I started experimenting with solar panels about 10 years ago. I bought various solar panels from West Marine and other sources to “trickle charge” my 12 volt, deep cycle lead acid battery. At the time I was using a MinnKota Rip Tide 55 electric motor. The MinnKota motor was extremely reliable, totally resistant to salt water, but it delivered very little power – I often was unable to motor against a high wind or a strong tide in the bays near my home. In addition, the MinnKota was pretty heavy, especially when you considered the 50 lb. weight of the lead acid battery. The total weight of the motor and battery was about 80 lbs. together.
The term “trickle charge” was truly apt back then since it took 2 to 3 weeks to fully charge a depleted 12 volt battery. Not only was this an impossibly long time, but, if you did not monitor the charging process, you could burn out the battery at the end of 3 weeks. Since you could deplete the battery in 3 or 4 hours of use of the electric motor, this effectively made the solar panel useless and I gave up my experiments with charging my 12 volt battery.
About 4 years ago I came across the Torqeedo electric motor. I saw it a trade show. It was quite expensive, but it was also extremely interesting. At the time, they were showing a motor called the 801 Travel Motor. The total motor and battery weighed just 24 lbs. Instead of having a lead acid battery weighing 50 lbs., the Torqeedo had a lithium ion battery which weighed only 6 lbs. Best of all, it truly delivered about 2 hp, making it useful for motoring against the winds and tides that I experienced on my salt water bays.
Last Summer, I tested the new 1003 Torqeedo with a solar panel extensively on the bow of my Sea Eagle 14 SailCat. You could say this was a purely personal application – I needed the Torqeedo 1003 motor get out of my cove and motor 3 miles to Port Jefferson Bay – the big bay that I liked to sail in. The Torqeedo did this very well – it went through any winds or tides that my nearby bays could deliver.
But the battery range was still pretty limited (35 minutes at full throttle, 2.5 hours at half throttle). I yearned for unlimited range. When I connected the solar panel I had the great pleasure of seeing the battery charge without having to take it off my SailCat and or do anything.
But there were other advantages – the solar panel also greatly increased the range of power of the motor since it constantly charged the battery even when I was underway. Best of all, after motoring the 3 miles to Port Jefferson Bay, I would pull up the motor, go sailing and watch my battery charge up again – this was possible because the Torqeedo’s 1003 had a computer module which monitors your speed, battery level, energy consumption and the progress of it being charged by the solar panel.
It seems that thoughts and ideas do not occur in a vacuum and after other conversations with the folks at Torqeedo, I ran into a Torqeedo sales rep named Larry Smith who had the idea to incorporate solar panels into canopies. There is nothing extraordinary about this concept other than the fact that it did not dawn on me first.
We have been selling canopies for our boats for about 30 years. The truth of the matter is that putting solar panels on canopies really was not practical until there were solar panels suitable for mounting on canopies. Along the way, in meeting Torqeedo and Larry Smith, I met another guy named, Ron Mason, who was the sales manager of a U.S. company called PowerFilm. PowerFilm was unique in that it was made in a flexible sheet rather than in rigid frame. This meant that PowerFilm was durable, flexible and lightweight – all important features if you want to use it on a canopy.
I came across PowerFilm because I had been able to destroy the first solar panel that Torqeedo first sold me in 2 short weeks. This was probably because I put it on my SailCat and inundated the solar panel every day while sailing. In frustration with their own solar panel, Torqeedo had been talking with PowerFilm. When I demolished the first Torqeedo solar panel, Torqeedo suggested that I test the PowerFilm panel. The first solar panel that PowerFilm provided did not fare much better, but I did get a full month out it before I swamped it to death.
After discussions with both Torqeedo and PowerFilm, it became evident that neither company quite understood the full importance of the word “waterproof”. You have to realize that the way I tested their solar panel was totally different than the way they tested their solar panel. They poured water on it in a laboratory. I put it on the front of my SailCat, took it out in 20 or 25 mph winds and sailed with it. In doing so the solar panel got swamped repeatedly by waves of salt water, literally many gallons and mucho pounds of water at once.
And of course, I leave the assembled boat outside. This meant that even after the boat’s solar panel was repeatedly swamped, it was then left moored tied up to floating dock, outside in blazing sun or driving rain, in heat or cold. In short, my use exposed the solar panel to the worst conditions possible and made evident the necessity of having connectors absolutely waterproof and absolutely impervious to the elements. In due course, PowerFilm and Torqeedo put their heads together and came up with new connectors that were truly waterproof and impervious to the elements.
For the past 6 months, I tested the new PowerFilm solar panel with the new, truly waterproof connectors. I can now say that it truly works and it regularly charges the lithium battery in about 10 hours which is way better than 3 weeks.
Now we are taking this same technology and seeing if we can apply it to other obvious and perhaps, more universal uses. As you can see from the pictures in this blog, we have put a solar panel on our standard sun/rain canopy. It does the same thing as the solar panel on my SailCat, although it certainly is in a drier better position to take full advantage of the sun. This is yet another step on the long road to the realization of my solar dream.
We now sell Torqeedo motors and PowerFilm solar panels. Shortly, we will be offering transom boat packages which include our Sea Eagle 10.6, 12.6 & 14 transom boats with canopies, Torqeedo motors and solar panels. These will be available on our website this Spring and shortly thereafter, we will send out catalogs showing these solar/electric motor Sea Eagle boat packages. But as they say in TV commercials “that’s not all!”
We also are working on a new solar panel and Torqeedo pontoon boat package with larger canopy which will be able to accommodate 2 solar panels strung together in daisy chain to provide even faster recharging and to extend the range of Torqeedo motors even more. When these are available, by early this summer, we will put them up on our website and in our catalogs.
It is my hope that ultimately we will develop what I call “the perpetual Sea Eagle”. That is, an inflatable boat powered by an electric motor, being charged by one or more solar panels that is capable of going any distance during daylight hours without ever having to take the battery off of the motor to recharge it from a power outlet. This would offer the consumer boats that could be motored indefinitely without the use of gas and without the need to recharge from a power outlet. It is, of course, something of an impossible dream. It remains to be seen if this can really be accomplished. But, if it is possible, I would like to be the person to do it.
If you have taken the trouble to read this long blog, thank you for sharing my Solar Power Dream.