/* Written 5:27 PM Jun 6, 1994
From: Brian Meyette <Brian_Meyette@TALLYSYS.COM>
Subject: Info on alt energy sources & living off the grid
In a previous message, I said I had some contact/source info on solar and wind power, as well as experience living "off the grid". Several people emailed me, expressing interest in this info, so I am putting out to the whole list, in hopes others may find it useful.
Perhaps a bit of background first. My name is Brian Meyette, and I live in Cornish, NH, a town of about 1000 people (measured eastern-style, not western-style). In 1991, I bought 26 acres of forest deep in the back woods, off a non-town-maintained road, and planned to build my secluded dream home there. I had never heard of PV, solar power, or any of the alternative energy solutions. My land starts 1/2 mile from the last house (and the last utility pole). I contacted the phone and electric companies to "wire me up". I was amazed to find that it was going to cost me about $20,000 to do it. At that time, the only alternative I could think of was to buy a big diesel generator, run it every time I wanted to turn on a light, and live out of an ice chest; not a fun prospect.
To make a long story short, I was referred to another person living in Cornish who lives off the grid, on PV power, and he told me about amazing things I'd never heard of, like solar PV panels, batteries, LP refrigerators, etc. I spent the rest of the year cramming my head full of all the information I could collect on the subject. I don't have hydro potential, and I learned that earlier attempts to harness wind power in NH were bothersome, worked poorly, and generally were failures. Photovoltaic panels, PV, seemed to be the answer; durable, no maintenance, and reliable. I ended up buying a nice, full-featured PV system from Fowler Solar Electric for about $8,000, and I installed it myself. Fowler offers a wide range of systems, so you can start out with a smaller system and let it grow as you can afford it. One word of caution, though; if you plan on your system ending up as the source of a fairly modern household, I recommend starting off with a 24v system. If you start with 12v, at some point, you will probably need to switch it to 24v to get the power you need. The main consequence of that is that you'll need to buy a new invertor to go from 12v to 24v.
My system has 16 Hoxan 50 watt (3amp) solar panels, mounted on 2 aluminum frames that I adjust up & down to suit the seasonal sun angle. They are wired for 24v, so I get 24 amps from them, sometimes as high as 25 or 26 in the winter with lots of sun reflection. They are mounted on the roof of my 2 story house, so it's exciting to climb up there after every snow storm to brush them off! But I'm surrounded by tall trees (My house site is just a small hole in a large forest), so I had to get them up high. Even then, I had to cut cloverleaf-shaped openings in the woods to the southeast and southwest to get the winter morning and evening sun. I installed a steel
cable that is mounted to the post and beam house frame and goes from the peak ridge to the eaves of the roof. When I climb up there, I use my rock climbing harness and carabiners to clip into that, then I walk up the snowy/icy roof to brush off the panels. The sun would burn the snow off, especially at the high mounting angle I use for winter, but then I'd lose a day or so of precious winter sun. I am considering looking into getting a very long aluminum pole that I can mount a broom to and brush them off from the ground.
The panels are connected via 4 pairs of 10 guage UF Romex to a 30 amp Trace C-30 charge controller. The relay in the controller has stuck a couple times, but it's safe to bypass the controller with a shunt temporarily while it's sent out for repair. The Trace people took care of it with no problems. The controller shuts off the PV panels when the batteries are well charged, at about 28 volts. The controller sends the happy little amps on their way to the battery bank.
The battery bank is 20 6 volt 220 amp Trojan T-105 golf cart batteries, wired in 5 rows of 4, making a 24 volt system. For my 12v needs, I have a Vanner equalizer wired across the entire battery bank. You can't just pick 12v off a couple of the rows, because those batteries will discharge unevenly & wear out sooner & bring the rest of the batteries down with them. The batteries are in a semi-sealed box in my basement, with a vent pipe going outside. Generally, it is recommended that batteries be stored outside the home, especially an airtight house like mine, but I'd have a problem keeping them from freezing and/or losing a lot of their power in my
climate (it gets to -30).
