Firmware Update and New Capabilities

Back when I worked for a living, I was the hardware guy and my partner was the software guy. Tom and I would get together and spec out a new product. I would design and build the circuit board, then hand it off to him to program in the features. Knowing each other well, it worked well.

Back when I was doing field service, I did not intimately know the hardware that someone else designed and neither did the programmers. There was always the tendency of one side to blame the other when something peculiar was happening. Oh, smoking circuit board or howling hard drive was clearly mine and a lot of flashing lights and blank screens after a software update was pretty much a ball in the programmer’s court. Then there is the tricky stuff and suspicion builds.

Today, pretty much everything from your microwave oven to your inverter has a microprocessor in it and things like this have a variation of programming in there called firmware. Some are not as firm as others as you’ll find keypads and SD cards or Bluetooth so you can go in and change the program. One of my inverters is dumb as a rock, as far as being programmable goes. It has a couple of jumper for things like choosing 50 Hz or 60 Hz. Other than that it just turns 48 vdc into 240 vac. Nothing more. Simple. The microprocessor just sits there making sine waves.

My pair of 6048 Sunny Island inverters goes the opposite direction. It is programmable up one side and down the other. Flexible. Handy, I guess, but it scares me to death. There are ominous warnings about not pulling out the SD cards. I have changed the programming a bit, but it is doing what I need it to do, so I generally leave it alone.

Cory’s Outback GS8048a pair is another that is highly programmable and it needed programming when we revived it from retirement. We wanted it to work with the grid when we needed it, run on battery and sunshine when we had it and never, ever sell back to the grid, which would bring the white bucket trucks to his driveway.

This involved dire measures…I had to read the book. There was a bundle of stuff in a plastic sleeve on top of the inverter, but it became apparent that something was missing. We got the inverter running for a while, but were not really satisfied with the available operating modes. The full manuals that we downloaded from Outback (no excuses, you can have the manual on your phone) were frustrating in that they described modes and menus that his inverter did not have. This was an older machine, so I reluctantly decided to do a firmware update.

My innate distrust of software people and experience with clunky and unreliable procedures made me hesitant, but I proceeded with caution. First off, I went online to Outback’s Support page and it was a breeze to download the files. The only tricky bit was the Mate3 programming interface. Was it a Mate3 or a Mate3S? Judging from the photo, I thought it was a Mate3S, which proudly displays its programming wheel. The Mate3 does not. Well, it does not unless somebody took off the plastic cover and left it off. I remembered the plastic cover on a shelf and chose Mate3.

The Scruffy Old Batteries in the Foreground Still Work and We Are Going to Get the Most Out of Them

The support page recommended updating the Mate3 before updating the inverter. What’s the Mate3? The Outback system has one or more inverters that will invert, if left alone. It also has a communication block so that other Outback goodies, like FlexMax charge controllers, can coordinate their activities. The Mate3 is the master control panel. It is used to set parameters, load update and save backups of the settings.

This one did not have a card, so Cory’s job was to find one. A small one. 2GB cards are hard to find, so I think he ended up with 32GB. I went through a pro photographer stage early in the digital revolution and have lots of smaller cards from the older cameras. Some of the huge cards reportedly won’t work. I copied the downloaded files to two 2GB SD cards, one for the mate and one for the GS8048a. Files go in the root of the card, not in the folder that was downloaded. That was easy enough, but then I worried about whether the inverters were GS8048 or GS8048a. The two models are not the same and not “close enough”. There is no label on the outside. At Cory’s, we popped off the front cover to view the ID plate and it was indeed the “A” variant.

No more excuses. Show time.

To program the Mate3 first, the SD card is plugged into the slot on the side of the Mate3. The top of the card faces away from you. I punched the LOCK button, dialled up the password, and scrolled through menus to an item that was clearly meant to update the Mate3. Punch the GO button in the middle of the dial and it’s off to the races. While it was programming, a small girl in a swim suit came by, carrying a large chicken. The chicken was perfectly content with the free ride. Life as usual, out in the country. It took a little longer than expected, but it was obvious when programming was finished.

Mate card out and inverter card in. Find the inverter update in the menu and press GO. It happens…and then it happens again. There are two inverters stacked in this system and they are programmed sequentially. It happens and the fans all come on as the beast resets itself. Gee, that wasn’t so scary after all!

Now, into the menus to set the parameters. You never know what will be remembered and what will be forgotten. We got red fault lights. Apparently it forgot it could and needed to handle 50 amps of AC input and settled in on 1.7amps. Yeah, like you can do much with that. More button pushing and we had no more flashing lights and lots of amps. Now, to see if the menus included modes in the new manual. They did…and more. There was an even newer version of the manual, which I had not yet read.

We selected the MiniGrid mode, which lets you run on solar and battery when available and switch over at night when our punky battery gives out. Intriguing, was the GridZero mode. I decided to let that one alone until I read up on it.

The big surprise was the huge power draw we observed when the inverters came on line. We don’t have the house connected. The lights in the hangar were on the inverter and so was the camper out back. Some friends have been staying in a camper while hunting for a new house. This has gone on for a while and the power bills have been high. Really high. FPL high. Last visit, before it started getting really warm, I’d see maybe 2500-3500 watts being burned, but today it was between 3500 and 7500. Wow. I have to have the central air and the clothes dryer going for my house to hit 7500 watts. We decided to hold off on switching power to the house, too. All I know is that when the friends get their new house and Cory’s solar is running full time, he is going to see a heckuva drop in his power bill. If he can come up with another 1000ah of battery capacity, the bill will be trivial.

So, back to the manual and this GridZero mode. Did you ever get excited over a firmware update? Me neither, until now. As I read it, in GZ mode, the AC grid power is never disconnected, like it is in the MiniGrid mode and it never switches on when the battery is low. The grid stays connected, but just kind of rides along with the the inverter, stepping in to help, only when needed. What that means is, when the battery is a little low on a cloudy day, if the air conditioner kicks on with its big starting surge, the inverter will not drop out in favor of the grid. The grid just makes up the difference in what the battery can’t do until that surge is past and you get to continue using the stored sunshine power. Furthermore, there is no little blink that you get when the inverter switches power sources in other modes. How cool is that?

In essence, Outback has built in Zero Export Grid Tie and off grid in one package! ZEGT is one of the best tools available for combating the anti-solar policies we see coming from more and more power companies. With GZ mode, you can stay running off grid after a storm, but maximize the available capacity of your batteries.

I LIKE IT! Maybe the software guys aren’t so bad, after all.

–Neal

Pump it Up, With Solar

I told you when I was working on a couple of small solar projects for The Alger-Sullivan Historical Society’s park. We had our Sawmill Day Festival and fundraiser this past week and all went well. The blacksmith shop/mill/tool museum building had its solar-powered lights on for 2 days straight with no issues. The lion’s head fountain, with solar powered pump delighted young and old. The trolley to bring folks to and from the parking area was not available this year, so two solar-powered golf car conversions ran taxi. Solar was a big hit, though few even realized the sun was at work.

I want to ramble on a bit about pumping water. There are plenty of applications for solar water pumping, particularly in agriculture for filling stock tanks. If you are close enough to a line, our power company will connect your service pole and it will cost you over $40 per month whether you use any electricity or not. If you have a big spread, like those in Texas or south Florida, that could add up. Or for that matter, you might need water where there are no power lines. Solar to the rescue. The principles are pretty much the same as my fountain job, just up-sized a bit.

I did not finish the fountain job in its final form. All of the pumps I ordered came in time, but some looked to be of dubious quality. Submersible pump. Is that like the Made in China submersible boat trailer lights I bought? They were submersible, but did not work after they got wet. Anyway, what I had was working well, so I decided to hold off on the final product until I would have time to play.

The first consideration is to find a pump that fits your need. Does it have to go down into a well? Does it suck water from a pond or cistern? How high does it have to lift? How much water does it need to pump in a day? We were just recirculating water, but it had to push up about 6 feet to the release point. Flow rate was not important. A farm stock tank may be drawing water from a well and pushing it up to the surface. That might be 15 feet or it might be 150 feet. The tank might need one thousand gallons a day if you have a herd of thirsty cattle. The one I used on the fountain was more than enough, so I bought a new pump with less capacity AND less power draw. We’ll see how that works.

A Submersible Well Pump. 24V. I have not had good luck with this brand.

A solar water pump project at my house does not involve much of a well. It is just a basin that is filled by a natural spring. It then is pumped about 120 feet up the hill to a series of water tanks and to the house. I wanted a solar backup because when the water-powered hydraulic ram pump fails, it always does so when it is cold, wet or I don’t otherwise want to go fix the problem, which is usually minor. The pump currently online is over a hundred years old, so they are generally pretty dependable. My first two electric pumps were submersible well pumps. Made in China, they worked very well until they got wet. After the second one, I caught on and changed the plan. There are some American pumps that cost 6x more that work well, but I had to learn the hard way. Plan B is a variant of a ShurFlo diaphragm pump, but it is not yet installed. In both cases, the pumps were fed with a bank of solar panels with enough power that they would run the pump without batteries. That is sometimes a lot more panels than you’d need with batteries, but I’ll get into that in a minute.

A Water-Powered Pump, Over a Century Old

What I am talking about for pumps are DC powered pumps. With brushes. I am starting to see brushless DC pumps and am curious as to how they will work with a variable supply. So far, so good. Using an AC pump is not so good for a number of reasons, which boil down to dollars. A couple of panels and a pump is cheaper than a couple of panels, batteries, inverter and pump. Furthermore, it seems like DC pumps are easier to get started, meaning an AC pump might need an oversized inverter. The only advantage of batteries and, optionally, an AC system is that the pump could run at night. Fine, but it’ll cost you.

ShurFlo Diaphragm Pump.

Our fountain is in a terrible place for solar, with oak trees all over, but it works! This is partly because the 10 watt motor is powered by a 68 watt source., two 34 watt six volt panels in series. It’ll run in the shade. If you are pumping water in the middle of a pasture, you’ll likely not have to deal with shade, but you will have cloudy days and there is the extra bit needed just to get the pump started. This can be compensated, to a point with more panels, BUT there is a handy little gadget made for just this issue. It is sometimes called a Linear Current Booster or a Solar Pump Controller. They are available on Ebay, Amazon, some solar suppliers and farm stores. But let me explain what they do.

Put a solar panel in the shade on a sunny day, with no load, and then put a meter on the leads to check the voltage. It’ll probably be pretty close to what the label says. Then put a load equal to, say, half the panel rating and you will see the voltage drop WAY down. That would be too wimpy to start the pump. So what you see is a gradually rising current as the sun comes up and when it clears the trees you have full power and the pump runs. Put lots of panels in parallel and it will start sooner, but the Current Booster has a neat trick it does that can save you the price of some extra panels and puts fewer panels in the way of hail, hurricane or vandals AND can make the pump run more.

What it does is it allows weak current from the shaded panel to charge a capacitor, which acts like a small battery, and when it reaches a certain point, the pump gets a burst of energy that gets it started. Running current is usually a lot less and you may get the pump to run continuously, if a bit slower. Otherwise, it will run in bursts. Once the sun is out in full, the pump just runs.

If filling a stock tank for the cattle, or a gravity tank for a cabin, you can just let them overflow or you can put in a float switch to avoid making mud. Another way to avoid making mud is to divert overflow to a garden. By the way, IBC totes make dandy gravity water tanks, mounted on a stand.

The Water Has to Go Somewhere. This is an Easy 600 Gallon Water Tower.

If pumping into a pressure tank, you’ll need a pressure cutoff switch, too. This should be obvious, but there is an old mansion of the outskirts of Century, Florida, that used a locomotive as its water reservoir. It was pumped by a water ram, like mine, without any provision for pressure relief or cutoff. The old timers said it was quite a commotion the night that boiler blew up. For more recent examples, I have seen several 80 gallon fiberglass tanks blown up. You have been warned.

In conclusion, you can use solar to pump water for a number of purposes, with minimal equipment and at a great savings over a conventional power company hookup.

–Neal

Solar Laminates?

Every now and then I cruise through John’s inventory to see what he has in stock. Solar panel availability is getting tight around the country, but John always seems to come up with something. Sometimes it is something strange! Like solar laminates. He has them!

What’s a solar laminate? Well, take a look at a PV module, or solar panel, and most often you see an aluminum frame with the glass stuff mounted in there. The back side has a black plastic junction box with wires sticking out. When they are assembling panels, the business end of it is the laminate, the big glass thing. It is called a laminate because there are layers of glass, clear sticky plastic, silicon wafers and more sticky plastic on the back….all laminated into one assembly. You find these sometimes when a maker goes out of business or has to shut down a line before assembly is finished.

What can you do with them? You can put a junction box on the back and then get creative as to how to mount it. You might find some creative way of gluing it to the roof of your motor home. Maybe get some of the clamps they use with the First Solar thin film panels, which are a lot like laminates. Or you can use the polycarbonate channel used to hold glass in greenhouses.

The Black Thing With Wires is the Junction Box.

I have told before of an encounter I had with laminates, but since John has some in stock, I’ll tell it again. First, let me add the disclaimer, “Don’t Try This At Home!”

It started with a call from my friend Courtney. That’s always trouble. It has been so since kindergarten. Anyway, he’d acquired a bunch of laminates, because they were cheaper than regular panels. That’s key with him. He has plenty of money…because he doesn’t spend much. He was going to use them to cover his pergola, his backyard cookout refuge. OK, that sounds good, but his pergola was arched. Courtney said the salesman told him the laminates were flexible, so he was going to bend them over the arch!

Wait just a minute. My Chevrolet is flexible, too, but that doesn’t mean something bad won’t happen if I run a stop sign. Sure, glass is a little flexible, but bending it on purpose? I had my concerns, but I got in the truck and off I went to South Carolina.

By the time I got there, he had come up with some purple wood from South America that we milled into bows to go over top of the pergola. The stuff is supposed to never rot. It was so stiff it was actually harder to bend than the glass.

I spent an afternoon attaching junction boxes. Thin strips come out the back of the laminate and these clamp into terminals in the box. The box is glued to the back with silicone sealer. Using a little silicone is fairly neat, but after the first dozen it is getting messy and you wish you were doing something else. Around Courtney, though, be careful what you wish for.

Greenhouse H Channel. Screws With Fender Washers Go Through the Middle.

We used polycarbonate greenhouse channel, wood screws and every stainless steel fender washer the local Ace Hardware could dig up. We’d slip on the channel, bend everything down to the bows and put in the screws. Every time, I just knew that panel was going to explode and spray glass shards in my phase, but they never did.

That Boy Ain’t Right-But it Worked!

I forget the final count, looks like maybe 18 laminates, fed into a dual channel Sunny Boy grid tie inverter, a disconnect and a new meter. South Carolina had a great grid tie rate and solar subsidy plan in which the total system cost ended up being pretty much zero, if you don’t count all the time doing paperwork. As a bonus, he could now stay dry when grilling on a rainy day.

The upshot is that solar laminates can be good cheap fun if you are fearless. Or a little crazy. And if 2 old guys can take on a project like this, what’s your excuse? Hmm?

–Neal

EJ’s Solar Dilemma

Florida’s governor just vetoed a bill that would have made solar a really stupid choice, at least with grid tie. The bill had been watered down a good bit, but it was still very much anti solar. A similar, but much worse, proposal is still up in the air for California and there are bad deals all over the country.

Just this morning I read a story of folks in Mississippi who spent a bunch of money on solar, with government encouragement, only to find there was little or no money saved. We have a local example with EJ, my neighbor.

As I have mentioned before, we are on a power co-op, supposedly run by the members. Instead, it is run by a small group, it does not have to abide by Public Service Commission laws and it has managed to immunize itself from lawsuits by its members. This is a recipe for trouble and troubles we have.

EJ was sold a tidy little system of just over 8kw, with 16 panels on the east roof and 16 more on the west. Conventional wisdom would have them facing south, but that can’t happen with EJ’s house. Besides, east-west actually works great!

The house is an older one of cinder block construction, which was a popular building choice in the past, but not very energy efficient. Cooking and hot water are gas. Since moving in, he has taken countermeasures to improve the energy efficiency, including windows, roof and siding upgrades. All well and good, but the bills still go up. The silver-tongued salesman announced that solar was the solution.

In some places, most any kind of solar solution will do, but most places, grid tie is not ideal. In our area, grid tie is a really bad idea and after EJ signed the contract it only got worse. Here’s the deal. He pays $120 per month to the solar financier for pretty much forever, given his age. Solar power offsets his daylight loads and excess is bought by the power company. Sounds ok, right? Wait, there’s more.

In some areas, the difference between what you make and what you use is the basis for billing. In a few places, the power company will pay the same as what they bill you for every KWH and that is a very good deal. One fellow we’ve mentioned in this blog actually runs at a profit in Texas and one in South Carolina pretty much broke even. Usually, though, the power company will pay less than what they charge, but still on a net difference. Not so, here, and there have been other recent changes, since EJ got the installation. Our co-op tallies every outgoing kilowatt-hour for payment and every incoming KWH separately. Worse, they pay only a penny per KWH while charging much more.

Bad, huh? On top of that they charge a steep fee for the solar connection. The fee seems to be based on capacity, as neighbor Brad says he pays an extra 80 bucks for his big system and EJ says his is $40. The co-op finally connected his solar at a time that really accentuates the issue. In the February to April time frame we have overall temperatures that do not require much a/c or heat. So EJ sees a credit that might buy him lunch at Denny’s…if he has an AARP card. That is much smaller than the extra $40 he is charged for the privilege of donating power to the company. Oh, and there’s the $120 he pays the solar company. It is pretty clear to see that solar is not saving him money.

What to do about it? EJ was blaming the solar company for his dilemma. They are partly to blame, yes, but the power company changed the rules between the time the panels arrive and the time they were finally turned on. Where I blame most solar companies is in concentrating on straight grid tie.

Can anything be done to fix this? Let’s see. First of all, the situation will improve when the weather gets hot. We’re having temperatures in the mid 80s, now, so a/c units are being run a little. Come summer, temps will be in the 90s or higher during the day and about 80 at night. The a/c will really be buzzing, especially at EJ’s, because he likes to keep it at 72 degrees. The solar will completely offset his daytime a/c, but won’t help a bit at night, when he likes it cooler. I suggested using a programmable thermostat to just ice down the house during the solar hours and back off at night, compensating with the ceiling fan in the bedroom. That is going to be his best bet.

An energy audit is in order, too. You don’t have to call in a pro for that. You can get plenty of DIY advice on that online. Where I suggest he look is at his 3 refrigerators, checking that they are in good working order and not set excessively cold. A Kill-A-Watt or other portable power meter is helpful in this. Also, it seems he leaves his shop lights on most of the time. Swapping out the fluorescents for LEDs will help.

I don’t know all of the details on his system–EJ is kind of private–but I have learned some details. The grid tie was installed in what may be the worst possible for modification. Instead of a master inverter in the utility room, each panel has its own micro inverter. There is hope in that some microinverters have communication and even islanding provisions. This is of limited value as only a fraction of the panel capacity can be used and every puffy little cloud has the potential to shut it down.

Let me back up a second. A microinverter is a little module that fits behind the solar panel, taking, say, 40 volts from the solar module and connecting it to a 240v power cable. There is no easier way to use solar in your house.

Islanding is the ability to provide that 240 volts to your house to keep the fridge and other loads going even when the power lines are down.

EJ mentions he has an app he can use to monitor production. That’s good, meaning there is a communication controller in the system. Even better, the communication controller may be able to work with a box and sensor coils that could convert his system to Zero Export. With this, he would not be able to sell power back to the grid (there goes lunch at Denney’s), but it would allow him to eliminate the grid tie fees with the power company, saving him that expense.

We’ll watch the situation as the weather gets warmer and see if the audit and modest changes make enough difference to may him happier about the system. If not, we’ll look into what might be done to modify the system at minimum cost.

–Neal

I Pulled the Plug

It has been a long time coming, but I finally pulled the plug on the power co-op. I have long had enough solar power and more than enough inverter power, but battery was lacking and so was buried copper. Then there was the matter of the Round Tuit. I finally got around to it.

Batteries came to me last year. 3000-4000 amp-hours is a good place to be, but for how long? The batteries are strong, but they are about 8 years old. I am hoping for 15 years, but will be ever vigilant for battery opportunities.

There is all kinds of stuff buried in my yard and I am doubtful I can cut another trench without cutting some of the existing pipes and cables, so I sought to repurpose some of what I had. One cable, good for about 100 amps, was bringing DC power into the Zero Export Grid Tie experiment. That had been a successful project, but it just did not go far enough. That freed up the cable, some hardware and 16 golf car batteries.

Some of the Hardware That Came Out to Reclaim a cable for the New Transfer Switch Feed

Ok, remove the 2kw solar feed at the Solar Shed and install a 6 gauge jumper to the AC power bus. That end was done! Now, how to get the power into the house? I do not enjoy crawling under houses or boring holes through walls and floors, so maybe I could use an existing cable. Yes, I could!

Because in an earlier life I was running most of my house on a 5kw inverter, I had installed a lockout so that only one of the two central air units would run at a time. That left a 30 amp line from an external disconnect to the breaker box. With the aid of a very clever mechanism, shown below. I was able to turn my main breaker and that a/c breaker into a transfer switch. All I needed now was a 12′ whip cable to go from the a/c disconnect to the auxiliary power (aka “Generator”) disconnect. Pre-made cables are 6′, so I had to make a trip to Home Depot.

Convert your main breaker box into a transfer switch. A clever lockout device allows you to select grid or alternate power source. The main breaker is locked OFF and the top left breaker can be turned on to provide solar or generator power. Both breakers cannot be on at the same time. These transfer conversion kits are available on Ebay or Amazon for most panel models.

Some of you who are paying attention might note that I only have a 30 amp circuit here. To run the whole house? Nope. Having said that, though, the idea of Code making you put in service capacity of 200 amps and up is overkill.

Another breaker in the main panel has long gone to an “essential services” transfer switch. The load here started out with all the lights and the kitchen. (This was initiated while the house was under construction and a hurricane left the lines down for 4 days. The initial setup was a Trace PS2524 and 8 golf car batteries for backup. No solar.) A few outlets have been added so the TV and other paraphernalia , like a freezer and two more refrigerators can operate. This was all done on a 40 amp circuit, with ease. The two a/c compressors have no connection at all to the house or breaker box, powered directly from the solar shed. Inside, about the only things not on the essential line were the electric range, the air handlers and the laundry room. The only chance of popping the breaker on the new line would come if clothes were in the dryer when the stove was running on all burners. So far, so good. I just have to be careful about asking my wife NOT to cook. If it becomes an issue, I can bore some holes, crawl under the house and pull in a bigger cable.

