You’ll swoon over this solar pontoon reader project

Published: July 21, 2021

A pontoon with solar panels. Photo courtesy Ron Conway

Ron Conway loves heading out on the lake in his 1989 Springbok pontoon boat at his Donaldson Lake, Que., property, but its engine guzzled gas and had no electric start. “If my son wasn’t here to help with the pull start, I couldn’t use the boat,” says Ron, who’s retired and has been on the lake for more than 50 years.

Not one to be stuck on land, Ron dreamed of a solar-powered motor that wouldn’t require him to lift an engine or gas cans. “I knew there were boats with electric outboard motors, so I thought ‘why can’t I do that with my pontoon?’ ”

An electric motor on a pontoon.
The electric motor works via thrust through a propeller mounted at the bottom of the shaft below the waterline, which is similar to a conventional outboard. Photo courtesy Ron Conway

Ron purchased a kit, which included the solar panel and controller, for less than $500 from Renogy and an electric motor for about $400 from Seamax Marine in Richmond, B.C. After removing the existing engine, he built a two-by-three-foot frame out of pressure-treated wood to hold the controller and protect it from the elements. “The good thing about a pontoon is that there is room to put things,” he says. He installed the electric motor on the transom (like a gas engine, it uses a built-in threaded clamping system) and wired the motor, solar panel, controller, and batteries. To make steering the motor easier, Ron was able to fashion a three-foot extension handle for the motor out of a piece of pipe and some clamps.

After all that, Ron still couldn’t get out on the water. A patient man, he parked the boat and waited. Two days later, the sun had fully charged the battery, which gives him up to two hours of lake time. “I never have to come back to get gas. Even while I’m pontooning, it’s charging,” he says. Admittedly, “it’s slow, more of a trolling motor, but we’re never in a hurry.”

It’s been a highly successful experiment, despite some doubts. “My wife kept saying ‘make sure you bring a paddle with you,’” says Ron, “but I haven’t had to use it.”

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