My Adventures in Alternative Energy by John O’Hara

My Adventures In Alternative Energy

“Practical utility does not demand perfection.” I haven’t looked recently to see if this line still appears in the manual for the Trimetric battery monitor from Bogart Engineering. But, when I was setting up my first unit, it quickly struck me as a more universal thought  than simply it’s application to the esoterics of battery maintenance. It has become something of a mantra in my life, where perfection and I reside in different zip codes.

My adventures in alternative energy began in 1991 when I was house-sitting for friends on my way to a job in Alaska. After settling in Sandpoint several years later- my friends, Scott and Tracey, allowed my soon-to-be wife Amy and me to squat in a tiny cabin on their property. Roughly 200 sf with a tiny sleeping loft. It had no plumbing (save a grey water sink) and no electricity. A couple of propane lamps and cook stove rounded out the amenities.

As a wedding gift we received two Trojan golf cart batteries. Later, we visited Steve and Liz Willey at Backwoods Solar. We loaded up on a 400 watt Statpower inverter and Schauer battery charger and the other stuff one needs to make Alex Trebeck appear in the middle of nowhere. Never underestimate the joy of a floor lamp or NPR (or your station of choice) on a snowy morning in the woods or a CB radio to be in touch with neighbors.

In 1995, Amy and I began to build on our own property. A small cabin that would be home. We knew enough to be dangerous. As we built out, our Honda generator powered the construction and then served as our back-up. We added a couple more batteries and “designed” a bigger system to do more. A Trace U2512SB inverter, a C-30A controller (a little black box with a blinking LED to confirm there was magic in there), several solar panels and the aforementioned Trimetric. A Servel propane fridge rounded out the move into a real off-grid system. Once, we found out that we would be parents, we bought a used composting toilet. Yuppers, used.

After our daughter was born, we moved off the mountain and into town. Back to the grid connected life. We sold our original – practical and unfinished – cabin and bought another off-grid property which we still own. We don’t live there, but it does hold me. In many ways, I grew up there. I can see the well-site of our first place a couple miles away, our great friends live unseen in the drainage below us to the north, and the balance of life exists in the valley and mountains to the west and south.

Maybe I learned a little from the first two systems. The system we put in this cabin is a bit closer to perfect. Eight modules on a General Specialties post mount; an Outback VFX3524 with their DC disconnect box and an MX60 charge controller. A Trimetric meter occasionally tells me how imperfect I am.. A newer Honda generator helps charge eight T-105s in the darker times. The Grundfos SQFlex pump provides water; the Bosch water heater provides hot water; the Novakool keeps the beer cold for trespassers.

For me, having an off-grid power system – whether primary power, back-up power, weekend power, or whenever power – has allowed me the freedom to be with family and friends, and in places, that are as close to perfect as I know.

Backwoods Solar Employee System by Tom Kingsland

My Story

I purchased 21 acres of forested property on a hilltop near Sandpoint Idaho in the fall of 1988. It was affordable for me because it didn’t have a road or any improvements and utilities were over a ½ mile away. There was a logging skidder “road” which required 4 wheel drive in the summer, but as soon as there was snow it was a hike in. Private and quiet!

In 1992 I was gifted a small beat up camper that we dragged up the road to a spot that could potentially be a house site. We would go out on the weekends to get away from the noise of town and we dreamed of building a small weekend cabin to make a more year round get away. Resources were very limited so we made due with the camper until a black bear decided that what was inside the camper smelled good and he took the wall off to get to the treats hidden inside. Dang, no more camper!

In 1995 we found an old bridge across the Kootenai River near the Montana-Idaho border that was no longer in use and falling apart. It had some timbers that we salvaged which were still in decent shape that we could carry by hand to a borrowed flatbed truck. A plan for a small weekend cabin took shape and over the next couple summers we built a 16′ X 24′ structure with a loft to have a warm snug place to stay. We had access to a small VW engine powered, 8KW, homemade generator that we used to power saws but noise was obnoxious and it mostly sat unused. We got a quote from the local utility to bring power up and were stunned that they wanted $20,000 ballpark unless they ran into obstacles then it would cost even more! Electricity seemed like more of a hassle than it was worth. We built a small half underground room out of concrete blocks to shelter tools and the generator. That building later became the “power room” where we installed the batteries and inverter. It never freezes inside that room without a heat source even though we get sub-zero winter weather almost every year. Life was good!

In 1996 we were still living in town which was miserable for me having been raised in the country on a farm and liking the solitude of country life. We had a weekend getaway around new years of 1997 and on September 13th we had our daughter Erika Sen! My dream of living on the property seemed further away than ever but the joy of being a dad was very inspiring and uplifting. Over the next couple years we added onto the cabin to have a small bedroom and a bathroom. We had trees that we felled to make room for the place milled into lumber on-site with a portable Wood-Mizer bandsaw. We became our own lumberyard! Having had some backhoe experience, I rented a large excavator for a couple weeks to improve the road, install a septic system and generally re-arrange the whole area. Stumps were removed, a garden site was created, and two 1400 gallon concrete cisterns were buried for water storage. I had a 500 gallon water tank on my truck that I used to haul water to the cisterns. I excavated a space for an underground greenhouse that I built out of concrete blocks with a poured concrete ceiling then back filled with earth over the top. Getting a head start on the short growing season in northern Idaho is essential to getting a decent harvest. I use a solar direct greenhouse fan powered by an old Siemens 55 watt solar panel which has worked wonderfully over the years. Part of the greenhouse is buried and in the back is a root cellar for potato and cabbage storage. That room stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter without any outside source of heat or cooling. The whole greenhouse never freezes and we move things like rosemary inside for the winters…the smell of the rosemary in February is wonderful and that whole space is a great retreat in the winter!