A Pair of Sunny Islands, by SMA are my Primary Inverter

Another issue to watch in the coming months is inverter capacity. In addition to the house loads, the shop is charging 3 electric vehicles, running power tools and, in the Man Cave, there’s a home theater and more air conditioning. I have two power systems in parallel. A pair of SMA Sunny Island inverters producing 12kw is running the whole house and is the only inverter available to the new transfer switch. Another transfer switch in the Solar Shed lets me connect either the Sunny pair or a homebrew10kw inverter to the essential line. If capacity is an issue, I can run BOTH inverters, one to each circuit, for a total capacity of 22kw. If that should fail, there’s an automatic Kubota diesel generator and a manual Honda generator. The Honda will be living in the space vacated by the old grid tie system. Oh, yeah, and I can always flip back to the grid.

A Diesel, LP or Natural Gas Generator is a Good Backup. Gasoline is better than nothing.

Would I recommend such a screwy setup for you? No. Why do I have such a screwy system? Because it is an accumulation of things that have happened over 30 years, rather than the result of a plan. Capacity increased. Goals expanded. The next phase of work will be to clean it up and make it a bit more conventional.

Hubbell Connectors are the Standard in Generator Connection

What I would recommend to most anyone, is to have a transfer switch and generator circuit professionally installed. Make it 50 amps or better. That makes it easy to connect a conventional generator or your new and ever growing solar generator.

Something you need to do if you have solar or a generator is to make use of safety placards. The fire department does not like to spray water on a house full of live electrical conductors. I made some up with a home printer. You can get decal paper or use regular paper and weatherproof it by spraying with clear coat. Something like “House is Equipped With Automatic SILENT Backup Power Generator, Pull Disconnect Around Corner on Generator Shed.” is appropriate for my house.

Don’t Forget the Safety Placards. You can buy Premade Online or Custom Make Your Own

Two weeks in, I have not needed to reconnect or use the generator. There are compromises in how we operate, such as charging vehicles and drying clothes only during the daytime, but things are going well. I’ll write another time on compromises and you’ll see some of that in other articles, as well.

–Neal

Brad's garage and many kw

Lowering Brad’s Power Bill

27 kw of solar panels, 3Tesla Powerwalls and a power bill still over $300. What went wrong?

We are at a weird time of year when we are using very little heating or a/c, if any. Bills are usually low. Brad’s have never been low. First of all, the power company changed the rules. They added a bump in the basic fee for grid-tie. Second, they lowered the pay rate. He has a basic rate of $80, plus numerous taxes, and they only paid him around $13 for his excess power. This is happening all over the country, folks. Still, the bill was “only” $378 that time. It has been as much as a thousand. The pricey Powerwall batteries are not very big, but they really help.

Part of the problem is the “facility”. When I moved here, the house was a simple A-frame affair, owned by a retired Naval officer named Les. Chuck then bought the place and turned it into a facility for his corporate entertaining. Many was the time I heard live bands and fireworks, but did Chuck invite me over? I never actually met the guy. Then came Brad. He wanted a place he could raise animals and the place had plenty of room. Sure, there was more than he and his roommate need, but it is a great place, with rolling acres and fishponds. The power bill was absolutely sensational, averaging around $800 per month. What the heck?

I said that Chuck had enlarged the place and outfitted it for entertaining. In addition to the main house, which is probably 3 bedrooms, there is the pool, the smokehouse, the boat house and the garage. The 5 car garage also sports 3 bedrooms, a banquet hall, a gym, an office and, and, and. There are multiple bars and kitchens, sporting at least 6 refrigerators and 2 freezers. Yeah, you could host a heckuva party. To tame the temperature, there are 5 central air systems plus a window a/c in the office.

Start adding that up and you could see why there might be a big power bill. Here’s the thing, the last time I visited, Brad’s phone app indicated a continuous load of around 4kw. The kitchen uses gas, so food prep was not an issue. Water heater is gas. Nobody was doing dishes or laundry. None of the heat pumps were running. A PC and the window unit were running in the office. The pool pump was running. 4kw? My place runs about a tenth of that.

A neat solar installation at Brad’s

First thing I noted was that the timer on the pool pump was broken and the motor was running continuousely. 1kw. That leaves 3kw. I suggested to Brad that he buy a Kill-a-Watt meter to check those fridges. Alternatively, he could watch his app and start flipping breakers to see where the power was going.

I would just about bet that one or more of the refrigerators or freezers has a bad defrost circuit. Many years ago, when rates were cheaper, I had 2 different fridges with bad defrost and either could add $70 to the power bill. They’ll either freeze up and run all the time, which isn’t too bad, or the defrost heater and the compressor both run all the time. That”ll really get you. Also likely, the thermostats could be set wrong.

My recommendations:

Fix the pool pump. Set it to run only during the day to use up that grid tie power. Daytime is the only time the sun is trying to turn the pool green, anyway.

Check all of the refrigerators and freezers for proper operation and temperature. I recently bought a 3 pack of fridge thermometers to keep track of my fridges for about 10 bucks. (I don’t know any country folk with one fridge.)

Get a programmable thermostat for each of the heat pumps. Disable the “Emergency Heat” coils. During cooling season, run the temperature way cool during the day and back off at night. During heating season, run it very warm during the day and back off at night. Thermal mass of the house can store some of that temperature. The battery will last longer during the night before switching to grid power.

Call the solar guy and have him turn OFF the SELL or GRID-TIE Function and then call the power company to tell them you don’t want to pay them to take your electricity anymore.

Brad will save on heating, cooling, pool pumping and the $80 grid tie fee. I’ll let you know when he gets everything done. If he still is using too much power, he can add more battery.

–Neal

Beware of Solar Sales Pitches and the Whims of Your Power Company

Two of my neighbors got solar power systems. They were completely different setups and the results were very different. Neither neighbor is very happy about his situation.

Brad’s system is BIG. 27kw, with 3 Tesla Powerwalls and a propane generator for backup. The modules are all facing west, because of trees on the neighboring property. It is a hybrid grid-tie system, meaning sun power fills up the batteries, runs the house and then any left over goes to the grid. At night, the batteries keep the lights on until the battery bank gets punky and then switches to grid. It knocked about $500 a month off his bill, but his last bill was $378. Spend $120,000 on a system and you are thinking the power bill is gonna go away. Maybe not. The power company gave him only $13 for his excess power and billed a bunch for the connection.

Then there’s EJ. His is a straight grid tie system, 8+Kw. 16 panels to the east and 16 more to the west. Each panel has its own microinverter, so there is no master panel with a big inverter. Just a breaker. This is a super simple way of doing a system, though I think a master inverter is cheaper and, depending on model, may offer other options. EJ isn’t sure if his bill went up or down. Usage is hard to gauge this time of year in our area. He suspects his bill is up.

What went wrong?

Salesmen may not outright lie to you…not always…but they will always give you the good points and might overlook the negatives. Then, sometimes, the rules change. I think that happened here.

Brad’s system got turned on 16 months ago. He noticed the rule change and the bump in his bill. EJ’s system got turned on just as the new rule went into effect. Brad says he is being charged $80 a month just for the use of the grid tie. It did not look that much to me and EJ says he did not think it was that much, but he agrees that he is being charged for the privilege of sending power to the power company. To add insult to injury, the billing is not based on the net difference between what he consumes and what he exports. They give him a penny for every kilowatt-hour he sends out and then he has to pay around 12 cents to get it back at night. The net result is that EJ may actually have a higher bill with solar than without.

Our power company is not under the Florida Public Service Commission regs, so we generally get a raw deal. The PSC recently tried to enact regs very similar to our co-op’s, but ended up with a phased in change for existing grid-tie users. New users get screwed. This is happening all over the country, with California simultaneously mandating solar and making it a ridiculous choice. There are ways my neighbors can improve their situations.

In Brad’s case, he can call his solar company and have them turn off grid export. Next, call the power company and tell them where they can put their grid-tie meter (on the big white truck). Any excess power will be wasted, but he will not have the grid-tie fee, which is higher than his production. If he gets a few bucks ahead he can add more Powerwalls. The more battery he has, the closer he will be to 24/7 on sun power. There’s more, too.

EJ has more of a disadvantage. There is a good chance that his microinverters are compatible with a communication controller. Heck, it may already have one. I don’t know because he has a dog that would really like to chew on me and two more that would probably bow to peer pressure and join him. Anyway, some of these communications controllers can be fitted with sensor coils in the main breaker panel to prevent export. He could then tell the power company to shove that grid-tie meter back on the big white truck. Changing a few habits like doing the power chores like a/c and clothes drying and baking during the sunlit hours would offset the power company input by a lot AND he’d be rid of the extra fees. Getting into battery storage would be tricky and likely involve a good bit of expense. The most effective change would be to ditch the microinverters and add batteries and a hybrid inverter. Unfortunately, that would cost a bunch and add to the $120/month he is paying for the hardware he has.

Both of these guys have another problem with their bills. They use too much power. Seriously, something is wrong. We are looking into that and I will report on that investigation and the progress they make.

–Neal

Solar Blacksmith Shop?

One of our museum buildings needed power. Solar was the right choice.

I am a trustee of The Alger-Sullivan Historical Society. We formed to preserve the memories of the sawmill heritage of the town of Century, Florida. We started with stories. And more stories. We discovered Indian and Spanish colonial history in addition to the sawmill era. History is interesting when it happened here! Then we acquired property. Then artifacts just started showing up. Our first museum building was the town’s first free-standing Post Office. People would leave stuff on the porch and we added it to the collection. Over time, through generous donations of labor and money, we added a house, a garden, a steam train and the blacksmith shop.

Wiring of the complex kind of just grew…and got destroyed. During our Sawmill Day festival , our big fundraiser, vendors would sometimes drive overly long tent stakes to hold down their shelters. They hit multiple powerlines in multiple places and got the waterline to the fountain. No power to the storage building. No power to the railroad museum in the boxcar. No water or power to the lion’s head. I have no idea why nobody got shocked. Old Neal got tired of hand digging trenches (a power trencher would probably find more stuff to break) and stuffing conduit with stiff cable.

John Kimble, Sun Electronics’ El Hefe, and I sometimes have a conversation about whether solar power is cost effective. The answer is, “Depends.” Lots of variables. In this case, it was a no-brainer. Clearly, a direct power line to the building that displays a blacksmith shop and gristmills would be imperiled with the threat of impalement. Then there is the added cost of routing the line along brick walls and walks to avoid damage. Oh, and the issue of finding a volunteer to dig the trench. I think I am the 3rd youngest member of the outfit at age 68. Nope, there is no money to hire it.

So solar it was. The volunteers from the Lions Club and Bondurant’s Hardware who built the structure included standard AC (alternating current) wiring before the walls got closed up. At least I THINK it was them who wired it. Sometimes stuff just gets done and nobody’ll admit who dunnit! At the last Sawmill Day festival, I plugged the building into one of my golf cars for power and everything worked. The solar will be permanent and when the museum is open on Saturdays, visitors will be able to see the displays better with the lights on. Why the big push? After a 2 year Sawmill Day hiatus, in deference to the recent plague, the park is in shambles and the coffers are low. We are having a fix up, clean up push to have a Sawmill Day the first Saturday in May. Yikes!

My wife discovered this fountain decades ago when we acquired the property. Last weekend she discovered it again, pulling down 2 years of vines from neglect during Covid times. I am working on getting the fountain solarized, of course. So far, the lion resists having a plastic tube shoved down its throat. Someone made off with the old copper tube.

Here’s what happened. I went out midweek with a load of stuff. I always leave something out, but you have to start somewhere, right? First problem was of the 2 pounds of keys I had I still did not have the key to the supply room, so I had no ladder to get onto the roof. No problem. Park the Avalanche at the roof line and clamber up. So I clambered up with 2 solar panels, a power drill, power screwdriver, caulk gun and a bucket of hardware. Well, naturally, there was more than one clambering and I find that with advancing years I am not as fond of clambering as I once was. The ladder would have been better. Nonetheless, let this assure you that age is not a big issue with a small project like this.

The panels were some real oddballs. They are first class GE panels of 65 watts. What’s odd is the open output voltage is 10v and they are an odd shape. I think they were an attempt at solar roof tiles, but not a good effort for that. Still, nice and useful panels. The 10 volt output means that you need two of them to charge a 12v battery. So I used two.

I got a phone call from Roberto, one day. “Hey man, I got some funny solar panels John said you might like”. “Sure, send ’em,” was my normal reply. I thought there were two of them, but each box held two, so I had four. Ok, what to do with them? Bro has been wanting a solar awning for his back bedroom. That would be easy. Then this project came along, So, here I am on a roof with these panels.

The park is full of oak trees so I catch my bearings and shoot for the best location. I accounted for the roof overhang and drilled a hole that I thought would put the wires close to the wall. With low voltage DC, it is best to keep the wires short. After wiring the two panels in series, I poked the wires through the roof and pumped in as much caulk as I could. The panels have a line of screw holes on one edge, so I used them. On the panel above the through-hole, I added a bead of caulk to keep water from running under the panel, insurance for keeping the through-hole dry. Each panel had one line of screws and a good wind might flip them, so I used fender washers and long screws to clamp the lower corners. Not ideal, but it’ll work.

Not too obtrusive and in a sunny spot. Mornings, anyway.

Naturally, one of the things I had forgotten was my meter, so I could not double check which was positive and negative. I took that as an omen to take the rest of the day off. Before I left, I hung an old kerosene lantern from the porch rafter. It has been refitted with an LED car bulb to give a quaint look with energy efficiency and reduced fire hazard. The idea here is to have another light on in the park at night.

This vintage lantern now sports an automotive LED bulb instead of a wick.

On my next visit, Saturday, I was better prepared. I screwed a cheapo charge/lighting controller to the rafter near the protruding wires from the panels. The “LOAD” output was run to the porch’s keroLED lantern. This particular controller is to run the light 6 hours after sundown or until the battery needs to be shutdown. I think this rig is big enough to run the light 24/7, but we’ll start small. Next a Romex line was run from the battery terminal to the battery. 12 or 14 gauge wire is plenty safe for the amount of current here, but a little lossy for a 12v installation. The run is short and the 130 watts from the panels is overkill, so I don’t think there will be a problem. 10 gauge would have been better, but in case I did not mention it, this is a budget installation.

The batteries are a couple of 6v SUN230 golf car type models, recently removed from my Zero Export Grid Tied experiment. 230ah hours when fresh. These are rather elderly and not at all fresh. They’ll do just fine. Russell Brown, another member and a real go-getter had built a shelf for the batteries and had built some some faux meal boxes to hide them. He had even placed the batteries, which was fine with me. I have a not-quite-healed broken wrist that makes hefting 65 pound batteries unpleasant.

Those Boxes Hide the Batteries!

Behind and above the batteries I mounted a stub of DIN rail. This is a handy bit of metal to which you can clip gadgets, like fuse holders. I had a couple of 10 amp fuses and that seemed plenty when we are going to run a couple or three one amp bulbs via 20 amp wire. Once connected, the charge controller quickly got the batteries up over 14v and settled into regulation. I now had a 12volt DC power system all ready to go.

Here’ s Bit of DIN Rail with some Breakers Clipped in Place. In the shop we just used a fuseholder.

DIN, by the way, stands for German Industry Standard. Those Germans spell things differently.

Next issue is to figure the best route to interconnect the building and the battery. After a quick study, it appeared to be easier than I had feared. I was running low on wire and…have you priced copper wire, lately? Did I mention we are a budget outfit?

The light in the blacksmith shop is on a switch, but the one in the mill room is always hot, so all I had to do was go up a few feet to the rafters and over a few feet to the fixture. A piece of 12 gauge Romex was fitted with ring terminals and divided by the fuse holder at the battery end. Staples held it in place and I wired into the main line connected to the light. I spent $6 to change out the light fixture with a pull-chain fixture so the light can be turned off. In the light fixtures I installed new 12w LED bulbs with standard Edison bases, less than $5 each. I am trying to get John to stock these bulbs for some of his customers on a budget. Not every system needs an inverter, you know. Black wires are hot in an AC power system, so black became my convention for +12. Tighten up a few screws and we are in business!

The Mill Room, Now With Bright Lighting.
Battery boxes can be seen under the lower edge of the right hopper.

These bulbs are rated at 1050 lumens, so the blacksmith shop is bright, too.

What if we made it even brighter?

With a couple of “Y” adapters from the hardware store, we are now up to 2100 lumen in each room. Had to do something with the extra bulbs in the 5 pack.

Twice as good! The whole works only draws 4 amps and the panels can make over 10.

Saturdays we usually have a crew come in and socialize or do some work around the place. We usually have some people drive in from US29 to see the museum, so someone will take a break and give a tour. Most of our crew was at a local festival across the state line in Flomaton, hawking our books and panhandling, so there were only 3 of us at the museum. We had 3 tours come, the last family came in just as two of our folks were leaving. I was finishing up the solar, cleaning up the mess and feeling fine with the results, so I talked with the last group.

Poor Old 100 needs a paint job. Pensacola shops want $11,000 to paint my pickup. Imagine what it costs to paint a locomotive! The boxcar is our railroad museum.

The family had bought an old house and wanted to know about it. I answered their questions best I could and offer some resource suggestions. They asked about the park and our operation and I answered those questions. The gentleman thought a minute and offered a donation of $1000.

It was a good Saturday.

–Neal

Notes. John asked questions, so I thought you might be wondering, too….

The items in the blacksmith shop came from a working shop, donated by the Ealy Black family.

One of the gristmills was local. It had operated behind the blacksmith shop in South Flomaton, which is now part of Century. When the mill business closed, the mill was moved and used on a farm outside of town in Skeeter Flats. It was donated to us after a storm flattened the barn where it was kept. Oh, yeah, that was a neat trick to pull over a half ton of machine out of a collapsed barn and onto a trailer. We have actually demonstrated making meal with it, powered by a John Deere 420 tractor. It can turn out 1000 pounds of fine meal per hour with ease.

The large wooden Williams mill came from Knott’s Mill in Butler County, Alabama. Recovering it was another trick as the floor was rotten and the door was not as big as the mill. We recovered the 2200 lb. Fairbanks-Morse engine, too, which was an even bigger challenge. At one point the mill was being moved in our building and it ended up on my hand. One of my knuckles is embedded in the bottom of the wooden skid. I have generally avoided dealing with it ever since.

The lion head fountain was the centerpiece of the formal garden at the residence of Edward A. Hauss, head of the sawmill. When he died he stipulated that his house be torn down for fear no successor would properly keep it up. The property quickly grew over. When the Historical Society got the property, there were all sorts of surprises to be found when we began clearing the overgrowth. Hauss had no worry about pumps for the fountain. The town had two water systems. Indoors you had the drinking water. Outside faucets and fire hydrants were provided with water from the mill pond. Pond water flowed from the lion’s mouth.

The 40 ton Baldwin 2-6-2 locomotive was used as a yard engine by The Alger-Sullivan Lumber Company and to run supplies to the camps. By the 1950s it was parked in front of the mill on Front Street. It was the town baby sitter. New mill owners sold Old 100 for $7500 to a scrap yard in Mobile. They restored it and used it as a yard engine. In 1976 it went on national tour. Later it was sold to and operated by the Whitewater Valley RR, hauling tourists in Indiana. I found it disassembled in their bone yard. We bought it back for a whole bunch more than what the sawmill sold it for. It left Century on one truck and came back on 4. Some assembly was required.

The boxcar, home of our railroad museum, is original to the locomotive and it was used for hauling supplies to logging camps and the commissary store. Somehow it got separated and ended up in Pensacola. We got it donated back to us long before we found Old 100, but we had to pay postage. Ever tried moving a boxcar with rails attached? And getting it over a fence? Easier than you’d think.

If you wanted to put together a similar solar power system for a cabin or shed at your place, how much would it cost? I normally avoid keeping records on my projects, just in case the wife asks. In this instance, most of it was junk box stuff I had on hand. Free panels from John, retired batteries….stuff just accumulated. I only bought a box of bulbs, a light fixture, and a couple of “Y” adapters, so less than $40 out of my pocket. All told, if you bought new, maybe $500. An underground utility wire would be more in our case. And more work.

Recycle, Reuse, Repurpose

Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without. That was the family motto of a friend’s crew. They were of Scots descent, so you know they were tight. How tight were they? Well, they had a Willy’s Jeep, a ’55 Ford station wagon and a John Deere tractor. Among them, there was one good 6 volt battery. Dad took the Jeep with the good battery to work. Mom would say a prayer for the Ford when she set out for her errands. If it didn’t start, she’d assume God meant her to stay home or visit an ailing neighbor. True! The parents are gone now, but over 60 years later I still keep in touch with my friend. I frequently hear that motto.

He’s working on a solar project right now, with me checking his work by text and email. He invited me to come up to North Carolina this week to be there when he turns the project on. I told him I felt safer here in Florida!

Anyway, I have some Scots blood in me, too. I was at Home Depot a couple of weeks ago with the intent of buying some materials for raised bed gardening. OMG the price of wood! I thought about it for a minute and decided I could repurpose some things or use some of the lumber I had left over from building the barn back in ’87. Carpenter bees have been in it, so I don’t want to use it for structure. Then I had a better idea. I have about 200 bad solar roofing tiles I was going to use as inert roofing material, but they are just right for garden beds, too. Instead of buying lots of big lumber or landscaping timbers that might leach toxic treating chemicals into my veggies, these things are inert and only required 16′ of 2×2 lumber I already had to tie together a 6×6 bed. As time permits I will do some long skinny beds and composting beds, too, to save on potting soil. Deck screws hold the 2×2 to the panels and the corners are done with sheet rock screws.

Recycling Solar Panels for Gardening

I normally just plant potatoes. The deer won’t eat those, but they always manage to get anything above ground. This 6×6 bed is being planted as a 3 Sisters garden, like the Indians planted. The corn is already emerging. Soon I will plant the squash, which will spill overboard, and when the corn is tall I will plant the beans to climb the corn stalks. These 3 give a healthy blend of proteins and other dietary goodness.

The stack of timbers in the background is a tater bin. Those timbers are repurposed from the time we had a trailer collapse when overloaded with 100,000 lbs. of fertilizer. Hosting crop dusters means I get free fertilizer, but that incident was a bit much.

That leaves the deer, but it isn’t the end of repurposing. The solar shed and the west bank of ground-mounted panels give good protection on two sides. Some old farm gates from the bone yard have been brought into service. That leaves only a little bit of fencing that will be needed to keep the wily varmints out.

