Scrounging for solar

Article by Slim Wolfe

Solar Energy – January 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

As the Russian said when visiting the modern cabin on a Canadian lake: “This is nice for a town house, but where is your place in the country?”

THE DECEMBER ARTICLE about solar-powered living was excellent for those who want to borrow money and hire the job out, but off-grid living is also accessible for those with allergies to bankers and hired contractors, who might prefer to do it “the cowboy way,” that is, with gumption, ingenuity, elbow grease, and cusswords.

Saving money isn’t the only advantage, because after you’ve hoisted enough batteries like they were haybales, and gelded enough heavy copper wire-ends, and learned the ins and outs of your system, you will be master or mistress in your own domain, able to modify and/or repair as the need may arise.

In out-of-the-way places, it is usually legal, and far more practical, to be your own electrician, as long as you learn the rules and follow them. Reasonable proficiency with tools is all that’s required. You can learn quite a bit by reading the informative catalogs offered by alternative-energy mail-order houses — and I’ve had excellent dealings with a mom-and-pop dealer out of Sandpoint, Idaho. There are also dozens of books on the subject.

You can learn as you go, starting small, and growing your system as your budget allows, but some knowledge and planning will save costly and time-consuming mistakes and/or duplications. This is a fairly new industry and new, more efficient products appear every year — making you wish you hadn’t bought that less effective well-pump or charge-controller last year.

But let’s digress a bit and talk about the cowboy way. I’m no cowboy, but I’ve been having off-grid experiences ever since a primitive charity camp gave me a respite from the streets of New York back in 1955.

In the ’80s there were still quite a few of us backwoods pilgrims in Central Colorado who thought, like the Russian, that country living ought to offer some liberation from a too-modern world. We were happy with lantern light in rustic cabins, glad for a scrap of dirt on which we could build our own home with little more than a shovel, a hammer, and a saw. No radio, no vehicle, no problems — until you had to earn a living. For that reason, it’s easier to have a power assist for a modest cottage industry, or maybe a light bulb or two for an evening’s ease — keeping in mind that greater minds than your own have created their masterpieces by candlelight.

THUS A PERSON planning an off-grid system can acquire equipment according to real need, rather than trying to live like the star of a Pepsi commercial. The thirteen-amp power tool may look better than the one rated fifteen. The cold porch may serve as a fine refrigerator. A book may appeal to you more than the television adaptation, since you need only a low-watt bulb to enjoy it. Before long, you may come to see your on-grid past as one big addiction.

As in most endeavors, when you refer to the experts, you’ll find that they disagree, so be prepared for a few surprises as you start living with your off-grid system.

Does a fist-sized shadow keep a solar panel from putting out power? Not according to my little volt-meter.

Do batteries emit so much gas that they need to be in a vented storage box in the cold where they are less efficient? Heck, I’ve got mine under the couch I sleep on.

Do you need to cough up several hundred dollars for sophisticated safety disconnects? Or will the Dukes of Hazard chop-shop and meth-lab over on the next road draw so much attention that nobody will have time to prosecute your peccadilloes — thus leaving you free to indulge in a bit of trial-and-error assembly, as perhaps the creator intended. After all, the kick from a few batteries is hardly a kick from a large animal, and an inspector’s approval may not mean that you have a safe system, any more than a driver’s license means you’re a safe driver.

But I don’t mean to encourage carelessness or ignorance here. Electricians, however, are merely human, and it’s sometimes helpful to find one as close as the nearest mirror. That is the key to sustainable living: personal connection with the basics of life. It’s the basis of the cowboy way, the Code of the West, the way of Thoreau; it’s what slips away with each new trick we buy.

So if you’re considering going solar, don’t be intimidated by the mystery or the cost. The basic system is a PV panel or two, a couple of deep-cycle batteries, though car batteries will suffice for a first experience, as will a salvaged 12-volt tail-light and radio.

Eventually you will wire a number of panels and perhaps a wind-turbine through a controller which charges your larger, matched battery bank at the optimum level, and is in turn wired to an inverter which gives out normal or modified house current, which is more efficient and more useful.

YOU MIGHT LIKE to have a larger system for daytime use of larger devices, and a separate smaller system with a full head of steam to kick in after dark for lights and other stuff. You may want a gravity water system rather than an automated pressure-tank which may activate your well-pump at inopportune times. You may trade in your 400-watt stereo for a 25-watt ghetto-blaster of decent quality which can be wired directly from the battery to the terminals in the rear compartment, and you may discover that many editors will read and publish your submission if your tool is a manual typewriter

Admittedly, these few hundred words just scratch the surface, but so long as you have a bit of time and determination, and keep repeating the mantra, “it ain’t necessarily so,” a bit of elementary wrenching and screwing around may prove rewarding, especially if you’re tired of seeing that uniformed agent of the power company sidling up to read your meter.

Just don’t hook up your system to theirs unless you’re absolutely sure about what you’re doing — and by all means, don’t mistake battery acid for cooking sauterne. Other than that, generating your own power is probably at least as safe as that rocket which put up that satellite link that you think you can’t live without.

Slim Wolfe gets most of his amps from black coffee, but hardly ever stoops to brewing it in the coff-o-matic which makes it smell a bit like plastic and sucks major juice. He lives in a home-made home near Villa Grove.