Going Off The Grid
by John Mackenzie
February 17, 2005
A friend of mine, Christopher Niner, has been living off the grid for awhile now. We communicate daily about the trials and tribulations in Alternative Energy as his experience has been an invaluable resource for me. When I asked him if he wouldn�t mind sharing his �Dairy� with my readership, he encouraged me to do so.
It is a work in progress for him, but covers a lot of ground that will help compound the knowledge base accumulated to those of you who have expressed an interest in �real world� information from people living off the grid and preparing for an independent future. -- JRM [Web Note: all images are thumbnails. Click to enlarge.]
Having a good quality, reliable generator is a good idea. It can provide a large amount of power for as long as needed. Pumping water once a week, doing laundry while charging batteries at the same time, unexpected guests that are used to grid power or a major construction project, for example. Do not plan your system around running the generator a lot. It will cost far more in fuel and maintenance than the solar/inverter over time. It is also noisy and will make for bad neighbors.
Most larger inverters have a built in battery charger. I have the Trace DR 3624 inverter and a Honda EN2500 generator. The inverter has a built in 70 amp charger. After the generator is started it waits about 45 seconds, this gives the generator time to warm up before the charger loads it down.
I bought the Honda locally at Rocky Mountain Supply in Alamogordo. I got it home, pulled the spark plug and put about a half teaspoon of oil in the cylinder. I replaced the plug and went for a sandwich. I returned and ran it for 2 hrs under no load. I then shut it off and drained the hot oil and an hour later returned and replaced the oil with Mobil one.
The generator ran fine for about 6 hrs and then suddenly cut off. I restarted it and just about the time I could get in the house it would do it again.
At first I thought it might be water in the fuel so I drained the gas into a can and looked for water. None. I tried running it a few times again and the same result, dying anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour.
I loaded up the generator and took it back to the store and They assured me that it would be fixed. (18 hrs total run time) The next day I got a call and the generator was ready to pick up.
After getting there I was informed that there was no problem found and that I owed $29. Can you spell waruuntee ? I was told warrantee work was for actual problems so I guess I drank some bad Pepsi and imagined the whole thing.
I paid the $29 and went home. I started the generator up right on the tailgate of the truck, 5 minutes later it quit. I got the manual out and learned how the oil shut off circuit works. After 5 minutes with an ohm meter I learned that this switch is rubbing somewhere internally so simply unplugging it 'fixed' my problem.
Lesson learned. Be careful where you buy your equipment. I have an hourmeter in the circuit for the generator and I change the oil at 25 hrs. I check the oil every time I fill the fuel and it never seems to drop. Honda makes a fine engine, just try to find a good shop to have it serviced or learn to do it yourself.
One big point to be aware of the generator run time.. how long will it run on a tank of gas with a given load? compare before you buy--go for at least 6 hrs of run time. Even better, choose a generator that runs on propane. Propane doesn't go stale like gasoline and doesn't require choking to start the thing in cold weather, enabling remote starting. It can run off the main tank supplying your house so no more refills. Some of the larger Trace and Outback inverters that have timers that will manage generator time around loads, neighbor complaints of noise and of course battery state.
There will be times when you run the generator in summer but the major use will be mid winter so the generator will be running in a cold environment. This is a good thing. Heat is the enemy. Use synthetic oil and change it more often than needed. It takes less than one quart and saving the engine is well worth it.
Most generators are sold set up for operation at or near sea level. If you live in the mountains have the carborator rejetted for the altitude where it will be used. Running a generator 'rich' will blacken the spark plug and muffler with carbon, wasting fuel and reducing reliability. My rejet kit cost about $20 and can be switched back to the old one in 15 minutes.
Another caution is that chargers are rated with a strong 164 peak to peak (120 volt average) voltage. Many small generators will only run 110 volts on standby and under load I have seen them as low as 100 volts.. pitiful! The 70 amp charger now is delivering 20 amps or less...generator is still burning plenty of gas though! Don't bother asking the guys at the store, they won't know what you are talking about...been there and done that.
You can get a larger more powerful generator to avoid this or you could connect a buck/boost transformer that will add about 10 percent to the generators voltage. Instead of the buckboost, you could instead use a variac transformer, this is a rotary knob controlled transformer that will go from zero to about 125 percent of what is input. Be careful, try it out with a meter first with some sort of large, non sensitive load pulling the generator down. I used a toaster. Don't put more than 125 volts into your inverter.
Variacs are commonly used to dim stage lighting and are rated anywhere from a few hundred watts to ten thousand or more. Mine is a 2,000 watt size and is about 10 X 10 X 8 inches tall. It weighs about 10 pounds. I found it on Ebay for $125. Beware, when the charger in the trace switches off, there will be a power surge out of the generator. Trace engineers, are you listening? If you are used to your system and keep an eye on the battery voltage, you will know about when it will switch off. The point is, don't have anything sensitive to power surges running if you think it could switch off. I just run DC loads when charging to be safe. I experimented with a tripplite power surge protector and it gave up the ghost at 140 volts. It only took a blink of the eye to go POOF! The replacement MOV's were easy to replace and it is back in service.
My 29 volt 9 HP/3000 watt Subaru/Robin battery charger. runs on propane and is electric start that takes a key. It runs on propane, no gasoline. It could be connected to the main tank to avoid filling the little bottles.
You can charge batteries directly with DC charging from an engine driven alternator. A small engine intended for a rotor tiller connected to a alternator with belt drive and pulleys will charge a small system very nicely. For larger systems, there are large DC chargers available. I bought a Subaru Robin 9 horsepower engine with keyed electric start. It has a 70 amp, 29 volt alternator on it. The engine runs on propane.
Batteries will soak up the most amps per hour when they are nearly dead.. as the batteries charge, the energy being absorbed will taper off. There is a point when it is no longer economical to run the generator. With the Trimetric i know pretty much what the state of the batteries are percentage wise at all times. If i get to 65 percent and no wind storms or sunshine is forecast for the next few days, i will run the generator for 90-120 minutes. This replaces a days worth of sunshine, maybe more. When the batteries reach 90 percent I turn off the generator because the charge rate is so low it isn't worth the waste of fuel.
I have heard good things about the new Honda EU series of generators. These generators are actually DC powered and supply an onboard inverter. the inverter puts out a sine wave and is very clean. the engine speed is varied by the demands put on the inverter. They run a very long time in situations like construction where you need the occasional electric drill or saw.. an old fashioned kind sits there humming along at 3600 RPM no matter what the actual load is.. very smart idea from Honda.
Finally, having a generator makes you much bolder about using power from your wind/solar gear.. being overly conservative with something that is there if you use it or not is the same as the knucklehead that leaves his lights on in the daytime, it's a waste. You paid a lot for the solar/wind gear, use all its output to best results.
Energy collected by a wind generator or solar panels is stored in batteries so it can be used later and probably at a much greater rate than it was collected. There are several types of batteries but for the off grid home its hard to beat the old fashioned lead-acid deep-cycle battery. I started out with a set of 6 golf cart batteries, these are 6 volt and 220 amps each. they are durable and a great battery to learn on. They can take a lot of abuse and can be moved around easily at 65 pounds each.
The golf cart battery is commonly available and is great to learn on. At 65 pounds, 6 volts and 220 amp/hrs 2 or 4 of them make a good battery bank for a cabin or motor home. I have sold and installed quite a few of these and they work well.
A golf cart battery is the minimum sized battery for off grid power...do not use the so called deep-cycle boat or RV batteries found at auto parts stores.. They don't last long.
Plan ahead, buy batteries in sets of 4 and if in doubt of the size battery bank you need, round up to an additional 4 batteries. This way you can change from 12 volts to the much more efficient 24 volts later by simply rewiring. Adding some new batteries to a set already in service is NOT a good idea.
