Current Customer Projects & Stories
Bea's Solar Powered Sewing Micro Biz
by Bea Dorsett
Many 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 to 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)
Before 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.
The 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.
I 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.
This 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. 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!!
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.
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.”
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.
Installing a Homestead Solar Electric System
by Teri Page reprinted with permission from Teri's blog at http://homestead-honey.com/
A 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.
Here (see photo above) 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.
Positive 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 battery 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.http://homestead-honey.com
How to Cut Your Electricity Bills in Half - Written by Andy Shadrack with Gail Bauman
We 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.
LOWERING OUR ENERGY USE
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.
KILLING THE PHANTOMS
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.
A KITCHEN ON-OFF SWITCH FOR HOT WATER
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.
OUR SOLAR INVESTMENT
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.
REDUCING ENERGY CONSUMPTION WITHOUT BREAKING THE BANK
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.
A SMALLER ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT, ONE HOUSEHOLD AT A TIME
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.
Stu & Ingrid Cooper's Array in British Columbia, Canada
A Community of Solar - Four Families in Alaska
We are four families that live in Southeast Alaska within a five-mile radius of one another. All the families live off the grid, on islands, and at least 15 or more miles from town requiring both boat and vehicle travel. Each family has over time developed its own water and energy collection systems. All the solar collection systems have the basic equipment but different site conditions and sun exposure. The families differ in the number and type of appliances, tools, customs, and needs.
What prompted our interest in solar energy was the hauling and paying for fuel oil or gasoline. Hauling fuel for a generator or stove requires that the containers be handled numerous times-to the boat, off the boat, into the truck, to town, back from town, back on boat, off the boat, and finally to the generator or oil storage tank.
In 1999 several of us began to design and install solar systems. Gas prices, at the time, were under $2.00 per gallon. Our calculations of system costs showed that we might break even by the end of the equipment life at the current gasoline prices. We also figured that gasoline would need to reach $2.80 a gallon to pay for the equipment in 10 years. However, how do you put into dollars the gallons of gasoline that we do not have to handle or haul in our boats or the time spent doing it? More recent calculations show a break-even point somewhere between 4 and 6 years.
None of us had any experience with solar electrical systems when the idea first took hold. We were like kids in a candy store-not knowing what equipment to buy or how to hook up the components. Since we live in the rain forest in Southeast Alaska, would there be enough sunlight to justify the expenditure? We researched equipment and costs and talked and talked. Enter about this time an engineering friend, Jerry Herbrandson who wanted to start his own renewable energy business, now Solar Wind. With his help the Cole’s and the Lynn’s bought and installed their first solar panels (4 Unisolar-64’s, Trace 24 volt inverters, and Trace C-40 charge controllers). By 2005, we had gained enough experience with our current systems to be comfortable in our knowledge, plus we had kept sufficient records over the years to know the average monthly total amp-hours we could expect, as well as our daily usage. Both families added 4 more panels to their arrays and at the same time looked at their power usage. We wrestled for a long time about how many solar panels we would need to add so that our collection and usage were equal (for six months of the year).
Potlucks are important in this large area with very few full-time residents to spread the current events. Not only is there wonderful food but it is a useful place to gain knowledge on all sorts of topics, such as solar energy. We must have discussed it enough, for the word got around.
Enter about this time a new family, the Howard’s, who were also interested in solar and hydro. After spending considerable time talking with us, they purchased a 48 volt Trace inverter with 12-125 watt panels, and a Trace C-40 charge controller.
Almost immediately after installing this system, the Howard’s began to look at hydro since they have a stream coming across their property. After measuring the flow and the elevation difference, they figured a hydro project to be feasible and applied for the permits through the State of Alaska. Temporary permit in hand, they put in a very simple system consisting of a dam and 500 feet of 6-inch pipe which goes to a small structure where they installed a stream engine hydro (Energy Systems Design) with the discharge going back into the stream. They put it into use and immediately began to get experience operating a hydro system. They consistently produce 250-500 watts per hour.
About this same time a fourth neighbor, the Williams’s decided that hauling fuel was getting old, and they began to ask questions of the rest of us too. Shortly thereafter, they purchased a 448 volt Trace inverter, 12-125 watt panels, and an Outback MX-60 charge controller. The MX-60 charge controller resulted from the Howard’s seeing an article about it in Solar Power Magazine, and then purchasing one.
