat.
Determine Your Boat’s Needs
Solar panels and an accompanying battery bank have their limits. If you’re planning on running your boat’s AC 24/7 a solar system is likely not going to be able to supply enough power for you. However, if you’re ok with a more minimalist approach to boating and just need to power a handful of lights and onboard electronics then solar can be an excellent option. Take a look at what systems you currently use aboard and would like to be able to use while disconnected from shore power and with the engine off to get a sense of what your needs will be. From there you can estimate the area of solar panels you’ll need. A basic rule of thumb is better solar panels will be more expensive but harness more power per square foot.
Solar Installation Done Right
Once you’ve determined your boat’s needs you’ll need to plan out your installation. While this is something you can do yourself if you’re very handy, hiring a local marine electrician is your best bet. A marine electrician will help you choose the right size solar panels, wiring and charging system for your boat’s needs. Additionally they will offer input on ways to secure them and maintain them over the years. A good marine electrician will give you a number of options and explain which they believe are best suited for your boat.
Regardless whether you opt to hire someone or do it yourself, installation should be done in a way that complies with local standards and supports your solar panels through the range of conditions your boat is likely to encounter. Collapsible or retractable installations that minimize space required for solar panels aboard do exist and are an option if your boat’s deck space is limited but can be pricier.
Full Solar, Is It Possible?
Sailboats appeal to many boaters because they offer almost unlimited range, so long as there is wind. In recent years an alternative has appeared, entirely solar powered boats like the Aquanima-40. While technically possible, entirely solar powered boats have some drawbacks like slow speed, needing a lot of surface area for solar panels, and limited range in rough sea conditions. Cost is also a factor as entirely solar boats are for now mainly a novelty and require a significant amount of engineering. For some coastal, lake or river boaters, these factors may not be that much of a limitation and perhaps a solar powered boat is perfect. But for many boaters, the best way to utilize solar power aboard your boat is to add it on to augment existing propulsion systems like sail or even engines.