The Generator and the Power Management System

Wanderlust on the Saône: Pleasant unserviced moorings such as this one are the reason why live-aboard boats have the ability to function off of the grid.

From launch Wanderlust had issues with the integration of her generator’s electrical power output into the boat’s systems. The problem was debilitating enough that it made us reluctant to spend time off shore power, the main reason to have a generator in the first place. It’s these trials and tribulations with the generator that was the first indication that things would not go smoothly with out new barge.

Wanderlust’s electrical set up is pretty much standard on boats these days. Off shore power, a combination charger-inverter uses the stored energy in the batteries to feed the electrical circuits on board. When the batteries need to be charged or there is a desire to run heavy demand appliances, the generator is switched on. With the generator running or shore power connected, AC electrical power passes through the charger-inverter to feed the boat’s domestic circuits. Any excess power available electricity is used to charge the battery bank. On most boats this system works seamlessly: With audible clicks of the relays the system automatically switches over from the using power stored in the batteries to the AC from the shore grid or generator as soon as it is available. Working properly, this type of integrated electrical system allows one to have electrical power off the grid as long as fuel remains in the generator’s tank.

Wanderlust’s Whisper equipment arrived on a pallet in the builder’s workshop.

But on Wanderlust, there were problems from the start with the integration of the generator into the electrical system. And though the problems should have been covered under warranty, the builder and Whisper Power, the electrical system’s manufacturer, never resolved them. Our experience serves as a perfect example of how boat buyers and even boat builders can be at the whim of irresponsible original equipment manufacturers.

When creating a specification for Wanderlust the choice of the brand of the electrical system was a key decision. During this time the builder was typically installing Whisper Power generators as standard. There didn’t seem to be a reason to motivate the builder to move away from this choice, as the owners we talked to were not reporting problems. More of a choice was the charger-inverter. For this we were offered a choice of either a Mastervolt or Whisper Power system. Both were being installed by the builder, though the boats around Wanderlust’s era tended to use Whisper’s Power Center.

Mastervolt and Whisper Power are closely related companies. Whisper Power spun off from Mastervolt in 2007, in the process taking the generator business with it. So it wasn’t a surprise that the two systems under consideration were largely similar on paper. A difference, as the builder pointed out, was that if we went with the full suite of Whisper electronics, including the generator, the alternator, and the solar charge controller, it would eliminate the possibility of finger pointing between two companies if a problem developed. That sounded good in theory. With the complicated systems being largely similar, service support was a key decision point. But in practice motivated finger pointers will always find someone else to blame and that is what happened to us.

The Whisper equipment being tested.

Unknown to us at the time, another factor influencing the decision may have been the costs. I learned later that the builder had been offered a financial incentive to spec the Whisper equipment. It has been awhile but I believe there was a steep discount, somewhere around 40%, offered by Whisper to Wanderlust’s builder as the company tried to build their boat electronics business with a UK barge builder. The availability of a discount did not directly impact our decision, as it was invisible to us and functioned only to pad the builder’s profitability. But it does show a motivation for the builder to move from the familiar Mastervolt products that were working on his barges to those from Whisper Power. Indeed, several boats, including Wanderlust, were spec’d with full Whisper suites, even after problems started to appear. In the end it is my understanding that the builder has now pretty much stopped using Whisper products on his boats. It’s a change that came too late for Wanderlust.

For us the issues came from the start. At launch Wanderlust’s generator provided no power to the boat. This, it turned out, was a simple problem unrelated to the Whisper equipment: The incorrect type of circuit breaker that had been installed in the consumer unit. When the generator switched on the breaker tripped. A week or so after launch the correct type of breaker was swapped in and we were able to start using the generator for the first time.

There were many sunsets in SJdL while work was being done on Wanderlust.