An Off-Grid Future 

In the winter of 1998 I was riding a ski lift with Backwoods employee John O’Hara. He convinced me that a small off grid solar electric system would help us enjoy the cabin more and since our needs were minimal the cost would fit our budget. As I began to research the idea of being off grid, I quickly realized that Backwoods wasn’t the least expensive place to buy gear but the help and support I got there really made a difference and gave me the confidence to proceed with my plans. They spent time helping me design and understand things that I just didn’t get anywhere else. I knew that I needed most of the conveniences of town life if I was going to convince my family to move to the country with me.

By June of 1999 we set up a small system that consisted of eight Solarex 77 watt panels on a pole mount, C-40 charge controller, twelve T-105 golf cart batteries and a Trace 4024 inverter. The Trimetric meter informed us that we could run lights, stereo and a small Dankoff booster pump for water pressure from the cistern and life got better! We installed a small rented propane tank and could cook on the Peerless Premier range we bought from Backwoods and use the Paloma tankless water heater as well. We bought a used Servel propane fridge. Having a true sine wave inverter meant that we could use a modern front load washing machine and stacked LP clothes dryer purchased at the local Sears store. We harvest trees that need to be culled from the property for firewood and that is our main heat source. We had all the conveniences we needed and a plan for moving to the country full time began to materialize. Summer of 2000 we moved in! We rented out our house in town and took out an equity loan at a bank. They didn’t like the non-standard building but agreed that we had equity to borrow against so more money became available greasing the wheels of progress.

By 2002 hauling water was getting old fast and even a small garden took a surprising amount of water. We borrowed more money and had a 440′ well drilled into solid granite and got 2.5 gallons per minute. Not much, but doing the math I realized 2.5 GPM times 1440 minutes in a day meant that we potentially had 3600 gallons per day available IF we could pump it all to the cisterns! We installed by hand power a 24 volt Lorentz helical rotor submersible pump that pumped less than 1GPM but only used about 100 watts to power. I used a timer to turn it on for 4 hours per day every day year round. No more hauling water! In 2003 we had a lightning strike right in the yard. The SW4024 inverter, C-40, Trimetric, generator and two solar panels were destroyed.  Luckily we had standard homeowners insurance on personal belongings and a claim was approved. Whew! I installed new gear and life went on. I updated the grounding for the system and installed lightning arrestor’s everywhere!

A New Career

In June of 2004 I was OVER working for the local ski hill where I had worked for 20 years seasonally. I was offered a job at Backwoods Solar by Scott Gentleman since I had actual hands on experience to share with their customers. Backwoods was founded and owned at that point by Steve and Elizabeth Willey who are Quakers. From what I could tell they seemed to really treat their employees fairly and the whole vibe at Backwoods seemed to be a contrast to what I had experienced working for a corporation running the local ski hill. I took a chance, gave notice at my old job and accepted Scott’s generous offer. Backwoods Solar encourages their employees to actually use the gear that they sell, so I very quickly upgraded to six more Solarex 120 watt panels on a second pole mount with a second C-40 charge controller. Now the generator stayed off more and the sun did the job of charging the batteries more frequently. I was doing lots of sales and support for Outback inverters and charge controllers. Being a hands-on learner rather than a book learner I needed to use and operate Outback gear to fully understand it. I sold my used C-40’s, SW inverter and all the Solarex panels and bought parts to assemble an Outback Flex 500 with dual VFX 3524 inverters and an MX 60 charge controller. I bought twelve SolarWorld 175 watt panels and installed a new pole mount further from the batteries where there was more sun available since I could run solar panels in series which meant that the copper wire from the array to the charge controller was reasonably small and affordable. Now we could run more things without the generator being needed which helped us with our goal of being less reliant on propane for the generator.

By spring of 2006 the T-105 batteries were getting tired and were now too small for our increased use as well. I purchased twelve, 2 volt, 1766ah Surrette industrial batteries that are still what we use today. At 11.5 years old they are still going strong. I would consider getting another set when the eventually wear out. We like to have at least 5 days of autonomy to try to span the time between winter storms without generator use so a large battery bank is appreciated. We purchased a Sundanzer F-225 freezer that runs on the 24 volt battery. It’s large enough for all the huckleberries we can pick and other produce from the garden or meat when we get that.

In 2007 we bought a Kohler 10ERG 10KW generator that Backwoods offered at the time and hooked the propane line to it. It’s 350′ away from the house, over a hill and in an underground concrete block building facing away from our house. #2 copper wire was buried for transmission to the inverters. It cannot be heard from the house and the only way I know it’s even running is by looking at the Trimetric battery meter! It can be started from the house or auto started if needed when the batteries get low in the winter. No more trekking out into a snowstorm to turn the genny on or later in the evening when the batteries are charged and I’ve fallen asleep on the couch watching a movie to go turn it off! We generally only use it in the winter when sun is scarce here in North Idaho and usually use it less than 200 hours total per year. I expect to get over 8000 hours of use before I rebuild it or do any serious maintenance. That means it might be the last generator I ever need to purchase!

(Tom’s property on the 2008 Backwoods Solar catalog cover)

In 2008 we needed more water for the now larger garden, young fruit trees and grass so we had a second well drilled. It is only 225′ deep but is over 800′ from the batteries. I installed a Grundfos SQ Flex pump and ran a 240 volt line from the inverters to the pump. I use a timer to turn in on when we have extra power in the afternoons and we now have plenty of water for all our uses.