After 2 years of living with the golf cart batteries it was time to upgrade to 24 volts. After living here several winters I knew I needed more storage.
I chose 8 L-16 HC batteries. These are much larger 6 volt batteries. An L-16 HC takes about the same floor space as a golf cart battery, however it is twice as tall and twice as heavy at 132 pounds.
Oddly enough, the golf cart batteries have hooks for snap on handles. The much more awkward L-16 HC does not.. Guys, please, there are no forklifts here in the woods! My set of 8 add up to 830 amps at 28 volts. Weight, nearly 1,100 pounds.
The L16-HC battery. A real workhorse. 132 pounds each, 6 volt and 415 amp/hrs. I have 8 of these. When hauling batteries strap them together on a sheet of plywood with a ratchet strap so they will not tip over.
L-16 and L-16 HC batteries are commonly used in off grid applications. They are also used in forklifts, floor scrubbers, etc. They are available at most battery wholesalers. Select your battery location carefully. Will the floor be strong enough to support them? Can you vent the hydrogen that is created when charging outside without too much trouble? Will they be warm in winter?
A batteries advertised rating is at 75 degrees. At 32 degrees it is down to about half that. Think of the last time your car sat all night in the cold.. the engine turns over much more slowly because the chemical reaction in the battery is slowed by the cold.
Battery connections need to be as short as practical without blocking the cells for watering. Connections need to be clean, metal to metal. shine everything with a wire brush, bolt tightly and then coat the terminal and connector with Vaseline. This will keep the connection from corroding.
I also place a short piece of copper tubing next to each positive terminal. This will corrode away if there is any acid present. You will know cause it will turn green. If you have your charge controller set properly, you shouldn't have a lot of gassing anyhow.
When working around batteries, be very careful, a dropped tool could short out a battery and could send you staggering blindly for the door...or worse... be careful.
I have a screwdriver somewhere around here that had its tip vaporized that way. About 3/4 disappeared and reappeared in my lungs as I boogied out of there. I now use a screwdriver that has rubber tubing over the entire length except for the blade itself. I also have a crescent wrench wrapped in several layers of electrical tape in case I drop it.
When adding water, wear goggles and have a flashlight to check water levels. It is very hard to see the water in low light and usually all you can see is your own reflection.. get a good quality flashlight and also a small funnel to prevent spills. Use only distilled water.. never put tap water in a battery. pure water does not conduct electricity, it's the minerals or salts in the water that do.. never put anything but distilled water in your batteries! It is available at most grocery stores. Keep several gallons on hand.
Avoid watering the batteries when they are discharged... The electrolyte expands when charged, if you put in too much when they are drained, you will have a mess to clean up later. I learned that the hard way. I check my battery water level every 2 months.
size your batteries conservatively, Having more than you need is a win-win situation. Falling asleep on the sofa in front of the TV or just having a guest for a week or two will tax your system especially in winter. Having that bigger reserve will keep things going. The flip side of this is that in average use the batteries will be cycled down much less with a larger battery bank making them last longer. It reminds me of folks running into the gas station and getting $5 of gas only to have to keep coming back. You got to watch a mile down the road, not over the end of the hood. Play it smart.
Most people add up their daily power loads and figure on a week of clouds and then buy the batteries. That's a good start. However, consider the occasional wallup they will take by using an air compressor or any combination of large appliances either intentional or accidental. I tell people it's like pulling a car out of a ditch- You don't pull it far but you need a strong rope. This is called 'brute force amps' and you must consider how much the battery bank can deliver without damage.
Choosing a Kitchen Stove
Kitchen stoves in an off grid home must be propane. Avoid the piezo-electric start models. Buy one with pilot lights and turn them off. You will be in there anyhow making sure the regulator is on propane and not natural gas. If backwards you will have burners that resemble 12 bananas coming out.
There is a tiny inline brass screw that cuts the gas to the pilots. The oven pilot will remain on however, it is a minor drain on the gas supply. I use one of those grill lighters that is a lighter that resembles a pistol. It ran out of gas long ago. It doesn't need to make a flame, just a spark to light the burners.
Some ovens have a 'glo-bar' in them. This is a resistive heater that can use more than 500 watts. Make sure it doesn't have one of these.
Having a microwave is nice, in summer. you will more than likely have more electricity than you can use so try to heat water and do whatever cooking with the microwave and save the gas.
Buying gas off season saves me as much as 50 cents a gallon. I have a 250 gallon tank that lasts more than a yr. The propane company gives cash customers a discount when ordering more than 100 gallons. I am below 20 percent when i call. Do not allow the tank to get below 10 percent. By law they are supposed to test the tank. At your expense of course.
Cooling needs are offset with higher solar energy production in an off-grid home, so at least there will be decent output from your array when you have a need for cooling. The same holds true for the refrigerator, if the house is a bit warmer because of a hot day, the fridge will be working harder. The flip side of that is that a solar array will be producing more energy than if it were a cloudy day, when of course cooling demand will be down.
Attics should be well vented. An unvented attic, even with light colored shingles will be 150 degrees or more on a warm summer day. Basically what happens is this, in the morning everything is fine.. about 9 AM the attic begins to warm up. By noon its really hot up there and the insulation begins to absorb warm air. by the end of the day it is holding and transmitting heat through the drywall ceiling into the house... hours after sundown the heat trapped in the insulation is still warming the house and keeping the AC system running.
Look around, Houses are made of single row stick frame, have little overhang and no consideration for orientation to the sun. Many houses even have dark colored roofs, in one of the sunniest places on earth. Move on in, turn up the AC and stay 30 years. Is anyone out there paying attention? The cost of ownership is a big part of a home. How much more will the homeowner pay with the black roof than the one next door? Shingles last nearly 20 yrs if put on right, even under the scorching heat. Think about it.
Every attic should be vented, and not just for cooling purposes. In winter an unvented attic will fill with condensation which will be absorbed by the insulation, The R factor will be reduced to nearly nothing and you could actually get water damage seeping through the walls and ceilings. Mold, rotten wood, odors and high heat bills will result.
Natural convection and wind is best but can be helped with very little energy input. A small 24 volt fan connected to a single 50 watt panel will move huge amounts of air through an attic. As the sun rises higher in the sky, the panel will run the fan faster and then slowly taper off until sunset. A perfect match.
If you are using grid power, fans with thermostat switches built in are available for around $40. They are pretty easy to install, especially in a shingled roof. Remember, for more air to get out, more has to get in, so the vents under the eaves have to be looked at and probably more added. I see many house, even new ones with inadequate venting.
If you live in the southwest there is a good chance you have an evaporative cooler. If you do, you first must realize, like an engine, what goes in, must go out, at the same rate. I go into so many buildings and homes that have a large cooler running and nowhere for the air to escape. All this does is make noise and waste power. The humidity level is usually overwhelming. Opening a window slightly in each room, starting with the rooms that need the most cooling of course, is the most obvious action.
If you do live in a house with a pitched roof and an attic, there is something you can do that will really make a big difference.
A friend of mine asked me to check out his house and see what He might do. After a minute or two I noticed a large opening in the garage ceiling into the attic. I also noticed that He had no windows open. The only air that was escaping was through cracks and under doors.
Once the garage door was closed, attic access door removed and the door from the house into the garage opened, the cooler was cooling the house much more effectively and since it was exiting through the attic instead of the usual windows, It was getting rid of all that radiant heat. A grid shade meant for large florescent lighting now is in place of the missing attic access door. Easy solution, right there all the time. Cost: $10.
All the house needs now is a little more ridge venting, a thermostat for the swamp cooler, tinting on the west facing windows and some shading built between spans between the pillars on the west side of the house. This would keep the blazing sunset off the house. He could come home to a nice cool home every day. The garage door is uninsulated, but that could be added to each panel section. Total project cost would probably be less than $250 in materials and take a weekend to complete at a casual pace.
