Electric European Canal Boat

Discussion in 'Boat Design' started by captainyoung, May 16, 2011.

  1. captainyoung
    Joined: May 2011
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    captainyoung New Member

    We are planning on travelling through Europe's canal system in the next couple years.
    We have sailed the ICW, some of the Bahamas and the keys. I like sailing, but when travelling the ICW we ended up mostly motoring or motor sailing. We have a little 13HP Yanmar, and it has worked pretty well. But it does require maintenance, repairs, it makes a lot of noise, and it smells.

    For the European Canals, it would be great to use an Electric propulsion system, if it is possible. Some of the canals are slow speed 4-5 knots limit from what I understand.
    Plus we would probably travel for up to 8 hours, and then stay for a day or more to see the area, and this would allow for the solar to recharge the batteries.

    So here is what I am thinking:
    Around 36-38ft, very efficient hull shape and very light weight, electric propulsion, 3-4Kw of solar panels on a roof that covers the whole boat, enough batteries to travel for around 8 hours at 5 knots, a small Honda generator for backup power if there is no sun, and plug in charger when docked.

    From some other boats I have seen on the net, it looks like this would work. Here is one design that is working:

    So here are my questions:
    Do you think this will work?
    If not, why?
    Am I missing something here? to me it seems like it would work well.
    Thoughts, ideas and opinions appreciated.
  2. philSweet
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    philSweet Senior Member

    Have you visited the electric boat forum on Yahoo yet?
  3. Stumble
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    Stumble Senior Member


    There are a number of posts on this board discussing electric boats, I would recommend you searching for them for more detailed information.

    The answer to your question is that your idea will not work. There is not a battery technology that can store enough battery power densely enough to have on-board the type of power demands you would have for the cruise you envision.

    If we talk about replacing a 13hp diesel with an electric motor, that would require a 10KW motor. Assuming 8 hours of run time you have used 80Kw of power. A 4KW solor panel would take 20 hours of 100% generation to produce that, at about 4 hours a day you need 5 days of solor charging for each 8 hours of run time. Note that this is ignoring conversion inefficiency. If we include that you will need something like a day of charging for each hour of run time.

    Now that 80Kw of power used in a day of running will need battery storage. At 12V that means 6666 amp hours of storage. The largest Marine battery sold by Rolls/Surrette holds 550 amps at 12 v. So you would need 26 of these monster batteries to provide that type of capacity (The batteries can only be discharged to around 50% without damage). Since each battery weighs 172lbs, you are looking at around 4,500lbs of batteries. I am not sure what these weigh, but I would guess somewhere in the ballpark of $16,000 for the batteries.

    As you can see, it might, just might be possible to have an all electric boat of this size, but it is really far from practical.
  4. Jeremy Harris
    Joined: Jun 2009
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    Jeremy Harris Senior Member

    8 hours plus of cruising on a boat that size is easily achievable using old technology batteries. 13 years ago I hired a 28ft Norfolk Broads yacht, fitted with a Lynch motor driving a conventional prop, powered by an array of lead acid batteries down in a box keel. That would cruise at 4 kts for around 15 hours or more before needing to be charged.

    My current solar powered riverboat (only 18ft LOA) will run at 4kts for 8 hours on a portable lithium ferrous phospate battery pack that weighs around 12kg.

    There are examples of electric powered canal boats here in the UK that will cruise for a day or two between charges. These boats are typically 40 to 60 ft long.

    The problem is solar power for charging. I have an array of four panels that are rated at a total of around 400W, but in reality, even with a maximum power point tracker, I can only get around 120 watts here in the UK. Solar panels are rated when getting 1000 watts per m² of sunlight perpendicular to the panel. This is about what you get at midday at the equator. In our Northern latitudes their performance is much lower because of the weather, plus there are additional losses from the panels being mounted flat on the roof.

    There are electric charging points on some inland waterways, though, plus it is possible to carry a generator to charge when shore power isn't available. This makes the concept you propose perfectly viable, as long as you accept the performance limitations and don't anticipate motoring up one of the big rivers against the flow for hours on end.