In 2009 we installed eight more SolarWorld panels on a third pole mount over 175′ from the batteries. We now had over 3400 watts of solar panels collecting sunshine. That meant we could run pretty much whatever we want including my small wire feed welder, 2HP air compressor and other shop tools. The biggest improvement to our lifestyle that more solar panels brought was a 20 CF Energy Star rated refrigerator. Less propane use and a bigger fridge is nice! It has an automatic ice maker and auto defrost. We like those features a bunch. It seems pretty decadent for off grid living but works great.

In 2012, I destroyed the Dankoff booster pump by running it dry accidentally (it had already survived being frozen once and several times when I hadn’t changed the filter soon enough it had been starved of water and did cavitate somewhat). The pump head was replaced with a new one and I did replace the brushes in the motor since they were about half worn out. That pump was used hard! It had run for hours and hours when I was watering the garden without problems other than filter changes but running dry was a deal breaker for the pump. Luckily parts are readily available and replacing the pump head was not hard at all. We continued to use the repaired pump for some time but we really wanted more GPM (gallons per minute) when we were watering and had several sprinklers going or soaker hoses being used. My solution was to retire the trusty booster pump to keep as a spare if needed in the future and install a Grundfos 10 SQ submersible pump inside the cistern. It does 10 GPM at 60 PSI and the sprinkler action picked up. We could now run multiple watering devices without much pressure drop. For example, I could shower while I had sprinklers going and not feel like the shower was weak. The pump does use more power than the 24 volt booster pump, but the upgrades to the power system easily kept up with the increased use.

By 2013 we were tired of renting a propane tank from the local LP supplier. They would only let us rent a 320 gallon tank which actually only holds just 250 gallons of LP. That meant that we had to fill twice per year and not always when the price was low or when the road was accessible to the large LP delivery truck. The threat of running out of LP before the spring mud season on the roads was over was more stress that we like to have. LP prices go up and down somewhat seasonally and we discovered that the price is even better if you own your own tank. We purchased a used 1000 gallon LP tank so we can now go two years between fills and we are able to shop for best price (usually in late summer). We currently use less than 400 gallons of LP per year and spend about $50 per month average. Not bad considering we cook, heat water, and run the generator on LP! I think LP tanks are ugly, and ours sits beyond the generator a long ways from the house. When we bought the used tank, I was able to do a camo paint job and installed it in such a way that it really isn’t visible anywhere on the property unless you know where to look.

In 2016 the Original Lorentz water pump that had run 4 hours per day every day since 2002 was worn out. We pulled the pump by hand and installed a new Grundfos SQ Flex pump, again by hand. It uses the same timer system and works great. Having two wells is actually nice since there is some redundancy and lots of water is available for garden, grass, fruit trees and household use. If I were to start fresh with system design today I would make my system 48 volts since 3400 watts of solar panels is a lot to process with a 24 volt battery system. I’m not disappointed that I still use a 24 volt system but I could avoid the multiple charge controllers I use at 24 volts if I used 48 volts. The whole system works wonderfully and I have no real regrets. Even though my gear is now older than what is currently available it works great and I have no reason to change it.

The Freedom to Dream

Having the freedom to build what I want over the years without a bank having any say in what we created, living off grid and working at Backwoods Solar has been life changing for me. We don’t have any neighbors beyond us since utility power is still ½ mile away from us and further for property owners behind us. If I had spent the $20,000 that the local utility wanted to install their lines, I would have made it more attractive for property owners behind us to build and then I would have less privacy and more neighbors using my road. Our lifestyle is truly life with style. We love living off grid and the awareness of energy use it has brought to our family; the abundance of summer and the scarcity of winter and feeling independent of day to day needs for outside energy being supplied by a utility. We may add more solar panels in the future and my dream would be to make hydrogen with all the extra power available in the summer, to store and use with a fuel cell in the winter instead of the LP generator. The dream continues!


GI Bill Solar Certification program through SEI – Solar Energy International



by Kevin Sova

Military Outreach Coordinator

Solar Energy International


After 22 years, 5 months, and 14 days I took off my US Air Force uniform for the last time.  I had served on 5 of the 7 continents, lived in 8 different states, and interacted with countless people across the world.   I can’t say all my time in the Air Force was rewarding, there were plenty of times I had asked myself “what the hell am I doing and why the hell am I here?”, but there were also plenty more times I felt pride in knowing what I was doing was for a greater good.

I started my Air Force career on the bottom rung as an Airmen First Class (A1C) working as a mechanic on the flight line with only a high school education and retired almost 23 years later as a Major with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering and a master’s degree in Computer Engineering.  My real forte in the Air Force was cyber security which as most know is a booming career for those with the experience, education, and most importantly the federal security clearance; I had all of that on my resume and more.  It is very common in all military jobs that the person sitting next to you is wearing a uniform one day and the next day they are in civilian clothes as a contractor.   My exit path from the Air Force and subsequent on-ramp to a government cyber security contractor job seemed fairly straight forward and obvious to everyone; that is, obvious to everyone but me.

Making a change

Although working in cyber security is a worthwhile and rewarding career, the stress that goes with it had already aged me well past my actual age.  I needed a new career. I needed to reinvent myself.  Most importantly, I needed to do something, like the military, that would give me the ability to continue a mission; to work for something bigger than myself again. I had determined it was time to part ways completely with Government life and branch out into my lifelong passion which was/is renewable energy.  My problem was I had no experience, knowledge, nor education in solar.  I looked around for ways to gain an education in renewable energy and at first all I could find were 2-year programs through community colleges.  I didn’t like the idea of wasting time and money to take a bunch of unrelated courses, most of which I had previously taken.  That was when I found the non-profit solar training school Solar Energy International (SEI).

