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Customer Stories - Archive 2

Solar Powered Sculpture

Way down in South Texas, close to the border with Mexico, on a dusty butte overlooking Lone Star Ranch a relic reminder is perched powered by the sun. The “Petrodactyl” stretches its 23 foot wing span for 15 minutes each day in an expression not many have seen. The Deckers would love more people to see their steel dinosaur but that was never their intention. They just wanted to build a solar powered sculpture for their land and their family.


Inspired by the oil pumping units or “nodding donkeys” famous in Colinga California’s iron zoo back in 1974, David kept the images of those kinetic hammer head creatures drilling for oil in his mind. Forty years later he improved on those painted Zebra, Elephant, Donkey, and Butterfly designs by artist Jean Dakessian. Together, David Decker and his son Thomas, built their version of a nodding creature; a Pterodactyl from parts salvaged from an old oil field. With this and a clever name change the Pterodactyl became the “Petrodactyl”.


“The wings and head are mounted on a 100 National pumping unit, the size used on shallow wells. It is powered by a 24V solar system, with parts purchased from you guys at Backwoods Solar. I used your handy catalog to read about the different products that I needed on the pumping unit”, David explained. The sculpture took 2 

years to get up on the butte from the salvaging to the welding. Some of the work was commissioned from local welders in town but most of the construction was done by father and son.


Large and small solar installations by themselves are changing our visual landscape all across the globe. They reflect and sparkle. They can add movement, light, and heat. The “Petrodactyl” takes solar to another level altogether. We have shared many unique customer system stories and have to say that this one stands out as our first full blown solar powered art installation. An impressive reminder of the connection between dinosaurs and oil, the “Petrodactyl” is a fantastic example of how people like the Deckers are using solar creatively.


If you would like to see the “Petrodactyl” yourself the Deckers welcome you to come on by if you are ever in the neighborhood. Here are the approximate coordinates 29.305224, -103.726288 on Lone Star Ranch Road between Terlingua and Lajitas Texas.


Holy Water: Farm Life and Renewable Energy


Fifth generation farmer Carvel Cheves, Jr. is a back to basics man. In 1979 Carvel and his wife made a pretty radical change from generations of growing tobacco and other row crops to livestock. They now have up to 500 head of sheep on their 100 acre Clover C Farm in North Carolina. Carvel generously volunteered some of his valuable time recently to speak with Backwoods Solar about farm life and renewable energy.


Carvel has a background in electronics in the US Air Force and the appliance service sector, as well as over 40 years experience as an electrician and plumber. He sits on the Board of Supervisors for The Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District and serves on various committees and commissions for the NCDA&CS and NC Cooperative Extension Service. Carvel’s wife, Carol, taught in the Franklin County public school system for over 30 years, is now retired, and does most of the wool processing into yarn. The Cheves family uses their education and experience to host school groups, sponsor 4-H sheep programs, and teach small ruminant production classes, as well as mentoring many young farmers and ranchers through their journey to becoming conservation-minded livestock producers. The solar powered water systems are always a popular point of interest and a major subject in the classes and visits.


One of the popular farming methods used on the farm is rotational, or mob, grazing. The sheep are moved across the acreage in three acre +/- paddocks throughout the grazing season. This is a widely recognized sustainable practice that prevents erosion, distributes manure, and improves pasture production. To prevent sheep “trails” back to a central water source, water must be provided in each paddock.


Many years ago the Cheves family land, once 3 thousand acres of tobacco, cotton, corn, wheat, soybeans, etc., was divided by the construction of a state highway. This obstacle dictates that the sheep have separate water sources as they are moved from pasture to pasture. The two systems Carvel has constructed are complete stand-alone solar water pumping stations. The pump houses are built out of concrete blocks and are completely insulated from below-freezing temperatures in winter. These source point water systems are fed by wells with the well openings being inside the structures. One of Carvel’s wells is a drilled 6” X 400’ deep well with a Grundfoss 6SQF-2 submersible pump tied directly to two Kyocera 135w modules through the Grundfoss control circuitry, operating on 33vdc. The sub pump feeds into a 1200 gal. plastic tank, is controlled by a float switch tied into the pump circuitry, and pumps in daylight only, given the large storage capacity. The system is pressurized by a ShurFlo 2088 24v booster powered by two Kyocera 40w modules, two 9831DT 12v gel batteries, and SunSaver 10 charge controller. The second well is 24” X 32’ deep with an AquaTech SWP4000 sub pump kit which pumps to holding tanks consisting of three 65 gal. pickle barrels in parallel. A float switch controls the operation. The household pressure is created from an Aquatech 550/24 booster. For this system he has one 195W Solar Peace module giving him about 217 wH/day, mounted on the wall of the pump house. The submersible pump operates at approximately 2 1/4 hrs/day (1.3gpm). The booster pump would run approximately 50 mins/day. With NO sun all week, the four T105s batteries would discharge roughly 33%. The module should fully charge batteries with 3 days of full sun per week. This is all based on 180 gpd which is required.


