Reverend David’s Solar Freezer

Using the hot sun to keep the groceries cold. Awesome!

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Will Has a Question

Actually, Will has several questions, but they all boil down to “how do I get started?”

” I am looking into installing solar panels on my roof. I have a straight gable roof that the back slope faces South. I have a 200 amp breaker box and would like to keep that amount of power when I go solar. Looking at solar panels, they come in different amounts of watts per panel. How many watts do I need to support my existing amount of power?”

I have been looking for just the right topic on getting started and Will handed it to me by email. I’m not going to get terribly detailed in this installment. We’ll hit the highlights, this time, and fine tune the details, later.

He wants to go solar. Yay! But how? He does not specify, but it sounds like he wants to go off grid. Again, how? Grid-tie? Hybrid? Off-grid? It can make a big difference in costs and your circumstances may change your options. Pure grid-tie used to be the best bang for the buck, but that has changed in some areas. It can ADD to your power bill! (I am testing a workaround for that.) Do your research and find out what the deal is with YOUR power provider. The major downside is that if the power goes off, it goes off. All those panels on the roof don’t help.

A hybrid system can do grid -tie and give you backup power when the lines are down. Sound good California? OR a hybrid system can interact with grid power, reducing the bill, and NO extra charges for grid-tie. It is almost like being off grid, but the grid is your backup power. In an emergency, you can be off-grid by cutting back on your loads.

Of course, there’s off-grid, too. This is going to cost you the most and may inconvenience you a bit. You don’t have any backup from the grid. If anything goes wrong you run the backup generator or you sit in the dark until parts arrive.

Those are the choices that jump right out. As I said, we’ll dig deeper, later.

I am looking into installing solar panels on my roof,” he says. In many cases that is pretty much the only choice. Rejoice, Will, that your roof faces south. It may not be at the perfect angle for your location, but PLEASE don’t let the installers go with some whacko angle! Keep it low and subtle.

There are questions that must be asked, though. Are you wanting to use conventional panels or some of these solar shingles, like Mr. Musk is promoting? Do you have a homeowner’s association that will pitch a fit over panels? Is your roof strong enough? (I have over a ton of panels on the roof of the Solar Shed.) Are you going to have to hire an engineer to prove it? Does your roof have a bunch of pokies sticking out all over? Are there trees shadowing it? What kind of condition is the roof in?

Most important, maybe, is the condition of your roof. An old roof could not stand the trauma of a bunch of guys stomping around stringing wires and bolting down panels. I’d need to spend 12 grand on a new roof before considering putting solar panels up there. Is your roof in good condition, Will?

“I have a 200 amp breaker box and would like to keep that amount of power when I go solar.” Hold on, there, Will. You have a 200 amp breaker box because the code required it, not because you need it. 200a x 240v= 48,000 watts. I can’t imagine you using anywhere near that much power, even if you were trying. My first house wasn’t big, but everything was electric except the heat. It was an older, post-WW2 house with 60 amp service and I never blew a fuse. After one particularly nasty hurricane at my present house, I fed my generator in through a 30 amp breaker and got by ok if using the loads on a staggered basis. For a real world example, Tom lives in a 25 year old all-electric house, full of computers and home entertainment stuff, central air, served by two 8kw inverters. He could get by on 8kw if staggering loads. 12kw worked fine. The pair of 8kw inverters allows him to get by if one breaks. 16kw/240v is 67 amps, about the same as my old house! What I am saying is, you don’t need 200 amps of solar-generated AC.

“How many watts do I need to support my existing amount of power? “ Good question. First of all, are you currently cutting back on comfort to save a little on the power bill? First thing I did when I got the a/c ported to solar was lower the thermostat last summer! Consider adding a little for a decadence factor! If going off grid, I’m pretty confident that 10 or 16kw of inverter will be plenty. There’s more to it than that, though.

OK, dig around in the drawer and find all your power bills for the past year. Find the biggest one. In KWH. Divide by 30 to make it a month. Where you live and how your house is built will make a tremendous difference, but let’s just call it 1000kwh for the month. That’s over 33kwh per day. Round it up to 34, because you can’t have too much and you don’t want too little. Do a little internet search for solar insolation (how much you get) for your area. Typically, that’s about 5 hours a day at more or less full power at my Gulf Coast latitude. So 34 (make it 35 for easy math and an extra margin) / 5 hours =7kw of solar power. That’s around 21 panels, give or take the model. Oh, it doesn’t matter if you use 250 watt panels or 300 or 400watt panels, if they all add up to what you need, but they should all be the same in most cases. With limited roof space, you might find the newer, more efficient 400+ watt panels may be necessary to get enough power in the available roof space. Yeah, you are going to have to do some measuring and you’ll have to leave some walkway space unless you want someone walking around on that glass! Sizes of various modules can be found on data sheets at Sunelec.com and other web sources. Call John’s crew if the spec sheets aren’t posted.

Off grid, you can’t mess around. Traditionally, when solar was really expensive, off-gridders just figured on running the generator some. Today you can probably get by without it, but you need enough solar and enough battery. Tom’s system has 10kw of solar and maybe 400amp-hours of battery. His operates in a hybrid, interactive mode, so solar provides all the power on a sunny day, into the early evening. It cuts out as the a/c runs all night or on cloudy days. He has plenty of solar and not enough battery. Batteries are expensive! My current situation has part of the house on grid and part on solar. I have maybe 14kw of panels presently active and 800+ amp hours of battery. In good weather I could probably run the whole house with a bigger inverter. As it is, though, if I get 3 or 4 days of gloom, there’s a good chance I will switch all of the house over to the grid to save the batteries from running low enough to damage them.

I guess what I am telling you is, it’s complicated. There is a delicate balance between the amount of solar power you have coming in and the amount of storage you have to keep it. If your batteries get charged by noon, but sometimes get wimpy in cloudy weather, then you don’t have enough battery!

A more practical answer might be to figure out if your roof will hold the number of panels you calculated. If so, you have lots of options. Heck, fill it up! If not, go with Zero Export (we’ll talk about that later) grid-tie and save some bucks. You can always change things later.

I’ll go into more detail in Part 2.–Neal



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Tiny Solar Power for a Rainy Day

Tropical Storms in the Gulf, tornadoes in Alabama and lots of rain.

That’s not a time when you’d normally think solar power, except how little the panels are putting out. It IS a good time to hole up with a small project.

In the last post, I mentioned the Tiny Watts group and their tiny projects. And I mentioned that Solar George had given me an idea. I had a couple of small solar panels from garden lights. I found them in the dumpster at a house I was rebuilding, so free solar is always good. I think I may have another from a light I bought that didn’t last long. Anyway, these two put out about 6 volts in good sun. A load will drag them down to 5v, so that sounds good. I would guess they are in the 2 watt neighborhood, so that sounds tiny. Next, I scratched up a couple of micro-USB cords and cut off the big ends, leaving a few inches with which to work. I buy those by the sackful, because they get lost or messed up. No telling how many are stuck in the seats of my truck.

Strip back the wires on the big end of the USB cord and plug into a USB charging source to determine what wire does what. USB has 2 data wires and a shield in addition to the power wires. I guess right that red and black were the positive and negative, but don’t assume yours is the same as mine. Check the polarity. Toss the big end and strip back the insulation of the small end a bit. Leave enough room to get some shrink tube or tape on the joints when the soldering is done.

Cut off the connector on the panel and figure which wire does what. In my example, blue was negative and brown was positive. Your mileage may vary. Red to brown, black and blue is the order of the day.

Warm up the soldering iron and find the solder, shrink tube and/or tape. I slipped on small shrink tube over each conductor of one end and then a bigger, longer piece to cover the entire joint. I didn’t have any heat sealing marine shrink tube or I’d have used it to seal out water and make a better physical grip. Wrap and solder the joints, slip over the shrink tube and heat shrink it with the solder iron, a torch or a heat gun.

I plugged it into my Motorola flip phone, the only kind that works where I live, and it told me I was using an unauthorized charger. It is fussy that way. No problem on my LG. I plugged it into my Tomo 18650 battery bank and it went to charging, even with the heavy overcast. I can use the 18650 cells, recycled from the many laptops I have outlived, in my flashlight or charge two phones at once and I can charge them at night. My Motorola gets along with it. Since the battery bank has two USB ports, you can even plug your iPhone cord in. The microUSB with the solar panel is more useful, I think, because it plugs into more things and you may be able to still end up charging the iPhone.

Yes, I know you can buy a battery bank kit with built in solar charger and even an LED light for just a few bucks on eBay, and I may even get one, but this project was recycling some good junk box stuff and making something useful. The long wire on this version will let me stick the panel outside and keep the stuff getting charged inside out of the rain. Order one of the kits and build your own if you don’t have stuff in your junk box. Good fun on a rainy day.

Warning: Different phones react differently, so keep an eye on it. This is unregulated, so don’t wander off, leaving the phone plugged in to overcharge or damage the phone. A 12v panel wired to one of those cheap USB cigarette lighter adapters may be safer.

–Neal

In the News

Just a few notes on solar in the news. Click in the parentheses for the links, since I can’t seem to make them show up in some browsers.

A really biased (headline) blames California power outages on climate change. The actual cause of PG&E outages is PG&E pulling the plug when it gets breezy! Proper powerline maintenance, line stabilizers and right-of-way maintenance to reduce fuel would go a long way to prevent fires from powerline sources. Better forest management wouldn’t hurt, either. Of course, they famously turned off the power to millions and there were fires, anyway. Today it was reported that they turned the power back on and a line fell from one of their newer towers (47 years old), starting another fire. The positive thing coming out is people and businesses are scrambling to find solar and battery solutions to keep their power on and their businesses open. They could learn a lot from John’s customers in Haiti.

Next up is recycling. Solar power has changed so fast that facilities are changing out the panels they installed a few years ago, going for the higher output of today’s panels in the footprint of the old ones. That leaves truckloads of perfectly good panels looking for a new home. That’s just one way John brings cheap panels to Sun Electronics customers. That’s why you can buy a 70 watt panel, single piece, for $12, or as low as $7 in quantity. Or a 300-ish watt panel for a hundred. Another source is insurance claims. It seems that if a half dozen panels get popped in a hailstorm, they’ll go ahead and replace the other hundred thousand, just so they’ll all match. More bargains. You and I putting those surplus panels to work is the best form of recycling. Then there are those that are well and truly smashed. As John has pointed out in his blog, there’s no good way of recycling them, yet. The growing pile is prompting lots of new research on ( recycling and reclaiming. ) Of course, there are new surplus modules, too. Companies go bankrupt or get into some sort of bind and there’s another container load of them.

Finally, something fun. Are you wanting to try your hand at solar power? Is your kid looking for a science fair project. Check out the American Solar Energy Society’s ( Tiny Watts) program. Program members build their tiny watt phone chargers, battery chargers, portable lights and all sorts of things. I guess the solar toys John used to have would qualify. I put a solar powered spider on the table in Mom’s sun porch and it would drive her cat nuts! Inspired by Solar George, down in the Keys, I found a couple of 6″ panels from a yard light and will turn them into USB chargers. I figure you can use them directly to charge a phone, but I will go one better and let it charge one of those USB battery boxes. The battery box, using 18650 cells reclaimed from my pile of old laptops, can then charge two phones any time of the day or night. What kind of Tiny Watt project can you make? Check the link, above, for ideas.

–Neal

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Meters

When installing a new power system or doing a little troubleshooting, an appropriate meter can be just the thing to make the job easier.  For example, with the analog voltmeter and the digital ammeter, we were able to determine that the panel above was a little low on output.  What could possibly be wrong?

There are analog meters, which you don’t see much, anymore, and the digital meters which seem to be in favor these days. There is one of each in the photo above. Below, we’ll zoom in on the analog meter for a quick briefing. It isn’t that hard, especially since they have numbers regularly spaced along the dial. I’ve recently endeavored to teach an eleven year old to tell time on an analog watch. The Timex, having 12 hours delineated was not such a problem, but a PRC200 has only 3 numbers and a Submariner hasn’t any at all. Try to explain how using a watch with no numbers is easier than looking at her cell phone! But I digress. Speaking of watches, take ’em off, along with rings or other hand jewelry. Put on some gloves for poking around in higher voltage circuits. 24v can give you a tingle if you are sweaty.

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24 volts

This meter is pretty easy. There are 10 little chops between the 20 and the 30, so each chop is a volt. The needle is four chops over, so the voltage is 24.0. If it were 1/3 of a notch to the right, then you’d have 24.33 volts. A really high precision meter would have a mirrored scale so you can line up the needle with the reflection to make sure you aren’t reading high or low by looking from an angle. I grew up on this stuff, before there were digital meters, so it comes naturally to me. After dealing with the youngster and the watch, I’ll understand if it is strange to a person under 40.

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A Sampling of Digital Meters

Above are some digital meters, typical of what you might use. It seems you can spend as little or as much as you like and get a useful meter. The red one you can sometimes find free, with coupon, at a certain popular tool store. As long as you remember to turn it off when not using it and don’t pull too hard on the leads, it is fine. And free. The one in the middle actually includes a digital oscilloscope! It also has better leads and will turn itself off. The one on the left is often called a clamp meter, as you pull that red trigger to open its mouth, clamp it around a wire and then read the amount of current (amps) going through the wire. Some clamp meters only work with AC, as indicated by the squiggle by the A. These are all referred to as multimeters because they have multiple uses, unlike the analog example, which only measures between 0-50 volts DC. Let’s take a closer look at the clamp meter.

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As you can tell, this particular meter lives near the bench saw. A little sawdust never hurts, but how embarrassing! Normally the arrow on the knob is pointed at the OFF to save battery. It is presently set for a range up to 750 volts AC or vac. The squiggle under the V means alternating current. The 1000V range below it has a straight solid line and a straight dashed line, indicating DC. 750 and 1000 are rather large voltages, so you will find a meter like this is not the best thing for checking batteries with any accuracy. This is best for the big voltages, like the 240vac output of your inverter or a 600 volt string input to a grid-tie inverter.

The lower left scales are for resistance. The 200 position with the funny symbol indicates that you can measure the resistance of a cable up to 200 ohms (which would be terrible) or it will beep if you have a dead short, like when testing a good cable or fuse.

Over in the lower right corner is where you check your amps with the clamp. See the A (for amps). If I clamp onto one of the big wires on my air conditioner I might see around 11 amps. You can multiply the VOLTS times the AMPS to figure WATTS. Of course, if you are drawing too many watts your circuit breaker will let you know, but by measuring when everything is right, you can make sure everything is sized properly for the job at hand. One last little feature in the upper right corner of the photo is the HOLD button. If you have to put the meter into a position where you can’t read it to clamp onto a wire, you can press the red button to hold the display until you can pull it back to read it.

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The meter in the middle has a lot more precision and it has automatic ranging, so you just set it to AC or DC or whatever and it figures out if you are measuring a volt, 100v or even more and displays it in the proper context. It even has a built in frequency counter (Hz) that can tell you if your inverter is putting out 50Hz or 60Hz. The inverter can be set wrong and it can make a difference! The oscilloscope function is not great, but it can tell you if a power output is a sinewave or a modified sine wave.

The main reason I wanted to show you this one, though, is the sockets where the meter leads plug in. This meter is pretty typical in that respect. The black lead always lives in the COM hole and the red normally lives in the V socket. To measure current, you set the dial to the appropriate position and move the red lead to the 10 amp or ma position. Don’t mess this up! When set up for measuring current, you usually use the 10 amp scale for solar and you take the cable off the battery. If you pull the positive cable off the battery, put the red lead on the positive (+) battery terminal and the black lead to the wire you took off the battery. You can now measure the current going through the circuit. Note that the meter at the top of the page is set up for current and is reading nearly an amp of current.

You can use this mode to test a solar panel by setting the 10amp mode and poking the probes into the connectors on the solar panel. If the labels on the back says you should have a short circuit current of 7.4 amps, then that is about what you should expect if you check the current of a CLEAN module pointed straight at the sun. In fact, checking both the current AND the voltage is a good idea.

Here’s what you have to watch out for, though. When you are through checking amps, DON’T just turn the meter off and stuff it back into the tool box. You usually test voltage, or most folks do. If it is set up for AMPS and you put the leads across the battery you are going to be very disappointed with yourself, because at the very least you will blow a fuse in there. You might also burn the leads or a bit of circuit board. Not fun.

Let’s see if there is anything interesting about the free red meter.

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Nope

You can see that this one is not auto-ranging. Like the clamp meter, the AC range is pretty high, but that’s ok. There are lots of choices on the DC range. If you have a 12v system, select 20, because the battery may get up to 15 when charging. For a 24 or 48v system use the 200v range. This one does not have a beeper in it, so select the 200 resistance setting or maybe the pointy diode symbol to check a fuse. Like the other meter, you move the red lead to the 10ADC socket to test real amps and don’t forget to put it back when finished. You probably won’t need any of the rest of it. If you do, you already know how to use the meter, I suspect. DON’T leave a cheap meter on when not in use. Of course it runs down the battery, but on some it will also burn out the display owing to electrolysis. Who knew?

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Great for testing batteries

Here is a handy meter to have if you have batteries. (above) Yeah, it is analog, but I like analog. With one of these, you turn the big knob counterclockwise until it feels loose. This is primarily a 12 volt tester, but if you are using 6 or 8v batteries you can either interpolate or put the 6v batteries in pairs for the test. Come to think of it, you’ll just cause trouble if you don’t keep it down to 6 or 8 volts. We’ll start off with a marine deep cycle battery as a 12 volt example and just scale everything down for the lower voltage batteries. If it is your meter, you can make your 6v marks with a Sharpy. Disconnect the batteries from the charging and load circuits and clamp the red clamp on the positive terminal and the black onto the negative. Watch the terminals when you increase the current. A bad connection can get real hot in a hurry with hundreds of amps involved!

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Oops, the needle is a little off the zero and it isn’t even connected! How hopeful this meter is. You can set the proper zero with that black screw at the bottom, but make sure you are looking at it dead-on.

If it is a fresh 12v battery you should get a bit over 12 volts, maybe even over 13. Anywhere in that middle green zone on the right is fine. Nothing should happen on the left meter until you crank the knob clockwise. You will tighten it until the needle falls down into that area where the red and green show a stair step. Guess the temperature and choose your notch. This is really loading the battery. To get a good estimate of capacity, you now look over at the left meter.

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At least this meter is pretty well zeroed.

This unit is really set up for testing something the size of a car battery, so two T105 or Sun230 or GC2 batteries in series are going to slam the needle off scale to the right because they should indicate over 200 amp-hours and the scale only goes to 160. If the needle slams to the left you hooked your cables up backwards and you just broke something.

Anyway, for a trolling battery, you should see something on the order of 80-120 on the green amp-hour scale and you should see it hold fairly steady for about 15 seconds or until the timer beeps. If testing a 6 volt battery, turn the knob until the VOLTS needle is in the 4-5 range, depending on temperature and roughly double what you see on the left meter. The real key here is that the amps should drop rather slowly on a good battery and they will go quickly on a bad one or one that is badly sulfated. If you ignore the timer and leave it connected the tester will begin to smell bad and that can’t be good. It never is. If testing a number of batteries, take your time and let the giant resistor cool down a bit.

That may sound complex or tedious, but really it isn’t once you’ve tested a few batteries. Read the manual for all of these meters for the fine points of use and care.

Quick tips on what to do with your meter? Check your solar panels you just got in or if your system is acting up. Specs for volts and amps should be on a label on the back of the panel. If not, you can Google just about any panel data sheet.

Check a fuse, circuit breaker, cable or switch for continuity.

Check the output voltage and current of your inverter or charge controllers. Most have built-in metering to some degree, these days, but sometimes a second opinion can help.

Test a battery.

Make sure the cables are the right polarity before connecting panels or batteries to other expensive stuff!

Well that should be enough to get you started. Have fun with your new meter. –Neal

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Troubleshooting Solar

Some folks have big systems and some have small. A small solar power system is pretty easy to wring out if there is a problem. Use your multimeter (You DO have a multimeter, don’t you???) to tell if you have volts getting to your charge controller, or if you have it up to that fuse that blew, but not beyond. A bigger system can be a little harder to keep up with.

My system has HUNDREDS of panels, because they are small, 34 watt modules. They are organized in 4 medium voltage strings to each charge controller, via cutout switches and fuses for shutdown, isolation and circuit protection. This allows me to quickly troubleshoot if something doesn’t look quite right.

Let me remind you right here, that while I do have some shiny new panels, I have a lot of salvaged panels that are not exactly prime stuff. I have had a problem with a new panel, but mostly it has to do with the older stuff. A lot of times you can troubleshoot without even breaking out the multimeter! Read on.

Real life example from this week: I’m out in the Solar Shed to start putting up the ceiling in the control room. It is 111 degrees in there. ACTUAL degrees, not the fake “feels like” kind. The purpose of the ceiling is to keep some of that 150 degree heat from the back of the roof modules from getting into the control room. It works, by the way. Anyway, I get one sheet of plywood on the rafters and, to avoid death by heatstroke, I take a break. Looking at the meters on the charge controllers I see that something is off on Bank 4. Pull a switch and it is narrowed to String 4A or 4B. Pull a fuse and, voila, I have determined that 4B has bit the dust without breaking out the multimeter. Swap the two fuses and same result, so it isn’t the fuse. This is not a surprise.

The fuses, switches breakers, etc., are all labelled so as to associate which watts go through what equipment. Now where is string 4B? I look up through the ceiling that isn’t there yet and can see my code marks on the fat white solar power cables. 4 dashes and 2 dots. 4B. Top two rows on the end. C and D use normal panels outside until the next section of the Solar Shed is built this winter. You know, when it isn’t 111 degrees in there.

I didn’t take a thermometer up top, but I am pretty sure it was not any cooler. There are about 21 panels to a string and I know that these are some of the iffyest of all the solar shingles. I can take a meter and start unplugging, testing and replugging, or I can start by just looking. Note: NEVER unplug your MC3, MC4, TYCO, etc. connectors while the circuit is active. You can draw an arc and ruin the connector. Or a finger. Anyway, about 4 panels down from my point of entry, I find what I think I am looking for: a bubble in a jbox. Bubbles form when diodes get hot and die.

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Junction Boxes are not supposed to have bubbles, melting or charring.

Sometimes the diode set can be replaced and sometimes not. Since these are relatively small panels, I have built in a number of spares and just use a jumper cable to work around the bad panel. We’ll talk about repairing modules another day and if I repair that one, it’ll be a cooler day. Anyway, the problem was isolated just by looking.

Here’s an easy one. A big black cat will dramatically reduce solar power output. Fortunately, panels are a little too hot for cats in the middle of the day. My solar boating projects have panels mounted flat whether on the boats or just testing equipment.

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She has even climbed a ladder to get on the main array.

Here’s a more serious example. This is called a hotpot. Quite often, it gets hot enough to break the glass. I caught this early. You can see that two of the four main wires through that cell are burnt open. That puts a lot of work on the remaining two. Output is reduced and it gets real hot, about 50 degrees hotter than the rest of the surface. When we talk about fixing things we’ll come back to this one.

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sArea=101011111

If this panel had been mounted above eye level, you might not have seen that burn, unless you looked up and saw the back side of the panel. It got right toasty on the backside as well.