One of the most attractive aspects of solar is whether you are looking to help the environment or want to provide US security through energy independence, solar has something for everyone to get behind.  I hate sounding like an ad and I hope this doesn’t come across too much that way, but SEI is an awesome way for military to break into the solar industry.  I spent only 2 months in the beautiful and unique town of Paonia CO attending classes at the SEI campus and finished my Residential and Commercial PV Systems Certification, Battery-based PV Systems Certification, and attained my Associate level NABCEP.  The fact that SEI is a non-profit institute, has been in existence since 1991, can provide certification in under 2 months, and has experience training military through the Solar Ready Vets programs at Fort Carson and Camp Pendleton, were just a few of the things that, for me, set SEI apart from other institutes.  Two years ago, SEI received approval to accept VA funding.  Now military members can use their GI Bill to attend, completely free of charge, both SEI’s in-person certifications for Residential/Commercial PV programs and SEI’s Battery-Based PV programs. Also, because SEI is a non-profit their tuition rate for their entire professional programs are about equal to that of two semesters at a community college!  This low tuition rate leaves the majority of the military members’ Post 9-11 GI Bill untouched and available to be transferred to dependents, or saved, for future college.

How Solar can change your future

After graduation from SEI, and even during training, I was amazed at the amount of job opportunities that were available in the solar industry.  Many of my fellow classmates were offered good jobs even before we finished our final classes.  I personally had 4 different job offers prior to graduation; solar, like all industries, loves hiring military.  In 2016 the US solar workforce grew by an incredible 25% and that number is on track to more than double by 2020.  I personally was eager to start using my new-found knowledge to turn photons into usable energy when I was approached by SEI and offered a Military Outreach Coordinator position with them.  Knowing the amazing opportunities solar presents to my fellow ex-military brothers and sisters and how SEI training can get them into the field, I couldn’t pass up the chance to pay it forward and help other military transition to their next “mission”, a solar mission.

Most transitioning military will never again find the type of job satisfaction and esprit-de-corp they experienced while serving their country.  I can speak first hand on the depression that one feels taking off that uniform for the last time and asking themselves “what now?”.  For me, and many others, SEI and the solar industry has helped fill that void and provided a path to not only a new good paying career, but also a job that makes it easy to get out of bed in the morning.

Get involved

If I can help you or anyone you know that is active, separated, or retired military, by providing information about Solar Energy International’s military training programs, or about the solar industry as whole, please contact me at  Also, check out the SEI website at for more information on upcoming classes and programs.





Off-Grid Battery Care – It Happens to the Best of Us

Written by: Alan Smith

This past summer Backwoods had a visit from one of our retired co-workers, Terry.  While it is always good to have friends visit, the circumstances for his dropping by were less than ideal.

A small, catastrophic failure had led to the loss of a battery bank, two inverters, and a voltage converter.  Ultimately, the failure was traced back to a single nut and bolt in the battery bank cable connections, that had developed hidden corrosion over time.  Corrosion causes resistance to the flow of electricity, which in turn generates heat.  With enough corrosion, and enough current flow, the amount of heat generated can be sufficient to melt battery terminal connections; which is exactly what happened in Terry’s case.  The melted metal flowed between the negative and positive terminals of his industrial battery, causing a high power short that was beyond the capabilities of any of the circuit protection, resulting in the damage to the equipment.

Now keep in mind, Terry is one of the more detail-oriented people we’ve had here at Backwoods.  The discipline of a military background, along with critical thinking of an engineer, were still not enough to overlook one very tiny detail.  Terry does his mechanical maintenance on a routine schedule; checking for tightness in wiring connections, cleaning accumulated spray off battery tops, cleaning out dust and spider webs, and keeping his battery terminal posts coated with anti-corrosion paste.  This is not the type of person you’d expect to see such a failure.

Corroded terminal bolts, off grid battery care
The pictures below are the actual culprit, and one of the clean assemblies, for comparison.

So what happened?  It all boiled down to the battery terminal connections.  What Terry had NOT done, was dissembled the nut and bolts from the battery terminals and cables to check for internal, hidden corrosion.  It had been about 6 years since he had done that level of inspection.  When previously reviewed, the hardware had been thoroughly inspected, cleaned, and re-assembled, and then coated with anti-corrosion paste on the exterior.  In one of the 16 nut/bolt pairs, a small bit of contamination or moisture must have been left trapped inside.  Over the course of the next six years, the corrosion grew, contaminating the entire connection; but was NOT visible externally at all!

Terry has since replaced his lost equipment and is back in operation. The tale makes a strong case for what all solar electric systems owners should already know: system maintenance is essential to the health and longevity of the equipment.  Just because the lights are on and everything looks good on the surface, there is still no reason to not be thorough and diligent on your system care.

Hybrid Solar Wind Power Solutions

Backwoods Solar is proud to offer hybrid solar-wind solutions for off-grid power use with Primus Wind Turbines. When considering off-grid renewable sources of energy to power your home, there are many options available. Solar panels for your home is the most obvious choice due to low cost and readily available products but what happens when that first storm comes and the wind is blowing and the sun isn’t shining?image - primus wind power turbine

Many homeowners are looking at supplementing their solar panel systems with a secondary input source. With the availability and decreasing cost of small, off-grid wind turbines that operate in even modest wind conditions, many people are choosing a hybrid approach.

