Well, yes. I’m going through some more troubleshooting… this time with the the starting battery.
We have two banks, the house bank (6V Trojan 115’s that we installed in Trinidad, December 2009), and the engine bank – or starting battery as it’s only one battery. This is a Moura 110 marine starting battery with silver alloy and a lot of other useless marketing info. The fact is, I suspect it doesn’t have the “umpf” to reliably start the engine when we need it – and that’s not good! The “umpf” to turn the Yanmar over is also called CCA, but I won’t go into that at the moment.
Basically, I tried to start the engine on Sunday for a bit of a test before deciding to cast off on Monday. The engine didn’t start. What happens is that the starter motor and solenoid seem appropriately engaged, but after a couple of seconds of agonizing, slow winding “rrrr, rrrr, rrrr…”, the starter motor doesn’t turn any longer… not enough ‘umpf’ to keep it cranking. At least that’s my theory at this point, and no, I don’t have one of those special battery tension measuring devices. They run like 300 bucks. I know you can do a trick with a wrench and/or screwdriver and multi-tester, but that’s beyond my courage level and slightly outside my skillset or electrical understanding….
So I spent all day Monday doing troubleshooting and some preventive maintenance. My first suspiscion was about the wiring connections. Were they tight, were they clean and in other words – are they letting through as much umpf as the battery is willing and able to put out. To check this, I disconnected, cleaned, and reconnected every possible connection: at the battery terminals, and – more importantly – at the motor itself.
Now, to get to that side of the engine, to port, the best access is from beneath the salon settees. Once you’re in there, plenty of room is available. The trick is getting there… that entails taking all the stuff out of the settee storage area (beneath the couch seats, let’s say). So, yesterday morning I started the process: take off the cushions and wooden covers, take out all the stuff, and find a place to put it while you’re working below. This is a major provisions storage area for us so I had to take out hundreds of cans of food and other bits, along with lifevests, and about 100 litres of bottle drinking water.
Then you get down into the ‘cave’, take off the side access panel (with the soundproofing foam on the inside, next to the motor) and get to work. Now the ‘cave’ is actually huge and some day if we want to add an onboard generator and/or watermaker, we’ll have plenty of room for both. But the fun part is getting to the bits of the motor. There is a positive lead cable that runs from the alternator to the batteries – and this one is always the single most difficult nut to work on in the entire boat! Unless you take the alternator off, you have a tricky time gettting that nut off to clean the connections (the battery lead and another wire that comes from the smart regulator). Worse, if you don’t manage to turn the juice off (like, if you forget) that live wire has almost no way of getting out of this terrible position without touching the engine block and causing some frightening sparks. So, I forgot of course and had quite a surprise! I hate working on electrical stuff on the boat – mostly out of ignorance! Electricity is a funny, invisible thing that if you don’t fully understand it, can give you some unpleasant surprises – or even do damage where you can’t see what’s going on. Plus you can get quite a shock. I didn’t this time, but it wouldn’t have been the first…Anyway, the wire from the alternator is most likely NOT a problem in the scenario I’m troubleshooting, but as long as I’m down there and have taken all the canned goods out of the settee, might as well clean everything the best I can.
Then I moved on to the connections to and from the starting battery – the solenoid that sits on top of the starter motor itself. Indeed, this had been a problem once before (arriving in Natal from Noronha, the engine wouldn’t turn over, in the same fashion) – and I’d had to do a fix on the fly in lumpy seas. No fun! And again this time, I found that the connections perhaps weren’t as clean as they might be. So I took everything apart, and cleaned them with fine sandpaper and electrical conneciton spray to get any corrosion off. When I reassembled it all, I applied a bit of special conneciton paste, a gray liquidy stuff that is supposed to improve electrical connections and help prevent future corrosion.
The day was getting on, as this is a slow job, and NO, I didn’t get to see a single world cup game! I hate Mondays and this was no exception!
Then I cleaned the battery terminals and reconnected everything. The voltage of the battery was hovering at like 12.60 volts. Not really all that strong. And, what happened? Nothing. I turned the key, got the same ‘rrr, rrr, rrr’ and then dead silence again. So now I have clean connections but still not enough juice to crank the engine over.
Two possibilities: the voltage and therefore the ‘umpf’ of the battery is just too low – not enough cold cranking amps (CCA).
Or, there is some oxidation/corrosion of some kind on the moving bits (brushes maybe?) of the solenoid and starter motor itself – providing just enough resistance to no allow the starter to crank over with enough juice to start the engine. My explanation may not be very scientific, but I have and idea that this is what’s going on.
What to do?
The first choice I had was to force the engine to start and then charge up for a while. To do that, you have to join (combine) the battery banks and hope you get the ol diesel started. It didn’t happen instantaneously, but it did happen and soon I had Yan cranked up to like 1,800 rpms, pumping around 45 amps into the banks. I let this go on for a few hours while I cleaned up and put all the cans back in place… I don’t like to start the engine this way, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. It’s just too hard on the house bank, batteries that are not designed for that kind of heavy, fast load.
So, at the end of the day, I had the starting battery charged up to about 12.80 volts. I turned it off and decided to see what things looked like on Tuesday. So it’s Tuesday now and the starting battery is sitting there, still at 12.80 volts (at least I’m not losing power overnight through some unknown source). It’s still early though and my lovely wife is only getting prettier through her beauty sleep – I can’t turn the engine on now!
On top of everything else, we’re at a ‘power disadvantage’ here in Manta. On the one hand, we tend to use the TV more when we’re anchored or moored somewhere for a long time. A world cup game (or two) during the day and perhaps a movie at night… that takes up a lot of energy. On the other, we’re not putting a lot of juice in the batteries during the day. There is NO wind to speak of so the wind generator is added ZERO amps to the batteries. Worse, there’s practically no sun – it’s been overcast, heavily overcast, for 8 straight days. This means that the solar panels can’t do their job either. So how else do we charge the batteries? With our engine (alterantor), of course. We don’t have a generator and we’re not plugged into shore power here at Manta Yacht Club – it just isn’t possible.
So I’ve been going to bed, dreaming about, and waking up with this damn energy situation on my mind. We’ll see what happens in a little while when Lara wakes up and we try to start the engine the correct way. If it doesn’t start, my first inclination is to get a new starter battery. Not too difficult, just not cheap either. It will probably cost something like 350 bucks. Ouch. On the other hand, I can’t start out across the Pacific with these kinds of serious doubts about our starter battery….
And for those whoe might be wondering – this battery was installed in 2006, when the boat was only a hull with an engine and would be motored up the lake to Porto Alegre… I don’t know how long these batteries should last, but 4 years almost to the month seems sort of borderline to me…
I’ll let you know what happened after Lara wakes up.
Researching on the web, I found someone that MAY be able to help… 🙂 What do you think?