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sArea=111011111

Maybe after my first example you’d be tempted to glimpse at the junction box or jbox, looking for diode troubles. Yup, this one had it all. Bubbles are not our friends.

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sArea=111110010

Keep an eye out for an Infra Red thermometer on sale at America’s Favorite Chinese Tool Store. They are not expensive and are a very handy troubleshooting aid. After coming back to the Solar Shed after a break, I smelled something funny. Eventually I followed the nose inside the control room where the scent was the strongest. I waved the IR thermometer around and discovered that the electric fan that had been running out there was no longer running and was humming at 277 degrees F, while emitting its faint aroma. Better a 1940’s vintage table fan than my inverter! The IR thermometer can help you spot a piece of equipment with a bad fan if you know what the normal operating temperature range is. If you don’t know, but see that one piece of equipment is hotter than the rest, that’s a clue. The IR thermometer will tell you without risking blistering your finger tips!

Ok, here’s an easy pitch.

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The front glass is busted. Solar glass does not “sorta” bust or even “kinda ” bust. When it goes, it goes. Hailstones, rocks and young thugs with size 12 boots will do this. In this particular example, somebody didn’t remove the screws before stacking them on a pallet. This is really not as bad as it looks. In addition to the backsheet, there is a clear sheet between the glass and the cells and there is a chance that everything is still perfectly sealed. If you still have good output, you can use a silicone coating made just for this issue, called Q-Sil. It is reportedly good stuff, but not cheap. DO NOT use the AS-SEEN-ON-TV instant spray-on sealer as it turns opaque white in a few weeks. Been there, done that.

DO NOT mix panels with the stylish craqueleur with panels with clear glass in a series string as there might be reduced output, even leading to the dreaded hot spots. I would not recommend them in a high-voltage string, either, though that may not be a worry. There are always lots of little single panel projects that are a good match for these. Best of all, if it wasn’t YOUR panel that got broken, somebody else might just give it to you. John came across 3000 250 watt panels the other day that had been hit by hailstones. The price was super cheap, but he’d have to ship them cross country. Would you buy broken PV modules? If so, John’ll give you a deal on 3000 of them. Plus postage.

Ok, this last one is pretty obvious.

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It actually still kind of works a little bit, even though the bullet holes have let out most of the magic smoke that makes electronic stuff work, but merely by looking at it you have determined that something just isn’t quite right.

That’s the trick. Know what things are supposed to look like and the trouble will sometimes just jump right out and let you know.

By the way, that Silfab 335 was the only one of 10 that gave any trouble. I have no clue as to why it did that. Anyway, I bought those from Sun Electronics and when I sent those pictures you see above I was given a prompt refund. Some outfits would want you to return it and pay all the shipping, but I quickly got a refund check in the mail. John is real good about backing his products.

Maybe next time we’ll talk about testing with a meter for some of the trickier stuff. –Neal

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Little Solar Projects

My first solar project was to put 4 tiny 6 volt solar panels on the top of the instrument panel of my old Piper TriPacer.  The panels were little more than experimenter toys made from solar cell scraps in a plastic frame.  40 years ago you took what you could get in solar.  Old airplanes have tiny batteries, crappy starters and high displacement engines. Add in flying them only on the weekends and you can end up having to change out the very expensive tiny battery every year, or starting it the old fashion way by flinging the prop by hand and hoping the plane doesn’t run off without you. That installation involved about 1/8 amp of current, if that much, and until the panels shook apart I didn’t have to buy a new battery or hand start the plane. Just a little trickle charge is all it takes to keep a vehicle battery ready to go and extend its life.

Those panels probably cost $80/watt way back then.  Adding in a diode to prevent back flow, a fuse to make the feds happy and a Form 337 to make it legal and I was in business.  If the plane had had a cigarette lighter plug I could have avoided the paperwork by making it portable.

Since then, panels have gotten a bit cheaper, but the installation is pretty much the same, as is the benefit.  Nowadays, though, I usually do it on a tractor or help a neighbor put a solar charger on a 4-wheeler, tractor or motor home.  Baby Brother has an old pickup he doesn’t use much, but it always starts, thanks to a pair of 5 watt modules mounted on a frame in the truck bed.   Using a small module, like 5-10 watts, you don’t really need a charge controller, as long as you are using a so-called 12 volt panel.  FYI, a 12 volt panel will usually put out about 18-20 volts without a load.  If you want to mount a 300 watt, 24 volt panel on your truck’s tonneau cover, then you definitely will need a charge controller, with MPPT to get the voltages compatible.  Sun Electronics often has some of these small panels for small projects.

After my airplane phase, there came a tractor phase and a lot of them followed me home.  That’s a lot of tires and batteries to keep up with if you want to keep them going.  Some of them go and some of them went.  On one of my old Rooskie tractors I put a stainless steel marine panel on the fender.  They claimed it was flexible and if you tighten the screws enough it actually bends.  And still works!  I know the old beast looks pretty rough, but the decade-old battery will start it right up!  Yeah, I know the back tires are on backwards.  It helps me get out of trouble easier than getting into it. 

Old tractor keeps a hot battery with solar power.

The installation involves only a surplus panel, some screws and an inline fuse holder. Connections are made directly to the battery, red to + and black to -. A blocking diode is built into the module. My newest tractor, only 21 years old, is about to get a similar mod to keep its 5 year old battery going for a long time.

If you have this setup on the end of the tractor hanging out the back of a shed, you can easily connect an overhead light, using a 12v LED bulb, using a plug or big gator clips. These Belarus tractors came with a socket just for plugging into a light. Very handy.

A little project like this can be a great confidence builder for the solar beginner and produce some immediate benefits, like not having to buy so many batteries or break out the jumper cables as often. Too bad solar can’t fix tires!   –Neal

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Show Time!

John was just about worn out when I talked to him, yesterday.  He’s at the big solar show in Salt Lake City.  Sun Electronics does not have a booth, there.  He’s there to hobnob and network, catching up with old friends and keeping up with the latest offerings.

All of the panel makers are there, including the Chinese, who are not selling a lot of modules owing to the tariffs.  I’m sure each maker is emphasizing that their panels are blacker, less reflective and .001% more efficient than the panels in the next booth!  Not to say that all panels are created equal…they aren’t.  That’s a good thing because there are special applications.  In the next day or so I will write about some renegade panels I have come across and how to use them.

So, there he is, shuffling down the aisles, gawking, trading business cards and peeking in on seminars.  They have modules, inverters, batteries and every conceivable gadget and gizmo related to solar and what do you think catches his eye?  A racking system.

John recently had the opportunity to buy a small solar farm.  Not just the panels, everything.  Right down to the last nut and bolt.  Even the galvanized iron posts ripped from the ground with balls of concrete around the base.  I   would love to get ahold of stuff like that, but there is a problem.  Shipping.  It costs more to ship it than it is worth.

That’s really a shame.   Rather than reuse a perfectly good item, it is cheaper for them to sell it as scrap and have it melted down to make something else.  In the meantime, I can go to the local steel supplier, cut and drill the raw materials and  get busy mounting panels on the new rack.  How can that possibly make economic sense?  How much energy is involved in all that?

Yup, shipping is a real problem for us little guys.  Roberto just sold me a pallet of panels at a super low price.  I didn’t need them, just can’t pass up such a bargain.  Then there was the reality of a $500 shipping tab.

Well, this racking product that so impressed John is completely modular, meaning it is adjustable so it fits with any module AND it fits in a package you can ship UPS.  Hooray!  We’ll see if he can work out a deal to carry that line.

Another racking product I saw in show literature is a rackless system you can use on a commercial building with standing seam metal roofing.  These little assemblies slip on the seam, you space them just so, snug them up and drop on the solar panel.  Saves materials and labor costs.  Great ideas.

New product news from my morning solar newsletters and not the Utah show has to be the worst idea ever.  In addition to the current thin film offering that last a long time and the crystalline modules that seem to last forever, there are many other ways of getting power from the sun at much greater efficiencies.  The problem with most of these is that they do not last very long.  Some last only a few weeks.

The idea is that if they can get a super efficient panel to run 10-15 years, it may be economically feasible to build these disposable panels and just swap them out every 10 years!  Now, I understand that land is expensive and if you can get more power out of an acre you can save some money.  What about the cost of labor?  What do you do with the scrap panels?  It takes a lot of energy to make a panel and a lot to melt it down and start over.  Why not just make forever panels and leave them alone?

I don’t think this idea is being promoted for rooftop, but imagine having to replace your home PV system every 10 years?  I know when I get my new roof, I am going to get the best I can find and I really don’t want anybody stomping around up there wearing it down.

Besides, what does that do to the secondary market?  You won’t be able to have such a broad choice of used panels at low prices that you have today, at least ones that actually make electricity.  My thought on PV recycling is USE IT!  Run it until it fades to nothing.

Speaking of recycling, someone has come up with a strange new idea to make it easier to recycle modules.  You grind up a tree and make a cellulosic substrate on which to apply the active material and all the silver wires.  Sounds like paper, to me, but cellulosic substrate sounds more impressive.  Anyway, a hailstone cracks the glass or some other problem arises and it is time to recycle.  Simply soak the panel in warm water and the cellulosic substrate dissolves and all of the valuable or tricky materials slide off into your waiting hands, leaving the glass and aluminum frames available for conventional recycling or even reuse.

Wait just a minute.  MY modules are out in the weather every day, not that it ever rains in September.  Do I really want a panel that dissolves when it gets wet???  I’m thinking there is a detail or two they didn’t mention in the press release.  At least they are trying.

As far as my recycling efforts go, I just ordered a pallet of those FS-270 panels John is offering so cheap.  70 watt used thin film panels for $7!  I’m bound to find something to do with them.  Heck, I bet they’d make great stocking-stuffers come Christmas, birthday presents or even something for a kid’s science fair project.  Ummm, maybe not, as they have an open circuit output of 83 volts.  It is never a good idea to electrocute the nieces and nephews.  Anyway, they look like good, cheap fun.  Check them out on the sunelec.com home page.

–Neal

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So Your Power Bill This Month Was $497

It Doesn’t Have to Be!

My neighbor Connie got her power bill yesterday.  It was $497.  That was just the one for the house, she has another for the well.  I got my bill today and it was $67.  Mind you, $27 of that was for electricity and 40 is for taxes, fees, waste and corruption.  So Connie only used $457 worth of electricity, but she gets mad when she hears about my tab.  Well, I do, too.  $67 will buy a really fantastic bottle of Cabernet, or two pretty good ones. 
 
Part of the difference between her bill and mine is lifestyle and part is the fact  that much of my farm is no longer connected to the co-op grid, connected instead to an oddball collection of solar projects.  If somebody were to ask if you can really cut your power bill with solar, the answer would have to be “YES”, but if the question was whether or not you could save money, that’s a different deal.  The less electricity you consume from a solar power system, the less it costs to build and vice versa.  Saving energy saves you money, even when you have solar!  Where you shop can make a big difference, too.
 
Connie and I have houses that are probably about the same size.  Hers is older.  Insulation?  Don’t know.  I’ve not seen in her attic or walls, but she found out there is none under the floor when a water leak required the floor be replaced.  Mine has insulation in the floor and attic.  Walls are R13, which is pretty minimal by today’s standard.  She has a fridge and a chest freezer.  I have 2 fridges and a chest freezer.  She leaves lights on all the time.  I don’t know what bulbs she has.  I try to keep the lights off, but most are LED, in case somebody leaves them on.  She has an electric water heater and mine is wood fired.  Hers eats kilowatts and mine eats pine cones and junk mail during the summer.  I think it is the air conditioning that is where her problem is, and she is not the only one I know with power bills above $400.
 
Connie is one hot babe.  I mean HOT, as in Fahrenheit.  She says she keeps the a/c at around 72 during the day and sets it cooler at night!  My downstairs thermostat stays at 78 and the upstairs goes full on cold during the sunny hours because mine are both solar powered.  To get my house to 72, I’d need a bigger inverter, maybe a pair of 8048s, to run both units at the same time and I’d need a much bigger battery to keep that going all night.  The point is it would cost me more to run my house as cold as Connie’s, but from buying hardware, not from paying the power company.  Of course, at some point, the hardware is paid for and the savings add up like dividend checks.
 
Some time when we both have time, I want to take a closer look at her insulation situation and her appliances to see where the power is really going, even though I suspect it is mainly the a/c.  There’s a fix for that, if you’ve read the last half of the last solar a/c blog, the part about micro inverters.  With a rig like that she could probably knock a couple of hundred bucks off the bill.
 
Here’s a bit of irony for you.  As more regions in the world are getting their first taste of electricity, with solar, they are going crazy for a/c, which they’ve never had before.  Projections for the solar build-out are being reassessed to cover the worldwide demand for air conditioning!
 
Ok, so let’s look at what’s going on at my house to save electricity and to replace the power company’s power with solar.  First, let me say, I am not going off grid because it is nice to have the grid as my backup generator!  Just flip the transfer switch and everything is back to normal $497 power bills.
 
Lights:  Mostly LED, a few Compact Fluorescent because they haven’t died.  I have one chandelier in the front hall with scads of wee incandescent candle bulbs.  They’ve been there 25 years or so, I rarely use them and you could die trying to get that high to change them out.  They are a problem I will leave to the next generation.  Some lights get left on all the time.   Some I’ve given up trying to turn them off, so all of the lighting in the house is on the solar circuits.  Incidental to this, the internet satellite dish and the wifi are on this circuit, a legacy of when I had to keep my business running even when the power company was down.  Old power bills are not available for research at this time, but I think I recall that when my old 24v solar power system came on it took about 200 kilowatt-hours (KWH) off the bill, or about $25 a month.
 
The old 24v system, including the Not-Really-8KW Melt-o-Matic inverter.  The antique analog meter kind of gives balance to this digital stuff.
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  Of course, there was no electric water heater, but the grid powers a small fan in the outdoor wood furnace.  That’s a fair trade-off there.   This phase of the system was very limited, but also provided power for loads the house never saw.  A Yamaha golf car replaced an F250 as my on-farm truck.  At that time, the Yamaha was a just a load and not a battery resource, like it is in the present system.  There were also lights and power tools run by the system and no attempt was ever made to meter this.  

Firing up the amps with solar can save on the power bill, too.

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  Here is what the power consumption was looking like over a period of time.  This is from my July 2019 power bill.  The last “J” is the July bill, but for the June electricity.  Look back 13 months to July 2018.  That’s actually June, when it is pretty mild.  August (July) ran on up to 837kwh.  That’s without paying for the lights, of course.  Note the plateau for November-February.  That’s running the house without heating or cooling, aside from the air handler fan.  Then in March we see another step down and then it just doesn’t go back up.  There was another change.  

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  What happened was the bigger 48v solar power system got switched over.  It had been running for months, but there were some wiring changes and other things to consider, including minimizing downtime during the changeover.  I knew the new system was stable, having run it alongside the 24v system.  When I changed over, I put the extra power to work, cutting over the two fridges, freezer, home entertainment, some outlets, dishwasher, microwave and both coffee makers.  We are serious about our coffee.  That got us down to the 200kwh neighborhood, at least until cooling season begins.  

The new 48v system under construction, before lightning blew up the 12kw inverter.

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  Getting through spring with most loads off the grid was easy.  The challenge for summer was to get the a/c running on solar.  The homemade inverter just couldn’t handle the surges.  Read the a/c blogs to see what happened there.  Short version is, it worked.  

The new inverter under construction, using case and transformer of the old inverter.  Note the MidNite Solar lightning catcher down near the bottom left.  I love the cool blue glow and the thing actually works!

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The homebrew inverter comes to life on the barely running 48v system.  There are still 378 small solar panels to move over!  Yeesh!  Those stupid magnetic “light switches” are actually quite handy to stick to your system, just in case…

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  So here is the result of running the big cooling load, the lights and basic appliances on solar.  The August bills from last year to this year dropped 600kwh, even while keeping the house cooler and powering 2 utility vehicles.  So the next question is when do I upgrade my inverter to 10kw (I have the parts) and pile up some more battery capacity?  The inverter upgrade is just a matter of finding time.  Come January, the Solar Shed will be getting its last expansion, stretching from 80’ to over 100’, depending largely on how many working solar shingles I can come up with.   Maybe an additional 3500 watts!  The cost of building materials has gotten crazy, so we’ll get that part out of the way before we talk new batteries.  The current set is in good shape, so no sense in spending 5 grand on a new monster battery, just yet.  

The September 2019 power consumption of 210kwh is pretty remarkable when you consider how many days we had over 100 degrees F.

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  If you’ve not read some of my other posts, you may be wondering why I am not just running grid-tie.  That’s not an option with our power co-op, so the only time we even talk about it is to gripe that we don’t have it.  So, hybrid systems are the way we go.  Proof is in the power bill that it is working.   Now as for Connie’s problem, I’m going to sit down with her and see if there is something we can do with solar to help her bill.  Yeah, I could tell her to turn up the thermostat 5 degrees, but I don’t have a good track record getting women to do as I tell them, so I won’t bother.  If we can cut $200 a month during the summer months with a microinverter conversion to her compressor, that could pay for itself in a reasonable time, especially with the cheap prices on the pv modules from Sun Electronics.  I’m sure she has a heat pump (which I hate), but she might not see great savings in the winter if she really ices down the place, then.  I’ll let you know if we come up with a successful plan. –Neal

Don’t Do This!

This morning, going through the email editions of American Solar Energy Society’s Solar@Work and  PV Magazine, I came across an article on things found wrong during inspections of photovoltaic power systems, both at home and commercial installations. You might want to take a look at the article and then take a look at your own system! https://pv-magazine-usa.com/2019/09/19/solar-power-installation-techniques-dont-do-this-w-pictures/

–Neal

GS 4048 Hybrid inverter

Louisiana Screws Up Net Metering

Don’t Worry, We Can Fix This

After Hurricane Katrina, solar power took off in New Orleans. Long nights without power left folks wanting a little more control of their situation and rooftop solar took off.

How much of that was actually usable when the grid is down and how much was grid tie? I’m betting there was a lot of grid tie.

Nothing wrong with that, especially if you get real net metering. Figure up all the power you made and how much of a net surplus or deficit you had and money changes hands at the retail rate. In other words, if you used 1000kwh (kilowatt-hours) of grid power and the rate is 13 cents, then you sent the power company a check for $130. If you made 1000kwh more than you used, then the power company sent you a check for $130.

This is a really sweet deal, if you can get it. A few weeks ago, the Show and Tell post featured a Texas system owned by Daryl and some add-ons to a South Carolina system owned by Courtney. Both have that deal. Apparently, Louisiana has had that deal and now they want to change it. So much for the payback calculations.

I’m just going to use some round numbers, here, but they’ll be close to the real deal. Under the new deal, that begins with the new year, if you use an extra 1000kwh, you’ll still pay $130, but if you make an extra 1000kwh, you will get $34, based on the wholesale, or “avoided cost” rate the power company pays.

Ok, it’s actually worse than that. If your system makes an extra kwh today, you get your 3 pennies credited, but then tonight when you use a kwh to watch the evening news, they are going to charge you 13 pennies for the electricity they bought from you for 3! It cost you a dime for your own power! Figure, too, that a lot of power companies have extra connection fees for solar producers.

This puts you where I am with my power co-op. Florida law has been that the “regulated power provider” has to do net metering. As a co-op, however, they are exempt, so they make it foolishly expensive to connect grid tie solar.

Fret not, my friends, for there is a way for you to have your solar AND keep the lights on after a storm. It is called HYBRID solar. You will probably have to reconfigure your solar strings and buy some more gear, but what you will end up is not only a more versatile system, but one that makes more economic sense, as well.

If your grid tie system is in the most basic form, you have a number of solar panels in series connected to a string inverter. If this is your system, you remove the Sunny Boy and separate the seriously high voltage string(s) of modules into groups of, say 3, to get the voltages you need for charge controllers. Yeah, you gotta buy charge controllers. Maybe you only need one if you get the monster 300 amp Flex Max.

The output of the charge controller(s) goes to your new battery bank. The size of your battery bank is going to depend on how long you want to keep the lights on with solar power. If you have a lot of solar and a little bit of battery you can cook the life out of the battery in a hurry. A Flex Max can be turned down to accomodate the battery’s well being, but then you aren’t using all of your solar. I know it hurts to write that check for a big battery stack, but you won’t regret having it.

Now, you need a hybrid inverter to replace your string inverter. If you were doing your grid tie connection via a hybrid inverter to start with, then congrats. The “hybrid” inverter is called that because it can do grid tie, it can act as a standalone inverter, it can act like a UPS, it can charge batteries and sometimes they have other tricks.

Outback GS 4048A
Outback GS4048A

I’ll tell you how you need to connect this new hybrid inverter in a moment, but you need one more thing. You need a transfer switch. This allows your inverter to connect to SOME or ALL of your house’s circuits. The simplest thing is to use a whole house transfer switch, which of course may cost more and will require that your new hybrid inverter be hefty enough to handle all the loads. You may think that you can pick and choose what you have running to stay within the inverter’s capabilities, but you will likely have someone in your house (I’m not mentioning names) that will want to live his/her life without limitations on the power they use. Count on it.

Otherwise, you can use a transfer switch, such is commonly used with backup generators to run power to essential circuits, leaving the clothes dryer and electric range out of the loop. These switches are cheaper and readily available but may present logistical issues, depending on where your main power panel is.

For a couple of examples, Tom has his whole house switched to the output of his GS8048 inverter pair. One didn’t quite handle it all, but the GS series can be paired for twice the output. With 16kw on tap, he doesn’t have to worry about running anything or everything, saying he has only seen the load go up to 10 kw. If one of GS8048s should fail, he can proceed with care on the other one until the bad one is repaired, but he’s never had a problem with either. He also has a power line connected to the input of his inverters. This is like a giant version of a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) with the switches so set. Change the switches just a bit and the inverter is providing power to the house, with the grid on standby.

During the day, when there is plenty of sunshine, the batteries charge, the a/c cools (his setup has enough reserve power that the a/c starts without a Smart Start), the computers run, the fridge cools, etc. Nothing is going to or from the power company. There is no grid tie meter or agreement with the power company, so make sure the inverter never gets switched to “sell” mode. These modern smart meters will tell on you!

To minimize the load at night, baking and laundry are done during the day. Come night, the modest battery bank gets well into the evening before the inverter decides to switch back to grid to save the battery. The rest of the night, Tom pays his 13 cents for every kwh he uses. Overall, he doesn’t ever buy any of his own power at a markup and he for pay a lot of the bought kwh.

Tom has plenty of solar. By backing off on his nighttime a/c or investing in a bigger battery, he could probably eliminate his grid consumption altogether. He could keep the grid as his virtual backup generator or just give the power company the one-finger wave goodbye.

On my hybrid system, I don’t have the whole house connected and I don’t have one of those fancy interactive inverters. My transfer switch connects my inverter to the circuits you’d want if the grid goes down and a bit more, within the capacity of the inverter. The sun makes the power and I use it to run the freezer, two fridges, home entertainment, computer/internet, microwave, coffee pot etc. And the a/c. And the farm jalopies. There is no grid attached to the solar power system, so consumption has to stay within production. This is mostly determined by how much the a/c is used, as there is much more than enough power for everything else.

I’d use more of the kwh I produce if I had a bigger battery and inverter, but there is no charge for a grid tie connection and no paying out dimes for using my own kwh.