It was then that another more serious issue reared its head: Triggered by an undefined load stimulus onboard the AC voltage would suddenly become unstable, swinging rapidly from 200 to 265 Volts. When this happened the lights brightened and dimmed and the motors on any running appliance constantly changed pitch. At its extreme the protection circuits on various appliances would trigger. Ultimately the generator would shut down due to an over voltage fault. It was a major problem made more difficult to diagnose because it was intermittent.

Initially the Whisper Power representatives in the UK were responsive and came out to Wanderlust several times. Nothing that they tried helped. After months the problem persisted. Indeed even swapping out the Whisper Power Center for a new unit, an action that was taken by the UK contractors against the advice of Whisper’s home office, did not help.

After the visits we were told that the Whisper head of service back in the Netherlands believed there was a problem with some undefined load on the boat. It was a theory that was ultimately disproven by turning off each individual circuit on the distribution box. Though we could demonstrate without doubt that there was no individual system on the boat was solely responsible for the problem, it proved far more difficult to get this message accepted by Whisper’s home office.

Wanderlust moving back into the water at SJdL.

More effort was made to trace down the source of the problem when the builder paid for an engineer chosen by Whisper Power to come out and check out all of Wanderlust’s electrical systems. After several hours of thorough examination by the engineer, the builder, and a representative of Whisper, no issues were found with any of the boat’s consumer circuits or with the distribution panel.

It seemed obvious to us that Wanderlust’s electrical issues had to be a problem with the equipment supplied by Whisper. But the engineer’s assessment and all of the other information otherwise provided to Whisper did not matter. The head of service still believed that Whisper Power’s equipment was working perfectly and that there must be an issue with something else onboard.

Eventually the head of UK sales, an independent contractor, was able to alleviate the voltage fluctuation problem by reprogramming the inverter-charger to adjust the point where the power from the domestic batteries combined with the generator’s AC output. With this parameter adjustment the voltage output from the generator was stable. The electrical system was finally working as it was intended. Nevertheless, even though changing the Power Center’s settings resolved the voltage fluctuation problem, Whisper’s head of service remained convinced that there was an issue with the boat.

H2O tests the generator’s output: The M-SQ6 does not produce the cleanest sine wave, but it should work with Whisper’s Power Center.

Soon after the voltage problem was alleviated another intermittent problem appeared. This time there was an issue when the generator started up and the Power Center attempted to mesh the inverter’s AC output produced from the stored energy in the batteries with the electricity output from the generator. Sometimes the generator and the inverter would mesh frequencies on the first attempt without issue. Other times the electronics would endlessly try and fail to sync the AC. Each time the sync failed there was an accompanying electrical surge through the boat. At it’s worst the electronics would cycle through attempts to sync for minutes before I gave up and shut the generator off.

Eventually we learned that we could get the system to sync by randomly changing the load in the boat by cutting various breakers at the distribution board. The process was complicated; it wasn’t always the same breaker that allowed the system to synchronize. Sometimes sync would happen when the “galley” ring was turned off. Other times switching off the “main” saloon ring would let it sync. Even shutting off air conditioner circuit, even with the cooling unit off, could allow sync. Many times it took more than one circuit. It didn’t make any sense. Each time there was a search for a magical mixture of circuits to turn off that would allow the system to sync. Clearly either every circuit on board had a fault, or there was a problem with the Whisper equipment.

We had one last visit from Whisper when the company’s head of service came down from the Netherlands to meet Wanderlust in Migennes France at the end of the 2014 season. The head of service spent most of the day on board and was able to observe the AC sync fail repeatedly. In the end he declared that all of Whisper’s equipment was working properly and thus by the process of elimination there must be a problem with something not made by Whisper on board. It didn’t matter that we proven to him when he was there was no individual circuit on the boat that caused the problem.

Wanderlust’ Whisper genset sits in the corner of the engine compartment.

Whisper’s head of service left after repairing nothing and believing exactly what he had believed from the first days that the problems developed. We were told that this was the last warranty service we would get from Whisper. From now on we were on our own. Later we learned that Whisper sent a bill for the service to the builder. The builder ignored the bill, but still it made a point: Whisper did not believe that their equipment was at fault.

