Thursday, December 18, 2014

Running On Solar Power: Minimal Life Adjustments

A perfect balance- we were using exactly
as much as we were producing.
It's been a few weeks now, living off grid, and we have learned a lot about our system's production abilities and our usage.

Last week, we went the longest yet without any sun. Five days of overcast skies still didn't stop us from lighting our home or powering up devices. We designed our system to work on a 1.5 day battery bank, meaning we could expect to continue general power use for 1.5 days without any sun, thanks to our battery bank.

We were a bit wary of that number in the beginning, but like most things we quickly found a way around it. If it's cloudy- use less power! I'm sure most everyone reading this has lived through a major storm which caused power outages. If you live in New England then you have probably had the pleasure of living through more than one snow/ice storm. When I lived in Southern Maine- two winters in a row we had ice storms and lost power for 5+ days. I ended up temporarily relocating to a family's house each time. Bottom line- I lived.

Arriving home..looking through my clean windshield
at 8 more "windshields" that need to be scraped. Fun.

With those memories floating by, I quickly adjusted my attitude. Dan and I now have a much keener eye to the skies. We follow weather reports closely, make note of our battery bank percentage on a daily basis, and keep a close eye on use of the items that pull the most power.


A sight for sore eyes! After 6 days of
no sun, this was a relief!
Here's what we have learned....
-On a beautiful day in November- we can gain about 15-20% of our bank back.
-On a semi cloudy or "light cloud" day- we can still gain about 5-8% of our bank back.
-On a dark cloud day - we get no juice.
-Solar panels will gather zero power when covered in snow and ice.
-Our house- sitting alone for the day uses about 2% of the power bank. (Only the fridge and an alarm clock remain plugged in all day.)
-In the evenings when we get home- we use roughly 6-8% of our power bank. That includes running both interior lights for 3-4 hours, the outdoor light for 1 hour, 1 laptop for 3-4 hours, and miscellaneous mobile device charging.
-We can go upwards of 7 days without any sun. We went about 6 days with no sun and our bank dropped to it's lowest so far- about 31%.


Overall, the switch to solar hasn't made much of an impact on our daily lives. We don't feel restricted by any means. We like to keep conservative to begin with. Once the bank was getting into the 50 percent range, we scaled back our use. We ran devices off battery power, shut off lights and turned to candles- which actually makes for a very cozy atmosphere!

We even had our first trouble shooting instance. We noticed that the amperage was not reading anything other than zero, and then also noticed that our battery level hadn't moved either. We checked all of our connections outside- everything looked fine. So we turned to the monitor itself. After moving it around a little, I noticed the numbers go all wonky. It was definitely the wiring in the battery monitor itself. Dan fixed it in less than a minute. Man, am I glad it was an easy issue to fix.
With all the heater troubleshooting, I was not ready to have solar go on the fritz too!



Other than that, we haven't had a lot of movement around here. Well not in the building sense. We have been running around getting gifts, finishing errands, decorating, wrapping, and so on. This will probably be my last post until after Christmas. 
We want to thank you all so much for taking the time to read our adventures, share your thoughts and encouragement, and make us feel we are part of a community. We hope you all have a lovely Christmas (or equally wonderful December holiday) full of family and friends, love, laughter, and happiness.

Thanks for reading!



Wednesday, December 3, 2014

More Square Footage...Sort Of

The wood with a pinkish hue is reclaimed.
Last weekend we started putting together our deck!



I had almost started to accept that we would be headed into another winter without some kind of deck. To exit a house directly onto steps can be quite precarious at times, and leaves no landing space to knock off boots or set down bags when opening the door. Needless to say, I was bummed when the snow started to cover up our lumber pile and harden up the ground. 


I doubted nice weather would land on a weekend for some time. I'm glad to be wrong! And I'm glad to have a husband that has somehow cultivated a stubbornly motivated streak. We had other plans for the weekend, which included a good time with some family and friends, but that was all thrown off by our heater going on the fritz.

Saturday evening, the heater started acting funky and then just wouldn't do anything beyond hold a pilot flame. The first half of Sunday was then handed over to learning about thermocouples and other possible reasons for failure. We were both kind of annoyed at the sudden change of plans and new challenge. We just finally got the thing installed a few weeks ago! 


After a few hours of fiddling and research and a trip to the big box store for a piece that didn't fit, we figured it out. Our thermocouple had slipped down slightly from its original position in the stove and was no longer being hit by the pilot flame. Without the pilot flame to heat up the end of the thermocouple- the mechanism that opens gas to the additional burners in the stove does not function. 

