Friday, January 30, 2009


The following is from a presentation created to share concepts and ideas with the curious.....


Eco for me is a term used more in keeping with it’s Greek root – home, dwelling, or household. I’m a naval architect and I design boats. If I designed buildings, I suppose it would be fun to try living in one. For the record, I don’t care for “green” either. Too much association with seasick skin tone I guess.

When I moved aboard Charis 20 years ago it was with the intention to see the world from my home, not to save it with my ideas. Solutions evolved from a desire to establish a sustainable and portable standard of living. To understand how this differs from land based solution research, one must understand that most of the time, most boats are very small islands. All resources must be carried in or created and all waste must be carried off or processed. The nearest land based analogy is found in “off-grid” habitation, and indeed, many of the solutions to be discussed derive from that sector.

It is not my purpose to advocate my specific choice of lifestyle. In fact, without many of my prior choices of career and recreation, and without much mentoring from those around me as a result of those choices, I could not have succeeded. If there is one factor that has allowed the balance you see to exist, it is the concept of scale. Our cultural embrace of size and excess volume was the first thing to set aside. An ability to choose simplicity, with occasional enjoyment of excess was the essential mental adjustment. Our societal concepts of success lend little support to this transition, so much resolve is needed between extended cruises.

Charis was not a packaged solution, but rather the result of a slow change in perspective on consumption and lengthy research into tools to optimize resources. It is my honest belief that real change in land based carbon footprint can only occur along a similar thought path evolution. It never occurred to me to try to find my solutions in a “supermarket” environment, and the very concept that I could would have indicated that I was not mentally prepared to live “unplugged.”

I once bought a new vacuum cleaner on the strength of the negative evaluation of a nearby shopper who told her friend “Don’t buy that one. I had one and always had to empty it.” I’m quite sure she did not live on a boat.

The investment in renewable energy was a simple choice for me. No economic evaluation was needed. The equipment was instrumental in creating a comfortable and autonomous home. The return on my investment was to be able to be at home in far away places. The slides running now are some of my “homes away from home.”


Charis is a 1966 Pearson Alberg 35. Her designer studied naval architecture in Sweden and had successful careers in ship and Coast Guard rescue vessel design before focusing on yachts in his retirement. Her design is conservative and in no way extreme. She has been an ideal platform for my project in offering excellent seaworthiness for her size and an ability to carry extra weight impossible for more performance oriented boats.

On land, energy is produced in a place we can’t usually see or hear, and is piped and wired into our lives in such quantities as we demand. It is a credit balance based system. Leave the light on and pay a little more next month. On Charis, for 8 months or more per year, energy is produced somewhere within 35 feet. It is stored in a bank of batteries and used as needed. This represents more of a “cash in hand” based energy economy in the sense that one cannot consume what has not been created. Leave the light on and tomorrow’s beer might be warm. The result of this difference is a subconscious energy accounting system. There will be times when circumstances allow entertainment to include TV and times when a book is more appropriate. Sometimes cold can be chased away at the push of a button, while other times the woodstove better suits the energy on hand.

Fresh water consumption follows the same formula. Tanks on board hold 55 gallons of water and pumps deliver it to sinks and showers. A water heater that uses electricity or waste heat from the auxiliary diesel engine is installed. Simplistic solar hot water systems are also used whenever possible.

Comfort with the choice of a composting toilet required considerable research and education. The incentive for me was beyond dispute. Marine “heads” with their requisite hoses, valves, and tanks are a maintenance nightmare. Few ever achieve better than “not too unpleasant” odor characteristics given the mix of waste, seawater organisms, and marginal tank venting at best. We are fortunate in this area to enjoy a good network of subsidized marine waste pumping facilities. Such is not the case in other places. The composting toilet offers a solution that works everywhere and relies only on individual initiative.

In addition to its ability to warm the cabin, the woodstove has proven valuable in reduction of solid waste volume. On many Caribbean islands, solid waste management is primitive or nonexistent. A significant challenge in such locations is the ability to contain and carry waste to the nearest acceptable disposal location. Combined with responsible repackaging practices, the ability to burn waste has effectively doubled the time it is possible to spend in such sensitive settings.

Specific discussion will include devices and means of producing power and the appliances that consume it.