If you are new to solar, consider a hybrid system for both savings and power redundancy. If you are on grid tie and are or will be getting a raw deal, then consider converting to a hybrid system. Sun Electronics should have pretty much everything you need to make the change at a decent price and they back the stuff they sell. –Neal

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Solar Air Conditioning Recap

John called the other day for some solar chit chat. He asked if I was still using my solar air conditioning and I replied that I was. It was holding up well in the blistering heat. He said, “You should write a blog about it.” Well, gee John, don’t you read this stuff?

There are 3 articles here in the tech blog, I think, about air conditioning with solar power, but maybe that isn’t obvious. The entire blog system got vaporized a while back and it has kind of come back in bits and pieces. Looks like webmaster Jorge has things finally under control. He has tweaked the graphics a bit though I see a few pictures that I need to replace. Hopefully, if you read through the whole lineup you’ll find some useful stuff.

But we were talking about a/c, weren’t we? And, mind you, we are talking about conventional systems, not the super efficient variable speed or inverter systems.

To recap, my first solar a/c was a 5000 BTU window unit, powered by my solar boat. 5000 BTU will nicely cool a bedroom, but if you keep it going you’ll find that it can cool down the entire house a degree or two and really help with the humidity.  It is better than nothing!

When I got enough solar power to take a shot at running the central a/c, it almost worked, but my allegedly 8kw inverter on the 24v system couldn’t quite make the startup surge of either of my outdoor units. If it had started a compressor, it would not have been long before that inverter’s undersized transformer would have melted.

Somewhere in here I should point out that I have disconnected the big gray flex conduits that bring power from the disconnects on the wall to the a/c units and moved them to a different set of disconnects. The original disconnects are on grid power and the new ones have the solar power.

I figured the new 48v system with the big 12kw inverter would do the trick, because it worked for the previous owner. Alas, lightning got both the old 24v inverter and the new 48v inverter before I made the changeover. There was much sadness and a wee bit of despair over that.

So I found a source of electronic driver modules and built a new 5548, based on the transformer in the 12kw inverter. It would not make the surge power to start the compressor. I found a 10kw electronics module, but never got around to installing it, because I discovered a secret weapon for starting the a/c: the soft starter.

Soft starters, aka Smart Starter, are usually found in boats and motor coaches. The device alters the motor voltage and frequency to allow it to come up to speed slowly and stress-free. The boat or motor coach can avoid having an oversized generator just to start the a/c.  The variable speed compressors should be alright without this option.

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A Soft Starter Installed

Well, that sounded like what I needed, but they were 600 bucks. I found two at a marine salvage dealer for $100 each and installed them in my two outdoor units. It worked! The 5500 watt inverter will start and run EITHER a/c system, but I did not want to take a chance on BOTH systems trying to run.

This required a lockout. This can be done in the house, if both thermostats are handy. That is not the case at my house, but the compressors are side by side. The downstairs unit was fitted with a relay that connects in parallel to the main contactor. When the compressor is running, the new relay clicks and the Normally Closed contacts open. The thermostat wire to the upstairs compressor goes through those contacts, so the upstairs unit can run any time it wants, except when the downstairs unit is running. The downstairs unit runs anytime it needs to run. Use a 24vac relay or a more common dc relay with a rectifier if you should ever need a lockout.

Ok, so the big job of getting the a/c to run was done. Getting the house cool during the day was not a problem, but most of the day’s 24 hours are not sunny and the a/c units are inconveniently, totally off grid.

I knew I didn’t have enough battery. Nobody ever has enough battery. But I did have batteries that were sitting around at night doing nothing. They were in the electric farm trucks. Yeah, another 350 amp-hours. Enough to run the a/c at night! So now, instead of being plugged into the 120v charger, they are connected directly to the 48v system via Anderson plugs. They are usually charged by the time I need them in the morning.

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An Electric Farm Jalopy

OK, I had the power, but no sense in damaging the batteries or shortening their life. Shallow cycles are better than deep cycles. Enter the programmable thermostats.

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I had to work through some things to arrive at the final plan, but the basic idea was to get the house as cool as I could during the day, running the a/c as much as possible during the day, and running it as little as possible at night. If every day were sunny and bright then things would be much simpler, but this part of the alleged Sunshine State is often cloudy, especially in the late afternoon when it is hottest. Therefore, compromises were made.

When I was buying electricity, I would keep the thermostat downstairs at 78-80. Upstairs, unless the office was in use, was left at maybe 85. The final compromise that seems to work well is the downstairs thermostat is at a fixed 78 degrees, where it rarely turns on. The upstairs thermostat program is around 81 at night, jumps to 77 around breakfast and a little before 10am goes to 71.

On a really hot day it may only get down to 74, upstairs, but the rest of the cool is tumbling down the stairs. The 1.5 ton unit runs flat out with no cycling to cool the entire house. The only time the downstairs unit needs to run is when it is 100 outside and the wife is running the dryer, sucking in hot air, or I am using the oven.  Yeah, I bake.  If it is what we call a cool day (below 90) then the downstairs temp may go on down to the mid 70s.

I did have an alternating program on the thermostats to use the downstairs unit more, but there is a reason I am running the upstairs unit non-stop and I will eventually get to that.

Ideally, we’d chill the whole house during the day, but that takes BOTH a/c units and we just can’t do that at this time.

So far, the net result is that the house is cooler and more comfortable 24/7. We have a modest power bill while some of our neighbors are shelling out $400. Upstairs is super cool and that will be nice as we begin to dismantle my office up there and convert it back to a bedroom.

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My dwindling power bill

Now, for the reason we are running the upstairs unit so hard? You can get a hint by scrolling down to the “Micro-Inverter” post.

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Microinverters

My friend Courtney had the idea of solar-powered a/c for folks who did not want to go through all the paperwork for a grid-tie system or the bigger expense of a large off-grid system.  How about something you just attach to the a/c unit and it uses solar power?  So, nice guy that I am, I volunteered my system as the guinea pig.  I figured it would work, but did and still have reservations about how cost effective it would be.

In a nutshell, a group of solar panels connects to a group of microinverters, the output power adding up to the amount used by the compressor.  No more than that.  This way you won’t actually grid tie and send power back to the company.  It all goes into the a/c.  You won’t need a soft starter, either, since you have all that grid power behind you.

The microinverter 240vac line connects to the compressor motor side of the a/c units contactor.  Good thing I buried some extra cable, huh?  This way, the microinverters are only activated when the compressor is running.  Annoyingly, they don’t start the power flow until the ac power has been on and stable for 5 minutes.  That is a big reason we want to keep the compressor running pretty much continuously.

The panels we are using are 300 watt LGs, which Sun Electronics has in inventory at this writing.  These work nicely with the Enphase 215 watt unit, which is a bit fussy about only using 60 cell modules.  Yes, at peak times we are just tossing 85 watts, but the rest of the time we have a more constant and predictable power contribution.

My test compressor, in addition to the Smart Start, has 3 recording watt-hour meters in it.  The top meter shows the microinverter contribution of 1949 watts at this moment (photo below).  The middle meter indicates that the compressor is consuming 2020 watts.  The bottom meter shows that the main power line is only having to kick in 75 watts!  As great as that sounds, when you consider nights and cloudy times, the microinverter setup is providing around 65% of all we are using.  There is definitely a savings there and it is definitely taking a load off my inverter during the day, as that is the “main power line” for the a/c.

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Is it worth it?  Not to me, of course, since I already have a solar power system, but for you?  That will depend on what kinds of deals you can find on the components and what you have to do for installation.  This is prime guerilla solar stuff, and having to get HOA approval, an engineering study to mount panels on the roof and stuff like that would really take the fun out of it.  I don’t yet know what Courtney plans to do at the house he just bought, but in the meantime, the adventure continues.  In a couple of months, we’ll see how well the heat pump runs on solar.  I’m not a big fan of heat pumps on cold nights, but I don’t much enjoy cutting firewood for the outdoor wood furnace, either.–Neal

A Hot Time at WalMart

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Don’t Try This at Home

Did you hear about the solar panel fires on the roofs at various WalMarts?  Don’t let it happen to you!

Little bits and pieces of this story have been coming out in the solar trade press for a few weeks, now.  What I have gathered from this is that the rooftop solar power systems at 7 WalMarts have caught fire.  The roofs were steel and the stores were not extensively damaged, but the WalMart folks are miffed enough to sue Tesla over the affair.  Elon Musk’s Tesla did not install the systems, but they bought out Solar City, so it is a mess they inherited.  Since Solar City was started by some cousins of Musk, you can wonder if the next family reunion might be a little tense.

So what does this have to do with you and YOUR solar power system?  Maybe nothing and I bring it up so that we can make sure.  It is looking like the problem started with connectors.  Most of the panels I have came with MC3 or MC4 connectors and I have worked with Tyco connectors.  MC3 and MC4 won’t fit together.  Just a glance and you know that.  MC4 and Tyco connectors look just alike, but won’t fit together.  That’s good because the lookalike parts have just the opposite polarity.  You will have to use adapters to mate these up.

The WalMart problem seems to involve mixing MC4 and Amphenol H4 connectors.  They look alike and they fit.  Amphenol makes no claim that an H4 is an MC4-compatible connector and vice-versa.  The problem is, the Solar City installers used them interchangeably and the fit is a little sloppy.  Word is, Solar City knew of the problem and had begun a program of swapping out for truly matching connectors.  They just didn’t get to some in time and now the lawyers are swarming.

Something that can exacerbate the problem is not plugging them in tight, even when everybody is using the same connector.  Sometimes MC4s are really quite snug, getting that rubber seal seated.  When locked they can be a real pain to get unlocked, if you are experimenting and it would be really easy to forget and leave a connection half done.  Aside from a loose fit, that could be an invitation to water and corrosion.

In a low voltage system you might never have an issue with loose or mismatched connectors, but in grid tie, you can get into many hundreds of volts and a fair number of amps, resulting in conditions that will start and sustain an arc long enough to melt and then ignite connectors, which in turn can melt and ignite something else. Like a roof.

If your solar was installed by Solar City, have they come by to check and update your system?  Maybe YOU should.  Of course, it is a good idea to periodically check your system because STUFF HAPPENS, regardless of who installed it.  Are all the connectors snug and not charred or melted?  Does the insulation look good?  Any brown patches or cracks on the modules?  Battery cables tight?  You know what it is SUPPOSED to look like, so just look for anything that doesn’t look right.

Safety first!–Neal

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Evolution of Hurricane Survival

Survival Stories

460 years ago, a Spaniard named Tristan de Luna y Arellano sailed into Penscola bay to establish the first European settlement. A few weeks later, before they even had all the ships unloaded, Luna and his 1500 colonists discovered the hurricane. I can only imagine the shock and terror as these folks held on for dear life as their makeshift houses blew away. It got worse after the storm was over, because one of the ships was on the beach, two or three, I think, were left floating, but were all beat up. The rest were just plain gone and we are just now finding what’s left of them. Those sunken vessels contained the bulk of their food and other supplies.

Welcome to the Sunshine State, amigo.

60 years ago, next month, Tropical Storm Irene slammed into Pensacola with a vengeance. It was relatively mild, but we huddled around a monopoly board with a candle in a sterling candlestick as our only light. Mom, an old hand at hurricanes, used the game to keep little brother and me calm as the wind howled and our tiny wood-framed house shuddered. Dad was away, manning his company’s emergency radio network. Not much damage came of that storm, but I think it must have left an impression on us, because you’ve never met two brothers with more flashlights, lanterns and emergency gear! Back in ’59, the emergency gear was that candle.

As I said, Mom was an old hand at hurricanes. Grandma, a widow, married an immigrant farmer in Palm Beach County, Florida, where they had some vivid memories of recent ‘canes when they went to build the new house on his Lake Okechobee plantation. The Everglades soil is soft and mushy, so huge cypress pilings were driven straight through to the limestone bedrock. A very sturdy house was attached. It was a good plan, because the house is still standing.

Hurricanes of the ’20s didn’t have the dike around Lake Okechobee, so the lake tended to get loose and add to peoples’ trouble. The water came up and people climbed trees to escape. So did the snakes. Gators just kind of floated up with the water level. A hurricane in the Everglades in the old days just plain sucked.

Cap’n Andy’s house was the best deal around and was the headquarters for local hurricane parties. Of course, the power went out, but the lights stayed bright with a good array of candles and oil lamps. Canasta and Akvavit provided distraction.

The 1939 ‘cane went right over the house. While they were in the eye, Mom and two men from the party went up to the levee to look around. As the eye began to pass, the two men had to hold onto Mom as they quickly made their way back to the house in the rising winds.

Not far away, a boy named Fred, whom I met half a century later, noticed a storm brewing. His Dad had gone into Ft. Myers where he saw the storm warning flags and hurried home to get hunkered down for a REAL storm. No TV, internet or satellite tracking in those days, the storm was on them before they knew it.

Indoor plumbing on Fred’s block meant a pitcher pump at the kitchen sink, the well directly below the house. When the storm was over, every house on the block was sitting catty-cornered, having been blown off their foundation blocks and weather-vaned with the wind. After the storm, they blocked the houses back up, but still at the odd angle. They kept the lights on with oil lamps, too, but that could have turned into a disaster as the house fell to the ground.

Fast forward to the 1970s and Mom and Dad would just move into their little mini motorhome when the power went out. They were far enough inland that the wind wouldn’t blow it over. With lights and a fridge, they had all the comforts of home, sort of.

Bro and I worked at WCOA radio, the town’s oldest and premier station. It was built like a bunker and we had a diesel generator to keep on the air. And we had Eddie, a former Navy steward and chef, who could really put on a spread. That bunch knew how to put on a hurricane party, though I spent the night sacked out on a bag of shipping peanuts in the quiet fallout shelter, because I knew when the winds died down I’d be called upon to fix whatever was broken at WCOA and other stations around town.

Then there was Katrina. That was a bad storm, but the incompetence of local officials made it a lot worse. The storm actually hit Mississippi, but there was plenty to go around.

Rain Webb, an artist who lived on a modest sailboat in a marina near one of the old coastal forts just east of New Orleans, decided he was going to ride out the storm in his boat. It was his home, after all, and he didn’t want to lose it. I was on an adventure aboard my solar launch Sun King in 2015 when I met Rain and heard his story.

First off, a boat is kind of a little survival shelter in itself. It is waterproof and has power, a galley, a bathroom and a bunk. The only problem is that it is out in the water, which is where the hurricane is the strongest. If left in port, there is absolutely no doubt the vessel would have been smashed or hurled ashore. Rain’s plan was to gather all the anchors and all the line he could find and head for protected waters. There’s the very shallow Lake Catherine and the salt marshes of the Intracoastal Waterway. He found a wide spot and put lines and anchors out in several directions, hoping that a least one or two would hold.

Sailboats tend to roll or heel, with the heavy keel returning them upright. And that is exactly what the boat did until the winds died down. Rain came out of that boat looking and feeling like he had been through the spin cycle of a washing machine. When it was all over, he had power and water and food and a roof over his head. He gathered his lines and motored back to port. (Don’t try this at home)

People have been surviving storms for a long time in a lot of ways. These days electricity is a big part of surviving a storm in some comfort. Getting that electricity directly from a generator is not the best way, though. The crew at Sun Electronics can help you with that. Ask about their solar and backup power kits.

—Neal

John’s Home Office Solar Backup Power System

Condo Solar

As promised, I am passing along John’s description of the emergency backup system he put in his condo, years ago. Battery backup, with solar and a generator. The power does not usually stay off very long in big cities, but it doesn’t have to go off at all!

When I started Sun Electronics 35 years ago, I used my home office, it had been my Kyocera America East Coast and Latin America office. I set up this new office for Sun Electronics after working for them for 8 years.

I installed about 5 ARCO modules on my balcony railing , they were flat so I could use them as a bar for parties and just hanging out watching a nice view of the pool deck, Biscayne Bay and the Ocean. They were the perfect width and length 4 ft, by 1 foot. They were just for the office, then I added, a separate circuit breaker sub panel and added a Trace DR2424 inverter charger with an automatic transfer switch so I could have a hybrid system using a portable silent Honda portable gas generator. I could plug that back into grid to use for black outs or, by disconnecting the utility, and keep running the condo, ( the most important electric circuits: 2 refrigerator freezers (25 years old) sockets in kitchen, bedrooms and living room, minus the big loads 220 VAC appliances like stove, electric water heater and air conditioner. It was a great little hybrid system. We only integrated the Generator because Hurricane Wilma came along and put Miami back into the dark ages for 3 days. The system was so efficient and quiet that no one could see the solar panels and when the hurricane showed up we took them down and just used the backup power system with the Honda generator inverter, and 4 6V, 220 amp hr batteries wired in series (equaling 24 volts).

We went three days on that system and didn’t even use half the gasoline in the little lightweight portable, practically silent, generator because most of the time we didn’t need it after the batteries were charged and they took over we just had to disconnect the extension cord running to the generator out on the balcony that fed the house and the 70 amp battery charger in the inverter/charger.

It reminded me of the pelicans that flew by my window everyday up on the 14th floor Venetian Condominium. They’d flap their wings a couple of times (the generator) and then glide half a mile or more (the inverter output off the batteries, no noise, not even the Honda that I don’t think anyone ever noticed. Its illegal to bring gasloline into a high rise for running a generator on your balcony so we brought it up full in a cardboard box just before Hurricane  hit, It was amazing to see all of Miami dark for three nights.  If it had lasted more than one tank of gas I would have just reinstalled the panels on the balcony railing and lighten the load by at least half, goodby refrigerators, 6, 35 watt modules weren’t capable for that, but everything else was ok including microwave and fans a small 10 cu. Ft. refrigerator (75 watts) could have been added but just never did that.

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Let us know how it goes

If you are in the storm zone, we wish you all the best. If you have a backup power system that survived or can cobble something up, let us know what worked. If your system failed, let us know about that, too, so we can learn from it.
I spoke with John Sunday night. The blogs have been getting an overhaul and he is having trouble making posts, so I thought I’d let you know that he and the family flew out west to wait it out.
They are fine, but yes, he is worried about his home, the business and you, the customers.
The storm really made a mess of the Bahamas, and though nobody really knows what will happen, it looks like Miami is in good shape. Just a wiggle to the west and it could get really bad up the state or in Georgia or the Carolinas. Cross your fingers.
Right now it is 0330, Monday morning, and I don’t have all my resources, but will soon tell you about some of the discussions John and I have had about emergency power, including how he rigged a system in his his hi-rise apartment.  Check some of the other blogs for tips too–Neal

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Getting Grazed by a Cat 4 ‘Cane Will Leave a Mark

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Update: This thing keeps moving over and a lot of area will get a bruising graze

I was working on a new series of posts on the basics, but something has come up…a hurricane.  The projected trajectory has it going over Puerto Rico, where they’ve still got a lot of PTSD from the last one, then pass by John’s balcony in Miami and maybe come ashore somewhere between West Palm and Jacksonville.  I have a friend in St. Augustine who has had chest deep water in his living room twice in recent years, so the Jacksonville area folks should be getting anxious.  Earlier on it was expected to cross to the Gulf and rake the panhandle, where many have the same attitude as the folks in PR.  I am happy to say it is no longer headed straight for MY HOUSE…unless it changes again.  In our area, we had them coming in one right after another and then they quit about 15 years ago.  People have forgotten and trees have not been trimmed along power lines. 

Suddenly, PR grocery stores were out of bottled water and I’d bet the easy foods were gone, too. Now it is that way all up the Florida coast and beginning in Georgia.  I get my water from a spring via a water-powered pump, so I don’t worry too much about bottled water.  I have a couple of 300 gallon tanks I may put on a trailer and fill up for the neighbors’ use if the utility goes down after a storm. A couple of 5 gallon buckets and a ceramic filter kit from ebay can set you up with a filtering system that will filter pretty much any water. I used one of these on my boat and it’ll turn any creek, pond or mudhole into fresh drinking water.

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Those two blue buckets are a scaled down water filter for my solar expedition launch. Dirty water goes in the top bucket and clean comes out a spigot on the bottom.

I always try to keep a well-stocked pantry at home.  Even when there isn’t a storm that has popped up, a well-stocked pantry can save you trips to the store and give you a greater variety of meals you can prepare on a whim.  I also have lots of ramen noodle cups—not for survival food, but because I like them.  

If you find yourself in the predicament that a storm is coming, your cupboards are bare and the supermarket has been picked over there are still options.  (Tip: Walmart and some sporting goods stores have camping and survival food) Do people clean out the shelves with cornmeal or flour or cooking oil?  Nope.  You can make up some biscuits, cornbread muffins and tortillas before the power goes off and it is pretty easy to make them even without power or with your solar backup that you probably have, considering you are reading a solar blog.  Try something like 3 scoops flour, one scoop water, yeast if you have it, a tablespoon of salt, a tablespoon of oil (I like coconut oil) and a dash of honey.  If you have some sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pecans, or carrot bits you can pitch in, then it starts getting downright tasty and nutritious!  Make doughballs and bake them at 350 for just under a half hour.  The stuff will keep and keep you alive.  If you find a jar of jelly or peanut butter then you are doing good.  Tortillas can be flour and/or meal with enough water to make a dough.  Roll them out with a rolling pin or a bottle and fry them in oil.  Stuff them with leftovers or canned beans or smear them with peanut butter and jelly.  You can also make waffles, pancakes and hushpuppies!  Oh, heck, you have a cookbook, don’t you?  

If you have backup power from battery, solar or generator and need to keep the consumption down, a toaster oven and and induction cooktop are cheap, low power cooking tools.  You reckon WalMart is going to sell out of them when a hurricane warning is posted?  I doubt it.  There is a foldout oven made for a Coleman gas camp stove, but it can be made to work, too, with a rocket stove that burns twigs and bark and stuff.  A $10 coffee maker will make hot water for noodle cups.  And coffee.  Once the sun comes out, which is usually pretty quick, John has solar cooking ovens that you might want to look at BEFORE the storm.  That’s really the key.  How well you do after the storm can depend a lot on what you do before the storm.  Oh, and make sure you have a manual can opener, too.  I always keep a few of the GI P38 openers.  

What about your power system?  If you have a generator, top up the fuel and check the oil.  Get your spare fuel cans topped up while you can.  In PR, they still have a lot of generators left over from Maria and the various agencies have them fueled.    Water the batteries, if you have them. 

I know MY system has some vulnerabilities.  Assess yours and do the best you can.  Check mounting bolts and clips and make sure the wires are snugged in tight.  In my case, I don’t reckon the batteries are going to blow away, but the solar roof tiles are only rated at 60mph.  I find that distressing, but the only thing I could do about it is drill holes and insert special clips in each one.  Yeah, and there are over 350 of them.  Not going to happen.  There are a lot of big panels mounted on rails trailing down from the roof of the Solar Shed.  These are easily removed.  My plan is to store some of them in a valley under a truck or trailer.  The rest will go in the very sturdy garage at a house I own in another town nearby.  I have stacks of unused solar shingles that would fly individually and cause some havoc, but they could be duct taped into large bricks that won’t blow away.  If all goes well, the shed will still be there and functional.  If not, I’ll bring the panels home and assess what I need to do to get the lights back on.  I have a big diesel generator, well lots of them, but have not needed any in years.  It probably would not hurt to get one back in good order, especially when I already have 500 gallons of fuel for it.  If it comes to it, your car can keep the lights on and fridge cool if you have a good 12v inverter.  If you don’t, Sun Electronics has them or even kits for an entire power system.  Top up the car’s gas tank, as it makes a dandy generator when combined with an inverter.  Each of my golf car-based farm vehicles has a 3kw inverter and can serve a field kitchen, if need be.  