    I once took a 30ft yacht the length of the Canal du Midi using a 2 1/2hp Seagull outboard and it was fine (apart from breaking lots of shear pins from plastic bags around the prop). You need very little power on the canal network, except when manoeuvring in locks etc, where a healthy excess of thrust can be useful.

    A propulsion system capable of delivering around 5hp for 8 hours only requires around 40kWh of onboard energy storage (assuming a Peukert factor of 1.3), which could be a battery bank of around 850Ah at 48V (something like a 4 x 5 array of 200Ah traction batteries will give you a theoretical 1000 Ah at 48V).

    You will most probably find, as I have, that the mean power needed to drive an inland waterways boat is much less than you think. I suspect you will get away with less than 5hp to drive a 40ft boat, provided the hull and prop are well designed and properly matched. My 18ft lightweight two person boat needs around 100 to 120watts (about 1/5th hp) to travel on canals at 4kts.
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  5. CDK
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    CDK retired engineer

    Captainyoung there are several reasons why your project won't make it.
    Without getting into technical details such as power requirements and storage capacity, your estimates are too optimistic.

    On a 36 ft riverboat you cannot install 3-4 KW of solar panels, 2.5 KW is about the best you can do if money is not an issue. And unless your traveling plans are restricted to the south of France in mid-summer, you will never see 100% generated power on your monitor.

    If you really intend to travel through Europe, you will find out that there is no canal system. You will need to navigate rivers, sometimes with considerable current and when there are canals there are many locks where you need more than just a few hp from an electric motor.

    And don't count on shore power being available wherever you go, so you will need your Honda on a regular basis. Instead of enjoying the landscape your trip will be a constant struggle to charge your batteries.
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  6. u4ea32
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    u4ea32 Senior Member

    OK, so we have seen some disagreement, between those that say its simply impossible (CDK, Stumble) and those that think its pretty darn simple, as long as you adjust your expectations (Jeremy Harris and me).

    I've never done it, so all my information and opinions are based on other's experiences, and I completely agree that CDK and Stumble have experiences and therefore valid opinions.

    To add to Jeremy's tale of cruising the Canal du Midi, let me add the story of a close friend who cruised from Wales to The French Riviera -- and back -- with no power whatsoever: he simply pulled the boat (a 26 foot Folkboat, mast on deck) while walking along the banks of the canals.

    While investigating Beta Marine's Hybrid Drive stuff, I came across this:

    http://www.hybrid-marine.co.uk/resources/Complete Hybridl-rev4.pdf

    The concept is to use electric propulsion, and charge via generator about half the time. Going through locks and tunnels, use electric. In currents, use the engine. When one can plug in along the bank, charge the batteries using the power grid (cheap). At the end of the day, use the engine (heat up the hot water tank, charge batteries for overnight).

    So let me summarize:
    1) A lot of time, very little energy is required to move at the very slow speeds in canals.
    2) Currents are real, and you will probably need real fuel burning power to go upstream. By careful routing, you can avoid all such situations, even on such long trips as Wales to Italy, but probably only people who would consider walking from Wales to Italy would consider such routing!
    3) Electric power is probably substantially better than fuel power when navigating locks, tunnels, and naturally pristine areas.
    4) Solar, plug-in, and generator combine to provide a flexible ways of charging. Solar may be the least cost effective for European canal travel. Plug-in at marinas and you can charge huge battery banks and travel for days.
    5) Use of hybrid drive for canal boats has resulted in demonstrated in 25% savings in fuel burn: its not magic.

    And I do think those Duckworth boats are interesting, but perhaps you would be ahead of the game to just buy an existing Narrow boat (for UK) or similar local canal vessel.
  7. Stumble
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    Stumble Senior Member


    I would like to point out a few things...

    I never said it was impossible to build a fully electric boat. What I said was that the designspecs that started this thread were unrealistic. With enough money and willingness to rethink your design parameters it is always possible to hit some sort of initial concept, if that concept is stretched enough.

