Monday, April 30, 2012

My Runneth Over!

From Jones Island, we headed to Friday Harbor to reprovision.  When we started adding up all the things we wanted to accomplish in Friday Harbor, AND we realized that it was Friday and Burger Night at the VFW, AND that if we bought one more night at the marina we would earn a free night to use another time, we decided to bite the bullet.

We went out for coffee, filled the water tank, did many loads of laundry, brought new Canadian friends Barry and Donna along for those burgers, got more coffee the next morning, and bought over $200 of groceries!

I have learned about packing a fridge and can now use nearly every cubic inch -- all but that middle tray on the door.  Anything put there just falls out when we open the door.  On the bottom shelf we can tuck things behind bottle necks and they stay fairly well.

We topped off the water once again, and headed for Parks Bay across the channel.  I had observed a flock of small birds swimming across the bay, back and forth, and the next morning they came closer.  They had orange feathers!  This was new.  My bird book told me they were Horned Grebes in breeding plumage.

Two males and a female

We only spent the one night in Parks Bay and then went to Prevost Harbor on Stuart Island.  We met Dick and Cheryl aboard Paradox there.  They were pulling in to Friday Harbor just as we were leaving, and we arranged to meet here.  We met them at the Power Squadron cruise in Anacortes a couple weeks ago.

We have been watching lots of Buffleheads here in Prevost, and listening to eagles, but this morning I saw a couple of ducks that looked different.  It was my first sighting of Harlequins!  I wish my camera could see as clearly as my binoculars do.

We will be staying here for a couple more days.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Finally, Jones Island!

This is another island that was a favorite to visit on previous sailboat chartering trips, and we were anxious to bring Viking Star for her very own visit.  However, it is a VERY popular place, and every time we went past last summer, there was no room for us.

There has been quite a lot of work done on the island in the past few years, and it has been over 20 years since the huge windstorm took down thousands of trees and closed the island for a couple of years.

Jones is famous for it's deer, and this is the first of many we sighted.  She just looked at us curiously and continued grazing.

Al calls this 'The Tree That Wouldn't Give Up'.  It's broken branches  carried on with new life, several different times, it appears.

We were alone, but only for a moment!

Twenty years has washed away the mud ball and left a great piece of art.

More Photos from Matia

These birds are so cheerful, flashing their bright red feet at us and squeaking happily.  Couples would even stop to 'kiss'!

The typical photo I get -- bird butts!

Another slug holiday, this time on Matia, and this time it was the Banana Slugs that were out!

Baby ferns .... unfurling.  They DO kind of look like fetuses, don't they?

I looked, but I didn't see any four-leaf clovers...

Faces of Matia

The rock around Rolfe Cove on Matia Island seem to host many faces.  Even if there are no other boats with us, we do not feel alone.  While most do not strike us as particularly 'happy', they do not seem to be angry or evil either, merely 'present' and 'observing'.

Do you see the faces?

I include this one just for the 'wink'

These also remind us of a Bev Doolittle print we had on our wall at the house, The Forest Has Eyes. Go to!=W&ID=12810 to have a look.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Another One of THOSE Nights!


Today we took a break from work -- yes, real work -- and took a walk to the other side of the island.  The water in the bay seem unusually clear this afternoon, and the tide was out.  Al found a log to sit on, and sat there contemplating while I moved closer to the water, beach pebbles crunching with my footsteps.

At the corner of the bay, I moved up towards the driftwood line, searching all the while for anything of interest. And I found my first beach glass!  It was a bit of a mine field, and I amassed a small pocketful of brown, green, white, aqua, and a prized piece of lavender glass, sharp edges rounded and shine buffed away by the salty waves.

Unfortunately, we also found a bunch of sea plastic as well!   After seeing an amount of trash yesterday on our walk, today we brought a bag along to gather what we found.  It was more than full of our find.  The overflow was a crab pot buoy and a hunk of styrofoam.  And here is merely a pocketful of plastic, to contrast my pocketful of sea glass:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blossom Time

We visited Matia Island last fall.  And actually, it was NOT in our plans for today.  But, in addition to Olga, the docks at Doe Island State Park were also not in.  On to Matia!

And Spring has Sprung.

Last fall, we found pears hanging from this tree!

A good picture of Al among the blossoms

Apples?  More pears?

Some sort of thorny-vined blossom

Even the dandelion looked pretty today!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Disappointments and Pleasures

I have been yearning for breakfast at Cafe Olga again for some time.