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Golf car with 48v inverter under deck. Great for coffee or a hot snack anywhere.

Having a few good candles or oil lamps and some long nose lighters is a good idea.  They have about quit making decent matches, so I recommend the gas lighters.  A LOW power flashlight, spare batteries, a small LED lantern and even those solar walk lights can provide enough light to get around the house until you can get the mains or backup power running.

  Know where the first aid kit is, too.  Get some cash out of the bank.  

Yes, I am yammering on about what I would do, but it is to give you ideas for your own particular situation.  John and I were talking a while back about survival shelters and power systems.  Just bringing some panels and a few components indoors to a very sturdy area could be all it takes to get the power back quickly after a storm.  Vast areas of Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia and other tornado alley areas have storm shelters outdoors or built into the house.  Keep a few panels and accessories in there for safe keeping, even if you don’t normally use solar power.  

If you do end up with a bad storm and your neighbors did not prepare well, it would not hurt to have some of that homemade hardtack to hand out.  Some places have been more dangerous after the storm than during.  Don’t tell them you have fresh food in the fridge and other niceties and don’t leave the lights burning brightly or generator wailing away.  If things get really desperate, otherwise nice neighbors might turn really bad if starving.  I know a guy who keeps a grinder and a bushel of hard corn to hand out to the neighbors and zombies.  Another way to deal with unprepared neighbors would be to have a cookout and make stone soup or hobo stew.  Start with a pot of water and then invite folks to toss in thawing meat, canned veggies, spices and so forth.  This can turn into quite a feast and is sure to promote good will.  

One last thing, from personal experience, if the lights go out, don’t worry with it until after the storm is over.  Every time you hear of folks who ran a generator in the garage and the fumes got into the house and killed everybody in the house.  You’ll want the generator, if you use one, outside.  During one hurricane, I set my newly acquired Onan outside and set it to running as soon as the lights went out.  Well, the winds picked up and a big limb came down and jammed the generator throttle wide open.  It blew up every CF light bulb (which cost $19 each back in the day) in the house.  I ran out long enough to shut it down, which was also dangerous.  So, my zeal to keep the lights on resulted in the death of my generator and all of my lights AND I got thoroughly soaked when shutting it down.  Nah, don’t worry about the lights until after the storm if your backup system doesn’t handle the job for you.  That’s why you have those LED flashlights, candles and lanterns, right?  

If you are in the storm path, make your preps and hunker down.  I wish you well and we’ll get back together after it’s over.   –Neal

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Can I Do It Myself?

So you’ve been thinking about solar power or battery backup and wondering, “Can I do it myself?”  Well, let’s stop for a moment if you really meant, “May I do it myself?”  Those are two different things and I’ll talk about both, separately, but I wanted to point out both considerations.  Without any more information, I’d say, “Maybe” to both. 

Can you?  Let’s talk about the physical requirements.  I’m 65 years old, am 30 pounds too heavy, have too much blood pressure and all the bendy parts don’t bend like they used to.  I know two other guys my age doing solar and one 75 year old.  If you aren’t much worse off than that, you have potential.  

This is my current project, in Phase 3.  I call it my Solar Shed, with 11KW on the roof.

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 Can you pick up a 65 pound solar panel or battery?  Lift the panel over your head?  Somebody’s going to have to do it and it won’t climb up on the roof or rack by itself.  There will be heavy stuff.

Are you clever enough to come up with some apparatus or con a buddy to help you lift a 200 pound inverter in place to bolt to the wall?  Sometimes a good idea works better than brute force. Ratchet straps can raise a heavy inverter.

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Do you have the tools?  In addition to the usual hand tools, you may need big cutters, crimpers, soldering supplies, a basic volt/ohmmeter, ladder, screw gun and maybe more. 

Do your tools have a lot of blood on them? None means you aren’t using them or are good at cleaning up.   A little is inevitable, but too much may be a message to hire a pro. 

Do you get gifts of tools at birthday and Christmas?  If so, you may be ok.  If not, why not?  Do people think you are dangerous with a tool?  Do family members run to call 911 when they see you with a power tool?  Some people are just not meant to use tools. 

Can you successfully, rewire a lamp, assemble a kid’s swing set or Ikea furniture or install a car stereo?  If so, you may be ok. Courtney, 64,  puts in the last screws in an arched solar pergola over his BBQ.  Yeah, we bent them.

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Do you have the knowledge of how solar power systems are connected and regulations for connecting them?  If you don’t, there is a lot of free information on the Internet, diagrams of sample systems are available and folks like Sun Electronics offer kits and pre-fab hardware that requires minimal connection. 

Those are very convenient and can save money over a la carte.  You can get loads of ideas by downloading free back issues of Home Power Magazine at https://archive.org/details/home_power_magazine . 

Tom is 75 and he’s doing his own 10KW solar

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 There are a couple of things I want to warn you about that may not be obvious to a newcomer.  Most solar panels put out a modest voltage of 18-40 volts.  That might give you a little tingle if wires were on a sweaty arm, but individually solar modules are pretty safe.  HOWEVER, if you are using an MPPT type charge controller on a battery system (and you should for efficiency), you might have several panels wired in series for maybe 120-150 volts going into the charge controller.  That much is going to do you harm if you touch it.  Your panels normally use MC3, MC4 or Tyco connectors that won’t let you touch the harmful voltage, but you will use bare wire to connect to disconnects, fuse holders and the charge controller.  I make a point of doing the bare wire work before plugging in the last panel connector and I’ve not been bitten yet.  In my early days as a broadcast engineer I routinely worked with radio transmitters with 10,000 volt power supplies.  My boss told me to always keep one hand in my pocket so that I couldn’t make a circuit through my heart if I slipped up.  I never wore rings or a watch to work, either.  Insulated gloves are a good idea, too. 

64 year old Stan is upgrading the solar at his hunting camp.

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Now if you think 150 volts is worrisome, and it is, consider that if you are connecting a grid tie system,  you may be dealing with 600 volts!!!  Now, aside from my advice to “DON’T TOUCH”, there is a characteristic of DC power of which you might not be aware.  It arcs.  If you try to unplug one of your MC4 cables while the system is charging or grid-tied, there is a good chance that the current will try to continue to flowing in the form of an arc.  This can vaporize a connector, which will have to be replaced.  Do your unplugging at night or when the system is shut down. 

Did the last two paragraphs frighten you or did you just store that info away?  If it scares you, you might start on something simpler or just call in a knowledgeable friend or a pro.  If not, and you aren’t any older or feebler than I am, go for it!  The hardest part may just be deciding what you want to do. 

I take my solar power on adventures….or it takes me…thousands of miles.

 One last thing, if you want to get some construction experience, working with laying out the structure, framing, roofing and wiring,—maybe even solar— consider volunteering with Habitat for Humanity or one of these groups that builds houses for disabled vets.  You will learn skills, build confidence and find out if you are made for this sort of thing. —Neal

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Quick and easy emergency solar

John and I have been talking about using solar power to survive in relative comfort after a storm.  In my efforts to mostly eliminate my old 24v solar power system I realized I was putting together what would make a good example for survival power.  Why did I not eliminate the 24v system completely?  My solar electric launch, Sun King, is in the Solar Shed and needs to be kept charged up in the dark shed.  In return, the onboard inverter runs my shop air compressor.  Anyway, the old control board is coming down as my control room gets walls and a bit of civilization.  Yup, Man Cave. 

First, let’s talk about panels.  Are your panels going to survive the storm?  My Solar Shed PV shingles are rated for 60 mph, so there is a real good chance that winds from the right direction could do away with some or all of them.  What about conventional panels?  Believe it or not, there have been post storm studies to see what stayed put and what blew away.  Click on the link for some interesting reading. https://rmi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Islands_SolarUnderStorm_Report_digitalJune122018.pdf 

What I am proposing here is not storm resistant.  In fact, my plan is to unplug and unbolt the panels and store them in a safe place.  Under the house?  Under the bed?  I go for under my pickup truck which gets parked in a gulch, the panels duct taped into a heavy mass.  Heck, we’ve even parked airplanes down there.  The winds always blow right over anything we put down there.  This won’t work if you are a coastal dweller.  Maybe if you are a coastal dweller you should stuff them in the minivan and be somewhere else when the storm comes!

So, imagine the storm is passed and the winds have died down.  Your house is livable, but there is no power.  You want some lights and the fridge running at least.  What I am suggesting here won’t run your central air, but if you have a 5000btu window unit, it will run and make a big difference, despite the small size. 

First, retrieve your solar panels.  You can make some temporary mounts by nailing up some 2x4s.  There are usually plenty of them from houses that blew apart.  Heck, you can even lash up some saplings using those Scout skill you got when you were 12.  You just want your panels to be reasonably stable.  I have put some flat on the ground for over a year.  Whatever works.  In this case, for my boat charger, I ran 3 treated 2x4s diagonally, nailed to the bottom of the solar shed eaves.  Deck screws or ring shank nails are good about staying where you put them.  I then put crossbar 2x4s spaced for the length of the panels.

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 If you routinely have some strong winds you might want to drive some angle iron into the ground to hold down the bottoms.

 The panels, I use 3 to the rack, can be held in place with aluminum angle, about 2” lengths, and self drilling screws.  I use longer screws in the wood.  Don’t have a power screwdriver or cordless drill?  How can you live that way???

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 You could just as easily screw the boards to fence posts or lean them against a dead car, in a pinch.  Not shown, I also screwed the panels together. 

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 Finished product.  Well, it needs paint on the wood for protection if you keep it long term.

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 You can see I still have 6 more panels to put up on racks, at this point.  The 1500 hp fan has not blown over the panels just leaning, so I am pretty confident about the ones on the racks.

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 Out of the weather, I used a scrap of plywood, 2 common fused disconnects, like you might use for an air conditioner compressor, and a cheap charge controller left over from evaluations for my Solar Yacht project.  It’s a decent little controller, but the displays fail over time.  ALWAYS connect the battery first so the controller can determine what voltage you are running, and THEN connect the panels.  Although they look nice and professional, you don’t need preprinted placards to label things.  A felt marker will get the message across.  Ok, ok, I will put some printed labels up.  There are websites and programs that let you design and print your own labels, signs and placards.  You could premake the whole assembly on the plywood, with quick connectors and keep the unit in a safe place for rapid setup after the storm. 

“Goof Off” and fine steel wool will clean off that tacky Magic Marker labelling when you get some proper decals.

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 If you are the suspicious type, you note that you don’t actually see any batteries.  They are in the boat, 350amp-hours of 8v golf car batteries.  This is actually how you might do batteries in a survival situation.  If you had a battery bank, it is unlikely that it went away.  If not, there will be cars, trucks, tractors, etc that have been crushed or flooded.  Maybe your own.  They can be a source of batteries.  ASK, if possible.  Don’t get shot for taking a battery!  In this case, the boat has batteries and an inverter, so I am good to make power.  I have a 2500 watt inverter for my 12v truck, when it is running.  I have run a fridge with that and, more importantly, a coffeemaker, but you don’t really want to leave your car running.  You did fill the tank before the storm, didn’t you?  But, you still don’t want to leave it running.  This little rig pictured above can charge the battery in your vehicle to run the inverter to run the fridge and Mr. Coffee.  Microwave, too! 

A golf car is a perfectly wonderful survival aid.  Not only does it provide a LOT of battery, you can bolt on a 48v inverter for the newer ones (there are 36v inverters, but they are harder to come by) for portable power.  There’s the transportation value, too.  This same charging rig will automatically adjust to 48v operation.  NOT ALL charge controllers go up to 48v, so check before you buy. 

This 2500 watt modified sine wave inverter got painted red with the rest of the car, and ran the microwave just fine. 

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 Oops, reality check, yeah my 2500 watt truck inverter will run those appliances, but what about the charging?  3×270 watt panels /12= is 67.5 amps.  It is a 40 amp controller.   Use just two of the panels instead of 3 and you are good.  You math geniuses will note that two panels can produce 45 amps at 12v, but they won’t at that angle and if you use a pwm controller you’ll not get even close.  On the 24v system it has room to spare with all 3 modules.  Don’t forget to calculate this stuff and don’t forget to have all of the tools, fasteners, cables and connectors that you need.  A dry run drill is a good way to check.  Plastic totes are good for holding the kit, less panels and 2x4s. 

OK, so what does this cost?  I scrounged most of it.  I had the disconnects left over from something else, but I think they are maybe $10 at Home Depot/Lowes.  The charge controller is an MPPT unit that I already had.  Cheap pwm controllers are readily available for a throwaway system like this, or you can get an industrial strength controller for maybe $500.  Your choice.  In a pinch, if you match the panel voltage to the battery voltage and keep the load up, you can get away without a charge controller, but be forewarned that inverters can be fussy about their voltage range and batteries can be killed from over or under charging.  Batteries, ideally, are something you already have in a car, boat, tractor, golf car, RV etc.  You might get an inexpensive survival inverter, even if you have a nice one in a PV power system.  We are talking about backup, here.  A fridge and a microwave WILL run on the so-called modified sine wave models.  John does not have the absolute cheapest inverters, but he has good prices on inverters with a good track record.  MOST cheap inverters you see on ebay have drastically exaggerated ratings.  If you don’t have any of this stuff, the Puerto Rico kits that John put together after their storm are pretty much everything you need at a great price. 

Ok, how do you get the power into the house?  If you have a generator plug and a transfer switch you just plug it in with an appropriate cable.  The circuits on the transfer box need to be within reason for the amount of power you have.  Forget the clothes dryer, range and central air.  Concentrate on lights, microwave, fridge and coffee pot.  (Coffee makers also make hot water for Ramen noodles, soups, teas, etc.)  DON’T have the generator plug?  Use a HEAVY DUTY (12 ga) extension cord and run it in through a window.  Use an outlet strip to plug in the fundamental loads.  OR don’t use the outlet strip, which guarantees nobody will run Mr. Keurig and the microwave and fridge at the same time, possibly blowing a fuse and ending it all.  Umm, you do have a spare fuse, don’t you? 

OK, these are just some things to think about as Hurricane Season approaches.  There are so many ways to prep for power after the lines go down! 

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East and West are Subject to Wandering

Archæologists have discovered that it is not just modern mankind that buries its dead with their feet to the east, it has been going on for a long time and in a lot of cultures.  They have also noticed that all of the bones in a particular ancient burial ground are buried in more of a loose version of east or sort of east, rather than on a true line.  The reason, they conclude, is that the sun is on a different arc at different times of  year, so folks got buried according to where the sun was at the time.  The ancient ones didn’t have smart phones with a compass app. 

I spend a lot of time with archæologists and never really thought much about that business of a wandering east and west until I got serious about solar.  The airstrip at my farm heads east-west along a section line and I just sort of expected the sun to rise at one end and set at the other when I installed my panels on the northern edge.  Sometimes it does.  Right now it rises over the blacksmith shop, which is more east-north-east than east.  Early in the morning, instead of those first rays hitting my panels and filling my starving batteries, they are lighting up the backside of the Solar Shed!  Man, that sucks.  Summer is supposed to be that special solar time of the year, with its long days and high angles.  Turns out, not so much. 

Well, no worry, early morning sun is at low angles and doesn’t give you much power, anyway.  Right?  Tell that to the batteries.

If Only the Sun Flew Right Down the Runway—Look at the Offset of the Plane’s Shadow in this Afternoon Shot

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 Then it gets a little higher and what happens?  THAT tree blocks the first two charge controller groups of sun until noon.  If the sun flew right down the runway, chasing the Airtractors, all would be well.  To make matters worse, the big oak has grown, moving closer to the solar shed.  Yeah, I have trimmed it, but there are limits as to how high I will climb a tree with a heavy chainsaw.  I’m not nearly as immortal as I used to be.  The solar shed is also 65’ closer to the tree, as it, too, has grown.  The crown of an oak behind the shed is growing and threatening to shade things and some pines on the west end, though well away, are catching the afternoon sun as it arcs back to the north. 

The moral of the story is to put your panels well away from the trees.  Even if you are a tree lover, some must die.  Best that this happens before you build your array.  Why don’t I cut down the trees?  Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong, will.  Neal’s Law says that if anything goes wrong, it will go wrong on the most expensive stuff.  Neal’s Corollary says if anybody has a video camera running then the first two laws are a sure bet.  Go to youtube and look up videos of people cutting down trees! 

There are ways of dealing with trees.  The expensive way is to hire a pro tree crew to come in and take the tree down, starting from the top.  This is expensive, but usually safe.  Another way, and I get this idea from nature, is to just kill the tree and the limbs will start falling in small pieces, straight down until you have a manageable post.  I have 3 trees I am working on now and they are taking their sweet time about dying.  Take a chainsaw and “girdle” the tree by cutting all around, just through the bark and the layer that passes water and nutrients up.  That didn’t work.  Take a weed torch and burn the bark all around.  That didn’t work.  Drill a series of one inch holes around the tree and pack them with salt.  That didn’t work.  Super Oaks!  Fill the holes and grooves with Roundup. 

One of the trees is starting to look a little sick.  Eventually it’ll get the job done and the trees will slowly crumble.  Don’t worry, tree lovers, I’m a tree farmer and I’ll make more…just a little further away.  So, the moral of the story is that you shouldn’t just kind of nestle your array in with Mother Nature, because she will try to keep the sun to herself.  Plant your array clear of trees to the south, east and west and maybe just a bit to the north.  Stand in the middle of where your array will be, facing south.  Hold your arms straight out and bring them as far back as they’ll go.  That angle back should make a pretty good template for your arc of clear space. 

And don’t think that planting trees in front of your solar panels will make them twice as green, like these folks did in Japan!  How well do you think this is going to work out?  Photo is from Kyocera.

–Neal

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Think Outside the Box

The purpose of this post is mostly to stimulate thought and open up some possibilities for you.  Many folks would find these ideas impractical or even impossible if you live in an apartment or have a strict homeowners association.  Wild stuff, but maybe there’s a mad scientist among you who could make it work. 

If you know John Kimball, Sun Electronics’ fearless leader, he has been on a crusade for decades to bring affordable solar power to the people.  As far as the PV modules go, he’s there.  Solar panels are no longer the problem.  I have noticed pricing on charge controllers dropping and pretty soon that will no longer be a huge part of the equation.  With inverters, the problem is that there is such a flood of cheap Chinese inverters that you might be tempted to go with one of them, whereupon it is quite likely you’ll find you made a mistake and end up buying the more expensive model, too.  What I am looking at as MY biggest issue in my personal solar power systems (yes, plural) is storage. 

Where do you store your power?  In a battery, right?  Utility scale battery and electric automobiles would probably drive the price way down, but on the other hand there is a huge demand.  LOTS of battery research is going on and someday someone will come up with the super cheap-but-good battery.  In the meantime, there are OTHER possibilities to store energy, though not necessarily electrical energy.

Big utilities have used a couple of neat tricks over the years  Hydro plants just let the water back up behind the dam, then run it through the turbines to make electricity, as needed.  Some utilities not normally considered as hydro, take their excess electricity to pump water to a lake on a hill, then run it back down the hill through a turbine when they don’t have enough power from their regular supply.  Some are now using pumped storage with solar, to keep the lights on at night.  Now, I am thinking that this would be impractical for you and I, given the space required for a couple of lakes and a power station. 

Another big utility trick is to pump air into underground caverns, using surplus power, and then letting the compressed air run a turbine to make extra power when needed.  Again, that’s not going to be good for most of us.  I don’t know about you, but I am pretty sure there aren’t any underground caverns where I live.  This is not to say that compressed air could not be used, and in more ways than you might think.  Let’s say your solar power system has your regular battery topped up for the morning and not much is running in the house, why not have it burn off the extra power from your panels by running an air compressor?  For this kind of duty you’d need a pretty tough compressor, but they are out there.

You pump the air into a huge pressure tank (huge being a point of inconvenience to many), perhaps one like they use at those propane storage yards.  Such a tank would be expensive, if bought new, but you can find amazing values in industrial surplus.  You might find one for scrap value.  When the sun goes down and the regular battery is getting low, you send the compressed air to an air motor.  You may not be aware of these, but they are very common in industry and can be very durable.  The air motor spins a DC generator to charge your batteries.  This is dirt simple to do, but huge.  Far fetched?  Under the city of Paris, France, there is an abandoned network of pipes from an era where a central compressor station transmitted power to businesses all over the city, powering industry! 

Google it and read THIS article. You can store a lot of power with compressed air.  Even run a car!

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There are side benefits to consider, too.  When you compress any gas it gets hot.  This is how heat pumps work.  If you put your hand on the top of a running compressor then you will quickly notice it is quite hot as you pull your blistered fingers away.  If you put that freshly compressed air through a heat exchanger you can heat your domestic water supply.  On the reverse side of the process, when the air expands through a motor it comes out quite cool.  The air can be run through a heat exchanger for storage, or exhausted directly into a room to keep it cool. 

Ok, that’s pretty off the wall stuff.  How about one that is so simple, even your cat understands it: thermal storage.  The cat finds a spot where the sun shines through the window on a cool morning and is warm and cozy.  John sells a thermal solar water heater that mounts in a sunny spot.  It uses some super simple, but highly efficient technology that will do a dandy job of replacing the electricity or gas you use to heat your bath water or if  you can use several of them and greater storage, you could probably do a good job of supplying water to a hydronic home heating system.  You can run the hot water through pipes embedded in your slab, through baseboard heat exchangers, or through a radiator inline with your central air handler.  Heating water directly from the sun bypasses the solar electric, charge controllers and batteries.  Storage is just an insulated tank.

I have some other mad scientist ideas I will share with you as information is firmed up.  A friend dropped off an extra pallet of solar modules and microinverters he had to use in the ongoing solar air-conditioning project.  In conjunction with that, I’ll have some gear available to test some of the old wives’ tales about what you can and cannot do with certain pieces of equipment.  I don’t think this will turn out quite as destructive as the time we used a 12 gauge shotgun to blow holes in a panel (it still worked), but there could be smoke.

–Neal

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Microinverters!

What is a microinverter and why in the world would you want one?  The first answer is easy.  Whereas a regular grid-tie inverter takes the power from a bunch of panels and injects it into the powerline,  a single microinverter bolts onto the back of each panel.  The solar panel’s MC4 connectors plug into one side of the microinverter and a connection to the 240 ac power line plugs into the other side.  This makes setting up a grid tie system very easy, though in most cases you still have to have the disconnects and special metering arrangements made with your power company. Look there’s a box full of microinverters!  A company called Enphase is the big player.  Their fuzzy “e” logo is very disturbing to someone like me with eye problems.

