Emergency Power, Part 1

We are spoiled when it comes to power. When the lights go out, there are plenty of ways to get them back on.

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One Moment, Please

I called John to fuss about the website and email. Yeah, there’ve been problems.

In his John’s Blog, you never know what kind of crazy stuff you’ll find, but there’s really useful info, too. He mentioned a recent email blast and I didn’t get one. I live 700 miles from Miami, so it isn’t like I can just drop by and see what specials he has going or what kind of leftovers might be in the back corner of the warehouse. I rely on the emails for that info. If you did not get a recent email from Sun Electronics, do what I did. Go to the main page and sign up anew. Databases get corrupted and stuff just evaporates with computers. Freshen up your listing. John has some really great deals on the way.

Then there is the trying to get the page to come up. You can’t find deals and I can’t write blog if we can’t get in. There has been a problem, lately. I observed the page as to how it did not work and it looks like a DNS problem. When you type in sunelec.com or another site, it calls up the Domain Name Server, or DNS, to see where to go next. If that is broken or a cable is down, you don’t get to the site. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Research Rich, the IT guy du jour, says the signal is bouncing all over the world before it gets where it needs to be. It is being looked into.

IT guys and gals and webmasters at Sun Electronics are like drummers in rock bands. Lots of turnover. I don’t know if they die or just wander off, but the new guy has to figure out what the last guy did or did not do. I have put word in that I want to see more tech details and data sheets.

The phone usually works, though, so give John or Roberto a call if you need anything.

While I was on the line with John, I checked on what inverters he regularly maintains in stock or can get a quick drop ship on. I have been getting questions on setting up a backup or solar hybrid system, with details on what hardware to use. AND I have been wanting to answer those questions with an article with specific hardware that I know will do the job. Watch for that soon…if I can get back into the website.–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?


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.


It’s Always Something!

Last week, during my morning coffee and internet infusion, I read of a very large solar power plant being planned for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in Nevada. Then, this morning, I read about a 6.5 earthquake in Nevada. Man, it’s always something going wrong, isn’t it?  Then I heard Puerto Rico had one!

It just goes to show that normal, everyday conditions are not the only ones to plan for. Here in Florida, we don’t get a lot of earthquakes. I recall a rattle or two, but nothing like the 1781 quake of 6.5 recalled by Chaplain Waldeck of the German mercenaries who were defending Pensacola from the Spanish at the time. That was enough to crumble chimneys and knock barracks houses off their foundations.

I wonder if there are special design considerations for solar in earthquake zones. Years ago, when I was providing management systems for distribution warehouses around the country, I notice that most had steel beams. However, in earthquake zones in California, Washington state and Alaska, the beams were wooden, because they would flex.

Most solar installations I have seen use galvanized steel posts or beams. Put a heavy mass of panels on top of that and the mass will try to stay fairly still while the poles take the shock and perhaps bend. I’m thinking there needs to be something springy or slidey involved in the mounting. I think I will look into seismic mounting to satisfy my curiosity.

Here on the Gulf Coast and up the East Coast, we have hurricanes. Forecasters were talking this week about a storm already forming and there was a weak swirling mass that went through Miami and is now crawling up the Atlantic coast as a tropical storm. Call those a warning. It is time to prepare NOW.

We have a long history of hurricanes here in Pensacola. Juan Tristan de Luna y Arellano and friends sailed into the bay in 1559 to set up a colony. A few weeks later they were holding onto trees for dear life while their ships were being bashed to bits in the shallows. Bienvenidos a Florida, amigos!

Despite this long history with hurricanes, people tend to forget the lessons. It has been maybe 15 years since we’ve had a good one, here, but we have had some whoppers on either side of us. Trees grow up along the powerlines and even a mild storm can knock the grid down for a while. Trees are tough on a roof, too. When hurricanes Erin and Opal came through, the stronger one did not cause as much damage as the first because the trees had already been taken out. The last big storm that came through was so strong it didn’t need any help from trees because the power poles blew over. When Hurricane Michael came through just east of us, it blew pretty much EVERYTHING over.

I had to repair the ceiling in 3 rooms at Mom’s house when a flying tree landed on the roof. She had backup power!

A battery backup system can help keep the lights on during and after a storm. The 2500 watt system I had back during the storms helped keep life fairly normal in the 5 weeks before the power company made it to our street. A daily top up of the batteries with the generator kept things going without the noisy generator running 24/7. NOW is the time to act if you are considering backup. John’s guys already have some package plans, so it isn’t a big deal to get moving on this. My house was wired for this from the beginning, but any good electrician can retrofit this stuff, if you can’t do it yourself.

And what if you have solar power, already? Is it grid-tie-only or can it provide backup after the storm? A LOT of people who start out with grid-tie regret that decision when the grid goes down. There is equipment that will let you have it both ways! Maybe what you already have has an option you are not using. Check into it!

What about your precious solar array, assuming you have one? The Rocky Mountain Institute has a free report on what has been known to fail and what holds up against a storm. Find it. Read it. Essentially, use strong racks and use bolts instead of sheet metal screws.

In my own case, I know I have vulnerabilities. The solar shingles that Sun Electronics gave away are only rated for 60 mph. That worries me. That can be improved upon, but is way too much work. Additionally, I have a number of other modules on temporary racks. Steel stakes driven into the ground help anchor the wooden racks, but the panels are held on with screws. All of these panels I plan to remove and store in a safe place until after a storm blows over. Assuming Sun King, the solar boat, survives in its shed, it can come out and connected with the stored panels provide thousands of watts of solar input and its 5kw inverter can keep necessities running in the house. That’s the plan, anyway.

What else can you do to plan? Have some water stored for drinking and maybe a plastic garbage can full to use to refill the toilet. Kitty litter and a 5 gallon bucket can serve as a toilet if there are unpowered lift stations involved. There are ceramic water filters, like the Berkey, that can clean up pretty much any water source or you can make a purifier with a ceramic filter kit from ebay and a couple of plastic buckets.

Space was at a premium on the boat so I scaled down with 2 gallon paint buckets. Dirty water goes in the top, through a filter in the bottom of the top bucket and drains into the clean water chamber in the bottom bucket.

You need access to food. The virus situation has shown us how vulnerable we are there. Normally Walmart sells a 2 or three day meal package in the camping department. Sam’s Club will deliver a one year supply for the whole family, but right now you have to get in line. There are many options for camp stoves, including those that do not require commercial fuel, but if you have backup power, a microwave and a coffee pot you can prepare all sorts of meals. Yes, you can make pancakes in a microwave, if you know the trick! A single “burner” induction plate would be a good tool in your emergency kit. (My bro was camping at my place last week and used one plugged into an inverter to make breakfast.) Commercial MREs don’t last as long as the military stuff. I have cases of GI MREs dated 1984 that I would still eat in a pinch. Under normal circumstances, you could buy a big sack of beans and another of rice and be fine for a while. Cheap, easy foods seem to be in short supply, these days, but they can be found and it is best to set aside a bit for a stormy day.

You can’t prepare after a storm and supply chains are already strained with the pandemic, so get busy!–Neal

In the News

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

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

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

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