Small improvements like this add comfort and value to your home. Take one thing at a time, use common sense and before you know it the electric bill will shrink.
If reroofing a house or building new, choose light colors for the roof material. It is far easier to reflect heat off to begin with than to absorb it and then try to move it away. The next time you see a black car parked next to a white one, put one hand on each.. big difference.
Efficient appliances not only use less energy, they give off much less heat by product. an average home or office full of incandescent light bulbs, old fashioned computer monitors and maybe a fridge or two tossed in will put a great toll on the air conditioning system.
The energy used by compact fluorescents, LCD computer monitors and a sunfrost fridge would be between 20 and 25 percent of the load and doing the same work. To give you some idea, an average person burns enough calories (Latin for heat) to equal about the same as an old tech 100 watt incandescent light bulb.
If you have ever been stuck in an elevator with a bunch of people, you know how the temperature rises. Now, think of the electrical load of the average office, say 2,500 watts, sort of like 25 people crammed into an elevator. Replacing the old technology with the new as the old stuff wears out would be the smart thing to do. The AC system would have a lot less heat to remove also, saving even more energy.
Electricity From the Sun
My friend John Gonzales from Tularosa Communications takes a break from working at the ISP and gets on the roof. Homemade rack was made from locally obtained aluminum angle and a lot of drilling and bolting. I snapped a line on the roof with a chalk line and built the rack in place using the existing holes in the panels and one of the rows of bolts holding the roof metal down as a pattern.
Solar panels convert sunshine into electrical current. You can charge batteries or run something directly like a fan in the attic. This is a great way to use a panel. The demand for cooling will be proportional to the panels output. You could also pump water, etc. Panels come in many sizes ranging from less than a watt to 150+ watts. I like the 75 watt size. they are easy to handle while working alone on a roof or going up and down a ladder. Keep in mind, the bigger the panel, the less per watt it usually costs so shop around. Also, do you plan on going with 12, 24 or 48 volt? If you want to start out with 12 and later change over to 24 later, get your panels in multiples of 2. If you ever want to go to 48, get them in multiples of 4. You may end up with an odd number and that missing panel you need just may be discontinued now.. plan ahead.
Any small shaded area on a panel will greatly decrease its output. I estimate that a 10 percent area shaded reduces the power output more than 50 percent. A few wet leaves sticking to a panel will really hurt performance. Remember one thing about trees, they grow. Trim or cut them down if you have to. Live with your system for a yr. December 21st will give you the lowest sun angle. check what is casting a shadow around your array and deal with it.
When choosing a charge controller, get one that will handle enough current for any future upgrades and also one that is voltage selectable. Most larger controllers have a tap for 12-24-48 volts. The trace C-40 and many other controllers can be wired 'backwards' and turn something on, such as an attic fan or water pump when the batteries are full. This assures getting full use of the power generated from your solar array or wind generator. Turning on attic fans, evaporative cooler, or pumping a water tank full would be a few wise uses for this surplus power. Very important, don't connect controller when the array is in the sun or the load is on, in diversion mode, it could zap the controller's electronics.
The C-40 charge controller/diversion load controller
Neighbors 300 watt array. He had 2 75 watt panels. I sold him two more and he built this rack. He is really pioneering it down there right now.
An inverter takes battery power, DC, either 12, 24 or 48 volts and turns into alternating current.. AC, just like what's coming out of the outlets in nearly every home in the US... just homemade. Most commonly is modified sine wave, these are cheaper than the better quality true sine wave inverters and can cause some buzz on inexpensive stereo equipment. Some cordless tool chargers go bad on modified sine wave power.
True sine wave is really nice if you can afford to spend more money on it. cordless tool chargers wont know the difference from grid power and stereos will sound nicer. One way to avoid the stereo problems is to use a high quality car CD/stereo. I have a pioneer CD player that is using regular small house speakers. It operates on 12 volts.
I am not sure about true sine wave but I can tell you that an AM radio will be wiped out by inverter noise. You can twist the heavy gauge leads from the battery to the inverter and of course it should be grounded well. Still, it is difficult to hear weaker stations.
Trace sells a remote switch that comes with a 50 foot cord. I like having this option because with the push of a button I can eliminate inverter noise when i am listening to the shortwave. I installed the switch in the radio room.
Washing clothes uses energy in many forms. Electricity is used of course- running the washer. Also, energy to pump and heat the water. A well designed washer saves a lot of energy. In an off grid home its a necessity.
It took me nearly two years living here before I could afford a washer and escape the weekly trip to the laundromat. I bought the Staber 2000. At a discount price, still $925 plus freight, it was a big purchase for me but it used about 1/3 the water and 1/2 or less the power of the usual suspects.
Many washers agitate the water by a back and forth motion, electrically its like filling a shopping cart and then jerking it back and forth. Most of the energy is used to arrest the motion and then reverse it. It also wears on the clothes because of the friction. Who's idea was that !?
The Staber spins in one direction for a while, then the other. It can get by with this by design. The inner tub that contains the clothes has 6 sides. The bottom of the outer tub that holds the water is formed by 4 equally spaced 45 degree corners.
As the inner tub turns the water is forced in and out of hundreds of holes that are in the inner tub by turbulence and cavitation in the water. This accomplishes the same result as the jerk and yank method, only without overheating the poor inverter, killing batteries or just spinning the meter faster for you on the grid type folks.
Of course the Staber is a natural for the southwest, It uses 15 gallons of water instead of the average 45. figure 10 loads of wash a week for a family, that's 300 gallons of water that isn't used... do the math. It could really make a difference.
Most laundry is done in warm or hot water. Heating 15 gallons takes 1/3 the energy of heating 45. Pretty simple logic, right?
Because the Staber uses less water, it uses less soap as well. I put a little under half what is recommended for a regular washer.
I catch up to 70 percent of the water used here from the roof. Rain water does not contain minerals like ground water does, In this area, the well water is awful. The soap has to fight the water first, dirty clothes second! Rain water is soft already, free of minerals. Clothes come out smelling good and feeling soft-even with ordinary soap.
The Staber spin cycle really hauls. The clothes are nearly spun dry. This would really save energy if I were using a clothes dryer. I do have a gas dryer, I use it only occasionally. The clothes line works just fine.
The Staber uses 110 volts AC, ordinary household power, so having an inverter or running the generator is necessary. If you want to keep it simple and go without an inverter, wire for DC only, get a charger and use the generator at night for battery charging while the washer runs. The Staber seems to pull no more than 500 watts even while spinning so a small inverter should do fine. My inverter can run an air compressor and a shop full of tools so there is no worry there. I do usually wait until 10 am to 2 pm to do the wash. This takes a load off the battery system.
Natural lighting should be used as much as possible along with light colors to help brighten the room. Skylights are a nice way to bring light into rooms that would most likely be on the north side of the house.
As for electric lights, I have compact fluorescents in every room. I also run 24 volt DC wiring to each room for low voltage lighting. This is a efficient way to go if the only thing on is lights, an inverter running at low power levels to supply 20-100 watts is a inefficient way to do it.
Having DC lighting also makes sure if there ever was a failure with the inverter, you would still have lights. The same holds true for the refrigerator. Another great bonus to this is it leaves the inverter unburdened to do other work. 80 percent of the time my inverter is asleep. It is always ready but it isn't kept puttering along running the small stuff.
Inverters are rated for efficiency at high power levels, usually at 2/3rds of maximum output. at 50 watts or less, it may approach 60 percent efficiency. A 50 watt light burning will take more like 80 watts from the battery in that situation. The trace DR series of inverters takes about 8 watts just to be running without a load on it and they are very good. The cheaper ones use much more. the trace DR (and other high end inverters), have sleep mode. This way when there is nothing switched on, it I will shut off. Set the sleep mode and save some power.