While staying in Blind Bay a couple days ago, we made plans to do just that.  Yesterday we moved over to Orcas Landing for groceries and Al suggested we continue on to Obstruction Pass State Park to be that much closer to Olga.

However, as we passed south of Olga on the way to the point, we could see through binoculars that the dock at Olga, removed for winter, has not yet been re-installed.  Being we are not anxious to drop the dinghy at this time (I know, are we just lazy?  No, it takes a lot of effort to drop it AND pick it up again, since we don't want to tow it around until nicer weather is more of a guarantee.)  I grudgingly agreed that we would have breakfast on the boat.

Mind you, it WAS a good breakfast!  Chicken/Apple sausages and fried eggs!  But I had been looking forward to a huge cinnamon roll and coffee someone else had made!  It will probably be a few weeks before we come around this point again.

This place does have some pleasures to it.  We stayed here a few days last fall, and pronounced it one of our favorite places.  The waves scrub the stones into flat pebbles, and the loons fish and cry.  Twice we have spotted deer on the beach.  And enough people, dogs and children have explored the beach that we feel far from isolated.  Sometimes that is nice.

Overlooking the boat is what I have come to call my current Ideal, if I was shopping for a land home.  It is a one bedroom, one bath log cabin with a loft, a fireplace, and a porch facing the sunset.  It is NOT presently for sale, and was last sold in 1996 ... at least that's what Zillow says.  Unfortunately, it sits on almost 2 acres of land, which I am sure is what pushes it WAY out of my price range, to TWICE what we paid for our 4200-square-foot, 5 bedroom house in Beaverton!

Well, it's a nice dream.

So we will stay and enjoy this view for one more night.  Last night I noted that we can see SEVEN islands from here.  And the multitudes of stars visible away from city lights shone so brightly.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Losing Marbles?

Actually, FOUND a marble!

The other day, Al removed some floorboards to inspect and tighten the stuffing box.  Our stuffing box sump pump, our very LOUD (by choice) sump pump, has been kicking on more and more often.  Al suspected that things needed to be tightened.

Good news, Bad news.  The stuffing box did need a bit of tightening, but there is also evidence that the hull is leaking slightly.  Not at all unexpected in a 50+ year old wooden boat.  At this time, it is hard to determine if the seams Al worked on at the last haul out is failing at the point he worked on it, or a continuation of that seam. Or if it is somewhere else.  He is anxious to haul the boat this fall and have a closer look.  At that point, we will have been on saltwater for just over a year, and he is getting very curious to see what's been going on down there!

We also confirmed again a phenomenon we have observed many times.  No matter what you do, any object dropped on a boat will do its best to get to the bilge.

This time with just a couple of floorboards removed, a couple of things found were a nickel and a marble.  The nickel is understandable.  But the marble?  Neither Al nor I can remember losing any of our marbles....

Perhaps one of the grandkids brought this precious globe aboard.  We don't recall.  But it HAS been found, and brought once more to the light.  Perhaps it will rest here comfortably for a time, before diving for the bilge again.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


I think Madrone is one of Al's favorite trees.  We used to have one alongside our house, when we had a house, and Al's office space window was at the level of the top of the tree.  He loved to watch the seasons change, and the birds that came to rest in this tree's branches, especially the robins that came to feast on the berries every fall.

Unfortunately, we do not believe that tree has survived.  When we sold the house, there were very few green leaves remaining.

We do see many Madrone trees here in the San Juan Islands, some of them are very large.  Most look like these that we found on James Island -- leggy, and often with bare branches.  Wikipedia tells of a mold that is attacking them, but most often it is man's progress that stunts them, or removes them.

The hope of a bright bloom among the bare branches

Hardware Considerations for a PC based Navigation computer.

As a follow on to yesterdays post (Things that work..), here is a post about one potential solution for a relatively low cost, reliable, PC based navigation hardware. This will be a LONG post, feel free to skip if it is not of interest to you….


Need to state first off – Viking Star is a “Trawler”, and as such I considered a system for use inside the pilot house. If someone wanted to extend this to outside – either on the fly-bridge or perhaps onto a Sail Boat then one would need to consider primarily the display (weather proofing and daylight visibility). In either case the CPU could still be remotely mounded in a semi-protected area. Further, on a Sailboat one could simply have this whole thing down below at the NAV station with or without a remote waterproof display at the helm. And also a node to Sailboats - I have not considered the power needed to operate this. While running, Viking Star’s 270A Leece Neville house alternator is more than capable of covering any power needs. But this is not to say I went over the top either!