My water gets pumped in using a 24v Flowlight pump that I have wired up to 12v. It runs slower at 12v, but at 24v I get cavitation, a problem I have not yet been able to solve. I think it's a pinhole leak in the pipe somewhere. Someday, I'll find it and get it fixed.
The 12v also powers my cellular phone, which is my link with the outside world. I especially needed it when I first moved there, because I had to call the cops weekly to run off all the partiers & hell-raisers. That problem has subsided.
The refrigeration needs are handled by a 12 cu ft Sunfrost 24v RF-12 refrigerator. Very expensive, but it works well. When I ordered it, I didn't realize the outer shell is hand-made of particle board covered with formica. If I had, I'd have had them cover it with wood veneer instead, to match my kitchen cabinets. Since it is formica, you can also order one covered to match your countertop.
Another output of the battery bank is a Trace 24 volt 2500 watt model 2524 invertor to convert the 24v DV into 120 vac. It has always worked flawlessly for me. Trace now makes a 4000 watt sine wave invertor, which I would dearly love to trade mine in toward. Anybody want to buy a Trace 2524 <grin>? I understand you need a sine wave invertor if you want to run things like laser printers and some other modern electronics. I run my computer on my square wave invertor with no problems. My MIG welder doesn't run well off it, though. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. I dunno why.
The output of the invertor goes to a standard service panel full of circuit breakers. The invertor also has a built-in 50 amp 24v battery charger, so that is wired with 10 guage romex to an Onan 4000 watt generator outside in my woodshed. I use the generator to run "big" things, like my air compressor or MIG welder, I run it at least monthly in the summer to exercise it, and I need to run it every couple days without sun in the winter (more on why later).
When you live off the grid, you can live fairly normally, but certain things are out of the question. All my lighting has to be compact florescents. Anything that draws power all the time is a no-no, like instant-on TV, VCRs, electric clocks and clock-radios, any charger or device with a "little black box" that plugs into the wall. You can use instant-on TV (I'm sure they are all instant-on now) by plugging it into an outlet strip with an on/off switch for when you're not using it. I use 4 foot florescent shop lights in my garage and shop. Electric stoves, heaters, dryers, normal refrigerators, etc are out of the question. Here's something interesting I found out (too late!); when you buy a modern GAS stove, with electronic ignition (only the cheapest base models now use pilot lights, and even they are being phased
out), the oven part of it has a GLOW BAR in it that takes an incredible 400-500 watts while running your GAS oven. There is a company that makes stoves without glow bars, but only "lower end" models, no built-ins. I had already built my cabinets around the stove, so I was stuck with a built-in. I have it wired to a switched outlet box, so the clock and electronics in it only gets power when I'm ready to use it.
The house is superinsulated (8" styrofoam/OSB sandwich wall panels, 10" roof panels), so I heat it by pumping hot water thru 1000' of radiant heat tubing in the basement floor concrete. The hot water comes from a 300 gallon wood-fired water boiler outside in my wood shed. It works well. Nothing is ever hot and there is no "heat" source, but everything is just nice and constantly warm. And there's always unlimited 180 degree hot water. Unfortunately, it requires that the 2.5 amp circulator runs nearly constantly during the 6+ month heating season here, so it's a drain on the batteries when I can least afford it. The water boiler also has a blower that runs about half the time, and takes about 3.5 amps. I have a remote digital volt/amp meter in my living room that's hooked up to the battery bank, so I monitor the battery voltage closely, and I've logged how many amps every electric thing I have requires. Living off the grid requires an acute awareness of energy consumption at all times. You learn to only use what you need, and not leave lights on all over, or use electricity carelessly. I use a battery powered alarm clock and a wind-up model. I also use flashlights a lot, since the interior of the house is not yet done, so all the lighting is not in place yet. I use nicads in the flashlights, and recharge them in my office at work. Ditto for my shaver.