DC lights avoid the inverter coming on so all things being equal, they save a lot of energy. Although still expensive, LED lighting is very good for low light situations and they use very little power. I have one that was a truck turn signal, it lights up a room quite well and uses just 7 watts. It should last for many years as well. It 'hides' on top of a pedestal lamp.
Lightning is a threat to any home. An off grid home might be out in the open or worse, on top of a hill where it is more likely to be struck.
Proper precautions need to be made to protect sensitive electronic gear such as inverters and charge controllers. I have had people explain to me that grounding something increases your chances of lightning. Well, that is wrong, sorry. Voltage potentials high enough to jump through a mile of air are not going to notice enough difference in path resistance between hitting the tree or the ground a few feet away or your roof. The difference is when you do take a hit or a near hit, the path to ground is as low resistance as possible. The tree goes up in smoke because it impedes the energy, and pays the price.
Metal objects act like capacitors when they are ungrounded, building up static charge until they have enough voltage potential to jump off or through to something, or someone else. Every electrical ground and neutral wire should be bonded properly and all ground systems bonded so they offer the same potential, no matter where they are struck. Metal roofs, wind generators and solar arrays are right in the shooting gallery. Make sure it is all properly grounded.
I have 6 ground rods around the house and 3 at the tower. All 8 ft long and driven in all the way, just 6 inches showing above ground. Ground rods must be all connected (bonded) together. If they are not, a surge from lightning will jump through something plugged into the wall to get to the next ground rod that isn't already saturated with energy.. like water, it will seek an easier path and it takes just microseconds to arc through and destroy some transistorized gadget. This problem condition is called a ground loop and you want to avoid it.
6 gauge bare copper wire is strung between all the ground rods and those wires are buried 6 inches deep. On the lower end of the house there are 'bleeders'.. long wires running downhill about 50 ft. The more contact with the earth, the better. The tower has the same thing. Each leg has a 50 foot long bare wire extending out. Planning any earth moving? place as much wire zig zagging around so you can bury it. Leave the end of it long enough to tie into the ground system.
In each AC outlet there are two MOV's or Metal Oxide Varisters. This is a device that presents an open circuit to the normal 120 volts. If a power surge occurs and the voltage jumps to 140+ volts they conduct and give the hot and neutral wire a direct path to ground. If the surge is potent enough, the MOV will be destroyed and you will have to replace it. You will know when one goes, they smell pretty bad. Some times they trip the circuit breaker first, sometimes they fry. Low voltage versions are available and can be put on the wiring coming from the solar panels and wind generator as well.
The junction box that connects the leads from my solar panels has a lightning arrester as well.
Panel Mounts, Racks and Trackers
Solar panels can be mounted just about anywhere. They are put on off grid homes, motor homes, traffic lights and satellites in space. There are some considerations to picking the method of mounting them, however.
First of all, due south isn't always the answer. Do you have a clear shot of the southern path of the sun on the shortest day of the year? If there is a hill or maybe trees that are located on someone else's property? You have to aim the array in middle of the best part of the sky that you have.
I built this rack in place. I used the row of screws that were already in the roof and use the existing holes in the panels. Snap a line with chalk and go to work. The rack vertical supports are drilled in 3 places, winter, summer and halfway for spring/fall.
I added 2 more panels when i decided to get a Sunfrost fridge. In this photo, panels are down in the summertime position.
If mounting panels on a roof, you can build your rack accordingly. Remember, a small shadow cast on a panel cuts its output dramatically. Your panels might be safer from thieves but you may have to get the garden hose out if wet leaves get attached to your array. Also, the panels should be adjusted for tilt angle at least 3 times a year, so either arrange it so that you can swing an arm from the ground or get used to climbing up on the roof occasionally.
If you want to mount the array on the ground, a sturdy rack of steel pipe or wood set in concrete will do. I don't have a welder so I have mastered the plate and muffler clamp method. If you wanted to spend the extra money, a tracker could be set in concrete and it will follow the sun.
My favorite cheap ground method is the old C-band dish mount. Keep an eye peeled for the solid 9-12 ft dishes that are scattered all around. Don't go for the mesh dishes unless you are mounting just a small panel or two. They are pretty flimsy. These mounts are usually made to fit a 6 inch steel pipe. Well casing pipe is available, sometime free. You will need to have it cut however. If you have a cutting torch, cut it off and use the jagged end to place in the concrete.
The solid dish mounts are very heavy and high quality. They have adjustments for all directions and you can replace the motor drive with a trailer hitch lift, as in on a boat trailer. If you are skilled in electronics, a homebrew drive system could keep it aimed at the sun. Another bonus is that people will usually thank you to haul this stuff off. I am considering options for the old dishes. Fake UFO to scare tourists? Gigantic 3 bladed wind generator? Prehistoric sized bird bath? Roof for hot tub.. any ideas?.. bring 'em on.
If you are on the south slope of a hill and a ways back from your property line, there are few worries. If you are on a north slope and close to the line, figure out what your latitude is and offset 15 degrees and check for tree lines and the possibility of non believers bringing in the dreaded power line poles.
Remember this, trees grow and grudge fences can be built so figure in all these things before committing to a spot.
If you are going to have a 12 volt system, get at least 4 gauge wire unless the array is mounted very close, within 25 feet. It is sold quite reasonably for bringing in 220/440 power to large on grid installations. It is stiff and difficult to work with but it works quite well for this purpose. You can use thinner wire for 24 and 48 volt but, hey it's not that much more money and you have less losses.
A phantom load is a device or appliance that uses power even when switched off. The average home is full of them. Off grid homes must have this under control to even consider running the home with solar or wind power.
Every home in the US has a TV and VCR sitting there quietly draining power away from the grid. The total phantom load from this stuff of mine added up to 39 watts. At the push of a button it becomes zero. Just imagine every home in the US doing just this simple fix.
It may be hard for you to believe, but the TV set in the guest bedroom that hasn't been on in months is most likely using much more than your coffee pot or water pump. It is sitting there quietly burning maybe 10 watts, all day, every day, all year.
Phantom load total for the unused TV set, if 10 watts an hour is 240 watts a day...Don't believe it? Go room to room and turn everything off. No water running, no ceiling fans.. nothing. Now, go out and look at the electric meter- Wow! still moving.. How can that be?! compare the unused TV set with the coffee pot, it uses maybe 1500 watts for 5 minutes once a day, or about 125 watts a day.
VCR, Mine measured 6 watts. About 150 watts a day.
Microwave with clock/timer.. 5 watts. 115 watts a day. Get one with a manual timer when the old one wears out. It doesn't use any power while sitting there. Mine sits plugged in all the time.
Here's a big one, the very popular DSS satellite dish. even when off it uses the same 25 watts. 25 x 24 is 600 watts per day. That's about 90 minutes worth of production from my array... to have something OFF! A simple computer power bar or even nicer, a switched outlet that costs just $4 installed nearby can switch it off. I wonder how many DSS dishes there are in the US sipping that 25 watts apiece? If switched off Would it replace one nuclear reactor or strip mine?
Another sad fact is that many people use these receivers for listening to music.. using their 200 watt TV just to use that 99 cent speaker in there! What a waste. More power used and more heat generated. The DSS receiver has RCA plugs coming out. A quick trip to radio shack and you can buy a small, efficient amplifier that will run your speakers and put out much more powerful sound. This is an upgrade over the TV speaker by far and eliminates about 120 watts per hour by not having the blank TV powered up.
Any electronic device has a certain lifespan built into it. Running the TV when not needed is wearing it out. Preserving the television longer more than makes up for the $19 amplifier.
