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!


Tiny Solar Power for a Rainy Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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