Neal & Turbo Beast’s Big Solar Adventure

I was hesitant, but John said I should tell this story, so here goes. Eventually we’ll get to some solar stuff.

A few Sundays ago I was in my bunk at the blood bank. Every two or three weeks I get plugged in to donate two units of platelets and a pint of plasma. I have this theory that if get rid of a little blood along my blood pressure won’t be so high. I’ve offloaded about 12 gallons and so far it isn’t working. Still, I usually go home with a new T-shirt or some other swag and I get to watch a movie during the two hours I am hooked up. Last visit it was one of The Transporter movies. It was the one with the skinny psycho babe with machine pistols in her lingerie. Throw in some fancy cars, big explosions and a hint of a plot and you have a cinematic winner.

Transporters are real. I know, because I am one. I took up the trade to pay the insurance when the Unaffordable Healthcare Act came along. I don’t do much anymore, though I’ve moved expensive cars and suitcases full of diamonds. I’ve moved people who need to be moved and kept safe. So far it hasn’t been nearly as exciting as the movies. No gunfire. No explosions. No bulletproof megabucks car. I don’t wear the black suit, though I sometimes wear a natty chalk stripe jacket with my jeans. These days I’m driving a 21 year old Ram Diesel pickup named Turbo Beast. I have other vehicles, but I like Turbo Beast and that is just what some jobs call for.

I haven’t transported lately. The car people don’t pay enough and the diamond people are slow pay. This call came in with a good offer. I might have taken the job for expenses because I’ve known the guy since kindergarten, but he has the bucks and knows I provide value. It was kind of open ended because he did not yet have anything to move. He was bidding in an auction. I knew he was in to win and we’d have to move things quickly. Mapquest says one of the travel segments is 9 hours and the other is 7. Mapquest doesn’t drive or even consider road conditions, gas, food and potty breaks. It takes longer. My GPS doesn’t understand those things, either. Sometimes the GPS takes matters into its own hands and causes its own kind of trouble.

Owing to a listing error, they changed the auction rules. The auction ended later and pickup was delayed to the point that I would have to haul everything instead of sharing the loads. Get it off the auction grounds before the deadline and get it to the destination. Until the last minute, I didn’t even know how many “its” it would be.

“It” was a Mobile Solar Generator. See, this IS a solar story, after all! Actually, there were a lot of them in different configurations. These were made by DC Solar 4 years ago and put into storage at a racetrack in Sparta, Kentucky. That’s almost Ohio, looking at it from my Florida perspective. Maybe you’ve heard the story of DC Solar. If not, I’ll get to it in a bit.

The Turbo Beast and a MSG with sails furled for travel, Sparta, KY

The MSG, as they like to call it, consists of a heavy duty trailer with a heavy steel rack full of 10 solar panels in two rows. You can fold them up for storage or angle them to suit the sun. Running down the middle of the trailer you have a Diesel generator, two huge batteries and a 113 gallon fuel tank. In a locker you have the usual complement of combiners, charge controllers, breakers and inverters. All first class stuff.

Variations on the plan may put the genset at 11kw or 7kw. Kubota Lowboy. Indestructible. They last forever. Only a couple of hours of run time on them for demo. They might or might not come with light towers capable of lighting up an acre. Some came with an EV charging station to keep your Tesla happy, but don’t think for a moment a Tesla will pull it. You need a Turbo Beast.

They have to get from Sparta, KY to Somewhere, NC. And Pensacola. Pickup days are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. No sense showing up bright and early Monday because nothing is paid for. Wire transfers, paper work, acknowledgments. In anticipation that all would be well by the end of the day, I left home early in the morning. Earlier, in fact, than I even consider morning. Without a load, Turbo Beast purred like a …no, that’s not right. Turbo Beast sounds like it has a hubcap full of lug nuts, but that’s a good thing. I was working against a time zone change, too, but I got there in time to meet Steve, the dispenser of trailers. He dispensed one to me and off I went to my hotel. It was early enough for a meal and there would have been time for a good night’s sleep, but I needed to leave before anyone was even thinking about morning.

