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Mr. President and The First Lady captured on Solar Powered Camera

In 2014 a pair of eagles made their nest within the US National Capital (Washington, DC) grounds high atop a Poplar tree within the Azalea Collection at the US Natl Arboretum. The eagles, named Mr. President and The First Lady successfully raised one eaglet in 2015. The last time a nesting pair had been seen in this location was in 1947. 

When this came to the attention of the non-profit American Eagle Foundation they began a partnership with the National Arboretum to install and stream two high definition video cameras from the top of the nest tree in an effort to monitor and support the eagles come-back.

The partnership enlisted a team of students and teachers from Alfred State College, and SUNY College of Technology with partial funding from the US Department of Energy and Environment. The goal of the project was to design and build a completely self-sufficient, off-grid, mobile, solar powered camera system and share this amazing resurgence with a worldwide audience.

One of the students involved, Thomas Wzientek, talked with us about the project and what was involved. “In the building of this project we had only 3 weeks to build and design the trailer (which houses the balance of system components and the panels). In that time frame, the team spent about 350 hours preparing the project. One of the factors we had to take into account was: How to put 8 solar panels on a 10 by 6 trailer? We came up with a strut support with 4 pre-fab braces for the panel to slide into. On the inside of the trailer we have 8 batteries, inverter, and charger controller with a surge protector device. When we took it to the United States National Arboretum we had one day to build it and the next day we had to teach the United States National Arboretum staff how the system worked!”

Another student, Ethan Yanda, said “Up to this point the system has been functioning flawlessly and there hasn’t been any major maintenance required. That’s quite amazing considering the trailer is a prototype and it was built in a very short period of time.” The projects basic components housed the trailer which is parked 600’ from the nest includes:

  • 8 Helios 250W Mono modules
  • Magnum4400W 48V Parallel Inverter
  • Midnite Classic 150 Charge Controller
  • 8 Deka AGM 12V 245ah Batteries

The cameras powered by this system captured the first egg laid by The First Lady on Feb.10, 2016 named DC2 and her second, DC3, on Valentine’s Day Feb.14th, 2016. As of the writing of this article those eaglets have been named and look as though they are almost full grown. For everyone involved this has been a very rewarding experience. Student Thomas Wzientek leaves us with his reflection saying, “Well as a student, I would first say to take advantage of what your college has to offer as far as special projects in the community or at school. You never know what you think maybe a small project may turn it to something big as a worldwide known project. As a student going to school I think this project has helped people see that solar can be used in many ways and help people see how you don’t need grid power in places, when you take a look at the United States National Arboretum. It is located in the middle of Washington, DC and it was more cost effective than having traveling powerlines to run something to a remote location.”

 Check out the result of this project and the progress of the eagles here.

Boondocking Bob Settles Down


Bob Shearer aka: Handy Bob has been our customer since 2002 or so. More on his boondocking life can be found here:

The biggest difference between me and most other people is my dedication to not burn fossil fuel unless absolutely needed. Our place is completely off-grid.  No phone line, no TV cable and no power line.  It is solar powered and heated including domestic hot water. The usual person would say “green” or “sustainable”...We say, “Inexpensive to maintain” and what makes sense to us. 

This house we are building is a very unusual place.  It is a 1000 sq. ft. one bedroom mansion connected to a bigger barn that went up first.  This size is all that we needed after Boondock living in a 300 sq. ft. RV for many years.  The sewing room is bigger than our bedroom, and nearly as big as the living room.  We will have a huge bathroom, but only one.  If we need a second toilet it is out in the barn.  The house is built with ICF foam block forms and 6” thick concrete walls.  The roof will be 5.5” SIP’s on a post and beam frame made of fir timbers. 

I planed the timbers using solar power (all of my tools have been run on solar power for years). My opinion is that if one needs to power a saw, it is stupid to be starting a generator.  I have a neighbor who did not understand this until one day last fall, when the generator he has (which is nearly worn out), would not start.  It was so easy to just push the button, but that day he finally went to work building a rack for some used panels, a shed for old batteries, and a used Tristar inverter I had found for him.  From that day forward he has hardly needed the noise maker.  We used to hear it droning all day long from a half of a mile away.

The house is cocked about 20 degrees toward the east giving us the benefit of quicker morning heat. Our space heating need will be met by passive solar using a 12” thick concrete Trombe wall behind a 40ft x 6ft glass wall with a roof overhang for shading in summer. We were careful to design enough space behind the wall for us to be able to clean the glass. The amount of thought that has gone into all of this is absolutely insane.  The solar air heater that I built on the clerestory wall of the barn was producing over 100F air the other day, while it was 12F outside. 

I think that passive solar failed in this country due to several things.  First, is that there is no money in it.  Then, there is the fact that passive solar requires a brain and the gumption to open and close windows. Yes, it is cold in Montana, but we have sun here, plus we will have a small decorative propane stove for back-up, as well as bedroom and bath heaters. No wood burning for us.  We are both allergic to the smoke and no matter how perfect a wood stove is, they all leak a bit when loading them. My opinion is that clean burning a bit of propane is better for the planet than a dirty wood stove.

All exterior surfaces of our home are fire proof with a steel roof and stucco walls. It is important to us to have a mostly open design plan, with clerestory windows to provide light all the way to the north wall.  It is super insulated and includes an earth-berm, but with windows.  No underground Hobbit dwelling for us.

Inside the barn I have been building all of the utilities so that when the house is enclosed we are ready to just extend things.  Septic was first, then electricity and now water has just been completed.

The solar electric system consists of 2000W of panels on the roof connected with two Morningstar Tristar MPPT 45 amp controllers to (8) Crown 6CRP525 batteries wired at 24V and feeding a standard electrical system with a Magnum 4KW 120/240V inverter and MMP panel.  DC power will be used only for things like the under cabinet lights and a grey water recirculation pump used to feed the toilet.  The inverter is on 24/7 so we can run electrical refrigeration and have the garage door opener work when we want it. 

We made it through this winter without ever needing backup charging.  Originally, I did a fairly expensive set up that relies on a 1000W inverter powered from my truck, supplying 120V AC to a 24V charger I got from Crown.  I set it up last fall, tested it, and now it is covered with dust.  I did buy a used Generac out of an RV, but it still sits on a pallet with wheels on it, the cylinder filled with oil.  That will eventually be permanently installed, probably so I can weld, more than anything else.

Hot water will be done with an 1170 watt array of electric panels dedicated to powering the element in an electric water heater at around 100V.  It will not power the element at full rating, but with sun on it all day, it should provide most of the needed heat.  A solid state DC relay will switch the power, controlled by the standard AC thermostat.  A backup propane water tank will be tied in series with the electric one, so that it will automatically maintain a comfortable level.  Both will be extra well insulated.  Hot water will be constantly pumped in a loop that provides hot water at every faucet.  No wasted water going down the drain while waiting for hot.  A tempering valve will be needed because, I know, that on sunny summer days, we may get our water up to 150 degrees.

If you were able to hear all of the times I have told people that Backwoods can be trusted to tell the truth, you would not believe it. The system we are talking about here was only my second new whole house system. The neighbor's may be covered in a future story. I could fill a book with the stories about other systems I made work. What is in my blog is only a sampling of the most “interesting”.