The water moves through 4,000+ feet of water line which has been buried below the frost line and runs to each of the paddocks throughout the 50 acre total pasture area. Carvel has frost-free hydrants at selected points with automatic waterers that can be moved each time the sheep rotate to a new paddock. “Move the sheep. Move the water,” Carvel states practically.


While their operation is solar powered they do have grid connection as well. They benefit from that when needed. The system is designed to continue Clover C Farm operations when the grid fails. And it does fail occasionally, according to Carvel. “Following Hurricane Fran the power was out for a week,” he says begrudgingly. But when this happens he and his wife continue operations by “moving in” to their smaller “office” building which houses their equipment, freezers, and computer. “We can just (simply) live out there,” Carvel says, “because the AC power to that building is supplied by a back-up generator and the water comes from the solar powered water system.” Plans are on the table to install a 4kw inverter system for additional power to the shop/office, therefore giving more independence from grid power.


Carvel and his wife provide 90% of their food from their garden system of raised beds and meat from the farm. They water their garden with a rain-water food grade barrel catchment system. “If anyone called me a hippie I’d punch ‘em,” Carvel says when asked about how his lifestyle is perceived by others. “We are frugal,” he says.


They have children and grand-children actively taking part in the family farm cooperative along with other nearby farms. Their community is a leader in the area for sustainable farming practices. “I go to church on Sundays, I believe in a higher power, we live close to the land, we grow/eat our own food, and I even play the banjo in a band! We are blessed.”


If you would like to learn more about Clover C Farms please visit their FaceBook page.


Solar-Powered Skiff: DIY

Ken Clarke's Grand kids and Off the Grid Homes

Ken Clarke and his family have lived semi permanently on an island with no ferry for the past 22 years. They slowly built their off grid home on the NW tip of Frost Island, WA. “We have lived permanently now for 6 years on the island. It was just a rock (before) no water, no power. Over the years we built a 12 x 16 foot shack into a 900 square foot mansion. We had a professional solar installer put in (8) 75W panels, and a Bergey 850 wind turbine all up in a tree. Our components included a C40 controller, an Outback 2500W inverter, and a generator”.


“It’s just nuts to have generators”, said Ken. “We now run 50A, 24v alternator powered by a converted gas to propane engine. Just recently we upgraded our off-grid system by adding 3 additional SolarWorld panels, a Midnite MPPT charge controller, 60Amp disconnects and more, all from Backwoods. We have increased our power from 600 W to 1500W. We celebrated by buying a toaster! ”


Living off-grid on an island gave Ken a certain set of constraints by which to creatively solve the unique challenges he faced over the years. Boats always factored in to their lives as a necessary means of transportation to and from the mainland. “We didn’t have to invent anything. The solar powered boat came as a result of circumstance. We saw an opportunity and took it”.


“It all started with the 12’ Livingston Skiff we have had, a twin hulled, boxy, stable pickup truck of a boat, in which we commute 2.5 miles from our home on Frost Island to the marina on Lopez Island where we keep our car and go shopping banking etc. every 7-10 days. Before the conversion, this skiff was powered by a 25hp 2-stroke, built in 1990, and was an oil and gas pig. I hated hauling gasoline in our car from the gas pump at the market on Lopez, mixing in the oil and lugging the 6 gallon tank down to the boat at the marina. It was just disgusting.”


Hoist for Solar Powered Skiff“Coincidently, the manager at the marina had a GEM car-electric vehicle with a 50Amp, 48V, 2.6hp motor. It had originally been purchased by Steve Miller (yes that Steve Miller, he used to have his boat on Lopez) and the vehicle eventually ended up in the marina warehouse. The manager intended to build a solar powered boat himself, but recently concluded that he was never was going to get around to it. So he sold it to me with the caveat that I had to take the entire car, not just the motor. It took me a week to take it apart piece by piece and skiff it over to our place on Frost Island. The body of the car is now our grandkids box seat overlooking the outdoor ping pong table.”


Ken said that the GEM car motor was a great start but that he needed a "bit" more to turn it into the solar boat motor he had envisioned. So he acquired the bottom half of a 9.9hp outboard for a case of beer. (This is a small engine that is not worth repairing when they blow up. The bottom half, however, is fine.) “It’s mainly just a rod and casing to turn a 90 degree angle to a propeller. I had a machinist make a coupling to marry the engine’s female spline and the bottom half of the outboard's male spline. After that I had a bracket fabricated to keep the motor and the prop-shaft stabilized.”


When the magic moment came to put the boat in the water and test it all out Ken had a surprise. “When I ripped the old outboard off and plunked the electric motor in, I remember thinking, it HAD to work because I needed to get back across the water to Frost Island, but that didn’t happen. I had to spend a couple nights on Lopez until I got a few of the bugs worked out.” Ken’s solar powered boat has been fully operational for the past 6 months now.


