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From the Bridge: No shocker to captains that electric power a continual concern

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From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

Electronic charts, hot tubs, iPads, bilge pumps and clothes dryers are just some of the power-consuming items on today’s yachts. Managing the load is a continual concern for captains and their crew, said a group at this month’s Triton From the Bridge lunch discussion.

“Everyone is involved in power management,” a captain said. “The chef knows, ‘Before I crank up this second oven, I need to call the engineer and see where we are and if he’s ready for me to add the extra load.’”

Each department is trained to pay attention to certain details and check in with the engineer before one more thing gets turned on, another captain said.

“You’ve got TVs going and lots of stuff on. Stews are good at saying, ‘I’ve got two dryers and I need to go to three,’” a captain said. “It’s that time of day… ‘How’s the load, can I put on another washer?’ ‘Can I get caught up?’”

Where this power comes from is an issue. “The typical thing I run into – and I know you, and you, and you do too,” one captain said as he looked around the table and pointed at the others, “– yachts are getting bigger and bigger, but marinas are not updating their power systems to the same rate.”

Most of the marinas on his itinerary don’t have enough electric power, the yacht ends up running on generator and then you end up with problems, he said. All of the captains nodded in agreement. This forces many yachts to crank up the generator for the majority of the time.

Attendees of The Triton’s From the Bridge discussion for this issue are, back row from left, Capt. John Carlisle of M/Y Satisfaction; Capt. Veronica Hast, freelance; and Capt. Phillip Nash of M/Y Checkmate. Front row from left, Capt. Thomas Gray; Capt. Brook O’Neill; and Capt. Randy Steegstra of M/Y Wanderlust. Photo by Dorie Cox

“As soon as guests are on board and we start our day, we go on generator because we can’t get enough power,” a captain said.

“We ended up on generator all summer and the whole marina is pissed off because it’s polluting the water, the air, there’s smoke,” another captain said.

“I’ve maybe spent a week on shore power in a year,” said a third captain.

Fluctuations common

Power fluctuations are a large part of the problem. A captain explained that a 75 percent load works well for generator operation, but yacht loads are not that stable. In fact, every captain had experienced frequent periods of low loads.

“We’re permanently light-loading the generators, not to mention we’re sitting on it for six to seven months a year,” a captain said. “The chief engineer is trying to balance the power to get appropriate loads on the generator to not create so much smoke and soot, but it’s a typical problem.”

If yachts run a few systems, say up to 25 percent load, generators do not work at their most efficient level, a captain said.

“You have times when guests are on board, the jacuzzi is going, all the dryers are going, and then things are OK,” he said. “The problem is when you have two or three guests and you’re not running much.”

To balance this, many crew are trained to be aware of their department’s impact. This load juggle requires frequent communication with the engineer. Instead of a policy or standard operating procedure, many engineers and crew are aware of overall schedules and communicate throughout the day, according to the captains in this group.

“A good engineer knows the boat schedule, he knows when the galley is busy, when guests will be on board, and when laundry needs to run,” a captain said. “The engineer will be standing by and monitoring.”

“That’s a really clued-in engineer,” another captain said.

“Our engineer knows that in the afternoon we go to split bus and get both generators on, the whole crew understands,” a third captain said.

“My crew knows to call the engineer,” a captain said. “They know to let him know something will be on. But equally important is to let him know when that thing is turned off. I tell them to put a timer on their watch or phone. A lot of times they monitor, and then forget to tell him when they’re not using it.”

Key is to have crew that understand not just their department, but how the total of all departments affects the boat. Several of the captains use phone apps to communicate.

“We use WhatsApp. Everyone has it, so they can’t say they didn’t get the message. We have separate deck and interior WhatsApp groups,” a captain said. “If the engineer has the panel open, he notifies the crew by WhatsApp and by radio. So it’s said and written. Then he logs in his and I log in mine.”

If the engineer works on anything electrical and needs to shut down power, yachts following the International Safety Management (ISM) Code or with a mini-ISM have more rigid protocols.

“Tag-out, lock-out. There are locks so no one can energize equipment. And there are logs. It’s in the engineer’s and captain’s log book if you’re ISM,” a captain said.

“We lock-out, tag-out on the bridge, in the engine room, and anywhere near where the work is done,” he said. “If it’s anything potentially dangerous, this makes the crew treat it a little bit more seriously.”

