Features September 1, 1998 Issue

Offshore Log: A Caribbean-built Wind Generator

An expatriate Canadian cruiser is building the attractively designed KISS. It performs reasonably well, is priced low, but that could all change if his business takes off as he hopes.

For the serious cruiser, efficient power generation ranks right up there with an abundant supply of fresh water; without it, life is a real struggle. Today’s cruising boats are more energy-dependent than ever before. Most of us expect a level of comfort and convenience aboard that rivals what we enjoyed ashore. For better or worse, we have gone beyond the basic energy demands of lighting and cooking.

Virtually every cruising boat we have been aboard in the last six months has been equipped with many of the following energy-dependent systems that would have been considered a real luxury just a decade ago: refrigeration; stereo; television and VCR; hot and cold pressure water; extensive communication capabilities; sophisticated navigation and performance instrument systems; multiple-burner stoves, including ovens and broilers, and sometimes, microwave ovens; watermakers; computers; power tools, including drills, saws, and sanders.

While some of these systems are either mechanical—powered directly by an engine or generator—and others, such as stoves, use propane, most of the modern conveniences require a consistent, and abundant, supply of 12-volt electricity.

For coastal sailors and occasional cruisers, this is usually supplied by an alternator driven by the main engine. The adaptation of high-output alternators to marine use and the development of sophisticated, multi-stage regulation systems has gone a long way toward making energy-hungry conveniences possible. But what happens when the engine breaks down or the alternator fails? Will your life come to a screeching halt until repairs are made?

Unless you have an alternative means of generating power, the answer may well be a resounding “Yes!”

We experienced this firsthand when our alternator packed up earlier this year. Fortunately, we carry a backup alternator and backup regulator, and suffered only a few hours of worry and inconvenience while putting things right. The realization of just how dependent we are on the main engine, however, made us give serious thought to alternative means of electrical generation.

The primary alternative means of electrical generation aboard cruising sailboats are wind generators and solar panels. Solar panels are relatively expensive for their power output, and require a lot of mounting space. Wind generators take up less space, but they tend to be noisy, may in some wind conditions become dangerous to the crew, and in previous PS tests (November 15, 1995), produced less power over time than we anticipated.

In tradewind cruising areas of the world, such as the Caribbean and the islands of the South Pacific, the more consistent and higher-velocity winds create a natural venue for wind-powered electrical generation.

The downside of wind-powered generation, or course, is that you must seek out windy anchorages, rather than the calm ones that cruisers cherish. At the very least, this usually means anchoring further from shore. Given the noise created by many wind generators, your fellow cruisers may well thank you for anchoring away from them.

If you are also running your watermaker in the anchorage, you probably have already moved away from other cruising boats to improve the quality of seawater that ends up as the fresh water you drink. You may, in fact, become downright antisocial by achieving a high level of independence!

Over the last few months, we have become increasingly interested in alternative ways of generating electricity, as our leap into the vast reaches of the Pacific—and away from sources of supply and support—comes closer to reality. We have begun interviewing other cruisers with solar and wind generators—the only practical alternatives at this time.

Of great interest has been the large number of cruising boats sporting wind generators. On American boats, Fourwinds II and Air Marine generators dominate, and we will report on their owners’ experience with these units in a future article.

The KISS Wind Generator
Trinidad, where we are spending the hurricane season, has a booming marine industry, with low labor costs. An increasing number of marine service and manufacturing companies are springing up in this small, rapidly industrializing country.

In Chaguaramas, Trinidad, we discovered a relatively new player in the marine wind generator field: KISS Energy Systems.

KISS is the brainchild of Doug Billings, a Canadian cruiser who began in the energy business not many years ago by building a wind generator for himself, hand-carving the wooden blades. Before he escaped from the cold northland, he built another five generators for friends. Once in the Caribbean, he designed and built a series of generator-based wind turbines called Doug Buggers. Fortunately, that name was left behind when he created a new alternator-based machine called the KISS High-output Wind Generator.

We all know that KISS means “Keep it simple, stupid,” and Billings has kept his generator about as simple as it can be. It is a straightforward machine, simple but reasonably elegant in design, bulletproof in construction, and as close to idiot-proof as possible.

The KISS wind generator is almost completely a product of Trinidad. The clean-looking and reasonably low-drag fiberglass one-piece body is hand-molded in Billings’ Chaguaramas shop, as are the blades and front bell housing. The components of the three-phase permanent-magnet alternator—Billings’ own design—are sub-contracted to local fabricators.

Alternator rotor bearings are world-standard #6203 metric ball bearings. A standard automotive diode pack converts the alternator’s AC output to DC.

In the shop, the alternator is installed and the bell housing is bolted and sealed to the body with silicone. This is simple, effective, and waterproof construction.

All-up weight of the KISS generator, less any mounting arrangement, is about 17 lbs. This is less than the weight of all other comparable wind generators except the lightweight Air Marine wind turbine.

