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Living on a houseboat with no AC electrical power

by IAN from All About Houseboats

How to live on your houseboat with no AC power

How to live on your houseboat with no AC power

I want to share my recent experience with living on our houseboat with no AC electrical power. Since my office is on our houseboat, we find 120v AC power extremely useful and needed for normal everyday life.

Sure, we all get to taste the occasional power failure (due to storms, a few hours, short periods), but our adventure started when our marina lost AC electrical (dock side) shore power for 7 days.

No houseboat electrical shore power
Marinas can also suffer (long-term) electrical power failures.

Yes, we're still ALIVE to tell the tale...

Yes, we survived the ordeal..., but as you may not know, not all houseboats are designed or equipped to last for prolonged periods (more than a day or so) without AC/shorepower at a time. This is where it's a good idea to plan & prepare in advance, not after the situation arises.

We take AC SHOREPOWER for granted

You never know when your marina (or houseboat) will suffer from an electrical power failure, especially when you're docked at your home port (marina). We tend to take 120v AC power for granted, as it quietly enters our boat, and easily powers all our modern day amenities.

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What if, or what WHEN...

Now you wouldn't VOLUNTARILY disconnect yourself from the shore power post for 7 days (just for the fun of it), to see if you enjoy life more "without" power VERSUS life with electrical power. But what happens if, or when a long-term power failure hits your area, how would you deal with it?

How OLD are your batteries?

Within 8 hours of losing electrical power at the marina, I quickly realized that my house batteries were "showing their age". They were dropping in voltage far too quickly, and showing me that they had lost a significant amount of Ah capacity (compared to new batteries).

Deep cycle battery for houseboats
Three new Group 27 deep cycle batteries for the houseboat.

How to RECHARGE your batteries quickly

Even after getting some new Group 27 Deep Cycle batteries for the houseboat, I knew that I only had @ 150Ah of usable battery capacity (you don't want to discharge more than 50%), so I had to pull out the portable 2000 watt generator in order to recharge my house batteries.

Generator is very useful on houseboats
A small portable generator is VERY useful for your houseboat.

Here we are 7 DAYS, or 168 HOURS later... :)

As they say, ALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AN END... and just as I was getting used to living life without AC shore-power, the marina's power failure came to an end, and we started to return back to normal life with full 120v electrical power... :)

120v AC power on your houseboat
Yeah, we now have 120v AC power back on our houseboat... :)

Electrical power & your daily routine

If you sit down and take a moment to realize that your shore-power connection allows you to have hot water, your fridge/freezer, your TV, some lights, computers, maybe heating or air conditioning, your microwave, your stove, your coffee machine, amongst many other small luxuries on your houseboat. When your shore power goes down, you need a generator to fill in the gap.

Do you have a portable generator?

The reality is, every houseboat owner should have a small portable generator for those weekend getaways, holiday vacation trips, or as in this situation a prolonged power failure.
Portable generators for houseboats
This power failure experience really showed me that I made a great decision years ago to buy a small portable generator. If you are thinking of getting one, here are some great portable generator models to consider.

How do YOU DEAL with power failures?

Like we all know, we can never really predict or pinpoint "when" we are going to lose shore power, but how are you prepared to deal with an extended loss of AC dock/shore side power?

Lastly, hopefully some of our readers and visitors will share and post comments about their houseboat related AC SHORE POWER LOSS experiences and tips.

Feel free to use the "click here to post comments" link found near the bottom of this page.

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Renewable energy generator
by: Yoram Gordon

There is a new innovation of a compact vertical axis turbine that can wind, sun, and water stream as its indefinite renewable source for generating electricity.
This way, especially when sailing, you can continuously charge your batteries and never deplete them. You can actually directly power all your energy consuming appliances without depleting the batteries or worrying to stay without electricity.
These turbines can generate anywhere between 1-10 KW.

For more information contact me:

Live on batteries
by: Anonymous

My houseboat is full time on batteries even when in the marina. I have 400Ah of LiFePo4 batteries and 2000w of solar and all appliances are 240v except for the hot water which I hope to change to 240v (normal power voltage in Australia).

If intending to travel extended trips without shore power then consideration must be given to the size of batteries and solar and with AGM's etc be aware their life cycle is between 3 to 5 years whilst the life cycle of LiFePo4 is between 13 to 20 years (we don't know yet but my Motor Home has been powered by these batteries for over 7 years with no apparent loss of capacity).

I have met many people who prepare to do a long trip and then they find out their batteries have met the end of their useful lifer cycle. Normal batteries decrease in their usable amp hour capacity from the first day they are installed, and do not make you aware of their demise until they no longer can supply power as required.

Before leaving on an extended trip it is best to do a capacity test on your batteries. This can be done by applying a known load such as a head light globe and from a full charge record how long it takes for your battery to go down to 12v or 24v depending on your system.

This should give you your usable Ah and give you an idea of your batteries health. Normal batteries give about 50% when new, so a 100AH batteries should return about 50AH of usable power, so if it is down to 15% or similar they are gone.

Solar and wind
by: Steve

True solar can be useful, and although they work best if tilted to the correct angle for your latitude, the newer ones will still output quite usable amounts even if laid flat.

