Friday, November 13, 2015

Friday the 13th, bus edition

We are docked at Olverson's Lodge Creek Marina, on the Yeocomico River near Lottsburg, Virginia (map). This is a convenient stop on the Potomac just shy of the Chesapeake, with a discounted rate. More importantly, it offers convenient access to where we have Odyssey stored. On our previous visit here we learned they had a small fleet of courtesy cars; here in the off-season (we are the only transients at the dock) they handed us a set of keys and more or less assigned us a car for the duration.

Notwithstanding a forecast for rough conditions on Sunday, with a small craft advisory in place, we had the wind and waves behind us coming downriver and we had a very comfortable cruise. We made it all the way to the Yeocomico with no trouble, and anchored in a quiet cove just ten minutes from here, having no need of the dock or the car until Monday. We had a spectacular sunset and a nice dinner aboard.

Sunset over Mill Creek, off the Yeocomico River.

Monday we had a leisurely morning in this very protected section of river before moving over here, by way of the pumpout dock. After nearly three weeks in DC we definitely needed the service stop. Once settled in at our assigned dock we also refilled the water tank and started on the backlog of laundry, taking advantage of the rare luxury of unlimited power and water.

Monday evening we used our "assigned" wheels to get to our dinner date with good friends Steve and Sandy in Kilmarnock, about 25 miles from here. Not a lot is open on Mondays here, and we ended up at a casual Italian place next door to the Walmart Supercenter, so of course we also took advantage of the 50-mile round trip to restock the larder.

I had figured to spend Tuesday out at the bus doing our semi-annual checkup and engine start, but the boat had other plans for me. With unlimited power we've been running the reverse-cycle heaters as well as the laundry center, and sometime in the morning half the power went out. It looked to be a tripped breaker at the main panel in the engine room, but it made a terrible vibrating noise when I reset it, and then tripped again in short order, complete with the smell of burning insulation.

Oops... fried breaker, with the contact melted.

I installed this panel as part of the great electrical system upgrade a couple of years ago, and I used a commonly available household load center made by Square-D for the purpose, with snap-in breakers. The breakers themselves are expensive in the ratings we use, and I bought industrial take-outs for the purpose, with spares. This is the second breaker to fail, and I was all set to pop my last remaining spare in place.

Unfortunately, the problem went deeper than that. Apparently the snap-in contact had loosened up enough to cause severe ohmic heating at the interface between the breaker and the bus-bar, and in the process, the aluminum bus-bar itself had melted. This is an eight-spot panel with only six spots in use, so I was able to work around the problem immediately just by putting the spare breaker in an unoccupied position and moving the wire a few inches. But the burnt bus-bar and melted plastic retainer needed to be addressed.

Burnt bus-bar and damaged plastic.

There is a well-stocked Ace hardware store just down the road here, and while they did not have a direct replacement for our panel, they had a six-position panel that used the exact same enclosure, cover, and bus-bar retainer for $27. While I would have preferred to have the eight-position item, any port in a storm, and I bought the six-spot unit and disassembled it, removing the retainer and bus-bars as an assembly.

The upshot of all this is that I was able to replace the bus-bars without having to remove the entire enclosure or any of the wiring. I did not even have to take the wires off the undamaged breakers, merely snapping them off the old bus-bars and snapping them back on to the new ones. It's good as new now, except I no longer have two spare slots. If that ever becomes a problem, I'll buy another eight-spot panel and do exactly the same thing again. I've ordered more spare breakers as well.

Close-up of the bus-bar after I separated it from the plastic mount.

That knocked out enough of the day Tuesday that I did not want to start on the bus, so instead I continued with some other electrical work on the boat. To wit, installing a bypass for the inverter output, so that the inverter and/or battery bank can be taken down for maintenance. This has been on my plate for a while, because we're having battery problems, and in order to  really delve into them I needed to break apart the entire bank, leaving us without AC power throughout the boat even while plugged in to shore power. That's particularly a problem now that we have an AC-only refrigerator. DC systems can be switched over to the starting batteries for a short time.

I had actually picked up some supplies for this project at the aforementioned Ace Hardware on Monday, reasoning that getting this done here, while we are at the dock on shore power, will be much more efficient than someplace at anchor where we'd have to run the generator for the duration. It turns out the timing was impeccable, because Tuesday morning the inverter shut down on an over-temperature fault, and, while it restarted readily, we realized the internal cooling fans were on their last legs. Sad, because the inverter installation is just 21 months old.

The inverter bypass was straightforward enough. I used a 50-amp DPDT power relay that I had bought for a since-abandoned transfer switch idea, with the existing inverter output feeding one input, and the old 30-amp breaker on the helm panel that used to feed the old inverter feeding the other input. Energizing this breaker causes the relay to close, switching the inverter panel over to it and bypassing the inverter entirely. The relay has a 110-VDC coil, so I had to add a small rectifier to the installation.

Bypass relay, mounted below inverter panel. Black box at the top center is the rectifier.

As long as I was doing all this work up under the helm console, I added a 12-volt marine power outlet in a more convenient location for charging radios and other devices. The existing outlet is now behind the new chart plotter, making it difficult to reach and inconvenient to use; the new outlet is one of the items we picked up at Walmart Monday. We then went out for dinner to Nino's in nearby Callao.