The rest of us skeptics about its advantages waited to see it in operation and to compare it to the Trace C-40. Now, all of us have MX-60 charge controllers.
It’s interesting to compare the different ideas, equipment and the sites these systems are installed upon. The Lynn’s first array was designed to change the slope of the array from summer to winter. What we found was the differences in amp-hour collection here in Southeast Alaska are negligible since the sun is so low on the horizon. The Cole’s array was fixed in slope but could be hand turned during the day. The Lynn’s array could not. The location of the Cole’s caught the morning and early afternoon sun but not the late afternoon sun. However, turning the array made about a 25% difference in solar collection. The Lynn’s system begins working about 10 AM and collects till the sun goes below the horizon. The Howard’s start collecting early in the morning and continue till late afternoon when the sun goes behind the trees. The Williams’s collect from about 10 AM till the sun goes below the horizon. Since the arrays have different amounts of panels as well as different wattages for each panel, we have never really compared the amp-hours collected at the end of the day.
All of us agree that tracking the sun during the day does make a difference in the total amount of amp-hours collected. All of us take care of our total energy needs for 4-6 months a year with solar power. Although we were energy conscious before, installing these systems has made us pay closer attention to the power requirements of appliances, tools, and other equipment. We purchased a meter to measure appliance power usage that made the rounds and produced some interesting results.
It has been a good investment. The question now is how to take care of the rest of the months. With energy costs going even higher, the Cole’s are thinking about adding wind power. They have a wonderful site on which to install a tower. Since we have most of our winds in the winter time, a wind system would provide an offset when the sun is so low on the horizon. Our appetites for renewable energy knowledge have really been whetted, so we will continue to read, look at new ideas, talk and have potlucks.
Searching for Energy Reduction - Story Submitted by Timothy E. Tranel
I have been an enthusiastic reader of the “Wall Street Journal” magazine since my summer employment on a Kansas wheat farm between college schooling. In 1997 I came to the conclusion that gasoline prices have nowhere to go but up due to increasing demand and slowing gasoline production. Thus, in 1998 I purchased one of the most efficient cars of the time, a Chevrolet Metro. I became convinced that the stock market was headed for a nosedive until a solution to the energy shortfall was solved.
Taking up farm employment after my US Navy tour, I continued with my interest in the energy conflict. July of 2003 I began to take a leap towards renewable energy with the purchase of a modified sine wave inverter. Later that year I subscribed to “Home Power” magazine. Armed with a renewed certificate in electronics and a surging interest in renewable energy, I began a series of purchases aimed at developing my own home energy production. I purchased solar panels, wires, fuses, frame supports, concrete, charge controllers, inverters, efficient light bulbs, low power cooking tools, and among other things a wind turbine. Most people in my local area were skeptical and uninterested. Even my utility meter reader said that he had seen a few solar panels; however, people didn’t keep them for long before giving up on the idea of renewable energy. The past month I recorded 0 kilowatt usage on my electric meter and am at the point of going off grid, however, I figure that the utility company can be my backup generator until I find a generator that burns E85 gasoline.
Now that I have become established as basically an off grid energy producer, I have a few observations to make.
- My skepticism of solar panels has been resolved and solar panels really do put out electricity.
- An independent home use renewable energy plan using solar panels, wind and hydro power ought to consider using all DC powered appliances*. Powering an inverter is costly in terms of solar panels and the inverter. A house with the power supply located in the center of a south facing home should leave a distance short enough for minimal DC voltage loss. If an inverter is purchased, I strongly discourage the purchase of a modified sine wave inverter.
- Solar panels, wind turbines and batteries do work, however, there is energy lost and there are cloudy, windless days. Plan for more solar panels, wind turbines, hydro power and batteries than you think that you will need. It never hurts to have a little extra hot water.
- Charge controllers are nice; however, the real deal is setting up a load diversion controller to divert extra energy to power backup batteries or heat water, for example. Keeping in mind a diversion controller, do not bother with anything except an adjustable diversion controller that activates at the top end of the batteries recommended charge and can be adjusted to deactivate at a comfortable mid-level of battery charge.