Power Production:

Non renewable power sources on board include the Auxiliary diesel engine – a 2 cylinder, 18 HP Volvo that moves Charis’s 10 tons at a maximum speed of 5 knots and a cruising speed of 4. At cruising speed this engine will consume 0.2 to.25 gallons of diesel fuel per hour, resulting in a range of over 500 nautical miles, or most of the way to Bermuda. A Honda EU 1000 gasoline generator is used when necessary to fill gaps in electrical energy production from other sources. In a year’s time, less than 5 gallons of aviation grade gasoline are used by the generator. During the coldest 4 months per year, when ice and cold make a dock space essential, electricity is consumed from a grid connection. The power is used for all on board appliances including electric heating.

Electricity is produced on board by four sources: the diesel engine alternator, the Honda generator, and more to the point, a Southwest Windpower Airmarine 403 turbine, and 2 Siemens M55, 55 watt solar panels. I would estimate that 90 to 95% of my power needs while off the dock are derived from the turbine and solar panels.

The turbine is my second. I installed a 6 blade LVM 3 in 1990 and used it successfully for 9 years. It was quieter that the present installation, but achieved a maximum output of 5 to 7 amps, contrasted to potentially 25 to 30 amps from the AirMarine. The LVM was destroyed in a microburst on my second return from the Caribbean. By far, the principle liability of the present turbine is poor blade wheel design. It can be extremely noisy – enough that it must at times be shut down to avoid noise pollution in sensitive settings. In the Caribbean, where most anchorages are in the lee of an island with nothing downwind for hundreds of miles, one simply learns to anchor at the back of the fleet.

The Siemens M55 PV panels have been flawless. These are rigid monocrystaline cell panels with tempered glass over the crystals. Amorphous panels used to have a lifespan of about 5 years, though recent advances may have them closing the gap with monocrystaline ones. The Siemens panels came with a 20 year warrantee. In 12 years, no noticeable output reduction has occurred, though it is important to understand that the rated output of a panel is at the panel, and the actual yield will always be lower at the point of use due to losses in the wiring. The single maintenance liability I have found with the PV panels has been the need to clean and occasionally replace wire and connections due to the corrosive marine environment. In fact this is common to all wiring on board, but the relatively low current flow from the PV’s makes any connection losses significant. PV panels achieve highest output while oriented perpendicular to the sun and with no surface shadows. This is the reason for the pivoting mount system used on my two panels. Yield is improved significantly when I am able to position the panels according the sun angle. To get equivalent yield from fixed panels, more are needed.

Power Consumption:

Refrigeration is the largest constant power demand on my electrical system. Until recently, an old and inefficient system required me to maintain a supply of ice and use the mechanical system to slow its’ melt. It is not unusual to meet European cruisers who have simply adjusted to no refrigeration at all. My intention has always been to enjoy this lifestyle with as many comforts of a land based life as possible, so that option has not been my choice. Instead, I have reduced my cold storage to less than 3 cubic feet, trading off the additional capacity for insulation thickness. I did this with Polystyrene basement insulation boards installed inside the box and finished with recycled plastic sign board. The concept of the refrigerator as the great food locker has given way to wondering why exactly it was that we refrigerated peanut butter, maple syrup, etc. 3 Years ago, with the help of Northeast Marine Systems in Fairhaven, I upgraded the system to an Isotherm ASU unit. In the ice box is a “holding plate,” essentially a large block that freezes and thaws slowly over time. Cooling the holding plate is a compressor that has the ability to sense the level of available power and either run faster to take advantage of peak production or slower to demand less of the battery bank when excess charge is not available. The concept is to use current when production exceeds charging demand rather than adding batteries to store more of it. This “intelligent” appliance has ended what one crew accurately dubbed my “ice-capades.”

Heating is possible in many ways on Charis. Off grid, the most convenient method is through a forced hot air furnace that uses electricity from the battery bank to run fans and controls, and to ignite the fuel. There are a few manufacturers of boat-sized units that work this way. Unfortunately, most were developed to heat busses, and so were never optimized to reduce electrical consumption. Since the bus engine would always be running and producing ample power with its alternator, there was never a need. Research and advice from other cruisers eventually pointed me toward Wallas, a Finland based manufacturer of heaters derived from the market there for off grid vacation cabins. Their unit combines the convenience features of a home furnace with a design so energy efficient that it is easily supplied from alternate energy electrical sources. The central forced hot air furnace burns diesel fuel or kerosene. Used as my primary heat source in fall and spring months, this furnace typically consumes about 2 gallons of fuel in a month to a month and a half.

A wood stove is also installed to provide heat and help with waste volume reduction. The Dickinson Newport has the advantage of being able to be used as a fireplace with the front opened, so I’ve kept it in spite of many other shortcomings.

