Portable generator benefits, and how to care for one aboard

sunset underway

We strive to be a green boat, and supply our power through sun and wind as much as possible. But the wants of five people can outstrip what our solar panels and wind turbine provide, especially during a time of grey skies or equatorial calms. Unfortunately, we had periods of cloudy skies and not much wind while we were in Southeast Asia, and our green power struggled to keep up.

sailboat sunset generatorBatteries like to be kept above a minimum charge (amount depends on battery voltage and type) and to get a full recharge now and again instead of routine partial charges. Our first battery bank, 12 volt AGMs, started failing after a solid service life. We found ourselves running Totem’s engine more often to charge up. That’s not kind to the Yanmar, or fuel efficient charging – and it heats up the cabin! Before adding a generator, charging batteries accounted for more diesel engine hours than propulsion in SE Asia’s fickle winds. Ultimately, the Honda 2000 has cut our diesel engine run time by about 50%. We did add gasoline costs, but the net fuel saving is still significant. Meaningful reduction in wear and tear on our Yanmar is more important.

Even though we had much better conditions for solar/wind power with last year’s tradewind sailing, I’m still very glad we picked up a portable generator back in Malaysia. We’re often able to go weeks at a time without running it at all, but can then face weeks where we run it every few days to keep battery voltage up. We’ve also done other modifications to reduce our power consumption, such as rebuilding Totem’s refrigeration box, a move that saved us roughly 75 amp hours/ day. All our interior lights and navigation lights have been switched over to LED, and our new radar doesn’t need an additional display- we just overlay it on the already-running laptop with OpenCPN. But net-net, the generator is a welcome addition when green energy comes up short.

Sometimes, it’s handy to have generator to help with other tools on board. AC devices often require huge DC power, then inverted to AC in order to run. So if running for any length of time we switch on the generator. This is the case with some of Jamie’s power tools and our hooka underwater breather  rig.

red Honda 2000 generator powering tools

Inboard vs portable

Everything on a boat is a tradeoff. Inboard gensets are typically quieter, more efficient, cleaner burning, and are safely stowed below. On the other hand, inboards are more mechanically complex, and thus more difficult to service or repair when it is inevitably necessary. They’re more expensive and take up more space. And, of course, you can’t take them to the beach!

It turns out that portability can come in extremely handy. When we assisted with the rescue of Pipistrelle in Chagos last year, Totem’s little Honda 2000 generator powered the grinder and sanders used for repairs on a remote beach. This allowed Jamie and Evan to rebuild the extensively damaged rudder of the Wauquiez 48, so it could sail 1000+ miles for more complete repairs- you can see the red generator in the background of the photo above.

Most of the time, it sits on our aft deck. If away from Totem for a longer stretch (watching lions in Africa!) and concerned about security, Jamie stows it in the main cabin with the fuel tank run dry. For the most part, a drab cover and chain/lock help keep it from being a red beacon on deck to petty thieves.

Basic setup

We really don’t like having “stuff” on deck, but this is a very small footprint and out of the way. Jamie made a simple cover from Sunbrella scraps to protect it from the elements. At the exhaust, he made a pooched opening, so that if it starts to rain while the generator is running it’s possible to turn-off and cover it immediately without having fabric over the hot metal.

generator hiding

where’s waldo? there’s a generator hiding in this picture

Marinizing

Jamie took a few steps to help make the generator a little more marine-friendly.

First, he removed the exhaust “pipe” (he promises it’s easy) and painted with several coast of high-heat, rust-resistant paint. This was based on other cruisers with reporting that the exhaust will rust out every couple years. Our generator is about two years old now and with not notable rust on exhaust.

Not so easy is putting Tefgel or lanocote on the threads of all fasteners holding the housing…but you’ll be glad you made the effort later. We didn’t and had to remove the housing and found some of the fasteners frozen in place.

He recommends using BoeShield or CRC Soft Seal (great stuff!) to provide a protective layer on surface metal. That’s every housing screw-head, the little metal bits underneath the rubber feet, and even metal in the control face.  You could probably use it on just about every metal bit on the generator except for the muffler, which gets too hot.