    That being said the reality of marine electric power only provided three realistic options;

    1) a small all electric launch with a minimal range, light weight, displacement speeds, minimal acomodations

    2) Diesel electric where the drive engine is electric but the power is coming from a generator. (This is the system you posted about)

    3) All electric large boat, where the owner accepts the severe limitations of an all electric system. Including minimal range, regular dockside recharging, weight of the batteries, minimal speed, ect...

    Perhaps I wasn't fair to the first poster, but it is very common here to have people try and shoe horn diesel like performance into an electric boat. That is really not possible except in the very, very small percentage of sailors who only want an engine to bring them into the harbor, have no hotel loads, and are willing to sit and drift in the event of no wind.
  8. DCockey
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    DCockey Senior Member

    The current issues of WoodenBoat and EpoxyWorks (from Gougeon) both have articles about Sparks, a 30' canal boat built in Ontario by Ted Moore. You can read the EpoxyWorks article at: http://epoxyworks.com/
  9. Stumble
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    Stumble Senior Member


    Again I would point out that while this is a cool little boat it is not a full electric boat. It is a diesel-electric hybrid that uses a generator to run the drive shaft when the battery banks fall under 60%, and to recharge the batteries.

    Further just a few quotes from the article:

    "16 absorbed glass mat (AGM) 12 volt deep-cycle batteries" - At a pretty reasonable 100lbs per batter that is pretty heafty amount of weight.

    "With sunny weather, the pack should recover from 80% charge within 2 days." - This solar panel isn't capable of recharging the batteries in the day specified.

    "At 6 knots, the motor must deliver 3kW of thrust which can be delivered for 1.2 hours from the batteries alone." - Again even as large as this battery bank is it is still not capable of driving the boat for more than short hops without recharging. Which could take a week or more.

    I will give this boat a lot of credit, it operated for 70 days and traveled just under 700 miles on just 9 gallons of fuel. But this is an average speed of 10 miles/day, which is probably close to what the soler cells can regenerate. To be honest I would imagine a 30 foot sailboat using traditional diesel power could do the same trip on the same fuel but in far less time. That being said it isn't always about speed.

    Again I stad by my previous statements, for typical use there is just no way of storing enough power on board in modern batteries to make an electric boat practical.
  10. Pericles
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    Pericles Senior Member


    Register with http://www.proboat.com/ and read the Nigel Calder articles about electric propulsion in the back issues. It's an education.
  11. captainyoung
    Joined: May 2011
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    captainyoung New Member

    Thanks for all the replies. I like to here the good and bad.

    I don't think I will need to use a 13hp diesel equivalent (10Kw motor) to power the boat. I was thinking more along the line of 5Kw. And the boat will not need to use all 5Kw all the time, just like when we are motoring on our boat, we do not run the 13hp at full throttle all the time. So the figures you are using are way higher then what we are planning.

    I do agree about the solar power. I know that panels do not get 100% of there rated power.
    But I do think they can be a big help with recharging, and minimise the use of a generator.
    The Sun 21 boat averaged 5 knots crossing the Atlantic (http://www.transatlantic21.org/), so solar powered boats are possible. And in my idea, I am not trying to be completely solar powered, plus the boat will have a much greater down time.

    Here is a great website, with real data on the performance of a Catalina 30 converted to electric propulsion. http://electricboatdesign.com/database/
    Based on the Catalina's actual tested performance data, He can go 55 miles at 4 knots, and 29 miles at 5 knots on batteries alone. My plan would be to stay below 5 most of the time. At 4 knots he draws 1.48 KW.
    If I have 3KW of solar, I will get hopefully 6KW per day, but more like 9Kw. That would give me around 6 hours at 4 knots, from pure solar, without draining the batteries.
    On our trip down the ICW, we usually like to go around 6 hours at around 5 knots, so the numbers seem to work for our situation.
    Plus in the case of us trying to get somewhere a little faster, or the solar is not working well, we could turn on the generator.