Some challenges for a computer installed on a boat include:

  • Poor power quality – ‘12v’ is more like to range from 8v up to 15v or more. Plus there are all sorts of electrical noise and junk on the ‘12v’ feed.
  • Environmental extremes: temperature and salt air come to mind.
  • Sub-optimal mounting situations: Not always true, but it might be tempting to mount the CPU in the back of a locker – with little ventilation…
  • Vibration –from the motor and other machinery, but also from wave action.

Balancing this one needs a solution that is:

  • Reliable
  • Responsive
  • Low Cost (At least this is one of my goals).

All of these points are a marketers dream(well, perhaps not that last one) – just think of the copy one can create around the need for special Marine Specific equipment. And the $$$ that comes with it. As such this left out dedicated chart plotter systems for us, as well as the purposely built “Marine PCs” available on the market.

My first approach was to use a dedicated laptop connected to an external monitor. This approach worked well for several reasons:

  1. Laptops are fully integrated and able to be powered from an external DC power supply (I used a Targus Car adapter)
  2. Having a dedicated system meant I could load ONLY navigation software on the computer, eliminated any possibility for Viruses and other software based crashes.
  3. I was able to source good quality refurbished laptops for under $400 (and this pricing is now approaching $200)
  4. Laptops are designed for vibration – some even feature HDD protection for then things get too rough.

I connected an external LCD monitor to the laptop, closed the lid and tucked the whole thing away in the overhead. Adding a extra cooling fan, a remote DVD drive (via USB), a USB extension cable for pluggin in a keyboard (when I needed it) and Thumb Drives to transfer charts and such, and a wireless mouse. This worked well for many years, but I did notice the HDD protection would often be triggered by waves (3’ or higher), and as such I had to turn off that feature. It was stable, fast enough for chart work and even had sufficient power to play DVD movies!

All went well until Portland suffered a week of 100+ weather. While watching a movie one hot afternoon there was a ‘Poing’ sound and all went dark. Rebooting, no help. Power cycle, no help. Letting it sit for an hour, no help. It was dead. And,. BTW, the next day the same thing happened to my personal laptop while I was using it to watch a movie. The Heat Wave had claimed two victims and pointed out one downside of laptops – their do not have heavy duty cooling systems.… However 3+ years of operation had proven the approach!

The next navigational computer, and the one we are using now, was based on an industrial computer. These are systems which are often sourced to do things like run Kiosks in the supermarket, or provide the “C” in CNC controlled machining equipment. Type typically are rather modest power (both in energy usage, as well as ‘graphics’ performance –Gamers need not look here!), and of key importance they often feature a Wider operation temperature range then consumer products, along with better design Power Supplies to account for electrically noisy environment. These last two directly go towards some of the challenges above, and is why I think it is better to use one of these systems as opposed to an old desk-top PC (or even a laptop – per my experience).


In this world, a system built around the Mini-ITX computer board standard is a good approach. And using one of the lower power CPUs is all that is needed. We have a dual-core Intel Atom which has more than enough computing power for navigation as well as playing DVDs. As a plus, Atom CPUs use much less power than typical desktop CPU, and even most laptop ones! Often under 10w as opposed to as much as 50-80w that a desk-top machine might use. Or even the 20-30w common in laptops!  I sourced our system from They had good prices and a wide selection. There are even a growing number of systems targeted specifically for automotive use, which is great  as they come with 12v power supplies designed to handle the poor 12v problem.

I went to their web site today; after looking around built up these three options. Each has the following in common:

  • Uses Atom CPU – Low energy use, and more than enough computing power
  • 2GB of RAM
  • RS-232 ports – for directly connecting to NMEA-0183 devices
  • Wide input-range DC Power Supplies (8-20v)
  • A modest SSD (Flash drive) for the boot drive

Of the three, I might select the middle one (AG150-V) as it used a newer CPU which offers better performance at slightly lower energy consumption.  Plus it is a fan-less design helping to protect it from dirt and salt.  However it only has 2 RS-232 ports – if I needed to connect more than 2 devices I would need to use some USB <--> RS232 dongles. The other two systems have 6 ports (when using the expansion board) and are largely the same – only the case is different. I did notice the more expensive case (MV101) has some optional punch-outs that would make it easy to bring out the final two RS-232 ports; the lower cost option (M350) one might have to be creative.