Fueling

Adding gas from a typical jerry can is cumbersome, so use a smaller can to decant. A handy trick is to get one that’s the same size as the tank capacity, to take the guesswork out of the fuel level. It’s not easy to tell, and easy to spill from overfilling.

After too many experiences with bad fuel, we always pour fuel through a Teflon filter to remove impurities. It might seem like a pain but it’s really a simple step, and if your filter is a funnel to facilitate filling, there’s really no extra effort.

Maintenance

Changing the oil is a hassle! It’s simply a bad design. We put a wide funnel in a waste oil can, lift the unit (awkward!) and pour it in… splat mat required. It might be possible to change the oil with an extraction pump; we haven’t tried (the pump we use for engine oil changes is about 10x the necessary capacity). If anyone has better ideas on how to deal with this… please share your thoughts!

Spares

The pull cord doesn’t have a fair lead internally… another poor design. Over time, it chafes through (our original cord lasted about one year). Keep spare line to use for pull cord so you don’t get caught by surprise. The best option we had on hand at the time was some spare leech line, which only lasted a couple of months: 2 – 3 mil Dyneema is the best because of its natural slipperiness.

Issues

The Honda 2000 on one boat we know was behaving erratically: sometimes it started, sometimes it didn’t. After a fair bit of mucking about (and spending money with a mechanic) they determined it was a known defect in the oil sensors. It’s triggered by events like tilting, something that happens now and then on most cruising boats! Personal and broad second hand knowledge suggests that these machines take much abuse and still run – if you find starting to be troublesome, it may be the oil sensor. There is a simple work around by snipping the sensor wire (sort of like defusing a bomb!)

It’s a winner

I grudgingly admit it. As much as I’d love to be an all-green-power boat, our carbon footprint is very small, and the generator is a great addition to Totem. Still, Jamie has more ideas on being greener that will be fun to experiment when well stocked chandlaries/ hardware stores are in close proximity.

This post is syndicated on Sailfeed.

chagos pipistrelle honda generator

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22 Responses to Portable generator benefits, and how to care for one aboard

  1. Tammy Dwyer January 14, 2016 at 7:35 pm #

    LOVE learning about sailing green! We are working on our 1 to 2 yr plan so this is a big help! Thanks for a great post!

  2. Kelley - Sailing Chance January 14, 2016 at 8:32 pm #

    We love our Honda 2000! We found that if we through it in the dinghy with an extension cord, we couldn’t even hear it when I was using it to sew. We approached the generator with the same mindset – when its calm and cloudy – and were more than happy to have it aboard more than a few times!

    • Behan January 15, 2016 at 10:23 am #

      Now there’s some cruiser creativity: stashing it in the dinghy! That makes a good mental picture!

  3. L. Alan Johansson January 14, 2016 at 11:17 pm #

    Here is a product I recently discovered that can save you $. PulseTech battery charger and sulfate remover can extend the life or your batteries, up to 5 times. They make a solar model that would be slick for cruisers. I tried the 110V home model on a 5 year old almost dead lawnmower battery and the battery is now acting like new. It recovered a couple of old car batteries too.

    Good Luck for Oregon.

  4. Bill Wakefield January 15, 2016 at 2:31 am #

    Hi Behan, We have a Yamaha 2000 unit with basically the same issues you describe.

    There are a couple of aftermarket products that are useful and available for either Honda or Yamaha models.

    The one you asked about is an extension for the oil filler cap with a magnetic dipstick. The extension is long enough so you can tilt and pour into a small mouth container when you change oil. Quick and neat. I love it.

    The other item you may be interested in is a fuel cap replacement that would allow you to connect to an external tank for longer run times- keeping the built-in tank full… until the external tank is empty, then it drains the internal tank. [I use a 3 gallon outboard tank for ease of use and portability…]

    The following link should show both items:

    http://www.amazon.com/MAGNETIC-DIPSTICK-EXTENDED-Eu2000i-GENERATOR/dp/B00O7DJ66U

    Thanks for the article.

