Customer Projects & Stories - Archive 1


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 a 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.

James Munley

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!