On Viking Star we have a Garmin GPS-152 and an AIS transceiver connected to the navigation computer, but I also intend to connect the Icom M802 SSB radio and Pactor modem to this system via RS-232 ports.  Given that I would selected the MV101 because it has the cleanest approach to the most ports. If not for the M802 SSB  (or if I had a newer USB Pactor modem) I would select the AG150-V and use one port for the GPS, the other for AIS and use just USB for the Icom/Pactor.  And even with my older RS-232 Pactor - the cost savings of the AG150-V might go a long ways towards paying for the more expensive USB connected Pactor one!  Perhaps the AG150 would win out in the end...

Our unit is mounted securely inside the overhead, connected to the external LCD display and  DVD drive. To make a tidy installation I made a custom panel from I also added a USB extension cable down to the counsel where I can attach USB speakers while playing movies, as USB keyboard when needed, as well as a Thumb Drive to bring in updates and transfer waypoints and routes. A wireless mouse completes the package. Just some ideas for these might be:

Wireless Mouse:


For the OS I selected WinXP. Linux would be another option, but I selected Windows primarily because (at the time) some of the support utilities (ala Weather FAX software) for the SSB were only available on Windows. I have tried Linux in the past and find it a good solution, though it does tend to require a bit more thinking to manage then WinXP (Don’t start with me on Vista…) – in the end I had WinXP disks, an available license (all nice and legal), and given our personal laptops all run Windows it is just as well to keep one environment.

When installing WinXP I made sure to also install SP3 (Download it from Microsoft I also made sure to keep copies of all the software I installed – backed up on both an external HDD as well as a DVD. This will allow me to reinstall the software from anywhere in the world as needed.

With no Internet connection WinXP will need to use an alternative way for ‘validating’ the OS. Just follow the directions the Activation Wizard gives you – it usually involves a phone call and saying a long list of codes from your license sticker. Once WinXP is validated you need to backup this activated / ‘validated’ OS so that if you do find you need to re-image the system in the middle of the Pacific you will not have to also search out a payphone that works… Follow the direction here under “Backup Activation”:

The next configuration optimizations I made was to limiting unwanted writes to the SSD. Flash memory has a finite number of writes before they ‘wear-out’. During normal OS operation (Windows, or Linux..) there are two sources of writes we can reduce: Virtual memory and Temp files.

Virtual memory can be disabled following this registry tweek:

The Temp files take a bit more effort, as we can’t just disable them as many programs need a ‘scratch pad’ area. What I did was create a RAM-DISK using part of the main system memory. Following these instructions, except make the RAMDISK only 64M in size (I made my drive R: ) – and when editing the Virtual memory locations, set all the sizes to 0MB to further ensure Virtual memory is disables.

Next we need to inform Windows to use this new RAMDISK for temp files instead of our nice SSD. Click START and look for the “My Computer” icon. RIGHT CLICK on that and select PROPERTIES. Select the ADVANCED tab, and then click on the ENVIRNMENT VARIABLES at the bottom. You will get a pop-up window that looks like this. What you want to do is EDIT each of the entries (in both the top and bottom window) that are named TEMP or TMP. Edit them away from their current “C:\.....” location to the new RAMDISK spot you just created, ala “R:\TEMP” Then click OK and APPLY. That should be it!

There are many other things you can do to optimize, like disable FAX services, LAN services, all those things this DEDICATED computer will NEVER DO. Google for “WinXP Optimization” if you are interested. But for now this is a good start. And if you are using a newer version of Windows, the steps are basically the same, but the details are likely different. Again, Google can be your friend.


Here can be a tuff one. Basically you want an LCD or LED display, but you also want one that can run directly off the 12v battery – as opposed to needing 120v. What you need to do is look for one that uses an external ‘Fatted Snake’ power supply and has a 12V-DC connector on the back of the dispaly. For me, I had to physically look at the units – as spec sheets often will not carry this level of detail. As such, mail-order was out…

Also make sure the display you select can be connected to the computer. The old standard use to be VGA, but now many systems support a newer connecter standard called: DVI just make sure you get one or the other on both the computer and the display.

