“Wyrd biõ ful ãræd.”

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Little Power Backup System That Couldn't.

I used to have another blog, a couple of years ago.  I gave blogging a hiatus and basically quit using the internet for that time period.  Blogging can be a lot of fun, but believe it or not it can get stressful and become very time consuming as well.  When I came back, I was really amazed to see how many people that I used to read were still at it.

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 Much of the equipment is outdated.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. 


The battery bank was installed inside a special box made of thick plastic.  I asked the guys installing the system why, since it seemed a needless piece of paraphernalia. They said sometimes inverters malfunctioned, and overcharged the batteries. The overcharge would cause massive heat build up, and the vents on the batteries would open up and start spraying water and acid all over the place. That never happened to me but it was a jolly thought that nobody had mentioned until we were almost through with the installation. As for the utility of the battery bank, it wasn't much.  As long as you just ran the lights and small appliances in the house, it would keep everything going for a few hours before the generator had to kick in and run awhile to recharge the batteries. But, that was assuming you ran around and unplugged the refrigerator and the deep freeze. If you didn't, and one of those kicked in, the batteries were drained almost immediately.  We had a Sunfrost low energy refrigerator that was shipped here all the way from Idaho. It used less electricity but not enough to make any difference to the all mighty batteries.  One final word on the batteries. They lasted 3 years, max. If you took the best care of them possible, and did everything right, they had to be replaced every three years. At $350 a pop this wasn't cheap, and trying to find someplace to get rid of the old ones was difficult.  I usually had to pay "la mordida"  out at the county dump for them to take them.  If you haven't spent time in Mexico, that means "the bite".  Or, as the Japanese call it, "the oil that lubricates society."  In those days there wasn't much you couldn't work out up here with a couple of twenty dollar bills.


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. 


The generator was the most important part of the system.  I bought a 5 KW diesel.  At first, we installed it in the shop, mounted on a pallet. I cut a hole through the log wall for an exhaust pipe.  Unfortunately, even mounted on rubber rockers, this thing vibrates like a sail in a high wind.  That caused leakage in the exhaust set up. You can see the amount of smoke being generated in this photo of a test run. Now imagine being inside a building.  Eventually we wound up installing the generator outside under a little tin roof.  It runs for about 5 to 6 hours on a tank of fuel if you are running everything up here off of it.  I don't mean by that the dishwasher, or washing machine, etc but at least you don't have to unplug the deep freeze or refrigerator because it can handle that load for the short time those devices kick on.


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.


28 comments:

  1. Solar has been part of our energy solution in our future homestead. Staying low tech plays a huge part, as well as energy conservation. Experience is the best teacher! Thanks

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  2. Energy conservation is something we work hard on up here. I think that these days, solar has been greatly refined. I see panels mounted on poles that follow the sun, or banks of panels on roof tops. If I had to pick the weakest point in my old system, it would certainly be the batteries. I don't know if deep cycle battery technology has improved but I sure hope so.

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  3. Yeah, our Achiiles heel is our battery storage too. We have 6 X 1166Ah 2 volt batteries, but, as RMan and I have discovered, their storage capacity is just enough, with nothing left for "extras".

    S'funny, we were just talking today, and I said I'd check out the cost of another 6 in the coming week.

    Experience in solar installations here is probably where you were at in the 1990's - nobody knows nowt, but all are happy to sell it...

    Sad state of affairs :}

    But, even given that at times we're stretched, I wouldn't link back to the grid. Given that our government isn't offering any incentive yet regarding the "purchase" of our surplus, why bother?

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    1. Dani,
      Our grid has improved now to the point where I can get by with just the generator. I wish I was totally off grid like you folks. I think you are better at managing power consumption than I am, though. I have heard of people who were off grid who could sell their surplus back to the electric company here. As I recall, most of them lived on a stream and had built some kind of hydroelectric generator.
      I still keep everything I need in terms of kerosene lamps, fuel, candles, etc for long term power outages. I am thinking of putting in an up slope water tank and pumping water up there from my well, so that I would have gravity fed water if I needed it. Despite the rule of three (backups for the backup system) I only have one generator because they cost so much. If the grid goes, and the generator goes, then it's back to the 1880's for us.

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  4. I only use my system for batteries. I charge everything off my little "toy" system that now contains a small bank of four deep cell batteries and four 20 watt panels. So far I can't complain really as it has prolly paid for itself in battery charges alone.

    I can also unhook a battery and using a converter run my outside wood furnace blower for 8 hours at a time before it needs to be recharged. This set up got me through a power outtage two years ago but all we could do was charge phones and such and run the wood stove.

    Last year I added in a gas generator that I can run the freezers and wood stove off of as well. I made a panel that fit's in the window with plug ins so the minute an outtage happens I just plug right into it.

