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The Electrical Upgrade

When Onne van der Wal wanted to replace the electrical system on his 1986 Grand Banks 32 he knew he needed professional guidance
Snow Goose on a mooring 

Snow Goose on a mooring 

Before Onne and Tenley van der Wal went down the Intracoastal Waterway on their 1986 Grand Banks 32 Snow Goose, Onne wanted to be sure that everything on the boat was in perfect working order. That included the electrical system, which he found inadequate.

The Grand Banks had 12- and 110-volt analog meters, but the 12-volt unit didn’t tell him how much was flowing in or out, and the 110-volt meter only told him when shore power was coming in. For Onne, that wasn’t good enough. He wanted to know how many amps he was using. “I wanted to know what was going in and what was going out in terms of 12 and 110 volt,” he says.

Onne is a trained machinist who can tackle most any mechanical or woodworking project. He can also do basic electrical work. But when it came to a major electrical upgrade, he knew he needed professional help.

The electrical project was a major undertaking.

The electrical project was a major undertaking.

In the local supermarket he spotted a guy wearing a T-shirt that said Sea and Land Yacht Works. Onne introduced himself to Mike Garretson, who owns the Narragansett, Rhode Island-based company, and said he was looking for help. When Mike met Onne on the boat, he was astonished to see that Snow Goose still had all her original 1986 cables. The battery cable insulation was failing, one battery was shot and the others were in bad shape. Mike agreed to design a state-of-the-art DC system to take advantage of current technologies. “We’re going to go from 1986 to 2022,” he told Onne.

“Mike’s a very good guy,” Onne says. “He used to work as an engineer in the pharmaceutical manufacturing field doing everything from advanced troubleshooting to system design. He’s very dialed in.”

Onne’s hand-drawn diagrams 

Onne’s hand-drawn diagrams 

Mike proposed that they put in ACR (Automated Control Relay) to manage the electrical flow between the batteries. Onne liked that idea, but when he saw the drawing of the electrical power system Mike had designed, he was baffled. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” Onne says. But Mike was confident Onne could do the work himself. “Go home, study it, follow every wire, and it will make sense to you,” Mike told Onne.

Onne did just that, but to make Mike’s detailed schematic more digestible, he sketched his own small versions to show where every single wire had to be connected. “Mike’s version was the master,” Onne says,” and I would go back to that all the time.”

For power storage, Mike specified three Lifeline AGM GPL-4DL cells, each weighing 95 pounds. Using ropes, Onne lowered them into the engine room and then shuffled them into position before securing them belowdeck.

Onne did all the electrical work himself with guidance from electrical expert Mike Garretson who made Onne a new acrylic console instrument panel on his CNC cutter. 

Onne did all the electrical work himself with guidance from electrical expert Mike Garretson who made Onne a new acrylic console instrument panel on his CNC cutter. 

Each of the three dedicated 4D cells—one for the house, one for the generator and one for the main engine—can back up any of the others via three Blue Sea Systems automatic control relay switches. A fourth battery, an ordinary car battery that powers the bow thruster, is also connected to the relays.

The relay switches disconnect the batteries when they reach a low voltage and preserve the power in the ones that the operator chooses to protect. When electrical power comes into the system—whether from the generator, the main engine, from shore power or solar power—the relays automatically recharge all the batteries.

The system allows Onne to start a night aboard with all the batteries connected, but if the main house battery starts getting low, the relays will disconnect the engine and generator batteries to preserve them and only allow the house battery to drain down. But if Onne decides he has a large load on the house that he wants to feed, he can manually put the generator battery back into play. That would drain two batteries, but the engine battery would still be preserved to start the motor.

Electrical expert Mike Garretson 

Electrical expert Mike Garretson 

In the morning, if Onne tries to fire up the generator and hears the familiar clicks of a depleted battery, he can start the main engine to juice up all the batteries and then fire up the generator if he’s staying on the hook.

Everything was designed according to American Boat and Yacht Council standards. “Mike’s a stickler for that,” Onne says. “He was like, ‘No, you have to put a fuse here, and a fuse there.’”

Onne says he knew he had to update the old system, but because it was still functioning, he’d been reluctant to do so. “The scary part for me,” Onne says, “was when I put the bolt cutter to it. I was like, ‘Oh, no.’”

But after completing the job and everything came to life, he was happy he’d undertaken the task. “I was like, ‘Holy Toledo. There are miracles. It works,’” Onne says.

He is still learning how to use the various parts of the system, which includes a Blue Sea Systems M2 vessel systems digital monitor that tracks DC and AC voltage and monitors bilge and tank activity. Because the M2 monitor only shows the charge on two batteries, Onne also installed two Blue Sea Systems mini DC voltmeters at the main helm station so he can monitor the other two batteries as well. The digital displays show him exactly what is going on. “I can see the effect immediately,” Onne says. “The Blue Seas stuff works really nicely.”

To complete the entire package and assure himself that the batteries on Goose would always be getting a charge, Onne added solar panels. He’d had a good experience when he put soft solar panels on his 1972 Pearson 36 sailboat to keep the fridge running and he wanted to do the same on Goose.

Onne knew he would have twice as much space on Goose for solar panels, so he spoke to Ham Ferris of Ferris Power Systems who he had met at the Newport International Boat Show. Onne measured the space on the forward cabin and ordered the panels from Ham. “They fit like a glove,” Onne says. Mike advised Onne to install the solar panels in parallel. That way, if one panel gets shaded the other one will still continue to charge the batteries.

Onne’s seen 10 to 11 amps coming out of the panels. “To get 10 amps for 3 to 4 hours is a ton of power,” Onne says. “That keeps the batteries charged and the fridge cold. ”

Now, the only time the van der Wals need to run the generator on Snow Goose is when Onne and Tenley want warm water. “I will run the generator for 45 minutes and I will get piping hot water,” Onne says. “If I could somehow make hot water from the sun, I wouldn’t have to run the generator at all.” The solar installation was the last thing Onne did, but he’s really pleased with how the install looks.

On his CNC cutter, Mike cut an acrylic panel to house the new LED monitors at the helm and to cover up all the old holes from the analog monitors.

“There is no way in hell I could have done it without Mike,” Onne says. “I was overwhelmed, and Mike was like, ‘You’re smart. You can figure it out.’ And the upgrade has made a big difference. It’s so much nicer than what I had.” 

This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue.

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