The DSS receiver could easily be rebuilt with a 10 watt per channel audio amplifier in it. That and a real power switch would make a tremendous difference in the load on the grid. See, it isn't that hard, its just understanding the problem. Government solution... build more power plants...Run more power lines... Make dumb people happy. You get what you deserve. Learn. get involved. Tell others.
Of course, there are so many opportunities to save energy that are not phantom loads. I work as a service technician, so I have been in thousands of offices and I see a common theme: Computers 'have to be left on'. Well, if it is tied into some crucial network operation, maybe, but rebooting a computer takes just a minute, so check. Also, Why is the screen saver so popular when there is a power switch right there that would truly extend the life of the monitor and save power as well. The monitor can be off and the computer can continue to operate. Very often I see a empty room with several unattended PC's idling along.
An old fashioned tube style monitor burns about 100-170 watts per hour. This creates heat in the office as well that has to be cooled by using even more energy. If buying a new PC, get a LCD screen. Even with it's 'wall wart' power supply that is real junk, it still uses just 20 watts. I run mine directly with my 12 volt supply that converts 28 volts into 12 so I can run a car radio and some other things. I read 15 watts drain that way. Conservatively, the old CRT tubes use 125 watts more apiece than the new LCD monitor.
Here in the mountains that figures out to about 1 1/4 cents an hour less cost for electricity per unit. Eight hours per day use, that's 10 cents a day, 50 cents a week, 25 bucks a year. Figure the monitor will be there for 3 yrs, that's $75 saved. Of course the monitor cost a bit more to begin with, however I didn't figure in the 125 watts of HEAT added to the building that the AC unit has to battle. Works out pretty close and besides these things are cool. I hung mine on the wall.
All electronic devices have a lifespan engineered into them. Buy high quality gear and use it wisely. If left on needlessly, there is no doubt it will fail sooner.
I see ladies sitting at desks with 1500 watt space heaters blowing on their legs because the air conditioning is set to 60 degrees and the controls are set in spring and unbolted in the fall. Why is this going on? Crazy.
Often I see a hot coffee pot with about an once of burned up coffee in it. That coffee pot, if left that way for the afternoon, will use about half as much as my house does in 24 hours.
Most office machines, copiers and printers to be precise, use huge amounts of power. The reason is that the xerographic process uses heat to melt plastic ink onto paper. This works better than any other printing process so will most likely be around a bit longer.
For the last 5 yrs or so, those devices have been built with energy saving timers that are fully adjustable from 5 minutes to 4 hrs, one timer runs out first, switching the heaters off or to a reduced level. This also makes cooling fans run slower, pulling in less dust as a bonus. The second timer will switch the unit off completely.
How much time goes by between copies in your office? Make an estimation and add 10 minutes and that's the 'go to sleep timer' setting. Add 30 minutes to the first number and enter that for the second timer. Enter a higher number to the second setting to take into account lunch breaks or whatever. It isn't carved in stone, so play with it until the hollering and griping subsides.
I have been told that 'it takes more power to restart'-- Hmm. really? Well, let's go over that theory. Let's use the PC as an example. Let's say it runs just 5 hrs when not in use. It's probably all weekend but lets go with just 5 hrs. That's about 750 watt hours. Now, let's imagine that it could possibly use that much in the 3 minutes it takes to boot back up.
3 minutes is 1/20 of an hour so, that would require a 15,000 watt load for that 3 minutes to equal the 5 hrs idle time. Even if it took 1500, it would possibly trip a circuit breaker and most certainly you would see the lights dim. There are just too many falsehoods out there. Power leaks are like water leaks, only you can't see them. That is why there are so many of them.
How much does it use..? good question. Most appliances have a tag quoting some number on it. I have found that it is rarely accurate and fortunately, usually a bit less than what is quoted. I have a meter called a Kill-A-Watt. It was $30 on sale at radio shack. It plugs into the wall and then the device plugs in and the measuring begins. Leave it plugged into the fridge for 24 hrs and prepare to see a huge number.
There you have it. There is no big mystery to going off grid, it's just knowing where it all goes and fixing it. Living with a high electric bill while on the grid is optional, not a requirement. I use a maximum of 3000 watt hrs per day on average. Any more than that and I run out after a week.
When you are off grid, you KNOW what you use because you know what you have. Being plugged into an endless supply makes it too easy to get careless and lazy. Why do you think the government wastes all that money, because you just ain't paying attention, that's why.
Many people give the 'I don't use all that much' line when I ask about their habits. Well, to that I ask, how much do you use exactly? If they don't know, there is a problem. Ask someone how much they owe on their car loan or visa account.. I bet they will be pretty close. Why is it any different? It's invisible that's why.
Power: Keeping Track of It All
Knowing where and how much power is being used is essential to the off-grid power system. I use the Tri-metric meter. It shows at a glance how much of a surplus or deficit I am running, state of charge of the batteries in 5 percent increments, battery volts, net gain or loss, and several other functions. You can see exactly what each appliance in the home draws. Its a very important item!
My Trimetric 2020 ammeter. Showing 85 percent state of charge on the batteries after long day of sharpening sawblades, surfing the web and doing laundry. lots of lights on too. My battery bank is large for my usage. 15 percent represents about 2,500 watts.
The inverter I have has a sleep mode that takes over if no loads are present. This keeps the inverter from idling when not in use. Idle power is about 10 watts per hour. I am away for about 12 hrs a day, maybe more, so, that's 120 watt-hrs that would have to be generated. Like money, Its far easier to save energy than to make more.
When the inverter is asleep, it puts a pulse on the house wiring.. if suddenly it senses a load, it will come back online. There is a split second delay when squeezing the trigger on a drill for example. I can remotely turn the inverter off also from inside the house.
If the inverter is not asleep, of course power is in the house wiring.. for this reason I bought illuminated wall switches for every room. If these light switches are not blinking, I know that I forgot to turn something off. before going to sleep or running out the front door, I know what is going on. It has avoided a lot of accidents here. Of course this doesn't help with loads that are powered by DC power, but I am pretty careful about not leaving those lights on.
In the past it was common practice to catch rainwater, especially on farms where large barn roofs and thirsty animals made a good combination. My rainwater catcher started out as a single 1550 gallon tank set at the corner of the house. I quickly found out that having just a 1550 gallon tank was like having a single battery in the middle of a wind storm.. I just couldn't catch enough. Watching the tank run over only to make the driveway muddy was very frustrating.
Rainwater is great for plants, showers and of course flushing the toilet. Evaporative cooler pads will not load up with minerals because there isnt any minerals in the rain water. You will also use less detergent in the laundry.
I installed standard raingutters on the house and used a 1 inch drop in 18 feet using the center of the house as a starting point. This makes half the water run off each corner of the house. The big thing you don't want is low spots anywhere in the system. Water is very heavy and will bring the gutters or pipes down easily if not installed correctly.
There are 7 downspouts between the garage and house and all of them go approx 12 inches below the level of the inside floor. I figured this height based on hanging the 4 inch pipe from the decks that were to be built later.
The 4 inch pipes run the full perimeter of the house and they have enough drop so that the water drains out in one spot. I could have easily gotten by with 3 inch pipe, but at the time had no idea how much it would handle and where the bottlenecks would be.
Most of the rainstorms here occur during the summer monsoon season. This feast or famine style weather dictated a more elaborate storage system. I ordered 3 3,000 gallon tanks from Larry Penny in High Rolls, NM. He brought them within yards of where they needed to be on a trailer. The system will now hold over 10,200 gallons of rainwater. That is what i expect to get over the monsoon. If I see the main tanks run over this summer I will save for a fourth big tank. I made sure there was room there for it.
Here is my main tank setup. 9,000 gallons are stored here. That's 9 inches worth of rain with the little house that I have. When the decks are on and the roof extended, it will take about 7 inches. This flat spot was dug by hand. It is about 10x30 feet. It is perfectly level. The tanks fill up equally. They are attached together at the bottom.