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  The problem I saw with them when I first looked into the matter was that each micro inverter was close to $200, or about double or triple the price of a typical solar panel from Sun Electronics.  Then there was the power output.  The M215, shown above, only outputs 215 watts.  Hook it to a 300 watt panel and you still get 215 watts, so you are wasting some of your power at peak times.  Enphase makes the argument, though, that you get more consistent power output over the course of the day.  It is kind of a dubious argument, but there is some merit to it in special cases, such as a project I am currently working on. Shortcomings aside, there may be some good to come of using these.  For some reason, tons of them have been dumped, brand-new-in-box, onto the open market at dirt cheap prices, like around $30.  (A word of warning, though, make sure you can get the cables and beware of the price of cables! ) At that price it gets interesting, but you need to use caution.  A friend drove down from South Carolina and dropped off a case of the M215s and a pallet of panels he wanted me to try.  The M215 uses a lower voltage than the newer models, so he made sure he brought me a pile of 60 cell panels.  Turned out they were really 96 cell panels, shipped by mistake.  He had not even looked at them.  I keep telling him to buy from Sun Electronics, but he doesn’t listen!  The 96 cell panels put out nearly 60 volts whereas a 60 cell panel is usually around 36, open circuit.  72 and 96 panels are now the norm and I guess that is why the older microinverters are on the surplus market. All but two of those 60 cell panels are equipped with microinverters. The blue ones are 270 watts and the black ones are 300 watts.

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 Now I mentioned that having that controlled output could be useful.  An experiment that we are running involves connecting the microinverter’s power line to the MOTOR side of the contactor in a central a/c compressor.  I have 10 microinverters connected to my a/c.  What happens is…nothing, until the thermostat clicks the contactor starting the a/c and connecting to the microinverters.  After 5 minutes, the sync light comes on and suddenly the a/c is using very little from the powerline. Huh?  Okay, here’s the deal, a grid provider does not allow grid intertie, but mixing the power from the microinverters  with the power from the grid, you get to use the solar power without backfeeding to the power company.  So even though we are connecting grid intertie, there is zero flow and nothing for their electronic meter to report.  This, of course, assumes you have selected an amount of microinverter power that does not exceed what the a/c is consuming.  Here’s a picture of the meters inside my upstairs a/c compressor.  The bottom meter is the power line.  Lower left corner of it shows the a/c drawing 75.2 watts.  Of course, the a/c needs more than that.  The middle meter shows the power actually being consumed by the compressor and the top meter shows what is coming from the microinverters. 

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 Because the microinverters take about 5 minutes to sync with the line before providing power, you want long run cycles.   This scheme works best if you use a programmable thermostat to cool like crazy during sun hours and then ride through the night on the stored cool. At the present, this project is not on the grid power line, but on my solar microgrid.  Yes, the microinverter WILL sync to a good sine wave inverter!  It is taking a lot of the load off of my smallish inverter and definitely letting my batteries charge up quicker during the day. If you try this with your a/c on the grid, is this going to save you a ton of money?  Probably not, but it is a fun experiment.   I have a few more microinverter experiments I am working on and I’ll let you in on them, soon.  If you want to try some of this stuff for yourself, John’s guys can fix you up with some super deals on 60 cell modules—Neal

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Power Use Optimization and Free Energy Storage

In my last post I talked about some seemingly off the wall, but doable, energy storage contrivances.  As for the compressed air storage, apparently some pretty clever people have already thought about this.  Follow this link to a pretty thorough  discussion of the subject.

https://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2018/05/ditch-the-batteries-off-the-grid-compressed-air-energy-storage.html.

There are some pretty neat pages at Low Tech Magazine and No Tech Magazine. Speaking of energy storage and No Tech, how about storing energy with NO equipment?  This is coming out of the solar air conditioning research.  First, it is a no-brainer to state that your solar electric electrical system works best on a sunny day, right?  Well, fact is, it doesn’t really draw in useable energy at night, even though a full moon might make the green light come on on your system.  So, it makes sense to use the energy when it is being made, rather than tax the batteries so severely at night.

Here is what I am doing and it is so simple. During the day, my programmable thermostat is set to a fairly cool temperature, within the limits of what the array can supply.  Usually, that is around 76 degrees.  I am looking into building a smarter thermostat that will take into account the state of the battery charge and the weather, so that I can squeeze out a little more performance without being here to manually manage things.  At night, the thermostat gets set to 79.  Some folks could not go for that range, but as a native Southerner who grew up without a/c, no sweat.  Literally.  The reduced humidity of the a/c is as big a factor as the temperature on one of those hot, muggy days.

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Ok, so where’s the storage?  What’s the medium.  Look around your house. Sheetrock walls, tile floor, pots and pans, that cast iron bathtub, brick or stone fireplace…anything and everything with some thermal mass.  You’ll have the cooler temps when you are stirring about and need it cooler for comfort, but at night, when you are reading, watching the tube or sleeping, the temperature will slowly creep up as thermal mass will slowly absorb the heat seeping in.   At a high in the high 70s should be fine, especially with a ceiling fan.  I still have the a/c running some during the night, especially those nights, but not nearly enough to run down the battery bank.

Just leaving the thermostat at one temperature has its merits, but for using the power when you are making it, changing temps makes for longer run cycles to optimize efficiency.  I know from observation that my PV is putting out enough power to run the a/c without getting into the battery about 9:30 a.m. in the summer.  Having the program go into cool-down, starting then, means I can run the a/c without taking the battery down any lower and any time after that I am building power to fully recharge by the end of day.  In the late afternoon, I cross that threshold again around 5 p.m.  The frequent afternoon thunderstorms can play havoc with that, though, hence the quest for a smarter thermostat.

My house is powered by a hybrid system, part on and part off grid, so I still get a power bill.  I suspect some of my neighbors have cooler homes than mine, but I bet they have bigger power bills, too.

—Neal

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Show and Tell

I wanted to show you a couple of examples of some really nice solar work I have seen lately.

I’ve known Courtney for 60 years.  Back then Courtney was a guy name and, in his case, it still is.  Courtney has gone nuts for solar in the last few years and he is at it again.  In addition to our joint solar a/c schemes, he decided that his curved solar pergola grid-tie is not putting out enough to suit him, so he’s adding modules. There is no more room on the pergola, but there is plenty on his north fence, which happens to be close to his grid tie gear. Between the fence and the retaining wall we built (somehow I got roped in on that) he came up with a quick and easy mount that looks good, I think.  Under the panels it would be easy to integrate some sort of box for storing yard tools or such.

This is just to try out…He’s adding more.

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Then there’s Daryl, to whom John introduced me a week or so ago.  OMG what a system he has and what beautiful work he does!  Daryl lives in a barn in Texas.  No kidding, it is a Texas thing and they call them “Barndominiums.”  This is neither Daryl’s first barndo nor his first solar power rodeo.  Sadly, there was a fire that destroyed the first.  Texas has some serious hail, so his first system actually had doors that slide on rails to protect the solar panels!  The new barndo has 16kw of modules, ganged inverters and a monster battery.  And it is simply elegant!  It is grid-tie with battery backup and he sells more power to the grid than he uses. Here’s where the kilowatts begin

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Here is where kilowatts live…in the giant BullDog battery.  Moving that dawg requires mechanical assistance.

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And everything has to pass through here

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THREE inverters, Daryl???  Really???

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Okay, I admit it.  I’m jealous.—Neal Photos: Courtney and Daryl

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Cool It

I never thought I’d be happy about a tropical depression starting to spin up in the Gulf, but it has been really, miserably and mind-numbingly hot around here and the rains have helped in that department.  We’ve topped 100 degrees for days, usually hitting 103-105 after lunch.  It has been so hot that I have been wearing welding gloves to handle modules I am remounting.  Of course, inside the Solar Shed, it is even hotter and even the a/c out there is no good until I get some insulation.

Fortunately, that temp is within specs for all of my gear, but I know the fans and capacitors will last longer if I can make it run cooler.  Further, since it has temperature sensing that cuts back the wattage to keep the temperature down, running cooler will put more watts back into my batteries.

I have some charge controllers I am evaluating for John to possibly carry and they have built in thermometers.  The display was showing 57C, which is right at 135F for Americans.  The charge controller has a fan and the entire aluminum case is designed to dissipate heat, but it was hot to the touch and the fan was always running.  The thing is, the entire back, over 1/3 of the surface area, was pressed against the wooden mounting panel, effectively insulating it.  Why not mount charge controllers on standoffs?  A drilled piece of rod, a stack of washers or a slice of old broomstick with a hole down the middle would each make a dandy standoff.  I had some aluminum heat sinks I found on ebay that may or may not do even better.

Note the fins behind the charge controllers.

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I removed the old screws, smeared some silicone heat sink grease (available online or at an electronics store) on the heat sink, wedged it behind the controller and snugged down four new, longer, screws.  That’s all there was to the first one, so I did the second.  In no time the controllers’ internal temp dropped 14C or 25F. 

I suspect that simple spacers would do about as well.  This afternoon, after a thundershower, it was only 98F in The Shed and I noticed that the fans were not even running.  I think I will watch this a few days and try it on the others.

If your mounting panel is metal, then you already have temperature dissipation help.  For anyone else, this is a good, cheap mod. Now as to why I was arranging panels in the hot sun, it isn’t just cooling down the equipment I am working on.  Nope, I am continuing the quest for solar powered a/c.  Early small scale tests have shown promise (mostly meaning I haven’t started a fire) so I am making room to dedicate 8 to 11 modules to running a conventional a/c on solar with no wires going into the house and only three going into the outside cabinet.  Watch for that.  It may take a while to get all the details ready for you, but the mod will work in heatpump season, too. 

I do have some tried and true solar a/c that I wrote about in the blog.  That may have disappeared when the blog blew up, so we will try to get that reposted.  I am running BOTH of my 30 year old Rheem central air systems and most of my other circuits on a single 5kw inverter, and it isn’t that hard to do.  Watch for it to reappear if you can’t find it.

–Neal

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RTFM!!!

RTFM!!! That stands for Read The Fine Manual. There are variants on that acronym, depending on your vocabulary.

That’s what we used to say when a customer wanted to know how to work something he bought from us, but was unwilling to read the instructions. This happens a lot with solar stuff, too. You may have products that can do more work for you, saving you from having to buy other gear. Wouldn’t you like to know stuff like that?

Case in point, I had a problem with having too much power on a sunny day with lots of puffy cumulus clouds. The charge controllers would get all settled down in the shade of the cloud, then it would pass and it’d go high enough to trip overvoltage conditions on the inverter and/or one of the charge controllers. The one charge controller would shut down until manually reset, the inverter would clear itself as soon as the other charge controllers caught up with the increased sunshine, usually just a couple of seconds. It really wasn’t a huge deal to me, but the princesses do not like to have their afternoon DVD features interrupted, not even for a few seconds.

I can think of lots of ways of dealing with this. Setting the dominant charge controllers worked out most of it, but it could still happen. A diversion load controller, like the windcharger crowd uses would be perfect, except it costs several hundred bucks for one of those. I think it is a C40 charge controller that some folks use for solar can do the same trick, but I don’t have one and don’t want to spend several hundred bucks for one of those, either. You should see a pattern here about my reluctant spending habits.

In my younger days, I’d have simply designed and built a custom controller to disconnect several banks of solar panels, putting the system on a more defensive stance. I don’t want to be bothered with that, anymore.

It turns out, though, if I just RTFM on stuff I already own, lots of gear has extra functionality built in that nobody ever uses or maybe they under use it. For example, let’s take the FlexMax family of charge controllers. If you’ve bought one of John’s kits, there’s a good chance that you have one or more of these, already. It is a popular model and built like a tank. Pop the hood and you will discover a tiny connection block that is programmable to drive a relay six ways from Sunday.

It’s the little gray terminal block marked 12v Aux Control on my revision.

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This won’t do much as it is, but it will drive a 12v relay like the one that beeps the horn or rolls up the windows on your car. You can buy these, with a wired socket, at your auto parts store or Ebay. The relay, in turn, can control 30 or 40 amps of load or drive a contactor to solve my problem by disconnecting some banks of solar when the battery is charged. It can be programmed normally on, normally off, high voltage trip, low voltage trip or more, if you RTFM.

What can you do with this? Well, you can control a light to come on at night and off during the day. You can use it to enable high power loads, like a water heater or an a/c, when the battery is happy and not when it needs a little help, like on a cloudy day. Charge your electric vehicle when the main bank is good. Sound an alarm if the battery is low. Turn a fan on or off if your equipment room gets hot/cold. This thing has skills!

Study the description of the capabilities and you may think of more ways to use it. RTFM!

By: Neal Collier

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Cool Running

We surely do get spoiled by some of our modern comforts, don’t we? When I was a kid, we didn’t have air conditioning at the first 3 houses in which I lived, nor at school. Our first car with a/c was a ’65 Pontiac. Although I don’t crank the thermostat down low, I still like to have it to knock down the humidity and cool down on those muggy Florida afternoons. One of the goals I have been working toward is to get the house’s central a/c on the solar. It is a big part of the power bill, so it is a good goal. I used 215 kwh from the grid this past mild month and would like to keep it close to that through the summer, instead of the 1500 kwh (or more) that my neighbors will use.

A few years ago, as an experiment, I parked Sun King (my solar launch) next to the house and ran a line from the boat’s inverter to a window a/c. It worked great, but a 5000 BTU window unit is not what you need for a two-story house. My first attempt at running the central unit on my 24 volt system almost worked, but only because I was low on freon. All charged up, I couldn’t quite get over that startup surge. It is probably just as well because I discovered that the transformer in that cheap Chinese inverter was just a wee bit underrated and would have melted running the a/c all day.

I know my 12kw inverter would have run it because it worked for the guy from whom I bought it…but lightning fried that hope. My homemade 5548 has a huge transformer and will put out thousands of watts continuously, but it still could not deal with that starting surge. I probably could have tweaked the overload settings, but it works fine, otherwise, and I did not want to break it. Should I give up? Ohhhh, no. In a case like this, we simply need to change the rules.

This surge problem doesn’t just come up when running on an inverter, campers and boaters like their a/c, too, but sometimes end up getting a really big generator to run it. My friend Courtney has a huge bus with a big, rumbly Onan generator. Run the thermostat down and that Onan acts offended when the compressor kicks on. After that first couple of seconds, the Onan settles back into its lazy rumble, but you can tell it doesn’t like the startup.

But, dig around on the internet and you’ll hear guys talking about running a one-ton or even an 18,000 BTU a/c on a Honda 2000 generator! What? I can’t run an 18,000 BTU a/c on a 5500 watt inverter, but they can run on a 2000 watt Honda? Let me give you a hint: they cheat. They changed the rules.

If you are looking to install a new a/c, one of these new-fangled inverter mini-split rigs might be the way to go. When they say “inverter” they mean a variable speed motor controller. A few makers put inverter compressors on full size systems, too. If you’ve not seen these, or paid attention, these units start the motors up slowly and run just fast enough to maintain the temperature you set. It really is hard to tell the things are running! In addition to eliminating the starting surge, you may end up using half as much power in the long run with units up to a SEER 25 rating. For comparison, my 30 year old unit is a “High Efficiency SEER 13” model. You’ve seen the TV commercial with the old a/c unit quivering, rattling and giving off a puff of smoke? That’s mine.

Yeah, but if you are like me and are not too keen on spending 6 grand to replace something that still works and will run on FREE electricity (assuming I can get it to run at all) you may want to “cheat” like those campers and boaters are. You see, there is a thing called a “soft start” that emulates the slow spinup that the inverter units use. They sell under the trademark names of Dometic SmartStart and Hyper Engineering Sure Start. They aren’t cheap, listing around $600, but you can shop around. I found a couple for my units for $100 each from a marine salvage dealer. Buying something used without documentation may not be something you’d feel comfortable installing yourself, so you might hire that job out or get your HVAC dealer to come up with one.

Changing the Rules: SmartStart on my A/C

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When the time came to give it a try, one of the golf cars was charging and the refrigerator was in auto-defrost mode, so there was already a good load on the inverter. I ran down the thermostat and the lights gave 3 little flickers as things began to run. The starter has a microprocessor that learns the load and afterward the startup was so gentle you had to watch for any flicker at all. I would say it dims the lights less with everything on the solar power than it did when everything was on grid, without the starter. Once underway, the compressor is pulling maybe 1800 watts and plugging in the golf car or firing up the Keurig while the princesses are watching Disney in the living room still leaves power to spare. The one unit upstairs will cool the whole house, but I will go ahead and convert the downstairs a/c, too, when I get the 10kw inverter built.

What about nighttime? I do not have enough battery to run a lot at night, but I have a plan. Using the programmable thermostat, I will really cool down the house during the day. When you are active, a little cooler feels good, anyway. Then, late in the afternoon, I’ll run the thermostat up a few degrees. The thermal mass of the drywall will hold that cool for quite a while, maybe even until morning, if it isn’t just awfully hot. I have no doubt the average house temp will be cooler than it has been when I was paying for those overpriced kilowatts from my power co-op.

So, success at last! The only problem is we have a cold spell for the next week or so and I don’t need a/c! That’s ok, the heat will come, eventually, and I will be ready. What about you? Are you up for getting a little more comfort out of your solar power?By: Neal Collier

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Battery safety tips

Bring a big truck when you visit and work safe when you get home.I write this stuff for fun and to be helpful. I’m not an employee of Sun Electronics, I’m a customer. In my role as customer, I set out the other afternoon for my third visit to Sun’s Miami headquarters and my first visit to the Miami Lakes facility. This place is a lot nicer than the Miami Gardens warehouse, though it lacks the artistic touch left at the old place by some tag artists.

It is a round trip of 1482 miles for me, so I like to make a good haul of it. I brought my big trailer. We stacked panels until the fenders rested on the tires and I made the decision to leave two pallets behind. 14kw will keep me busy for a while, anyway. I also didn’t get as many batteries as I wanted. Upon calculation back home, I figure I brought home close to 6000 lbs. I could have carried that extra stuff, after all! We just needed to pry the fenders up a little further off the tires.

Live and learn.

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Well, back home, I had some ideas how I was going to treat the batteries on my new 48v system a little differently. I like to improve safety and efficiency as I go. I know ways of doing it wrong, both from investigation and from practical experience. One of the easiest ways of blowing up some batteries is to hook them up backwards. The things are marked plus and minus and we all know not to mess up the connections, but you get tired, the area may not be well lit and the batteries may have some dust or baking soda on them to obscure the markings molded into the cases. Furthermore, those pesky cables get in the way! Believe me, you CAN hook them up wrong and I HAVE done it and didn’t like how it worked out.

First thing I did before taking them off the tailgate was to hit the POSITIVE corners with a dash of white paint. I thought about red but Trojan batteries are sort of red, so I think the white will stand out better, even in poor light. White on the black Sun batteries will not be confused.

After the paint dried, I used a felt marker to put the date, 11-18, on the white patch. Time gets by, you know. If you don’t date them, 8 years from now you’ll be wondering why those batteries you JUST BOUGHT aren’t holding a charge like they used to. My Dad dated every tool and appliance he bought and I have decided it is a good idea.

Next step is to get out a little tub of grease, or maybe get into the grease gun you use for the pickup. The area where the lead terminal pokes through the plastic case should be sealed, but you will always find one or two that eventually leak acid fumes and make green stuff corrode your nice battery cables. Take the grease and smear it around that transition from lead to plastic. Then save some to coat the terminals when you get your cables connected.

And speaking of terminals, why not make new battery cables for your new batteries? I checked and found I have a good supply of double-ought (2/0) cable and around 30 big, tinned terminals for 5/32″ studs. That’s probably overkill, but I am good to go. I need to order a bit of marine shrink tube.

Some people crimp with a tool that looks like a bolt cutter with dull jaws. I have a couple of tools that look like little presses. You put the terminal on the wire, poke it between the jaws and beat the heck out of it with a big hammer. For even less resistance, I then heat the terminal with a torch and slip some solder inside. I finish by covering the transition from wire to terminal with marine shrink tubing. This is available in red or black, coding + and -, and it has an inner lining of melty glue like you get from a glue gun. You shrink that stuff down with a heat gun or torch (if you are careful) and nothing is getting in. AND the color gives you a surefire coding for polarity.

Why is polarity so important? If you try to connect two banks of batteries in parallel and do it backward you will blow yourself up. Usually the cases don’t blow apart, but everything gets sprayed with acid and your battery caps get ruined if they are the push-and-twist variety. If you blow up a set of the expensive water saver caps you will be especially displeased with yourself. If you aren’t wearing your safety glasses you can be blinded. Your hearing might be damaged. Your clothes will need to be replaced, even if you wear a protective apron. Don’t blow up your batteries.

That’s hooking batteries up backwards. What if you get the battery banks right and then connect backwards to your charge controller or inverter? If you bought hardware with “reverse polarity protection” then nothing will happen. NOTHING. If not, there will be a spark, a puff of smoke and you just trashed a $500 charge controller or a $5000 inverter!

The synopsis of all this is that it is best to hook the batteries up right and any trick you can come up with to help you avoid a mistake is smart procedure. So, wear your safety gear (goggles, gloves, apron), color code your batteries and cables and check your work with a meter before making the connection.

Something else to consider is that some things will give you a spark, even when you do connect it right. Charge controllers and inverters have big capacitors that will draw a huge quick current as they charge when you connect. If you connect to a battery post the pop may ruin the threads and I don’t think you will have a lot of luck rethreading that stainless stud. Make a quick jab at a place that is not threaded on a battery or equipment connection. Let it get the pop out of its system and then slip on the terminal and the nut. Oh, and making that pop on the battery ends of things is making a spark near a source of hydrogen gas, so best to do your sparking elsewhere. I have a big knife switch that lets me disconnect all the charge controllers when connecting the battery bank and I just slip the fuse out of the inverter.

And, hey, next time you see some of those nice LED shop lights on sale, get one to put over the batteries to make it easier and safer to hook up, tighten up and water up when installing or doing maintenance. More battery ideas next time.

By: Neal Collier

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Sharing Resources

In my last post I mentioned that I had gotten carried away at Sun Electronics’ Miami warehouse and had filled my trailer and truck to the point that I decided to leave some batteries behind. I shredded one tire at one A.M. and only had one spare, so maybe that was good that I didn’t try to overdo it. Will I have enough battery power to get by until my next trip to Miami? Probably, yes. You see, I have figured out how to incorporate some other battery sources that I already own. Many of you may be able to do the same.

Before I explain, I’d like to introduce you to the Anderson plug. If you have ever noticed how a forklift battery plugs into the lift truck or the charger, well that’s an Anderson plug. It is a flat, two pin plug that is polarized. One plugs into another, they are both the same and you can’t plug them in backwards, which is a neat trick. They come in at least 3 different sizes. There is a small one like on my niece’s ride-on electric car, a big one used on forklifts (350 amps) and a medium one (175 amps). Moreover, they come in colors, but not to make them pretty.At my house, I have gray, yellow and blue in the 175 amp size. Each color has a slight change to the shape, so you can only plug into the same color.

The first I ever used was gray, and I have one on the front of my truck. I replaced the two tow hooks on the front with receiver hitches, so I could slide a winch on and off, as needed., and plug in to the Anderson plug. I also have a 3kw inverter I can mount there for power in the boonies. Gray became my 12v standard.My solar-powered expedition boat has yellow connectors and I can plug it into the 24v system that powers my house at this time, adding an extra 350 a.h. of battery, without buying more batteries. For some reason, I haven’t had the boat out all year, yet it’s batteries stay active and contribute at no additional cost.The new 48v system has blue Anderson plugs.

There is no way I can screw up and connect the 3 different system voltage levels to each other. I have two 48v golf car/utility vehicles that can plug in to the blue line and add 350 a.h. to the 48v system. I got to considering it, and since the boat has two banks of 24v, I can use a special 3 connector cable to change them to another 175 a.h. at 48v. No screwups will be possible when reconfiguring, connecting or disconnecting and I get bunches of additional storage from batteries I already own.