We put the original back in place and made certain it gets hit by the pilot flame. We were peeved about missing the outing, but glad to have the heater working again and learning a little more about our stove. Good thing it was a fairly warm couple of days too!

After the heater was all set, Dan figured we might as well work on the deck. It wasn't too cold out and the snow was beginning to melt. We had started to get framing done on Saturday and then hoped to get a good amount done when the weather was nice again. 

Saturday, we were able to put together the framing and begin digging out the areas for the post blocks. It was definitely a weekend of crabby patty moments. We started to get frustrated when we couldn't agree on how to approach setting up the blocks for the deck. It is quite tricky when you have a sloping piece of ground and no larger tools to help you stay even and square to the house. We would get one block level and in place only to find that other blocks needed to be moved to account for what we just changed. 

Finally, we found an approach that seemed to work best. We laid the actual framing over the tops of the blocks to know where each should go. We decided we would cut the four legs to equal length and then dig down to make sure the deck remained level. We chose to start with the two legs at the front of the deck and then base the rest off of those. Once we had half of the deck framing in place, I held the second half of framing on the lip that connects the two halves, while Dan went around with the level telling me to lift and lower as needed. Once I was holding the deck at a level position, he measured how long the last two legs would need to be. 


With the way the ground slants, we would have had to dig down a couple feet to put the blocks in and then add legs. This was smarter, easier, and quicker. As we started to put the boards across the top of the framing, my excitement rose. It had been a challenging weekend, but the fruit of our labors was coming around. Seeing a nice level, CLEAN, surface begin to grow in front of our door gave us the energy needed to push on and work well into the dark. We didn't have quite enough wood to do the whole deck. We ended up using some pieces of wood to create additional support. We mixed new and re-claimed wood in a pattern as we went. Dan and I like the idea of that wood so much that we are thinking of going back to the pile and seeing if anything else could be salvaged--we also like not having to pay for that wood! 




Monday morning, when I walked out the door for work, I couldn't help but give a little whoop of joy. It may be a small thing, but I rejoiced in the fact that I wasn't immediately stumbling down steps while still trying to close the door behind me. Half the time, I would end up closing my bag or coat in the door, or even dropping something as I bumble out into the world. Somehow, our place feels bigger too. Maybe it's the fact that I have a space to leave some muddy boots for a few minutes or set out a bin of recyclables before we take it to the main barrel. I can even put my groceries down and open the door with ease! And I cannot wait for the first time we sit out on our deck and share a drink or a meal as we look out over the beautiful farm. :)

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I don't care who you are, you need a hat with a LED lights!
We love them!!





Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Moving The Electric Goat Fence

This past weekend we completed a handful of the many items still on the to do list. 

As many of you may have seen from photos, our location on the farm has become more snug over the months. A goat fence in front of the house gave us just about 4 feet of room to enter the front door. This worked just fine for me, but for larger, clumsier people like Dan- it was an electrifying experience more than once. A few months later, a second goat area was made for Wiley- since he can't hang out with all the ladies after a certain point in the year- wink wink. That area extends up to just about 3 feet away from the back wall of our tiny house. The goats have us surrounded!


On Saturday we set out to give ourselves a little more room to romp- snow build up was also a major motivator. We took the major corner post of the fencing and moved it inward about 15 feet. We set each string/wire to the recommended tension and secured them. WOW! What a difference it made!!

***Note************************************
Our landlord farmers are having an issue with their electric fencing. It is solar powered, and right close to the power center, the fence readings are up around 7+ (amps or volts- I'm not sure) but then further along the fence it drops to below 2. They have looked along the entire fence and didn't notice anything that would ground or interrupt the current. Anyone have ideas?
*******************************************




The whole area seemed to open up! Our tiny house seemed bigger somehow! We have a front yard! We were so jazzed by this new perspective and space, that we forged on with outdoor work. We cleaned out an area of the old fallen barn. The cement slab had collected a few inches of soil over the years. When we first moved, we covered the space with a tarp. I find it to be the cheapest, easiest, earth-friendliest way to get rid of a bunch of plants and break down the roots and soil. After removing the tarp, all of the soil and plant matter left scraped away easily. 

While Dan scraped and shoveled dirt- I collected cinder blocks and made us a temporary fire place- with a great view I might add! We hope to make use of this cement slab area by putting in a pallet shed and storing things like our bikes and whatnot. We are also playing with the idea of it becoming a nice outdoor seating area.