It took difficulty to get an explanation of what Whisper believed was the real source of the problem, as they would not communicate it to us about it directly. Eventually we heard back that they thought there was an “onboard faulty consumer or wiring connection” and that “Whisper power are convinced that the issue lies in one of your appliances”. The problems appeared, as there are “appliances where manufacturers are using more and more capacitors”.

Another source told us that service manager thought the problem was specifically with our audiovisual system, built up using typical commercial components. It had not registered with him that the Marantz amp and other items that he considered to be a possible source of the problem had been physically unplugged when he was on board to show that they could not be the source of the problem.

The Whisper Power Center under examination

Even though it was easily disproven, the contention that Wanderlust’s troubles had to do with the amount of capacitors used in her electrical equipment is troubling. The amount and type of electrical consumers onboard Wanderlust is by no means abnormal. If the Whisper system didn’t work because of the amount of capacitors used in Wanderlust’s equipment, it would not work on many other boats. Suggesting that their equipment could not work to supply power to a boat using standard domestic appliances is a statement from Whisper Power head of service that their system was not fit for the purpose that it was sold for.

After the departure of Whisper’s service manager I contacted the builder. I asked whether our only choice now was to pursue a remedy through the legal system, as neither the builder nor Whisper Power offered any hope that they would fix the problem.

The builder too was frustrated, replying, “It is not a problem with regards to legal action. Hopefully it will re-focus Whisper Power.”

It was a telling comment, as we would have to directly sue the builder and not Whisper Power, as the builder was the one who had sold us the Whisper equipment.

Another day ends in SJdL

Though the answer from the builder was supportive it was not particularly helpful. Given the price of the equipment, involving thousands of dollars of solicitor expenses was not a cost effective option for us.

We now were left in the worst possible situation. The company who sold Wanderlust’s electronics claimed there was a problem with the circuits on board the boat. At the same time Wanderlust’s builder, for good reason, felt that there were no issues on board with the boat or its equipment and thus there was nothing that he could fix. Add in problems with Whisper equipment on other of the builder’s boats and the whole thing was a mess.

As customers, short of expensive and time-consuming legal action, we were caught in between the two companies. We were forced to live with a dysfunctional power system that never worked properly. Though we hoped that we could find a solution, we dreaded the realization that some day we may have to replace Wanderlust’s brand new generator, the charger-inverter, or both to get a functioning electrical system.

Over the next few years we struggled to find a boat yard that was willing and able to look further at Wanderlust’s electrical issues. It was a long shot. This type of problem requires specialist skills and is usually dealt with by the factory representatives. For a long time we found no yard capable or interested in taking the problem on.

Wires

The “best” feedback we got was from an experienced electrical technician working at a boatyard in Saint Jean de Losne France. He’s answer when the problem was described was a non-descript generic and a not particularly definitive, “It’s a known problem.”

That suggested to us that perhaps Whisper knew of the issue but also knew that they could not resolve it. But who knows?

Worse yet we heard later that the head of service at Whisper had advised others to not do any work on Wanderlust. It now seemed that not only would Whisper not honor their warranty but they also were actively discouraging other professionals from working on Wanderlust. Shocking, as there was no dispute from anyone that Wanderlust had electrical problems.

If Whisper truly believed they were correct about the origins of Wanderlust’s issues, any boatyard helping us would inevitably end up fixing something unrelated to the Whisper Power equipment. Why block them from doing that? Encouraging someone else work on the boat could only look good for Whisper, as long as it did not turn out in the end to be a problem with Whisper’s equipment. But maybe that is exactly what they feared.

“Replacing” the control panel.

As you might imagine, we were and remain very upset about this whole situation.