A similar adapter cable could be used to connect a golf car to the 24v system without making smoke and sparks.The utility golf cars, little trucks actually, allow me to move my solar power around. I no longer even own a functioning gas generator. I cut my firewood with an electric chainsaw, trim trees with an electric pole saw, trim my hedge without a long extension cord and operate power tools for construction and repairs around my farm. The inverter plugs into the blue Anderson plug. There is also a homebrew stick welder to plug into the blue plug. Why limit your solar power to the house?

Photos: Blue Anderson plug and 3kw inverter on the solar jalopy. Solar-charged Yamaha G19 powers the chainsaw to cut wood and then hauls it to the house. They both add to the storage of the solar power system.

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But back to the main topics, Anderson plugs, once successfully set up, allow you to do all kinds of configuration changes without worry about connecting something wrong. Using them to add underutilized resources to your system can help you get more out of your system without buying more.In my 48v system, with what I have, it tallies up to 460a.h. of main system battery plus 525a.h. of battery that otherwise wasn’t doing anything at night. That’s 47 kwh, good for several cloudy days.Don’t overlook what you already have!By: Neal Collier

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It Ain’t Rocket Surgery

How hard is solar power? Some folks are a little intimidated because they don’t know anything about it. John has asked me to put together a booklet for do-it-yourselfers and I think that is a good idea. It just requires a little more focus than writing down whatever pops into my head. Today, though, I am going to write down whatever pops into my head AND give you an idea of how simple solar can be.

Years ago I built a playhouse for my young ward Alexia. She has about outgrown the thing, but still likes to go out there for solitude (away from her sister) or crafting. In the summer, it can get hot, so I found a small 12v panel and a small fan, the kind you can put on the dash of your pickup truck to stir up a breeze. No batteries and no controllers. She saw that if you hook the red wires together and the black wires together it blows air out the front and if you reverse the wires it blows air out the back. The only hitch is that the sun has to be on the panel and not blocked by the trees. There are lots of trees. We’ll probably get around to a more elaborate system with some old batteries when we enlarge the playhouse, so the fan will run better and she can have lights on these afternoons that get dark early.

I have a backup water pump that uses a similar setup. A couple of hundred watts of PV panels are mounted to a simple rack of 2x4s and 4×4 posts and a cable runs down to the spring where the pump is located. There is no battery. If the sun is shining the pump runs. Lots of farmers use similar rigs to water their cattle.

It sounds simple because it is.

Well, a while back I was working on a project out in the hot sun, making another modification to one of the golf car/farm trucks, and Alexia decided she was going to help. She ran to the playhouse and got the 12v fan and got a block of 4 small panels that were leaning against a tree. She used a screw gun to mount the fan on a post near my work and twisted the wires to connect solar panels to the fan. Voila! Instant relief from the heat. And a 10 year old did it, remembering what she had learned a year or two before!

Solar just isn’t that hard with a little guidance. I’ll try to help with that by getting started on that brochure.

By: Neal Collier

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Solar and Taxes

The state has a pretty dismal record on solar promotion and subsidies. I didn’t even know there was a program until I read about it in a California magazine! The first couple of years, it appeared that most of the program’s budget was spent on office furniture and administration, leaving only a few slots for participants. Then the rules were a bit too burdensome to make it worth the bother, in my opinion. Maybe this has changed, in later times, but I went my own way.

The good news, though, is that there are some pretty good tax provisions to help out a Florida homeowner with solar power!

First, there is no sales tax on your solar hardware. To enjoy this benefit, though, you need to deal with a solar dealer, like Sun Electronics, because other outlets may not know about or comply with the provision. Case in point, you need a set of batteries. If you go to your local Walmart or Sam’s Club, it sure is convenient to buy their heavy duty EGC2 batteries. BUT, you can argue until you are blue in the face and they will charge you a core charge, disposal fee and sales tax, in addition to a higher unit cost. You’ll end up spending at least 50 bucks more for each battery. At that rate, you can order the Sun 230 batteries from Sun Electronics and have them trucked to your town and still save money. The batteries are rated a little higher than the EGC2, as well.

Second, if you spend 10 grand to add a nice solar system to your house, the property appraiser, by law, cannot add 10 grand to your taxable property value. Sweet.

For those of you in the other 49 states and various territories, you can check with your state’s official website for tax breaks and solar promotion programs. You may find it easier to find the info by doing an internet search for websites that have listings of such things for all states.

Don’t forget to save your receipts and go for the Federal tax rebates, too! The forms are pretty simple.

By: Neal Collier

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30% More

Once you get your first taste of solar power, you want more. You can always find ways to use it. Want 30% more?

Back in the 70s and 80s, when solar modules cost a lot more in dollars and dollars were worth a lot more, equipment choices were far more limited and people were always trying to get more power from their solar panels. Makes sense.

Naturally, if you point your solar panel dead-on at the sun you get the most power, so folks came up with schemes to make the panels point right at the sun automatically! Sounds like a good idea, right? It is pretty easy to do with sensors and motors, but that uses some of the power the panel makes. My former business partner built one for one of his modules, just for fun, and it works fine. A really clever fellow came up with one that has a jug of freon on either side of a panel rack. If the sun peeks around to the west side, the west bottle warms up and the east bottle cools down. The pressure difference can drive a cylinder and the panels are caused to lean a little more to the west, and so on for the rest of the day. Next morning it all leans over to the west. It may sound complicated, but is super simple. The upshot is that by tracking the sun you can get about 30% more power from the panels you already own.

Is it a good idea, though? Well, 30% more power is, sure, but overall? First of all, all the panels and the rack are on a single pole, so it has to be a heckuva pole with lots of concrete to hold it in place. In places, like any coastal zone exposed to hurricanes, it may not be rated highly enough to stand up to the wind. One strike. I priced one tracker and it was over $6000, on sale. Two strikes.

Let’s say you have a fixed-mount 3kw PV array. 30% more is about a kw or about 3 more panels. That costs just over $300 at Sun Electronics. Strike three for the tracker! Maybe you don’t have room for 3 more panels, but want that 30% more power. There’s something for that, too. It is called a Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) charge controller. It costs a bit more than an ordinary charge controller, but it allows the panels to operate at their best output voltage. (I notice that the kits Sun Electronics puts together have MPPT controllers, the good ones.) Here’s how it works. We’ve had rain for the last four days, so my batteries on the 24v system are a little depleted. Let’s say they are at 24 volts and a panel is attached and putting out 8 amps. That current, the amps, is pretty much constant. At 24 volts, those 8 amps will give me 192 watts. With an MPPT controller, though, the panel can operate at its best power voltage (you’ll find that on a label on the back of the panel) of, say, 34 volts. 8 amps at 34 volts yields 272 watts or 41% more at peak time! There are some variables and losses to consider, but you can still figure on around 30% more when all is said and done.

And you didn’t spend thousands of dollars!

Here’s one more way to save with an MPPT controller. If you have a 12 volt system, for cabin or boat, for example, you can use 24 volt modules. How does that help? Look at Sun’s price lists and you will see that 24 volt panels cost about half as much, per watt, as 12volt panels! Maybe even a third as much. Yes, you can use 24 volt panels, even in series, to charge a 12 volt battery bank and save money!

I like the FlexMax series of controllers. They are built like a tank, have all sorts of metering data for display and don’t blow up if you connect too many panels. The FM60 and FM80 are solid gear for a serious system.

Take some of the money you saved by not buying the tracker and buy an MPPT charge controller, some more panels and batteries from Sun Electronics. You’ll revel in your awesome newfound power and still have enough money left over for a nice vacation or to catch up on those pesky bills.

By: Neal Collier

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Pelicans

Just a letter to John that somehow got posted here!

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I’m glad to hear you are back in the water. Sounds great. Somehow I didn’t get to the water all year. Now it is too cold to stay out on the boat overnight.I like pelicans, too, from a distance. It is funny how they almost always travel in squadrons. 8 or 10 of them will sit on a floating log or do a fly-by. Sometimes you see solos sitting on a navigation marker or an old piling and sometimes you’ll see a busted up dock with dozens of them. Out in the Gulf of Mexico there are some large channel marker structures that look like pelican storage units or maybe condos. UWF has a dive barge over a 1559 Spanish shipwreck. First duty after a hiatus is to fire up the dredge pump to wash the thick, foul layer of pelican crap off the deck. OMG that stinks!

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In Mobile Bay, I saw a little tern land on a pelican’s back to try to steal food scraps. The pelican was having none of that and snapped at the little guy! If you are in a solar-powered boat, though, you yell at pelicans and wave a life jacket. Pelicans look at a solar boat and think, “aircraft carrier.” No way you want pelicans doing to all those solar panels what they do to the dive barge!

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The range of pelicans amazed me. I thought they were coastal birds. Not so, they go where there are water and fish. I saw them on the Mississippi River in Illinois, of all places! I don’t remember them in Pensacola, as a kid, but now they are everywhere, as are gaudily decorated pelican statues, in downtown. Somehow the pelican has become the town bird. Enjoy the art show. By:Neal Collier

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Solar Heat

When my grandfather came to this country over 100 years ago, he worked his way around the US and Canada learning English and looking for just the right spot to establish a farm. About 1920, or so, he found the right spot on the shore of Lake Okeechobee, in Palm Beach County, Florida. It was heaven for a Danish farmer, with a climate that allowed year-round crops. Solar power was already a big deal in South Florida back then, even before John started Sun Electronics!You think I’m making this up? I’m not, but I’m not talking about solar electricity, either. I am talking about solar water heating and it was a big deal in Florida. In the late 1800s, a guy in Baltimore, MD, invented the self-contained Climax Water Heater. It first caught on around Baltimore, as you might expect, but was a hit in Florida. Why? My best guess is that South Florida has plenty of sunshine and, in those days, was very cut off from the rest of the country, causing fuel to be expensive. Until Mr. Flagler’s railroad, a ship was the best way of getting to the budding paradise.A Climax Solar Water Heater cost around $25, back when that was some real money.

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Solar water heating kind of fell by the wayside at some point as gas and electricity became common, but guess what I saw in the Sun Electronics warehouse when I visited a few weeks ago? Solar water heaters! They are a lot more sophisticated and efficient than the early ones, using heat pipes and evacuated glass tube technology. They look kind of like this.

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The tank is stainless steel with a thick foam insulation layer. Those blue tubes are magic! Not really, but they work like magic, pulling in the heat. Sure, you could use one of these babies on your suburban home to save on the power bill, but imagine the luxury of hot showers at your remote cabin or house in the boonies or on your own personal island. A remote abode would have you in pretty much the same situation as old Coral Gables when you couldn’t just call the propane truck to stop by and top up the big gas tank to fuel a water heater. I also saw solar ovens in the warehouse. Most of us would probably think of these as a novelty and only use them for camping, but I am thinking they’d be handy in case of an emergency, like for those folks camping out at Mexico Beach, where their houses used to be. There are places around the world where peoples’ health is ruined by the smoke of cooking fires. I bet they’d love one of these. The real surprise on the water heater, though, is the price. Sun’s prices are about half what some other places charge, just like with their solar panels. I wanted to figure how that compares to the prices a century ago when they paid in silver dollars. Looks to me to be about the same, now, as buying 25 Silver Eagle coins, even though the modern heaters are more efficient and durable! Solar thermal power has been put to use for a long time. Even Mom’s old black cat sits in the window of the sun porch and uses it. Why not us? By: Neal Collier

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Efficiency

Going through my morning email newsletters, I came across a press release from a company called LONGi, announcing a new record of solar module output efficiency of 20.41 percent! The exclamation mark was theirs, because another tenth of a percent doesn’t get me all that excited. Last week some outfit announced their record output of over 40 percent. A close read of that announcement showed that their output was achieved with concentrating lenses. Concentrating lenses in turn require that extra effort must be made in getting stuff pointed straight at the sun or everything goes to pot in a hurry.

Any solar module will output more electricity if you put more light on it. The problem is that in addition to the extra complications and power, you get extra heat. Some years ago somebody was selling used panels from a concentrating solar farm and they looked like trays of fresh-baked cookies, all warm and brown.

Sure, somebody with special limitations on weight or available space may benefit from superduper efficient panels, but you can count on special panels having a special price. For my solar boat, the standard “B” modules I used were cheap, but heavy. I compensated by just making the roof a little lower instead of spending way more for lighter modules and the boat has so far stayed right side up. Always have the bottom of the boat heavier than the top!

If you have the space, though, the real efficiency in a solar power system is how many watts you can get for your dollars. More solar sellers seem to be using that criteria in their advertising nowadays, showing a price in $/W. This is seems to be a trend that John started with Sun Electronics, as I have always seen his panels priced that way.

Many of the panels in my array are, shall we say, not “Grade A” and I am happy if they put out anything close to the label rating, regardless of theoretical efficiency. I’m building power levels by shear quantity of modules, counting my efficiency in pennies per watt. As for improving efficiency, blowing the fallen oak leaves off the array helps and it would probably be a good idea to break out the long-handled scrub mop every now and then… it helps!

So, if your idea of efficiency is getting the most for your money, give the Sun Electronics crew a call. They almost always have deals that are even better than the published prices.

By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 99

Backup Power System, Part 3

I have been rambling about backup power and it is time to touch on the batteries and other topics. My advice on backup batteries is a little different than for solar systems. I advise that you get something that requires little or no maintenance. The reason for that is that you will probably lose interest in a system that just sits there doing nothing when the power company is doing there job, because the lights are usually on! Out of sight, out of mind. If you have flooded batteries (as I did) tucked away in an obscure place (as mine were) then it is quite likely that you will get lax about monthly waterings (as I did). If you don’t water flooded batteries, they lose power and start to emit acid fumes. Acid fumes eat up your terminals and battery racks and cause circumstances that are a lot more unpleasant than simply adding water.

SO, the best advice I can give is to use some sealed batteries, like AGM or some of those new-fangled lithiums. John has both kinds. You’ll find that AGM costs twice as much as golf car batteries and lithium…OMG. Well, that’s upfront costs. It may well wash in the long run. If the charging system is set up right, the AGMs can last twice as long. Lithiums last a lot longer and you can draw them down further without hurting them. That means a little lithium will keep the lights on as long as a bigger lead-acid model of same amp-hour rating.

There are all kinds of batteries out there, but these are the big players, the likely suspects. Just make sure you DON’T overcharge the AGMs and DO have a good battery management system (BMS) on the lithium. BMS is often built into the batteries and sometime come as a bolt-on.

Now, on another subject, did you get the Sun Electronics Christmas Eve email blast? You guys really need to read those things, even if John doesn’t make it easy. It was just a list of part number, quantity available and price. No real description. I got around to reading it Christmas day and decided to use the Miracle of Google to decipher some of these things. HOLY COW! I found that the listing “Outback PS1-3000” was a package that would allow you battery backup, grid-tie or the bones of a complete solar system. Charge controller, grid tie/hybrid inverter, breakers, surge protection, battery box, network control and more in one nice package you can bolt to the wall. They sold before I got to them because the price was $500 for a $5000 package!!! READ YOUR EMAILS!!! Somebody did and got all 3 of them.

Now, on the PS1-3000 package, this has been discontinued because there are some new rules about rapid shutdown. Outback came out with a new system that is similar, but has the rapid shutdown built in. Roberto, or one of the other salesmen, can give you the model number and price if you are interested in a package deal from a good maker.

That’s all for today. Next time is a time of soul searching and self-evaluation when I try to answer the question, “Can I install a solar power system myself?”

By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 100

Backup Power System, Part 2

Continuing on the subject of a backup power supply for your house, I want to discuss the inverters a little more. There are things to look for and things to watch out for!

I have owned lots of inverters, ranging from 150 watts to 12,000 watts. Some were high end and some were junk. I have even built my own inverters like the 5548 that is on my 48v system and a 3648 for the electric jalopy. In inverter parlance, the “55” in 5548 means 5500 watts and “48” means 48 volts. Given my Scottish ancestry, I am always looking for a bargain, but I have enough experience with this stuff that I can tell you that the ones with the higher price tags may be the better bargains.

One thing you will see in inverter specs is the type of waveform the unit outputs. The power from the power company is a sine or sinusoidal waveform. If you don’t know what that means you can look up a photo on the internet. It is very smooth. All of your equipment likes it. Early inverters used a square wave. Light bulbs and some appliances were ok with that, but motors, chargers and other things were not happy at all about that. These are pretty much gone. They were followed by the “modified sine wave” inverter, which actually makes a modified square wave, giving the peaks needed for most equipment. I have heard all kinds of warnings against running your microwave or other things on them. I have run just about everything on them and never had any trouble, but your ceiling fans will buzz! These are rapidly being superseded by sine wave inverters as the electronics technology has advanced. Motors run cooler on these and these are your best bet in the bigger inverters.

Another term you will see is low frequency or high frequency. The power coming out in a USA model is 60Hz (pronounce Hz as Hertz) or cycles-per-second, as we old timers say, and that’s with the high OR low frequency model. The low frequency unit creates the 60Hz directly through a great big transformer. Doing so gives a little bit of an advantage for surge power when starting motors like a saw, air compressor or A/C. The high frequency models use little transformers that are very efficient at high frequencies to step up the voltage and then switches it back and forth at 60 Hz to form the output. Most of these have the modified sine output, but there are pure sine models on the market, too.

Which do you want? It is really like having a pickup truck with a conventional V8 next to one of the new ones with a turbo 4 cylinder. One lugs along slow and steady and the other buzzes along at higher rpm, but both will haul the load. If you want to carry it around, you’ll probably want the high frequency model. If you are going to bolt it down for the long haul get the low frequency unit. Your bigger models are likely to be low frequency.

Some inverters, like the ones I built, just invert. They just step up the power from your battery to 120 or 120/240 volts. That may be all you need. Consider, though, the advantage of an inverter charger. If an outage runs long, or if you are using in a solar installation, you may need to top up the battery with a generator. The inverter charger can help there. MAKE SURE that the charger will let you set the charge rate. This is very important. If you have, say, a 5548 inverter that can charge at 80 amps and only at 80 amps and you have a 2kw generator, then you have a problem because 80×48 = a whole lot more than 2000 watts. The better inverter chargers will let you set a percentage charge rate so you won’t injure your generator or the batteries. I would love to add that feature to my homebrew inverter, but that would require thinking. These days, thinking is reserved for remembering where I left my phone and keys.

An automatic transfer switch (ATS) is another grand feature to have and it is in most of the bigger inverters. What this does for you is it lets utility or generator power go through to the house and switches to inverter/battery sourcing if the primary source fails. Most of these have some selectable variations. For example, Tom runs his house on the inverter anytime the batteries have enough power and these are charged by a 10kw solar array. He does not have a big battery stack, so if the A/C runs a lot on a summer night, the inverter may switch to the power company at a preset state of charge. Alternatively, the inverter could start a generator if a hurricane took out the utility power and the batteries got low.

Some inverters also have a “sell” mode. This lets you tie a solar system into the grid to sell power to the power company and/or use the grid to store your power for later. This requires some paperwork and an agreement with the power company, especially where these new smart meters are installed. Tom’s power company won’t allow grid-tie and buy his power, so that is why he uses both, and the inverter figures out which source to use at any given time. You don’t need sell mode for a backup system and you may not need some of these other features, but they may come in handy if you get the urge to add solar, later!

Now, let’s go over some things of concern in buying an inverter. First is rated power. A lot of inverters you see on Ebay don’t even come close to spec. I saw one rated at 3000 watts, about the size of your hand and priced at $33. Folks, you will not find a 3000 watt inverter for $33 and you can’t make one that small. I blew up the photo and saw that the label said “300 watts,” which is more likely. I corrected the seller. Instead of correcting the rating, he photoshopped the label! Somewhere in the fine print there was a mention that it was 50Hz. You don’t want that if you are in the USA. Some of these cheap rigs are 240 volts, too, and I don’t mean split phase 240/120. You don’t want 240, I bet. Heaven help you if you order an inverter from Thailand or Malaysia!

Look for continuous rated power. A lot advertise at a peak rating, so that 10,000 watt inverter might be good for 2500. A unit that John sells rates it in levels. This is a good sign. You may see that it says

4800 watts forever, 5500 watts for 20 minutes and 15,000 watts for 3 seconds. These aren’t exact numbers, but this is pretty typical for a good unit. Look at the weight, too. Real watts require real pounds of iron and copper in the transformer. My big inverter (rest in pieces) weighed 185 pounds! One well known Ebay Chinese inverter uses great electronics, but they have gradually used smaller and smaller transformers. My 8kw Chinaverter has one transformer…they used to have two and they weren’t big enough, then. The result is that it can put out 1600 watts continuously and the transformer smells bad if you try to use more for a long time…but it doesn’t weigh very much! On the other hand, my ancient Trace 2524 will put out 2500 watts all day, but bring a friend if you want to move it…it has a big transformer.

Can you parallel the inverter? That means run two of them lashed together for twice the output. Tom bought a 5500 watt inverter from Sun for his entire all-electric house and he had to compromise with the loads. He could not run stove, A/C and clothes dryer at the same time, for example. He added another in parallel and can run anything he wants, now. If anything happens to one of them he can fall back to the other until repairs can be made. It is a nice feature in case you want to expand, later.

One other concern that you might not have considered is service. My 12kw unit came from an American company. I bought it used and did not do much research. Tom had used it for a number of years and it worked great. After the lightning strike, I went to order schematics and parts. It quickly became clear that the guys at the American company did not have schematics or know anything about it. They just screened their name on a decent Chinese inverter and marked it up. The price of replacement circuit boards indicated to me they were robbing parts out of a new inverter. Looking under the hood, I discovered the circuit boards were designed by the same guy who designed my wimpy Chinaverter!

I used to design circuit boards, so I can spot a designer’s trademark. So, the moral of the story is, search around on the internet to see if anybody does service or sells parts and manuals. I checked one of John’s nice rigs and the signs were good. They may have some more info on that subject at Sun, so it would not hurt to ask.

A final consideration is a seller who will back his gear. Consider anything you buy directly from China as disposable. Trust me. Again, I don’t work for Sun Electronics…I am a customer and this is a true story: something I bought from John two years ago went bad. I contacted John to see how the warranty worked with that product. He said he didn’t know, but HE would replace or refund it. He put me in touch with Louis and after sending in some photos showing the problem, Louis said he would give me a credit. No hassle. Done. Where else are you going to find that?

Next time I’ll continue onto the subject of batteries and other considerations. In the meantime, if you just can’t wait to get started, you should at least have some ideas on what you want and need. Call John or any of the sales engineers at Sun Electronics and they can get you started.

By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 101

Backup Power

Coming out of last weekend, the network news guy told us how many HUNDREDS of THOUSANDS of homes were without power in the wake of a big snowstorm, which included a lot of area where people were not accustomed to dealing with such. It looks like a little more of the same this weekend. Here on the coast, we have to deal with hurricanes knocking out power every few years, on average, but we aren’t big on ice. In the north, you hear about it several times a year with the snow and ice and I wonder, “WHY DON’T MORE PEOPLE HAVE BACKUP POWER SYSTEMS???”

Sure, some people do have generators, but that is not always the best way to go, even the automatic whole-house generators. Don’t get me wrong, those are nice and Mom loves hers, but there are better options.