I gave the map on the GPS a cursory look. You can’t seem to get from Kentucky to North Carolina, not in the more or less straight line we like to find when traveling. The Z-shaped path looks close enough. It is hard to note the details on my unit. Too bad. Things were about to get weird.

I gassed up and loaded up on burritos before dawn was even under construction. The GPS turned me off the main road a few miles into the trip. I fought back. I figured I might not have interstate all the way, but I wasn’t going to start with a 35 mph 2 lane. After a while, I got turned again. And again. The roads gradually grew smaller. At its most interesting, I had wheels on the line in the middle and on the line on the right edge, if you can call it that. It was interrupted with crevasses where the asphalt had crumbled and tumbled down to the creek bed a hundred feet below. There were coal mines I was really concerned when I saw the sign that suggested I should not rely on GPS navigation.

I do not have a box called a “proportional controller”, which is often found on vehicles towing trailers with electric brakes. I was told these electric brakes would operate from the taillight signals from the trailer plug. This was not true. Turbo Beast was having to stop all 16,000 pounds of plunder on its own. It had to stop often. West Virginia has a really endearing trick they play on you. You come spiraling down a mountain at breakneck speed and suddenly come out of the turn to discover a traffic light, which is ALWAYS red. The landscape would brighten, despite the overcast, as my brake rotors would go incandescent when I stood on the pedal.

As expected, the GPS eventually led me back to an Interstate and I eventually arrived at my destination in a county where every turn signal is red. I may have saved a few miles, but I was exhausted and hours late. It had taken three tanks of fuel to get here. Courtney, the trailer’s new owner, immediately decided I should figuratively thread a needle to get his trailer to where he wanted it. Then I had to jiggle and jog as he used a tape measure to insure that it was perfectly parallel to his shed. This was not the first time in the past 6 decades I had considered strangling him. After a brief tour of his workshop and a quick diagnosis of his skid steer’s starting problem, I grabbed a bottle of water and hit the road.

The morning’s navigation problem stemmed from my last trip to Miami. The Florida Turnpike had hit me up for nearly $50 going down with my trailer and I-95 turns into a toll nightmare in Miami, as well. I had instructed the GPS to avoid toll roads and it remembered. There is a toll road between Kentucky and North Carolina. This time I took it and made good time on the return to Kentucky. Unloaded it took only one tank of fuel, but construction work kept the speed down. It was very late when I returned, but I could not get another trailer before 8 am, so I got a few hours of sleep.

In the trailer’s cupboard you find a Midnite Solar charge controller and accessories good for 50 amps or so. A pair of Sunny Island inverters are linked to convert 48 VDC into 12kw of 110/220 AC. They can start the generator, too.

I’ll get around to giving you a review of this setup. Preview: I’m impressed.

The batteries were not as advertised. They claimed they were each 485 ah, but they were really 540 ah, an improved model, too. But wait! There’s more! That 540 ah is for the 8 hour rate they use for forklifts. At the 20 hour rate solar folks use, that’s more along the lines of 850 ah EACH. Be still, my beating heart, as Mountfort once said. Mom used to say that, too. I got it from Mom. I don’t read Mountfort.

Let’s just think what you could do with that kind of power. Provide lights and power for an outdoor festival. Provide power for a remote construction site. Power your hunting camp or vacation cabin. Light up nighttime road work. Plug it into your house. Take your Les Paul or Strat and a Marshall stack to the boonies, crank it to 11 and let it wail! Let your imagination run wild.

The solar is limited. The panels can be upgraded. Any shortfall you can make up with an hour or two of Diesel time. You need to run it every now and then to equalize the batteries, anyway. What a handy contraption, this trailer!