And in overcast conditions they will actually outperform tilted panels surprisingly, and can be mounted as a roof on an outdoor deck as one option.

There are now 'flexible' panels available as well (not truly rollup, but can be curved gently to follow curved rooflines).

Another advantage is if you have a 12v float operated bilge pump and a few hundred watts of panels, you can be assured of the battery not being run down if the pump begins to operate for any reason.

Another option is a wind genny, most lakes/rivers etc... tend to have fairly strong breezes available, put up a 15/20ft guyed pole mast with a wind generator up top.

You would be surprised how much power even a small wind genny can produce, it also gives you more height to mount an external cell antenna /tv antenna for better range and reception.

Let there be light
by: DiogenesUSA

While this article contains some very common sense advice, it just seems to me that those of us that live in states where there is more than ample sunshine (Texas) SOLAR PANELS would be a sensible resource for the blackouts or extended cruises.

A backup generator should also be a standard piece of shipboard equipment. The old adage of "Prepare today and survive tomorrow" should be our credo.

Lithium Ion Batteries
by: Steve

I personally if living onboard would look seriously at Lithium-ion batteries. By discharging lead acids (of any kind) to 50% DOD, you are seriously shortening their life expectancy, and will be lucky to see even a couple of hundred cycles before a noticeable decrease in capacity is apparent, where Lion batts can handle 80% plus DOD with thousands of cycles.

Starting/car battery should never be used, even a few deep cycles will slash their capacity, gel or deep cycles will handle it better but still can't handle such deep discharge rates as you are suggesting without long term effects.

For anyone using their batteries daily (off grid boat or house) you must consider that much of the AHr of your lead acids isn't actually available for use if you expect to get any serious life out of your batteries.

A lead battery taken to 50% DOD is only likely to last a couple of hundred cycles i.e. under a year- keep the discharges shallow i.e. stop at 75% DOD and you are likely to get around a thousand cycles, take it up to stopping at 90% of capacity and they are likely to last a decade or more.

Lions on the other hand do require a more complicated charging system but can safely be taken down to 80% discharged and still clock up several thousands of cycles.

They can even be taken to 90% fully discharged and still clock up thousands of cycles, effectively making a much smaller capacity bank appear to be equivalent to a larger lead acid bank i.e. as an example, a 40AHr lion will outperform a lead acid with a rating of over 120AHr in effective power output, and still not suffer any damage.

Another advantage is that they don't have the voltage drop like the lead acids, their voltage remains pretty much constant over the full capacity of the discharge until the very end of their cycle.

Just my thoughts, Steve

A few suggestions
by: Neal

Ian, I have a few more suggestions. First,the generator: make sure it is large enough to run the battery charger and any loads deemed critical.

Also, consider the engine. A lot of small engines in cheap generators have to have their oil changed every 25 hours! A heavy duty genset, like those in motorhomes, run slower and have more oil, running the oil change out to 150 hours. Big difference.

There are once again DC generators that will monitor the battery charge, starting and stopping as needed. They have a built-in inverter that provides AC power whether or not the engine is running. I say once again...the old Delco light plants of the 1930s did that for home lighting, minus the inverter.

Whatever genset you use, make sure to maintain a fresh supply of non-alcohol gasoline!

You are correct about minimizing the discharge to prolong battery life. I hate to tell you, though, those are NOT real deep cycle batteries you bought! There are some super heavy duty batteries that most folks would not want to spring for, but golf car batteries are a good compromise.

Buy the heavier 230 amp versions. They cost a little more, but last much longer. Remember, it takes 2 six volt batteries to make 12 volts, but the amp/hour capacity will be the same or more than your 2 twelve volt batteries they replace.

Finally, consider getting serious about solar. My current and two upcoming Loop boats are 100% solar, including propulsion. In 2015 I was in my small boat at the fine big marina at Kentucky Dam when my onboard cameras caught a conversation between the manager and one of the residents discussing how much I must have spent on that solar system.

In truth, not that much and it is a lot less now. One dealer has a sale on now at 24 cents per watt. That is not a whole lot cheaper than he normally sells them! If you can't find a 300 watt panel for $100 you are looking in the wrong place. What are you paying for shore power?


Hello Neal, thanks for taking to time to post such a well written and complete reply.

I agree with a lot of what you're saying, and I also say that it always depends on your wants & needs. I now realize after spending a lifetime on boats that there are "different boats for different tasks".

Some folks have their electricity included in their marina fees, others pay for the amount that they use.

Some people spend more time at the dock, others spend more time at anchor and would really benefit from solar.

Some houseboats already some with a generator "pre-installed", while others have to rely on buying a portable generator. I agree, you would want a 2000 watt model.

Now when it comes to batteries, I do agree with you that some golf cart batteries would have been better (and much more money), but my engine room is already equipped with (3) batteries boxes.

I agree they are not the true DEEP CYCLE batteries, but for the money these are much better than using normal starting batteries and cycling those down to 50% DOD (Depth of Discharge).

Again Neal, thanks for taking the time to reply, and glad to hear that folks are reading some of the stuff I write... :)

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