In addition to the custom spline he also had a custom 14” propeller made. A larger propeller moves the boat slower but moves it powerfully. Ken said that the solar powered boat does not glide along up on plane (along the top plane of the water). Instead, it cruises along at 4.5MPH well under the hull's planing speed of about 20MPH, thus taking about 35min to get to the marina instead of 8 minutes with the old gas hog. When asked about its performance in the Pacific Northwest’s inclement weather and 40 degree water, he says, “Yes this can be a problem of comfort going so slow in bad weather. But because you are like a cork at that speed, it's quite safe just bobbin' along. ” The boat is equipped with all emergency equipment including a VHF hand held radio and a cell phone.


The power for the engine is supplied by (2) 12V AGM batteries in series (24V battery bank) connected to a single 315W SolarWorld module and a Midnite Kid MPPT charge controller. The reason Ken chose the 24V battery bank was for the weight. It would have been another 180lbs for the additional batteries to bring the power up to 48V. It also would have been noisier and heavier as well as having too much torque, which could be a throw-you-out-of-the-boat safety issue. A later addition was a stand-alone (charged separately) 12v backup used for slow speed maneuvering at 2.2 MPH as well as functioning as a “Get-Home” option if the 24v battery bank runs out of juice. “The name of the boat is called Ever Forward and I will leave that up to you to figure out”, Ken says laughing. “I’m working on the cosmetics of the boat now. On the port side of the boat is a gondolier type seat for the captain. The glass on the the solar panel is tough enough for grandkids, gear, and our dog Maya. I have it beefed up on the underside too.”

Maya the Skiff Dog


To do this yourself, he says, “Study the electrical with special focus on the cabling and the switches. This was the biggest challenge for me. Make sure you use at least 2/O marine grade copper flexible cable to reduce resistance. For the switches, get them totally water proofed using an enclosure box in addition to the breaker box. He also cautions careful attention to detail. For example when he did some re-cabling, they didn’t get back home until 2am because, “We didn’t get the charge we should have due to a wire that I didn't reinstall properly. It wasn’t connected, we ran out of juice and had to row the rest of the way when the power ran out”.


Ken also has advice for living off grid in the Pacific NW especially for those who are already building their cabin. “Just get more solar panels because they are so cheap now. The batteries aren’t. So you can get by with more panels and less batteries”. As for everything else he says, “Anything you have that runs off gasoline converted it to propane."


“Use an alternator, not a generator, as your backup charger because it has less moving parts and no smart parts. Check out the Black N Decker 40V lithium ion electric tools with leaf blower, chain saw, etc and interchangeable batteries. It has a long run time per battery and no cords. We still have two gas powered chain saws for the big stuff but, otherwise we are all electric plus some propane."


As for good alternative energy reading Ken says, “I recommend the Backwoods Solar catalog. It is a textbook - - - if one really understands that thoroughly, then you become intelligent enough to talk with the Backwood's technicians about your particular situation, not just solar systems in general."


To round off this amazing story Ken also told us that because their boat ramp fell into disrepair often (like broke in half last year) they designed and built solar powered boat hoist. It’s a dedicated solar powered system for a winch powered by a 12V battery, a 65W panel and a Morning Star controller.


Ken and his wife are retired now with grandkids. They are the only full time residents on the island and they don’t have to go anywhere in bad weather if they don’t want to. “Our kids come up once or twice a year. We are now posting laminated instruction sheets at each system's location so everyone will know how to operate the boat, house, rain catchment pumps, solar system, alternator charge system, boat hoist and about 10 other systems that have been developed over the years.” When the grandkids visit, he takes them around the 80 acre island on the solar powered boat to discover and imagine Pirate caves and Pirate treasure troves hidden amongst the rocky coastline. "Hopefully they can continue that tradition forward with their kids. In the meantime, what a blast to see this little island through the eyes of a 5-7 year old."



Bea's Solar Powered Sewing Micro Biz

by Bea Dorsett


Bea's Off Grid Solar Powered Sewing StationMany people choose to go off grid because of their interactions with power companies, to save money, or just to be independent. Beatrice Dorsett went off the grid for all of these reasons and because she was starting her own micro-businesses. Survival in the remote areas of the world including the United States relies on one’s ability to be a multi-talented entrepreneur. Most often this means working with your hands and diversifying your income with animals. To be successful, this business model also includes energy conservation, and renewable energy systems, in order to keep costs down.


