Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Making do with underperforming solar panels

What happens when life gives you limes (there are no lemons in Mexico...seriously)? You add some tequila and get on with your day! It wasn't but a few weeks after we left California that we came to realize that our solar panels weren't going to cut the mustard. 

Our panels should produce about 390 watts of electricity, but being that they're about 10 years old we're probably not getting our full 390 watts...understatement! Replacing solar panels was on our never-ending list of things to replace before we left. As with any list of boat projects, the list seems to regenerate itself and eventually you have to make the decision to stop hemorrhaging from the wallet and just cut the dock lines.

A few weeks into sailing down the Baja Penninsula we started to notice that the freezer ran constantly and we were needing to run the engine to charge the battery bank from the alternator. The warmer the weather and ocean temperature, the more the freezer ran. If you own a diesel engine you know that they don't appreciate being run at idle without a load. What to do?

We could continue to run the engine without a load, to keep up with the demands of the freezer or we could spend money to replace the solar panels. Solar panels are said to be less expensive in Mexico, but where were we going to find them? Buying new solar panels would mean sitting in a marina (yuck!) spending more money and having to deal with the whole solar panel fiasco. 

"I guess we can always forgo the freezer." Our freezer was pulling 20 amps!  One look in the freezer revealed a lonely bag of frozen peas and a few chicken breasts. Decision made. We opted to decommission the freezer in an effort to save energy and not have to replace our entire solar panel array.

Phil, serving up my made from scratch (you read that right) Earth Day cookies.

How did that work out, you ask? Great, actually. We never had anything fun in the freezer to start. No ice. No popsicles. No problem.  We did need to make a few adjustments to live without the option of a freezer. 

A galley with a view.
Sailing without a freezer means you have to plan out meals. Before heading off to provision, I know which meals I will make for the next 10-14 days. On provisioning days and prior to passages, we will spend the rest of the afternoon cooking all of the meat that we bought. It's worked out well to only stand in a hot galley cooking up meat one day rather than cooking over a hot stove every day. Ground beef is cooked and put into Ziplock containers with a screw on top. Any food container on a boat needs to have a screw on top. Chicken is divided, some for the grill and some for chopped into chunks and cooked. The cooked meat will last much longer than raw meat and it is also much safer to store.

We have Ziplock containers in all sizes, which make for easy storage. Some of the smaller containers we have labeled as to what the cooked meat is to be used for, along with a reference page in our cookbook for the complete recipe. Having all of our meat precooked is easier for everyone to be able to grab and go. Chunked cooked chicken can easily be added to salads, burritos, quesadillas, or spread on nachos. It's easy to toss some precooked meat into the pan to quickly reheat if necessary. Quick and easy meals are your friend when you are on passage.

We don't have a microwave either. The best tasting popcorn is made on the stovetop.

We took the decommissioned freezer and turned it into a storage space for all of the baking goods. Finding a home for the baking ingredients was proving difficult as all of it needs to be away from heat. Placing everything baking related in the freezer which is next to the fridge keeps everything nice and cool. 

Without the freezer, we now produce enough energy to keep our battery fully charged and everything else running. Do we miss it? Not really. By planning ahead and precooking, we have not changed our meal plans much at all. Also, our fridge stays cold enough to keep all of our beer frosty!

Jessica caught smiling while doing the dishes.


  1. I do not think solar panels really degrade that much over time. I would check all the wiring and make sure everything is clean and no corrosion is building up on any of the connections. The increased resistance of the wiring from the panels to the controller and batteries can really hurt output

    1. Yeah, I have heard mixed opinions on the matter. I plan to check all of the connections for corrosion before we splash again just to see if there are any issues. Thanks!