New DC power outlet for the helm station.

Losing a day to these projects proved fortuitous in the sense that Wednesday turned out to be the nicest day of the week, perfect to head off to the bus and get our semi-annual chores done. We've got this down to a science now, and I was able to reconnect batteries and get the engines started and warmed up in a matter of just a few minutes. Louise did a quick cleaning of the inside, and we aired everything out. We left it plugged in overnight to put some charge on the batteries, and it took me less than ten minutes on Thursday to shut it all back down again.

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the bus is deteriorating slowly. On each visit we find a little more rust on the bodywork, moisture damage on the cabinetry, and the like. The batteries now need replacing. When we put it into storage, it was "ready to roll" in the event we needed it quickly. Now I daresay it would take a solid week to get it back in fighting trim. To put it in showroom condition as a used coach would take longer and require the services of professionals, particularly in repairing bodywork and touching up the paint, as well as restoring the woodwork. We saw this coming on our last visit, and vowed to step up our efforts to sell it, but the boat is too distracting and I simply did not get it done.

I am resigned to doing now whatever it takes to find a new home for the bus. It needs to be under the daily care of someone who can use it. To that end I've spent a good deal of time over the last couple of days trying to line up some folks who can help make it more show-ready and also who can watch over it more closely and show it to prospective buyers. And I have drastically lowered my expectations for what I might walk away with in my pocket when it's all said and done. Frankly, seeing it back on the road and being used would be more satisfying.

Louise has suggested to me that I've had an emotional roadblock to getting the bus sold. I confess that it does seem a Sisyphean task. So as if to underscore the point, after we got back from the bus Wednesday, I came down with something and ended up in bed in the early afternoon and skipping dinner. Whatever it was knocked me out for about 24 hours and I am just now climbing out of it; we ended up extending our stay here an extra couple of days as a result.

By yesterday afternoon I was well enough to go button up the bus, and when I got back to the boat I tore into the batteries. The symptom has been that our 17kWh bank has been acting more like a 5kWh bank, with the operating voltage dropping to unacceptable levels after just a few hours of normal use. I'd already done all the in-circuit testing and inspection that I could do.

After bypassing the inverter and switching the DC house loads to the engine starting batteries, I separated the six batteries from one another and started taking voltage readings. No smoking gun jumped out at me, and after taking readings over the course of a couple of hours, we decided to defer load testing until after dinner, when they'd had a chance to sit, disconnected, for a few hours.

The Mexican restaurant we liked on our last visit has gone out of business, so we went instead to Los Portales, also in Callao, which was decent and inexpensive. By the time we were back home, the batteries had had a chance to settle, and one was showing a considerably higher voltage than the other five -- not a good sign. Sure enough, the load tester said that this one battery was unacceptably weak. I ended up taking it out of the bank, leaving us with an imbalanced bank until I can find a replacement. The battery equalizer should compensate, for the most part.

With that in hand, I started in on the inverter and its noisy fans. Once I had the case opened up, I discovered one of the two parallel fans was not spinning at all, and the other sounded like it had gravel in its bearings. Magnum chose to use the absolute cheapest fans they could source for this product.

Magnum does not provide a service manual for these units -- they want you to send them in to an authorized service center, which would leave us without power for who knows how long. Instead, I spent an hour and a half Tuesday watching this excellent Youtube video made by a repair tech who fixed a similar model. He opted to get nicer fans for that unit, but had to make a special interface board to get them to work with Magnum's PWM controller. I opted to just replace them with like models and figure to swap them every couple of years. Magnum wants $26 for a fan, but I found direct replacements on Amazon for $4.80 apiece, with free shipping. Prime got them to us by Thursday afternoon.

I was able to get the cover off and swap the fans without having to take the inverter down off the shelf or disconnect any wires save for one main power cable, which had to come off just to slide the cover up. After spending around $2k for this unit, it was disappointing to find such inexpensive fans within, especially since the model is rated for marine and RV installations, where dust and salt air are issues.

At this writing, we've been running on battery power all day, and so far the voltages seem normal and the inverter temperatures are well within limits. I'll turn the charger back on tonight, which ought to get the fans working, and we'll see if all the repairs are solid. I spent an hour or so today trying to source a replacement battery along our route, but it's hard to know who carries our make and model.

We were done with all our Amazon deliveries today and might easily have shoved off, but the weather on the Potomac and Chesapeake is horrid until Sunday (there is a gale warning tonight). Instead we opted to spend one more night here, with power to run the heaters and a car to take us to dinner. We'll shove off tomorrow and move down the Yeocomico to anchor just before it meets the Potomac, to give us a head start on Sunday.

Since last I wrote of such things, we have received an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner from relatives in Raleigh. They, too, have a cruising boat, which they keep in Elizabeth City, and we keep missing them every time we pass by. The timing is right for us to stop, and we'll probably have them come get us somewhere in the Beaufort/Morehead City area, which is exactly where we were at Thanksgiving last year.

We should have a good two-day weather window on Sunday and Monday, which will get us all the way to Portsmouth, where we will likely tie up at our old favorite, the ferry landing.

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