John is doing a little repurposing, too, but with live panels. He and I both have some oddball GE panels that are perfectly good, but in an odd format. He lives in a highrise and can’t go sticking panels to the condo walls or roof, but he is planning to mount them horizontally on the balcony rail. They’ll serve as a table during the social times and provide him with backup power during those post-storm outages we sometimes get here in Florida.

Moral of the story: think outside the box on how you use things in their prime and again in their afterlife.

–Neal

Meanwhile Back at Cory’s Farm

Armed with new info from downloading a couple of newer versions of the inverter manual, I returned to Cory’s farm to try some new settings. I was confidant I had the answers.

Somewhere between the time of the last blog and this trip I had made some setting changes and the reaction was not as I expected. The newly downloaded manuals showed some extra menu levels not indicated in the original manual. With the strange entry method of the Mate3 terminal, it would be easy to hide some extra menus. As Cory was sampling batteries, I jumped into the menus and found that there were no more! It seems there may have been some software updates missed, so no new menus.

Software updates always worry me. Things can go wrong and then you have nothing. As a rule, my philosophy is if it ain’t broke I won’t try to fix it. Here I was, though, trying to fix it because Tom had not set it up for max performance. The mode selection did not seem to cover our circumstance. We were not off grid. We were not selling power back to the grid. We were not using it as a UPS (uninterruptible power supply). I had chosen Backup Mode, because it seemed to be the least unlikely.

Powered up, the inverter made power. After 5 minutes, it switched the load to grid power. Whaaaat? That’s why I thought there was another menu item. In the revised manuals, there is.

As I was fretting over the lack of the menu item I wanted, I noticed a funny thing: it was working. It had been working since my last visit! Here’s what I think happened. I programmed it correctly, but did not understand some parameters. Many AC devices, like inverters, microinverters or even your home HVAC system have a time delay of 5 minutes before connecting to AC. It’s the law. After running on inverter for 5 minutes, the AC kicked on. In the menu there are two items defaulted to 60 minutes. I think this is where I got tangled up. I was messing with the AC input, so it decided to run on AC for an hour. Then it switched over to normal operation, with the inverter supplying the power.

Since the battery is yet a bit wimpy, the inverter was switching over to grid around sundown and firing back up around 7am, according to the logs. The switch at the house has not been thrown and will not be until we get the batteries in better shape. Still, there is quite a load. The workshop, the hangar and an occupied camper are all powered by the solar and the camper seems to be averaging around 3kw. Its two a/c units run constantly during the day and the resistance heating runs at night. This is NOT an efficient residence for the couple who are staying there. The solar power system is operating about 11 hours a day, at present, so even with one so-so battery Cory is on track to save about $100 on the power bill this month!

An hybrid solar power system.
Cory’s system and batteries.

The operating battery is improving, at around 50% capacity, now., maybe better. The other one has no bad cells, but is badly sulphated, so I installed a defibrillator (actually, a desulphator) and will let that run a month before lashing them back together and applying a good, long desulphating and equalization charge. After a week on the defib, the hydrometer is at least floating a little on the weaker one. It is a 510 ah battery, so a 1 amp defibrillator takes a while to charge it. Once in EQ mode these batteries will need to hold above 62 volts for quite a few hours and drink a lot of distilled water in the process. Yes, it is a lot of work, but to get 2 giant batteries for the price of a set of golf car batteries will be worth it.

If Cory saves just $100/month, the batteries will soon pay back their cost. Throwing the switch to the house is likely to result in even more saving, even with the current limitations.

Next time we’ll talk about Brad’s OMG 27kw solar power system and how he can make it better. AND how he can stop the power company’s latest move to screw him over.

–Neal

You Gotta Write The Book!

John’s on my case, again. “Neal, you’ve gotta write the book on DIY solar power!” He gets this way, sometimes.

It starts with flattery. Continues with pleading. Sometimes he promises, “I’LL PAY YOU, I’LL PAY YOU!” If you know John, the phrase, “I’LL PAY YOU, I’LL PAY YOU!” is usually only uttered when he is running from a knife-wielding cabbie he’s stiffed. Honest! That’s a story best told by John, himself.

I have written books and have 4 in the works, now. I just don’t have the time to concentrate on all the stuff that happens AFTER the writing. One of the books is about my epic 44 day trip aboard the Sun King, solar-powered launch back in 2015. It is cleverly titled, “44 Days in the Sun.” Maybe I could share a chapter or two, since there is some useful info on solar power in it.

My first few books, history books, were written 2 pages at a time, I like to say. I did a weekly newspaper column back in the 90s and early part of this century. I compiled those pages and a few photos into books. So, if John asks, I’m writing his solar book a page or two at a time with this blog, OK?

There is no way you could write a book to cover all cases for solar power, at least not a book small enough to carry or cheap enough to afford. I think it would have to be a series of books in various niches. The basics are pretty simple. It is the details that get you all tangled up.

In a way, though, the book has already been written. I was reminded of this recently when I was called upon to recommission a system I took down a while back.

Leaving batteries in the salt air of Daytona for 6 years does not do much for their appearance.

Some time ago I told you about shutting down Tom’s system. It was not working. Tom was dead. Jane was trying to get the house ready to sell. She didn’t want the unauthorized solar power system to be an issue with inspectors.

Now, Cory has the place and wants the solar power to work. I suggested he budget $20,000 for batteries if he really wanted to do it right. When he regained consciousness, he avoided me for months. Some time later, I came across a battery deal that was too good to pass up. It was him or me and I let him have it. $1000 for 1020ah of second hand forklift batteries from a mobile solar power system. Plus postage and handling. (No, they are not the Edison forever batteries) The seller said they were checked out and good. This remains to be seen, but they are worth the thousand in scrap value if they don’t work out. Cory and a buddy made a made dash to South Florida to fetch them and that was the last I heard for months. It isn’t good to let batteries sit for months without attention.

By the way, it happens that 1000ah is a good starting place for a home system, though a little small for the 10kw solar input of this system. Tom had started with 400ah and added 200 ah, later, repeatedly cooking them. New, the big batteries would be about 5 grand each. 4 of them would be nice….and 20 grand.

Then came the call. I made suggestions as to placement of the batteries and carefully avoided being there when the move occurred. They weigh 2000 lbs. EACH. He ended up with a sheet of foam on the floor, a sheet of black poly plastic and painted 2×4 rests on top of that. You don’t want batteries on a bare concrete floor for two reasons. A cold floor will cause stratification of the electrolyte and spilled acid–it happens–will dissolve the floor.

Connection was pretty easy. I converted the cable that came with the batteries by chopping off the Anderson forklift plug and installing some substantial ring terminals. I had the crimper with me and used Cory’s torch to solder the lugs for insurance and then shrink down the red and black shrink tubing to make it neat and pretty. When I took down the old system, I hung paper tags identifying stuff, like the battery cables. I removed the hodgepodge of cables and a bunch of shunts that Tom had installed to monitor pretty much everything that could happen. TMI, I say. Too Much Information and too much crap to confuse things. That stuff got ripped out. New cables installed, it was time to smoke test it.

The box had been full of confusing ammeter shunts and wiring. Pretty straightforward, now.

I waited until Cory got back from the Piggly Wiggly with 10 gallons of distilled water. The battery seller had claimed he topped them up, but we added 7.5 gallons if that tells you anything about the seller. OK, maybe there was some evaporation. It happens. When Cory returned, I had him start pouring.

Let’s have a little educational chat, here. Always use distilled water because it does not contain minerals that might interfere with the life and operation of the battery. The stuff costs a buck a gallon at the grocery or Walmart. It is absolutely imperative to keep the water/acid electrolyte above the plates, otherwise bad things happen. It is also imperative to not overfill the battery, as that can go badly, too. There is a split plastic ring down the hole. Better said, the fill tube extends into the cell, but is notched. Your target is to have the acid mix (you are pouring in water, but there is acid in there, which is not good for you) come up to the bottom of the split ring. That is for an active battery. These were cold dead batteries. Cory started out on the low side of filling and got better as he went along, or at least the cells got more full.

All watered up, it was time to throw the switch and see what happens. Main battery switch on, inverter pair and charge controllers light up. Combiner boxes switched on, solar inputs switched on and the current starts to flow. Lots of it. The panels are filthy and set at the wrong angle, but there are lots of them and the system came to life.

This is handy. The big switch turns on the battery and things come to life. The little switches connect to the solar arrays and then things really start happening.

One of the batteries started bubbling vigorously. It was taking a charge. The other, not so much. The voltage came up quickly, so I got into the FlexMax 80 charge controllers and set up a 6 hour equalization. I am familiar with the FlexMax and even remembered the password (shhh 141) so I did not have to get into the documentation pack that had been left atop the inverters. The bubbly battery quickly warmed up just a little and all that electrolyte was expanding. Some was overflowing. We loosened the caps to all the cells to give them a little more breathing room. It wasn’t enough for some of them. See why we isolated the floor from potential acid spills?

I love these things. Good kit.

I gave Cory another chore. Obtain a new hydrometer and a notebook, then sample all of the cells. Next morning when I arrived he had his notebook and was just about to begin the sampling. The one battery was bubbling away and the other was giving only the occasional bubble. The hydrometer was not working so well. Cory had overlooked the fact that the maker had stuffed a strip of foam inside to keep things from rattling about and breaking during shipping. It worked better then. I commented that these tools are made of glass and are fragile, just before something fell and broke it. We sampled with another. One battery was in the high red zone. The other would not even float the bulb. This is going to take some effort. At least the cells were consistent within each battery.

Now, while Cory was taking and recording samples, I was trying to fine tune the inverters as I remembered something Tom had said about his setup and thought that we could get a little more out of it. In this case, I was in new territory with the Outback Radian GS8048 inverter and the Mate 3 monitoring interface. I needed to read the book.

This is the Mate 3, a very useful gadget if you understand it. Change numbers by swirling a finger around that big circle and the bullseye is the Enter Button.

Boy what a book, since we are talking about books! There is a lovely poster that graphically shows all the connections you need to put together a system using Outback products and it really was all you would need to put your own system together. Programmable stuff always freaks me out a little, because it requires thinking and care. There are even different trains of menus, setting up the system in different ways.

A lot of people like to look at the pictures instead of reading the book. Good pictures are helpful.

One thing stumped me, possibly because I didn’t have all the documentation, even though I think I did. I did not see a good discussion of the 3 operating modes and why you’d want to use one or the other. I chose BACKUP mode. The other thing I did not see was how to get into those lovely menus and how to change things. So I just started pushing buttons until I found the entry menu. First thing it asks for was the password. What? There was nothing in the notes about a password. 141 might have worked. 1723, I think, did work. Whatever it was, I wrote it prominently on the manual.

The really baffling thing was how to enter the passwords and other choices into the system. Thank you, “OK Google.” If you look at the Mate, there are not a lot of buttons or a keypad. That “target” area in the center is like a racetrack. Run your finger around it clockwise or the other way to make the numbers go up and down. The bullseye is the ENTER button. Simple, once you know.

Everything is running, but we have yet to throw the switch at the house. We are giving it as many days as it takes to bring the batteries up to full power (we hope). All went reasonably well and a big help in setting up a strange system was having The Book. The book that came with the hardware. The manual. The hardware always comes with a book. Some books are better than others, but usually they are very useful. Read The Book and learn.

I’ll have more about the system rebirth, soon. It is a work in progress.

–Neal

Don’t Have An Ugly Roof

Solar panels on a roof can blend in and be hardly noticeable or they can stand out just enough to be bragging. On the other hand, some folks manage to make it really ugly. Don’t have an ugly roof.

I am on the mailing list of a lot of solar newsletters. They include a lot of pictures of roofs. Some are pretty ordinary and some are strikingly clever…artistic, even. Then there are the ones that rate a few internet terms like OMG! and WTF?!

National Archives at Atlanta building
This one started out nice and got patchy toward the bottom

One that comes to mind was a lovey bucolic setting featuring a barn equipped with solar panels. Instead of going with the flow of the barn’s roof line, complex mounting structures were added to make the panels align just so, according to some optimum specification! It was hideous! OMG, WTF were they thinking? Match up with the roof. It creates less wind loading stress and it looks so much better. If a slightly less than optimum alignment doesn’t give enough power, then just add more panels. They’re cheap! Probably the panels were cheaper than those ridiculous mounting frames.

You hardly notice the 27kw of panels on Brad’s awesome garage

Another one you see a lot is where the roof of a nice house looks like a hodgepodge, with missing areas. These are because the solar guys left out a panel where a plumbing vent pierced the roof. It does not have to be that way. When I built my house I wanted minimum roof piercings, so I tied all of the vents together in the attic for a single pipe on the backside of the roof. When I recently (finally, after waiting over a year) got a new roof on my house, I got rid of that one piercing by installing a vent valve in the attic. This is like a check valve that lets air in to allow the sinks and toilets drain properly, but does not let sewer stink into the attic.

Solar at Florida Governor's Mansion
Governor Crist shows how it should be done.

Installing these in your attic and capping or patching the roof hole means that a uniform grid of panels can be mounted without jarring visual disturbances. Guess what else? You get to fill in those ugly gaps with a few more panels.

–Neal

Form 5695

I finally started gathering forms and am evaluating who has and has not sent me all the stuff so that I can do my taxes. Seems like something is always late and now I hear that if you have a farm you need to file by March 1st. Yikes!

Since this is a solar blog, I thought it best to remind you to download Form 5695 and Instructions if you bought any solar gear this year! That’s the one for energy upgrades, including solar, that can result in you getting a tax credit.

I have filled these out several times and ended up not getting the credit. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Being retired and lazy I can usually structure my income to a level that does not involve paying taxes. If you don’t owe taxes, you can’t get a credit on them. Sorry. On the other hand, if you don’t owe taxes, is that a bad thing?

If, unlike me, you just installed some solar power and are gainfully employed, take the deal!

—Neal

Other Batteries

A reader wants to know if I have any knowledge of Nickel-Iron or NiFe batteries. See? I read the comments. Eventually. I just don’t let them post because not everybody is nice or on topic. Anyway, let’s just say I’d love to have a trailer load of NiFe batteries, aka Edison batteries.

Thomas Edison wanted to build electric cars. Seems like every body does, today, but about a century ago things were kind of up in the air as to how it would all go. Steam, gasoline and electric started on an even footing. Range and complexity were big factors and gas eventually won. Edison, though, was looking for a battery that could take a lot of abuse, was lightweight, would last a long time and not rot out the car frame. Any golf car owner can tell you about frame rust from lead-acid batteries.

www.rarehistoricalphotos.com

While electric cars had to wait a century before coming practical, Edison’s were a hit in stationary applications, like railroad signals, wind-electric home power and in forklift trucks. When Exide was bought out, NiFe or Edison batteries were discontinued because they almost never failed. If you have a battery company, do you want to make the best product or do you want to sell lots of product? They made their choice.

The story is told of an old man who went around buying up his neighbors’ batteries when the Rural Electrification Administration brought lines out in the countryside. It didn’t matter if they were old and dried out, he’d wash them out and refill with water and a little lye. No acid, no corrosion and they come back to life. There are still people using these batteries, many over 50 years old.

For the longest time, the only sources for new batteries were eastern Europe and China. There is now an American manufacturer.

What are some of the characteristics, good and bad? On the negative side, they use a lot of water. The railroads topped them with “Edison Oil” to slow down evaporation. They don’t retain a charge for long periods, but they are fine for a few days of cloudy weather. Can’t think of anything else.

On the positive side, they seemingly last forever. You restore them with water and a can of Red Devil Lye. They won’t corrode things, but you don’t want to get the lye on your hands when servicing. They aren’t heavy, as batteries go. They don’t seem to have a cycle limitation. You can run them down to stone cold dead or bone dry and they come back just fine. There is no desulphation or equalizing charge needed.

Sounds pretty good, right? To use them, you’ll need charge controllers that can be adjusted, and many are, but otherwise not much difference. From what I have seen, they are sold as cells rather than, say, a 24v battery. This would be perfect if they were cheap. Well, maybe they are. Last time I priced some, they were about the price of Lithiums. Lithium batteries have a high upfront cost, but they last a long time and have deeper cycles making them a better deal than lead acid batteries. The NiFe batteries appear to take it a step further, making them a long term bargain. The bad news is that Sun Electronics does not carry them.

–Neal
Header photo credit: Iron Edison

The Dirt on Solar Electronics

If you are looking for a scandal, sorry. I’m talking about actual dirt.

Just about any serious piece of electronic gear comes with a manual, which I am certain you read cover to cover 3 times before attempting to install…right? Somewhere in there you will usually find the admonition to “mount in a cool, dry place with temperature range X to Y, and humidity below 95%, non-condensing.” Or something like that. If you just paid 5 grand for a fancy inverter, you probably go along with that.

The 95% humidity thing is always worth a giggle here in La Florida. Sometimes the humidity is actually below 95%, but not for long. Sometimes it is more like 120%. Seriously! Many nights we’ll get a convection fog that just rolls right through the shop end of my Solar Shed, getting my motorcycles and tools sopping wet. That’s where you bust that “non-condensing” bit in the manual.

The screens on this inverter are starting to get dirty, reducing airflow and raising temperature.

If there is any dust or dirt on the circuit board and you add some damp while power is applied, the electrons can start making unintended paths and and doing unintended things. This is especially the case where you are making 120 or 240v in the same box where the control circuits are 5 volts. I avoid this with Sun King, my solar-powered launch, by just leaving it on all the time. The little bit of heat from the circuits keeps the moisture out.

My solar power system for the house is actually two in parallel. In the winter I run the inverter in the control room to help keep the Man Cave warm. In the summer, I run the other inverter, which is mounted in a cabinet outdoors. This keeps the Cave cooler with less a/c. Ideally, the summer inverter should be in the a/c, but it is actually designed for high temps. It is not designed for high moisture of winter, so I leave it powered up on standby to keep the humidity out. There is also a Midnite Solar 250 in there that can get pretty warm when the sun comes out.

This gear is treated pretty well and within specs. A little wipe with a clean 2″ paint brush every now and then is sufficient to keep the screens clean to allow good airflow for cooling.

Then there are the buggy inverters. My electric farm vehicles are pretty much never clean and dry. They get used for pretty much every purpose on the farm from hauling firewood, towing trailers or joyriding. The inverter runs the electric chainsaw I use for firewood. I have given up on gas saws. Fortunately, there are some serious electric saws, like my Oregon. The battery saws are ok for light work, but not for prime time. I cut down a couple of trees and buck them to the size the furnace likes, then haul them back to the woodpile. Lots of dirt and bark is involved and there is usually a thick layer of it on the cargo bed and some invariably settles down on top of the inverter.

#1 EV buggy has a load.

Should I be surprised that the inverter in the Yamaha started acting funny and quit. No.

Neal and ex-daughter’s sister gather firewood in #2 electric buggy. This is what can happen when you have time on your hands…and a welder.

Here is step one of my cure for dirty electronics. I put the inverter on the clean workbench so I would not lose parts. Then I removed the cover and went after it with a paintbrush and air hose. Yup, it was cruddy in there, but once it was all cleaned up and put back together again it worked for another few loads of wood. But it was too soon to celebrate. We had more dirt and one of those really soggy fogs roll through. This time, the brush and blow did not do the trick, so time for Plan B. I had the notion that humidity had gotten into the transformers or inductors where it should not be, so I determined to drive it out. The dashboard of your car on a hot day with the windows up can make a fair oven, but so does an actual oven. The wife and my ex-daughter’s sister (long story) were baking a treat one afternoon after school, so when it was done I let the oven cool a little and popped the inverter in until it was completely cooled down.

Sounds crazy, but it worked and I avoided freezing to death with my firewood supply resumed. Freezing? Florida? Yeah, it happens a lot in Northwest Florida. If you try the oven trick, just preheat to a temp that won’t melt plastic and turn the oven off. It is a desperate measure, but with sound underlying principle. Besides, the thing wasn’t working, anyway, so what’s it going to hurt?

–Neal

Boxcar Solar Revisited

We were having problems with the lights in the “boxcar”, so I decided to rethink it’s solar-powered lighting.

It isn’t really a boxcar. It is a 40′ shipping container that looks like a boxcar without the wheels. Very handy. Initially I did a full blown install and it worked well. 4 panels, charge controller, battery, inverter and LED strip lighting. Then it got to where it didn’t work too well. It would cut off after a while.

The old lighting system required that you bend down, open a cabinet and turn on the inverter. All the lights came on. All or none. Fine, when it works. I diagnosed the problem as a dead cell in the battery. The huge, grossly expensive battery. The battery went to the Solar Shed for reconditioning, where it has thus far resisted my efforts. I have pulled out all the stops, calling upon the black arts of battery reconditioning. You might not do that for a 9 year old car battery, but this battery costs $1200! See why I’m trying to save it?

Back to the system, I thought maybe I could improve it and make it easier to use. And you can use a similar setup for an out of the way home, hunting camp or storage shed.

I kept the 4 original panels. They are kinda weird, but perfect for this application. And they cost $7 apiece. Sun hasn’t advertised these in a while, so they may be out. These are FS-70 amorphous panels. The important thing to know about amorphous or thin-film panels is that they work better in the shade than crystalline panels. They are sitting flat on top of the boxcar, connected in parallel. The boxcar is in a dense forest and the roof only gets a short period of direct sunlight. 280 watts is a lot for a little light, but the odds of getting 280watts in the shade, with leaves raining down is slim. It is a good match.

Top of the boxcar. Yeah, one look and I knew I needed to clean them. They worked anyway!

I have a DIN rail with a fuse holder/disconnect and that goes into an MPPT charge controller. This particular controller is one of many I auditioned for the Solar Yacht project. It had a bright, clear display and no fans to suck salt air into the electronics. Sadly, the designer missed a spec on the display’s info sheet and soon the display went to gibberish. Everything works great, but I can’t read the meters or change the settings. I had 3 of them in the junk box and recruited one for this project, since I would not have to spend any more money.

Somebody screwed up an otherwise great MPPT controller by using this display

The reason for using the MPPT charge controller is that these are 90v panels. You need to use a Maximum Power Point Tracking controller to step the 90volts down to 12 volts. If you have some 12 volt panels, which usually max at 18-20 volts, you can use a cheaper, simpler Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) controller or a simple on/off controller to handle battery charging. Roberto can fix you up with a simple unit by EPever at a good price. I used other EPever controllers on the Sun King launch and they are still running years later.