“A typical day for me begins when the roosters wake me up crowing. The first thing after getting dressed to go outside is morning feeding and watering chores since I am essentially a chicken farmer (with 100+ chickens) who just happens to sew and do other crafts for additional income to my meager Social Security income. By the time I finish morning chores, the sun is coming up over the eastern mountain ridge and so since I have very short cables on my solar panels, I have to turn it to face the sun and then turn it several times per day. Right now, I generally am able to begin sewing around 11 a.m. and can sew for about 2 to 3 hours after the sun goes down before my inverter begins beeping to let me know that I need to get ready for shut down. I have changed my daily routine so that I do the bulk of my sewing business during the day when my system is replenishing my battery. I find when I do that, I do not have to run my generator in the evening.”


Bea’s solar powered sewing business is really starting to take off. She takes custom orders from folks who contact her on her Facebook page which she monitors from her computer which is being powered by the same two 90 Watt panels that also power her point-of-service internet, her sewing machine, a serger, and task light. “I like Solar Powered Sewing Machineto think of all this like the story of “The Little Engine That Could”, Bea says. Busy Bea's Custom Sewing, Crafts & Instruction started small and mostly by word of mouth while she brought income in from her egg and chicken sales. Recently, she was commissioned to make several western style shirts out of Pendleton wool for a man who works for the Idaho Fish and Game. “He drove all the way from Troy to Orofino to see me!” she says excitedly. Now that things have picked up Bea is already planning to triple her energy production and do the same with her energy storage capability. “Some of my customers know that I am now a solar powered business, but not all of them.”


“The guys at Backwoods, Shawn, Brian and John helped me get my current system and then get it hooked up correctly. I owe Brian a lot of thanks and credit for turning me onto PayPal Pay Later after I was turned down on financing for my system by American West Bank despite a 661 credit score. If it had not been for him telling me about PayPal, I would not have my system now. John was a tremendous help in my being able to get the system hooked up so that it is working as good as it is now. When I first received it, I was totally overwhelmed and thought to myself, what the heck am I to do with this small box of pieces? He turned things around for me from ‘I have no idea what the heck to do with this stuff to make it work’ to ’I DID IT’! I now have a working system.”


In reflection, Bea has some words of advice to would-be remote off-grid entrepreneurs starting with conservation. “Cut your energy consumption first and start with lighting because it’s the easiest and least expensive place to start. When I did that it cut my consumption by 60% immediately. Then read as many articles you can that deal with saving energy or solar powering your home etc. Attend workshops, seminars, and energy fairs to learn all that you can about conserving energy and alternative forms of energy. In fact, that is where I first met Backwoods folks-at the Mother Earth News Fair in Oregon.”


Bea Dorsett is a shining example of the independent off grid spirit that we want others to know about. Through trial and tribulations, her inspiring example of making a living by building and steadily growing a solar powered sewing business, quite literally from scratch, is something we can all hope to learn from. It takes a strong will to survive in the backwoods and Bea has got what it takes. You can find her on Facebook if you search for Bea Dorsett.


Water - Laws of Nature and Laws of Man

By Chiggers Stokes  (Excerpt from True Color: A Story of Contemporary Pioneering, special thanks to the Forks Forum)

Hydraulic ProjectBefore one can confine water to pipe, for work or for sustenance, there are legal concerns that need answers. Water and the fish therein belong, pretty much, to Washington State. Manipulating the flow of any creek in Washington State requires filing for a Hydraulic Project Approval through State Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Any streams with resident or seasonal fish will trigger restrictive management, particularly salmon habitat. In the vicinity of Forks, The Quileute Nation has an interest in fish and habitat lying within their usual and accustomed grounds. State Department of Ecology manages water rights, and such will be needed to draw or divert water out from streams, lakes or the ground.

Then there are questions about land ownership. Any pipe project that does not have the express permission of all land owners involved will end poorly. Court actions such as filing for an Easement by Prescription are the worst possible scenarios in trying to work things out. Easement by Prescription is not favored by the Court since it comes under the Realm of Adverse Taking requiring compelling arguments from the Plaintiff or trespasser. "Hand shake agreements" without any written contract have some, but limited support in Washington Case Law. Permission kills Prescription, lawyers banter, for if a land owner gives permission, they establish their authority to later rescind it.

A wild creek is a pretty noisy affair. The babble of the creek is so endearing, but in herding water into pipes we wish water to run in silence. Any sound at all from the pipe is an indication of turbulence or air, either of which dramatically detracts from the power of water in pipes. The larger the bore of the pipe is, the less pipe friction; less loss of pressure and greater flow downstream. Determining static PSI of the downstream end of a pipe is solved by vertical feet in height multiplied by 0.43. But one requires a pipe Nomograph and knowledge of flow rate to plot the difference between static or real head vs. dynamic or working head. But a pressure gauge tells you both.

A funny thing about water in pipes is how much it behaves like electricity in wire. WATER is like WATTS. Volts are like PSI filling up a 50 gallon tub with a garden hose has much equivalence in charging a 50 amp-hour, deep cycle battery.