During the coldest 4 months in New England, Charis is dockside and “on grid” with electric heat. I have a second shore power circuit that controls two thermostatic outlets. These run two ceramic electric heaters. In extreme cold, a third can be run on the normal house shore power circuit allowing a total outside to inside temperature differential of about 100 degrees F.

Cooking is achieved with propane stored in a 20lb (gas grill) cylinder which lasts about 3 months. Propane has inherent dangers being heavier than air, but CNG is not available in the Carribean, so it was the only viable gas choice for my use. A vented sealed locker, which doubles as my helm seat, solenoid shut-off valve, and leak sniffer offer some degree of protection from leakage, but would not solve the problem of gas leaking overboard offshore. As a backup, a pressure kerosene seaswing “primus” stove is carried on long passages. This is in keeping with my general philosophy that the way to arrive with one sure way of doing something is to depart with 2 sure ways of doing it.

Lighting is a somewhat constant electrical demand. I have installed just about every type of illumination made. Original incandescent fixtures are the least efficient, but are reliable and effective. Most of these have now been converted to ultra efficient LED bulbs rendering their power consumption negligible. Fluorescent fixtures are less power thirsty, but require circuitry to convert battery power to AC house current, and are therefore more failure prone in the marine setting. Small, high intensity reading lamps are scattered around in the likely places. Ironically, more light fixtures usually means less energy use as one light in the right place is worth two in the wrong spots. Independent battery LED fixtures are stuck here and there according to need, and are excellent for their ability to run for long periods one set of batteries. Solar garden lights are an ongoing experiment in renewable background lighting. Oil lamps are used for background lighting in off grid mode. The Aladdin non-pressurized kerosene mantle lamp is particularly effective. This lamp was invented in 1913, but was eclipsed by the spread of the electrical grid before it could become widely known. Lighting from oil lamps typically consumes 1.5 to 2 gallons of kerosene per year. Poor quality kerosene since the recent fuel price wars has forced me to buy pure paraffin for my lamps.

Pumps are a small but important electrical demand. They are used to create pressure at the faucets and to pump drain water overboard. Compliments of lessons learned trying to repair a freshwater pump with shampoo dripping in my eyes, two pressure fresh water pumps are installed in parallel so that loss of one does not shut down the water system. An accidental discovery in the interest of pump longevity has allowed a simple solution to greatly reduce the nitrogen content of this drain water. More about this follows in the waste management discussion.

Elective power use is centered mainly around entertainment and onboard work. Small Hella fans are the occasional use exception. Stereo, TV, and DVD are simply not background noise taken for granted. Books are my any time entertainment source. It is amazing how well thought can flourish in absence of sensory bombardment entertainment. Use of the computer for on board work is less elective, but somewhat adjustable. In the Caribbean, for example, I found the mid day to be suited to being in the shade of the cabin working, while the solar panels more than made up for my power use with their peak production.

While passagemaking, electrical use shifts toward communication and navigation equipment, but generally a balance is maintained with little difficulty.

Energy Monitoring:

Awareness of power production and stored capacity is maintained with a host of meters. These display incoming power, power being consumed, and charge level on a constant basis. This information forms the basis for the ongoing mental energy accounting necessary to keep all systems running.

Indoor/outdoor thermometers are another much used monitoring tool. One is used to maintain watch of the refrigerator temperature. Another monitors the water heater temperature such that use of the engine or generator to heat water is only as needed. On Gulfstream crossings, one is attached to a through hull fitting to monitor water temperature – a useful source of important navigation information.

Water Consumption:
Charis has a total water tank capacity barely equal to the average land base daily water use for one person. This is not atypical for a boat her size. Sustainability requires that this resource be managed with even greater consideration than electricity at times. One cannot live long without water, and the ocean offers no place to replenish along the way.

While larger boats with bigger energy budgets are often equipped with reverse osmosis desalinators which produce fresh water from salt, Charis is not. This equipment is extremely power hungry and maintenance intensive, and so has not made its way into either my electrical or financial budget. Most desalinator equipped vessels rely on engine or generator to create the power demanded.