Roberto has these at a good price. Great for 12 volt panels and 12 volt battery

The output of the charge controller goes through a breaker on the DIN rail and on to the battery. You’ll need to calculate your fuse and or breaker size. My panels have the rated current on the back, less than an amp, and there are 4 in parallel, so the max current will be under 4 amps. Probably 5 amps will be the closest size to that. On the output, 280watts/12v=23.3 amps, so round it off to 25 amps. REMEMBER, these are numbers based on my gear and you will need to calculate your own. You DON’T need DIN mount circuit protection. Your auto parts store or ebay has small fuse blocks that use automotive fuses. They cost only a few bucks and you can get fuses anywhere.

You can easily add an MP3 player or USB charger for your phone.

Now to the battery. You don’t need a huge $1200 battery. To tide things over while chanting and dancing around the big battery, I took a 14ah battery I rejuvenated from my motorcycle and it works great. I had decided to just buy a new one for the bike, so there it was. It is in there on a temporary basis. A car battery would be fine, too. Obviously, a new deep cycle battery will last longer, but sometimes it’s ok to “run what ya brung.” We’ll get back to this philosophy in a moment.

The boxcar is full of shelves, from stem to stern. 8′ sections to the ceiling on one side, making handy high points for mounting the lights. The lights are 12v LED bulbs in the standard Edison format. They will actually run from 8 to 24 volts and only use about an amp! Remember that. We’ll have a test, later.

I put standard metal boxes on 5 of the shelf uprights and strung 12gauge copper wire from the battery to the last bulb. The fixtures I put on the boxes are standard pull-cord fixtures. You can walk down the narrow aisle and turn on the lights as you go. Each is equivalent to a 75 watt incandescent.

I got the bulbs on ebay in a 5 pack. Boxes and sockets came from the hardware store. Thank goodness I had a roll of copper wire! That stuff is getting pricey. I think the bulbs are non-polarized, but I put the positive wires on the brass-colored terminals of the sockets and negative to the chrome.

OK, here’s the test I promised. What is the voltage range of the bulbs and how can that make the project even less expensive? Answer: 8 to 24volts. My inverter was getting a low voltage shutdown from the bad battery because the inverter won’t run at 10volts. These bulbs will. That means you can use a battery with a dead cell that you might have in the garage because it won’t start your car. I always have bad batteries around for trade-ins or recycling. If the big battery cannot be reclaimed, it will still work fine in the boxcar. It would run the lights 24/7.

So there you have it. No worry about a tiptop battery. No extra step of starting and stopping the inverter. Lots of light.

–Neal

John’s Back on the Air

He’s blogging again. Watch out!

John Kimball, founder and bossman at Sun Electronics, stepped away from blogging for quite a while, but he’s back. I generally try to stick to something along the idea of how to make solar power work for you. John often talks about things going on in the industry, but sometimes he might show you pictures of a colorful Arizona desert landscape or stunning fish off the jetty in Miami. Sometimes he just goes bonkers. There’s a link to John’s blog on the menu bar of most pages at sunelec.com or you can go direct to www.johnssolarblog.com. It takes a while to load with some internet service, so be patient. Check him out.

Greener?

If solar power is green, can we make it greener?

Yeah, and a lot of folks are going that way. More directly to the point, is what do you do after you get a ground mount panel rack installed? Put down gravel? Mulch? Grass?

NextEra or FPL is grinding up all the pallets on which the 200,000 panels came to our neighborhood solar farm to make mulch. Ok, but, given what those pallets cost, couldn’t they send them back to the factory and get the next load of solar modules shipped on the same pallets? I think that would be a better idea, but they didn’t ask me.

Now, for actual greenness, let stuff grow under the panels. I have not planted anything in particular under mine. Green just happened, with grass and weeds starting in immediately. That’s not bad, because panels operate more efficiently when they are cooler and anything growing under there will increase cooling because of evaporation from the leaves.

Agrovoltaics is what they call combining agriculture and solar farming. One popular option is wildflowers. This keeps the panels cooler and helps with our dwindling bee population. No bees, no food, so that’s good to keep the bees happy. Some farmers mount the panels a little higher and let sheep graze underneath. That takes care of eliminating the need to mow.

I wondered about planting food under mine, but they are fairly low and I am concerned about what fertilizer might do to the steel posts. Clover or some flowering ground cover, like purslane, would be good options and I am sure my wife would approve.

Anyway, cooler is more efficient and green is cool.

–Neal

Battery Rejuvenation

Anyone who has batteries in their backup or solar power systems will eventually have a battery go bad. Can it be brought back to life?

Maybe. Of course you want to take good care of your batteries in the first place to put the dreaded day farther down the road.

Let’s start with lithium, briefly. The Lithium Ion or Li battery packs are usually made of scads of little cylindrical cells welded together. Lithium Iron Phosphate or LFP batteries tend to be larger “prismatic” blocks bolted together. Many Prius owners have gotten the dreaded “Get a new battery pack” light and sold their cars cheap when the problem was only a loose or corroded interconnection. On your home solar batteries, if possible, periodically check all the battery connections. A loose or corroded connection can provide reduce or no output. This goes for any kind of battery. I have shown you pictures of batteries damaged by hot, loose terminals.

These are LFP cells for a 300ah, 48 volt battery. They are equalizing in parallel prior to assembly and charge.

The biggest frustration you may run into with lithium batteries is an over-discharge. Lithium batteries can be severely damaged by running to extreme discharge. To prevent this, and overcharge, they have a Battery Management System or BMS. These can be external or internal. Let’s say you let the battery get low and then left it alone. While neglected it self-discharges further. Now you have a battery that will not charge or discharge! Oops. Pay attention, now, because even though you may not have lithium batteries in your home power system, you have them. Power tools, phone batteries or that drone that got stuck in a tree for a month…all lithium. I have bought old stock tool and phone batteries on ebay that would not charge. The trick is to open up the case and jump off the battery to get the voltage above the BMS threshold to operate. Use a battery of similar voltage. It usually only takes a few seconds. I have done this many times. If an individual cell goes bad in the battery you may need to replace it or have a pro shop handle it.

Keep the terminals clean and tight, or this can happen. Or worse.

Now on to lead acid batteries. Oh goodness, get on the internet and you will find people offering to sell their books of secrets for reviving dead batteries. Many of these tactics will work to a point, some provide only short term relief or even cause more damage.

I added up what the approximate retail value of my batteries would be if I replaced them all and was stunned to find it is around $80,000. I did not buy new or retail, so it wasn’t anywhere near that. Nonetheless, there are literally tons of batteries and some go bad, both in the solar system and in all my vehicles and farm equipment. It makes me sad to buy new batteries.

The internet guys will try to tell you that you can put some aspirin or epsom salts or EDTA in your battery and all will be well. Chemicals may provide a short term boost, but understand that the end is near. Some of them will have you dump out all the acid, rinse with distilled water, charge with distilled water, rinse again and refill with acid. Why? Stuff flakes off the plates and falls to the bottom of the battery, especially when you let the electrolyte get below the level of the plates. Maybe the bottom fills up. Maybe the stuff lodges between the plates. Cells short out and the battery dies. (Or it blows up! A friend with a pair of 2000 lb. batteries had a cell blow, probably from not keeping the water up.) Ok, in theory, thoroughly cleaning out a battery may help, but is this safe or practical? Two of my batteries weigh nearly 2000 lbs. EACH. Let’s see you dump those! A pro shop can remove the individual cells from that type of battery, so it can be done. (My friend is having the blown-up cell replaced.) A golf car battery weighs 62 lbs. and a person can handle that, but do you want to be struggling with a heavy battery while trying not to get acid on you? Then what do you do with all of the old lead-tainted acid?

Since it has gotten cool, I have had several batteries go bad. I’ve brought two back to service, have 2 more in process, showing promise. I’ve only bought one battery for a really bad one in one of the tractors. My method is to check the electrolyte and put the battery on a slow charge. A simple charger may work best. Some smart chargers, which are common these days, are too smart for their own good and may or may not even start if the battery is severely discharged. In that case, use jumpers from a good battery to convince the charger to start. Use the 2 Amp setting and no more. This will take time. 2 amps into a 200 amp/hour battery is over 4 days, for a GOOD battery. A bad one will take a while. Check the voltage from time to time. Make sure the battery isn’t getting hot. Using a higher charge rate or letting a smart charger do its thing nearly always ruins the battery. A 12v battery needs to spend some time above 15 volts to break through all the sulphation and get it back into the electrolyte. If you get it that high, put a load on it to see if it has some guts. If the voltage drops quickly under load, put on a modest sustainable load and run the battery down and start over. It may take several cycles.

A very expensive AGM battery being discharged. The blue box is an inexpensive load tester. A neat and orderly workplace is essential for safety and efficiency. Wish I had one.

My quickest refurb was a 14 ah motorcycle battery, which took less than a week. (a week is maddeningly long when you want to ride the “new” bike.) It had not been run in a couple of years and now has no trouble starting the bike. Another battery, an Outback RE, was killed twice by a solar owner and then died in my tractor. It came back and is working fine. I have another Outback I am trying to revive for the 3rd time. My biggest challenge of the moment is a $1200 agm battery that powers my boxcar solar lighting system. It had a cell go bad. I have gotten it to accept charge, but it is not to the point where it really has any guts. I am on day 3 of discharging it with a light bulb. I have high hopes.

A week to rejuvenate a battery seems like a lifetime when you want to ride.

The key ingredient is patience. If you crank the charging rate up, you are asking for trouble. If your smart charger has a rejuvenate button, don’t use it until you first go through a regular slow rate equalizing charge. Good luck.–Neal

NOLA Solar Update

A while back, I wondered if all the PV gear installed after Hurricane Katrina was grid tie, or if some of it came through after the more recent storms. The answer is there was some with battery backup.

I remember reading in my morning solar newsletters a while back about an apartment complex that was equipped with solar and battery. That one was working after the storm. Sort of.

Two very important things about life off grid are that you either need a lot of battery for life as usual or you need to be able to make some lifestyle compromises. There are two people in my household and one of us (ahem) is not willing to compromise or economize on power use, so the other has to keep tabs on battery maintenance and be on the lookout to scrounge more batteries.

So imagine what it is like in an apartment complex full of people.

Reportedly, the lights were on during the day, but went out after sundown. Doesn’t seem quite right, does it? Still the refrigerators got to build up some cool during the day. I suspect the a/c units were running, too, leading to the battery shutting down early.

There are some grid-tie inverters for individual homes that have a day-only backup mode that will give you power without batteries when the grid is down. We put one, a Sunny Boy, in a friend’s South Carolina home. I think it was good for 2500 watts on a clear day. That’ll run the fridge, the microwave and some lights, so worth having. I hear, too, that the latest Enphase microinverters (grid tie inverters that strap to the back of each solar panel) can provide off grid power during the day with an additional controller.

Batteries aren’t cheap, but they sure are nice to have. There are other options if you are not able to go with batteries.

–Neal

Racked Up

The 10 panel rack mount is done. 2500 watts of panels are secure and producing power. There are plenty of ways to do this, but this was my way.

A few posts back, I did a blog called Rack ’em Up. That was the beginning of the solar rack project. To recap, I used string as a guide to keep everything in one direction, surplus oil drill stem as the mount with conduit clamps to hold the panels. Now, the rest of the story.

The steel posts were cemented into the ground and the cross bars were welded to the tops of the posts. The panels had some holes already in place, so I used them as a starting point for the clamps. The clamps were attached with nut, bolt and washers and things were more or less secure enough to easily complete the work. The first holes being uniformly punched at the factory made it a snap to keep things neat. The second holes were drilled through the clamp, with a block of wood between the aluminum frame and the panel area to avoid accidentally drilling through the glass. Wouldn’t want to do that, would we?

When it occurred to me that inexpensive conduit clamps would work, I abandoned the plan to fabricate custom U-bolts.

With the second set of nuts and bolts through the new holes, things were tight enough that the panel would stay where you put it, but you would not count on it in a strong wind. Hence, I began work on a front row mount. I did not have more of the super duty oil well steel, but I had some thinner galvanized conduit and I acquired some 4×4 treated posts, galvanized strap, more conduit clamps and fasteners. The panels were tipped up out of the way and the new posts were carefully planted on a string line.

I gave the posts a couple of days for the concrete to set up firmly, then used the string line again to mark for trimming. After being cut for the angle I had chosen, the steel tubes were placed on the posts with bolts and iron straps. I’m not saying these mounts can’t be wrecked, but if we get enough wind to do it, we’ll have other problems. This time, I used self drilling roof screws to hold the conduit clamps to the panels.

Largely using scrounged materials, the new ground mount is sturdy, neat and tidy. That’s more than you can say about the Solar Shed! Performance of the west-facing array will surprise you. Oh, those triangular panels on the side of the shed? Most panels can be trimmed like that with a power saw, but don’t expect them to work!

Panel wiring was neatly daisy chained from the ends to the middle. Five panels on this end and five on the other, with 2 downlines to the combiner and Midnite 250 charge controller. There was a lot of excess cable sticking out of the conduit as I had set things loose to operate before the final configuration was decided. To neaten things up and provide a quick shutdown in case of emergency, I put in two disconnect boxes. Wire lengths were minimized and terminated in the disconnects. These were the ordinary type used for outside a/c units. They are dirt cheap and are compatible with high voltage DC power.

Since the picture was taken, warning decals have been applied to the boxes and clamps have straightened up the conduit.

The conduit was buried and grass is beginning to heal the scars. I’ll talk about performance checks in another of our chats and show how weeds and grass under the panels can actually help performance!

–Neal

Solar to the Rescue!

I still have not heard any word on whether or not the post-Katrina solar power systems are helping out while the lines are down. The solar trade journals report that solar is on the job, though.

A New Orleans solar company caught their breath after Hurricane Ida, checked on their employees and then came out swinging with instant temporary power plants. Put a bunch of solar panels on the ground, connect to a battery bank and add an inverter. Instant power for phones, lights, communication, fans or even a/c. Hey, that’s how easy it can be, starting with a phone call to Roberto or Tony.

Even quicker than that, FEMA leases mobile solar generator trailers (for an obscene fee) like the one I had, but I have not seen any of those in Louisiana. I did see images of one really impressive mobile solar power plant. It had 8 modules on top and 8 more that could slide out to the side. Batteries and inverter below.

Now, MY vision of the perfect solar trailer for emergency relief would include some picnic tables, good water and a purifier, a bank of coffemakers and microwaves, and a supply cabinet full of microwaveable foods. Maybe a small fridge for medicines and other necessities. Popsicles, anyone?

Anyway, I’m glad to see solar to the rescue.

–Neal

Power Tools

Ahhh, autumn! The first week or two of September brings us cool weather, with lows in the 60s and highs in the 80s. Some of you might not call that temperature range cool, but we do. It’s a fakeout, though. We’ll get back to weeks of blazing hot weather if we don’t have any hurricanes to keep us cool. The real cool weather comes during Fair Week, in October. The real prize of September is that the grass-growing starts to shut down. Yay!

I started mowing season with a tractor and 3 good riding mowers. I have a lot of mowing to do and lots of roots to bend blades and maim decks. I’ve trashed and repaired them all and we are closing the season with 4 good riders and a tractor that will need a lot of TLC. Not sure how that happened that I have more mowers, but the Solar Shed provides better shop facilities than I’ve ever had in the past.


Sometimes I look at the new mowers when I go to Home Depot and lately I have noticed the electrics. Well, that’d be cool if I could charge the mower with solar! Is it cool enough to spend 5 grand? Hmmm. Gas costs have really gone up. Regular gas is a good bit higher over the past year, but the stuff is so bad I have changed over to seriously expensive marine gas. It doesn’t destroy my carburetors and fuel pumps. Or stick valves and bend pushrods. I don’t normally consider engines a problem, but thinking back I spent a lot of time with them this year. An electric motor, especially a Brushless DC or BLDC motor is pretty much maintenance free. I know I have never had to do anything with my electric vehicle and boat motors.


My conscious foes are the decks. Bent or torn decks, Cracked or worn spindles, burnt belts and mauled blades are what I hate, though I am to the point where I can quickly rehab a deck. The electrics have decks, too. Are they sturdy? Do they have belts or are the blades directly on motors? Do I bend a cheap spindle shaft or an expensive motor? I don’t know. My research has not gone that far and I don’t want to fall in love. That just leads to trouble, sometimes.
However, these rechargeable riders do have an endearing feature: a nice, fat battery. Some of the machines are 56v. Technically, that is an advantage, but who does 56 volts??? I noticed that the Ryobi has a 48v battery. Hey, so does my solar power system! Could I do a direct DC charge? I assume it has a lithium battery, so I’d want to check the Battery Management System (BMS) specs before I’d try it, but I make plenty of AC to charge it. My farm vehicles, with lead acid batteries, can charge either way. I did discover on a forum that the 48v battery is actually 4x 12v batteries and they can be charged with the same charger you’d use on a car battery. Or with a car.


Now I will reveal where I am going with this. Find a 48v, 3500 watt inverter (Roberto probably has some) and bolt it on some convenient spot and now your stealth mower is a backup power supply to run a few lights and the microwave. Put a few solar panels out in the backyard to recharge it, or let the alternator on your car recharge it. Maybe you’ll get lucky and not have a hurricane or winter storm or drunk driver knock down your power lines. I guarantee you’ll like having go-anywhere power if you have a large property. I have inverters on my EVs and no longer worry with gas generators to work on the barn, trim tree limbs or build a bridge down by the creek. Yeah, I realize they have all of those new generation power tools, but I don’t have most of them them. Bet most of you don’t, either. And as for the microwave and coffee pot, Milwaukee, DeWalt and Ryobi don’t make them.


Being able to get double duty out of an expensive yard tool adds to the value of the machine. With a little creative thinking you’ll find all sorts of backup power supplies around the place, starting with that 3500 lb. gasoline generator in the driveway. Or is the car in your driveway an EV or Hybrid with an onboard inverter?

–Neal


Solar in New Orleans

Just Curious

6 years ago, I cruised through New Orleans aboard my solar launch, Sun King. This was the only place I saw solar panels on my 1920 mile outing. Most of the new construction in the Lower 9th Ward, post Katrina, seemed to have solar. New Orleans came up with some pretty good solar incentives, for a while, and if you took a satellite view along Interstate 10 or the Industrial Canal, you’d see a lot of panels on roofs.

Here’s my question: with the power lines down in NOLA after Hurricane Ida, how many of those solar installations were configured for off grid or backup configuration? Are they still running, keeping the lights on? Let me know if you know and include some system details if you know them.

–Neal

Other Batteries

A reader wants to know if I have any knowledge of Nickel-Iron or NiFe batteries. See? I read the comments. I just don’t let them post because not everybody is nice or on topic. Anyway, let’s just say I’d love to have a trailer load of NiFe batteries, aka Edison batteries.

Thomas Edison was a childhood hero of mine, until I learned what a jerk he was. Still, you have to be impressed by all the inventions he and his team cranked out. One of these inventions was the Edison battery. The late 1800s had all kinds of batteries, but the automobile was promising to be the next big thing and there just wasn’t a suitable battery on the market. (I still feel that way.) Edison teamed up with Detroit Electric to come up with a practical electric car.

The result was the Nickel-Iron (NFP) battery. I discovered the NFP back in the 70s, reading Michael Hackleman and other alt energy pioneers. There were stories of finding old NFP cells on abandoned farm installations, rinsing them out, refilling with water and dumping in some Red Devil Lye, with the batteries returning to life. I have heard stories of people gathering up old NFP forklift batteries or railway signal batteries and they were still fine after nearly 100 years. What’s not to love with a battery like that?

Here are some characteristics. The electrolyte is water and lye. No acid or toxic lead. It won’t burn holes in your pants. It won’t make your terminals corrode. They are relatively light weight. They pretty much last forever. Great, huh? On the other hand, they use a fair amount of water. (a special Edison oil was developed to minimize the evaporation) And there is a fair amount of self discharge, but not enough to worry you in a solar power system. The thing is, if you make batteries and a warehouse just keeps on replacing worn out fork trucks while using the same set of batteries, how’re you going to make money? So Exide quit making them.

For a while, eastern Europe is where you had to go for them. Then China. Then a company in the USA started selling refurbs and now Iron Edison makes and sells them in the USA. The USA batteries aren’t cheap. I would even question whether or not they are even cost effective, except that they last forever. If you are in your 20s, that could be a good deal. I am getting to the age where I don’t even buy my tomatoes a little green, so I am not sure I am ready to switch over.

They had the charging business figured out. Too bad Edison never got the idea for photovoltaic charging.

However, if I had unlimited play budget, how would I go with batteries? What’s the comparison?
In my own system, I think I would abandon lead-­acid and go with pocket plate Nickel Cadmium, Lithium Iron Phosphate or Nickel-Iron. NiCads got a bad rep with the kinds used in power tools. They would develop a memory a pretty soon would not hold a charge. Pocket plate NiCads don’t do that and are pretty tolerant of heavy charges and discharges. I don’t know where you can find them, except China. Importing from China is always interesting and educational.

You Have a Bunch of Chinese Battery Cells. Do They Work or Are They Full of Sawdust?

LiFePO4 or LFP batteries do not have the energy density of the Lithium Ion batteries used in cars, but they don’t burst into flames quite as easily as the LI batteries. They are smaller and lighter than lead batteries. Unlike lead acid batteries, which don’t like being discharged below 50%, you can repeatedly go down to 20% with LFP batteries, letting you use 80% of the power stashed away and still get perhaps 6000 cycles of use. Furthermore, they aren’t really very fussy about never getting fully recharged. My Zero Export Grid Tie (ZEGT) is a perfect application for LFP batteries. All is not skittles and beer, however. Lithium batteries of any flavor can be very fussy about discharging too much or overcharging. That’s why they come (or should) with a Battery Management System (BMS) to handle the details. Prices are coming down.

Then there is the NiFe. If you overcharge, you just have to add more water. You can discharge them to zero and leave them for 10 years and still bring them back to life. An axe might hurt them, but pretty much anything you do in normal operation won’t. They, like the NiCad and LFP batteries will require different settings on the charge controllers and some inverter/chargers.

Introducing the 1910 Prius Prime

These are all good choices for today. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear of some new battery chemistry coming out, but getting these things to market is slow. Solar, EV and utility use is really driving battery development. The holy grail of batteries will be cheap, fast charging, large capacity, well-mannered and long-lived. They’re working on it, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m also not changing out my lead-acid batteries until I have squeezed out that last kilowatt-hour of the ones I have.
–Neal

Bad Moon Risin’

If you are a newcomer to the Florida Panhandle, Coastal Alabama or Mississippi, you are learning what we mean by “the wet side” of a hurricane. If you you are in Louisiana, you have my sympathies. For us natives, it’s the price of living in paradise.

