A fellow left a comment on a posting not long ago about something that was on the old blog. The subject was the power system I built out here to back up the very tenuous grid power. That power system was based on magazine articles and what the people I bought the equipment from told me, so maybe it is no surprise that things didn't quite go as planned.
The pictures all date to the late 1990's, which is when we installed the system and were using it. Today, I just have a generator and a transfer switch. But for what it's worth here's the cautionary tale.
In the mountains where I live, we are probably 40 years behind what most Americans are used to. Our land line telephone system works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn't. Usually it doesn't when you need it the most, when there is a massive snow or ice storm or a big rain storm. The power grid was put in during the 1930's, as part of FDR's Rural Electrification Program. It is, for the most part, above ground. Much of the equipment is outdated. When it gets close to zero here our transformers explode on the poles, and the power goes out. When it snows, we have two 1957 dump trucks the road crew puts plows on, and that's our snow clearance equipment for the whole county. Most of the roads here are just big enough for two cars to pass each other going in opposite directions, and the majority of the roads are still gravel. It's a place where you soon learn how to work around problems.
Back in the 90's my whole family lived up here on the mountain top. Especially for the kids, long power outages were hard. The biggest problem was that without power, we couldn't run the water pump or the air conditioning. No water pump meant no showers, no washing clothes, no hot water, and having to haul water to flush the toilets. Finally my wife had reached the point where she wanted something done about it, and I felt like it was something we needed to deal with.
I looked at books and magazines, and I designed my system. I planned on a generator, a bank of solar cells, and a big deep cycle battery bank all being hooked into a Trane Inverter. If things worked the way they were supposed to, the solar panel would trickle charge the battery bank. If the battery bank got low, the inverter would automatically switch on the generator, and run the house and outbuildings off the generator until the battery bank was recharged. It seemed pretty straight forward.
The inverter was a heavy piece of gear that had to be bolted to the wall in the shop. Basically, it was a computer that sensed whether or not the grid power was on. You could use it to isolate yourself from the grid, and it tied all the basic components of the system together. On the one hand, it gave you wonderful flexibility. On the other, it had an Achilles heel. It had to be programmed to handle the electrical load, charge the batteries if you were using the generator, stop charging the batteries when they were full, handle housekeeping chores like "equalizing the batteries" and myriad other functions. Have you ever walked away from your laptop and forgotten to go back? When it runs out of power, it shuts down. So did the inverter. If you were running off grid, and the generator went down, once the batteries failed the inverter shut off. It would go dead, and all that programming would be lost. The operators manuals (there were three different manuals) were not written with the average mortal in mind. So if this happened, a tech had to come from the outfit that installed the system to reprogram it. The one way distance from their business place to my mountain top was 65 miles. It wasn't cheap. If you are wondering how this could happen, picture a rainy night, with us running off the generator. It's the third night of a big storm, and dad has refueled the generator and fallen asleep in his easy chair down at the main house. The generator runs out of fuel, and the inverter starts running on the batteries. Everyone is asleep. When the batteries run down, the inverter shuts itself off. Darkness and despair ensue.
Then there was the "bank" of deep cycle batteries. These things cost $350 each even back in the 90's. They were so heavy and cumbersome that it took two men to lift them unless you wanted to risk rupturing yourself. They were not like car batteries. You had to check the water level in the batteries constantly, and they had to be equalized. That means telling the inverter to overcharge them intentionally on a periodic basis, to burn off the scale that would otherwise grow on the plates in the batteries. When you equalized the battery bank, the batteries got hot and gave off fumes from the little vents on the caps over the water wells. The fumes stank, and burned your eyes which made the process a lot of fun because the shop is well insulated and pretty air tight.
Then there was the solar panel array. I'm a firm believer in the old axiom that if you buy the best, you save money in the long run. I bought German. If the Germans sell you something, you can bet your life that it will perform as advertised. So I bought eight Siemens solar panels. Now, this was before the nifty little cells that follow the sun were in general use, so my panels were bolted to a steel frame. Unfortunately for me, even at the best times of the year, the panels were in the sunlight only about 6 hours a day. I live on a mountain top, but the topographic crest runs above and around the meadow. So it was only the middle of the day when the panels got power, and then really only in summer. In winter the days are short and usually cloudy, so they never really got off the ground in terms of charging the batteries reliably.
Generators use fuel. Lots of fuel, and the minute you run out you are in the dark. So I put in two 500 gallon above ground tanks. I got a discount for buying fuel in volume, and since my F250 is diesel I didn't have to worry about the fuel aging and going bad. I put additives in it and used it in the truck. Back then diesel was very, very cheap. Gasoline cost more than diesel in those days, and diesel generators lasted a lot longer under prolonged use than a gasoline generator. So I went diesel and I've never regretted it. The diesel generator is still in use, while the rest of this equipment is long since silent and dead.
Today all the power backup I have is the generator hooked into a transfer switch. If the power goes out, I go throw the switch and start the generator. That's it. As for the rest of this system, it was all an expensive experiment that failed. I relied too heavily on cheery articles in country living magazines. The people that wrote them either never used the systems they touted, or they were writing "theoretically" , or maybe they just plain blew smoke to sell their articles. Since then, I have read a lot of survival magazines and books, but I always read with a degree of skepticism. If I were going to launch into some new project today, I'd read up on it but I'd find someone on line who had already done it and solicit their advice. There's no substitute for experience.