Naturally when we received a letter in early 2016 from the builder’s solicitor that triggered the start of long drawn out legal maneuverings, Wanderlust’s electrical issues were included in our Table of Issues. No doubt the builder had expected this would be part of the dispute, particularly after encouraging a lawsuit early on. But unfortunately the legal process meant further delays would be inevitable before repairs could be initiated. Indeed it wasn’t until the lawsuit settled in early 2018 that we were finally free to begin efforts to resolve the Whisper Power issues.

After the settlement, four years after Whisper Power’s head of service last visited Wanderlust the electrical problems continued. Indeed, the issues had worsened. It reached the point where there were even difficulties maintaining synchronization with shore power. There were days during the summer of 2018 when the system would lose sync to the shore power 20 or more times. The problem had moved from inconveniently manageable to completely debilitating.

The big first step for us was finding a boatyard willing to work on the issue. In the end, only H2O in Saint Jean de Losne was willing to take this problem on, as the head of the workshop likes challenges. Though he wasn’t particularly expert with the systems, he was interested in figuring this one out.

Wanderlust returns to the water after a long stretch on the hard in Saint Jean de Losne.

H2O’s work began there was another examination of the wiring. Again, as had been found by the engineer on the Thames, there was no obvious fault was found. This time, just in case, the distribution panel was rewired to conform to the French standards. It was to no avail. The AC sync issue persisted. At this point we could rule out an issue from the consumer unit downstream, leaving the Whisper equipment as the only possible source of the problem.

Next H2O turned their attention to the Whisper Power Center, the charger-inverter. Rather than trying to get help from Whisper, H2O contacted Studer-Innotec, whose charger-inverters were modified slightly and rebadged as Whisper’s Power Centers. After several back and forth conversations, Studer decided that their portion of the charger-inverter was working properly and there was no glaring problems in the configuration.

The conversation with Studer did not rule out a problem with the Whisper bits of the Power Center, particularly as these involved the switchover relays. The only option at this point was to appeal again to Whisper.

This time we caught a break: Whisper’s head of the service division who was blocking us from getting service had departed. Without the burden of preconceived notions about the boat, the new head was willing to give some help with Wanderlust’s problems. Thus Wanderlust’s Power Center was boxed up and shipped to the Netherlands for testing and repair. In its place H2O arranged for a loaner Mass Combi Ultra, the Mastervolt equivalent to our Whisper unit, to be installed temporarily so we could continue to live onboard.

The new installation in progress

Weeks later the Power Center returned to Saint Jean de Losne. H2O was told that it had been fixed, though it was never clear what was “fixed”. Nevertheless we were hopeful as our Power Center was reinstalled in the engine compartment. Maybe Wanderlust’s electrical problems would finally be over.

Sadly, when the generator was started the AC sync problem remained. Whatever Whisper had done had made no difference. If they changed something, it wasn’t the cause of the problem.

Though shipping the Power Center to Whisper hadn’t solved Wanderlust’s electrical issues we did learn one important thing from this exercise: With the Mastervolt Mass Combi Ultra installed, the generator synchronization occurred flawlessly on every attempt and shore power sync was never lost. Where Whisper’s Power Center would not work properly, a Mastervolt Mass Combi Ultra would. This experience again suggested there was an undetected issue with Whisper’s Power Center. The most obvious next step would be to try a new Whisper unit.

When Whisper’s head of service visited Wanderlust in Migennes in 2014 he had along a replacement Power Center in case he decided the first replacement unit in Wanderlust was defective. But in the end he convinced himself that the Power Center installed on the boat was working properly and he decided to not swap the replacement unit in. In the late summer of 2018 this decision was looking like a mistake. The most likely explanation for our AC sync problems now was a difficult to detect defect on the second Whisper Power Center that was installed on the Thames in 2014.

H2O now lobbied Whisper for a replacement Power Center to test in situ. Given that their competitor’s product was working without issue, there was motivation to be cooperative. And eventually a new Power Center was shipped to France. When the new Whisper unit arrived it was swapped in to replace the loaner Mastervolt unit that had been functioning perfectly.