The wet side is the right or eastern side. Everything spins around the eye, counterclockwise, bringing in moisture off the Gulf and dumping it on the land. By the time the swirls make it around to the left side, they’ve pretty much dumped it all, so that makes the left side the dry side. How wet is it? You can’t get out my south driveway and the north driveway may soon rival the Grand Canyon as an attraction. This morning I had to go to the mailbox in an EV equipped with Mud Crusher tires.

The last tropical storm that came through to the east gave us beautiful weather. Not so, today, 250 miles from Ida’s landfall. We still have leaning trees from last year’s Hurricane Sally. It wasn’t a big one, but it nailed us, dead center, and I’m still waiting for roofers to return my call.

Fortunately, we are not getting the winds, like Mississippi is. Wet ground and winds mean the trees fall over on the power line and the lights go out. That is, they go out if you don’t have solar, battery or generator backup. And since it is a dreary, wet day, it is a good time to talk about cloudy weather solar performance.

How’s that solar working out today? In short, it sucks. If you are off grid or have a hybrid system, learn that and learn to deal with it if you know you are in for a rainy spell or worse. I switched the main circuits over to the grid to conserve battery without waking the generator. I did not go into total conservation mode, foregoing my air conditioned X-Files marathon on the big screen in the man cave. The Cave stays on solar. The house a/c is also hardwired to the solar, so battery is still providing quite a bit of power.

I’ve been watching 2 banks of panels very closely, comparing them because one is pointing south and one is pointing west. I am planning on reporting the performance comparison, but the data is useful for today’s purposes. The south bank is rated for 2700 watts and the west bank is rated for 2500 watts, so they’re pretty close. The first thing you learn is that there are degrees of “cloudy”. There’s ominous, gray cloudy. I check the meters a while ago in that state and one charge control reported that it was resting. Lazy thing. Another reported 50 watts. 50 out of 2700! There’s also medium and bright overcast. They do better, maybe cranking out 20% of rated power. So now you know why they call them solar panels. If you want the real power you have to have the sun shining.

Ok, you know it is coming, a storm or a period of overcast. If you live off grid you can’t just throw the switch. You either have to cut back or fire up the generator. In the old days of solar, when panels were astonishingly expensive, generators were run a lot. Turning $3 worth of diesel into 50 cents worth of electricity is not economical, but sometimes it needs to be done. In my system, I like to run the generator once a month for up to an hour. The system specifies running it more to equalize the lead acid batteries every 90 days and really long and hard to desulphate every 6 months. I’m considering my monthly hour, today, to exercise the generator and boost the batteries a bit.

Then there’s conservation. Cut back or eliminate a/c, if you have it. Cloudy weather naturally cuts back the need and mine has been running very little, today, with outside temp at 77F. A fan in the rooms that are occupied is great, but don’t leave the lights or fans on when you leave. If the kitchen is all electric, quick cooking in the microwave can save a lot of battery power. A Mr. Coffee or Keurig coffee maker is pretty efficient for heating water for oatmeal or noodle cups (but don’t leave the Mr. Coffee on). I grouse about the dishwasher. My wife likes to run it early in the morning when the batteries are low and before the panels get fired up and she runs it more often than I think is necessary. That uses about a kilowatt, but I try not to harp on it too much, lest I find myself doing the dishes.

I went out between showers and came in around 130pm from checking the meters and tending a few chores, to find the clothes dryer was running. That’s on the grid, mostly, but the Zero Export Grid Tie system helps out a bit…when the sun is shining or the batteries are fattened up. I had just observed that the dryer was consuming 5kw while the 2kw of solar panels were contributing 36 watts. At considerable peril to my well being, I brought this to the attention of my wife. “I know, I know. Don’t use the dryer in the morning (before the sun comes up), in the afternoon (when it draws in heat), in the middle of the day (actually that’s ok), on rainy days (no sun) or at night (no sun), right?” says she. “Yep, that’s pretty much it,” I said with a smile. I did not pursue the matter further. The electricity for the dryer cost me 65 cents and I was not injured, so I guess that’s a pretty good deal.

If there are any bullet points for this rambling dissertation….
-Anticipate expected times of low solar output.
-Cut back power consumption where you can.
-Get everybody in the house in conservation mode (be diplomatic).
-Do your scheduled maintenance generator runs during cloudy weather.

–Neal

Hodgepodge or Matched Set?

You can build a fully integrated solar power system using matched components or you can mix and match from a variety of manufacturers. Which is the best way to go? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

My solar power system was not designed as presently it is. It just sort of happened and kept happening over 30 years, or so. It continues to happen and it would come under the heading of a hodgepodge. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it has its limitations.


Every now and then I tear down the control panel and rebuild, but continue to reuse components to save costs. The rebuild keeps it “pretty” and safe. The latest rebuild was more of an annexation, as I put a complete separate system outside and tied the two together. It would have been nice to tear down the system-in-a-box that I bought, but it was such a nice system and worked well. My motto is, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I have other mottoes for other occasions, but that one fit here.


Much of the equipment from my old 24v system did not move over because it won’t work on 48v, which I use now. So how is it that I have such diversity of hardware? As the Solar Shed grew from 16 feet to 68 feet, I needed more gear to keep up with capacity. I was also trying to find just the right gear for my Solar Yacht project (which languishes).
Capable hardware that had a weak display and was hard to use. One of those is in the system, but we are in a state of detente. As long as it does not cause any trouble I leave it alone.


There was a model that was compact, capable and had a dazzling display. I knew that was the one until the display started breaking down and turning to static. Two of those are in obscure systems that will never need their settings changed.


There is one model that was pretty good, but the early software versions could throw the batteries into thermal runaway, which is not desirable. The later models are almost perfect, though not marinized to resist a salt environment.
The anchor of my system, I guess, would be a version of the FlexMax family from Outback. This is just plain great, rugged gear, but it is a bit large for the yacht.


Finally, the annex system has a Midnite Solar 250 charge controller. That’s another can’t-go-wrong choice for home. They have a marinized controller, too, or is that Outback? Anyway…


All of these charge controllers control the charge. Well, except for the two with the bad firmware. If you need more functionality, it’ll cost you and it might be worth it. What more do you need? Glad you asked.


You know I mentioned the thermal runaway? The Outback and MidNite units have temperature sensors. That is a really good feature to have if you use agm batteries or have a bit too much solar for the amount of battery you have. You don’t want your batteries to cook and you’ll find that for best performance and longevity, the charging characteristics should change with temperature.


Also, the full featured units often have some sort of networking to allow you to keep up with all the conditions and statistics of your system, some even with a phone app. A lot of people go crazy over data to start and then let it slide after the “new” wears off. However, if you are troubleshooting a change in performance data can be very important. I’m trying to write about some changes and coming by the data is not as easy as calling up a spreadsheet on the laptop. I’m having to manually log numbers in a notebook.


However, while many of my controllers just display current conditions, the Midnite and the FlexMax supply all sorts of data. The Flexmax logs 180 days worth. I am comparing a traditionally South-facing legacy bank of solar modules with the similarly sized annex bank that is facing westward. I will write about that later, but (spoiler alert!) the West bank is kicking out the KWH! I have some add-on meters and am waiting on some more so that I can get more information. My homebrew inverter is equipped with a totalizer, but I have not been able to find one in the pricey SMA Sunny Island inverters of the annex. The only way I can presently tell how much fun I am having is by looking at my power bill. Spoiler alert for another article is that I am having more fun than last year. I’ll let you know the how and why in a different blog piece.


I talked mostly about the charge controllers. Some of the inverters are pretty darn smart, too. My homemade inverter is dumb as a rock (and twice as heavy), but it cranks out the power. The SMA units talk to the charge controller and together they work things out. External boxes can give you more data and features. The downside of all that is that there is a thicker manual to read. If I had a manual for the homemade SunKing inverter it would be limited to telling you the location of the ON-OFF switch. I recently had to delve into the inner workings of the SMA inverter and I have to say I was intimidated. Once I calmed down and read through it I was in on their way of doing business. I made a couple of notes on what I needed to do to change a parameter in the generator’s battery charging specs, it was easy and I left the cheat sheet taped to the inverter for future changes. No big deal. Just read the manual.


So what’s the upshot? You can save money if you can get by with basic, no frills hardware, though there will be more manuals to read. The big name outfits can provide you with more information, more features and a system in which all the components can live in harmony. NOT having to resolve a problem because one hardware maker blames the other hardware maker is great, too. The A-list makers also tend to have good customer service and reasonable repair prices. I have seen one lesser maker charge full value of an inverter just for a control board. If you have a problem with most of the Ebay/China stuff, it’ll cost you more to ship it back than to buy a new one, so those items should be considered disposables.
Your choice.–Neal


Can You Dig It?

Maybe you should use caution. A little reminder can help you determine if you are going flat out or being extra careful.

I hate to dig, I really do. Grad students at UWF archaeology digs have offered to put dirt on a shovel and hand it to me so they could get a picture of me “digging”, but it hasn’t happened yet.

At home, though, that’s another matter. Sometimes you have to do it. I have maybe 3900 feet of water line and hundreds of feet of electrical cables in the ground, so yeah, sometimes I dig a little. I just finished up the new ground mount I was telling you about and had to bury the conduit. There are lots of oak roots, but not so much room as to warrant a trip to Home Depot for a trencher rental. Oh, and there is stuff down there I don’t want dug up.

The first run, a water line to the house, I dug using a tractor and a breaking plow. There was no competition back then so I went back and forth a few times to get it deep. I FOUND that water line when I was planting posts to build the Solar Shed, and that experience firmly lodged itself in my memory. Later, I used a trencher to make a run from the Shed to the house. There was enough room in the corridor that I figured I could do this safely. It was a long trench and, as I have mentioned, I don’t like to dig. I guessed right and a direct burial cable and two conduits went in there.

The new array’s power cables come in almost at right angles to the old stuff and crossing, so I knew I’d have to be careful. I started out at the array and went at it like a wild man, or at least as wild as a man can be in this heat. As I approached the front door of the shed I was being very careful and, surely enough, I found the water line, working around it very gingerly. The power conduits were nearby. Everything was buried without mishap, but what if I get to the point someday where I have to hire someone who doesn’t know where everything is buried? Or if I start getting forgetful(er)?

A sign is an easy way. It may not be an exact road map, but it can warn you to be careful. Cheap insurance. I have another sign just like it at the power “dog house” behind the house.

By the way, if you have trenching to do by hand, use a trenching shovel. They are skinny and you only have to move the dirt necessary to bury a cable or pipe. A good hardware store will have them.–Neal

If you have roots, bring an ax, too.

Pay Attention!

I guess that bit of advice applies in a lot of areas, doesn’t it? Here’s a quick example of what can go wrong if you don’t.

Mike came up with some nifty (that’s a 1960’s term, meaning awesome) adjustable solar panel racks. 2 rows of 5 each. He had several and talked me out of the one I had. Originally they held panels in the neighborhood of 250 watts, but some folks were hopping them up with panels up to around 330 watts. 60 cell vs 72 cell. The extra length of the 72 cell modules was not a problem as 60s and 72s are the same width, about a meter. Or metre, if y’all ain’t from around here. You do have to watch the series voltage, though, to keep the charge controllers happy. 72 cell panels are going to put out around an extra dozen volts. So, see? Pay attention.


Well, Mike decided that if a 330w panel was good, the one that puts out 440w is bound to be better, right? The 440s had the voltages in the right range so he ordered a bunch of them. The problem is, he didn’t pay attention to the physical size. They are longer, which could be awkward, but he could deal with that. The real problem is that they are about 3 inches wider than the panels to which he was accustomed. Therefore, the rack is only wide enough for rows of 4 panels instead of 5. Oops.


Well, don’t feel sorry for Mike. He can always find uses for extra solar panels. He also has a couple of pallets of 330w panels, so he can get right to work on the project.


It looks like the Solarever 440 is the panel Mike bought, but I see John has some in the 530 watt range, too! Check those out at sunelec.com‘s home page. Also note that next to most listings there is a PDF symbol. That’s the data sheet so you can get the volts, amps, watts, size and weight specs. If the PDF is missing, give Roberto a call and he can get you the info. Pay attention to the details and the project will go smoother.–Neal

Why Won’t She Put Out?

There’s the power you think your solar power system should put out and then there is the actual amount and they are not the same. You can usually do something about that. What’d you think I meant?

My new 10 panel, 2500 watt, solar array is just about finished. I need a few clamps and I’m going to add a quick disconnect, but it is running and stable. It isn’t putting out 2500 watts though. We’ll go over some things to look for if your system is not performing at expected levels.


First off, understand that your modules are rated at a certain temperature, with the panels dead-on into the sun and the sunshine full and bright. There aren’t many places where you can meet those conditions unless you have a tracking mount. So, just get it in your head that it isn’t going to be 100%. Let’s get close as we can, though.


Let’s start at the panels. If they are adjustable or trackable, are they aimed right? Trackers use power and require maintenance. You can buy more panels and pretty much make up the difference without trackers.

Chances are good that a panel that looks like this may no longer be capable of full rated output.


Here’s an obvious one: are the panels clean? I took a rag to one of my panels and just scrubbing about a square foot turned it black! It didn’t LOOK dirty, but it sure was! This afternoon I got the windshield scrubber out and went down the row. Oh, my goodness the black water was just rolling off. I had cleaned them after pine pollen season, but not since crop duster season. A 1200 hp engine can kick up a lot of dirt when trying to launch 16,000 pounds of airplane, but it just didn’t show. I just need some full sunshine to see if there is improvement. You may not have crop dusters, but mines, quarries and coal plants can kick up a lot of particulate matter. Even brake dust from traffic.

Yup, that one’s dirty


Go down the line of panels and check your MC4 (or whatever) connectors. MC4s should be tight and clicked in. If not, you could get a poor fit, high resistance and heat. Many’s the WalMart roof that has been seen taking a smoke break owing to loose-fitting connectors. Check with a thermometer gun or just feel.


Are your wires big enough? Usually the solar wire is AWG10, but I have noticed with the wire shortages that there is a lot of thinner 12 gauge wire on the market. A solar string usually runs around 8-10 amps, so that is not an issue unless you are running parallel strings and pushing the limits of the wire. Heaven help you if you got ahold of some Chinese fake solar wire. More on that in a minute.


I saw on a boat forum where a guy was not getting much power from the new solar system on his boat. He had installed two 100w panels and was getting a little under 100 watts. His 12v system had a PWM charge controller, which did not work well with the 40 volt input he had from the two “12 volt” panels in series. He would have been fine with an MPPT controller. Changing to a parallel configuration saved the day. The question, then, is your system wired correctly?


Are you getting shade? Poly- and monocrystalline panels are really fussy about shade, especially the small panels. Full size panels tend to have 3 complete circuits, so a partial shade may not shut down the entire panel and the entire string. If shading is an issue, you might be better off with less series and more parallel connection, keeping in mind the charge controller’s needs. In other words, you might connect for two 60 volt circuits instead of one 120 volt circuit.


Finally, do you have hot spots? An IR thermometer gun is good for scanning panels, but you can use your hands. Rub your hand across the panel and it should be warm-to-hot if the sun is out. If your fingertips melt crossing a particular cell, you have a problem and that panel should be removed, repaired or replaced. It could have a bad diode in the plastic box on the back. The next step is the cell turns brown. Shortly after that the glass explodes, so this is something best caught early.


I know that a few dozen panels in the roof of my Solar Shed are not connected, as I was planning an expansion. These are small panels, but I can pick up around 800 watts, just by using what are not plugged in. There are lots of strings of these modules that ARE plugged in, but two strings have a problem and I have pulled the fuses. If you have multiple strings that are all the same, and can isolate them, it is real easy just to turn the strings on one at a time and watch the power increments. Understand that these modules of mine have been stomped and thrown off the roofs of earlier installations, so they sometimes have issues that new panels would not. Usually a diode has blown and the bad one in a string of 21 panels can be found…but NOT during the summer. It is 140 degrees up there. I could use that extra 1500 watts, but I can get by without it until January.

Two bad strings are disabled until January. Being able to readily isolate each line coming in makes for easy troubleshooting.


Moving on, the next stop will be a disconnect, combiner box and charge controller. You need to periodically snug up the screws to keep the connections good. Any signs of heat should be a call to action. The meters on your charge controller are usually sufficient to show that power is coming and going and the charge controller usually works or it doesn’t. I did recently see a Midnite Solar 250 that appeared to be running, with input, but no power was coming out. That will turn out to be some charred transistors inside. That may be beyond your technical abilities, but take heart in the fact that the mainstream makers, like MS, can repair gear for a whole lot less than the price of a new one.


I recently looked in on my Zero Export Grid Tie system and discovered the charge controller to be dark. A closer look revealed that the wire to the output breaker was melted and the breaker was browned. I swapped the breaker, which was actually ok, with a new one from the spares and replaced the wire and all was fine. (Charred components do not impress people who see your system.) Remember I said we’d get back to Chinese fake wire? I got a roll of it some years ago and thought I had discarded it all, but about 4 inches of it remained in my wire drawer, it seems. It isn’t really copper and the aluminum core just disintegrates very quickly. The high resistance browned the breaker and melted the insulation.

Brown is not a good color with electronics.


Now we’ll make our way to the battery and or inverter. Here you get into some serious amperage and clean, tight connections are a must. If it is too hot to touch, it is too hot. Battery terminals can melt if left too loose and then the battery is ruined. (See my post on repairing battery terminals) Sometimes a battery will develop a shorted cell and a lot of power will be wasted trying to charge it. If a flooded cell battery is really going through a lot of water, then something is wrong. It could be charge settings or it could be time to say goodby to the battery.

Oh, dear, two batteries had meltdowns owing to loose connections.


If everything seems ok to here, but the battery just does not last, it may be time to equalize and/or desulfate your lead acid batteries. This can rarely be done online with solar power only. If you have multiple banks, you can pull them off one at a time to condition them, while keeping the system running.


Those are just a few suggestions. Other sneaky problems can creep in, but I think I’ve given you a start.–Neal

Generator TLC

In June, I headed up to North Carolina for a few weeks of solar projects. And motorcycles. Have you ever driven a Russian Ural with a sidecar?

Equipped for adventure, this rig is headed to a missionary in New Guinea. We had to test drive it to make sure it is ok. The mission’s buildings are solar powered, by the way.

What could be a better combination? No sooner than I leave town, though, a tropical storm heads for my house. Just the usual damage: the driveway is gone and a few more trees are down. MY power stayed on, of course. Via the wonders of SMS texting, Bro was lamenting that he no longer had a generator and I mentioned I could make him a deal on a great generator I had. It was one he had discarded as irreparable. More on that in a bit.


Once in North Carolina, one of the projects was a solar refit on an old Winnebago motorhome. It was getting rooftop solar, a new inverter and a bank of lithium batteries. And, oh by the way, Neal, the generator won’t start, can you put a new starter on it? If only…


I know this is the solar blog, but generators have long been an important adjunct to solar power systems. Cloud happens, you know, and sometimes you need more than the sun can provide for special occasions, like desulphating your batteries.


The two generators had both shared and separate miseries. Bro’s leaked oil like mad and you could pull the rope until your shoulder pulled out of socket and it would not start. It was maybe 10 years old, shed stored and little used. He is redoing the back deck and shed, so everything got tossed, including the generator, which was tossed my way.


First thing to look at was the oil problem. I started going over it with a wrench, fearing the case was not tight or maybe it was cracked. Nope. Everything was snug…except the oil drain plug. You may recall from the Turbo Beast story that I don’t rate Bro’s mechanical skills very highly, but …really!?!? One thing about a generator with a Honda engine, or any other with a low oil switch, it won’t run without oil. That is a good thing. Others WILL run without oil. Once. Not for very long. With the oil plug snugly in place, the leak was gone, but it still would not start. Now we get to the really weak spot for generators and small engines in general: bad gas.


What is bad gas? If it is ordinary 10% gasohol that has been away from the station a while. THAT’S bad gas. It is fine if you keep running, but when it just sits, it turns into a vile goo that eventually becomes tar in the delicate spaces of your carburetor. I have gone over to using marine gas in my generators and fleet of lawn mowers. In storage, carburetors should be drained and gas should be kept in sealed containers. Some people swear by the additive “Seafoam”, which I strongly doubt is actual sea foam. At the end of use, let the generator run dry, for best results. Between runs, while still in season, I leave the pure marine gas in the tank and shut off the fuel valve to drain the carb and stop the engine.


Back in North Carolina, the Winny’s Onan turned into a can of worms. At first glance you will decide there is no way you can change the starter without removing the generator. Actually, you can! However, when I removed the old starter, it was missing the Bendix gear. Oh, foo! Long story short, it had to come out and got rolled over and over before the pieces finally fell out. At that point, we were where the starter broke in the first place: It would not start, so the owner kept grinding it over and over whilst misting it generously with starting fluid. It was the strong backfire that split the gear.

It is one thing to get the Onan out of a coach–a transmission jack helps– and quite another to turn it on end to shake out the broken pieces of starter. MC, there, has been getting me into trouble for 6 decades and on two continents.


The gas in the motorhome’s tank had not been changed in years and was amber, going brown in color. The huge big-block Chevy V8 flows enough that it had not been affected, but the Onan was suffering a clot. While the dozen of gallons in the fuel tank had turned brown, the few ounces in the carburetor had turned into a tarball.


Now we are at a common point in this tale of two generators. A carb is a pipe with a constriction called a venturi. The air flows through and at the venturi a vacuum is formed, which sucks a mist of gasoline into the airstream bound for the combustion chamber. The amount of fuel flow is regulated by one or more “jets” and an adjustable needle valve. There are variations and complications, but that is the basic deal. Oh, there is a float valve in there that keeps the gasoline in the bowl at a constant level and some engines may have a fuel pump bolted onto the engine, somewhere. Bro’s generator has a fuel tank over the engine, so no pump needed. The Onan has an electric pump to draw from the vehicle fuel tank.

A typical small engine carburetor. The bowl (bottom) should be clean. Above it, there is a bit of gray shaft below the white float valve… in there you’ll find the jet, which is removed with a screw driver.


The most common problem will be the jet is clogged. The bottom of the circular fuel bowl usually has what appears to be a nut, an electrical solenoid or a black plastic altitude adjuster (on the Onan) which is unscrewed and the bowl will drop down. You may or may not have to remove the carburetor to do this and even if you don’t have to, you might end up doing a better job of cleaning if you do. For good measure, mark a line where the bowl joins the main casting, as it often needs to go back the same way to avoid jamming the float.