Any 33.8 foot column of water will weigh the same as a corresponding diameter column of air going all the way up to the troposphere. For divers, 33.8 feet underwater means about 15 PSI of pressure. For a pump, it is a limit of 33.8 vertical feet, beyond which water cannot be pulled.

Sometimes our intuition is wrong about water in a pipe and sometimes our intuition of people is wrong. For me, both circumstances came together in the year 2000. A handshake agreement I had with neighbors to allow me to have my pipe on their property in exchange for me building a driveway for them across my land, ended poorly. These absentee land owners from Los Angeles attacked my pipe penstock on Rayonier Land, because they couldn't find it on their own land. They seized my pipe and I had to walk away from a $15, 000 investments in pipe and ditch.

I worked for a year with Rayonier, Quileute Natural Resources, WDFW, and Department of Ecology to reroute my hydroelectric penstock around my recalcitrant neighbors from Los Angles. My Hydraulic Permit Approval was in hand and Dick Moody had sold and delivered over a mile of pipe. There was only one law that I was breaking, but it was an intractable law of Nature.

The water from my project plunged over a big hill falling about 227 feet to my hydroelectric. The problem was that my intake was about 27 feet below that point going around my neighbors. I believed that I could siphon water uphill, close to the physical limits of Nature. Water would gush out for a minute or so, decrease to a dribble in five minutes and air lock entirely in 10 minutes.

Upper Hemp Hill Valley Off Grid HomeThe only way to save my project was to punch out of the beautiful upper Hemp Hill Valley. I would need a 300 foot trench, to be excavated, 12 feet deep at its shallowest and 27 feet deep on the other end. It seemed like impossible engineering. The pipe would have to lay flat at the bottom of the trench and the trench had to have pitch at least an inch every four feet).

So you get slapped down by a law of Nature you never gave much thought to and then it's back to the laws of people. Human law is supposed to be, “Let's take care of each other”. It was more neighbor helping neighbor than the business of a well digger that built the ditch that restored my hydroelectric. I will always be grateful to Darryl Gaydeski for winning it back for me.

Alternative Energy - A Shortcut to Insanity

Since I walked away from the grid in 1973, it didn't take many nights for Coleman lanterns and oil filled lamps to lose their charm. The fire hazard, smell, and expense of such lighting contribute to the appeal of electricity, even before the advent of LED bulbs. But running a generator to power a few lights doesn't make sense because your average generator is about a 5 kW unit capable of running 50 hundred watt bulbs or enough lumens to burn the hair off your cat. Your average generator is inefficient for lighting because it produces too much power. The remedy is storing that extra power in batteries and using the batteries as backup to the generator. The problem here is that house power is around 120 volts alternating current and a battery is usually 12 volts direct current. Inefficiencies occur with each conversion of power. So, in a scenario where you wanted to put extra power into batteries while running conventional genets, you would need a big battery charger capable of pouring 50 to 80 amps into a battery bank. Then you need an inverter after the GenSet goes off line to produce house power off the charged battery bank.

Off Grid 700 Watt GenSetI began my electrification of the Flying S Farm 37 years ago by bringing charged batteries from work. I had some old communication wire I had rescued off a dump pile and strung out car lamps with dc switches. It beat breathing kerosene. Soon I purchased a tiny 700 watt GenSet that offered built in 10 amps DC charging. But it was a noisy little devil and I leaned to apply Ohms Law to evaluating my energy systems. Electricians reduce Ohms law to PIE where Power in watts is equal to I (current in amps) multiplied by E (voltage). Watts equals volts multiplied by amps. I said it over and over to myself so I would never forget. With this formula I realized that I was only getting about 120 watts out of a GenSet designed to put out over 700 watts or about one horsepower. So that was inefficient.

My wife, during these times of early experimentation was an avid reader of Mother Earth News. She pointed out an article by some electrician-turned-out-of-work-hippie that you could wire 8 to 10 batteries in series to produce a jolt of direct current which would power normal incandescent bulbs and run any brush motor such as a circular saw. I bought 10 "Died Hard Batteries" From Vern Poole's Sears below the RAC/Oddfellows building. I constructed a switching system so that I could charge 10 12 volt batteries in parallel and then jump it up to 120 Vdc by putting the whole array in series. The electrician-turned-hippie- writer forgot to point out is that this system will fry pretty much any home electronics you plug into it and will burn up switches on your tools...and even your household switches which are not designed for the punch of alternating power. My light bulbs would unscrew themselves, there was so much punch. All my circular saws were on the bench awaiting new switches. But, that November in 1981, I found out that you can drive Christmas lights on 120 Vdc and I was on a ladder stringing lights over a wilderness creek, to put squirrels in the proper seasonal spirit, when I first discovered what direct current feels like going through an aluminum ladder. If you chained me to the ladder, I still would have caught air. When I picked myself off the ground, not even 4 strings of already illuminated Christmas lights cheered me up.