Hybrid Off-Grid Power Systems
Hybrid systems that incorporate both solar panels and wind turbines to form a perfect complementary relationship with each compensating for the weaknesses of the other system. Where solar is best during the daytime, wind power works throughout the night. Where solar is better through the summer months, wind power can be better in winter months.

Balancing Solar Panels for Homes

Solar power, though relatively inexpensive, is not always as reliable or efficient as possible in times of low sun. To generate power, solar panels must collect sunshine at sufficient intensity and at the right angle. This does not occur at night, or when it is cloudy and overcast. If snow covers the panels, power is not generated until the snow melts or the solar panels are cleaned off.

This can cause charging issues in battery-based systems that rely only on solar power where storms occur often or are in parts of the world where winters are extremely short. Adding a wind turbine to a solar-powered system can lengthen battery life by reducing the depth and frequency of discharge. Since these off-grid systems are powered by wind when solar power is unavailable, it avoids drawing down the system’s batteries and increases battery life.image - array of solar panels

Balancing Wind Turbine Systems

It is easy to see that wind power can complement solar in many instances because it often produces the most power precisely when solar power is reduced or unavailable, such as at night, in inclement weather, and during winter. Wind often blows during long winter nights and is, on average, actually stronger in inclement weather.

During winter, average wind speed is highest, as is air density-both factors that contribute to wind generating more power when solar power tends to be least available. To enhance power reliability and build in redundancy, many off-grid homes are now being retrofitted with small, off-grid wind turbines.

Primus’ turbines are designed to generate power at wind speeds as low as 6 mph, and can generate as much as 40 to 80 kWh a month per turbine depending on conditions. They are available in several models for areas with different wind speeds and climates. Each turbine measures about four (4’) feet in diameter, weighs about 13 pounds, and costs only around one thousand dollars per unit.

A single wind turbine is able to provide an additional renewable energy source for charging batteries. If more power is required, several turbines can be combined together. Far from a new concept, small off-grid turbines from Primus have already been installed worldwide with over 150,000 units currently operating in the field.

If you’re interested in setting up a hybrid wind and solar off-grid power system, Contact Us today at Backwoods Solar online or by phone (208) 263-4290 to discuss customizing your project for your home or business today.
ref: Del Williams

Solar Panels Powered Water Pumping

Solar panels that power water pumping systems are an excellent solution to the water and water storage issues on our minds. As availability to solar energy becomes more affordable and much more efficient, the choice to change to a DC solar-powered water pumping in remote applications becomes clear.

There are many remote situations where a solar-powered water pump just makes more sense compared with a conventional grid-connected AC pump. Using solar panels to pump water can greatly relieve the work load and expense for many rural people.

AC vs. DC Pumps

Depending on the application-irrigation, ponds, livestock, deep well water storage, or for an off grid water source-consider changing your existing AC pump and/or installing a new DC solar-powered pumping system closer to the water source.

The age old argument is that AC pumps are faster and can last longer. However, they use 4-8 times the amount of power per gallon than slower DC pumps. AC pumps can also be maintenance intensive and unpredictable at times, causing additional strain on inverters in off-grid systems when other loads are running.

Most DC solar-powered pumps use half the energy consumed by an AC jet pump and can be more cost effective due to location and/or fuel dependence. A solar solution is cleaner and now cheaper than it has ever been.

Things to Consider With A Solar-Powered Water Pump

There are some basics you will need to know before you make the move to a solar direct water pump. We have also included a diagram near the end of the article that defines some of these terms further.

  • How deep is your well or other water source? “Water source,” can refer to any well, spring, creek, or storage tank. Depth is a crucial measurement and is usually measured in feet and is incredibly helpful when communicating with manufacturers or distributors. The depth of your well or water source determines the type of pump you will need. When pumping from a storage tank, cistern, spring, or creek you may need a shallow level submersible pump or surface pump.
  • What is the Static Water Level or Static Head in the well? This is the measurement from ground level of the well to the top the surface of the water rises within the well on its own with the natural production of the underground spring or stream.
  • If you have an existing well, do you know how many gallons per minute your well produces? Usually your well driller can provide you with this information, you might have it already, or you will have to estimate how much “draw-down” the well will have during pumping.
  • How many gallons per day will you need?
  • Are you planning on pumping to a non-pressurized holding tank or to a pressure tank?
  • How many feet above the well head is the tank located?
  • If you will be using a pressure tank is how many pounds of pressure will you need from the pumps performance?
  • If PV direct, without batteries, how many feet from the array to the well head (either of the surface pump or a submersible pump deep in the well? Some of the finer details that are often overlooked in the planning stage are the distances that the wire or conduit from the PV modules will need to be to get to the well head. If there is a battery bank, the distance from the well head to the battery system will have to be measured.

Utilizing a Storage Tank

Adding a storage tank and increasing the size of the pumping system means that you can have excess water stored for continual use during the night or when it’s cloudy and the pump is off.

The purpose of a storage tank or drinking trough is to allow a very consistent trickle flow of water constantly pumping throughout the day building up a large volume of water to supply brief periods of high water use. DC powered submersible deep well pumps may be the best choice because they do not require large bursts of power or use the inverter at all.

As touched on previously, DC submersible pumps only use 20% to 50% as much energy per gallon pumped as an AC centrifugal pump. Most of these pump very slowly and have less of a chance of depleting the water level in a slow recovery well.

They can be powered direct by solar modules, without batteries, or they can be powered by the same battery bank in an off-grid power home like any DC appliance as long as the well is within about 200 feet from the house. These submersible pumps will not freeze or lose their prime.