    Cheers!

    Bill

  5. Jamie Gifford January 15, 2016 at 8:39 am #

    Hey Bill – great sounding ideas- will look into them when we get to the US later this year. Thanks!

  6. Deb Perfitt January 15, 2016 at 4:16 pm #

    Love the article. We have 2 Honda generators that we hook up in serial. The best thing we found to refuel our generators are a simple shaker hose. Never had a spill even refueling on the fly. It’s inexpensive and reliable. We do put all fuels through a filter just in case!!!

  7. Brandon Ford January 15, 2016 at 6:57 pm #

    Thanks Behan. This answers my questions. I appreciate your articles on the blog.

    Brandon
    SV Oceanus

  8. Steve Harnett January 19, 2016 at 1:13 am #

    Hi Behan, Tried google but couldn’t find a likely answer, what do you mean by “pooched”?

    cheers,

    Steve

    • Behan January 19, 2016 at 8:19 am #

      Hey Steve, yeah, that’s a technical term LOL! I just mean that the cover is shaped so it sticks out near the hot bits, instead of being flush against them.

  9. Rona House January 28, 2016 at 10:35 am #

    Sailing solo I find I don’t need my portable generator – a Yamaha 2000 which is noisy and I don’t like to inflict it on neighbours. There is a huge variation in how power hungry different boats and crews are.
    ps I left this comment to show I’ve used your new layout and yes I like that cover photo as well

    • Behan January 28, 2016 at 4:54 pm #

      It’s amazing how much more power five people use, compared to just one! Thanks for chiming in on the new pic & blog refresh. 🙂

  10. Steve February 10, 2016 at 3:31 am #

    Do use the internal generator 12v charger or do you feed 110v ac into your onboard battery charger?

    • Behan February 10, 2016 at 3:43 pm #

      Hi Steve- the generator sends AC to our battery charger. Household extension cord suffices.

      • Steve February 10, 2016 at 7:04 pm #

        Thanks, that’s what I figured. I enjoy your blog, well written.

        • Behan February 11, 2016 at 9:03 pm #

          thank you Steve! send ?s anytime!

  11. Kevin Bennett March 6, 2016 at 3:10 pm #

    We have an eu2000 also. Haven’t used it on the boat but I share the messy oil change frustration. We use a small hand pump from an ATF fluid container as an extraction pump (like the epoxy dispensing pumps). YMMV, but it works well for us.

    Nice domain name 😉

  12. Dave & Lisa April 6, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

    Thanks for the great idea. I just finished a similar project after reading your article. Unfortunately I didn’t have Tefgel at the time so went with painting the screws. Luckily all the backing plates or nuts were removable so I as able to paint all the hardware. Hopefully I won’t have terrible results. I’ll have to pull them all and see how it holds up in about a year.

  13. Gary June 22, 2016 at 1:36 pm #

    Hi,

    Thanks for the interesting story and the details of the project. One other commenter mentioned the noise. Did you find the volume level to be a problem at all?

    • Behan June 22, 2016 at 3:17 pm #

      Good question Gary. It IS noisy. And that noise is being made on deck, and sound carries over water. Jamie and I can hold a conversation next to it while it’s running without yelling, but do we have to raise our voices. So it’s not the most anchorage-friendly thing around, but in most places, it’s not an issue. We just take care to only run it during reasonable hours… well after coffee, comfortably before sundowners. Anything else would be rude.

  14. Perkins July 5, 2016 at 7:16 am #

    it is a very good post. thank you for sharing this information. lots of practical and useful information on portable generators on board. it is necessary that you keep the backup power in good working condition because you never know when you might need it. you need to run it periodically to make sure its working. and always have spare fuel cans on you.

  15. George Bibawy July 7, 2016 at 10:26 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your experience and the pros and cons of using an inboard vs. a portable generator! Has anyone come across methods to help suppress the noise level of the portable generator?

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