By the end of Saturday we were already making plans for a small deck. We finally put in a shelf for our Berkey too- now we can easily pour water, and have a rinsing bowl just below for hand washing, etc.
Great view!

On Sunday, we went to Dan's Dad's store to check out old deck wood. His Dad recently put a new deck on their house, and put all the old wood behind his store. Dan and I looked through the pile and picked out the best looking pieces of wood. It was all pretty weathered, cracked, and worn, but some was still usable. 


We drew out a basic deck plan and got to work prepping the wood. After brushing, de-nailing and de-screwing, we chopped the ends square and clean, cut them to length, and sent them through the planer. Just about every piece looks brand new! (Just don't look at the other side, haha)


We still ended up needing more wood to complete our deck, but we were able to salvage about half of our needs- saving us around $150 in materials. Not too shabby for a few hours work!


Next weekend, we hope to install the deck! I can't wait!
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An old board compared to the cleaned up boards...

Looks brand new again!






Monday, November 17, 2014

Our Tiny House Solar Power Setup Part 2: Video Overview

And here is part two, people!

I was SO CLOSE to having this all ready to go last night- which would have met my promised deadline. It's only a day late though! Without further adieu- here you go!




DISCLAIMER
Aside from the basic electricity and circuitry lessons I learned in middle and high school, I had next to no knowledge of electrical systems. In 2008, I received my second round of lessons, which was more like a crash course since I had suddenly learned that the house I had bought needed to be completely gutted. I turned to reference books in the library and youtube videos to understand how to re-wire that house. What's my point? I am not a Master Electrician or trained electrical professional of any kind. I simply did several hours of research and sought out a reputable company that would walk me through the process. I want to share our efforts and how our system is put together simply to provide a stepping stone resource for anyone considering solar power. It can be done, and you can do it. What I do not want, however, is to become the "Ask Jane" of the DIY solar power world. I urge you to read through every scrap of material I provide in these posts, review all the videos, and IF at that point you still have a question, you should probably contact a professional. I am giving you my entire knowledge base- if it isn't in these materials, then I don't know the answer either. 

As I mentioned in the previous post- I would be including the more detailed "how to" videos I have found that helped me to understand how certain pieces go together. The combiner box and e-panel are where most of the complicated connections live. These were the videos I found most helpful. 

This is a super professional video that helped me cement some concepts in the beginning, even though we definitely did not need a combiner box of this size.

This is a college student showing a very basic combiner box setup. This helped us the most, in regards to our combiner box install.

MidNite Solar Charge Controller Install to E-Panel
This was a super helpful video. We don't have the same size e-panel and therefore didn't mount the charge controller to the side. 


And now, here is our video showing a very BASIC overview of our system. I talk about a lot of core concepts and tried to remember to touch upon as much as I could- but it was cold and I was in pure business mode, so most of these clips were done in one take. I didn't touch upon the grounding that needs to be done at the "power center" or within your e-panel basically. But from the video you can clearly see the green grounding wires coming from both the inverter and charge controller, which then meet at a central grounding bus bar at the top of our e-panel.  That then leads out the bottom of our utility closet and to a copper rod buried in the ground. 







I really hope I explained the system in a way that most anyone will be able to follow!
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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Our Tiny House Solar Power Setup Part 1: Basics

This is part one of the eagerly awaited solar power setup posts.

I've finally organized my thoughts enough and decided to break the two posts out as follows: this post will contain a raw list of all our system components and a series of the exact resources I used to understand how solar power works, what the components do, and the general rules of assembly. The second post will have a video explaining our setup and additional videos that are very focused on the assembly/install of specific parts. BUT FIRST!


DISCLAIMER
Aside from the basic electricity and circuitry lessons I learned in middle and high school, I had next to no knowledge of electrical systems. In 2008, I received my second round of lessons, which was more like a crash course since I had suddenly learned that the house I had bought needed to be completely gutted. I turned to reference books in the library and youtube videos to understand how to re-wire that house. What's my point? I am not a Master Electrician or trained electrical professional of any kind. I simply did several hours of research and sought out a reputable company that would walk me through the process. I want to share our efforts and how our system is put together simply to provide a stepping stone resource for anyone considering solar power. It can be done, and you can do it. What I do not want, however, is to become the "Ask Jane" of the DIY solar power world. I urge you to read through every scrap of material I provide in these posts, review all the videos, and IF at that point you still have a question, you should probably contact a professional. I am giving you my entire knowledge base- if it isn't in these materials, then I don't know the answer either. 