But that is just a start. Remember battery power is anything but stable, or clean? When a display is labeled for 12V, it does not mean it can handle the 8-15+v range, nor all sorts of electrical noise… In the end many people just hook 12v displays directly to the battery and have no problems. But this WILL put added stress on the internals of the display, and depending on how well it is designed it is might have no issue. Or it might shorten the life, or it might eventually let out the Magic Smoke (You did know Electronics all run on Magic Smoke, right? That is why they stop working when it is let out!!!). On Viking Star I used an old HP laptop car adapter – part number: F1064A . These will take the wide range of battery voltage and provide a nice stable 12v to our display. Watch Ebay and do not pay more that $20


Aside from installing the OS and connecting the monitor and DVD drive (DVD is actually optional, we use it to – err – watch DVDs…), one needs to connect a GPS. There are very simple USB GPSes around for under $20 and they work surprisingly well. We have one kicking around as a backup that can be attached to either the navigation computer, or our laptops (which also have copies of SeaClear). But for normal operation I prefer a standalone GPS marine unit. A simple on that has a small screen and is able to show waypoints, but not so advanced as to be a ‘chart plotter’.   Those screens are just too small I think for charts – plus one would need to purchase those proprietary charts – encroaching on the Frugal Factor..

We have a Garmin GPS 152 which is perfect. Connecting it via NMEA-0183 and one of the RS-232 serial ports. Here is a one web resource: Google your actual equipment and RS-232 to see if you can find more specific directions. And one other technical note: NMEA-0183 is more correctly an RS-422 signal. There are some differences between the RS-232 and RS-422, but these will only show up if you use cables over 15’ or so in length. If you are within that the RS-232 ports would work fine. Above that, find someone who knows about long distance serial communications….

BTW: That trick of directing the TEMP files to the RAMDISK – Sometimes software install processes make heavy use of the TEMP directory, and because the ramdisk is rather small I have at times had problems installing software. The solution is to either temporally increase the size of the RAMDISK (using the Ramdisk utility), or switching the TEMP and TMP veriables back to C:\TEMP – install the software and then restore them to R:\TEMP.


Ok, this is now a stable computing platform to run applications on. It is critical to keep this thing DEDICATED to navigation. NEVER connect it to the internet – do not even hook up the LAN cable! NEVER run games on it, nor install anything but the core navigation programs. We Did installed a copy of VLC to play DVDs on ours, and a copy of J-Tides.  SSB / Pactor software will come, but that is it.

One final hint – built into WinXP is a keyboard emulator. It is under “START / ALL PROGRAMS / ACCESSORIES / ACCESSIBILITY / ON-SCREEN KEYBOARD “ I placed a link to this utility in the tool bar at the bottom of the screen and use to hunt-and-peck with the mouse for short typing needs. If I need anything longer, I dig out the USB Keyboard and use it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Things that . . . Work: Navigation Computer and Sea Clear Software

Despite having training, and teaching, the traditional paper and pencil approach to navigation, we have fallen victim to the ease of electronic charting. There are many many solutions out there, and being basically on the Cheap Side we have selected a PC based solution. Key components of our navigation system include:

  • Industrial based computer running WinXP
  • GPS receiver
  • AIS Transceiver
  • SeaClear software
  • Free NOAA charts

Both SeaClear and US charts are available for free. There is another free charting software that has improved over the years called OpenCPN. When I first assembled our system OpenCPN had very few features, so I settled on SeaClear. OpenCPN in now rather complete, and it has the advantage of supporting both Raster and Vector charts. I may change to it in the future as the future is ENC vector charts.

But for now, we use SeaClear and it works very well for us.  (Update:  we did play with openCPN a bit, and it worked by there was a very noticeable lag in trying to zoom and scroll the display.  So we want back to  SeaClear which is crisp in its display updates)

On the computer: We are using an industrially rated (wider operational temperature range) board vs. say a laptop or desk side PC. Our system is built around a MSI IM-945GC Mini-ITX board. It uses an Intel Atom-330 dual core CPU, 2GB of memory and a 32GB SSD. It provides us with all the computing power we need for navigation, and even DVD playback. Unfortunately the IM-945 is out of production, which is sad as this board has a LOT of RS-232 ports making it easy to connect to NMEA-0183 devices (ala GPS, AIS, VHF, etc..)  Or well, there are some other boards out there – and of course one can always use USB dongles.

For the OS, we are using WinXP with SP-3. One very key choice is ALL networking functions have been disabled on this system. In this way, Windows cannot ‘reach out’ and ‘helpfully’ auto-download updates. This has gone a long way towards making sure this system is stable and reliable.

