2011 Web Log

9 July 2011:

I finally had to fire up a generator, it's just been so hot and humid I need to run the air more than my solar power will allow. I tuned up my old Kohler 2kW genset and got it running pretty smoothly. I do have that 5kW unit a friend loaned me, but it's so noisy and burns a lot of fuel. The old Kohler is much quieter and runs at half the rpms, burning about .3 gallons per hour. I hate to burn the gas, it's so inefficient, but until I get more solar panels I'll just have to run the generator once in a while. Not that I need it for hours on end, I run it when I'm inside and need the house cooled down, for 45 minutes or so, and that's only when I don't have a sunny day.

I transferred the last of the water in the settling tank to my clean water tank yesterday. That gave me a chance to clean out the settling tank. It really accumulated a lot of dirt and sediment in the couple of months it's been in use. I'm hoping for some rain this weekend. I'm not running low yet, but still I like to see a nice rain every week or so and it has been a bit of dry spell.

4 July 2011:

Things are going well living off grid power. It has been hot and humid lately, so I broke down and bought a new 8,000 BTU air conditioner. I had planned on going off grid next year and buying a new air conditioner then, but since I moved up my going off grid date, I decided I had better move up the date for a new air conditioner too. This unit has an EER rating of 10.8, which is pretty good for a window unit this size. I've had it a few days now, and it's power consumption is maybe a little lower than I expected. My old 8,000 BTU air conditioner went out last year and used about 800 watts, this one seems lower than that, but I haven't actually had a meter on it yet to see. On sunny days I'm running it 3-4 hours and I'm still getting my batteries fully charged each day. My 2,000 watt MSW power inverter runs the air just fine, that was a little bit of a relief when I turned it on the first time.

I've been thinking about what I should do down the road. I think I'll try to stay off grid power permanently now, the plan is to buy 2 new 120 watt solar panels this Fall and 2 more in the Spring of next year. That should give me several more hours of air conditioner run time per day and also give me adequate power in the winter. I'll turn on the city water again this Fall when things start to freeze up. The cost of water storage tanks, new 12 water pumps and plumbing will be significant. So I'm going to wait with a permanent water system until I have my power system at full capacity. I decided when I put the permanent water system in I'm going to use dual 12 volt pumps. Each pump is rated at 1.7 gallons per minute at 40 psi and draws about 7 amps at that pressure/flow rate. That will be a lot less power than I'm using with the 120 volt well pump I'm using now and not put the huge drain on the power inverter the current pump does.

My batteries will be 3 years old next Spring, so it's possible they may need replacing by then. If so, I may have to hold off on new solar panels next Spring. But for now the batteries are doing fine. I did pick up a 5,000 watt generator a friend is loaning me. He's got a 10 kw unit too and hasn't been using either one for a couple of years. I haven't needed to use it yet, but it's here now if I need it. I ran a new 12 gauge 120 volt power line into my power room to connect the generator to my system if/when it's needed.

15 June 2011:

It's been almost a month since I went off city power and water. I've been getting by just fine. It's rained a lot, I had one stretch of 9 days without rain, but now it's back to raining every couple of days, so water hasn't been and issue. Some of those rainy days have been very dark days, with little power from the sun, but I'm getting by nicely and the batteries fill up quickly when the sun does come out. No need for a generator yet.

A couple of days ago I noticed some algae forming in my new storage tank. It had some water in it when I got it, and some algae, so I suppose there was algae that didn't get killed initially and started growing once conditions became favorable. So I added 2 cups of bleach then filled the tank to over flowing, hopefully that will kill off everything in the tank. I also covered the tank with a tarp to keep the sun off. The day after I sanitized the tank I checked it out, there wasn't a bit of algae to be found.

6 June 2011:

I scrounged up another 500 gallon tank last night, it was used as a water supply tank for a mobile pressure washer so it was pretty clean. I power washed it inside and out before I got home. Then rinsed it a couple of times with a garden hose and my water supply. I've been keeping an eye on my water supply in the original 500 gallon tank, I'm amazed at how much dirt settles out of the rain water after it's had a chance to sit for a couple of days. I've seen where people use an initial settling tank then transfer the water to permanent storage tanks. I think that's what I'm going to do as well.

Today I transferred what remained in my original tank to the new tank, about 325 gallons. I installed a 5 micron filter between the tanks and transferred the water with a sump pump. The sump pump worked very well as a transfer pump, pumping about 5 gallons per minute through the new filter. With the extra tank I'll be able to empty and clean out the first tank in the system more often, by filtering the water when I transfer it should prolong the house filter system as well. I added a cup of bleach to the new tank as I filled it, I've been adding 1/2 cup after every good rain to keep the water reasonably sanitized.

