Once upon a time, sailboats didn’t have batteries. Sailors were happy. They smiled. And they spent their money on important things—like members of the opposite sex, rum drinks, and (best of all) exotic combinations of the two.
Then Eve offered the apple to Adam. And batteries came aboard recreational sailing craft. And a dark cloud has hovered over us yachties ever since.
The original battery was a lead/acid affair—lead, to hurt your lower back; acid to ruin your clothes and yacht interior. Yes, they held a charge… for about as long as it took to transfer them from your home charger to your vessel.
The scientific way to measure the ‘specific gravity’ of that charge was, back then, a hygrometer—sort of a hair-trigger water-pistol device that shot acid across the cabin, onto your new Topsiders, and, of course, into your slow-to-flinch eye.
A less scientific way to tell if your battery was full of juice was to remove a cap and peer in—if the electrolyte was over the plates, it was, indeed, full of juice.
…or close enough.
My first vessel had a gasoline Utility Four engine, which was, of course, a potential fire and explosion hazard. Just to make it a bit more sporting, this engine had a generator (not an alternator). This generator didn’t put out any detectable electricity at idle, but at high RPMs dribbled out the odd watt or two. How could I tell? By all the blue sparks flashing around the soft carbon brushes at its whirling rotor. Yikes!
On the other hand, the Utility Four also had an updraft carburetor with a flame arrester. Thank gosh for that flame arrestor during backfires! Without it, who knows how far those bright orange flames shooting out into the gasoline-sheened bilge might have traveled.
Now this lead/acid type battery was invented in 1860 by a sadistic Frenchman named Gaston Planté. I currently have twelve lead/acid T105 batteries aboard my vessel—one or two of which might still hold a charge. That’s right—in 160 years, nothing significant has changed in the lead/acid world. (Why do I use Trojan 6-volters in particular? It’s because I figure that, hey, if their condoms are dependable, why not their batteries?)
Initially, of course, the problem with rechargeable batteries was how to recharge them. If you didn’t and the battery sat empty for any length of time, it was ruined.
Well, it took about 90 short years to figure that out. Yippee! Then there was a delightful, relaxing week or two until the batteries started to be overcharged. In response, they melted their cases, warped their plates, and leaked out their acid… oh, what fun!
Enter the voltage regulator. This was a device that won’t charge, won’t charge, won’t charge, and won’t charge your battery—and then will suddenly overcharge it, sooooooo sooooorry, sir!
Each time it would fry your battery bank, the salesman at the chandlery would giggle and point out what a critical piece of equipment it was—that every vessel should have one, cha ching!
Wait, there’s more bad news: battery cables. Whatever size you had or could buy—well, those weren’t big enough. (That’s why such cables are measured in OUGHTS—because no matter how big they are, they ought to be bigger!) Ditto, closed battery lugs are the preferred choice—don’t use non-marine open battery lugs, not around saltwater. The cables should be finely stranded and thickly tinned. And, according to ABYC standards, they need to be soldered and crimped to the lugs—so the cables won’t come loose when your vessel burns to the waterline.
These lead/acid batteries need to be watered, of course. How often? About once a month unless you get hospitalized or your return flight from Hawaii is delayed—in that case, they’ll need to be watered every couple of days.
Yes, if the plates are ever exposed to the air—the warranty is void. (There is no real guarantee with a lead/acid battery other than, say, eternal frustration.)
Of course, some progress has been made. A fan of Elvis with a major pompadour came up with the gel-cell. Alas, it was extremely sensitive to its charging voltage. If the charging voltage was 14.0000005 volts, it would undercharge and die prematurely. If the charging rate was 14.000007, it would overcharge and die prematurely. Damn!
Enter the AGM batteries, which I hear from industry insiders stands for “Another Grab for Money”. You can think of them as lead/acid batteries with fiberglass sponges shoved down their bubbling holes. They like to be charged slowly and long—and often have sophisticated computers on each cell to mis/over/under-charge them in a myriad of mysterious, incomprehensible ways.
Of course, EFB batteries are perfect for Stop-Start cars. I’ve had a number of these vehicles, although most of mine tended to stop far better than they started.
You may have heard of FLOODED batteries—perfect if a (fresh water) Lake Michigan overflows its banks, not so good if a Gulf Coast hurricane causes the flood—even flooded batteries don’t like salt.
I’m not too familiar with Deep Cycle batteries. Evidently, they’re more intellectual but I’m too dumb to understand how.
This brings us to Lithium batteries. The first time I heard of these, I was in a battery showroom and the salesman took me outside, donned an asbestos suit, made me stand behind a pile of sandbags, and handed me a pair of binoculars. Through the lens I could see a battery in the distance.
“Are you scared of fire with Lithium?” I asked.
“…explosion, actually,” he said, “But don’t let that worry you—these expensive babies are real popular on offshore boats that never return.”
“And what are they called again?”
“Lithium-something,” said the salesman. “They change the name by the hour. Sometimes they say ion, cobalt, oxide, or silicone. Other times they mention manganese, iron, and phosphate. Oh, and nickel, sulfur, and aluminum… anything, really, that sounds exotic and expensive. Like just today, some nerd involved with battery labeling came up with titanate, thin-film, germanium, calcium, potassium, beryllium, and ceramic. Best of all, each time they change the name, the price goes up.”
“Is it true that airlines won’t ship lithium batteries?”
“Only picky ones that value their pilots, planes, passengers, and flight attendants.”
That made sense.
Yes, progress comes in fits and spurts. For example, the latest sizzling new idea is 48-volt solar arrays. These are wonderful for catching things on fire and, of course, giving a heart attack to a dumb electrician expecting 12 volts in marine systems labeled 12 volts. Silly, right?
Wind generators avoid this by producing such little electricity that it doesn’t really matter—while turning the whole vessel into a vibrating, noisy soundbox.
Towed generators are excellent at slowing a boat down—whether any watts dribble out or not is unclear.
Of course, if you know anything about electricity, you’ll know ‘oms law.’ It was invented by an Indian mystic high on his own armpit odors. There’s even an electric meter by the same name—it’s best to chant hippie slogans while using it. “…hairy christians, christian hairy, hairy christians…” was a popular chant in airport terminals back in the days of my youth.
Incidentally, never confuse om meters, clamp meters, and nipple clamps—each is intended for a different porpoise.
Needless to say, lofty intellectual discussions such as this about marine batteries would not be complete without a mention of 110/220 volt AC onboard battery chargers such as the Mastervolt ChargeMaster. (How Alpha-male sounding is that!) These ChargeMasters are totally maintenance free—and take really really good care of your storage batteries as long as the ChargeMaster is plugged into shore power.
Sadly, a few owners unplug their ChargeMasters to go sailing—and, understandably, the lights aboard quickly dim to reflect the intellectual capacity of that particular skipper.
Here’s the truth of it: In the 1950s, about one-fiftieth of a sailor’s energy went into maintaining his electrical system. Today, thanks to amazing advances in solid state technology, about 95% of a skipper’s time does.
It’s enough to make you blow your fuse.
When we recently lost our mainmast overboard, my wife ducked below to sadly glance at our battery monitor—and muttered up at me mournfully, “…damn! Low voltage!”
“…watt,” I shouted back—but, sadly, she missed the joke.
Editor’s note: Fatty and Carolyn are still electrically lit in Southeast Asia.