I learned that you can wire a house up to code and use that system to convey battery powered direct current to incandescent lights and other low voltage direct current applications. I've learned that unless you sign or idiot proof every socket, someone will destroy some inductive device by plugging into your battery.

In fairness the electrician turned hippie-writer made a great suggestion. His idea was to take a lawn mower engine and belt a car alternator to it. I found young Alan Quigley working for his step dad at Dilly's and asked if such a thing would work or blow me out of another ladder. Alan expressed great optimism for the system and helped me with the basic wiring and field control once I had bolted the engine and alternator to a piece of plywood. It was not elegant, nor was it designed to last forever. But it sure charged batteries and didn't use much gas. I was playing around with a 40 watt solar panel, but in January of 1982 it was the artificial light by which I learned to wash dirty diapers and rescue my precious new daughter from their grip.

Newt's Story

Yellow Pine Bar on the Salmon RiverThis is one from the history vault courtesy of our longtime customer, Newt, reflecting on his time in the very remote backwoods at Yellow Pine Bar on the Salmon River. All the homes in this community use renewable energy systems designed and built with components and help from Backwoods Solar. At times technical assistance was required for over 4 hours on the phone/radio patch and Newt reiterated how thankful everyone was to have that kind of personal attention when they really relied on it. We want to thank Newt, and Greg Metz, as well as, the communities out on the Taylor Ranch, Grangeville, Yellow Pine Bar, and all in the Cascade HC83 or 85 location for being such loyal and committed customers after all these years. We know your inspiring story will encourage others to live the dream of an energy independent backwoods lifestyle!!

Newt writes:

After living in the “Back country” for 30 years, we made a move to town for age/health reasons and to be closer to family. Wanted to thank all you “guys”, for always being there when anyone had a problem. Here is our story:

In 1988 we buried wire from a 1250 KW generator to shop/cabin. Then in 1989 we purchased a 9’ satellite TV Dish, one battery and a 600W Heart inverter (to run the receiver for 48 hours every month to catch signal). Tried to run a freezer with a motor/generator and some “good used” 2 volt telephone batteries, later some “good used” golf cart batteries (took more power to run it than we used). 

The hydro we were using was a “home built”, running an old motor by a belt from a small Pelton type wheel (very inefficient with lots of friction drag from bearing and the belt)-at best it put out 6 amps -12volt.

We then put 3 solar panels up and ran some lights and a VCR. Later put 8 new golf cart batteries in line with a trace 1500W modified wave inverter. The “big” generator was upgraded to a 1500KW and we added 2 more batteries to our bank and installed 3 more solar panels. After much thought (as we didn't have much water-a 3/8” nozzle would run us dry), we installed a two nozzle brush type Harris Hydro, (a two nozzle, so we could have the option of running different size nozzles without taking the thing apart).

Then the fire of ’03 that burnt the holding tank and most of our waterline, we replaced the line from 1 ½” to 2”, including the line to the hydro. Had to replace the 1,000 gallon tank, we put in a new one about 20’ higher than our old one. We now have a new “bank” of 10-235 amp batteries, giving us 1175 amps total, and running a 2000 W Prosine (true sine wave inverter).

Over time, we have gone electric! Got rid of all propane lights, don’t even own an oil or Coleman lantern anymore and we are now able to run an electric freezer and an electric refrigerator (both off the shelf-normal units). All our lights are electric ballast compact florescent, we have both satellite TV and computer and are able to run other small appliances and some tools in the shop. To boost the battery bank and run large motors in the shop we fire up the generator. We also only do the wash and vacuum when the generator is on, so, what we have has evolved over time with lots of changes.

We now have a 12 volt system, with 6 solar panels, giving us about 17 amps, a brush type Harris Hydro giving us about 20 amps with a 5/16” or 26 amps with a 11/32” nozzle, 900’ of 2” poly pipe, with about 160’ drop (wish we could go higher). Our bank consists of 10 Trojan golf cart batteries, with a total of 1175 amp hours. Our last bank of batteries lasted almost 9 years-larger batteries (L16’s) should last longer.

Power Control Center - Batteries

Our inverter is a Prosine 2,000 with a 3 stage built in charger. The original Heart 600 is now isolated and only runs the computer. The solar is run through a “backwoods” controller, while the hydro has a trace controller with an air diversion load.

Up to this point, the only thing we would change is to upgrade to a brushless alternator hydro, giving about 25% more power and without the hassle of taking the whole thing apart every year to change the brushes. I have just changed them again and it looks like next time the collector rings will also need to be changed, requiring a press and some crossed fingers! The cost of going brushless would be well worth the “extra” power and the lack of headaches!!!