One other hint: just because a system says 12V DC input does not mean it can handle the wide range of voltage seen in a boat, maybe from 10v-15v.  There are some computers and power supplies out there that can directly connect to the battery - look for "Automobile" computers.  Our solution was not one of them.  In order to get a stable 12v supply for the computer I used surplus HP F1064A dc-dc converters.  These are very well designed automobile adapters and provide a stable 12v out while adapting to the wide input voltage.  Often found on eBay for under $10 one will not find a better value along with that great old-school HP design approach.  I used two in parallel to get sufficient wattage (they are 45w each) to drive the navigation computer.

We are very happy with this. And have backups on one of our laptops. We tend to use the laptop for route planning, then transfer the waypoints and route information to the navigation computer via USB flash drive.  And then again to the standalone GPS (in case the computer fails). Plus, when motoring along we still do paper chart monitoring – mostly Kristi – she follows our progress using charts on the table.

Some links:
   Computer and case:
   Custom front pannel:
   NOAA Charts:

There are of course other chart plotter solutions, both PC based as well as dedicated.  And as one gets into very integrated systems they start to include feature like Radar overlays, integrated tide and current, and such.  But for us:  Dedicated devices (not everything goes down at one), and low cost / reliable solutions are what we have settled on.  Plus, this approach (e.g., NOT connecting the autopilot to the chart-plotter) means we need to STAY ENGAGED during the operation of the boat.

Something else that is a 'Things That Work . . . '

Note:  Check out this post for more details around the hardware:

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

James Island

Last Friday on our way to Anacortes for the Power Squadron cruise, we ran past James Island to see whether the docks had been re-installed after the winter.  They had!  So that put James Island at the top of our 'Where shall we go next?' list.

It was a beautiful day, and the trip across Rosario Strait was very comfortable.  We rounded the island and saw that the dock was empty -- we could choose which side we would like.  Having done a starboard tie previously, and having some difficulty getting pushed off the dock, we set up for a port tie this time.  I'd say though, that with tides, currents, and winds ever changing in this little cove, it made little difference being on this side.

Al had asked whether I would rather be bow in, for a view of the island, or bow out.  It was my opinion that the island would be a more interesting view.  After docking, though, Al reminded me of a suggestion from Nick and Gail from Destiny.  They tend to set their anchor while 'bow out', backing into a bay.  That way, if waves start coming in they have the 'pointy end' of the boat facing that way, along with the anchor set in the appropriate direction. Perhaps tying 'bow out' would be a good choice at some docks also, James being one.

With fenders set and lines rigged, we pulled toward the dock, and a small boat also began their approach.  They were heading for the other side of the dock, and we both arrived at the same time.  Karen and Dave were very friendly sorts, and their daughter Rachel soon woke and emerged, asked if she could look around in our boat, and then reported to her parents that we had a SHOWER and a TOILET!  Another couple soon pulled up and joined the chat.  After both those parties left, another boat arrived -- a father and two daughters, and a dog.  They went to shore to prepare a meal, and later we took a stroll, and had a pleasant conversation with them also.

Yesterday a small sailboat brought campers to the other side, a couple of kayakers spent the night as well, and another boat joined us on the dock.  James is a busy island!

Al has named the Raven couple that hang out here, Fred and Ethel.

We call this 'the question mark tree'

Close up of some very lush moss

It must have been a holiday for slugs!  We have never seen so many! Here is a large family having a feast.

Viking Star at the dock

NOT an eagle.  It's a turkey vulture!  I could see his red head with the binoculars, and he had a couple of friends along.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Arduino based Alternator Regulator and Engine Controller

UPDATE:   Have started a new Blog to take this design project out of Viking Star's Blog.  If you want to see more details, go to:

As reported before, I have been looking at designing a microcontroller based alternator regulator. I am doing this to address some of the limitations of most ‘smart’ alternator regulators on the market. The two primary goals I am looking to achieve, which I cannot source at a reasonable cost (under $1,000) using current offerings, are:

  1. Maximize generator output at all points of recharging cycle.
  2. Adjust generator output to accommodate additional engine load of watermaker high pressure pump.