You can also get a tracker to mount your panels on. It's a frame that will turn from east to west to follow the sun and get more power from it. There are active and passive ones, and ones that will automatically return to the east after the sun sets. There are also ones that track on both the horizontal and vertical planes. A tracker wasn't something for me, because I have plenty of power in the summer, when there is the greatest difference from sunrise to sunset. In the winter, when I really need it, the sun rises at around 135 magnetic and sets at around 225 magnetic, so the panels are always nearly facing the sun. I thing they're more suited to people in lower latitudes, where the winter sun angles aren't so extreme.Around the first of January, the maximum sun height at noon here is only 23 degrees above horizontal. The main names in trackers are Wattsun and Zomeworks, both made in Albuquerque, NM. They will give you more power from fewer panels, though.
Because of the aforementioned constant battery drain in the winter, I have begun looking into additional power sources. One partial option is a place in VT that makes a bicycle powered charger, so you can exercise & recharge your batteries at the same time. Initially, I had rejected wind power. An article by Mick Sagrillo in Home Power magazine got me rethinking it. When is it most likely to be windy here? When it's stormy, at night, bad weather, etc. Just the very times when my solar system is doing nothing. I started thinking about a small (1000 watts, 40 amps) wind generator. It would be performing most when I need it the most; during winter storms,
at night, cloudy days.
Getting a wind generator is the easy part. The tower is the tricky part. The main thing I learned is that you really get a lot more power by getting UP there, especially in a wooded area like mine. The trees here are 50-60 feet high. I plan to use a 130 foot tower. You can get simple 40' tiltup towers rather easily, but once you start talking TALL, a lot of engineering comes into play. There are wind loads and ice loads and shear loads and torque loads and more. 40' might work in the midwest, but here you haven't even begun to clear the trees at 40'. Most of the failed wind power installations I've seen were because the person was nowhere near high enough. I've done a lot of looking into this over the last 6-8 months. When tower companies find out you want to put a wind generator on their tower (they're all designed for communications use), they don't want to talk to you. LIABILITY is the big issue. You can very easily get KILLED fooling around with a tower. Generator companies used to provide towers or tower specs with their generator, but they're moving away from that now, too, because of the big liability issues. A local comm tower installer told me they usually do tens of thousands of dollars worth of site surveys, soil boring and testing, and engineering to put in a new tower. He gives me a little advice on the side, but basically, he doesn't want anything to do with me or my project, either, because of the liability. With Sprint and AT&T and Cellular One funding the towers he puts in, I guess they can afford six digit tower installations, but a normal person sure can't. So I
recommend lots of reading and studying and caution. I plan to erect my own tower, by doing a lot of over-engineering, and by being extra cautious. A background in rock climbing should help when it comes time to erect it! I'll figure what something ought to be, then double it. Guys and anchors are critical. I figured a 5000 # anchor should be plenty, so I ordered 10,000 # anchors. When it's all done, I'm sure I'll have a lot more invested in my tower than in the generator itself. After an hour of reading, I knew more about it than any of the local tower dealers, who are used to setting up maybe a 40' ham antenna at the most.
Usually, it is recommended to do a site survey before putting in a wind generator. To do this properly involves putting an anemometer (wind meter) on a tower of the same height as the generator is planned for, and recording the wind speed for a year or so. Anemometers are expensive. I already mentioned how the tower is the most expensive part, anyway. A small 1KW or less generator takes the same size tower as the anemometer. So, I decided to do a "site survey" by spending about the same money, and just
putting up my wind generator and taking whatever power I get. Since it's only needed to complement the PV, I figure I can only come out ahead.
If you're building a new house & seek bank funding for a house using renewable energy, you may have a hard time. Most banks I talked to thought I was nuts, and wouldn't even consider talking to me. I finally found a local bank that would. The main thing to ask for right up front is if they carry "in-house" mortgage loans. If they do, then you may have a chance. Most mortgages are designed for the secondary mortgage market (they sell your loan to another bank for a discount, so they get some quick cash), which has inflexible guidelines and requirements. If they only do loans for the secondary mortgage market, you can forget it right there. So, my entire PV system was funded thru my construction loan. It's probably costing a fortune by the time I finish paying all the interest on it, but at least I
have it. Home Power magazine occasionally has letters discussing banks which have proven helpful.