WATCH
First let's begin with videos. I know I prefer some overview videos before I get into detailed reading, but that's just how my brain works. Feel free to review these materials any way you'd like!

MissouriWindandSolar 
This guy was one of my favorites, he does several videos in series taking you through the basics of solar power, so check out his channel.

Small Off-Grid Cabin Setup
This guy does a decent job of keeping it simple, but he has a pretty small system, so I gleaned more concepts than actual ideas on what components I would need.

Solar And Wind Setup
I like this guys laid back drawl, he does leave a lot out, but I did find this helpful in better understanding the DC Disconnect (also referred to as an e-panel) connections. In fact many of these videos are overviews that make assumptions about your knowledge or leave little bits out here and there. I can't promise my video will be any better than them, and I am thankful they posted at all, because they helped me along the way!

DIY Solar Panel System: Components and Cost & Savings
This guy does a pretty great job of reviewing his system, this video was one of the first I came across. It can be overwhelming at first, but as you learn more and more you can revisit these sources. He also provides links to all his parts, cost break down and so on. 

Charge Controller and E-Panel
In case you weren't overwhelmed by the videos yet.....haha. But seriously, I included this video because I did, once again, glean a few important pieces. The charge controller and the e-panel is where most of the complicated connections live. As you can see, the size of the system- or how much power you need- can drastically affect the number, size, and type of components you need. There is no cookie cutter version.



READ
Now here are the main reading resources that helped me achieve this installation. 

Renewable Resources....Resources
I chose the AltE Store as my professional help. They were recommended by a fellow tiny houser and I liked that they were local- a Massachusettes based company. All in all, I would give them 4 out of 5 stars. There were a few components that needed to be sent back/exchanged/added, and I had a small part go missing and that was a challenge to resolve, but in the end, I did. I found the customer service to vary from department to department, but my main contact, my Sales rep, Greg, was great. I called him countless times to go over information, ask tons of questions, review and confirm concepts, and so on. Every time he was helpful, patient, enthusiastic, and encouraging. He could have just as easily filled my ears with solar electrical jargon and tried to get me to pay someone to install the system, but I like that this company is willing to talk you through it.

This link brings you directly to their learning center. This is a treasure trove of knowledge. Watch the webinars, read the articles! From here I learned basic schematics of a system, what types of batteries work best in different situations, how exactly the sun turns into power within a panel, figured out our power load needs using the load calculators, and much more. 

Back Woods Home
This was one of the earlier articles I found that resonated and made sense after the first read. It's a nice overview without getting too deep into any one aspect. I felt he touches upon just enough to let you know the basics, but also that there is a heck of lot more information you should probably get comfortable with before you start building anything. 

FreeSunPower
This site is pretty great. They provide a lot of in depth information, but in an organized way. They are trying to provide one of the most valuable assets for free- KNOWLEDGE. I appreciate what this group is trying to do- give everyone the opportunity to learn, understand, and perhaps even adopt solar power as their main source of energy. The more of us that switch, the better off our planet will be. 
I have the link opening up to information about the guage of wire needed between the panels and the charge controller. It is completely dependent on the amount of power that will be moving through the lines, and the distance it must travel. 

Solar Panel Tilt
This is a very clean cut and informative (I think) piece on the much debated best angle for solar panels.











OUR SYSTEM COMPONENTS

Our solar power system is rated for 4079 watt hours per day. This number came from us defining what power needs we would require each day and entering that into a load calculator. To review a chart of our power needs check out my previous post. 

Our number and size of panels is dependent upon how much sun we get where we live (prime sun hours at our latitude is 2.9) and how much power we need. 

Our battery bank is dependent upon how much power we need and how long we would like to be able to have power if there was no sun. We designed our system to store and give us enough power for 1.5 days without any sun. Many people choose up to three days, but this plays a big role in the cost. The longer you want to draw power without sun, the more batteries you need. Batteries are fast becoming the most expensive component. 

We plan to monitor our battery levels closely and in a streak of cloudy weather, we will simply scale back our usage. Since we heat and cook with propane, and neither of those units requires electricity, we are comfortable with the thought of simply having no power for a day or two. Life actually does go on without it. ;)


Here is a raw list of our parts. Most of the links go back to the AltE Store, but in some cases the parts were no longer listed, so I linked elsewhere. Review the links, because many of them have a lot of great additional information about the part:


















2     4 Foot copper rods, for grounding

Miscellaneous lengths of 6 AWG (guage) copper grounding wire.
Miscellaneous lengths of 4 AWG and 6 AWG covered wire.

