One Small Footprint For Mankind
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We had no power to begin with so the little house and the antique Branstrator trailer would have to be wired before we could really put the new power system to work. The bad part would be having to rebuild much of the trailer interior to do so; the good part would be rejuvenating the trailer's interior to do so.

I had put that off for many years because it would mean a major disruption of our already tight living conditions. Other things always seemed more urgent (and they were), like fiberglassing the newest cracks and leaks in both trailer roofs, installing a water system, a deck, the little tool house with dormer and urinal, etc., all of which definitely eased the living conditions. But those are other stories that have already been told in other pictorial essays. Here I will talk about harnessing the power of the sun, a noble endeavor.

Though we had no power, our affect on global warming was probably greater than that of being tied to the grid. We had a 1000 watt inverter in our van and its job was to charge everything we use. This meant idling the van on and off throughout the day, every day, to keep its battery charged.

Over a 4 month period preceding full activation of the new power system, that process consumed 151 gallons of gas; $593 of gas - including 113 miles actually driven, primarily to buy gas but also to get plywood and such in town. (We drove our Prius for everything else.)
Needing a charge: up to 3 lamps, 2 cell phones, a computer,
camera, GPS, shaver, cordless tools and numerous batteries
for flashlights, clocks and alarms, etc.
We also have a 5000 watt generator which was used to run the corded saws and to jump-start the van when I forgot to start it up in time. The generator consumed 5.9 gallons over that period.

Where payback is concerned, the cost of that 160 gallons can be applied. At the time of this writing gas at the Circle-K in Joshua Tree was $4.36. That comes to $698 so we are saving about $174 per month on that alone. We can also factor in about 25 blocks of ice at $2.14 each. That is another $7 per month, plus something for gas to go get the ice. So at minimum we are saving $181 per month. Okay, then there is the milk that used to go bad in the cooler, about 1/5th of nearly every $3.99 gallon times 23 - you get the picture.

The PV system cost us $10,089. That includes the 12 batteries, cables, grounding supplies, and jackhammer rental. It excludes the wiring and fixtures, etc..
Subtract a $2000 "Residential energy credit" provided by the IRS. $999 of that was applied to our 2007 taxes with the balance to be credited in succeeding years. Had we been registered residents of CA then we would have gotten something there also.

Applying the $181 monthly savings against the net of $8,089 gives us a 45 month payback - at 12 months a year that would be 3 3/4 years. However, since we are only there 5 months a year the payback will really be 9 years. Of course as the price of gas rises it will become less than that.

Beginning with the grounding system, each component's story is told, from initial purchase to installation and usage. Click on a component's image below to see how it played out. The idea is to provide an understanding of what that device does and how it relates to the others.

Even after months of online research and after all components had arrived and were laid out on my floor, I still had trouble getting my head around it. Thanks to the direction of a few individuals, I was able to ultimately assemble the system without too many screw-ups. Of note:
During my research: Andrew Tuffley of AeroSun Electric in Yucca Valley, cA by email. He installs these systems professionally.
During installation: Mark Doppke at Affordable in Albuquerque, NM by email and by phone.
I found plenty of information about off-grid installations on the internet and have read most of it. Perhaps the most helpful and well written was found at Homepower Magazine which I subsequently subscribed to (though not required), Backwoods Home Magazine, and Backwoods Solar from whom I purchased a CROSLEY WCC10/E Chest Freezer and the JOHNSON CONTROLS A19AAT-2C thermostat that turns it into a refrigerator. The US DOE shows it as being one of the least power hungry of the Energy Star compliant freezers (282 KWH/Year). As a refrigerator it should be even better than that.

Though I am not entirely clear on how those free electrons bouncing from the solar modules to my new refrigerator are regulated, or exactly what Kilowatts-Per-Hour and Amp-Hours really mean, it WORKS! Everything I throw at it works, including my ancient power hungry motor driven circular saw and shop vacuum. My old microwave and my new coffee machine work fine. All of the above mentioned rechargeables charge, including the new upright vacuum I added to that mix.

At the end of the day there is still a full charge within the 12 batteries and they easily carry us through the night as we continue to use the microwave, coffee machine, refrigerator, computer and some of the lights. In the morning before the sun comes over the hill there is hardly a dent in the 'BAT' reading on the charge controller's screen.

I do plan to try out an energy efficient space heater and see if it can use up the rest of that unused electricity. The worst that can happen is that we will lose the use of our lights and appliances at some point, probably after we go to bed. The chest refrigerator will hold its cold well into the next day so that should not be a problem. If the space heater is effective it will reduce our consumption of propane.

The invoice

The system

March 18, 2008, 7:08 PM

After much discussion by email and phone I submitted my order to Affordable Solar on 12/03/07. Some components were shipped immediately. The first package, the AC Disconnect, arrived 2 days later on the 5th. The final component, the UniRac Rail Kit, arrived on the 21st.

On the 5th I began entering into quite a learning curve before I really could 'get' how to put it all together for my particular situation.

Their tech, Mark Doppke, was front and center in this regard though there were times when I had only the vaguest notion as to what he was talking about.

Mark Doppke's system sketch

Also, I picked the brains of nearly everybody in 'Electric' at Home Depot, and local people who had done it like Mark Vikdal at Barr Hardware, and others online. They all helped me muddle through.

As I was assembling and reassembling the PV system I was concurrently installing the entire wiring system, first in the utility house and then in the trailer. This took a few months. It would be useless to activate the PV system until there were some outlets and lights to use it, so I was in no real hurry to complete the solar.

That all came together on March 18, 2008 as I hit the circuit breakers and the lights came on; a momentous event.
However, it was not until I was ready to attach the solar panels to the rails that I discovered that something was not right. In discussion with Mark Doppke we realized that I had been shipped the wrong mounting clamps, those things that attach the panels to the rails. They immediately shipped the correct ones overnight. That was late Friday March 14 so they did not arrive until Monday March 17, a long frustrating weekend.

  The PV System Components  


The Lightning Arrestors

The PV Modules and Rails

The PV Combiner

The Charge Controller

The DC Breaker

The Battery Bank

The DC to AC Inverter

The AC Safety Switch

The AC Breaker

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Copyright © 2008, Van Blakeman