I have seen these headlines and repeatedly started to write this article, only to get frustrated about which way to go with it. There are so many options and maybe that makes the decision process more complicated. On this try, I will go with just a general outline and talk about some of the equipment. Hopefully, that will help you select the right system for your house.

First, do you want something that will take over normal operation of the entire house? Or would you be happy with something that will keep some lights on and maybe power the fridge and microwave so that you can have some comfort food and a hot cup of cocoa as the cold wind howls outside?

Let’s start with generator vs. battery. I visited a popular generator maker’s website and, by golly, they can solve all of your problems, they say. They tell you that a highly-touted lithium battery system will only last 2 hours and only put out a paltry 2kw, while they can power the whole house for days. Oh, marketing guys! This is the same generator Mom has. Twice it has failed to start because the service tech left the switch set wrong. Once it failed to start because the battery had exploded (which corroded a hole in the bottom of the cabinet). Every time it starts it burns a lot of expensive (in her town) natural gas and makes a lot of racket, regardless of load. Still Mom loves it, but I get aggravated when I have to drive 32 miles in bad weather or storm debris to get it running… 92 year old ladies don’t want to be troubled with mechanical issues, but they are good at sending their sons on a guilt trip. She bought her generator after a 2 week power outage and it usually works pretty well.

The marketing guys at the big battery company have a different story. They say their wall-mounted thing will make life grand for two weeks. Maybe so, if your idea of a grand life is operating a table lamp for a couple of weeks. Their battery system costs more than the generator, more even than a couple of homes I’ve owned.

Is there a compromise? Sure. First, you need to consider what a typical outage would be. Yeah, there are exceptions to “typical”, like the time mine was out for 5 weeks and the MONTHS that the folks in the Florida panhandle are looking at, but usually the number is just a day or two. My number was 4, because I live at the far end of a rural line.

Then, consider what you want to keep running. The fridge, microwave, Mr. Coffee, and some lights are probably on your list. In the north, maybe you need to run the blower and igniter circuits on an oil furnace. YOU CAN RUN THE WHOLE HOUSE, but it will cost more. Even a portable box you keep in the garage to provide a few lights can be a great comfort! Once you have decided HOW MUCH POWER you need by figure how much the devices use and how many hours you will use them, you can start looking at the components and number of batteries you need.

Let’s talk about inverters. These are gadgets that turn the DC voltage of a battery into the AC voltage that your fridge eats. They are commonly found with an input voltage of 12, 24 or 48volts. 12 volts is usually used on lower power systems and have the advantage that you can charge the batteries with your car, that 4000 pound generator in your driveway. 48v inverters are used on high power systems because the battery current is lower and you don’t have to use huge cables. 24 volt units are a good compromise and a good choice for a system for basic comforts.

The basic inverters just do one thing, they invert. Nothing automatic is going to happen. You connect it to the battery bank, turn it on and run a cord to whatever you want powered. You could plug it into a generator plug, if you have one installed in your house. From the basics, you then have all kinds of deluxe units. For an automatic system, you have inverter/chargers with automatic transfer switch (ATS). These would typically be installed between a main breaker and a sub-panel that feeds power to whatever you consider your critical or nice-to-have loads. The big ones can run the whole house. With these, on a normal day, the utility power passes straight through to the house and a little more goes to keep the batteries happy. When a squirrel leaps to his death on a power line transformer, your neighbors’ houses go dark and you notice a slight flicker in the lights as the inverter takes over. Maybe the ceiling fan has a slight buzz, but that’s it. Sweet.

And you know? Once that is in place and paid for, it is a simple matter to bolt a few solar panels to the roof to charge the batteries and power the loads. An outage that runs beyond the “typical” one won’t run the batteries down! That’s right, the backup system is the first step to a full-on solar power system. That is where my system is now as I gradually work toward total independence from the power company.

Since this is starting to run long, I’ll stop here and let this soak in, then move on to other considerations in a day or so. If you are not technically inclined, don’t worry. This is just to introduce you to some of the basics. After you know enough to ask the right questions and decide what it is you feel you want and need, you can call Sun Electronics. John’s crew has guys who can translate your needs into a package that will fit your budget. They design tailored systems all the time and it doesn’t cost extra.

By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 102

May I?

Remember when you were a kid and you always had to ask Mom or Dad permission before doing anything so you wouldn’t get your bottom smacked? Boy, you couldn’t wait to grow up so you could do anything you wanted to do! Then you grew up and found out you still had to ask permission to do things. Bummer.

Building your own solar power system might well require you ask permission in the form of getting permits or filling out paperwork. On the other hand, it may not. I want to go through some examples, today.

Let’s start with some examples where you may do it yourself without a permit. We’ll start with some ridiculous examples like those little solar sidewalk lights. No permit, but it is solar. A more useful project would be a solar motion detector light for the corner of the garage. You actually get to use tools for that!

Let’s get a little more serious now. Do you have a boat? Sailboats and cruisers are a huge market for solar. I read the cruising forums and lots of folks are doing their own and there are some pretty serious systems. Heck, my expedition boat is 100% solar powered, even the galley. There are no permits involved, but the Coast Guard may come aboard, as they sometimes do, and they will want to see things safe. Your insurance company may require a survey, too. Use cables made for marine service, non-rusting hardware, lash down the batteries and protect things from the fingerpoking!

In fact, that general advice might be good for ANY kind of solar installation that you do. Use the right wire, make it look orderly and workmanlike, make it safe. Inspectors look for the scary-looking stuff, so don’t make it scary.

Motorhomes and RVs are another good place for DIY solar. The roofs may have vents, fans, skylights and antennae, but there is usually enough room up there to put in a good bit of solar. Mounting on offsets can allow for more solar, but may present an issue with wind lift. Besides, RVs tend to be pretty tall to start with. We have the notorious 17th Avenue Bridge in Pensacola, which has been the end to many an 18 wheeler and RV, so why tempt fate with added height? Keep it low. Know what the structure is, too. You want to get your bolts into something that will hold. A friend’s very large rig has a roof that is basically molded styrofoam covered in sheet metal! In a case like that, use lots of screws. On that rig, we considered using solar laminates (panels without the frames) bent to follow the curves and held in place with greenhouse channel. Because of all the other things up there to dodge, a mosaic of smaller panels might be the key to getting the most watts on the roof. Watch the weight, too. You don’t want to get it top heavy and go tipping over ! As long as your panels don’t come flying off, nobody will say a thing about permits for your RV power project.

Another RV project would be to have a portable setup. I know guys who go to big outdoor shows in their RVs. If they can find a shady spot, they will. Some set up panels on a stand away from their shade and can run fans and charge phones without ever having to fire up the noisy generator.

Are you a farmer or rural dweller? On the farm, most places I have seen, you are pretty much on your own when it comes to structures or electrical. I have all kinds of little solar projects for water pumping, lighting a shed, and even a major power plant that IS the shed. The smallest installation is a 10 watt panel bolted to back fender of a seldom-used tractor. I ran out of barn space, so it is rusty and faded, but, by golly, it’ll start when I need it. My neighbor Glen has some 10 watt panels I have swapped to him for welding or other favors. They are all over the place, keeping batteries topped up on equipment he doesn’t use a lot. A super low-cost farm project would be to have a small module and 12v LED light bulb for a tractor shed, using the battery in the tractor. Kill two birds with one stone, keeping the battery hot and having a light in the shed.

Now, let’s talk about permits and inspections. In most places, I can’t go out and install solar at your house because I am not a licensed contractor. You, however, as a homeowner, can probably get a permit to do your own work. We’ll talk a bit more about this in a moment. The job of the inspectors is to make sure you do a project safely and don’t kill anybody or burn your house down. That, having been said, you will sometimes find an inspector who is a bit of a tyrant and you will find inspectors who are nice guys that will work with you and help you out. There was a time when the inspectors in our county were very, very ….ummmm, well let’s just say the county had to issue them guns so that We The People wouldn’t kill them! Things have changed for the better and we have a bunch of good folks, now.

I can give two examples of the kinder, gentler inspectors. Stan has been building his “hunting camp” for years. His homemade solar and wind power system is a little dodgy, but works well and he is involved in a first class upgrade. Someone mentioned his place to the Inspections Department, which had previously failed to notice it, owing to its remote location. The inspector inspected and then declared that since there was no Certificate of Occupancy, he had no jurisdiction over the project.

Tom built a large outlaw system in his barn to power his house. He later confessed his sins so that he could go grid-tie and the inspector was nice as he could be, willing to work with Tom on bringing things up to code.

So, back to your permits, you need to go to the Inspections Office with a plan and not a vague idea. If you have a couple of ways you can go with the project, sketch them out and go and ask the inspector’s advice before finalizing things. Show respect and let the inspector know that you know who’s the boss. (Hint: it ain’t YOU!) The biggest way to cause yourself trouble is to go in with an attitude. You’ll get one back right in your face. When I built my house, I pulled all the permits and dealt with all of the inspectors. Each one may have some little quirk and may gig you on something just to let you know they are paying attention. Anything they noted, I corrected and then took to them before and after photos so they wouldn’t have to come back and crawl under the house or in the attic. That courtesy was returned with a quick sign-off on the job.

Note that in many areas, the inspectors are in the office very early for a short while and after lunch for a short while and in the field, inspecting, the rest of the time. Call ahead to discover their hours. Don’t be first in line. Let the pros get their business done and that’ll leave you more time for your consultations.

The most paperwork intensive system I have seen is Mike’s. South Carolina and Duke Power had a heckuva rebate program that would more than pay for the hardware if you shopped the right places. There was a lot of paper for the rebate program. Then, the structure over his barbecue area had to have a structural analysis to insure it wouldn’t fall over with solar panels on it. He got a licensed engineer to sign off on it. Then there were the electrical permits, which were pretty basic, and the paperwork for grid-tie, which had to be signed off by a NABCEP certified installer. THEY can be hard to come by, even with all of the solar activity we have going on these days. Things went well, though the NABCEP thing caused some delay. All that was left then was the IRS tax rebate form, which is easy and requires only receipts and no NABCEP or permits. Come to think about it, Mike may have come out ahead on the deal!

To sum it up, there are plenty of solar projects you can do without anybody’s permission. If you are going to attach it to your home, then you probably will need a permit, but as a homeowner, you can usually get one and do the work yourself. Just assure the inspectors you are competent and show them some respect. Asking their advice on how they might do a particular thing is something they usually like. John’s crew at Sun Electronics can help you with the system design, so you can go to the inspectors with a plan.

By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 103

Keep your powder dry….electronics, too

For some months, the wife has been grudgingly patient about the Trace 2524 in the living room. Why was there an inverter in the living room?

I’ve been engaged in a multi-year evolution in my power system, so lots of new stuff has been coming in and out of service. In our Southern climate we have humidity to spare and when you add temperature swings you get condensation. Stuff sweats, especially stuff containing heavy transformers. In operation, these bits of equipment put off a little heat, so they don’t sweat. The inverter spent a couple of decades in my attic, but it buzzed along happily because it was warm.

You do not want water creeping into your electrical gear. You just don’t.

The new power room in the Solar Shed is not quite a room, yet, as there is the fantail of the solar launch where the last wall should be. That will change, with the latest expansion, but until it does there is humidity. So, I have left unused things powered up to keep them warm and dry.

The 24 volt system is almost gone, now. Only one charge controller on the control panel and a couple in the launch, and the big 24 volt inverter are running because I have not run the new 120v wiring for lights and outlets in the newly expanded shed’s 48v system…and I have to keep the boat’s electronics warm. There isn’t much solar energy for the boat inside the shed, unless it comes in by wire.

The 2524 inverter is now out there, wrapped in plastic. Each decommissioned charge controller is getting wrapped and stowed in plastic storage tubs as it comes off the old control board. Some will be used in the Solar Yacht project, others will probably be used in the barn or sold. Until then, the plastic wrap should keep them fresh and dry until the control room is closed in. The heat of the control panel equipment should keep the winter humidity low and eliminate the condensation threat once the wall is in place. (Mexico has not offered to pay for my wall, either.) During the summer, there will be an a/c in there.

Batteries sweat, too. The danger there is that the moisture creates a small current path and you not only lose a little power, you get corroded terminals and attract crud. Mine are all outside the control room, now, and the hope is that an insulated battery enclosure will keep them from cooling down and sweating during the summer months.

Unless all of your equipment is in a climate controlled environment, or Arizona, add Saran wrap, plastic bags and tape to your supply list and keep your unused electronics dry!

By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 104

After playing phone tag the other day, John and I were having a conversation about all things solar and my Solar Shed phase 3 performance. He asked how well the modules were performing as these are all recycled salvage panels in the form of roof tiles.

I replied that they are doing well, having seen around 8kw with a 10kw nameplate rating. That concerned him and he seemed a little surprised when I made the point that modules never seem to make full rated power…not in the real world anyway.

You see, panels are tested and rated at an industry standard under conditions that are rarely encountered at most sites. It isn’t exactly a lie, but neither is it the real world. Never mind that mine are panels that have a permanent grime on them and were stomped and thrown off the roofs of their original installations. I have seen some panels with a second set of numbers on the label that represent a more likely scenario. These lower numbers are closer to what most folks will see.

First of all, there is the matter of the sky sometimes being reluctant to provide the industry-standard level of irradiation. In our area, we go for days at a time in winter with clouds and gloom. In the summer, with 95 degrees and 95% humitidy, we have a 10,000 foot layer of humidity that looks sorta like blue sky, but it blocks some of the sun. My Phase Two version of the solar shed had plenty of power on sunny days, but not enough battery to ride through the gloomy ones. After 4 days, I’d have to switch back to grid to save the batteries. Phase Three has enough modules to charge the larger battery pile, even on cloudy days. Getting the right balance of relatively cheap solar and expensive battery is tricky, but I think I have nailed it and have added more loads to the new 48v system.

Electrical resistance can take a small toll. Keep your cables fat and short for lowest resistance. Long skinny wires and parallel strings will give you a power loss. Each connector loses a little power. Since my system uses relatively small 34 watt modules, there are over 700 MC3 connectors up there!

Then there is the matter of the sun’s angle, relative to the panel surface. They test with the sunlight coming dead-on square with the panel. Tracking racks are available, but I don’t think they are worth the extra expense. If you have a fixed installation, then you will get that max output for an instant, twice a year. Right now, the sun is a little low to be hitting best power on my array. This summer, the sun will be high, but the days will be longer, so I am looking forward to sun-powered central air conditioning! Don’t let somebody tell you that you have to have your rooftop panels at a really ridiculous and ugly angle to improve your performance. I saw photos of a system mounted on an otherwise picturesque barn at such an angle as to make the image hideous. Mount your panels at the roof angle and just use more of them if you need to. Keep solar beautiful and fashionable. If I remember any of that sine and cosine stuff correctly, you’d have to be 60 degrees out of alignment to drop the output to half and on a cloudy day the diffusion of light by the clouds would make up for some of that loss.

I mentioned that these modules of mine have a permagrunge. Nothing cleans them! Then there is the layer of pollen that the pine trees are presently giving them between rain showers. In May, cropdusters at my place will give them a coating of red clay dust as they go roaring back and forth. That’s right, anything that blocks the sun blocks the power. The big solar farms are now playing with the use of robotic panel washers to keep the modules clean. One of those long-handled RV brush/squeegee thingamajiggers will probably do well enough for you.

There is also the temperature factor. Note on your label that your panels are rated at a certain temperature. Mounted close to the roof or even out in the open you are likely to find much higher temps on a sunny day. Output goes down as temperature goes up. The solar roof tiles I use probably benefit from being mounted on open purlins instead of a sealed plywood roof deck as code dictated in their original residential installations. Let your panels breathe!

So, if you use your panels on a cold, dry Himalayan mountaintop with sun trackers, you might come out even with the rated output of your modules. The good news is that they start making power as soon as the sky makes light, even down here in the hazy flatlands. My batteries are usually bulked up by 9:30 and it just keeps getting better until mid day. You’ll end up with 5 hours equivalent at full rated power if you live in Florida and a little less as you move northward up the map. Your mileage may vary! Since solar panels are no longer the expensive part of the system, add another string of 3 modules modules (John’s 305 watts special) for about a hundred bucks, each, for a little extra insurance and peace of mind. You won’t regret having “too much.”

(Update: Since this was written, the sun arose to a perfect angle on the Solar Shed’s roof. We’ve even had some unusually clear days. I isolated one bank rated at 2500 watts and actually saw 2475 watts on the meter at noon. Close enough! This will drop off as the sun continues toward a higher arc, but the days are getting longer so there will be plenty of power.

By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 105

Increased output from fractured cells

I looked for that article we were talking about, regarding fracturing cells for greater output. I found lots of articles on how fracturing can reduce output, but not the one for which I am looking. I did find a patent for manufacturing cracked cells to increase output.

Patent for fracturing cells. Link

Here are my observations on the subject. I test my panels with an ammeter instead of a voltmeter. A tiny section of a broken cell will give the same voltage as a full cell. Testing with an ammeter, I feel, gives a better indication of the power capacity AND gives a bit of a stress test. That assumes finding a sunny day here in the alleged Sunshine State.

Virtually all of my 34 watt, 6 volt panels have one or more cracked cells, at least in the later pallets. This worried me, at first, but I have come to embrace them and have enjoyed studying them. These tiles have much thicker glass than you find in standard modules. That allows a great diversity in crack modes without breaking the glass. The cracks that concern me the least are longitudinal ones across the fine silver traces between two main bus bars. There is no degradation at if the tiny silver wires are intact. If they are broken, the current still flows to the nearest bus bar. Outside of the main area, A crack with broken wires would eliminate a small amount of current from reaching a bus bar.

The ones that really concern me are the ones made by someone really serious about destroying a panel. These cracks fan out over the entire cell, looking like lightning bolts or, perhaps, a fern. The cell ends up in lots of pieces with the potential that several of those fine lines will fail, drastically reducing output. Given the choice, I choose the panels with the simpler cracks.

That being said, label-rated short circuit current should be around 7.5 amps, if I remember correctly. In practice, I have observed as much as 9 amps on these modules with multiple cracked cells. With such variation, I feel it is probably important to sort the panels for similar outputs, even as simply as Hi, Medium and Low, to maximize the overall production of power.

Have any failed? Hard to say, because I run in strings of 21 and they have bypass diodes. I do know that I had 2 with the edge delamination problem and their diodes were bad. 3 foot jumper cables allowed me to bypass those and continue operation with the rest of the string.

Some of the tiles were received with the glass smashed. That usually resulted from screws being left in the tile above. There were also some piles that were simply stacked too high and cases of probable malice. Not surprisingly, cells were damaged, too, when the glass was smashed. Usually, these modules work! I have one on the solar shed that has broken glass from a tree strike after installation. I tried to seal it with some of that miracle AS-SEEN-ON-TV clear sealant. It did not stay clear more than a few days and ultimately crumbled off. It turns out, though that the sheet of sticky plastic between the glass and cells maintained a seal and the tile with the broken glass still has good output, though in Phase 3, it is not presently connected.

This is not to say that all cell fractures are benign or beneficial. You’ll recall the panel I blasted with the shotgun. That did not really affect that module, but then it was already somewhat handicapped by having been bent and bowed by Tom’s front end loader getting “just a little too close.” (Right. Basic laws of physics indicate that two things can’t occupy the same space at the same time, for every action there is a reaction, and while matter can neither be created or destroyed it can be smashed to bits.)

While I am still a bit shaky on the physics of less-than-perfect solar cells, I am fully aware that my lights are on because around 350 previously discarded panels are keeping my batteries charged! If they work, use them, but please don’t take a hammer to them! Or a tractor.

By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 106

Basics

I started taking old radios apart as a very young kid, began my career in electronics at 16, was a licensed broadcast engineer at 19. That led to computers and all kinds of electronic gimcrack design. Having been making sparks for so many years it is easy to forget that some of the basic stuff might seem scary or mystical to folks just getting started. Today, let’s look at a couple of very basic and very important terms: series and parallel.

You will run into the use of series and parallel connections in solar power work, most importantly, perhaps, in the connections of the batteries and the PV modules. We’ll start with batteries.

Series: Have you ever seen a picture or video of a bunch of elephants walking in a line, trunks wrapped around the tail of the beasts in front of them? If you can conjure up that image, then you can get the idea of a series connection. Let’s say the trucking company just delivered 8 Trojan T105 batteries that Roberto sold you when you called Sun Electronics. What do you do with them?

They are 6 volt batteries, meaning there are 3 cells of 2 volts each connected in series. Now, 6 volts is not terribly useful in most solar power arrangements, which are usually 12, 24, or 48 volt systems on the DC side. So if you take 2 of the 6volt batteries you can make 12 volts. With 4 you can have 24 volts. 8 X 6 makes 48 volts. Easy, right? BUT, how do you connect them?

In series connections, you connect a cable from the first battery’s “+” positive terminal to the next battery’s “-” negative terminal. Just like the elephants, but not as heavy. Now, if you take a meter and put the black lead on the first battery’s negative terminal and the second battery’s positive terminal, you’ll find that the meter should read something over 12 volts. Ta Dahhh! You’ve just made a series connection. Add two more batteries in the same fashion and you have 24 volts. Add the rest of the batteries, trunk to tail, just like the first 4 and you end up with over 48 volts. If you put one in the string of batteries backwards, the 6 volts of that battery will be subtracted and the voltage will be below 48v. Pay attention to what you are doing!

Note: These cables need to be pretty fat because you may be dealing with hundreds of amps to feed your inverter. We’ll talk of that another time, but if you ordered a kit from Sunelec, you’ll have properly sized cables.

Parallel: Ok, you have 8 batteries and you have a 24 volt system. You placed 4 of your T105s in series to make 24 volts, but you still have 4 batteries left. What to do with them? Simple. Just make another 24 volt series of batteries right next to the first set. Make sure both lines have the “+” at the same end and connect those positive terminals together. Same thing with the 2 negative terminals. Now you have 8 batteries and 24 volts. This is called a series-parallel connection because you are connecting series strings of batteries in parallel to increase POWER (not voltage).

If you only have 24 volts and you can get that with 4 batteries, why do we use 8? We double the storage capacity this way. Let’s say the T105 is rated at a capacity of 220 amp-hours (AH). With one string we can multiply 220 AH X 24 Volts to discover a capacity of 5280 watt-hours. Let’s just round that off to 5000 or 5KWH (KiloWattHours). When we add the second set of 4 batteries, we double our storage to 10KWH. 10’s gotta be better than 5, right? You betcha.

Wait a minute, you are saying, I have a 12 volt system! You know you get 12 volts from two batteries, so do you connect 4 sets of two batteries? Exactly! With this connection, you now have 880 AH of storage and still have the 10KWH power capacity of the 24 volt system, just at a different voltage. If that’s confusing, don’t worry about it…it’s a good thing.

Here are some tips.

  1. Take a can of white paint and mark the POSITIVE corner of your new batteries. Trojans are dark red and the Sun batteries (and most others) are black, so the white paint will stand out better to avoid confusion.
  2. Have a multimeter. Even a cheap (or free with a coupon) one from your favorite Chinese tool store is all you need. Check each connection as you go to avoid sparks later.
  3. Wear safety glasses…some batteries can make sparks and hydrogen and under certain conditions that can be a bad thing.
  4. Cables that are too big are better than cables that are too small.
  5. Put shrink wrap or tape around the transition of where your cable goes into the terminal.
  6. Don’t make your cables any longer than they need to be. Big wire costs big money and long wire has more resistance.
  7. Put a coating of grease or battery spray on the connections to avoid corrosion.
  8. Cheap bolt cutter make dandy wire cutters when working with large battery cables.