The Mastervolt Combi Ultra in place in Wanderlust’s engine compartment.

As the generator was fired up we watched expecting that this Whisper unit would sync without issue and our problems would be over. But once again the issue persisted. The problem was the same: The AC output of Wanderlust’s Whisper Power M-SQ 6 generator would still not sync reliably with Whisper’s replacement Power Center. To this day we still don’t know why.

It was clear now that there was no unidentified defect in the charger-inverter. The problem had to be a design flaw and not a manufacturing defect. For some reason Whisper’s Power Center would not play well with a Whisper generator onboard Wanderlust.

At this point, Wanderlust’s distribution panel had been swapped out. Issues with the consumer appliances on board had been ruled out as a source of the problem by disconnection. Once again it was established that there was no fault downstream Whisper’s equipment.

There remained a possibility is that there was something subtly incompatible about the generator’s output. This would not explain the problems we had recently experienced on shore power, though these had not been observed after the new Power Center was swapped in so it was possible that was a separate fault unrelated to the generator AC sync problem. We had no way of knowing. This left a complicated possibility that there was something about our Whisper M-SQ6 generator’s AC output that made it incompatible with Whisper’s Power Center. But if there was an issue with the generator, it was not obvious, as Whisper, H2O, and my knowledgeable friends had all carefully checked generator and found no fault. If there was a problem, it was going to be very difficult to identify.

A nicely labeled consumer unit.

In the end there was no real choice remaining at this point: We could either spend weeks trying replacing everything on the genset with a vague hope that we would find a change that would allow everything to work properly. Or we could simply replace the Whisper Power Center with a Mass Combi Ultra, which we now knew for a fact would work. As much as it is unsatisfying to not know what the cause of the interface problem, there seemed little option but change the brands. Thus we ordered an expensive new Mass Combi Ultra 24/3500-100 (230 V) to replace Wanderlust’s Whisper Power Center that had never worked properly.

Once in place the Mastervolt unit has worked flawlessly for more than a year of use. It has never once failed to synchronize on the first attempt nor has there been any voltage instability. For the first time we have been able to reliably use Wanderlust’s generator without going through gymnastics to get things working together. The process had taken five and a half years, a lawsuit, and months of lost cruising time, but in the end we had finally reached the point where we should have been at the beginning.

——————–

Potentially more expensive than the cost of the combi charger-inverter was the considerable amount of labor put in by H2O as they tried to resolve the problem trying to find a problem with the boat. Fortunately the head of the boatyard who had worked hard to resolve the problem decided to chalk up his time as personal training. Otherwise we would have been on the hook for weeks of labor.

5 thoughts on “The Generator and the Power Management System

  1. Fascinating.
    I would never have guessed that losing power for a fraction of a second when switching between power sources is now considered unacceptable.

    • To be clear, this wasn’t a loss of power for a fraction of a second. It was a failure of the generator to connect to the system. Basically we could run the generator but it would not provide any charge to the boat.

  2. Your story continues to enthrall, how you guys have kept yourselves focused through all of these issues is something to behold. Wanderlust looks fantastic with the its new ‘trousers’, I am assuming the topsides still remain on a ‘to do’ list but she looks stunning in your photos. While the gradual build up and now part resolution of the builder related issues makes for riveting reader (I think there could be a book in their somewhere) I am looking forward to some new cruising notes and more of your wonderful photographs.
    I hope you are both prepped for a wonderful 2020 season. I wish you both ‘Fairwinds’ from a damp and cold Ireland. Regards.

  3. Hello. It’s incredible how you’ve managed all the problems you have been faced with on Wanderlust. The stress, concern and financial costs must weigh heavily and tarnished so much of your adventure. This must seem like a strange question but through all this adversity would you do it again ? ie, buy a barge and cruise through Europe ?

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