In spring, with just enough water hauled in to get by, I will be ready for the next monsoon with near empty tanks. If you are sitting for a long time with a tank full of water and nowhere to put more, you are hauling in too much. You should always have room for at least a few inches or rainfall.
I placed the 1550 gallon tank near the the corner of the garage where a 4 inch pipe that travels the full perimeter of the house and then across the back of the garage where the garage downspout ties into the 4 inch pipe. It takes 1 inch of rain to equal 1000 gallons with a 1600 sq. foot roof. don't go out and measure your roof because it is sloped.. measure the amount of ground it covers, no matter what its shape.
On my system, before it gets to the tank, the water enters a 'roof washer' this makes sure that the first 25-30 gallons of water dumps on the ground, this gets most of the dust and pine needles before making it to the strainer- without the roofwasher the strainer would be quickly clogged with debris. You should size the roof washer to dump 1 1/2 gallons for every 100 sq feet of roof area.
I designed my own roofwasher using a trash can as a reservoir and the bottom a 5 gallon bucket as a float. As the trash can fills with dirty water the float moves up to block the outlet. The water then backs up and spills over into a 3 inch outlet.
I inserted some common roof flashing into the "T" to raise the water level in the pipe approx. 1 inch after the rain stops, the trash can will drain trough a small hole near the bottom. Once the trash can drains the valve opens and the 5 gallons or so trapped in the pipe will drain out.
I believe this design is better than the ones sold on the internet. Electronics and tiny valves freeze up or fail. Keep it as simple as possible.
The strainer is a common pool 'leaf skimmer' that you would clean a swimming pool with.. $5 at Wal-Mart. The 1550 gallon tank has a hole bored in it at the 1200 gallon mark where i attached a 1 1/2 PVC pipe that then goes underground and under the driveway and downhill to the large storage tanks.
I did install a valve in case there was a leak in the main tanks I could at least keep the whole 1550 gallons. Inside the first 3000 gallon tank is a filter from a shop vac, wet/dry vacuum. this catches anything that managed to make it through the first strainer. the 3 tanks are perfectly level to one another and are connected at the bottom, the water fills all 3 equally. This manifold pipe is buried under 2 ft of dirt. the top outlets are plugged on two of the tanks and the third has a pipe that runs down to the ground and down hill past the tank about 20 ft. Without this, the water would pour out and erode the dirt and stone the tanks are sitting on...plan ahead!
The 350 gallons above the outlet in the small tank serves as a buffer for the occasional cloudburst. Once a day a timer turns on the pump at the main tanks and runs for 6 minutes, topping off the small tank to the 1200 gallon mark. The timer is adjustable from 1 minute up to several hours.
I experimented with how long I needed on average. If it pumps a few too many gallons, it simply runs back down to where it came from.. no water is lost this way and no water sits in the pipes where it could freeze. The timer is set for 1 PM when I am not at home but the sun is usually already topped the batteries off and there is plenty of power that would otherwise not get used.
I can switch off the outlet that powers the timer to keep it from pumping if I am away on vacation. I am sure its not the perfect system but it works.
Here is the Southwest, water is becoming more of an issue every year.
According to what I read, the average person uses about 250 gallons a day.. this is crazy.. I can get by on 25 gallons a day without much trouble by using my Staber clothes washer, low flow toilet and shower head. The community I live in just issued a "water emergency" where no house can use more than 300 gallons per day.. wow, I sure hope they make it..geeez!
Refrigeration along with heating and cooling are the big 3 energy consumers in the home. If you want to lower your electric bill or if you want to go off-grid, you will need a propane fridge or super-efficient electric refrigerator. I started out with a propane model. I added foam insulation to it that I rescued from a dumpster. Doors with windows in them are shipped sandwiched in Styrofoam. Places like 84 Lumber toss this foam out. It is usually bigger than a large exterior door. About 7 x 3 feet and 1 1/2 inches thick. Adding insulation to the fridge is an obvious way to save power.
I bought a cheap home furnace thermostat and took it apart. I reversed the mercury switch and it now turns on when hot, not the other way around. I soldered on some thin wire and it now switches a fan when the temperature around it gets too warm. I noticed a reduction in run time after this add-on. I also attached a 2 ft section of pipe to vent the hot air up and away from the cooling fins. It seems logical to do these things to appliances. If people demanded it, manufacturers would build this stuff.
I later switched to an electric fridge because I had enough surplus power to run it. Not using the power you make is the same as wasting it. Also, propane is getting very expensive. I chose the Sunfrost RF-12. Anyone want to buy a nice 5 yr old Dometic?
An old clunker fridge may burn anywhere from 300-500 watts and run 12 hrs a day, 3600-6000 watt/hrs a day. The Sunfrost uses 375-500 watt-hrs per day depending on temperature. Just think if every refrigerator was replaced with a Sunfrost as they wore out. A lot of pollution would be avoided and less power plants built. Most people don't think of the cost of ownership, just how much to get it past the cash register. Do the math, it is better to go with the efficient model.
The Sunfrost is available in 110 volts AC so you can certainly use it if you are on the grid. I would go with 4 golf cart batteries and a small battery charger along with the 12/24 volt Sunfrost for a blackout proof fridge. These four batteries could be charged at first with a charger and later 2 small panels could take over most of the load. Summer surplus could be used to run an attic fan. If doing this get a charge control that can be used as a diversion control to switch on the fan. This would be one of the wisest investments to make for lowering the electric bill.
No matter what type of fridge, you may have and how you may run it, In wintertime up in the mountains, A few 2-litre pop bottles left out overnight to freeze and then placed in the fridge to thaw back out cuts the energy use dramatically. Get 5 or 6 of these bottles so you can rotate them. Fill them within 4 inches of the top to allow for expansion.
A closed loop copper water/glycol line with coil and 'flywheel' tank outside on the north side of the house filled with pea gravel could do this automatically. Its an idea I have been thinking about for a while and I will someday do it.
Energy production with my system is down at least 25 percent in winter over summer. This method of getting some natural cooling helps balance this out.
There are many ways to save water in your home. Here are some of the things I am doing.
This uses a large percentage of the water and should be looked at first. Is it a low flow model? If not, it should be. I use a 1.4 gallon toilet. Actually it uses a little less than that because it always seems to get the job done and still have water in the tank.
The old type toilet uses about 4 gallons per flush. mine uses just 1.4. that's 2 1/2 gallons saved every time its used. If you live in a house full of people, it sure would be a wise addition. Mine cost just $60 with everything I needed to install it. Say the toilet gets flushed ten times a day, that's 25 gallons less than the old unit. I believe that everyone should switch to the new model toilet immediately.
The nearest big town to me, Alamogordo, NM has about 35,000 people. Let's say two flushes per day per person, 70,000 times... multiplied by 2.5 gallons saved that's 175,000 gallons a day that's not gone to waste.
Another item is the shower head. Mine allows about 1.5 gallons per minute flow max, it has a valve so you can even shut it off and scrub for a while. An $9 item that will save $. Since its hot water you are saving it saves gas or electric too. I bought it at Wal-Mart for $8.
If you are someone that lingers in the shower, the shower head would save hundreds of gallons per week.
Get the best energy efficient model available. I bought the Staber 2000. It uses 16 gallons compared with 45 or so an old type washer uses. If you do ten loads a week you would save 1300 gallons per month of most likely warm or hot water. The electric bill will definitely go down. The Staber also saves on detergent. Again, using Alamogordo and the 35,000 people as an example, washing 2 loads of clothes per week, that's 30,000 gallons per day saved. Most people wash more than 2 loads per week so the number is probably higher.