Yeah, well I have another one to get to North Carolina. I got to the auction site early and was ready to go when Steve showed up. He signed off and I roared off, sticking to the four lanes. Turbo Beast’s brakes had an easy day of it, but he roared up the mountains. You tow with the overdrive turned off, so 70 mph is just a couple of hundred rpm off the redline. A steep hill gets the turbo really spun up and boy what a roar it is. It isn’t complaining, though. It seems to like being unleashed. Arrival at Courtney’s place is just before dark and I have to precisely place trailer #2 on the other side of the shed, though he does not use the ruler, this time. He tells me of his evolving plan to combine the trailers’ resources and a pallet of panels he already had. He figures he will be off grid within a few weeks. It’s late. I refill my water bottle get in the truck. There is a funny noise from the starter and a bad smell, but the engine started. Uh oh. I would avoid shutting off the engine until back at the hotel. Time to venture off in search of Diesel and food.

At 2am I am back at the trailer lot, hooking up the unit I will take to my place. Hopefully Steve told Security I was coming. They didn’t catch me and I made it back to the hotel for a couple of hours of sleep.

Perhaps this solar trailer could be used for educational purposes! Take it to a school for an introduction to solar or even more in-depth learning. Take it to a union hall to get electricians up to speed on solar. Courtney is certainly learning fast from it. He’d previously done a grid-tie project, but battery/inverter solar is another ball game. Already we’ve covered just how much a charge controller can handle, wire sizes for combiners and batteries, mixing and matching panels, do and don’t do. Heck, I’ve learned something about some of the specific components, like they don’t all use the same numbering conventions. For example, I now know that a Midnite Solar 250 charge controller has a 250 volt input and not a 250 amp output. 250 volts lets you use a longer string of panels, which can be handy. Courtney is planning to combine components from two trailers into one system and add even more. That is not trivial.

Let’s get back to the story of DC Solar. The details may vary but the gist of it should be right. A mechanic got the idea of building a mobile solar power plant. He came up with a very solid and well thought out design. It is well constructed if it can survive the Interstate through Louisville or across the Virginias. The sales pitch he came up with must have been masterful, because he sold around 14,000 of these units at about $150,000 EACH. If you know what it would cost to put together something like this using panels and parts from Sun Electronics, you might suspect this number is more than a wee bit high! Nonetheless, they sold acres of these to high profile investors.

The pitch was you pay $45,000 down on the unit. This happens to be what your solar tax credit would be. Hey that is like getting something for nothing, right? Not quite. There was that balance of 105k. You did not actually take possession of your trailer. DC Solar said they’d lease them out to sporting and event venues to let the unit pay its own way. Wow, that is sounding really good! Oh, and after it was paid off, you’d start getting checks for the continued rentals. Perfect. Almost.

Want to check up on this plan that seems too good to be true? Just go to pretty much any major speedway in the country. Texas, California, Nevada, Kentucky…all over. There they were, scads of them. Where do I sign up?

The business was making the founding couple rich. They bought over a hundred collectible cars, 20 houses, a jet, and more. Their parties were epic.

Uh, there were just a few problems. One is, they didn’t build 14,000 trailers. Maybe 4000, depending on who’s telling the story. Serial numbers were changed. GPS trackers were attached to things that were not these trailers. Yes, some people actually started getting rental checks, but they were being paid with new sales money, not rentals. All those units at racetracks? Free storage. It was an elaborate Ponzi scheme.

There were arrests, a bankruptcy and auctions to try to recoup some investor money. Selling a fraction of the units at a fraction of the original price does not help out the investors a lot. One thing was for sure, Uncle Sam wanted his solar tax credit money back because nobody actually got their trailers! Oops.

Long story short, I have the last of three trailers Courtney bought. I hope to make a side trip to Memphis on my way back but I feel like the lack of sleep is starting to catch up with me. It is also Thursday, the day my little girls come to visit after school. I plan to make an early start and leave the hotel before dawn, armed with my usual two cups of coffee. Will the truck even start? Yes! No problem. It clattered happily in the dark. Nearby a guy in a new Ram with the multishot common rail fuel injection is warming up. You can hardly hear him. Turbo Wimp. I wonder if his truck roars up the mountains when heavily loaded? I gather fuel and burritos and am on my way.

Louisville and Nashville downtown Interstates nearly shake us apart. I dismissed the Memphis side trip. The goal is to get home by 4 pm.