The 30" blades are molded by Billings using five layers of bi-axial fiberglass in a pigmented polyester resin matrix. The male/female mold results in very consistent blade construction. Sets of three blades are selected by weight, and the final assembly (the blades are bolted to a machined aluminum hub) is statically balanced using a hose clamp shifted around the hub as a balancing weight. KISS, remember?

The blades are a true airfoil, highly cambered and twisted near the hub for good low-speed torque. Blade ends are elliptical, minimizing tip noise—the annoying ripping sound that makes many wind generators such bad neighbors in an anchorage.

Simple Testing
Compared to the 1995 PS tests of wind generators, our test of the KISS generator was both rudimentary and somewhat agricultural. Billings’ own tests over time have generated output curves, and our goal was merely to verify output at the specific wind level that most reasonably represents open-ocean or exposed anchorage tradewind conditions: 15 knots of breeze.

The tradewinds do not die at night in the same manner as thermally generated coastal breezes. During the 1998 winter season, the Caribbean trades averaged well over 15 knots, and we were happy to see winds that light in more exposed anchorages.

On the leeward side of Trinidad, however, the tradewinds are pretty much non-existent. Instead, we generated 15 knots of breeze by early-morning timed runs over a government-marked half-kilometer road course. Output was measured with a BK 9300G digital multimeter.

The KISS generator was mounted on the bed of an ancient Land Rover, with the generator 13.5' above ground. Working up a head of steam, we entered the marked course trying to maintain a relatively constant output from the generator, rather than attempting to maintain a fixed speed.

Over a series of timed runs in each direction, our calculated “windspeed” ranged from a low of 13 knots to a high of 15.7 knots. We found Billings’ guarantee—7.5 amps of output in 15 knots of breeze—to be an accurate representation of KISS output at that windspeed. (For comparison, in our 1995 tests, the Fourwinds II produced 9 amps at 15 knots, the Airmarine 5.6 amps, and the Ampair 100 3 amps.) Our slightly slower run verified output at 13 knots—about 4.5 amps. A partial run at about 18 knots saw output leap to over 10 amps, demonstrating the very steep power generation curve of the machine. Based on these simple tests, we feel that the advertised output curve for the KISS generator is a reasonable representation of the actual output of the machine at specific wind velocities.

As with many other wind generators, output at wind velocities much lower than 10 to 12 knots is very limited.

One run was aborted when the wind generator turned into a tree pruner, finding some low overhanging branches. The fiberglass rotor survived the too-close encounter with no damage.

Mounting Systems
There are two mounting options for the KISS generator: A simple anodized aluminum stern pole with diagonal braces, or an aluminum bracket for mizzen masts. Each costs $160.

The 9' stern pole provides 6' 8" of head clearance below the 60" diameter blade disc—more than enough headroom for most of us. For split rigs, the mast mount allows the generator to be raised to greater heights, letting you take advantage of the wind gradient and moving generator noise even further away from the cockpit.

Our road tests did not provide a reasonable measure of the noise produced by the KISS generator. We did, however, spend two months in Trinidad with a KISS generator as a close neighbor. We found it quiet, particularly when compared to the very objectionable level of noise produced by the Air Marine generators we have encountered over the last year.

Electrical Protection
In winds of up to about 30 knots, an electrical brake slows the unit’s rotation to a crawl if you want to stop free-wheeling when not producing electricity. Above that point, the unit should be turned off and allowed to free-wheel. If the alternator is left on in high winds and overheats, a thermal switch shuts down the alternator and allows the blades to spin.

Although Billings says at least one machine has survived hurricane-force winds, we would lock the blades in place with a shock cord retainer when bad conditions are forecast.

Guarantee and Documentation
The KISS wind generator comes with a three-year guarantee, but at this time there are no written terms for that guarantee. Likewise, system documentation at this time is virtually nil. Billings is so busy making and installing generators that he has not found the time to produce an owner’s manual. If his business is to grow beyond the local market, an owner’s manual will become a major priority.

The Bottom Line
Historically, most of the players in the marine wind generator field have been small shops. The advantage of this is that the designer and builder of the machine is the guy that answers the phone when you call with a problem. The downside is that one-man shows are a juggling act. Delivery schedules, back-up service and long-term product support are difficult to predict.

Billings produces his generators a few at a time (a half dozen were under construction in his shop when we visited) and is completely responsible for the success or failure of the product. He runs what is essentially a one-man shop, has no distribution network, and is potentially subject to every human frailty that we all face. If he is to expand outside the Caribbean market, all this must change. The result, of course, will be a more expensive machine.

The KISS High-Output Wind Generator is a promising addition to the alternative energy market. At $795, it is one of the lowest-cost wind generators available. Its simple, robust construction is a plus.

To get the most out of a wind generator, you must sail where there is lots of wind. You must also park your boat in windy anchorages. Since this describes the conditions in many of the world’s best cruising areas, the KISS wind generator is a viable alternative for the sailor desiring a high degree of energy independence. You must, however, be adventurous enough to take a chance on a one-man shop in a distant island. We’ve made far worse bets.

Contact- KISS Energy Systems, Private Bag 195, Carenage Post Office, Chaguaramas, Trinidad, West Indies; Phone and fax: 868-634-4929.

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