- A 12 V DC system is handy because many automobiles use 12 V DC charging. Automobile repair stores are much more common that renewable energy stores. Also, it is more common to find 12 V DC items such as weed eaters, blenders, and coffee makers. I use a 12 V DC system, however, a higher volt system is appealing to me because of lower amperage use and, thus, smaller safer wires and the potential for higher-powered appliances would be more feasible.
- I see roof mount and ground mount solar panel systems in magazines. I recommend a ground mount system because it is easier to manually adjust solar panels on the ground. Solar panels in my area ought to be adjusted four times a year to make use of the changing sun angle. In addition, I find it easier with a ground mount system to make use of the changing sun angle. In addition, I find it easier with a ground mount system to make daily adjustments to my solar panel. After coming home from work in the afternoon, I set the panel to a near full tilt to the west and before going to bed I step out the door to adjust the panel horizontal to catch the full noon time angle of the next day.
- A wind turbine can be difficult to set up. My turbine is set just above the roof of my house. I do not catch as much wind as if it were higher, however, I don’t not have to use aircraft cable since my tower is short enough that it can hold up to the wind pressure. If I could locate a lower wind cut in turbines, it would be a great addition to my array for there is an awful lot of 5-10 mph wind out there that my turbine does not tend to capture.
- You can save yourself a lot of money and time by making a good plan or better yet try to get some advice form an experienced renewable energy person. Optimistic renewable energy people can be found. Also, read the “Home Power” magazine. I recommend avoiding the step of starting small to see if it works and then growing bigger. I do recommend planning big. If you cannot afford to plan big, I recommend cutting way back on your energy use now to save for a big renewable energy system. In fact, cutting back on global warming and reducing your energy bill are not necessarily a reason to build an renewable energy system. The best way to cut back on global warming and reducing your energy bill is to reduce your energy consumption. Consider running just a fan rather than the AC. Consider turning the heat down. Consider living in a smaller, easier to clean house. Also, before considering a renewable energy system, consider how convenient it is to have no maintenance, unlimited, on demand electricity from your utility company.
My RE system includes the following : 2 BP 3125U solar panels, 1 US64 solar panel, I Mallard 800e WT, TV antenna tower, 4 T105 batteries connected to the 3125U panels and WT, 2 T105 batteries connected to the US64 solar panel, 1000 watt Vector inverter, 2000 watt AIMS inverter, 300 watt Samlex inverter, diversion controller New Mar LVD 12-75, diversion controller SAE 50, charge controller Solar 7 amp, low voltage disconnect C35, water heater 300 watt, battery charger Schumaker 10amp fully automatic, Backups LS 700, freezer Sundanzer F225, 4 12 volt fans Digi-Key 603-1075—ND, 12 vdc vacuum, 120 vac vacuum, 120 vac typewriter, television TV 970 Casio, radio AM/FM cassette, 120 vac fry pan 400watt, 120vac blender, and in addition extension cords, dc bulbs, cfc bulbs, grinder, drill, electric chain saw, shaker flashlights, cell phone/alarm clock and last but not least a multimeter VEI DM 38313.
* Note from Backwoods Solar: A house supplied entirely with DC-powered appliances is more efficient however, it's not always obtainable. Energy Star approved appliances in combination with DC appliances and/or propane or natural gas powered heating and cooling appliances are also acceptable options.
RAVENSHOE PROJECT - Saskatchewan, Canada
Just north of the 49th parallel between 51 and 52 slightly north of the State of WA as far as the sun goes, is where we find Paul Ashfield and his wife’s off grid home. Their four-season home will be 2200 square feet when it’s all said and done. And this should be very soon if the weather holds out. “The weather is always tough here. We’ve lost a lot of time. I haven’t been home for a month because I had to go back to work. But I’m home for this weekend and hope to put the last 12 panels up on the pole so we’ll have all 36 in the air.”
“We bought a house where we wanted to live but it wasn’t maybe the best choice because to have grid power (a mile away) brought to the property would cost us upwards of 55 thousand dollars. So, we looked at solar and found Backwoods Solar somewhere on the internet. As far as our location in Canada goes, the best solar insulation is here. Best of the wind too but I find that solar PV is a much better bang for my buck”.