It's 2:00 in the afternoon and 98 degrees right now. Way too warm and humid for this time of the year, but it's giving me a good chance to see how I'll handle the heat without an air conditioner. The past few days it's been upper 80's to low 90's, if I get the house cooled down at night and close it up early morning, the house stays under 75 degrees until after the sun goes down. Last night we only had a low of 71 degrees, so the house didn't cool down as much much as I'd like, but I'm managing, with a good fan I'm comfortable.

I had a nice find last week in Walmart, they had a personal type of 8" fan that runs on AC or (8) D cell batteries. That means it's 12 volts, so I threw the wall-wart transformer away and wired the fan with a plug for my 12 volt house wiring. After testing I was pleased to see it only drew .26 amps at 12.6 volts on low and .33 amps on high. It's rare to find a fan this size that uses so little power, it is a little noisy but not bad. I use it at night next to my bed and it actually gets too cool even on low, I find I'm turning it off at some point in the middle of the night. I'll probably pick up another fan next time I'm at a Walmart.

31 May 2011:

All goes well being off utilities. It's rained every 2 or 3 days since I went on my rain water cistern system, so I haven't had to worry much about water. But just to keep on top of things I've been using water to maximize my storage. Yesterday I washed a load of clothes in the morning, then last night when I saw on radar a line of showers heading my way, I went ahead and washed another load just ahead of the rain. We only had .3" last night, but it was enough to again fill my storage tanks. Today is sunny and warm, so I got the clothes dried this morning.

I'm still undecided on what to do about the west side of my house, it gets so much sun in the afternoons and evenings it really heats up the house. I'm still leaning towards making a porch style roof over that side of the house. But I'm not entirely sure I want that large of a structure out there, or would maybe just some awnings over the windows would be better. I need to decide soon, the summer heat will be here shortly.

The solar panels are doing a good job of giving me the power I need. But I am using the batteries much more, and with the water system pump adding to the electrical load, it is a noticeable increase in power usage. It dawned on me the other day I'm really dependent on my large power inverter now, I had really intended to get a new, large pure sine wave inverter before I went off grid power completely. I guess if my 2 kW MSW inverter does die on me, I can always pick up a new one pretty quickly. I don't have a back up generator running yet, I did move one of my old generators back on my trailer the other day. It's not mounted yet, but won't take long to get running should I need it.

23 May 2011:

Today it's official, I'll no longer have a utility bill! Well, at least not until October or November... I stopped in the city office today and told them to pull both the water and the electric meters, I told them to keep them handy though, I'd likely need them again when the snow flies.

I washed my first load of clothes today on the new water system. I was a little disappointed at how much water the washer used, I had read it should use about 40 gallons for a full load, it used a good 55 to maybe 60 gallons. My 2000/4000 watt inverter didn't handle the load of both the well pump and washer at the same time. I had turn off the well pump when the washer was running. After the washer finished the wash cycle and started filling again to rinse, I turned the pump back on since it didn't look like the pressure tanks would have enough water to fill the washer. That's going to be a hassle, but I'll get by with it until I install a 12 volt pump system.

Other than the washing machine, it looks like I'll be able to really cut down on daily water usage. The new toilet and cutting down wasteful habits have cut my daily water usage to under 30 gallons. Now all I need is a new washer that conserves water.

20 May 2011:

Right on cue we had 1.6 inches of rain last night. Of course I was like a kid with a new toy, I had to put on a rain coat, grab an umbrella and stand out in the rain and watch the system in action. I watched my rain gauge and the water level in the 500 gallon tank, my estimate of 600 gallons per inch of rain may be just a little conservative. At .1" of rain I had about 75 gallons of water increase. Later last night it really poured for a hour or so, when I checked the tank this morning it was full and overflowing. I sort of wished I'd had the 300 gallon tank ready to go too. So early this afternoon I cleaned out the 300 gallon tank, then siphoned water out of the 500 gallon tank to fill the 300 gallon tank. I set the 300 gallon tank at a lower level for just that purpose. We've had some light rain today, at the moment the big tank is at 400 gallons and the little tank full. With luck before the rain ends they'll both be full.

I went ahead and set up my old 40 gallon electric water heater as an extra pressure tank. I plugged the hot water outlet, then pulled out the dip tube on the cold water inlet. I had to lay the tank on its side, with one end propped up a bit to get the most water possible out of it. It sure made a difference in how much water I can draw before the pump kicks in. Now I can go pretty much all day on two pump runs, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. I'll have to add a Schrader valve so I can add air to the tank from time to time, but it's working great. I'm seriously thinking about adding another pressure tank to give me even more capacity, then using a 12 volt water pump. I think the 12 volt pump would be more efficient, while slower to refill the pressure tanks, that shouldn't be a huge problem with enough tank capacity. I'm a little concerned that the electric draw of both the well pump and my washing machine may be too much for my inverter. If it is, I'll have to rely on the water supply in the pressure tanks to get me through a load, or just switch to the 12 volt pump and keep the load off the inverter completely.