    Of course we don't suffer the weeks long outtages here but keeping the wood stove blower going is important of it could over heat if the safety air vent thing doesn't work. Otherwise I always though batteries were the best I could hope for to keep up on a solar panel system.

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    1. You've built yourself a good system with what was at hand. I like running a generator because it doesn't "run down" as long as there's fuel for it. On the other hand, in the mountains, especially in winter, you can hear the damn thing for miles and that isn't good. Gas generators are lots quieter than a diesel. I wasn't really comfortable with storing a lot of gasoline which is another reason I went the diesel route.

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  5. Oh ya. Forgot to add. My panels are in full sun almost from sun rise to sun set. Only in mid Winter do they get some afternoon shade when the Sun is way low to the South. It makes a world of difference. If fact I know I have read several places that state you need a minimum of like eight hours to make solar panels even worth while. I can't believe they sold you a system like that with only 6 hours of sun exposure.

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    1. Let the buyer beware. I designed the system using magazine articles, and the guys who sold me all the gear were only too happy to have me buy it. They probably knew up front the panels were not going to work there, but "business is business" I guess.

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  6. So howd the German panels hold up over time?

    Great post. This is why I missed reading your stuff!

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    1. Commander Zero, I'm pretty sure they are still charging the cable that was capped off when I got rid of the batteries. Seems a waste, since I can never use them. But it would cost a fortune to ship them to someone who could, and there's no guarantee they still work.

      It's good to be back. I missed the old crew.

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  7. I face the same problem out at our Boar's Nest. Half the group wants solar the other not...I tend to agree with the not side and argue we stay with our generator. The cost is next to impossible for the small gain.

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  8. Solar sure didn't work for me. But it works for PP and for Dee, so I don't know. Personally, I like just going out and pushing the button for the generator to start, myself. But solar is quiet and doesn't advertise your location to everyone within a 3 mile radius.
    I'd be worried about solar equipment getting stolen out there, too.

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  9. Well I think technology has come a long way since the 90's. Yet my little toy system works only because I do not expect much out of it AND it is in full sun all day.

    We will see how long the whole thing lasts before it begins to degrade but for charging small batteries, cell phones, car and tractor batteries and running some hand tools it works great so far. For the most part I don't use electricity in my shop except for lights and my brass tumbler though. I think this is the third year for it.

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    1. Maybe you are right. I know it's more advanced in terms of the cells tracking the sun and all. But the real weak point of my system was the deep cycle batteries. As I recall I had eight of them, so every three years it cost me a huge sum to replace them. Then they didn't run the house very long before the generator kicked on anyway. I need a way to charge my laptop , cell phone, etc if the generator goes down. I am painfully aware that I have no backup at all for the generator, and anything mechanical can quit on you.

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  10. I don't want to talk about our system!

    We purchased ours back in 2008. It consisted of 24 Kaneka 80 watt panels in parallel producing 1.9kw. It was coupled to an Outback Mx60 MPPT Regulator. Our inverter is a Xantrex 4548, set up with four, 12 volt, 100 amp batteries.

    Now, I don't know anything about the technical side of solar but I do know that the panels had to be replaced this year. Basically the mob (The Solar Shop) that we bought from have gone broke and we have no comeback on them. Our panels had never worked properly and the technicians were called back several times to "fix" our problem. The system would stop producing due to shoddy wiring...
    Our batteries run our lights, and maybe the new panels will produce enough to run the fridge and freezer as well. We are yet to try it. So basically the 24 original Chinese panels are "stuffed!" and we had them removed and replaced with new ones. We have lost about $12,000!! Our new panels cost another $3,000. The inverter is still working fine and we are waiting for our next electricity bill to see the result from the new panels...

    The moral of our story is not to jump into something too quickly without researching thoroughly. Because it was new at the time, we listened to the so called "experts" and paid the price! The modern systems that are installed these days are far superior (and cheaper in cost) than our original purchase.

    Thank you for sharing your solar story. I was relieved to hear we weren't the only ones not happy with solar.

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    1. Tania, We have about the same system as you, used as a backup, and purchased at about the same time.

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    2. Tania,
      Sounds like your experience was similar to mine. I know that efficient back up systems can be built, because there used to be a blog about living in the desert, and that couple were like you folks, completely off grid. They got theirs working, I just don't know how long a process it was. But their blog has since disappeared, or I just can't find it again. I wish I was completely self sufficient out here, but power is the big vulnerability. If the grid goes, I have my generator. If it goes, right now it's back to kerosene lamps and hauling water in jugs.

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  11. The general rule of thumb is that you get 1000 watts per square meter (or 93w per square foot) per peak solar hour. But the typical flat panel system is only 15% efficient. You then take that wattage available and then divide by either 240volts for two pole breakers, or 120 for single pole loads.

