Technology Can’t Replace Your Sense of Smell

I know I haven’t written very much, because not much has happened being somewhat stationary for the last two years and unlike the Discovery Channel, I can’t make drama out of nothing.

My amp meter showing a +4 amp draw

During the last dozen years, I’ve seen more and more cruisers adding a video surveillance system to their boats. Being able to see the engine room at all times from the pilot house, certainly looks attractive, but I feel it can provide a false sense of security.

My brother will be on Dauntless for the summer. Last week, we took Dauntless out to show him some of our favorite fishing sites. In getting ready for his arrival, we did a real spring cleaning. Dauntless has never been a smelly boat. In large part because the second owner replaced all the non-copper hoses on the boat’s sanitation system and engine. That makes a big difference.

But a Wrangell winter is an incubator for mold and mildew. We run an Invation Dehumidifier all winter, on high at night, it would warm the salon to high 60’s and lower the humidity to mid-30%. During the day, we run it on low. I plumbed it into our gallery sink drain, so I never have to empty the water container.

So Dauntless smells pretty sweet, even before the spring cleaning.

Thus a few days later, after my brother’s arrival, the boat was permeated by a new odor.

And no, I did not think it was my brother! Because it was clear that it was coming from the engine room. My first thought was that during the spring cleaning the previous week, we had even cleaned and organized the lazzerette. Because of a loose drain hose, there was a large container in the lazzerette that was full of water, maybe 20+ gallons of smelly water. To heavy to lift out, I decided to just empty it and it would run into the engine room and be pumped out. I then hosed down the lazzerette and really didn’t smell any thing foul anymore.

But now a week later, I was wondering if that smelly water, had found a space to fester. Also, the previous week, we had anchored in a place that while hauling the anchor, a significant amount of seaweed and kelp was on the chain. We pulled most of it all as the chain come up but didn’t wash the chain.

So, I wondered if the odor was being caused by organic material.

Between the stanky lazzerette water and the chain locker, I thought it was possible this was the cause. I ran all the chain out in about 15 feet of water int eh harbor. We also took soap and bucket and scrubbed the bilge and chain locker. While all the chain was out, I decided to also put a small plastic basket on the bottom, that once crushed by 500 pounds of chains, would still provide a few inches of clearance keeping the chain locker drain clear of line and chain. In 8 years of Dauntless life, our chain locker has never had a strong odor and wanted to keep it that way.

Half a day later, all done, the engine room did smell better, but the malorious odor was still noticeable.

We’d be going out the next day. Maybe the engine room just needed an airing out?

That next evening, while on the hook, the odor was back, as bad as ever.

The odor had a strange aspect to it, almost organic, like something dead, but also a bit like plastic.

This same evening, the first one away from the dock and shore power, I noticed a 5 to 10 amp draw that was unaccountable. I turned everything off, finally even going to the extreme of turning off the boat computer, something I never do while away from the dock, as it is provides my primary navigation, GPS and AIS.

With the boat dead quiet, nothing on, the current draw was now almost 8 amps, 96 watts. This meant that someplace on this boat, I had the equivalent of a 100-watt bulb burning and that produces a significant amount of heat. It should be noticeable.

Ah ha. I had it. I must be one of the house bank batteries. They were 5 years old and already shot. 90% of the house bank was powered by my one LiFePO4 battery of 200 amp-hours, while the three old lead acid batteries were providing about 30 amp-hours in total. So, it made sense to me that one of the batteries was bad, shorted out and pulling power from the good batteries.

This was confirmed when I checked the current draw with a clamp on amp meter and sure enough, I could see 6 amps coming out of the house bank.

With much anticipation, I was sure I found the problem. I got my IR temperature gun, opened up the two battery compartments and expected to see the problem.

First battery, the only one on the port side, sharing the box with the Li battery was 84°, that seemed ok, since the Li battery was warm as it was doing most of the work. OK, then it must be one of the batteries in the starboard box.

Opened the starboard battery box with even greater anticipation, both batteries were cool, only 74° and the current running thru each battery was less than one amp.

There is also a Perko switch in the engine room electrical distribution panel. This allows me to switch from the start battery to house bank to start the engine. I’ve never used it. And when I did switch it, the draw remained the same.

Stumped again.

There is also a similar Perko switch in the salon distribution panel. It allows me to switch the house bank source from the house bank to the start battery (a relic of the old system, which had no start battery, but used the house bank to start the engine).

Stumped yet again.

Back to the engine room distribution panel.

Using my trusty amp meter again, I noticed a 5 amp draw that ran to an isolator, then a 100-amp fuse. This isolator is not to be confused with the two 120-volt isolators I have on each of the 120 circuits. This was on the 12-volt system and frankly, I was unclear what its purpose was.

Returning back to Wrangell the next day, I was egger to call my friend and electrical genius and Kadey Krogen guru, Dave Arnold in Fort Pierce. He’d help me figure it out.

And he did.

I knew my start battery and house bank batteries were separated and sort of knew they were charged separately, but not was well as I had thought.

David asked me if I had checked the current in the negative start battery cable. I hadn’t. He explained to me that the 12v isolator was how I charged by start battery. In simple terms, it lets a small amount of power go to the start battery as needed, but won’t pull power from the start battery, no matter the state of charge of the house bank.

My 12 volt Engine Room Distribution cabinet

My start battery, installed by David in fact, was now 8 years old. It had to be the culprit. Simply put, it had an internal short and was draining the house bank at 5 to 8 amps continuously.

As I opened the battery box cover for the start battery, the heat and bad smell hit me. The battery top was 154°F. I disconnected it; we pulled it out and put it on the dock. Two hours later it was still 100 degrees.

Video surveillance wouldn’t have smelled that until it went up in flames.