Some engines have a drain to empty the carb before putting the generator away.


Be careful, this stuff is a little delicate and we are talking about flammable liquids, here. Clean up the bowl and whatever came down with it. The “nut” may contain the jet or a needle valve. Any needle valve you remove, count the turns when you unscrew it and put it back in just the same for a proper fuel mixture. Any parts that look like they have a hole, but you can’t see or blow through, take a fine piece of stiff wire to force out the clot. Any number of solvents will work, even the WD40 you probably have, but be careful you don’t dissolve the float! There is actual carburetor cleaner you can buy at the auto parts store, too. It is quite likely that the shaft to which your fuel bowl was attached has a jet up in there and a port in the side. If a medium screwdriver inserted catches a screw slot, run it on out and clean the gunk from there.

Technical description of carburetor parts on an Onan. Pop off the Adjuster Thingy with a screwdriver, then use a wrench on the metal bits to remove the bowl.


At this point, you have not done a complete carb overhaul, but there is a good chance you can get it running. Put it all back together, check for leaks and give it a start. In both cases, I changed the oil and various filters. The Honda’s filter was crumbling with age.

If your foam air filter does this when you squeeze it, it is time for a new one.


When I left North Carolina, the Onan was rumbling along at its leisurely 1200 rpm, which sounds too slow if you don’t know any better. This morning, when I tried out a new cable from Bro’s former generator to my Sunny Island inverter/charger, it fired up on the first pull and settled in at 6600 watts, just shy of full continuous rating. That tells me the fuel is flowing freely. To keep it that way, it is fueled with the pure, alcohol-free gas and the carb was run dry when I was done testing.


Knowing this little bit might help you find a used generator super cheap. If the oil is super black, then they probably ignored the 25 or 50 hour oil change. That would be an iffy choice. If the oil level is low, the generator may not start just because it just needs oil. If won’t start after having sat unattended since the last hurricane…you know what to do.

I’m home, now. Bro came by with the grandkids for a picnic the other day, bringing his NEW 2500 watt dual-fuel inverter generator to power the induction plate and George Foreman grill. Whatever happened to putting the hot dogs on a grill over a wood fire? He says the generator won’t run long on the tiny internal gas tank, but runs a long time on the 20 pound propane bottle. That sounds like a plan and he’ll never crapify the carb if he only runs propane. Man, he has been bragging about this generator, a Honda clone, but he looked like he was going to wear himself out after a dozen pulls on the rope. It is supposed to start by the third pull. It did, after I reached over and turned on the propane tank valve.—Neal

Rack ‘Em Up!

They’ve gotta go somewhere!

A while back I mentioned that I had a glut of solar modules. That does not mean I have too many, they just are not all up and running. I am in the process of getting another 10 panels up, this time on a ground mount facing a bearing of 260 degrees. That’s almost west! That’s not where most people point them, but I like to mix it up a bit and late afternoon is my peak summer use time.


If you have made up your mind that you are “goin’ solar” you need to consider where you are going to put them. On the roof is a pretty good option if you have a new roof and a small yard. If your roof is 20 years old, you should consider refreshing that before putting up solar panels, because it is a lot of work to take them down and put them back up again when you do get your roof replaced.


Floating solar has become “a thing” amongst the big players. We are going to have to put up many acres of modules to cover all of our power needs, present and future, but we still need acres upon which we can grow food and build houses. Floating is only a good option if you have a lake in the yard.


Rural folks, like me, and those with a good lot and no zoning restrictions can put them out in the back yard on ground mounts. There is a lot of leeway in designing a ground mount. Don’t be happy with a frame that will just hold up the panels on a calm day. Consider the worst case in weather events. We have hurricanes, at my house, so I plan for dealing with a good strong breeze several times a year.

This fellow has three of these adjustable steel panel mounts to hold 30 modules….unless he doesn’t read the specs and gets wide panels.

There are no hard and fast rules. There is an outfit in France that has put up a farm, mounting the panels on random oak branches placed in the ground. They want to prove how “sustainable” and “green” they are, I guess. Florida termites would probably appreciate that approach. Within a year the panels would all be on the ground.


Speaking of which, one solar farm outfit is building on the premise that panels are so cheap, they’ll just buy more of them with the money they save on ground mounts and trackers. Yup, they are just laying the panels out in neat rows on the ground. Not sure how that is going to play with weeds, dirt and bird splat, but they seem to think it is a good idea. The 10 panels I am mounting have been in similar arrangement, except they’ve been on or leaning against a trailer for a while. This would be a very vulnerable situation in an area that has hail. We don’t.


I have made ground mounts with 4×4 posts and 2×4 diagonals, using treated wood in consideration of the aforementioned termites. I’ve also made them with 4x4s and metal sign posts. Unlike a former neighbor who made his corral from posts stolen from a local park, I got mine from the county’s stock of material to be discarded.

That one is not terribly complicated. 4×4 and 2×4 lumber


A friend is using mounts made of square tube steel. They were originally mounted on mobile solar generator trailers, so he will have to heavily ballast them or tie them into some ground anchors of some sort.


So, for ground mounts, I will start with a couple of points. First off, people will not necessarily be impressed if your mounts place your panels in perfect, straight rows. They WILL notice if they are are wobbly and erratic in their mounts. The best tool for making a neat ground mount is a piece of string! I rooted in my archæology kit and found some fluorescent string with a mounting block and a string level. If you don’t have an archæology kit, then Home Depot or the hardware store will have these items.

Here we have fixed conduit in concrete on the low end. Seasonal angles are selected by using longer or shorter struts for adjustment.


Secondly, observers will not be impressed if they find your modules in their yard after a storm. Some installations I have seen in the islands and on rooftops use ballast or heavy stuff to hold racks down. I find there is no substitute for concrete in the ground. I dig as deep as I can with posthole diggers and make the hole wider at the bottom than at the top, so it’ll take more effort to uproot the posts. Also, put some concrete in the hole first, so steel will not be in contact with soil. Steel holds up very well in contact with concrete.

After the first post, you can stretch out your string and see if you have room for it all. Yeah, those panels on the right are working.


Back around 1970, we had an oil boom around here and Dad had some pieces of used drill stem for an RV shed. Dad and the shed are gone, but I saved the steel. It is good, heavy stuff and it was free, so that’s what I used. I like to avoid spending money when I can, but it catches up with me anyway. I still needed cutting discs, welding rods, clamps, nuts, bolts and washers. And concrete. The drill stem is providing the primary mount and I had exactly enough for 10 panels.
My original plan was to fabricate some U-bolts from threaded rod stock, but then I discovered that 2 1/2″ rigid conduit clamps were a perfect fit. And easier. If I make my secondary (lower) mounts adjustable then the seasonal angle can be adjusted, should I desire to do so. I am leaning toward a fixed mount.

I used a grinder to cut saddles in the top of the posts. Everything holds still while you weld it that way. Why, yes, I did weld it using solar-generated electricity (not shown)
The blue tape marks the panel locations to make sure we don’t end up needing to put a clamp where a post is. That would just be awkward.

The panels will be drilled in a fixture to assure that each fits identically. These clamps will be a perfect fit when bolted in place. Not all panel frames have a flat bottom like these. These clamps would not work on frames with a knife edge.


I’ll let you know how it all turns out when I am done, but I just wanted to throw out some ideas for you. Also, I wanted to remind you that something as simple as a piece of string can be an important tool in positioning or laying out your array.– Neal


PS– Read the specs of panels you plan to order or, better, measure the panels you have. One fellow I know got some nice steel racks designed to hold 30 modules. STANDARD 1 meter wide modules. He was so thrilled to find a deal on some odd high-watt modules that he failed to notice that the more powerful panels were a bit too wide and it ended they would not all fit.

Are You On The List?

Do you get the email blasts from Sun Electronics? If not, you might need to go to the HOME page and sign up to find the latest bargains.

I am not in the sales department at John Kimball’s solar wonderland. I live 700 miles away and I find out about the latest deals via the emails, like everybody else.

Right now I have more solar modules than I know what to do with. Honestly, I have piles of them, so the listings of a super deal on panels doesn’t get me worked up. When I have needed panels for a project I have gotten excited and headed down Interstate 95 and loaded up the truck.

If you know Sun Electronics, you know there are always good deals on solar modules. If you know John Kimball, you know he sometimes goes bonkers with some crazy-cheap bargains!

This last email had some goodies known in the trade as BOS or Balance of System. That means the rest of the stuff, beyond just the solar panels. I got all worked up about the GS inverters in the latest blast. There is such a high demand for 48v inverters and charge controllers right now that they are hard to find and generally not highly discounted. Yet, there they were.

I am presently up to my ears in inverters with not just a live set, but a selectable hot standby. Otherwise I’d have been on the phone to Roberto in a heartbeat. I like the GS series because you can get 240 out of a single unit, unlike my Sunny Islands. And if you need more power you can “stack” them. Furthermore there are all sorts of options for grid tie, grid interactive, standby or standalone. They are super reliable, too.

From what I read, there may be a new version of the GS out. That’s the only reason I can figure for a clearance on such good stuff as that!

I don’t know if those units are still there or if there are some new bargains. Call Roberto to find out if you need some new gear or a spare.

–Neal

don't try this at home

STILL Not A Generator Plug

I used to get a magazine for electricians, EC&M, I think. Every month they’d have a photo layout of scary stuff that electricians and inspectors had come across.

Our recent “not a generator plug” photo would have gone well in that feature. While I was concentrating on the dangers of having the shiny bits electrified in a bootleg generator lashup, electrician Michael spotted a couple of other problems.

Note that either side of and below the 30 amp dryer socket, there are 110v duplex outlets. A basic 220 line consists of 3 wires. (Often there is a fourth wire, which is a ground wire.) Two of them provide the 220 (sometimes 240, but who’s counting). Take one of them and the third wire, known as the neutral, and you get 110v. What happened here was each hot “leg” (I don’t know why they are called legs. I just accept it and suffer no anxiety over the matter.) was connect to an outlet pair to provide some 110, if needed in the barn where this is located.

I doubt that anything was ever plugged into these particular outlets, but Michael noted that there is no fuse or circuit breaker in the mix, potentially allowing a lot more than the usual 15 amps through these outlets. The problem isn’t so much with plugging A cord into AN outlet. Michael has worked in hurricane country and observed the tendency that folks seem to have of plugging a LONG and LIGHT duty 16 gauge cord into such a plug or directly into the generator. Then there is one or more outlet strips on the far end of the cord with all manner of things connected, exceeding the AMPACITY (remember that word?) of the wiring. Fire ensues, much to everyone’s disappointment and dismay.

What Michael could not know, from the photo, but probably suspected, the generator is a large tractor-driven model that puts out a whole lot more than 30 amps, so even the big socket was in danger or a meltdown. There’s that AMPACITY business, again! We won’t even discuss the cable that was used between the generator and the not-a-generator-plug!

That might give me anxiety.

–Neal

don't try this at home

This Is NOT a Generator Plug

It is getting to be that time of year, when a lot of people think about getting a generator in case there is a hurricane.

A permanently wired generator eliminates dealing with cables.

Even if you have solar, it is a good idea to have a generator for times of extra load or for equalizing batteries. There’s also no guarantee all your modules will still be where they were before the storm, once it all settles down.

“Hubbell” or twist-lock connectors won’t fall out if someone trips over them. The generator side will have no exposed “hot” prongs. The cord to the house loads does not have any power on it until you plug it in. On the house end of the cable, there will be no exposed prongs, just like you see on the white cabinet. The house connector will have the exposed prongs, which are safe until you plug in the cord and will remain safe because the connector covers everything. There are many sizes and configurations of twist locks. These are 240v, 50amp “California” connectors.
A Hubbell connector for 120v and 30 amps…a common size.

The thing about generators, though, is that so few people do it right. You need a proper generator plug and a transfer switch. The transfer switch lets you select the power company or the grid as your power source. It also prevents your generator from backfeeding into the neighborhood, possibly killing a lineman, but most certainly killing the generator. If you have solar, your inverter may also have a transfer switch built in to allow the generator to take over. That’s all well and good, but where people run into trouble is how they connect the generator to the house.

A lot of people take what is essentially a double-ended extension cord and plug into a wall outlet for a small generator or a 220 socket normally used for the clothes dryer. What’s wrong with that? First of all, if the plug is not securely plugged in, it’ll soon be on the floor where someone might touch those energized prongs. Second, if the meter is not pulled or the breakers pulled, power can go out into the world. A proper generator plug uses a “Hubbel” or twist-lock connector that won’t fall out and the generator side of it has no exposed contacts.

If the power goes into your house by a socket like this, the hot plug from the generator is going to carry deadly voltage. And it is exposed when not plugged in! If you manage to get it plugged in without killing yourself, note that the straight prongs do not lock and it can easily come unplugged, exposing the deadly voltage. This is an outlet, which is fine for plugging in a clothes dryer or welder, but not a safe place to plug in the generator.
If your generator connection is outdoors. It should be in a water resistant case that closes off when not in use.

Many years ago we had a storm that was unexpectedly fierce and the power was out for weeks. I did not have any provision for a generator, but I had a big old diesel rig out in the barn, so I improvised. I brought the power in, hardwired to one of the outside a/c disconnect boxes. The main breakers were pulled and I removed the power meter, replacing it with a protective sheet.

Was the power company upset that I broke the seals and snatched out the meter? No! They thanked me for not killing them.–Neal

July solar arc at the Solar Shed

A Different Angle

Traditionally, we’ve been told to point our solar arrays to the south.  There were guidelines on the angle from horizontal, too.  Pretty much all of this is open for question, now.

You may have noted my recent posts on the arc the sun travels and my experiments with a vertical array.  There’s more to it.  Instead of my next expansion of the Solar Shed being linear along the airstrip, I’ve decided to make a portion of it extend to the north, with a north-facing slope for the solar roofing tiles.  I had thought to add just a carport for the EVs on the backside, but the Man Cave needs room for a fitness center and other activities.  Careful observation has shown that a north slope could pick up quite a bit of morning and afternoon sun.

It’s not just me, thinking this way, and people who don’t have a roof with a perfect southern exposure needn’t fret when wanting to add solar.  Recent studies in Australia have found that splitting the array between northeast and northwest is a good plan.  Bear in mind that the Land Down Under is upside down, or we who dwell in the Northern Hemisphere would say southeast and southwest.

Why?

Well, think about when you use your electricity and the possibility that maybe sometimes you are making too much and other times not enough.  In grid tie situations, there are sometimes limits on how much the power company allows you to export.  Also, places that have high concentrations of solar, have run into problems when everybody is making max power at the same time.

Typically, we use the most power in the morning and evening.  Think about it.  You roll out of bed and go turn on Mr. Coffee.  You stumble into the shower, which activates the water heater.  You pop a couple of frozen waffles into the toaster or nuke a frozen omelette.  You might even fry up some bacon and eggs on the stove.  After breakfast, you toss the dishes into the dishmasher (yeah, that’s what we call it) and off you go to work.  Lots of electricity was consumed.

Maybe you set back the thermostat during the day, so it cycles a little and so does the fridge.  Not much goes on during the day.

You come back home, after work, and hit the thermostat.  Turn on the tube for the evening news.  Run pretty much everything in the kitchen to get supper ready.  Maybe do a load of laundry.  More water heater and more dishwasher.

Lots of power in the morning and evening.  If your arrays (instead of array) pick up more power early and late, it can be self consumed and not run as much back into the grid.  This minimizes the chance of exceeding a limit.  It is very beneficial in areas where they pay you, say, 4 cents for your power and charge you 12 cents to get it back.

There are benefits off grid, as well.  I see in my own array that my batteries sometimes are just begging for some morning sun, especially these mornings where the A/C needs to really get buzzing early.  Here, we define a warm day as 80 by 8 and a hot day is 90 by 9am.

Then, late in the afternoon, that afternoon sun is way off the axis of the south array, but really cooking the back side of the house, placing maximum load on the A/C.  Not only that, I get hungry about then and all the kitchen stuff comes online.

At solar high noon, my batteries are pretty much topped and more power is being generated than is being consumed.  That means I am just throwing power away.  Part of that will be alleviated with my next battery upgrade and that will allow me to put more load on the system.

Another angle on this, so to speak, is time of year output.  Come winter, the sun will lean a bit more to the south.  The array on the north slope may get little or even no direct exposure to the sun.  They will put out a bit because of incidental insolation, but the lower angle on the southern array will produce more power due to closer alignment to the sun.  Then there is the matter of load.  I rarely run the A/C in winter.  I suppose I could run the heat pump.  That would save on the efforts involved with firewood.  Firewood is good exercise, badly needed exercise, but there may come a time when I can’t handle that anymore.  The problem with heat pumps, which gas companies are quick to highlight, is that they don’t pump much heat when it is truly cold.  That’s why we have a wood furnace boiler out in the backyard.

For now, though, summer is our high power consumption time. Right now, probably about 90% of my solar output is going to air conditioning and that is more than the rest of the loads combined.

Therefore, I propose that you carefully study what your loads are, and when, and you might find your options for an effective solar array are better than you thought.–Neal

AMPACITY

AMPACITY. That’s our word for the day. If you think it sounds like a mashup of “ampere” and “capacity”, then give yourself a gold star. That’s exactly what it is.

So, what’s it all about? If you are moving electricity around with wires, then you need to understand that you need to choose the wire of the right ampacity. Really thin wire could melt and start a fire. Too thin wire would work safely, but you might lose some precious watts to resistance. Wire that is too fat is fine, but expensive. Choose the right wire and you will end up with a system that is safe and cost effective.

Here’ a tip: Put wire spools on a rod or pipe in the rafters. They will be out of the way, but easy to spool out whatever you need. Still plenty of that strange green solar cable, but the 00 gauge spool has run dry, thanks to the addition of two very large batteries to my system. At $4.50 per foot, that 250′ spool may have to stay empty until I actually need some.

Lower voltages require thicker wire of a higher ampacity than higher voltage. In my house, most of the outlets are on 20 amp circuits delivered by 12 gauge wire. This might sometimes be listed as 12 AWG. Some houses are wired with 15 amp circuits and 14 gauge wire.

Battery cables tend to be thicker on 12 volt systems than on 24v or 48v systems. Why? To get the same number of watts (Watts = Amps X Volts) it takes 4X the amps on a 12v system than on a 48v system.

On a household 120vac system, it is ok to lose 2 volts in the resistance of the wire, but losing 2 volts between the battery and inverter might mean the inverter will do a low voltage shutdown.

I have a situation at my house where the wire I have buried is only good for 40 amps and I can now easily supply 50 amps at 240vac. There is a bunch of stuff in the ground along the path, so I will be very careful not to hit water or sparks if I dig a new trench, but the real scare is the price of wire, these days. Since the beginning of the year, the wire that I need has jumped to $902! Whoa!

A peek into Neal’s miscellaneous wire bits drawer. The white is really good 10AWG solar cable. The red 2AWG piece is plenty for a golf car battery cable. The black piece of 00AWG will work fine for a battery cable on the big batteries in the house system. There is no such thing as scrap wire at my house!

Now, mind you, that’s for copper wire. What if I check the ampacity of ALUMINUM direct burial cable? Turns out, that’s a couple of steps thicker (wire usually increments in 2 points), but the price is only $258. That sounds a whole lot better. I don’t like aluminum wire, but I may make an exception!

Ampacity tables are all over the internet. What I have run into with them is that some tables list for safe current capacity and not necessarily for code compliant or for the voltage level where you are working. Take a look at the rating for 12AWG and see if they say about 20 amps. If so, you have the right table. Make it a little thicker (smaller AWG number) for lower voltage battery runs. 10AWG is typical for solar panel strings and 00 or 0000AWG are typically used for batteries on big systems.

It isn’t just the ampacity or wire gauge that is important. Use wire rated for the application. Here, someone used 10AWG THHN wire instead of approved solar cable to wire panels. 6 years later, the outer insulation layer is peeling off. Another few years and there could be some serious problems! Use the THHN in conduit to power your central air!

As for my situation, to dig or not to dig? One of these days. Maybe.

Various and Sundry Items

I have not forgotten you. I’ve been upgrading my own system, while hot rodding one of my solar powered electric farm vehicles, getting Turbo Beast stuck on archæology expeditions, cleaning up hurricane debris and goofing off when possible. I have another kilowatt of solar connected and 1500 watts more waiting for a mounting rack. The 12kw inverter set is connected to the transfer switch to the house, leaving the old inverter on standby. The new batteries are working out well.

One of my electric farm trucks is based on a Yamaha G19 golf car. For the record, it is CAR, not CART. Legal definition. Honest. Anyway, the little truck has always been a little low and has been prone to getting sticks jammed under it if you run over them. We normally have plenty of sticks, but with last summer’s hurricanes we have an overabundance of them, not to mention fallen trees by the hundreds. I don’t run over sticks, but unnamed others do. This rips all the wires out of the bottom and the vehicle is no longer useful. The wiring is peculiar in golf cars and most of it has to be intact for it to run.

After the last stranding, I ordered a lift kit to get the bottom out of the sticks. Then I needed 23″ Mud Crushers on 10″ mag wheels. Sticks don’t bother it, now. Mud, either. It is fitted with a new 3000 watt pure sine inverter, so I can run the big electric chainsaw and all of the woodworking tools. I’ve had it with gas saws and sorry gas. So I am doing some cleanup logging with the Yamaha, cutting sawmill size stuff and firewood. Oh, the car got some heavier springs so I can carry 1000 lbs of firewood. It will be getting a new body and revised truck bed, as well.

You’d be surprised what you can do with a small electric work horse like this. It is great for shuttling trailers, hauling firewood, providing power to remote places and just having fun. All the local donkeys, Fred, Molly and Hector, recognize it and come to their fences to beg carrots as we go by. Best of all, I plug these contraptions into the solar and I don’t have to worry about sour “gasoline” causing valves to stick and pushrods to bend, like on my mower fleet. In fact, I’m trading for an EZGO, tomorrow, so that will eventually bring the electric fleet to 3. A friend got it and wanted to convert it to gas and I had a gasser I wanted to run electric, so we are swapping.

Without the lift and heavy springs, the little Yamaha would carry a good load during hurricane cleanup.
Neal and Gracie go foraging for firewood in the electric jalopy. Since this 2018 pic, it got a windshield and revised truck bed. The jalopy is not bothered by sticks and goes fast, but it does not have Mud Crushers and mag wheels.