These can be used more effectively by running them less and at reduced speeds? How? By cooling the attic of your house if possible. Having a black colored roof with little venting is all too common in this area. I built my house with twice the recommended venting. sucking the air in through the cooler and then venting up into to the attic cools the attic instead of the outside. The reduced attic temps will relieve the load on the cooler. Perfect. Another smart add on is a thermostat. They fit right in the box the switch goes in and will turn the cooler on and off with actual need.
Just these few actions taken would probably save 250,000 gallons of water per day. Figure that for every house had gutters and a 1500 gallon tank to supply the water for the toilets and swamp cooler (rainwater doesn't ruin the pads like tap water), figure a whole lot more water not pulled in from somewhere else.
Even if everyone had no gutters, the town of Alamogordo could set up every home with the washer, shower head, toilet, gutters and tanks for about 25 million dollars not adding for installation. I also didn't figure on the buying power of a huge order like that, I am sure there would be quite a discount.. Taxes would drop, electric bills would drop. Things would be neater and greener. No wells or streams would be hijacked for city water. Did I mention the brine water plant will produce much less and cost much more? Also, where is all the salt going to be taken to? Go figure.
For a wind generator to perform well, it has to be at least 30 ft higher than any trees or buildings for hundreds of feet around. The higher it is, the faster and smoother the wind will be. Turbulent air will work the generator hard and it will be nosier as well.
It is cheaper to invest in the higher tower/smaller wind turbine than the other way around. If you ever upgrade to a larger machine, you will have the tower to handle it. I was lucky to find some military surplus AB-105 tower. I have 75 feet of it. On top is a 15 foot mast that has the Air-X on it. This gives me 90 feet above ground level and about 110 ft above my house because the tower is located up the hill as far as I could go without getting too close to my property line. If the tower ever fell, it shouldn't make it onto anyone else's property.
The tower base is set in concrete and a lot of rebar. My ATV made moving the 8,000 pounds of cement and the mixer pretty easy. Jagged rocks were gathered and broken with a sledge hammer, washed and added to the cement. 80 feet of rebar was cut into 2 foot lengths and wired to the base with bailing wire in a grid and criss-cross pattern for strength. It took most of the day to fill the hole with concrete with towers is dangerous and unless you have experience, seek someone that does. Proper gear is needed to work on a tower, work boots, leather gloves and a climbing belt are absolutely necessary. I have climbed towers without a belt before and it was very foolish. Trying to work on a rusty bolt or corroded connector while at the same time, holding on for dear life is crazy.
Me tying on an apron filled with nuts and bolts. You shouldn't be fishing in your pockets for bolts when wearing a climbing belt. With a belt you can hook on and let the belt hold you, your hands are free to work and with the proper boots, you can spend quite a long time on a tower without getting tired. Gloves prevent pinched or smashed fingers and the burrs that are sometimes waiting to stick you. Saving one of the best reasons for last, ropeburns, yes all the hazards are waiting for you so buy quality leather gloves and wear them.
The base is leveled and is ready for the concrete. I bolted angle iron to the legs and used them to shim the tower until it was level. My neighbor lends a hand with the cement. The mixer ran almost all day with just a few short breaks with no problems. All done with solar of course. No generator was used except the wind generator.
Remember, you will be exposed to the sun and wind. Without sunblock and Chapstick, good quality sunglasses, I only wear Ray-Bans, and a hat. Without protection you will be in bad shape after a few hours. Drink plenty of water. Dehydration brings dizziness, poor coordination and confusion, not good at 7 stories up. If you feel thirsty, its already starting.
Keep people clear of the area around the base of the tower. No matter how careful you are, tools and other parts get dropped. Even someone with a helmet can get whacked on the shoulder, hand, foot or whatever. A wrench dropping from 75 feet will definitely raise a knot.
Keep an eye on the weather, get down before a rain or wind storm hits, climbing down a wet tower with cold hands is tough. Have a cell phone handy and keep it charged. I try to get mine on the charger once it gets down to half way. If you needed help, would you be able to call?
My tower base sits in a 4x4x4 ft hole filled with cement, rebar and washed stone. It is guyed with 3 'dead men' spaced 120 degrees apart. To place the guys, I made a bracket that clamps to the tower leg that holds a laser pointer. I clamped it on, put a clothes pin on the trigger and climbed down to find the dot on the ground. Waiting 'til sundown helped because finding the little red dot can be very hard in the sun. Using this method gets the spacing and angles perfectly symmetrical and avoids a lot of measuring, especially on an uneven slope where it gets quite complicated.
Towers should be guyed at least every 30 feet. If you live in an area that gets severe winds, every 25 might be smart. Wind pulling against the guy wires creates downward pressure on the tower, if it isn't guyed at close enough points, it could buckle under the stress. It's better to have too many than too few! Do not over tighten the guys-- just enough to remove any sag -nothing more.. too much tension preloads the tower with weight before the wind even starts to blow.. add the wind and it may become overloaded.
Raising the gin pole hand over hand. This is tiring. The gin pole pulley assembly slips on so I waited until it was high as possible before adding the extra 25 pounds.
Me tightening bolts. There are 18 bolts at each joint. Very strong connection. The bolts are 3/8 diameter, grade 5 strength and galvanized. The ladder sections prevented me from using a socket wrench so it was a pair of 5/8 wrenches instead.
A view down from the 40 ft level. Except for one section lifted with a gin pole, the whole tower was put together piece by piece. It is just too hard to do the whole section alone and not to mention quite dangerous. AB105 is very heavy tower and very stout.
Knowing a few climber's knots helps. If you can hook something on with one hand, it sure makes things easier. Don't let go of anything unless you are positive you have good hold on something else. Don't drop anything unless you are sure you can do without it.
Me at 48 feet. Just another 25 ft. of tower and then the mast goes up. Total height is 90 ft. This is not get hurt level it's get killed level.. be careful on towers!
The tower must be properly grounded. First of all, the rebar that is in the cement base must not be protruding out into the dirt. This would give a good path for the lightning and you don't want lightning coursing through the concrete. It can explode the concrete base and could bring the tower crashing down.
Each leg of the tower should be tied to a ground rod that is driven into the ground a foot or so outside the cement base. A heavy copper wire bonds the rod to the tower leg using bolts. These 3 wires extend out from the tower and ground rods and give the grounding system more contact with the earth. If you have dry, rocky or sandy soil, more ground contact is needed than where the soil is damp.
One of the easiest and best ways to get a return on your investment is to use solar for heating water. It can be as simple as a black garden hose lying in the sun to solar collectors tracking the sun, pumps pushing the water to and from a insulated holding tank.
Heating water is much simpler than making electricity. Even a laser etched high quality PV panel is only about 15 percent efficient. This means that and 3 x 3 foot area in direct sun and near the equator will produce about 150 of the approximately 1,000 watts of sunlight energy. Water panels, properly installed and pumped at the proper volumes will return around 50 percent of suns heat to the storage tanks.
Hot tubs and even worse, swimming pools are often heated with propane. There is no reason for this in the southwest! Even if you already have the gas heater, consider putting in a panel or two. Most larger pumps have a circulator pump already and it can be used to boost water up and then drained back through to the pool.
If you don't want to go so far as to go solar for water heating, at least consider a tankless water heater. This is a type of heater that heats water on the fly, as its needed. There is no large tank of water kept hot all the time. Incoming water is heated just enough to raise it to the desired temperature. The fact that the water supply temperature and flow varies means that the flame is adjusted to keep the desired temperature constant.
Water coming into the house from outside may be very cold, mine hovers around 40 degrees. i plan to install a small tank of water that will be inside the house. it will be approx. 20 gallons and will give the water a chance to approach room temperature before entering the heater.
