Warning Lights

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We love generator auto-start. It ensures a kicked-out power plug or power failure doesn’t take $6,000 worth of batteries through a deep discharge cycle and put thousands of dollars in frozen foods at risk. If a two-hour tender trip stretches out to the entire day, auto-start prevents damage to the battery bank. And auto-start avoid a “whoops” situation where the batteries are unnecessarily discharged by forgetting to run the generator.

Auto-start also is a nice convenience factor, in the same way that a home thermostat helps keep the house comfortable. Clearly you could turn the heat on and off as needed and it really wouldn’t be all that hard, but it would be a bit of a hassle. Basically, many tasks are better done by automation. People are much better at hard problems than boring, repetitive tasks.

But generator auto-start does introduce a few new risk points that need to be managed. If someone doesn’t know the boat is auto-start equipped, then there is a chance they could start working on an engine and it be spontaneously started.  Clearly this needs to be protected against so both the main engine and the generator on Dirona have prominently display placards saying “Before service disable auto-start and battery parallel.”

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We also have a bright 20mm blue light in the pilot house, warning if auto-start is enabled.

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I thought those two protections would be sufficient especially since I’m the only one that has worked on either engine since warranty. But, as I said before, people are terrible at repetitive tasks. We are all remarkably good at skill tasks and problem solving, but repetition is neither the most enjoyable nor what we do best. I’ve solved mechanical issues on both engines, changed the fuel injectors on the main engine, and adjusted valves on both engines. But I’ve also changed the oil on the generator with auto-start enabled. Apparently I need a more visible reminder on this one :).

Whenever I make an operational mistake on the boat, I always look to find ways to automate the task away or alarm or warn on it.  If absolutely nothing else can be done to make a mistake easier to avoid, then a checklist is probably the best of the remaining solutions. But, checklists require discipline and many operators overestimate the degree of discipline they will exercise when tired or in a rush. So, I prefer to automate or warn as the first line of defense. In the case of auto-start, I installed a bright blue light in the engine room identical to the one in the pilot house. Both these lights are illuminated whenever auto-start is on. If you are in the pilot house or the engine room, you’ll definitely know if auto-start is on.

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It’s an easy addition to add the light to the auto-start system and it’s a great safety addition that I would recommend for all auto-start installations.

Another thing to remember when installing auto-start (or having it installed) is to ensure that the generator has warm-up and cool-down time. You don’t want the generator starting directly into a load nor do you want it shutting down without some time to cool down without load. This is normally implemented as a large contactor that is open during warm-up and cool-down and connected to the load during normal operation.

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On Dirona, we are using a Northern Lights Wavenet (their latest is the Tough Series Controller) which is a wonderfully flexible control system with auto-start support.  One of the options on the controller is enable a warm up/cool down output pin. This output pin is low (0V) during warm-up and cool-down and high (12V or 24V depending upon the generator configuration) during normal generator operation. If this output pin is connected to the control coil on a properly sized contactor, it’s then easy to program warm-up and cool-down time through the front panel of the Wavenet (also supported by the newer TSC controller). I used 2 minutes of warm-up and 60 seconds of cool-down. That’s all that is required to implement warm-up and cool-down and it’s an important part of any good auto-start install.

I eventually changed the warm up on Dirona to be temperature-sensitive so that it warms up to 150F or for 10 minutes, whichever is first, before taking load. But the simpler 2-minute warm-up described above is completely adequate and only requires the Northern Lights TSC controller and a large properly rated contactor. On our Deere engine, I’ve used the Dynagen TG410 to implement similar functionality. The TG410 also supports auto-start and implements the same warm-up and cool-down features.

While installing the large blue engine room warning light, I decided to add 2 other warning lights at the same time since it wasn’t much additional work. On Dirona, we have a large “Check Light” shown in the pilot house, master stateroom, and salon. If there is a critical error like a shore power loss, this light will show red, we might sound an alarm depending upon severity, and we do send email. If there is a minor fault, like the propane left on for more than an hour, we show a yellow check light (bottom left in the screen shot below).

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The two extra lights in the engine room are a red light, illuminated whenever the red check light is showing in other parts of the boat, and an orange light, illuminated when the yellow check light is showing in other parts of the boat.

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Now from anywhere in the engine room we can see if auto-start is enabled and know whether or not the machinery is safe to work upon. And, if there is a problem anywhere on the boat and a warning is showing, it’ll show in the engine room as well. Some of the warnings, such as showing a yellow light when the fuel transfer pump is running and the supply tank is nearly full, are particularly useful to see when in the potentially loud engine room where we might not hear the audio alert.

These lights will help us see problems faster and make some mistakes much less likely to happen. A warning light for auto-start equipped systems is particularly important and part of getting the value of auto-start without unacceptable risk.

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4 comments on “Warning Lights
  1. Michael Jackson says:

    I love the automation! As a retired airline pilot and now teach pilots to fly biz jets, I’m also a fan of Emergency Checklists! So needed to calm oneself down and do the correct procedures!

    • Yes, your right that both warning indicators and checklists have good value. My strategy is to do all possible to avoid needing an operator to solve problems in an emergency. As much as we can, we want automation to help avoid operator error (for example, auto start rather than rely on the operator). We use warnings to help get the operators attention on a potential problem before it becomes time critical (for example, auto start accidentally left on during maintenance). We deploy redundancy so emergency action is not required (for example, auto start on a second generator so the first can be fixed when there is no time pressure). But, in the end, many tough decisions must be made by the operator in an emergency situation and, for these, checklists are one of the best tactics.

  2. RCD says:

    Hi, great work! How are these connected though your boat PC? I am about to fit autostart to a Westerbeke and the idea of having a notification that is plain to see is a good idea!

    • I forget if the auto start signal is pulled high or low to enable auto start. On the Wavenet, I think it’s pulled low (0V) to start. The best solution is to have that signal also drive a relay or, if circuit doesn’t have the power, have it drive a transistor that drives a relay that drives the light. This is the cleanest and most reliable solution since there is no control logic involved and it’s the one I would recommend.

      On Dirona, since we have three lights that all need to be controlled, I just had the same control system that sends the autos tart signal also send a “Indicator Light On” signal. This works fine but the direct signalling approach described above is slightly better.

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