Conservation has proven my most viable means of dealing with limited fresh water capacity. Shower heads made from garden sprayer wands produce a powerful spray at less than 10% of the flow of a standard shower head. Momentary start/stop switches on sink and shower taps allow water to be “pulsed” rather than sprayed continuously. A manually pumped deck sprayer serves as a multi-mode hot water shower – solar by virtue of its black color, gas by adding a kettle of boiling water from the stove, or low draw electric with a simple immersion (coffee warmer) heater. The installed shower and bathroom sink use a recirculation system to allow unused fresh water to be returned to the tanks until hot water from the main water heater reaches the tap. How often does it occur to us in land life to think of running the shower until it’s hot as wasteful? When taking on fresh water becomes a deliberate chore, it’s an inescapable consideration.

There is, of course, an unlimited source of salt water just outside the hull. In fact, for some cooking and most washing and needs, this is an acceptable alternative if completed with a fresh water rinse to remove the salt residue. Charis has a pressurized seawater piping system including hose spigots, galley sink sprayer, and outdoor shower which allow convenient substitution of salt water for limited supply fresh. This system has effectively halved onboard fresh water consumption, or doubled the effective time I can spend away from a fresh water supply. The significance of this is emphasized when one arrives at a tropical island which is itself critically low on drinking water. To avoid sinking your own boat, use rubber seawater hose on this system and to install a warning light on the pump so that it is not left on unattended.

Waste Management:

As a constant guest in a public resource environment, it is paramount to be as considerate about waste generation as possible. It is a responsibility I feel acutely to minimize my footprint on a place I choose to visit so that I and others after me will enjoy a welcome untainted by suspicion of insensitivity.

Installation of a urine diverting composting toilet has been the single biggest leap toward a self directed ability to leave a clean wake. The result of the installation has been a 4 times increase in holding capacity, the removal of all unpleasant odor associated with older holding tank –salt water flush installations, and the ability to completely eliminate nitrogen and bacteria contribution without outside facilities which really exist only in a few areas even now. The “airhead” installed separates urine into one tank – emptied in a shore side toilet or in a “grow away” garden. Solid waste is blended with a hard carbon source such as peat moss or saw dust and wood stove ash and exposed to a constant low volume air flow. It is composted in the toilet and later in an onshore “post composter” barrel for a minimum of 6 months. After as little as 1 month, the compost has virtually none of the appearance or odor of its origin source.

Increased holding capacity is achieved with the assistance of “Mr. Peebuddy,” a simple dry urinal made from recycled plastic bottles. As with the airhead tank, liquid waste is either emptied in a shore side toilet or utilized in a “grow away” garden. See Carol Steinfeld’s book “Liquid Gold” for more complete details on the garden application.

Grey Water, or drain wash water cannot be practically retained in any quantity on a small boat. It is collected in a small transfer sump and pumped overboard. It was initially the result of the need to protect the discharge pump that led to the installation of nylon stocking legs on the drain lines where they enter the sump. As it turns out, the same soap and hair residue so detrimental to the discharge pump also contains most of the nitrogen outflow. Once a year or so, the nylon stocking filters are disposed of ashore and replaced. The amount of residue they contain is astounding, even with concerted effort to minimize soap compounds use. Those which are used on board are carefully scrutinized for biodegradability, preference given to those of plant rather than petroleum base.

A stainless steel kitchen compost bucket with a charcoal filter in the lid has been a big help in reducing both the volume and odor in the main trash bag. In warmer months it is amazing how quickly the volume of organic scraps decreases, often allowing even the small pail to contain a weekend of kitchen scrap.

It was in the Tobago Cays in the southern Caribbean that I first came to appreciate the woodstove as a waste management tool. There was no development and no trash disposal service in this sensitive barrier reef island group, so 100% carry out was the only responsible practice. With some advanced planning and repackaging, and burning of everything possible, two weeks of waste could be fit in one grocery bag. Even where disposal is more readily available, I now burn all paper products on board, resulting in a constant supply of charcoal ash to mix with my compost toilet additive.


Wind is obviously Charis’s primary source of motion. But ocean voyaging on a small boat with limited space for crew and stores requires constant motion. There is no place to stop, and constant progress toward one’s destination translates to shortest possible passage time and least weather exposure. An electric autopilot is useful when a continuous electrical supply is available in excess of all other requirements, but this is not always the case. The Cape Horn Self Steering wind vane is as near perfect an example of harnessing available ambient energy as one will find. This simple but ingenious device utilizes a combination of the force of the water flowing past the hull and the wind to steer the boat on a constant course relative to the wind. It requires no electricity and gains in strength as wind boat speed increase. It is the additional crew that effectively steers all the time offshore allowing the crew to maintain watch and attend other voyage needs.

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