Paul and his wife started working with just about everyone at Backwoods Solar. Tom, Brian, Alan, all helped with their initial system and then their account was officially started with Shawn Boling in 2011. Impressed with Backwoods technician know-how Paul commented that, “Anytime I have any stupid question that I could look up in some manual somewhere I can just call you guys and you know the answers right off the top! Even the electrician when he had to call, because it’s so new up here, was impressed. I told him, when you talk to this guy at Backwoods Solar you are going to be very impressed, he is going to know everything about this system without having it in front of him and how to do it. He said you were right this guy knew it cold!”
They were hit with a giant flood one Spring. “While I was out at work, my wife had to canoe gas out to keep the Genset running to keep the sump pumps going so the house wouldn’t be flooded.” They installed their little PV system soon after.
Paul says that the first little system ran flawlessly for them for those three years, “Absolutely, without a hitch. It was pretty exciting for an old hippy like me. I never thought I would be here in this situation. It supplied all the power to the construction tools as we finished off the construction on the house.”
As they had a big push last year to finish the job they decided to make the next leap forward and he said, “Spent even more money at Backwoods Solar.” They increased their solar panels from six to thirty-six. A 600% increase going from 1400W to over 9000W. The racks they used were made by General Specialties here in Sandpoint. Paul says “The manufacturer of these solar panels racks are to be commended for their perfectly manufactured custom work. Our hat off to General Specialties, for their precision has made our rookie install very easy.”
“This system will outlive me”, he said. But he cautions that, “It used to be that people were just concerned with the price of a solar panel and didn’t think about the other costs involved. People should investigate all the soft costs to their systems, permits, insurance, installation, travel costs for the system components, electricians, really do your homework when you do your budget”. When it is all said and done Paul and his wife will live through many stormy seasons comfortably heated, powered, and independent.
James Munley - Wilcox, PA
From the Archives: 12/26/2007
As a young man I was stationed in many remote parts of the world as a heavy equipment mechanic with the sea breeze. Immediately I took to self-reliance, preservation and the beauty of all things natural. It has followed me throughout my life. A few years ago a boyhood friend afforded me the opportunity to watch over his 150 acre hunt camp for the summer months. It is adjacent to the Allegheny National Forest in south western Pennsylvania. Answering an advertisement in a magazine for a Backwoods Solar catalog was the beginning of my solar adventure. Pictured is the remote, totally off grid, cabin on the property that I wired. Currently I am only running: two EV115 panels, a SCI Mark controller, a Pro-Sine 1800 inverter, an Iota 55a charger, all purchased from Backwoods, and a Honda 2000i backup generator. Although I do all my chores by hand and only run machines occasionally, my equipment supplies all the power I need for my sole lifestyle at this time.
For the winter months I break down my equipment and set up in the Osceola National Forest in northern Florida. I have had an overwhelming number of inquiries into how my gear works and hope seeing it will inspire some in the sunshine state. I am far from expert but have built, plumbed, wired and maintained all of my own properties all my life. I would like to reassure anyone wanting to develop a simpler life style that there is nothing more rewarding and satisfying. The folks at Backwoods Solar have been fantastic when it comes to support, almost a forgotten courtesy in today’s marketplace.
Steve Bueler - British Columbia, Canada
Commercial Traffic Control Project - Completed by Western Systems in Everett, Washington
Thanks for everyones help - This project was a success!! I got this system going last week. I just wanted to show where your equipment ended up!
The detection system picks out only commercial vehicles. The flasher system alerts oncoming motorists large vehicles are approaching them as a warning. We build these cabinets at Western Systems in Everett Washington. The battery side usually holds 4 109Ahr batteries. We added a couple more batteries for this application. The door has plug in for Generator input for using an external generator if needed. It uses the IOTA 12VDC 55AMP battery charger. We used 4 of your 250 Watt solar panels, and the FM80 solar charge controller. Because the distance to the flasher was so far we needed to convert the 12VDC to 120VAC. We used two of your Morningstar sure sine 300 inverters.
Our customer, Max, shared this beautiful picture of his system. He said "Thought you guys might like to see some of your solar panels in action. The first five(in the pic) are the last five I bought from you guys. Picture was taken this summer in Onion Creek.". Thanks Max!