Today when the house battery is being charged the Kubota EA300/DC generator might start at 13.2v and slowly rise over time until capped at 14.4v. During this time we are delivering around 110A to the battery; anymore and the Kubota starts to show signs of being overloaded. But there is a devil in the detail here! While charging the greatest load on the Kubota will be at that point when the voltage just reaches 14.4v. Right when the 'charging' changes from Bulk Charge mode to Absorption Charge mode.  In our case 1,584 watts of energy (or 2.12 HP) is being delivered. Given the ‘approx 50%’ efficiency of alternators, delivering 2.12Hp means we are extracting a bit under the 5HP continuous limit of the Kubota EA300.

However, at the beginning of the Bulk charge cycle where 110A is still being produced, there is only 13.2v. This equals 1,452 watts -  which means we are leaving 132 watts of excess capacity ‘on the table’ . A bit less than 10%. If we had a regulator which managed Amps and not just Volts we could increase the Amps to 120a, getting the 'load' on the Kubota back up to its 1,584w point and cut our run-time down by 10%, or about 15 minutes a day. (Hey, every part counts here!  And yes, these are ruff numbers as the benefit scales back as the charging voltage increases) And with such a regulator, I could experiment with different alternators - looking for a more efficient solution then the current ~50% If I could get another 10-15% efficiency out of a setup, we might be seeing real reduction in generating time.

In order to fully accomplish goal  #1 the controller needs to actively manage energy produced (Watts in this case) and hence needs to sample both Amperage  and Voltage. Goal #2 requires the controller to recognize when the watermaker pump is engaged and further reduce the overall energy produced by the alternator.  All but a few regulators on the market today manage only Volts and rely on the self-limiting factor of the alternator to manage (limit) Amps.  Some more advanced ones will have a crude Amp Management capability, but in every case (under $1000) these are all open-looped and very imprecise and unreliable.

Plus I get to play around with controlling computers again! What fun! (sorry, Nerd is showing again)

The design goals for this intelligent regulator:

  • Alternator Voltage Regulation (Classic ‘regulator’ function)
  • Alternator Amp Regulation (adjust Amps relative to Volts to maximize energy production) 
  • Reduced Watts produced during watermaker operation (Today I have to turn off the alternator all together while making water)
  • Soft-start logic


  • Battery Temperature compensation


  • Alternator Temperature Monitoring
  • Kubota Temperature Monitoring
  • Exhaust Temperature Monitoring (Exhaust Mixer)
  • Low-Oil Pressure monitoring
  • Shut-down and alarm on faulting of any of the above

Optional 2 (Feature Creep)

  • Kubota start / stop control
  • Kubota Throttle (speed) control
  • Maximize Watts produced in response to motor RPMs (Allows for slower / quieter motor RPMs with reduced output)

Stretch Goal (Getting Wide here!)

  • Remote Monitoring and Control Panel
  • Simple ‘Generate’ /  ‘Make Water’ on/off controls.
  • Optional auto-start? (Including Time block-outs, and Safety interlocks for motor servicing)

Required features

  • Good ESD protection
  • Watch-dog function to auto-restart if controller faults
  • Energy efficient design: High efficiency switching DC-Dc converters, Power Down modes
  • Fail-Safe modes (ala, Over-voltage shut down, etc..)

The basics: Am looking to use the Arduino Uno microcontroller board and development environment. Am using KiCad software for schematic capture and PCB layout. Looking to use a used automobile ‘Cruise Control’ motor to give me throttle control on the Kubota.   I2C devices will monitor temperature, as well as provide connection to the remote panel.

Will I ever build it? Who knows. But I sure am having fun playing with it. Have many of the key components picked out, the schematic perhaps 80% completed. I do need to find some place to open a Arduino Project and document all this, as this Blog is not really an effective vehicle. If anyone has some ideas, pass them on! And if anyone wants to help play with this, drop me a note.

Tulip Regatta

We spent the last weekend at Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes WA.  We joined 10 other boats from the Friday Harbor and Bellingham Power Squadrons.  It was fun getting reacquainted with our Friday Harbor friends, and meeting new friends from Bellingham.  We finally got to break out the notebook we purchased to record ideas and suggestions for travelling the South Sound this summer, and for moving north through Canada and into SE Alaska in the future.

As we left yesterday, there was still a big group of sailboats on the water for their races.  Sailboats are SOooo picturesque!

A big part of the group in the distance

My favorite boat -- it made me think of a favorite children's book, 'Where the Wild Things Are'

More 'rail meat'

And a fellow 'star boat'!

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Just a few minutes ago, I posted this photo on my facebook timeline.......
already, several people have 'liked' it.

 But I say....have patience.....

 The yet to come!