“Even on smaller boats, you have to tape over with signs, do not touch,” another captain said.

With so many hands on board, the potential for a problem is a serious concern.

“On our boat, the only one allowed to touch the breaker panel is the engineer,” a captain said. “People know how, but they are not allowed to touch it. If a breaker has gone out, it has gone out for a reason.”

“If a breaker is off, crew should ask someone first,” another captain said.

Crew who know a bit about electrical systems may turn a breaker back on, and that’s where a little knowledge can be dangerous, the first captain said. “Things they don’t know that they don’t know can give them overconfidence to do something they should not do.”

Efficiency attainable

Marinas could help avoid such frequent generator use, a captain said. But many yachts want high voltage power and that level of upgrade is expensive.

“It’s a lot of money for the marinas, and power companies don’t want to bring 3-phase to the dock,” a captain said. He said he recently watched the disruption as new lines were tunneled under the parking lot of a marina and a new transformer was put on the electric pole to upgrade from single phase. He recalled when electrical power and water service were free at many marinas.

“It was like $12,000 for a year, and water and electric were included. Then came 3-phase and now a surcharge. For smaller marinas, it’s tough,” he said.

But even marinas with sufficient power do not solve all the issues on board because both marinas and yachts often have old equipment.

“There isn’t a boatyard on the planet that uses the latest and greatest. They bought this stuff three years ago and didn’t buy high-end then,” a captain said. “So by the time it’s in the marina or the boat, it’s old. In this day and age, five years for electronics is huge.”

This is not a new problem. When the yacht was built it never was fine, it was always a juggle with power, even when there was less equipment on board, a captain said.

“Boat builders are resistant to change, and rightfully so,” another captain said. They often try new ideas and “have gotten bit in the butt and it has cost millions.”

But change happens nonetheless. Just 20 years ago boats were single phase, and now cabinets, closets, and under beds are filled with AV (audio visual) and IT (information technologies) equipment.

“Add a couple of decks of TV and AV – I had no idea how huge – it’s a huge power draw,” a captain said.

Some of the new additions, such as LED lights, are very efficient. For a yacht with 200 halogen lights that use 5-7 watts apiece, LED replacements that use half a watt reduce load immensely, a captain said.

“Washers and dryers are getting better with power usage and we’re going to LED, but we still have the same galleys,” a captain said.

“We’re shedding in some areas and gaining in others, but IT growth is exponential,” another captain said.

Upgrades a challenge

Many captains have worked on older yachts and have looked into upgrades, but have run into issues. A captain with a boat more than 15 years old said it is not easy to repower.

“Then you’re looking at a three-month window,” a captain said. “They tried to do it before, but couldn’t buy a generator in six months time.”

“There’s a big problem with suppliers. Even if you want them, you can’t have them,” a captain said. “It’s amazing. If I needed a generator tomorrow, I’d be screwed.”

“There’s plenty of demand, but things aren’t sitting on the shelf anymore,” another said. “You’ve got to plan a long way out. You used to be able to go, look at it and pick it up.”

Ideally yachts would be designed and built to handle load fluctuations and insufficient power. Some naval architects are trying, a captain said. Energy-saving appliances, such as LED lights, have some builders installing smaller generators to save money in production. But they’re always on the edge of what the yacht needs, he said. And more electric products are being added on board.

“You used to be able to put two dryers in an area, but now they’re smaller, so maybe you can put three,” a captain said.

The group was frustrated, but discussed options, including better yacht design.

“I’d like to see boats that come with a load bank on board,” a captain said. But until then, most use an electric company that brings a portable load bank to charge up the yacht’s generators.

Several captains have generators of different sizes, and some yachts have installed a smaller generator to use when few people are on board.

“When the boat’s all lit up, we may run both. We have what we call a night generator, instead of a second generator,” a captain said.

One yacht plans to get a battery bank.

“Yachts have fantastic fuel and hydraulics, but they’re behind the curve in power,” a captain said. “All yachts should have a power management system, but they don’t.”

“It still goes back to wherever you go, you can’t get the power you need,” another captain said.

As the captains envisioned their perfect yacht design, one said the 350-foot S/Y Black Pearl is on the right track. The hybrid sailing vessel has battery banks that can accommodate power use with three levels, as well as heat-capture technologies and large scale storage batteries.

While captains continue to balance need and use on board, they hope the industry takes on the challenges of optimizing electrical power management on yachts.

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.

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Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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