Anyway, here's the source information I have. I hope all this helps someone
The * is for IMHO remarks
Home Power magazine
PO Box 520
Ashland, OR 97520
$15/yr 2nd class
$30 = 1st class
BBS = (707) 822-8640
"The Hands-on journal of home-made power"
* lots of great articles, ads, info, letters
* a must-have for anyone living with or contemplating living with alt energy
Kansas Wind Power
Holton, KS 66436
$4 catalog on independent power items, especially wind power equipment
Fowler Solar Electric
PO Box 435
Worthington, MA 01098
* best prices I found - very knowledgeable and helpful
* full line of PV systems, accessories, generators; no wind power equip.
"Wind Power for Home & Business"
by Paul Gipe
$26 + $4 from Kansas Wind Power and others
* the wind power bible
"Solar Electric Independent Home Book"
by Fowler Solar Electric
$16.95 + $2 from Fowler Solar Electric (includes catalog) and others
* the solar power bible
"The New Solar Electric Home"
by Joel Davidson
$19 from probably any source listed in here
* another good solar powered home reference
Lake Michigan Wind & Sun
3971 E. Bluebird Rd
Forestville, WI 54213
* seems very knowledgeable about wind power, but poor at returning calls
and following up on promises - maybe you'll have better luck with him - I
decided to order direct from the manufacturer
* see Home Power #35 for his excellent article comparing various wind
generators. Backwoods Home Magazine also did an updated reprint of it in
one of their issues last fall.
* he also has a great series on "intro to towers", starting in issue #37 of
Backwoods Solar Electric Systems
Steve & Elizabeth Willey
8530 Rapid Lightning Creek Road
Sandpoint, ID 83864
* seems knowledgeable - good catalog - they live what they sell
966 Mazzoni St
Ukiah, CA 95482-3471
* catalog of lots of alt energy and environmentally sensitive products
"Solar Living Source Book"
$19 from Real Goods
* a huge source of info on alt energy and alt energy products
PO Box 6
Westminster Station, VT 05159
makes a 1-10 amp charger powered by a Schwinn stationary bicycle
Vermont Solar Engineering
69 Thibault Pkwy
Burlington, VT 05401
another source of PV systems
824 L Street
Arcata, CA 95521
energy efficient refrigerator/freezer
* plan on spending a couple grand, but it works well and uses fewer amps
* the best Sun Frost prices I found were from Sun Frost direct
Wind Baron Corp
make a 750 watt wind generator
World Power Technologies
19 N. Lake Ave
Duluth, MN 55802
make 600, 1000, & 3000 watt wind generators
* this is the one (1000w) I plan to buy
PO Box 25805
Albuquerque, NM 87125
mfg of solar trackers
Array Technologies, Inc.
PO Box 751
Albuquerque, NM 87103
mfg of Wattsun solar trackers
5916 - 195th N.E.
Arlington, WA 98223
mfg of invertors and charge controllers
4282 Reynolds Drive
Hilliard, OH 43026
mfg of battery equalizer & 3600 watt invertor
I didn't have their address handy
* they make gas stoves that don't require electricity
* it's amazing how hard it is to find one now
* they don't make a built-in model, though
China Farm Machinery
23985 Rolling Meadows
Perris, CA 92570
3 KW - 20 KW Chinese diesel generators
China Diesel Imports
15749 Lyons Valley Rd
Jamul, CA 91935
8 KW - 25 KW Chinese diesel generators
Backwoods Home Magazine
1257 Siskiyou Blvd, #213
Ashland, OR 97520
* lots of general "back to the earth" type info, country living, alt energy
* I didn't realize until I compiled this list that this magazine and Home
Power are published in the same town. I don't know if they are run by the
same people or not. Maybe one is a splinter group of the other. Maybe
it's a coincidence.
The latest Home Power magazine contained 2 letters with info on more gas
stoves that don't require electricity:
Brown Stove Works
PO Box 2490
Cleveland, TN 37311
Wolf Range Co
19600 S. Alameda St.
Compton, CA 90221-6291
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