    Your 5kw generator is a baby that could you might expect to run 3 20 amp circuits. Your typical "whole house" system tends toward 18kw to 20kw and even there it is only "whole house" in the emergency sense. Most homes have a 200 amp panel, and 20kw only generates 83 amps at 240 volts.

    Your system looks like it needs more solar panels, but that even in the best circumstances it would not be excepted to do much more than what its doing. For some outlying areas, propane tanks are a viable alternative to the diesel fuel you are using.

    Also you need to be careful with the batteries. They can outgas hydrogen which if it gets to more than a 3% concentration can lead to very explosive results.

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    1. Russel, that outgassing thing was the hair raiser that the guys who sold me my system neglected to mention. All the more so because my shop is where the batteries were, along with copious quantities of smokeless powder, primers, and loaded ammo. By the time they told me about it , it was really too late to do anything because the battery box was all installed and wired into the inverter on the wall.

      My generator will run some lights, a small wall unit, the tv and radio. My hope is that I never need it for very long before the grid comes up, but my plan is to run it for only a few hours a day if the grid is down indefinitely. I can take showers, run water and charge my equipment like radios. For the rest of the time, it would be kerosene lamps, candles and primitive living conditions.

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    2. I wish I had more experience/knowledge on the battery side. But the big money is in grid interactive these days.

      NABCEP (an organization that promotes and runs certifications programs) has free pdfs at their website. Look for the Installer Resource Guide. It is for people in the business so it is not an easy how-to, but it will give you an idea of why there are so many areas you could get tripped up in. From what I have been told there are a lot of vendors out there pushing real hard on these systems.

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  12. Harry - this is coming from a complete novice in the area of solar...but back in the city we had solar panels on our roof that went to our special hot water tank and we never once pulled hot water from the city. the set-up was pretty complicated, but was designed and installed by the architect who lived there before us. we never once pulled from the city's hot water. we have been researching everything...and yes, we have researched the magazine that lead you astray. we have researched alternative sources and based on our research...we have decided that we need a set-up that involves solar/wind/hydraulic power system. so that when one is not available...another will be. a back-up for a back-up for a back-up. we have regular days with sun of up to, and more, than 8 hours a day, depending on the time of year. we can regularly count on the wind. and we have an area that we can dam to provide hydro power. we are still deciding the best way to complete all of this. it is honest posts like yours, and others, that have shown us that this is not an easy or quick decision to make or implement. we are still in the learning and researching phases. but we want off-grid...eventually. so thank you for this post.

    your friend,
    kymber

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    1. Kymber, your husband is very innovative and good with improvisation. I remember some of the things you two were doing to your place way back when I first met you. If you set your minds to it I am sure you can build the system you want. I could spend money on rebuilding mine, using what I have learned and perhaps with advances in the technology it would work. But I am spending my disposable income on things like diesel fuel, because I know what the generator does and I'm not so sure about a new power system. Diesel fuel here is now about $4.00 a gallon even with a bulk buy discount, so filling up two 500 gallon tanks, well......

      But it could be worse. I read a blog that a lady writes about living on the edge of the Australian outback, and they are paying $8.00 a gallon for diesel!! I told her that it would cost me over $400 just to fill up my F250 at that price, I don't see how they survive.

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    2. Kymber- not my area of expertise, but I was just at a training class and someone with practical field experience was of the opinion that the ability to trickle charge from a water source was a huge bonus to the self sustainable system. On a guess, the best source for these systems would likely be California or the Northwest U.S. as they have been at it the longest.

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  13. A thousand thank-yous! I was the guy who left the comment about your experiences with your backup system, and it was an eye-opener and a true cautionary tale when I read it, as it was again today. Yeah, one reads that magazine you mention and probably even the more down-to-earth ones and they sure paint an optimistic picture of these things, but one wonders how much experience the authors have and if it isn't mostly theory and pipe-dreaming. Thanks again, so glad you're back to blogging!

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    1. I sure learned my lesson on that one. It's a mistake I haven't made since. I enjoy reading country living magazines and survivalist literature, but unless the author is someone like Ragnar Benson, with impeccable credentials, I take everything with a grain of salt.

      I hope you will keep coming by, I enjoy your comments. If you run a blog, I'd like to read it. You could email me the url at harryflashman23@gmail.com Not pushing, just a thought in passing by.

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  14. Hi Harry. I dropped by to return the blog visit and thank you for the comment on mine. What a great post. I need to look around your blog, lots of good stuff here.

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    1. Leigh, I like "Five Acres and a Dream." I'm delighted you came by. People who are trying to make a go of it in the country come from all different stripes, but we all have a lot in common as well.

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  15. I usually relied on the load banks. I am running out a big organization, so i can not trust anything apart from loadbanks.

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