Installing a tankless water heater could be the first step to a solar water heating system. If the incoming water was already hot, the heater would stay off, If the water was not hot enough, the heater would help. This would be a very reliable and cheap to operate system for a home, laundrymat or any commercial enterprise that uses a lot of hot water.
Another thing I like about my tankless water heater is that it is so compact. It hangs on the wall and uses no floor space. Pretty cool.
Water pumping can be achieved by generator power if you have an uphill storage tank providing pressure. Running a generator for 10 minutes so a gravity tank can be topped off would be the ideal way to go if you can manage it. Solar could take over the job later. I have plans to run an underground water line up to the top of my property and then move the tank up there so that it will not require the pressure pump that i am now using. The pressure pump that I use right now is a large RV type that can move about 3-4 gallons per minute at 30 PSI. not great pressure but it is enough.
12 Volt RV pumps are available locally that can provide 30-35 PSI and 3 gallons a minute. There are bigger more powerful 24 volt pressure pumps available as well. There are various types of DC powered pumps that can run directly from solar panels that will keep your tanks topped off. I have seen pumps that can lift water from over 300 feet deep using 24 volts supplied from two 75 watt panels. A friend of mine has a 500 ft deep well and uses a 300 watt array to supply water. He has 10000 gallons in the tanks and it is almost always full.
What Can I Run?
I often hear the comment, 'Oh, you don't have power up there"... Well, yes I do, just the clean kind. During the many blackouts, I have the only kind.
My system is large enough that I can run nearly all the stuff that is in the average house. Phantom loads had to be dealt with and some things tinkered with but overall, there were few problems.
My home has fridge, evaporative cooler, toaster, hairdryer, vacuum cleaner, microwave, computer, copier, stereo, TV/DVD/VCR/satellite.. on and on. I also own a home business.. sharpening sawblades.. with electric grinders and pumps running. All this is done on solar. Don't tell me you cannot run lights or TVs.. You are talking to the wrong guy for that.
When The Grid Fails
I am often asked if it were possible to back up power for short periods of time when the grid fails for a few hours up to 24 hours. Here are a few ways to do it.
Backup or standby inverter, this is an AC inverter with a battery charger built in. With this device installed powering critical loads such as the fridge, water pump and whatever else you want to keep running no matter what happens with the grid.
Having a decent sized battery bank such as 8 L-16 batteries wired for 24 VDC would keep you going for a few days if you were careful. When the AC supply drops out, the Trace slams a relay shut that isolates the supply side (grid or generator) and starts inverting using battery power.
I have been on the computer when this happens many times and only once did the computer crash. I am quite sure You could bridge in extra filter capacitors into the PC's power supply to handle this. I use 'stiffening capacitors' that are widely sold to the booming car stereo crowd. These smooth out the dips in voltage when the bass notes pull heavy current. I use one on my water pump and an even larger one on my 500 watt RF amplifier.
Go DC.. simpler system but requires some changes in appliances. First of all, eliminating the inverter is going to save money, however it will mean switching to ultra conserving fridge such as a Sunfrost. This fridge runs on less than 1/4 as much as a regular fridge. Lights could be wired in every room with ease and fans in evaporative coolers and furnaces could be switched out for 24 volts.
24 volt pressure pumps are available to boost water pressure. You could have half the batteries to do the same thing however, say 4 L16HC's. Keep the batteries charged with a Todd battery charger or other reliable unit. If the grid fails, you won't notice. With either of these systems, you are ready to start your way toward energy independence. Add a charge controller and two 75 watt panels at a time until the charger is no longer needed.
Honda EU series generator, A DC generator that produces DC power to supply a built in AC inverter. The engine only runs as fast as it needs to for the load that is put on the inverter. An excellent idea. It can idle slowly in standby, using very little fuel and reacts by increasing engine speed while a load comes on. This generator hasn't been out long, however I think they will soon be making larger units. I would love to see a 4500 watt EU.
Using a generator of course would require being home to start it and to cut the house circuit panel off from the grid.. failing to do so could kill a lineman that thinks the line is down. You will be sending power back up the line unless you disconnect. There are auto start generators and auto transfer switches and I have helped set one up once however, for the occasional blackout and with the availability of so much solar energy, I recommend one of the two battery storage methods.
Windows should be shaded in summer and exposed to sun in winter if possible. If your home already has a large overhang on the roof, the summer shouldn't be a problem. If you are getting excessive heat from the sun, consider building awnings for the windows.
Another solution is to have the windows tinted with good quality tint. My house faces north-south, so the sides are east-west, in the summer, most of the unwanted heat will come from early morning sun and late afternoon blazing sunshine. These are the ones best suited for tinting.
The north will not benefit much if at all and the south side should be left untinted and overhangs built that will block the summer rays and allow the low angle sunlight of winter enter the rooms.
A lot of heat is radiated out through the windows in wintertime. building frames and installing thermal shutters reflects heat back into the room. They also help by forming an air space. I have seen frames made of wood with metal strips around them. Inside the pleated material is a magnet that holds them in place. Pretty simple. Would work good in houses and older homes.
When I moved here I planned on simply having a rack of solar panels on the roof, batteries in the basement and everything would be fine.. well, it didn't work out too well! In mid-winter there were 10-14 day periods of somber gray skies. The solar panels barely put out a trickle of power. The batteries were nearly dead. I used to go to bed early and lay there with a small light, trying to preserve enough energy for a shower in the morning- and hoping the batteries would someday recover... not too good.
I did notice one thing while spending my evenings reading.. the wind blew- alot. Some evenings it blew so hard it felt like the house would blow away. In the spring, i bought a tower and a wind turbine. After adding the wind genny, I use pretty much the same amount of power in June as I do in December, it just comes from a different source. Cloudy days tend to be windy, this is true almost everywhere. Having a system with more than one source of power is called a HYBRID system and it is the only way to go here in the mountains of New Mexico.
My wind generator is the Air-X. It is quite small, 47 inches diameter. It has 3 blades. It is the evolution of the Air 303 and Air 403 and is a big improvement over both of the older versions. The older machines use centrifical force to distort the shape of the blades at high speed. This slowed the blades and prevented damage from wind speeds of 50 miles an hour and up. This also sounded terrible. If you have ever heard a jake brake on a semi truck, you have an idea what it sounds like.
The Air-X uses dynamic braking, using its own output to generate magnetic force which in turn, slows the blades. I believe the blades on the Air-X flex but only when a very rapid wind gust hits and only for a fraction of a second before the electronics react. I hear it only occasionally. If the wind velocity reaches 55 miles an hour or so, the machine will stay in brake mode for 5 minutes, then release and try again. If the batteries reach their full voltage, the machine will shut down, slowly turning no matter how fast the wind blows. It's pretty much automated and hands off. I did install the optional switch to turn it off from the ground.
After the first year I decided that the machine was usually not needed often after March 1st and before October 31st so it is off unless I am running the cement mixer a lot or some other major electrical load runs the batteries down more than a few days of sun will replace. Solar panels do not have moving parts so, letting the wind machine run just to bump the batteries up 12 hours before the sun would anyhow is not wise. Save the wear and tear on the machine until it is truly needed.
My windmill buzzing along in about a 30 mph wind. at this speed it is making an honest 300 watts or so. Most cloudy days are windy so having solar and wind together works great.
Me and one of the hundreds of 1.5 megawatt wind machines in north east NM. How many lightbulbs left on the daytime will these beautiful machines run? Renewable power is awesome but its a shame that these expensive machines are powering phantom loads and lights left on in the daytime, etc.
Before we can truly do anything to reduce our pollution levels, we must be more careful with waste. Assuming the guy here is not unplugging his DSS dish, and why would he, the 75 watt light and the 25 watt dish are using nearly as much as my entire home. Conservation is the key and it saves money too.
2005 John Mackenzie
John Mackenzie manages private capital.