Designing a Solar-Powered Water Pump

Technical drawing of an example solar powered water pumping
An example diagram of a solar powered water pumping and storage solution.

So, this leads to the next couple of questions to consider as you design your system.

Do you want to power the pump directly from a PV array, which implies that you will only get water when the sun is shining unless you have a storage tank?

Or are you considering that you would need to have your pump powered by a battery bank for additional pumping in times of little to no sun and into the evening? Batteries are also sometimes desirable to provide sufficient surge power for starting the pump.

At this point, drawing a rough diagram of your proposed system is a good idea so that you can indicate which measurements you will need and identify sources, storage, final discharge points, and required components to go solar. A solar-powered water system is one of the easiest solar power systems to install and will ultimately save you time and money.

As with any system, Backwoods Solar is here to answer any questions and help design the perfect solar panels off-grid power system to meet your needs. Contact Us for help with your off-grid power project today.

Making Your Home “Solar Ready”

By Sequoya Cross of Backwoods Solar

Studies have shown that for every dollar invested in making your home more energy efficient, it reduces the expense and size of a solar panel system multiple times over for living off the grid. Some of the most significant ways to reduce your electricity use is to evaluate the age of your major appliances and heating and cooling methods.

Improvements to Reduce Energy Consumption

Anything over 10 years of age should be replaced and Energy Star and gas appliances installed wherever possible (although this increases your gas bill). These methods will further decrease your draw on the grid or your batteries. Weatherize your home, and if you are in the process of building a home or renovating an existing one, use passive solar techniques and wood heat to help cut down on the use of heating and air conditioning appliances, which are some of the largest draws of electricity.

Minor Changes for Energy Use

Rather than major life-style changes, people can keep most advantages electricity offers while consuming only a small percentage of the power others use. The amount of power your system generates depends on the natural energy resources at your location and on how much equipment you install to gather that energy. The amount of benefit you receive from that energy depends on careful selection of lights and appliances for maximum energy efficiency and on your conservation habits. That means using special lights, refrigerators, and freezers that use about 1/4 as much power. It also means using natural gas or propane for major heat production in cooking, water heating, clothes drying, and home heating.

By installing extra switches and smart power strips to cut power off phantom electric loads, that is, things like stereos, TVs, garage door openers, and office equipment, all of which consume power even when turned off can save a considerable amount of energy over time. Use motion sensor and timer switches for outdoor lights whenever possible and heating systems that distribute heat without pumps or blowers and cooling by evaporative methods instead of air conditioning.

Major Changes for Energy Use

By really evaluating and being conscious of your energy use, we learn how to get the most benefit from the fewest kilowatt-hours. In short:

  1. Design the whole house (water, heat, power) for low energy use.
  2. Carefully select very special low energy lights and appliances.
  3. Eliminate energy waste in appliances and from human carelessness.

At Backwoods Solar, most of our employees live in off-grid or grid-connected homes that get some or all of their power from renewable energy methods. We are constantly adding to and improving our efficient systems in order to maximize the benefits and cut down on the carbon footprints we have.

Shawn incorporates several methods, using solar and wind to power his home. Scott and Tracey live completely off-grid with a year round micro-hydro system that powers their home built from timber they milled on the property. Tom uses solar to run his growing off-grid house (which he is working on an addition very diligently before the rains come). John powers his off-grid cabin with solar and Alan is designing his off-grid system for his own home and currently supplies back-up power to a grid-connected deep well submersible pump.

Sequoya is slowly growing into a grid-tie system for her small home that utilizes Enphase micro-inverters. The added benefit that micro-inverters have made in the industry is that they allow a homeowner to grow into a system over time, slowing adding to it as their budget allows. Instead of making the expensive investment all at once, a homeowner can start smaller and take the savings they realize on their utility bill and invest it back into the growth of their system.

If you’re interested in getting your home “solar ready” and customizing an off-grid power system with solar panels for your home, Contact Us today at Backwoods Solar for help today.


Efficiency & Energy Conservation for On & Off Grid Living

Efficiency and energy conservation? When we speak of efficiency and energy conservation, we usually tell you that there is much more to living an energy-efficient lifestyle besides getting solar panels for your home or business. The use of energy-efficient appliances and lighting, as well as non-electric alternatives, makes solar electricity a cost-competitive alternative to gasoline generators and, in some cases, utility power.

Here are the typical energy consumption values for various appliances and lighting as well as what you can do to be more efficient:

Cooking, Heating, and Cooling

  1. Each burner on an electric range uses about 1,500 W, which is why bottled propane or natural gas is a popular alternative for cooking. A microwave oven has about the same power draw, but since food cooks more quickly in a microwave oven, the amount of kilowatt hours used is typically lower.
  2. As far as space heating goes, propane, wood, or solar-heated water are generally better alternatives than electric baseboards which can use from 10 kilowatts to 50 kilowatts. Good passive solar panel design and proper insulation can also reduce the need for winter heating.
  3. Evaporative cooling is a more reasonable load than air conditioning and in locations with low humidity, it’s a great alternative with approximately  a 700 W demand.

Off-Grid Electricity & Lighting

  1. Lighting requires careful study since type, size, voltage and placement can all significantly impact the power required. In a small home, an RV, or a boat, low voltage DC lighting with 7-25 W LEDs are often the best choice.
  2. DC wiring runs can be kept short, allowing the use of fairly small gauge wire. Since an inverter is not required, the system cost is lower.
  3. In a large installation or one with many lights, using an inverter to supply AC power for conventional lighting is often more cost-effective. AC compact fluorescent lights are common and efficient, but it is a good idea to have a DC-powered light in the room where the inverter and batteries are in case of an inverter fault. Also, AC light dimmers will only function properly on AC power from inverters that have sine wave output.


