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.