So there I was, last day, hours from home, the fuel tank getting low and I’m getting hungry. There’s fuel and a BK ahead so I pull off. No, I don’t go for the drive thru at the Burger King. A Gen 2 Cummins engine makes too much racket to hear anything at the drive thru and I am pulling a trailer, so I go around back and take up about 8 spaces. After I finished eating, I turned the key and the starter went click. Oh, yeah, that funny noise and bad smell the starter made yesterday? Well, I had meant to not turn off the engine for the whole trip back, but turning it off is a habit.

I have one of those newfangled smart phones and asked, “Hey Google, where’s a repair shop near me?” There actually is one near Calera, south of Birmingham. They told me to just bring it in and they could get to it. Tomorrow. I tried to explain that you can’t bring it in when it won’t start! Hoo boy.

I called Little Brother, knowing that it was his night off, knowing I’d have to pay dearly for this one. He knew what an opportunity he had, what a barrel I was over, and immediately agreed. First to Autozone for a new $273 dollar starter. No sense messing with a cheap starter, even though the cheap one was only a few dollars less. Then he had to drive about 3 hours to find me after loading his car with tools. I told him to get mine because I know what I have. He didn’t and I just hoped he had the right stuff. Meanwhile, I was not home by 4pm. It started getting dark and cold.

You know how I started off telling you that I regularly visit the blood bank? Last time I was there the swag was a nice little blanket that I had stashed in my truck. If you are traveling in cold weather, stash a blanket, some water and some granola bars. They can come in handy.

Eventually, Little Bro and an octogenarian Marine named Bull Dog arrived. Excellent. Little Brother has lots of tools, but you wouldn’t want him to actually use them on YOUR car. Bull Dog and I quickly discovered that only two of the three bolts that hold the starter to the block can actually be accessed. I am sure that there is some special tool that makes this quick work, but we didn’t have it. After an hour or two of fumbling and hoping the tiny 10mm bolt head would not be stripped, we got it loose. Reassembly went quickly and the engine started with more zip than I would have ever imagined possible. The only problem left was that I was starting to get wobbly, not having had more than a very few hours of sleep in the last few days. I can stay awake for very long periods, but I was reaching the limit. The first rest area I reached was full, so I pulled off beside the road for a few minutes. Next rest area had some room and I got a short nap. I finally arrived home around 3 am.

I’ve been exploring and testing the MSG. The generator runs like a dream, though I had to replace the starting battery. It just hadn’t been used. One of our Sunelec friends, Bruce in PA, says he has one of these with 7000 hours on it and it still runs great. I want one of my own! The chromed exhaust tip was getting some rust spots, so I cleaned it up and painted it barbecue black with hi-temp paint. The main batteries were equalized with the generator and they tested to new spec. This was probably their first cycle.

I discovered the Blinky! I’d never heard of such, but each of the big batteries had one. It is a product of Philadelphia Scientific, if I recall. It fits into the battery from the top and measures go-nogo on the battery electrolyte level. These big batteries have such a huge water reserve that the Blinky was still blinky after 4 years without service. Still, I added nearly 11 gallons of water. In service these batteries should be checked every 3 months. In practice, any time you walk by you can catch a glimpse of green light to know it is ok.

So what’s next? There’s a FOR SALE sign on the one I have. $21,000. That’s a good markup over the auction price and expenses, but less than half what it would take to put one together yourself. It also qualifies for the solar tax credit. This one is real because you get to actually take the trailer home. I know Courtney is working that angle. Buying at auction, sight unseen, is buying a pig in a poke, but these were never used and it appears we made out OK. There will be more coming to auction. Check the Internet if you are interested. Most will be out west, but there may be some in the east., at Bristol and Daytona.

This MSG is checked out and running. It will give me some fodder for component reviews to post here on the blog. Courtney’s project will provide more opportunities. It should be interesting. In the meantime, mine is busy. It is covered in Christmas lights, offering a cheery view to passersby. My girls say I did a lousy job decorating. I told them they can come decorate it if they think they can do a better job. They think that’s a fine idea.
–Neal