The community out where Newt and his wife lived still continues to live the backwoods lifestyle relying on one radio patch network to communicate with. Newt’s old home is now the home of Greg Metz and he says that, “Things are still running along here regarding the power system. Power output is not as high as Newts numbers but no biggie.  We did install a new brushless alternator for the hydro - nice not to have to change those brushes every 10 months. +/-.  (We) buried new copper line instead of the old aluminum. (The) battery bank is 11 years old now and still holding in there (knock on wood), but I am currently looking at a new bank of batteries. The solar panels are supposed to put out 18 amps but we have only ever gotten 6 amps at the most on a good day. Would like to replace them and add more soon.”

Installing a Homestead Solar Electric System by Teri Page reprinted with permission from Teri's blog at


Off Grid Power Control CenterA few months ago, I wrote about the process of selecting a solar electric system for our tiny house.  We ordered our equipment from Backwoods Solar in late summer, and the installation was complete by early November, with my husband Brian doing all of the work himself.  Today, I welcome Brian to tell about the process of installing our homestead photovoltaic system:

We chose to install an off-grid photovoltaic system for our electrical needs, partly because we wanted an alternative to the coal-fired electricity of NE Missouri, but also because our home site is about ¼ mile from the road, and the cost of running power lines and poles would have been comparable to what we paid for our system. We had gotten a few different recommendations for Backwoods Solar, a small company based in Idaho, and decided to buy our system through them. We couldn’t be happier with our experience. They tailored our system to our needs and budget, and were always available for phone consultation and trouble-shooting along the way, which made all the difference for me. I have a limited amount of electrical wiring experience, but with their advice, some puzzling over manuals, and some help from my father-in-law, I was able to safely install this system. I would encourage anyone with similar skills to try it, or consider hiring an electrician to help you install it.

Off the Grid HomesHere (see photo below) are our three PV panels or modules, mounted in front of our house on a homemade support structure. I chose to mount them here instead of on the roof because I didn’t want to put any holes in our roof or buy a mounting rack. Also, there was a certain amount of shade on the roof from nearby trees which I wanted to avoid. I set the permanent angle of the modules to a recommended average between the summer and winter angles.

Three PV PanelsPositive and negative and ground wires come out of each module and feed down to our combiner box that I mounted under the eaves of our porch. Each module goes through a breaker and combines and from there, a single positive wire and negative wire lead into the house.

Here is where the heart of our PV system resides, on the wall of our mud room. If we had a bigger house, I would’ve installed it in the cellar or utility room, a bit more removed from our living quarters, but in a tiny house, you have to make do with the space you have! At the upper left is the charge controller, which makes sure the batteries are charged properly, and not overcharged once they are full. From the battery box, heavy duty positive and negative wires lead up to the inverter, the large white box in the upper center, which takes the DC current and converts it to AC, and from there it feeds into the gray breaker box which is what any house connected to the grid would have. Last but not least, the small digital display to the lower left is our Trimetric battery meter, which allows for very accurate monitoring of Inside a Battery Boxbattery status. The battery bank is one of the most expensive parts of your system, and one of the most vulnerable to damage if proper charging is not maintained, so this is a critical component.

Inside the battery box, you can see our eight 6-volt Trojan batteries, connected in two parallel 24-volt strings. The box has a well-sealed hatch and a pipe leading outside the building, to safely vent off explosive hydrogen gas which is produced during charging.

Thank you, Brian!  I should note that we’ve been using our photovoltaic system for almost two months now, and it is truly amazing!  Although I love the simplicity of living without electricity, it is so nice to be able to easily use a blender, or a laptop, or simply to turn on lights to see while you’re reading!  We recently plugged in an energy efficient chest freezer, and will watch the system to see how it handles that extra load!

*Please check out more off-grid living blog posts from Teri at www.

How to Cut Your Electricity Bills in Half

- Written by Andy Shadrack with Gail Bauman

Andy Shadrack with Gail Bauman Solar PanelsWe live in Kaslo, a jewel of a community nestled on the shore of Kootenay Lake in the mountain forests north of Nelson, in the West Kootenays. We have a 900 square foot house, and our daughter left home in 1996.

We began looking at our household energy consumption more than a decade ago, but we were frightened away from solar when we were given an estimated cost of $70,000 for a system big enough to match our total energy needs in the summer and half in winter.

Last spring we heard about the work Bob Watters was doing helping people in our area get hooked up with solar. We contacted Bob and Bob connected us with Backwoods Solar.  The rest is history.


Undaunted, we started looking for a way to make our solar dream come true. And the first step towards this goal? Lowering our energy use. We set a target to bring our bi-monthly consumption down from its peak level of 1,000 to 1,300 kWh bimonthly. The average electricity consumption in BC per bimonthly billing period is 1,833 kWh. 

We began with the purchase of energy-efficient appliances, fortunate that all our appliances were old and needed replacing. We went from a top loading to a front loading washing machine, and we started washing clothes in cold water instead of hot, with the occasional warm. We do not own a dryer, so we hang our clothes on an outside clothesline in the warmer months and use a rack inside in winter.