My hope is that the real gung-ho readers will devour this information, and by the time my second post with our video comes out, you will at least have a loose grip on the different components I am naming off and pointing out. I hope this has been helpful!

Thanks for Reading!





















Monday, November 10, 2014

It's Official! We are OFF THE GRID!

The Annoying Fitness Couple of the 80s
These past two weekends have been full of major progress!

In the past two weekends we have done a plethora of stuff ranging from post-wedding to life in general to tiny house related tasks. In between, I flew out to Little Rock, AR for a busy work week. My apologies for the long awaited next post, but there has been just too much going on! And I'd rather be out DOING than in Writing. ;) I know for a fact that many of you are squirming at the edge of your seats, waiting to hear all about our solar power set up, so let me just break it to you in the first paragraph- this isn't the post. HOWEVER, I will be doing something a bit different this week- since there is so much to talk about. I will be doing some posts in rapid fire! Expect two more posts from me within the week! I have tomorrow off, which I plan to make wise use of, and also spend a little time with my favorite veteran- my older brother, Adam. I am going to break down the solar power set up in two posts. In the first post I will catalogue the components of our system so you know exactly what we have. I will also introduce some of the major items you should be evaluating when you first make the decision to go solar. I may even include some helpful resources in that one- or maybe the second one. The second post will most certainly contain a video of me showing our setup and giving and VERY rudimentary explanation of how it all connects and works.
But for this post- I will stick to the highlights and plaster the place with photos.

Halloween weekend- we did something fun and unusual for us- we made a little effort to plan costumes and then headed out to Twin River to meet some friends, take in the entertainment, a few beverages, and we even gambled a smidge. We walked out with five extra dollars. 
The gifts keep trickling in! We love it!

Saturday was a slow lazy start, then we suddenly had to help out a family member which ended up taking a good part of the day. So we scrapped the rest of it (as far as work on the house was concerned) and tended to a few errands of our own- like laundry. And we put together our new Berkey!! Thanks Lupo! :) Gotta love the late wedding gifts that keep showing up.  


Dan digging out a trench to bury our grounding rod.





On Sunday, we completed the last few connections that were needed. We realized part way through that we didn't have the additional wire and teeny weeny connector pieces for the Trimetric monitor, but we kept going. The Trimetric is not necessary to allow the system to run and produce power- it simply monitors the battery levels and a few other things. We just wanted to make sure the whole system worked at this point! We didn't turn on the inverter. It was late in the day and we wanted the batteries to get a good charge before we asked for any power. 



I'm not sure I can describe the slow steady rise of joy that came over me as we flipped the breakers at each point. First, we were at the panels, flipping the connector box breakers- and seeing the little blue lights of the lightning arrestor beam up at us was a lovely first sign. We then headed to the utility closet and began flipping those breakers too. When the charge controller powered on we were AMPED!! (See what I did there?)




It's lit up!!

By that point in the day it was getting dark and quite crisp. We headed inside and started reviewing manuals so we could start understanding what all these little monitors needed from us, and what they would tell us in return. 

This past weekend, we spent Saturday getting the materials for the heater and the Trimetric. We finished installing the battery monitor to the system and programmed both the Trimetric and our charge controller as needed. At first the charge percentage didn't display and we got a bit nervous, but after more reading we realized it would not display the first time until the batteries were at 100%. 





On Sunday, we finally saw it hit 100% within the first half hour of morning sun. We decided to go for it! We turned on the inverter and plugged ourselves in! We are now proudly, joyously, FINALLY using power from the sun!!! YYEEEEEHAAAWWW!!!
The rest of Sundays light hours were spent installing the heater. Dan's Dad came over and gave us a hand. Since I did most of the homework on the solar power, I told Dan that the heater was his homework.


 It was quite nice, just hanging back and taking photos, letting him and his Dad do the work. :) We found that we are missing just one little connector piece, which we plan to get tonight. Then we will see how our new heater works!


Marking the hole...

After these past two weekends, two major major tasks have finally been accomplished, and we are ahead of the winter weather still. I have felt this rare, remarkable calm settle over me. The entire vision is finally coming together. I am beyond proud of what we have done together, and even more so now that we can say we successfully installed our own solar power system! It can be done people!

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Cutting the hole with a jigsaw.

Finishing the cut on the outside!
Hey there! Our pipe fits!