I can plug these directly into the 48v solar power system or I can plug them into a charger from the 120vac. Think about, though, a full size electric car or pickup. All the manufacturers are proclaiming a date by which they will stop making gas cars. Where is all of this power going to come from? I just saw the specs for the new electric MINI, which is small in capacity. A 120 plug in will charge at 2%, or a bit over 2 days to charge the thing from empty. A Tesla or Rivian might take a week, but at that rate you probably would not over tax a typical home solar system. I think the total rush to all electric cars is going to cause some new problems. AND opportunities.

The future of grid tie solar is looking really iffy. Some power companies offer net metering and that makes grid tie a good investment. Some companies started with grid tie or pretty good deals and changed the deal after everybody made the investment. The latest dirty deed is a proposal–it hasn’t happened yet– to allow grid tie, but you have to pay a $90 monthly service charge. 3 companies, at least, in California are pushing this and California has mandatory solar required on new houses. That would guarantee the power company a minimum power bill of $90 a month whether you used any or not. Never fear, hybrid and Zero Export Grid Tie are here! I’ve discussed these before and will do so again. Of course, you can always go off grid! Are the power companies facing an exodus of customers? Well, look at how many ships are registered where they don’t have high fees. Look at high tax states that are losing citizens to lower tax states like Texas and Florida. The power companies might find that they are no longer needed!

Now if you were looking for some nitty gritty solar how-to, that is coming soon. We’ve been gathering details of a system Bruce in PA (I think that’s really his name) built some years back. It has some special considerations with high pitched roof and snow loads.

Sometimes the snow is too thick to even see the panels at Bruce’s house!

It looks like I will be recommissioning a system I shut down last year after the owner died. The new owner wants it running, but we are going to have to get creative to make it work on his battery budget. We’ll discuss some of the requirements and options.

And on my own project, the price of the copper cable to get the higher output to the house has soared 50% to over $900 in the past two weeks. We’ll discuss ampacity and various wire choices for tightwads, like me. Stay tuned.

As far as Turbo Beast and archæology go, I’m using lidar topography mapping to take a new look at a mill survey I helped with back in the 90s. Growing up I never knew we had water-powered mills in flat Florida, but there were loads of them, dating back to the 1700s. And I am on the hunt for old cemeteries. The loggers are chewing them up and they are being lost. Many of the mills and graveyards are related and well beyond the asphalt. Dodge’s version of Positraction simply isn’t very good, though, and I got stuck twice on the last outing. My Chevy is much better, but it is not equipped with Mud Crushers. I’ve backed the 4wd Nissan D21 out of the barn and it may return to service. Just what I need…another tag and more insurance. At least my fedora and boots are in good shape and ready for service in the field. –Neal

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

(I wrote this in December and somehow it did not get posted until April!)

This morning it was about 50 degrees. Tomorrow morning we are expecting 28. The constant temperature swings make it difficult to dress. Layering is the key.

Temperature changes affect your solar power system, too, particularly in battery charging. Is there any action you need to take? Depends.

Lead acid batteries, sealed or flooded, need a higher charge voltage in cold weather. If your charge controller or inverter/charger has a temperature sensor that sticks or bolts to your battery, you’re maybe ok. And when I say battery, I mean the total pile of cells, not just one casing holding one or more cells. Ideally, they are all behaving the same and have about the same temperature. You won’t have a sensor for each one. It doesn’t hurt to spot check them all with an infrared thermometer once in a while to be sure.

Only one of my many charge controllers has temperature compensation, so I have to do a little manual intervention as the weather changes. It takes a while for tons of lead to cool down. Longer if you have an insulated battery box or cabinet. I don’t.

I go out to my Man Cave/Control Room most evenings to watch movies, read or work on projects, so I keep up with the meters. Lately they have been running a little low. I have a temperature chart for my batteries and it shows my settings are a little low. I just bumped up the charge voltage to 59.9 volts for the highest setting, maintaining the float at 54.4. At some point, my inverter complains of too much voltage, so I go with the minimum settings. I can hear the golf car batteries sizzling in the jalopy in the afternoon, but the main bank is holding higher at night, keeping my hand away from the grid switch.

It is a delicate balancing act. If I boil the AGM bank I will kill them. If I run them too low, I shorten their lives. If I switch to the grid, what’s the point in having solar?

The system is getting an upgrade. I recently acquired my own mobile solar generator trailer, similar to the one in the Turbo Beast blog. It has been interesting to explore its wonders and integrating its components into my home system will be a big upgrade. The mobile system has a Midnite Solar MPPT charge controller, a pretty nice charger, but the real star and boss of operations is a pair of 6048 Sunny Island inverters.

It appears that all charging runs through the SI pair. It keeps up with State of Charge and controls an automatic diesel generator. The other night I forced the battery down with heavy loads. The generator started and before it was over the battery voltage had soared to 62 volts! A previous run had gone to 60.8 volts. The difference was the temperature. These are flooded forklift batteries on the trailer and have different needs than the AGMs in the Solar Shed. I will have to change the settings when the Sunny Islands and the Kubota genset are attached to the Shed, but then it will all be automatic.

I do not offer any settings or charts for you, here, because batteries are not all the same. These days you can find detailed data sheets online for most batteries. If you can’t find one for your particular battery, try another brand of similar type. For example, a generic golf car battery like the Sun 230 has specs similar to a Trojan T105 or Energizer GC2. My big AGMs were marketed for standby use and had no specs for cyclical use, so I had to borrow data from another brand.

I do not recommend mixing battery types, but I do it myself. I am evaluating a big pile of AGMs for the Solar Yacht project, I have flooded batteries in my electric farm vehicles and, soon, I will add the 2 tons of forklift batteries from the mobile unit. In this case, the AGMs are the fussiest and most expensive, so I will go with their settings and pull the flooded batteries off to the side from time to time to give them a desulphating charge that would kill the AGMs.

If you put your own system together you should know if you have temperature compensation built in. If not, ask your installer or do a little snooping. A temperature sensor cable usually plugs in or screws to a terminal block marked something like “temp.” All that I have seen have used a thin round wire or flat cable, similar to “modular” cable used on real telephones. Remember those? At the battery end the sensor will be embedded in a piece of plastic that sticks to the battery or in a ring terminal that connects with the battery cable.

Yes, the shorter days and winter gloom could be hurting the performance of your system, but it could also be something as easy to change as a charge setting. When in doubt, read the manual!–Neal

What’s a Shunt?

Let’s talk about shunts.

That thing in the picture is a shunt.  As in when your Momma said, “Y’all shunt be pokin’ that possum ’cause he’ll bite you!”? No, not that kind of shunt.  For the record, my Mom was born in Massachusetts and raised in Palm Beach County, Florida, with a Danish father and a Down East mother, so she never did learn to speak proper Southern.

A shunt is actually just a resistor.  It’s a very LOW resistance that can handle a relatively large current…some times a sho’nuff large current.  (Southern is my native language.)  Of particular note, a standalone shunt, like this one, has 4 connections. The two big ones carry the current and the two little ones are for the meter.

They come in all sizes. I found this one in my attic good for 100 amps.

So of what use is it?  Glad you asked!  If you are going to be working with lots of DC (Direct Current) power, it is often a good idea to know how much is flowing and which way.  Is it coming or going?  Shunt’s work with AC, too, but mostly AC has another neat gadget that is easier to use.

Typical uses in solar would be to see how much current is going into your inverter or how much current is being produced by your solar panels.  Let’s say you want to monitor your batteries.  The shunt is placed in line with your big battery cable, like a fuse you probably should have.  Properly sized, it should just sit there and not bother
anything.  Because the resistance is very, very low, there will not be much voltage drop across it, but there will be just a teeny bit.  The shunt’s data sheet will tell you just how much voltage drop or sometime the amount will be stamped somewhere near the terminals.

For every 2 amps through this shunt you will get 1 millivolt. Calibrate your meter scale accordingly

Let’s say you have a shunt that drops 150 millivolts (thousandths of a volt) when passing through 150 amps.  When you connect a meter that reads millivolts to the smaller terminals, then the meter will display your current flow in amps.  (It is really amperes, but nobody says that.)  If you have the old fashion d’Arsonval mechanical meter, the needle will swing to the right or left of center, indicating that the battery bank is being charged or discharged.  Your digital meter will add a “-” indicator for discharge.

Sometimes shunts are built into equipment and you won’t see them.  In fact, the built in shunts are often just a fat wire jumper on a circuit board, because, remember, a shunt is just a very low resistance.  Any charge controller that displays current will have one.

Let’s take a look at Ohm’s Law, for a moment.  I know some of you will glaze over at the thought of math, but if I can do it, you can do it.  The hard part is the goofy labels.  E=I x R.  If it helps, make it V=A x R because in this variation of it, we are saying the Voltage = the Amps x Resistance.  You can turn it around and say I x R=E.  If our shunt has a resistance of .001 Ohms (the electronic symbol for this is a Greek letter that looks a bit like an upside down horseshoe.) and we put 45 amps through it, then 45 x .001=.045 volts or 45 millivolts.

Was that so hard?

Most of the shunts in my system are built into the magic boxes, but the Sunny Island inverters are connected through some external shunts hidden behind a cover plate.  (A cover plate is a good idea because you may have noticed that touching active electrical components can be unpleasant or even hazardous to your well being.)  I bought the cabinet
pre-wired, but it appears it is using the shunts for battery management.  The Sunny Island is a wonderful box, but very complex in its abilities.  In my system, it not only monitors current flow when using power from the batteries, but it manages the charging of the batteries from an external source, like the grid or my Diesel generator, which is also controlled by the Sunny Island.  Charging and equalizing batteries is a very complex business if you want the batteries to last a long time and the Sunny Island uses the shunts to regulate how much current is flowing based on the size of the battery, temperature and the state of charge.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20210403_123026-Medium-rotated.jpg
They put this shunt where you’d have a hard time getting your fingers to it. Or your camera. The big wires are carrying the current and the small red and black wires go to the metering circuit. Polarity counts! I’m not sure I approve of the solid conductor signal wire.

So you see, monitoring current flow provides useful information and a shunt makes it easy. Even easier, for under $20 you can buy a kit with digital meter and matching shunt on Ebay.–Neal

Stephen is Thinking Solar

And 2000 pound monsters.

I got this comment from Stephen. I’ll let you take a look at it and then I’ll comment, OK?

“Well I’m a new-b, & an old fart, I wanted to start this process a long time ago, but for the dollars…
I’m interested in learning more of the availability of these 2000lb. Monsters, though I really need some education on the basics like …If I Install 11,500 watts of panels on my clear view roof, do I need to buy ( 3) 4048 inverters & then split the panels over 3 separate systems?? Sometime in the future I may purchase a nice 20kw diesel standby gen. w/ ags. Probably will take a while $$$again.”

OK, here we go. No worries about being new. Every day is a new day with solar. Every morning I read a half dozen or more solar and energy newsletters and there is always something new. As far as being an old fart goes, Old Guys Rule! Step away from the rocking chair! And as far as the $$$ go, you are already ahead of the game if you’ve found Sun Electronics. I look at some of the pro systems going in around me and OMG the prices! My system will blow most of them away at a fraction of the cost.

Now, you ask about “2000 lb. Monsters”. I assume you are talking about my forklift batteries. 540ah at 48v is a good start and I figure 4 of them will put you in good shape. However, there’s that 2000 lb. bit to consider. The more modular battery systems are easier to handle and many require little or no maintenance. The forklift batteries can be a super deal, though. Probably the best ones are coming off a 2 year lift truck lease. For some reason, these leasing companies pull the 2 year batteries and install new. You can find these on Ebay. There are forklift companies and battery companies in most cities and they can be a source. It could be good to buy locally and cultivate a relationship because your battery may need service some day. THEY can change a cell or rejuvenate a tired battery, but I don’t think they do house calls. Maybe, though. There is a funny numbering system for these monsters that tells you the volts and amp hour ratings, but you have to know the code. And since we are talking about batteries, I assume we are not talking about grid tie.

Dragging 2000 pound monsters on a sled is not so hard. Scooting them against the wall and onto a pallet with a jack and a pry bar is when it gets fun. Old Guys Rule!

Grid tie can be quickest and cheapest to install, but most folks like having their lights stay on when the grid goes down? I hear that happens. You can still have the grid and run it in with the solar in a hybrid, interactive system so you can avoid fees and all manner of unpleasantries that some power companies impose.

I’m not sure how, but somehow you came to the conclusion that you want 11,500 watts of solar panels on your roof. That’s actually a pretty good number for a typical American home. That’s over 200 amps of current in a 48 volt system, so you need a pretty hefty battery bank to soak it all up without causing problems. You note you have a clear view from your roof….to the south? That’s great for maximum production, but we are finding that it is actually pretty good to have some panels facing the west. I know my a/c is running in earnest late in the afternoon and the sun is toward the west at that time. After success with a small experiment, I am putting in a 10 panel array in a westerly orientation. North is not a good direction, but pretty much everything else will work.

Next you mention 3-4048 inverters and I am not sure why. Because 3 x 4048 adds up to pretty close to that 11,500 watts of solar? That isn’t how it works. Your modules are going to connect in blocks of, say, 3. Those blocks meet up in Combiner Boxes, as appropriate, and all that combined electrical goodness goes into a charge controller. Most of these charge controllers I use have an input of 130-160 vdc. 3 panels in series, generally add up to that. There are exceptions, so check the data sheets and think ahead. I also have a 250v input charge controller that will handle 5 x 60 cell modules or 4 of the higher voltage 72 cell modules. In addition to those volts, you need to keep up with the watts, as well. A 60 amp charge controller is good for around 3000 watts. I say “around” because folks have different takes on how mathematics works. In my motley collection, the 60 amp controllers range from 2800 to 3200 watts. Some are more tolerant than others to the occasional aberration. Read the data sheet, watching for gotchas.

There are bigger charge controllers, like the FM300, but I kind of like the idea of having a little redundancy. I have 6 charge controllers on the main system, but 4 would be plenty. By now you have guessed that if you are using 3000 watt charge controllers, YOU will need 4 of them to cover all those watts flowing off the roof. Now, do as I say and not as I do, here…my system didn’t just happen, it evolved. I have several varieties of charge controllers, so they can’t share a communications system if you like to chuckle over charts and graphs of power production.

Now we have all of those solar watts tamed and being shoveled into our monster battery pack. Let me tell you about a fellow who fed a similar amount of power into a not-quite-monstrous battery pack of 400 ah. First, that was not enough to do much good on a whole house system. Second, cramming 200 amps into a small battery pack is just going to cook the batteries. He had some nice AGM batteries, but not for very long. 60 amps for the set should have been the limit. I have some AGM batteries of twice the size and the data sheet says don’t exceed a charge rate of 40 amps. I have 4 strings of those and the monsters and two electric vehicles to soak up well over 200 amps without exceeding the limit on the charging rate of the delicate AGMs.

Better still, a forklift battery or any other variety of flooded lead acid or FLA battery is pretty tolerant of a hard charge, though you might have to water more frequently.

OKAY, back to the 4048 inverters. You apparently broke the code, here. 40=4000 watts and 48=48 volts. Why 3? What you need to consider for inverters is how much do you need? Being careful, I have run everything but the electric stove and clothes dryer, including one of the central a/c units with a 5048. I don’t have an electric water heater. At the present 10,000 watts I could pretty much run it all if I had a heavy enough cable. (That’s a project for another day) My old partner, Tom, did well with a 12kw inverter. Then it broke and he ran, I think, an 8kw, one of those nice Outback GS units that Roberto has. It was not quite enough, but you can run two of them in parallel for 16kw, so he was in good shape and if one failed he could get by while repairs were being made.

There are myriad features in today’s hardware. Many 4048 inverters I have seen, like the old Xantrex or Trace or Sunny Island are 120 only. You connect two with a combiner to make 120/240 for normal household operation. I am presently cabling in a pair of Sunny Island 6048 units that work the same way. You gotta have two of them and 3 would be just weird. The combined 12kw would be overkill for me. Right now I use them for welding, so they are pretty tough. My homebuilt 10k48 puts out 110/220 on its own, but has no tricks. The Outback GS8048 makes 110/220 standalone and you can stack it to double the power. It can also do lots of nice tricks, like hybrid, grid tie or automatic transfer. The beauty of the 8048 over the smaller size is that you get twice the power for just a grand more.

Now what? How are we going to do this? I’ve mentioned some really versatile gear, so we have options. If you want to go off grid, you are good to go. If you want to keep the grid for backup or because you use a lot of power, how about a hybrid setup? This is especially handy if your power company hates solar (charges fees and makes onerous rules). The aforementioned Tom connected his inverter to the house through a transfer switch, like he used with his generator. The grid had a separate line down to the barn where it entered the secondary input of the inverter. During the day, and as long as his batteries were above the threshold he set, the inverter provided power to the house. On warm summer nights, the a/c would draw down the battery and the system would shift back to grid. There were no extra fees and no selling electricity to the power company for 3 cents and then buying it back at night for 13. His big limitation was his tiny battery bank. With 2000 amp hours, I suspect a changeover to grid would have been rare.

I have simplified things here, of course. You’ll need to throw in some surge protectors and circuit breakers. There are the mounting racks for the panels and the cables and gadgets to comply with the new “rapid shutdown” rules to let the fireman shut down the panels before spraying water on the roof, in case of fire.

Finally, a 20kw generator? Diesel is a great choice. Today’s gasoline just won’t keep. There are natural gas and propane units that may be a good choice, too, but I am a fan of diesel. I normally keep enough diesel and jet fuel around that I could run a generator for a year. Many years ago when we had a 5 week outage I had an old 15kw diesel that ran at 1200 rpm. It was meant to run continuously and had 3 phase. I brought 2 legs in through one of the external a/c disconnect boxes and ran the whole house. It came in through a 30 amp breaker, so I could only use around 7000 watts and we did fine. It would charge my battery backup, run the stove, laundry and water heater while I was getting ready for work and then we’d shut it down. (This was back when I was willing to work for a living.) Lights and fridge and such ran off the battery backup except during breakfast and supper.

So I guess the point is that 20kw is probably more than you need. My recent generator addition is an 11kw Kubota LoBoy with 113 gallon fuel tank and autostart. I can’t imagine needing more than that. Oh, and by the way, the smart inverter is taking that power and passing it to the house and/or charging the battery as needed. Boy, these inverters are smart, but the manual will blow your mind. You actually have to think, which I suppose is usually the best plan.

Did I cover it all? Get busy, Stephen!

-Neal

Does Anybody Have a Fire Extinguisher?

It is only natural to want to improve or hot rod your system. Know the limits, though.

Despite all the political controversy, Facebook remains a useful tool, especially the “groups” if you are into a special interest. I don’t have a FB account, but I hijacked my wife’s account to join a group of folks who also have the mobile solar generators, like the one I bought. (See TurboBeast story).

There is a wealth of information to be shared on such a complex combination of mechanics and electronics. Some people are very knowledgeable and some are total newbies. There’s lots of sharing and lots of creativity.

Let’s examine the system. There are 10 solar modules, 60 cell units from 230 to 270 watts, depending on build date. They are arranged in two strings of 5, meeting in a MidNite Solar (MS) combiner box and brought under control by a MS250 charge controller. The MS250 charges 4000 lbs. of forklift batteries, which may be flat plate or the newer tubular plate flooded lead acid batteries. The batteries supply a pair of Sunny Island 6048 inverters, which combine to output 12kw of 110/220 power. The Sunny also controls my autostart diesel generator, so I’ll have to try really hard to run down those batteries.

The 12kw output will easily supply most houses, I think. I’ve seen houses run on less. The weakness in using these rigs to run a house, though, is that they have only 2500 watts of solar and around 1000 ah of battery. 2000+ ah is working great for me. I have found the hard way that the recently revised recommendations for battery sizing are much more practical than the older assumptions. And more expensive, of course.

The 2500 watt solar limitation is pretty much a physical limitation. There are just so many panels you can mount on a 17′ trailer bed. Yet, since these were built, panel output has increased.

Courtney, for example, after consulting with me, replaced his panels with 60 cell 320 watt panels. That’s a 700 watt boost and he stayed safe.

The MidNite Solar charge controllers rate things a little differently than some others. Many show the output CURRENT in their names, like an Outback FlexMax 60 is rated for 60 amps or a FM-80 is rated for 80 amps. If you want to power the world, I think there is even a FM-300! But the MS250 is talking about volts, when it puts a number in the name. Whereas the FM is rated around 150v, if I remember right, the MS is rated at 250v. The difference affects how many modules and what kind of modules you can put in a series string.

With a 150 v limit, you’ll find that 3 typical 60 or 72 cell panels in series is a good way to go. They each have a peak output of around 36 or 46 volts, but always consult the data sheet or the label on the back of the module. On the Sunelect.com website you’ll usually find a datasheet download available. Yes, consult the sheet. I have bought some modules from Roberto that had 90 volt output. I just run those in parallel on a 150v charge controller.

With the MS250 controller, you can easily run a string of 5 60 cell modules, as long as you stay with in the power rating of the controller and the 320 watt modules do this. Then one of the guys, Mike, comes up with this: “I bought one with the panels swapped out for 72 cell, 370 watt panels. Nothing has burned up yet, but it has problems. The Midnite is in “hypervoc” mode most of the time, and screams like a banshee. I wouldn’t recommend it.” Mike lives life on the edge.

The problem is that he has exceeded both the voltage and current ratings of his MS250 charge controller. That it is still running is a testament to robust design, but I suspect that controller will live hard, die young and leave a charred corpse. Which reminds me, do you have a fire extinguisher around your system? Mike admits that his charge controller is literally hollering about its working conditions. The proper way of doing this upgrade would be to add an additional charge controller. He’s about to buy a new one, anyway! Or two, if he wants to put it right.

Dale had another solution: Leave off two of the panels, which would defeat the upgrade, “Or, wire the two left off panels in series, straight to the battery? What could go wrong overcharge the battery if there’s not much load on the system, but otherwise maybe ok. One 72 cell panel wouldn’t be high enough voltage to charge the battery”

OMG, NO-OOOO! It might actually work, but if you left it unattended for a while you could boil out the batteies, which I think run around $5-6000 EACH. You’d also miss out on that MPPT goodness that a quality charge controller can provide.

I guess what this comes down to is think creatively, share ideas with others, ReadTFManual, and keep a fire extinguisher handy.

–Neal

Batteries–Bigger is Better

Sometimes bigger really is better.

It is raining, today. What to do? I’m in the middle of a huge upgrade of my solar power system, but most of the work will be outside and I don’t care to get wet. Wet, as in a hot tub is ok. Being cold and wet does not appeal to me.