Next we bought a new medium-sized chest freezer, replacing one that was too big and too old, a freezer-less fridge, and a new electric stove. All of our purchases sport "Energy Star" stickers, though the fridge had to be replaced after it broke down under warranty.


At the same time, we slowly cut down on the number of electronic gadgets in our home. Gail was thrilled to see the number of cords plugged into the living room power bar dwindle, and we began to turn many of them off at night.

Things like TVs and DVD players use "phantom power," drawing energy even when they're not being used. The only way to prevent this is by totally cutting off their power, either by shutting off their power bar or by unplugging them individually. We turn off a couple of power bars every night, including one for our modem, and none of our computers stay plugged in unless they're in use.

In the first year we decreased our average consumption from 1,036 kWh to 748 kWh per bimonthly billing period, and in the second year we got it down to 565 kWh. At some point during our energy conservation drive we reached a plateau, and the challenge became to stay there. In years three and four our average bills bounced back up to around 600 kWh. Then Gail inherited a small flat screen TV from her mother, and I decided I wanted a 42-inch for our living room.


The question then became how to offset our new energy uses and maintain our overall conservation goals, since we decided that we wanted to cut our consumption in half. Having already switched from incandescent to compact fluorescent (CF) light bulbs, we started slowly purchasing LED lights, in part because the CFs contained mercury. But a big change came when we asked an electrician to install an on/off switch in the kitchen for our hot water heater in the bathroom. We now have the hot water heater on for only four to five hours a day, usually first thing in the morning, so that we can have a shower or bath when we get up.


In years five, seven and eight we got our consumption back down to an average 550 kWh, or 9 kWh a day. This enabled us to reconsider solar PV, and last summer we took the plunge. We currently have eight 300 watt panels  made by ET Solar (2,400 kw) in our back yard, and we are awaiting final modifications before we begin net metering - selling our solar power into the grid when it produces more than we need, and buying power back when we don’t generate enough.

We are a modest income family of two entering our senior years, and our initial investment in energy-efficient appliances came to just over $3,700, which we will pay back in another 4 years. Our second investment, the solar PV, fell from the original estimate of $70,000 to $21,600. This included moving the meter base to the back of the lot, since we are not enamored with wireless smart meters. We also purchased a battery bank for storage, since we often have short, and sometimes longer, power outages here at the north end of Kootenay Lake.

Along the way towards achieving our goals we have consistently argued before the BC Utilities Commission that our electrical service provider, FortisBC, needs to provide clear financial incentives for conservation practices, such as the two tiered rate structure. We believe it is time to abolish the Basic Charge, as since cutting our consumption in half the cost of just hooking up to FortisBC has gone from 23.5% of our bill to 39%. 

When we buy gasoline we pay a unit price that includes the cost of infrastructure and delivery as part of the unit price, and so we should for electricity too, otherwise low consumption customers end up subsidizing high end power users if both pay the same the fixed charge to hook up to the grid.


Andy's goal in all this is to see if it’s possible for a family to reduce their energy consumption without breaking the bank. For Gail, it is to accommodate her feeling that our generation has a moral responsibility to act differently towards the environment and other species on the planet. I doubt we will see the pay back on our solar system in our lifetime, but some 50 families in our area have installed solar PV over the last three years, and some are generating a modest income by doing so.

In the 2014 local government election, voters from Areas A, D and E in the Regional District of Central Kootenay voted in favour of paying a $15 per year parcel tax for ten years for the conservation of local ecosystems on private land. This is only the second time in Canada that this has happened, and the commitment will raise $1 million and help bring matching provincial, federal and conservation agencies funds for local projects around Kootenay Lake.


We are so proud to live in a region of BC where people are making a financial commitment to not only conserve energy consumption and produce their own energy from the sun, but also to fund projects that will help maintain healthy ecosystems in our community. Making changes in our daily lives about what and how much we consume is the only way to ensure a future for our children and grandchildren.

Once we have figured out how our solar system fully works we will then consider cutting back on the three or four cords of wood we use to heat our home. Using our ancient baseboard heaters was never an option, but at $220 a cord for wood it may now be feasible to use some electric heat during the autumn and spring shoulder seasons, thus cutting down on our annual carbon emissions.

Please join us. Our journey has been fun and interesting, even Gail's decision to re-use the water from her hot water bottle by storing it in a jar until the next time she needs her hot water bottle, or allowing only rechargeable batteries in the house (we have two windup flashlights which do not need batteries). It's all about having a smaller ecological footprint, one household at a time, and it's about the fish and the many other living creatures we share this planet with.

Andy Shadrack served as the Director for Electoral Area D in the Regional District Central Kootenay from 2005 to 2014. Gail Bauman is a writer and songwriter.