    The one thing the boat will not be able to do, is go against a strong current for long periods of time. So I have another question, for people with experience in Europe, what rivers would have strong currents all of the time, lets say above 2 knots?
    And how much would this limit our travels?
    One solution to this problem, would be to have an outboard mounted on a bracket, for when there is too much current.

    Why don't you think you can fit 3-4KW on a 12ft beam x 36ft boat. A 200 Watt panel is 65" x 40". So if you place the panels 2 across (65 + 65 = 130") or 10 feet 10 inches. And you place 10 rows (40 * 10 = 400 inches) 33.3 feet.
    Why wouldn't you be able to put a roof over almost the whole length of the boat, covered in panels?
    And if I go with only 3.2Kw, the length would drop down to 26.6 ft. for the roof.

    Thanks for all the links, I am looking into them now.

    I would really love to go through with this idea, but I want to be 100% sure that it will work. It would be a lot easier to just go and buy a canal boat all ready to go, and that is an option if this idea doesn't work.
  12. EuroCanal
    Joined: Jul 2010
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    EuroCanal Junior Member

    All the main rivers have strong currents at certain times of the year. The authorities tend to open the sluices in winter to drain out water in preparation for spring rain. Summer and autumn are better. The main rivers near me are:

    Rhine: You need special Rhine licenses for both the boat and crew, or you need a pilot. Low-powered boats can get upstream by staying close to the bank and dodging the break-waters. I've done this, and it's not much fun. Going downstream is like rafting - the trick is to dodge the bridges and buoys, which close in fast, while giving way to upstream barges. Best avoided.

    Lower Meuse/Maas: Same as the Rhine - possible, but not fun.

    Upper Meuse: Should be OK. I think there are some electric boats around Namur, so it must be slow enough for them there.

    Soane/Rhone: Like the Rhine, except you don't need a special license. Current can be around 6 knots.

    Seine: Never done this. I think it has a minimum speed limit (like most big rivers), which you might struggle to meet.

    Mosel/Moselle. Slow for most of the year (1-2 knots) - you'll be OK there if you keep out of the way of the faster boats.

    Any large river will have commercial barges. The Moselle's speed limit (for large boats) is 18 knots, so a 5 knot boat will need to keep out of the way of the traffic. Nevertheless I think it would still be doable, especially if you have a light boat which can stick to the bank, out of the way of big stuff.

    A slower boat would be better suited to the central French canals, which have low speed limits (3 or 4 knots), and almost no current.

    You would probably be limited to central and northern France, the western part of Germany (the Saar would be OK, and it's very 'touristy'), Belgium, and parts of Netherlands. That's still a large canal network to explore.
  13. captainyoung
    Joined: May 2011
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    captainyoung New Member

    Thanks Eurocanal, what kind of boat are/were you on?
    Any recommendation on a book or website to get a good idea about the canal system?
  14. EuroCanal
    Joined: Jul 2010
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    EuroCanal Junior Member

    On the Rhine it was actually a Rhine rowing boat. These are specially designed to get upstream - they are triple coxless sculls (3 rowers, 6 blades, no stearsman to slow you down). They can just about get upstream against the current.

    I used to have a day boat which I used on the Moselle and Saar, and I have rowed and kayaked on a lot of rivers around Europe (Meuse/Maas/Amstel/Rhine/Moselle/Saar), mostly competitions, but also touring, and I hired "vedettes" (small barges) a couple of times in France. I am still saving up for my long distance barge (my wife won't let me sell the house yet!).

    Check out www.vnf.fr for a map of France and Europe. They publish several detailed maps of France and a map of Europe (attached), and they have links to the other sites in Belgium and Netherlands.

    Attached Files:

  15. Submarine Tom

    Submarine Tom Previous Member

    3 rowers! That'll never work, that's only 350 watts maximum, sustained! Probably less in reality, 200 - 300 watts... Not against the current, no way!

    Wait a minute, you said these guys actually did it... somethings not adding up on this thread...

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