  1. Gas-powered absorption refrigerators can work well in small systems if bottled gas is available. Modern absorption refrigerators consume 5-10 gallons of LP gas per month.
  2. If an electric refrigerator will be used in a standalone system, it should be a high-efficiency type. High-efficiency DC refrigerators at roughly 750 W per day are also available and can offer significant energy savings.

Major Appliances

  1. Standard AC electric motors in washing machines, larger shop machinery and tools, swamp coolers, pumps, etc. (usually ¼ to ¾ horsepower) consume relatively large amounts of electricity and require a large inverter. Often, a 2,000 watt or larger inverter will be required. These electric motors can also be hard to start on inverter power, due to large surge loads at start-up, and they are very wasteful compared to high-efficiency motors, which use 50% to 75% less electricity.
  2. A standard washing machine uses between 300 and 500 watt-hours per load, but new front-loading models use less than ½ as much power. If the appliance is used more than a few hours per week, it is often more economical to pay more for a high-efficiency appliance rather than make the electrical system larger to support a low efficiency load.
  3. Vacuum cleaners usually consume 600 to 1,000 watts, depending on how powerful they are, but most vacuum cleaners will operate on inverters as small as 1,000 watts since they have low-surge motors.

Small Appliances

  1. Many small appliances with heating elements such as irons , toasters (1200 W) and hair dryers consume a very large amount of power when they are used but, by their nature, require only short or infrequent use. With a sufficiently large system inverter and batteries, they will operate, but the user may need to schedule those activities with respect to the battery charging cycle – for example, ironing in the morning so that the PV system can recharge the battery bank during the day.
  2. Electronic equipment, such as stereos (40 W), televisions (140 W), VCRs , DVD players and computers, draw less power than appliances with heating elements, but these loads can add up as well (see our article on Phantom Loads), so opt for more efficient models, such as an LCD TV instead of a plasma or CRT design.

If you’re interested in setting up or upgrading to a more efficient off-grid living power system with solar panels for your conserving home, Contact Us at Backwoods Solar at 208-263-4290.  Get our Planning Guide and Catalog to help you design a customized renewable energy system that works efficiently and saves you money.

Getting Your Wind System Ready for Winter

Getting your wind system ready for winter means preparing your wind turbines and components to ensure continual harvest of energy when the weather is icy.

Large wind energy producers install Condition Monitoring Systems (CMS) to secure the performance of their systems throughout the year. To do that would be costly for a smaller home energy producer and not really necessary.

However, by implementing a simple monitoring and preventive maintenance system of our own we can benefit from the same principles of a CMS. That means we save money and our system stays efficient.

Preventing Wind Turbine Failure

Wind turbine failure is especially expensive and worrisome during the winter for several reasons. First, November through April is peak wind energy production time. Secondly, and most obviously, winter is not the most enjoyable time to perform maintenance, nor is it cheap usually due to conditional constraints on time, access, and potential expense for special equipment or technicians, etc.

So how does one set up their own CMS to keep their wind energy system performing through the winter and through its expected life? Beginning with your systems user manual, follow the Preventative Maintenance chapter recommendations. Commonly, those have you inspect your turbine and tower 30 days after installation, and then again 180 days after installation.

It’s a good idea to have a system note book to write the results of your inspections in. These would be your reference measurements to be compared against subsequent inspections. Inspections are only recommended when the wind is below 16 mph and need to be performed especially after severe weather.

If you have had an operational system and never have performed regular inspections, don’t worry, it’s never too late to start. Better to start now though before that real cold snap comes.

Here is a check list you can use for inspections:

Inspect Blades

  1. Cracks, chips, leading or trailing edge damage, or nicks? Replace blades if damaged. Do not operate the turbine with chipped or unbalanced blades. This will cause severe wear, damage, and possible failure. Operating the wind turbine with unbalanced blades may void your warranty. Do not install individual blades as they are balanced as a set.
  2. Every five years, replace the blades regardless of their condition. The blades usually contain UV inhibitors; however, the sun will eventually erode the composite material. New blades enhance safety and performance.
  3. Clean off dirt and debris for optimal performance.

Inspect Bolts

  1. Check blade bolts, nuts, and hub nut for correct tightness or torque (see specifications).

Check Bearings

  1. If bearings are a part of your system, check bearings for seal integrity and grease loss. Generally, it is recommended that bearings be re-packed (re-greased) every 8-12 years.

Inspect Other Hardware

  1. Check nosecone fit, mainframe, tail boom, bushings, and/or fin for cracks or any loose hardware. If your system has a tail pivot pin, check its fasteners.


  1. Check connections to make sure they are tight and free from corrosion.
  2. Some systems require you to disconnect the alternator shorting connection. Check the disconnect switch.
  3. Inspect the wire run.
  4. Check the condition of all wiring.
  5. Every seven years replace the circuit board. Some components on the PCB require periodic replacement due to stress from temperature and voltage fluctuations seen under normal operating conditions. While changing the circuit board, check the condition of the brushes and slip rings. With the turbine open and the yaw shaft removed, observe the brushes and slip rings for grooving or other signs of wear.

Leaning Tower?

  1. Check to see that your tower is plumb. A leaning tower will decrease energy production.

Good luck and here’s to a energy productive year! Browse our selection of windpower products and books. If you need help updating your wind turbine system or improving it, please Contact Us at Backwoods Solar online or at 208-263-4290.