If connecting that last cable to an inverter or other device containing a large capacitor, you WILL get a spark, so tap the cable to a flat spot on the terminal and not the screw stud (if applicable) to avoid making a weld burn that will make it impossible to tighten the battery nut. A better plan is to make the last connection at the inverter or fuse/breaker. Good Luck

By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 107

More Parallel and Series Stuff

The other day we talked about series and parallel connections of batteries. You know, getting 24 volts using four 6 volt batteries in SERIES and getting lots of amps at 24 volts by using 2 of those 24 volt strings (8 batteries total) in parallel. What about connecting your solar modules? Yes, it applies there, too. These roof tiles John is giving away, put out about 4 volts under load, so you use 3 of them in series to charge a 12v battery. I use 6 in series to run my 24 volt backup water pump. If you have a battery system and use an MPPT charge controller you might run 3 modules in series to get a good efficiency and stay under the 150 volt limit of the controller. If you are connecting a grid tie system with a string inverter, like a Sunny Boy, you may connect lots of full size panels for a voltage around 600 volts!Six 4v panels in series to run a 24v water pump located near my spring.

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 108

Connecting your solar panels in series is super easy and it saves money on wire, because several panels are connected using a single pair (positive and negative) of wires to the controller. Your modules probably have MC3, MC4 or Tyco connectors on them. Pick one connector on the first module and it will plug into the right one on the next module. The other one gets plugged to the next module. (If you use John’s free solar roof tiles, you might want to buy a sack of MC3 connectors because there will likely be some missing.) You can’t just do this forever because those panels are usually good for around 40 volts on the big”24 volt” panels and 18 or 20 on the “12 volt” panels. You could get some scary or damaging voltage added up in a hurry.Let’s say we have a 60 amp charge controller on a 24 volt battery. I don’t have particular specs handy but, generally, you’d say 60 amps X 24 volts = 1440 watts. Some controllers are real fussy about input wattage and even fudge a little bit on the specs. Some are rated higher and seem to just ignore a little extra power. Just remember 1440 for now.If you take three 300 watt panels and put them in series, you’ll have a max voltage of 120v, which is fine for this controller. Of course, 3 X 300 watts = 900 watts, so that being less than 1440 watts, you are safe to go. Sometimes, though, you have lots of cheap solar panels and want to get the most out of your BOS (Balance of System), so how many of these 300 watt panels can we use on the single 60 amp controller on this 24 volt system? Take your 1440 and divide by 300 and you get 4.8. You’ll have to round that down to a whole number, so that gives you 4 panels you can use.If you hook all of these panels in series, that’ll give you 160 volts on the input, so that is a no-no, as it exceeds the 150volt rating. TWO of those panels in series make 80 volts and that is ok. So if we take two in series and two MORE in series and connect the two sets in parallel, we can run 1200 watts (4 X 300) at 80 volts (2×40) into our charge controller and all will be good. If you have more panels you’ll have to have more charge controllers, or bigger ones, and calculate the optimal connection.TIME OUT! If you are getting scared or confused about 80 or 150 volts from your panels charging a 12, 24 or 48 volt battery…relax! MPPT controllers are magic! They detect the battery voltage and squeeze that higher voltage into your battery and get 20-30% more power out of the panels in the process. Don’t worry about how. Like I said, it’s magic, like using a 120 volt outlet to charge your 3.7 volt cell phone battery. Trust me.Now, there are exceptions to this general plan and that comes in the actual specifications of the controller you are using. A FlexMax 60 is rated at 1500 watts instead of 1440. This is from a real-world example at Stan-the-Hermit’s cabin. He has ten 300 watt PV modules and two 60 amp charge controllers. What he planned to do was put 5 panels in series on each charge controller. NO! Stan, don’t do it!!! The watts would be fine, but he’d have 200 volts going in, which would cause the smoke to come out. You never want to make the smoke come out of electronic stuff. (According to the Leo Ginn theory, electricity operates by the circulation of smoke molecules, so don’t let the smoke out.)The old 12 volt system was all wrong…and worked great.

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 109

What should Stan do, then? I don’t normally recommend sacrificing the low light capabilities of MPPT charge controllers by operating all of the modules in parallel, but that is what he will do on the new system because he’d rather spend the money on his girlfriends than charge controllers (which are less expensive). 5 panels in parallel on each charge controller should work fine. There are MC4 adapters that allow parallel connection of modules, saving wire and making parallel connection easy, but watch out for the current capacity of the wire you are using. A single 10 AWG pair will safely carry 30 amps, but will lose a little power in the wire. I buy a 1000′ roll of cable (wire gets cheap on the big rolls) and every string gets its own wire. This allows me to isolate a string with a bad panel, if one should fail in my system of all recycled salvage modules.Stan poses with his stack of 300 watt panels and my load of solar roof tiles in Miami.

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 110

Is there any other way of doing this series/parallel stuff to save money? Yes! A SINGLE 60 amp charge controller will handle all of his panels if he goes to a 48 volts system, because it still handles 60 amps. At twice the voltage you have twice the watts. On the old 12 volt system, he’d have to have twice as many charge controllers to run with all of those new modules! He’s going to stick with 24 volts, though, because he already bought the inverter.Stan’s solar shed. 2 old men, one rickety ladder and 600 lbs. of panels.

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 111

Here is something important to note and it has to do with MIXING panels sizes. Normally, you’d buy all the same modules and assemble your system, but there are those of us who are scroungers and have all kinds of stray inventory. When connecting in parallel, you need to connect modules of the same voltage output. Don’t mix 12 volt and 24 volt panels and don’t mix 60 and 72 cell panels. In series, if you have panels of different ratings, there is a chance of letting the smoke out, but it is a sure bet that you won’t get the full added output from the modules. You CAN use a hodgepodge of panels, but group similar panels on their own charge controllers. For example, if you have four 270 watt 60 cell panels on one charge controller and four 330 watt 72 cell panels on another charge controller, then everybody will get along fine and the smoke will stay where it belongs.By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 112

Enough is enough? Nah!

Can you get too much solar power? Spend too much time on Pensacola Beach and you’ll think so, and have a red face to remind you. But, no, I am talking about photovoltaic power. In the case of grid tie, it has gotten to the point in some places that they are having to add battery storage systems to balance things out. The lack of battery saw the advent of the “duck curve” in utility power production. Look it up.

On your OWN independent power system, can you have too much? In phase two of the Solar Shed project, I had gobs of power on a sunny day, but not having enough battery and reaping only 10% of rated power on a cloudy day (we have them a week at a time in winter) made me wish for more power. Phase 3 gave me LOTS more power as the shed went from 32′ to 80′ of solar roof. Now, I am finding some interesting conditions to which I must adapt.

In addition to more power, now around 10kw rated, there is more battery storage and more on the way as I get to the detail work. The flooded lead-acid batteries are fine, now 3 days into a cloudy spell, though next year’s Phase 4 should keep them really topped.

What about sunny days? If the day starts out clear, I see what I saw on my solar boat expedition, the batteries start charging at the crack of dawn and ease into a full charge without any stress on the system. (When not on the boat I make a point of sleeping too late to see what my system is doing at dawn.) What happens, though, if the batteries are low and the day starts out cloudy and suddenly the clouds part to reveal full, noontime sun? OH CRAP! Think about that for a moment. 10kw at 48 volts amounts to 200 amps of charge current into my 635 amp battery. That comes to a C3 charge. Batteries love a C20 charge, or a rate of about 1/20th of the A/H rating of the battery. They are ok with C10, but they will use a little more water. But C3??? Bubble bubble, toil and trouble, to misquoteThe Bard. If you have sealed AGM batteries, they will soon die a horrible death at that rate.

My system has big knife switches I can pull to disable strings of panels in sunny weather, but that hardly seems a good way of doing things. You really want this to all be automatic. So far, the only issues I have had is when the batteries are topped and then the sun abruptly comes out. My inverter blinks the power off and back on! Why? Well, the charge controllers, which are set fairly close to the overvoltage trip on the SunKing 5548 inverter, take an instant to react to the increase solar power and the inverter trips. So, what to do?

The inverter is very adjustable, but everything is working the way it is set up and it really isn’t it’s fault, so I will leave it alone. BTW, you can’t buy a SunKing 5548…I built it out of the ruins of my lightning-killed previous inverter and some driver hardware I found. (Note that the Sun Electronics kits include the lightning protector that I NOW use.) The next place to look would be the charge controllers. I have 4 and three different models. I don’t recommend having a bunch of mismatched hardware, but I ended up with leftovers from evaluating hardware for my Solar Yacht project. As I noted in a previous blog, each has a different personality and each is adjustable. The two least active, get satisfied early in the day and shut down. They are not a problem. The twins are very active and are where the trouble originates. I dug through my literature stack and found the manual and went through the setups, dropping the maximum on one and dropping it some more on the other. I’ll know if this did the trick sometime in May, when the sun comes out again. I will just tweak them until the maximum charge current is at a rational level under full sun.

Are there other remedies? Glad you asked! Yes, there is a gadget called a Diversion Load Controller. I think these were first used with wind generators because you can’t just disconnect a windgen in a stiff breeze or it might fly apart. It used to be that the cost of solar guaranteed that no one would have too much solar power, but that has changed. You can use the DLC to dump power into a giant resistor, but that is wasteful. A better plan is to find a 12, 24 or 48 volt water heater element, as appropriate, and dump the excess power into your water heater. It just screws in. Everybody likes a free hot shower, right? That won’t do in my situation because, first of all, the Solar Shed is 200′ from my house and, second, my water heater is wood-fired.

The way I will use the DLC, if needed, is to pull in a relay that disconnects some of the PV strings.So, can you have too much solar power? I’ll let you know next year when Phase 4 brings another 5KW online, because, so far, I am reveling in what I have and adding more loads.

By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 113

I want to talk about the Solar Lifestyle and what that means. Elsewhere, I have given links to the Home Power Magazine Archive. That is a treasure trove of information and each issue is a time capsule of where the state of things was at that time.

Early on, solar panels were small and expensive. I have paid up to $11/watt for solar panels and I was not exactly a pioneer. Early adopters would have a single panel of maybe 30 watts and whatever batteries they could scrounge. Battery scrounging was easier back in the day, with a choice of Edison Batteries from the railroad or a forklift, NiCads from military surplus or L16s from department store floor scrubbers. They quickly found that an old car battery was not a good choice.

Systems were 12 volts, borrowing car tail light bulbs for lights and car radios for entertainment. If you wanted to get fancy you could use light fixtures from RV or marine sources. Primitive? Yes, but if you’ve ever lived with light from kerosene lamps, then you’d think it was great.

Inverters? What inverters? The first ones were square wave and didn’t get along well with some appliances, but even those were rare. The solar power was mostly used for light. You’d cook with propane and your fridge, if you had one, used propane too.

As systems grew, low voltage appliances were added. You could get a 12v coffee pot or popcorn popper at a truck stop. Specialty houses developed super efficient refrigerators with DC motors. John still sells the fridges because there are still a lot of low power systems out in the boondocks. People found that keeping up with the loads was a struggle for the solar panel. Maybe they’d eventually add more as the budget permitted, but most also maintained a backup generator, often a homemade DC rig using a gas engine and a car alternator. This was necessary, not only to keep up with the load, but because batteries need equalizing and that takes a lot of power.

Inverters evolved, rising in power and dropping in price. John’s recent email blast had an inverter at 1/3 the cost of a similar one I bought 30 years ago, wholesale, and the money was a lot stronger back then. They keep getting better and adding features. I just saw a brochure for the Midnite Solar MNB17-5 and I WANT ONE!

So, what is the state of the solar lifestyle, today? It is a wide range. Some folks are in pretty much the same place early USA users were 30 years ago. I know a guy who brings solar power to remote South American villages and John gives a lot of stuff to folks in Haiti, where just having a light and a way to charge a phone, a modern necessity, are luxuries.

I know a fellow who is a little more advanced than that, having to fire up his generator to run the water pump to fill his tanks. His stove and fridge are gas. Beyond that, he has CF lights all over the house and a big screen TV. If he has a big party and everybody falls asleep with everything turned on, he may have to run the generator to get the batteries back to speed. His batteries, by the way, were scrounged from a phone company for $5 each and have been in service with him for years.

Another fellow has a grid tie system. In his large modern, all-electric home, he is oblivious to any lifestyle changes. If he needs more than he makes, the grid supplies it, but as a rule, the solar power covers his needs. If the grid goes down, he’ll be in the dark like his neighbors.

In my area, we can’t have grid tie. One fellow uses a hybrid system that runs on solar, when he has it, and switches to grid when the batteries get low at night. That is an automatic feature of many modern inverters. A bigger battery stack would probably allow him to go full time off-grid. A lifestyle change would, too, but his house uses a lot of power for HVAC and there are always computers and home entertainment devices running. There have been a few lifestyle changes to maximize the use of the solar power. Big power users like the clothes dryer and the oven, for baking, are used during the day. When he had a single 5kw inverter, care had to be taken to not run the A/C, oven and clothes dryer all at the same time. Under pressure from his wife, he called Sun Electronics and bought a second 5kw inverter (I think he uses the Radian series) to run in parallel and now there are no restrictions on using stuff at the same time. If a hurricane takes out the grid and spares his array, he can conserve power and get along fine on solar alone.

On my system, at Phase 3, I am gradually getting to where I want to be, adding loads. I KNOW my wife is not going to deal with lifestyle changes, so I am working toward 100% off grid with operation being completely normal, except for the size of the power bill. In Phase 2, I had a crappy inverter with nowhere near the capacity it claimed, so I had to be very careful. I bought a 12kw inverter, a real one, that was going to solve all of my problems, but then lightning took it out. I am now running a 5500 watt inverter I built. I am still learning what it can do, wondering if it will handle the A/C load when I bring it on.

Battery life was a problem with Phase 2 in cloudy weather, but I have added batteries and incorporated other sources from my 2 electric farm trucks and my electric boat. That, along with an extra 5kw of solar and the batteries have been fine, even when we go for days without sunshine.

My goal is to have no restrictions on my use of solar power. Current loads are all the lights, computer, satellite, TV/DVD, 2 refrigerators, a freezer chest, 2 coffee pots, microwave and dishwasher. If the grid goes down, the clothes dryer and the stove won’t work, but I can get by without them. If I have any problems with the A/C then I’ll just have to build or buy a bigger inverter, won’t I? Another option would be a second inverter just for HVAC. Out at the Solar Shed, I run all manner of power tools, including a 2hp air compressor and a welder. It doesn’t sound like I have too many limitations, does it?

So, you see, today the solar lifestyle is only limited by your budget and covers pretty much the entire evolution of home solar power. Solar is now the cheapest form of power generation. It is only the up-front cost of going solar that holds us back, and John is doing his best to make that cost ever-lower. Looking at some of his kits, I am wondering if maybe you could borrow money to buy the kit and pay it back with payments similar to what you’d make on your power bill. Better yet, save up and then give the power company the boot.

(Update: I did get the upstairs central a/c connected and it did not work. There was too much surge load at startup with this 30 year old machine. I installed a soft starter on the a/c compressor and now the

18,000 BTU compressor works without so much of a blink, even with other heavy loads running. Trademarked names for these gadgets include Smart Start and Sure Start. They are not cheap, but cheaper than a bigger inverter!)

By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 114

Cut Out The Middleman

Utility power began with a fight between AC and DC systems. Thomas Edison promoted DC distribution. His ex-employee Nikola Tesla, the real Tesla, came up with the AC system for George Westinghouse. Both sides advertised how dangerous the other way was! What a way to promote a new industry!

Power stations were not the huge plants of today. They’d be tucked into a building on a corner and lines would run out a few blocks in each direction. There was no grid. The first microgrids?

DC lost out because you just couldn’t send it very far without a voltage drop. AC could counter the drop with transformers to boost the voltage. With this extended range, The power plants could be bigger and send the wires out further. Plants were also interconnected and the grid was born, making for more reliable power…except for country folks.

Country folks had to make their own electricity, usually using a gas generator like the Delco Light Plant, a Jacobs or Wincharger windmill, using battery for storage, or even a small hydro plant. Henry Ford had a hydro plant on his estate. These systems were the forerunners of the independent power plants you and I are building with the clean and quiet solar systems. They fell by the wayside when the Rural Electric Administration began subsidizing power cooperatives for the rural areas.

The power companies started dabbling with solar when they saw how many of their customers were adding solar. Prices dropped and then solar became cheaper to build and WAY cheaper to produce power, even when they had to buy batteries, which are now all the rage. The power companies began building solar farms. Then they started a campaign to discourage or even prevent US from building solar capability for ourselves. Recent power industry sources now openly admit this.

Here is something a little funny, though. They seem to be on the verge of dismantling the grid system, at least on a small scale. Recently, an Australian power company was faced with upgrading a line to the boonies. Instead, they cut that project and installed small solar plants at the far end of the line. The customers saw no difference and the power company both saved money and still retained control of the power. You have to wonder why the ranchers didn’t just make their own solar plants and be done with power bills. Closer to home, a long line in the Appalachians avoided an upgrade by adding battery. This morning, I see a report that ConEd, Mr. Edison’s company, is working on alternatives to upgrading lines that are struggling under peak conditions. It won’t surprise me if they eventually add solar in the mix. Puerto Rico’s thoroughly screwed up system seems to be moving to solar and microgrids.

So, the question is, if the power company admits that solar is the way to go and solar is cheaper than conventional generation, why isn’t everybody doing it? Probably because of the upfront costs or maybe the word just hasn’t gotten out that the upfront costs aren’t that bad. John’s sales guys have payback examples for their package systems. Take a look and you may decide it is time to cut out the middleman, or at least have some backup and independence in the event of a utility power failure. My lights don’t go out. Ever. Not for 25 years. NICE.

By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 115

New System, Problems, Solar Daiquiris

Stan-the-Hermit called Friday, needing some bits and pieces to finally get his 24v solar power system running. He’s had his panels for well over a year, having accompanied me on my final run to John’s old Miami Gardens warehouse. They’ve been mounted for months. He left my place happy with an armload of switches, breakers, fuses and solar wire. If I had more friends like Stan I could open a solar hardware store.

I expected to receive a triumphant phone call within 24 hours, but that didn’t happen. He was in a panic when he called Saturday. He’d hooked it all up right, he claimed, but the voltage on the batteries had gone from 17v down to under 13 overnight. What could be wrong? The answer is right there, but let me give you some background.

A while back Stan told me he’d found a Great Deal on some used batteries that came out of a motor coach. “Great Deal” and “used batteries” can, but do not always coincide. Given the voltages he quoted at the time it was clear that they needed a good charging and equalizing and that one might have a dead cell. He did not charge them, resulting in 4 six volt batteries adding up to 17 volts when he connected them in series. I suspected I knew what the problem was and asked if he had read the manual.

“I hooked it up right,” was the answer, but not to what I had asked, so I asked twice more. No, he had not. I braved 4 miles of bone-crushing gullies, terraces and switchbacks to get to his cabin to take a look. He had hooked it up right, as he’d claimed, but it was settled in on 12.8v, which is fine for a 12v system and a real problem for 24v. He could not find the manual, of course. I suspected the charge controller had autodetected the system voltage as a well-charged 12v system and proceeded to run the battery down to 12v overnight.

We hot wired two panels directly to the batteries to get them charging. I left him with instructions to let them get up to a bit over 30v so they could equalize and desulphate and to keep an eye on the water levels. Batteries that dead should have taken a few days, but he was impatient. By Sunday morning the voltage level had come up to 27 volts and he was ready to hook up the charge controller and inverter. That is not what I had prescribed, but it would not hurt anything and might save some damage that could occur if he went away, leaving the batteries unregulated.

I stopped by about 6:00 Sunday afternoon and Stan was a happy camper. I poked at the charge controller and saw that the battery was still taking

50 watts, even as the tall trees up the valley slope were shading his panels. He’d had some of his inner circle over and they’d inaugurated the new 24 volt power system by making daiquiris! It was clear they’d been successful in that endeavor.

He still has 8 more panels and another charge controller to connect before it is done. When he moves his Flexmax 60 over from the 12v system it will be just the ticket for getting those batteries equalized because it can be manually set up for a thorough job, unlike a lot of other controllers that give a mild boost on a daily basis.

By the way, I found the manual online and his charge controller autodetects a 24v battery in a range of 18-30v, so it really did think it was dealing with a 12v battery. Whether you buy your batteries new or used, charge them up before storing and again before putting them into service. Just sitting around discharged is bad for them and confusing to a charge controller. RTFM (read the fine manual).

As for what you use to test your new power system, a blender is as good a start as any.

By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 116

Time to Hang it Up!

I like wristwatches, especially ones with classic art deco styling. I quit wearing them when I had my hands in commercial radio transmitters a lot. Other people got away from wristwatches for a while, having their phone has an accurate timekeeper, but watches are making a comeback. They are becoming quite the investment, too.

If you have a Patek Phillipe Grand Complications Celestial model, you probably have your people work on your solar system. I leave the Girard Perregaux Gyromatic in the watch box when I am just knocking about, preferring one of my big Timex Weekender variants because I can see the contrasty face with my iffy eyes. Whatever is on your wrist, maybe it shouldn’t be when you are working on your solar power, or any electrical equipment.

One of my pieces of safety equipment is a long screw on a low rafter, off to the side of my control panel. You could use a nail or, if you have a finished room, maybe something civilized like a Shaker peg. That’s to hang the watch on, along with any rings or other metallic accessories you might have.

Whether it is a Timex or a Tourbillon, hang it up when working around power.

Getting a watch into solar string voltages will make for a real nice conductor, allowing you a fairly quick, if agonizing death. A 12v battery might well weld you into the circuit and give you an awful burn. The nylon or leather straps on two of my Weekenders make them smaller targets, but targets just the same. Getting into a 24v circuit with a Twist-o-Flex you might be able to save the hand if you are fast enough. The heavy stainless bracelet on my Wittnauer or my Lord Elgin in contact with a 48v circuit might well just burn the hand off as the band vaporized.

Sorry to sound so gory, but safety is no accident. In this case, prevention costs a couple of cents for a nail and a few seconds of your time. Hang up that Portugieser and get to work!

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By: Neal Collier

Reverend David's Solar Freezer 118

Why not?

I figure anybody who has built a solar power system has good reason to take pride in their work. I know I am proud of mine, but now I am a little dismayed. My system is just a solar-roofed shed. It is practical and it works, which is fine, but now I have seen that others with a little more room and a bigger budget are also having fun with their systems. I am jealous.For example, there is a Duke installation at Disney Orlando, like you couldn’t figure that out for yourself.

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And what is the national symbol of China? The Panda. There are over 100 panda-themed solar power stations in the works. The photo below is a design rendering, but this station is now on line. They use different panel coatings to get the shading.

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Fiji is getting in on the panda craze, too, though this one looks crudely photoshopped.

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And here’s a nice one in the “heart” of New Caledonia.

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Y’all make some solar power, but let’s have some fun with it, too!By: Neal Collier


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