I guess I can water batteries. It is time for some of them. In my various independent and blended systems I have a lot of cells that are AGM and don’t require water. I also have 168 cells that do need to be watered. This is nuts, but it is just the sort of thing that can happen if you start small and gradually grow the system. Things can get out of hand.

I recently acquired a couple of forklift batteries in the Mobile Solar Generator trailer I bought and I am impressed. Mine had been serviced, but another set belonging to a friend had not…for over 4 years. They still had water above the plates. Granted, we had to add 12 gallons to top up, but if they can go 4 years without being damaged, getting overlooked for a month will never be a problem. In fact, these are designed to be checked every 3 months in heavy service.

Not pretty, but that’s 50+ KWH of storage and they only need to be watered 4 times a year.

I started off with so-called golf car batteries. Exide calls them electric vehicle batteries, which I like as a better term. Many people refer to GC batteries as “starter” batteries. Not in the sense that they are used for starting a vehicle. More like in the sense of training wheels on your kid’s bike. I resent that term, but I suppose it is true.

That’s a bunch of cells to water for 450 amp-hours

Many people use GC batteries, like the Sun230 that Sun Electronics sells. That’s all they need or that’s all they can afford. The difference between a Sun230 and a Trojan T105 or an Eveready or Exide GC2 is basically the price. The Sun230 is cheaper and has a few more amp hours. Also, you buy them from Sun Electronics, you pay no tax and need no core. Florida exempts solar stuff, but try telling Sam’s Club or WalMart that. Starter batteries? Fine. You gotta start somewhere.

If you have a big budget, then by all means think big. It can save you in the long run. That’s the big holdup on solar, though, isn’t it? You can get electricity from the PoCo for $250 per month, whereas the sun’s free electricity might cost you $15,000 or $50,000 more up front, unless you do-it-yourself. I heard from a guy the other day with a $350 power bill and a quote for a $130,000 power system. I understand why folks start small. I started small, actually intending the system as a test bed for stuff I was doing with my solar boats. It just got out of hand, after a while.

So what’s the difference with the bigger batteries? For years, the L16 was the battery you aspired to have. Some scrounged them from floor scrubbers and some bought retail. Comparing to a GC2, the L16 is a lot more expensive in $/amp hour. They may be cheaper in the long run, though, because they have thicker plates and hold more acid. Thicker plates generally equate to longer life and more liquid means you are less likely to get low and ruin the thing.

My first visit to Sun’s old Miami warehouse was a hoot. Oh, the new store is nicer, but I don’t think it has the character of the old place, especially when the grafitti artists had been at work. In the showroom there were these huge Rolls batteries. Actually, they were hollow demo dummies, but huge all the same. Just 2 volts, but lots of lead, acid and amp hours if you got the real thing. A hand truck is required to move them, the real ones, not like the featherweight 64 pounds of a GC2. Put 24 of them together to make 48 volts and you had serious storage and longer life. Also, you only had 24 cells to water, as opposed to scads of them for the same power in a stack of GC2s.

This is a 2v cell in what appears to be a semi-portable L16 package.

The big 2 volt scheme is pretty good, I think. They are still hand truck portable, yet retain the advantages of scale. My new batteries are 510 ah at 48v (8 hr. rate) and weigh a ton each. It’s like a set of the semi-portable Rolls cells soldered together in a steel box. Actually, though they are new to me, they are 5 years old, which in big battery life is just broken in good. They are not very portable, though. My big tractor might lift them, but it is out of order. The smaller tractor will not. Getting them off the trailer was easy enough with a chain fall and an oak limb. I used old tech and sledded them to the Solar Shed. There is not much room to maneuver behind the shed, so the wimpy tractor is little help. Jacks and cleverness prevailed, though.

If you can’t pick them up, you can sled them. With a farm jack you can nudge them over. If working on concrete, slip a couple of pieces of pipe under the and roll them across the floor.

At my friend’s house, he has stripped 2 of the solar trailers. He has a better infrastructure setup. He offloaded with an I-beam and trolley setup, then used pipe rollers to move the batteries through the garage. He is starting with 2160 amp hours of battery in his new system. That is super for a house his size. At a ton each, the batteries are still moderately portable, given his circumstances. I hope the garage doesn’t settle on one side and tip over.

There are 2 big, gray batteries in the middle of the trailer, 2000lbs each. If it takes this much gear to move 2 batteries, you might want to consider smaller units. BUT, some people just like to have the toys to do this!

In Texas, where everything is bigger, one of our correspondents shared photos of his 800+ ah Bulldog battery (if I remember right). Now that was one big battery and he has a forklift and a trolley to move it.

I’m starting to ramble, I suppose, but the point is, the more battery you have the better your system will perform and the longer the batteries will last. If you use large batteries, instead of lots of little batteries, they are likely to last longer and require a lot less maintenance.

As for my upgrade, with over 2000 amp hours of storage I am easily rolling through multiple cloudy days without hitting the dreaded 50% depth of discharge. 10 more solar modules are waiting to squeeze a few more watts out of the clouds, too, but the huge reserve seems to have solved a lot of issues. I have also added an automatic diesel generator, just in case, but so far it has only had monthly exercise run time.

–Neal

I’m Declaring a Holiday

Hmmm, I guess it already is a holiday, today, Presidents Day, but tomorrow is a good day, too.

Some might think I have been on a long holiday, already, but the hiatus has been a combination of clunky WordPress blogging platform and sharing my internet tower with school kids and work-at-homes. I have been to the peak of my hurricane-battered roof and moved my antenna higher and rotated it to a different tower. This has resulted in improved internet speeds, except when it rains. It rains for all of February.

Back to my holiday, Black Ice Day. Today’s storms will transition to 20 degrees in the morning, with perhaps a little “wintry mix” or snow overnight and frozen roads to start the work day. And this is FLORIDA, for crying out loud!

Checking with contacts around the country, Paul is near Houston. It is 18 degrees at noon and the power is out. Somebody said the windmills froze. He does not have backup power. He does have a fireplace. Bundle up, buddy.

A Texas Covid vax storage site lost power and backup failed, causing a mad rush to use the stuff up before it spoiled.

I have not heard from Daryl out in Texas for a while. I suspect he will be fine. His solar and battery backup system is awesome.

If that does not count as awesome, what does?

Bruce is in Pennsylvania and pretty much stays snowed under. He says they would welcome Global Warming to visit his state, this year. He has offered a parking spot at his house. He has solar and a big generator. Good thing. What he really needs is a snowplow for his roof. Bruce is going to give us an overview of his system, soon. Watch for it.

See? Bruce has solar panels. Look a little harder.

Courtney is to the left of Raleigh. Yesterday he told me the grid had just come back on after a two day break owing to ice. Courtney bought several of those mobile solar generator trailers I told you about in the Turbo Beast adventure. He has been stripping his down for components to build a world class backyard system. The problem is, it is not wired up. Luckily, he had one trailer left intact and he plugged that into the house. Under gray skies, the solar didn’t handle it all, but the automatic generator kicked on a couple of times to top up the battery bank and life was good at Casa Courtney. I hope he didn’t leave the porch light on all night to taunt the neighbors. That would just be mean.

Courtney rode out the ice storm with one of these.

My neighbor Brad finally got the ok from our 3rd world power co-op to turn on his solar power system. I don’t think he’s worried about ice taking out the grid.

That’s 27 kw on the garage roof and there are 3 Powerwall batteries on the side of the house.

And me? Think I’m worried? I recently added another 1100 ah of battery and an automatic diesel backup generator to what I already had. There’s a stack of 10 panels I’ll be adding to the array when I get to it.

Under the 11kw Diesel generator is a 113 gallon fuel tank. The gray blob to the left is 1100ah of 48v forklift batteries. There wasn’t enough room in the Man Cave. I am gathering material for an awning.

And where John Kimball and Sun Electronics are based in Miami, it is a bone-chilling 81 degrees. And sunny. Hardly seems fair. He has a warehouse full of solar and backup power gear, but it doesn’t seem like he needs it this week.

Maybe by now you’ve gotten the idea that it might be a good idea to have some power backup. It is. Some of the examples presented here have been a bit pricey, but it does not have to be. It comes down to budget and level of comfort that you require. We get a little spoiled here in the USA.

I was perusing the ‘net for some info on tubular batteries one day and came across an entry in a forum: “I have two lights and a fan…” Wait a minute! I was thinking tubular batteries were all the 2000 pound monsters I have, but apparently there are small ones, too. This guy was not talking about small power for a camper or boat. This was power for his house in India! 2 lights and a fan powered by a solar panel and a battery was probably a real mind blower to his neighbors.

How hard can 2 lights and a fan be? Thanks to the SunElec graphics department for this illustration.

If he can get by every day with that, you might find it very helpful for a few days when the grid is down. Of course, you’ll want more. No gas stove? Coleman and others offer a one burner butane stove to fix your dinner. It costs $20 at any place that sells camping gear. You may already have a grill and that works, too, but don’t bring it indoors. The fridge? Oh, come on! It’s snowing! Well, during the warm months, after a hurricane, I have connected an appropriately-sized inverter to my car and powered the fridge intermittently to keep the foods from changing colors. The bigger inverter in the car can also run the microwave or Mr. Coffee.

Once you get a little power backup you can build on it. Last summer I was in the doghouse, having spent a bunch of money on bigger, fresher batteries, but then we had a week without the grid after a ‘cane. Suddenly it was all ok and there were no complaints when I bought more! Sooner or later you will need backup and I guarantee that if you are the only one to keep the lights in the neighborhood, you will be a hero in your house. Call Roberto at Sun Electronics and he can fix you up for a price that won’t make you cry.

Please don’t leave the porch light on all night during the outage. That would just be mean.

–Neal

Solar Security

Some people go with solar power to provide energy security to their home or business, especially in areas with a crumbling power grid. But what about the physical security of your solar equipment?

I have given a little thought to protecting my solar investment, but it does a lot to protect itself. For example, the main batteries weight about 250 lbs. each and there are a bunch of them. You’ve gotta be dedicated to haul off those things. The panels are big and bulky. Other things are not. Then there are all the tools and things in the Solar Shed. Much of it is not even behind a door you can lock. On the other hand, common wisdom out here in the country is that if you lock the door a thief will just break it or a window, in addition to stealing your stuff. ‘Tis a quandry.

The reason I am thinking so much about it today is that yesterday I called Stan-the-Hermit, to check on him, just as he was calling me. You’ve seen me writing about him before. He has a cabin way out in the woods and it has been solar powered since the beginning. He also has a house out on the island. He’s been concentrating on that one since the hurricane messed it up and wiped out his truck. He’s been too busy to visit the cabin.

The other day he went to the cabin to get some stuff and discovered he’d been robbed. Being in the woods can prevent people from knowing you are there. Those who know your stuff is there may not touch it, fearing you and a shotgun might be there, too. But Stan wasn’t there and he wasn’t there long enough for someone to figure that out after clearcutting on neighboring land made one of his structures visible from a road. These guys had time to work and they came back day after day.

They got his tools, guns, 2 Honda generators, a trailer, logsplitter….all kinds of stuff, none of which was insured. Then they started picking off pieces of his solar power system. They just cut the wires on the 12v system inverter. They got the 24v inverter, too, and it looks like they just ripped down one of the charge controllers. Too bad they didn’t get ahold of the raw DC string voltage from the solar panels. They didn’t take the batteries or the panels, but they came back while he was there. He gave chase, but they escaped. Hopefully they have decided to quit while they are ahead.

I gave Stan a 2kw inverter for the 12v system, which was otherwise mostly intact. He has lights and power for the TV. They didn’t take the 32″ TV. Probably not big enough. Yeah, he’s sort of back in business, but plenty demoralized. I would be, too.

Thinking about site security I shudder to think about losing all I have built and collected over the years. Then I think about neighbor Brad, who FINALLY got the co-op to sign off on his megabucks system. He has 3 Tesla Powerwall batteries on the side of his house. They are not very heavy and how hard would it be for a thief to make of with them? If I am not mistaken, that’s over $20,000 right there and easy picking. No, I don’t think you have to worry much about having the panels swiped off your roof, but it wouldn’t hurt to lock the barn while the horse is still inside.

I am going to start with a game cam or two in strategic locations and add a DVR video system at the house and shed. They are cheap and pretty easy to install. A DVR should be hidden. It won’t do much good if your thief sees it and hauls it off with your stereo or inverter. Older systems were not very clear, but the last system I put in with a friend was a 1080 HD and that makes ID of faces and license plates a lot easier.

Some game cams can be accessed by smart phone over the cell network, if you don’t have regular Internet service, like me. They blend in to the landscape easily. Ring cameras, and similar products could be great if you do have Internet.

A hail storm, lightning or hurricane is probably the biggest threat to your system. Still, you might want to think a little bit about threats from n’er-do-wells and scoundrels. As for me, I filled the pintle ring of the Mobile Solar Generator trailer in my care with chain and locked it. It’s a start.

–Neal

Neal & Turbo Beast’s Big Solar Adventure

Buying prefabricated mobile solar power plants at auction and quickly spiriting them away.

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Brad's garage and many kw

It Pays to Know Your Stuff

Some people build their own solar power systems. Some people pick up the phone and then write a check for theirs. It’s ok, either way, but I advise that you at least have a basic understanding of how things work.

If you have to ask why, I can give you a recent example from my neighborhood. It isn’t what a lot of people would call a regular neighborhood. It is nearly a mile to the nearest corner and 4 miles the other way. There are only 7 houses located along the road and nearly twice as many of us live as much as a half mile or more out in the bushes. I don’t think any of us know all of the neighbors. After 30 years here, I’ve gotten to know a few. In fact I think I am in 4th place to become the Old Timer. Miss Christine is 92 and holds that title, for now.

I met the newest neighbor, Brad, last week. I’ve met most of his friends and contractors because a GPS quirk sends them all to my house. That’s how I knew he was getting solar power at his place.

Well, someone who has solar is always interested in keeping up with the Joneses, or the Brads, so I stopped in to meet him the other day when the power lines were down, again.

Oh my! What a system he has. It has some interesting quirks to it, cost a fortune and it doesn’t work!

For some background, Chuck lived there during the last really fun hurricane season, about 15 years ago. The FIVE WEEK power outage prompted Chuck to get a very large propane Generac and a fuel tank to match. Fast forward to 2020, when everything else has gone wrong, and the reported $850/month power bills prompted Brad to add solar.

Now, I don’t know a lot about Brad or his house or his lifestyle, but I suspect that anyone with an $850/ month power bill has a certain amount of potential for conservation measures. Just sayin’.

Back to his system, there are about 27 kilowatts worth of shiny new LG panels on the roof of his 5 car garage/shop structure. It is a great roof for solar, except it faces to the west. I’ve been telling you that solar isn’t just for southern exposure, anymore, but a strictly western exposure is not ideal. On the other hand, the roof of his house is very steep and is full of crazy angles. I’d have to go along with the shop roof placement. BTW, close proximity to a wall of pine trees ruled out putting half of the array on the east face of the shop.

27kw of solar panels are on the 5 car garage and shop. What more could anyone want? I forgot how many of these smaller LG modules there are up there and I’ve lost track every time I’ve tried to count. DC power runs underground to the electronics.

The array is set up for grid tie and that is where the problem lies. I have mentioned more than once that our power co-op hates solar. There are companies, like his installer, that have mastered the power company paperwork and folks like Brad who are willing to put up with the extra fees and unfair billing practices. However, that still does not mean that the power company is any rush to sign off on the connection. (Read some past blogs to find ways around this.)

The thing I don’t like about grid tie is that there has to be a grid to which you tie. On the day of my visit, the grid was down, post Hurricane Zeta, so it hardly mattered that he didn’t have grid tie. Somewhere along the line many solar owners decided that they wanted to keep their lights on when the power company couldn’t. There are several ways to skin that cat and in Brad’s case it was manifested in the form of three Tesla Powerwall batteries.

The Powerwall is a neat gadget, I’ll give them that, but it is pricey. According to a recent article I read, they recently increased the price from $5500 to $7000. Each! It is more than just a battery in a compact box. You have some electronics in there, too. Still, for a fraction of the cost of ONE of those Powerwalls, Roberto can fix you up with the makings of a decent little back up system for your house.

Two Powerwall batteries showing and another around the corner, plus associated hardware. The older looking box is for the Generac generator. All in all, a tidy job.

Back to Brad, though, here he has these batteries and all this stuff ready to go, but his lights were out, too, like most of the other neighbors. All because the power company doesn’t like solar.

Oh, wait, what about that big Generac? Remember, it is still 2020. It was great after Hurricane Sandy. It kept the lights on for a while until the 15 year old propane regulator failed. The inrush of excess gas blew the exhaust system off and the overspeeding motor smoked the control board. He couldn’t get parts before the next storm came.

So now we get to my Know Your Stuff admonition. There is a big gray electrical box with a big red handle in the OFF position. I strongly suspect that moving that handle to the ON position would have turned on the lights. There may have been more to it, but I don’t know Brad’s stuff. Let’s just say that would have worked. That still would not have been a great idea because the system is set up for grid tie. When the power came back on from the co-op, his system would have gone into the forbidden grid-tie mode. His smart power meter would have phoned home and ratted him out and caused more strife with the company that controls the fate of his system.

Let’s look at another scenario. Let’s say that Brad had observed, asked a lot of questions and read all of the manuals. Let’s say that Brad knew his stuff, all that fancy new hardware. He would have known for certain about the big red switch and would have known how to turn off the grid tie mode so the meter couldn’t rat him out. He’d have had solar power for lights, fridge and MR. COFFEE. (A survey of several neighbors, post storm, put powering the coffee machine ahead of keeping the fridge running.)

Brad will eventually get his Generac repaired and the co-op will run out of excuses and sign off on his connection. He’ll have the finest, triple-sourced power system in the area. Life will be good. Take a lesson from Brad’s experience.

Take the time and get to know your stuff. It will be worth the effort. –Neal

I’ll Bet the Neighbors Wish…

When it is raining buckets and the wind is howling, it is very comforting to have the lights stay on when the power lines go down.

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Solar at Florida Governor's Mansion

Where the Politicians Stand

You may have noticed that it is political season. What have the politicians personally done for solar?

Solar at Florida Governor's Mansion
Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist shows off solar panels at the Governor’s Mansion. Hey, it IS the Sunshine State.

Jimmy Carter put solar-thermal panels on the White House roof. They came down the next time the house was reroofed, though they were still working. One is in the Smithsonian and another is in a science museum in China!

Bush 2 put solar on the White House, again, as did Obama. What? Did Obama add some or did Bush’s come down in another roof repair?

Former VP Al Gore, Mr. Global Doom himself, claimed his mansion was carbon neutral because he invested in green energy and bought solar energy credits that added a paltry $432/month to his power bill. He even bought some CF bulbs! To his credit, he has added 33 solar panels since then. I wonder if he has switched to LED bulbs?

What about all those other politicians out there? There is a web site that examines rooftops to find out where they stand. Check out https://solarpowerchallenge.com/ to see where they stand! Use a satellite app to find more rooftops.–Neal

PS–Spoiler. Neither of the presidential candidates appears to have solar power on their personal abodes.

Miscellany

Oh, will they ever come up with the perfect battery? Super capacity? Super cheap? I’ve met one guy who has learned to adjust his pace to make it from Pensacola to Miami in a Tesla. Maybe adopting a more relaxed pace would be good for most folks! Solar Jorge, down in the Keys, likes the discontinued Chevy Volt. You can do your daily commute on electric and charge it with solar, but if you want to run coast-to-coast, there is no problem. In the meantime, let the photo above be a warning. Oh the irony of that bumper sticker and the Honda generator! Sad truth is, the car is probably normally charged by coal generator unless he has his own solar power system.

I am constantly messing with batteries. Adding, upgrading, experimenting, trying to coax a little more life from them. The set of 8 T-105s that I repaired by installing new studs have been added to the battery zero export grid tie system. Most of the house is now off grid, now that the demands for a/c are down and my battery pile is higher. Still, that ZEGT system chips in some sun power when the dryer or oven are running.

When there were no batteries the system was constantly tripping out as the two inverters fought and passing clouds would interrupt the flow. Adding 230 ah of Sun’s house brand batteries helped, but with the high draw of the dryer the inverter would soon trip out at the low end of the battery range. Granted, the trip point was set high for longer life, but adding 220ah of Trojans made a lot of difference. I took a look at the meters this afternoon and each leg was contributing 850 watts. These are “1000” inverters, rated, of course, at 950, actually running at 850. Chinese math. Still, running the dryer with 3300 watts from the utility is better than running it with 5000. The batteries are backed with 2kw of panels and I was registering a real 1750 watts coming out of the charge controller, this afternoon. Not bad. This should be a good setup for summer use when much of the house is on utility power. As is, I could probably drop down to 1 kw of solar.

Here’s a tip. Never throw a cable away and keep a supply of terminals. Old cables became new for minimal cost to lash this together. And remember: Never use 500lbs. of batteries when you can use 1000lbs.!

I had another couple of stray solar batteries. I don’t think Tony and Roberto sell the Outback 106RE batteries anymore, but I had two old ones out of a set of 12 that tested 100% after 5 years of overcharging. What to do? I need to restore the barn solar, so maybe one there to run the lights. It would be nice to have more for tools, but we can always plug into the jalopy for kw power.

And the other? In the wake of the hurricane, my last two running tractors abandoned that classification. One of them decided the fuel injection pump had pumped enough, so I am awaiting parts from Ukraine. BOTH had batteries die, along with the one in the wife’s car. Batteries always seem to start crashing with the first hint of cooler weather! I wondered about the use of an Outback 106RE for starting a Diesel tractor. One way to find out.

In my recent studies of AGM batteries, I learned that while you cannot charge them very hard, they have insane discharge rates. Would a 5 year old abused battery have enough insane discharge to start a Diesel? Yup. I had to change one cable terminal and it worked great. That tells me that surge power to run an inverter should not be much of a problem.

An old solar battery has the tractor running. AGM batteries have tremendous surge capacity, aka “cold cranking amps.” Poor little tractor has to do all the hurricane cleanup.

And speaking of surge power, I was rummaging in the Sunelec.com web site and found an interesting new battery system. It looks awesome, in a neat rolling cabinet. 4 of those would look good in my Man Cave. They are too pretty to put in the battery room. I think the bigger unit, the lithium-based eVault Fortress, can put out around 170 amps, so it would be a good match for one of those GS8048 inverters and around 5kw of solar. It gives both the input and output specs, so it is easy to make sure you are matching the inputs and the outputs. You can stack them for more power.

To replace my current battery pile I would need at least 4 of them. Maybe John will send 4 of them to me for a test drive so I can write a review. I won’t hold my breath!–Neal


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