Getting Your Off-Grid System Ready for Winter

Written by Backwoods Technician Alan Smith

Preparing for winter is best practice for extending the life of your off-grid power system, especially for those of you in cold and snowy climates.

Now is a good time to review the maintenance and condition of your power system (even for those of you in warm and dry climates).

It’s better to check on your system at your convenience rather than when something goes wrong in the middle of the night in three feet of snow or a flash flood. Here are the things you should check on and look into if something seems out of place.

Seasonal Angle: For Greater Energy Harvest & Shedding of Snow

If you have an adjustable rack mount for your panels, it is worth tilting them to the ideal angle to properly capture the winter sun.

An appropriate angle can make a big difference in the amount of power collected, especially during the shorter, cloudier days of the winter when sunshine is at a premium.

The ideal angle for your panels is easy to determine. Use the latitude of your location and add 15 degrees. The result is the angle of tilt of the panels, measured up from horizontal that will yield the best harvest during the winter months.

Example:  Sandpoint, Idaho is at 48 degrees north. Ideal winter angle is 48 + 15 = 63 degrees. 

For the folks that have vacation cabins that may only be visited once a month or so during the winter, consider a steeper angle to accommodate easier shedding of snow.

Clear Off the Snow

Remembering to clear off the snow seems obvious, right? Keep a broom or brush on a telescoping handle if needed and clear any freshly fallen snow off the panels on a routine basis.

If you let the snow sit and freeze on the panels, it will take that much longer until your panels are able to collect solar rays again.

It’s a horrible feeling to be sitting at work, when the grey skies open up to sunshine, and you know your array is sitting at home with six inches of snow on it. Make it a regular habit to brush them off whenever it snows.

Generator Tune-up

Now is the time to do your annual generator maintenance.  Besides the basics-oil, belts, coolant level, air filter, and spark plugs-be sure to check your owner’s manual for items specific to your machine. Check on the starter battery. If the generator has not been run since the previous winter, it is very likely that the starter battery may be dead or heavily discharged. Replace or recharge it before you need it.

Off-Grid Batteries

Batteries can be kept in a relatively cold area, with a couple of considerations. First, the energy storage capacity of batteries in a cold climate is temporarily reduced. Instrumentation such as battery monitors can be fine-tuned to reflect a more accurate state of charge.

Temperature sensors for both your charge controller and inverter/charger should also be used for optimum charging points of your batteries. Fully charged batteries, being used on a daily basis, will not freeze until the temperature drops to -70 degrees F. A battery at 50% state of charge, though, can freeze in temperatures as “warm” as -10 degrees F.

Don’t let the batteries get too low. The sulfuric acid in batteries that are being stored or lightly used will tend to stratify. This means that the water begins to separate out from the solution, resulting in layers more like water near the top of the battery and denser layers of sulfuric acid towards the bottom. If this occurs, it is very possible for the water layer to freeze at temperatures near 32 degrees F and crack the battery casing.

Extended Leave

When the power system will be unattended for extended periods of time, we have to make the best of a non-ideal situation.

Flooded lead acid batteries respond best to daily use, so depending on your installation and equipment there is a couple of options available.

Opinions on the best approach will vary. If you have an automatic generator start (AGS) function tied to your inverter/charger and you consider your generator to be highly reliable, the inverter can be left on so that a charging source is available if the panels become covered in snow.

If you do not have AGS, turn the inverter off. Turn all DC loads off. Leave the charge controller on, with the goal of supplying at least a bit of float charge to the batteries each week.

If available, ask a neighbor to check your array after any major snow storm to brush the snow off. One school of thought suggests reducing voltage settings, to reduce water consumption, and setting the equalization to automatically occur once per month.

Tuning Gear, More Panels, & Winter Behavior

The sun tends to be shy in the winter. Let’s take advantage of the days it does show up. An experienced system owner will know how their system responds to normal charging and equalizing. Consider increasing the absorb time and the equalize settings on your charge controller for the winter months.

Keep a notebook handy in your power room and write-down the summer and winter settings that you find work best, so you know what to change them back to when the seasons change. Search mode on an inverter should be enabled year-round, but especially so during the winter. A couple hundred watt-hours per day can make a big difference.

How Many Solar Panels Should I Get?

You honestly can never have too many solar panels, we can all agree on that. How much is too much though?

It depends on your geographical seasonal factors and budgets. The idea being that, if you can manage to get one good sunny day a week during the winter, you’ll really harvest some good power and minimize your generator run-time and fuel use. Long time off-gridders will tell you they simply change their behavior during the winter months.

For example, leaving the coffee pot on for an hour is fine in the bountiful sunny days of summer, but the coffee maker gets turned off after 15 minutes in the winter, and the coffee goes into a thermos. Or better yet, wait until you get into work and make the coffee there! Less TV time and more book reading cuts down on the power used too.

Simple conservation in several small steps (replace light bulbs with LED’s) can add up to a big difference in the amount of power needed during the winter. It’s better to take care of your system now, than to experience failures at the most miserable time imaginable.

Routine maintenance and a thorough knowledge of how your system responds to your daily usage will serve you well, not only for the winter, but for the lifespan of your system as well.

Stay warm and don’t forget to keep your snow chains, a shovel, and a bag of sand in the trunk of your car! If you’re interested in fine-tuning your off-grid power system or setting one up for winter, Contact Us at Backwoods Solar at 208-263-4290 for help designing a customized renewable energy system that works best for you.