“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.
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.
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!
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!
Solar is well adapted to many different types of loads. Water pumping in remote locations has been popular for years. Another great solar application is for greenhouse ventilation fans. Typically the most ventilation is needed when the sun is shining brightly. Solar panels powering fans work together to exhaust hot air from the greenhouse. This is a perfect solar direct application. Backwoods Solar has been selling Sugar Mountain industrial fans produced in Sandpoint Idaho just up the road from our headquarters. The fans are designed, assembled and boxed in an off-grid facility powered by micro-hydro and solar. These fans offer brushless motors, incredible efficiency and great reliability. A solar direct fan system can pay for itself in electricity savings in as little as 2 years in some applications.
In a greenhouse during hot times of the day, it is customary to cycle the air once every one to two minutes. One air exchange per minute should keep the greenhouse within 8F of the outside air temperature. To figure how much ventilation is needed you need to know the cubic feet of the greenhouse. If your greenhouse has few openings for natural ventilation, you should plan on fans to do all your exhaust venting. So a greenhouse that is 10’ wide and roughly 10’ tall and 20’ long would equal 2000 cubic feet. A single F16 fan with a 100 watt solar panel would exchange the air every minute.
Backwoods Solar carries the full line of Sugar Mountain Fans. They currently come in 3 sizes and are designated by blade diameter. F16 list price is $320 and has a maximum of 2000cfm at 70 watts. The F20 list price is $420 and has a maximum of 3000cfm at 100 watts. The F24 list price is $599 and has a maximum of 4000cfm at 150 watts. Use a solar panel 10-20% larger than the power draw listed, wire to the fan and let it keep your greenhouse cool.
For large greenhouses multiple fans can be used. Let’s do an example of a large greenhouse of 100’ x 25’x 15’h or 45,000 cubic feet. For this larger greenhouse we will use the F24 fan. At maximum output of 4000cfm we need 11 fans if we want to maintain the exchange of once per minute. The fans can make use of 150 watts each, but still offer excellent output around 130-140 watts. A 60 cell, 280 watt solar panel is perfectly suited to power 2 of these fans. So a system for a greenhouse may have 5-6 of these solar panels. Placement of the fans is important. Don’t push the air toward your prevailing wind. Use your prevailing winds to help with your ventilation. Also, you may need/want some fans blowing air out and some fans blowing air in on the opposite wall.
Moving some air at night is a more difficult system and requires batteries. The Sugar Mountain Fans will operate well off a 24v battery bank. Please contact Backwoods Solar for help in designing a system where constant air movement is required.
Off-grid aqua-ponics or hydro-ponics systems are also possible. DC pumps can often be used in addition to the Super Fans for ventilation. Backwoods would look at these systems on a case-by-case basis. Contact Backwoods Solar for a custom design.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.