I'm going to shut off both my water and electric service on Monday. A friend has a portable generator I can use if needed, and he's got a building I can use my welder in too. So with those concerns addressed, I don't see any reason not to go completely off grid again. I'll be depending on fairly frequent rain, needing an inch and half every two weeks or so. That should be doable for the most part, August may be the exception though, but if worse come to worst I can always put the 300 gallon tank on my trailer and fill it elsewhere.

19 May 2011:

April was the worst April I can remember, it was cold, wet and cloudy for virtually the entire month. I don't think we had a full clear day the last 3 weeks of the month, and maybe only 2 or 3 days where we had full sun for a few hours. That ended up giving me a chance to see how the solar panels would do in less than ideal conditions. I was pleased to see 10 to 17 amps peak going into the batteries even on cloudy days, that was enough in most cases to get the batteries fully charged. On the days where it was very dark and the batteries saw little charge, my battery capacity was adequate to get me through until there was better sun. That's a nice aspect of solar panels, unlike a wind generator that produces nothing on calm days, even cloudy days produce a fair bit of solar power.

I replaced the motor on my garden tiller this spring. Good thing I waited with planting until I had the tiller going again, all the cold damp weather would have ruined any early plantings. Today I finished the planting with the sweet corn and beans going in.

The last few days I've been working on a cistern water system. This is sort of a test system to see what it will take to get off the commercial water system. Sort of a temporary, learners system.

I had to reinstall some roof gutter on my big building since it has been down for years. I put up 40', with a roof depth of 25' that gives me 1,000 square feet of surface to catch water from. This is an asphalt roof, so this won't be a potable water system, but I do intend to use it for pretty much everything else but drinking. The long down tube under the gutter is a first wash system. The first 5 gallons of water fill this tube to catch any particles on the roof/gutter, there is a small drain hole a few inches from the bottom that acts as a small constant drain to remove the dirty water between rains. There is also a screw out plug in the bottom to clean out or drain the wash system completely. I'll probably need to reinforce the 4" diameter tubing, my guess is the span between buildings will sag when it's full of water. I did run a garden hose through the system and it worked fine, but heavy rain will likely flow more water than a garden hose. The system is temporary, so I didn't glue joints that didn't obviously need gluing. So we'll see how it holds up.

Here's the tube running into a 500 gallon holding tank. This tank was used to hold organic fertilizer a few years ago. The fertilizer is supposed to be food grade and edible, but I'm still wouldn't drink water from it. I washed it out as best I could, partly filled it and drained it, then put in 150 gallons to get me started.

I've had this pump/tank for years but it hasn't seen much use. I used it one winter when my water line broke, I put a holding tank in my garage and used this pump to supply house water. The problem is this pump is a little over sized for the pressure tank and cycles pretty quickly. I had a used 20 gallon pressure tank a friend gave me, but when I went to remove the old pipe fittings I broke off a pipe. It's also 120 volts and I have to run the big power inverter to run it. That wouldn't be so bad if I had a larger pressure tank, but I don't like running the big power inverter all the time because it's so inefficient even under no load.

Of course this system won't work in the winter, and the holding tank isn't big enough to last long. But it will give me a chance to see what sort of system I will need to get by on for year around use. I'm wondering if I could use my old electric water heater tank as an extra pressure tank. Providing I add water from the bottom, I don't see why it wouldn't work as a pressure tank...

I'll have to change my ways to conserve water. First off is the toilet, the old 5 gallon a flush toilets are nice, but they use an awful lot of daily water. So I replaced the old toilet with a new 1.6 gpf toilet yesterday. Cutting down shower times, only using as much dish water as needed and only laundering full loads of cloths will all help save water.

6 April 2011:

The new rack is full!

My new 70 Watt panel came in sooner than I expected, so I was quick to get it in the last slot of my rack. When I started this rack last year with a new 60 Watt panel, I really didn't expect to have it filled so soon, but I'm really glad it is! Next Fall when I go to add more solar, I'll have to start a new rack, I think I'll mount them on the South side of my building, rather than do another ground mount.

Once I had the last new panel mounted, I had to see what kind kind of charging current I'd get into my batteries. Since my bank was full, I ran the vacuum around the house to put a heavy draw on the system. Much to my surprise, and pleasure, the amp meter peaked at 39.3 amps going into the batteries. That's just a hair under 500 Watts, not bad at all. I'm pleased with all these panels, every one of them has put out more current than they are rated for. This last 70 Watt panel was putting out 4.8 amps short circuit.

5 April 2011:

Spring seems to really be here now, with a prelude of all the wonderful hours of sun to come!

I've been trying to add more solar, the plan was to purchase a new 120 Watt solar panel both in the Spring and Fall of each year, until I reach my goal. Last year I added 240 Watts, then got a bonus 75 Watt panel in the winter as a gift. This Spring I ordered another 120 Watt panel, then I found a good deal on a 70 Watt panel a couple of days later and couldn't pass it up. The 120 Watt panel arrived yesterday, and I installed it in the rack today. I saw a peak of 32.6 amps just after noon today. One thing I forgot about was my circuit breaker between the panels and the charge controller. With the added power of the new panel, I tripped the circuit breaker coming from the new solar rack. I'll have to pick up a new, larger 30 amp breaker, but for now I tied some of the current from the new solar rack to the old solar rack.

I've got 435 watts of "good" solar panels now, and with the 70 Watt panel due later this week, I'll be up to 505 rated Watts of good panels. That's not counting my Harbor Freight "toy" panels. Those panels are rated at 180 total Watts, but are more like a 90 Watt panel in reality. With the addition of the 70 Watt panel due in this week, I'll be at (or a little above) my charge controller rating of 35 amps. I may switch the old solar rack to one of the small Harbor Freight charge controllers, but I'll be needing another new charge controller next Fall when I add more panels again.

I line dried my first loads of laundry this year. So I decided it was time to switch the house back to all solar power. It's starting to feel like a Spring ritual now, turning the grid power off in the house, and it feels good!

10 February 2011:

I purchased a Kill-a-Watt meter to measure the power used by various appliances, I've started recording that data on my appliances page.

More hours of sun and less clouds the past week or so has had me using more solar power again. Peak charging power from the solar arrays have been over 26 amps, that really gets the batteries charged up quickly on days with good sun. I used solar power yesterday for everything in the house, including about 12 or 13 hours of TV on time, and my batteries were into regulation mode by noon today. I'm still planning on adding another 120 Watt panel next month. That should give me plenty of solar power for the rest of the year, at least maybe until November...

29 January 2011:

My first new post of 2011!

The long dark days of winter are drawing to a close, and none too soon. This winter has been one of cloudiest I can remember, power production has been dismal. On the occasional day of good sun I was able to vacuum or run the TV for a few hours, but most of the dark days of December and early January I was making little more than enough power to run my house lights. On a bright note, I was able to increase my new solar array by 75 watts. One of my brothers and my mom went together and got me the new panel for Christmas.

In mid December I noticed the amps in from my solar panels were lower than I expected. The low winter angle of the sun reduces the peak power output somewhat, but it seemed really too low. So I bucked up and went out in the snow and took power readings off each of the panels in the new array. Much to my dismay, the newest, 120 watt panel was only putting out about 12 volts, not nearly enough to charge batteries. I inspected the panel for physical damage, but couldn't find any. So I tested the bypass diodes and sure enough one was bad. I just un-soldered the diodes and removed them from the junction box. They are only needed if I use the solar panel in series at higher voltages. Since I have no plans of upping my voltage, it's fine with no diodes.

My old solar panel array is ready to find a new home in the dumpster. I have 4 sets of them, that's 12 x 15 watt panels that are now putting out a total of 3.5 amps max. Thin film panels are notorious for losing power with age, but this is ridiculous. It seems like every time I check the array the power drops a little. Last Spring they were putting out about 8 amps, last Fall about 6 amps, and now this...

I keep adding more 12 volt lighting, today I added a new ceiling light in the bedroom, I had been just using a lamp on a bedside table, but I wanted a little more light so a dual bulb fixture with (2) 13 watt compact florescent bulbs really did the trick. A couple of weeks ago I received an order of LED bulbs, they are 25 surface mount LEDs in some sort of car bulb base. They really are pretty bright, but I wasn't sure what to do with them. I ended up using four of them in something like a 4' shop light.

I cut a 4' length of thin walled PVC pipe and hot glued the bulbs inside.

Here's a close up of one of the bulbs.

I'm not going to say it's as bright as the 2 x 40 watt bulbs in the shop light it's replacing. But it is bright enough to work by, and uses less than 5 watts. I may add 3 or 4 more bulbs to this light to make it realistically useable as a bench light. These bulbs, including shipping were under $3 each. Right now the light costs under $12, adding a few more bulbs might bring the cost up to about $20 but that's pretty cheap for a viable 12 volt shop light.

It's hard to believe Casey has a birthday coming up again next month, he'll be 2 years old on the 24th of February.