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.

Rapid Shutdown Code Changes for PV Systems

NEC Code Changes for Rapid Shutdown & What it Means for You.

In 2014, the NEC instituted code 690.12 in regards to rapid shutdown of PV systems. The code was implemented in order to protect First Responders from the dangers of an energized PV system, even after the AC service has been shutoff. More than half of all states have adopted the code change, and further changes and amendments are on the horizon for 2017.

GRID TIED SYSTEMS

Rapid Shutdown requirements came to play in the 2014 code, and most grid-tied inverter manufacturers and installers started adopting relatively quickly. Electrical inspectors also came quickly up to speed, but the language within the code left some questions unanswered. For the 2017 code changes, the NEC elected to simplify and clarify some elements, which also allows many inspectors to come up to speed and manufacturers to streamline their offerings to match.

Fronius Rapid Shutdown Add On
Fronius Grid-Tie RSD Add On

Backwoods is here to offer solutions and support to meet the changing requirements of the electrical code. Many inverters that we carry now have proprietary RSD accessories available, as shown to the left. Most Grid-Tied inverters have a solution readily available and at a decent price.

OFF-GRID and BATTERY BACK-UP SYSTEMS

Off-Grid and Hybrid systems utilizing storage are also included in the code changes. Companies such as Schneider and Outback have proprietary solutions for some of their off-grid inverters. Others don’t have something that ties in under the same branding. For those systems, we have third-party options offered by Midnite Solar which have additional features that allow inverters with on-board AC outlets to continue to work during power outages. (Such as the SMA Sunny Boy line).  A third party solution may also be a great way to retrofit an existing system should you need to add RSD. Keep in touch via our website as more solutions become available.

MidniteSolarRapidShutdownSystem
Midnite Solar RSD Diagram with Birdhouse

As stated above, these code requirements affect both grid-connected and off-grid homes. Standalone ground mount or pole mounts should be excluded, however we have run into inspectors that challenge that thought. Understanding the code and how it applies to where the PV is installed and how the conductors (wires) are run within the dwelling and between the array and AC source is important to explain. The requirement states that all PV System Circuits installed on or in buildings shall include a rapid shutdown function that controls specific conductors that meet the following conditions:

  1. Systems that include PV system conductors (wires) of more than 5 feet inside a building or 10 feet from a PV array.
  2. Controlled conductors shall be limited to not more than 30 volts and 240 volt-amperes within 10 SECONDS of shutdown.
  3. Voltage and power shall be measured between any two conductors and between any conductor and ground.
  4. The rapid shutdown methods shall be labeled as such: PHOTOVOLTAIC SYSTEM EQUIPPED WITH RAPID SHUTDOWN (in white, capitalized, reflective letters on a red background). – Backwoods has labels available for this purpose.
  5. Equipment that performs the rapid shutdown shall be listed and identified.

As we design systems for individuals that require rapid shutdown, we will include the appropriate solution for your situation and the inverter choice that was made.

2016 Tiny House Jamboree

John at TinyJam2016Tiny House Jam imageAt the beginning of August 2016, John O’Hara and Krista Miller from Backwoods Solar attended for the very first time, The Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs, CO. The event was held on a Friday through Sunday on the field just west of Falcon Stadium at the Air Force Academy. Tiny House people of all types from builders, dwellers, vendors, and tiny living enthusiasts came for inspiration, ideas, and perhaps even to buy a tiny house. John said, “There were lots of different people with different life experiences heading toward a similar goal of living with less. Also, people seemed interested in the personal/financial freedom that went along with a Tiny House movement.”

Last year’s inaugural event attracted 40,000 attendees and increased in size so much this year causing the organizers to choose a new larger site or face being shut down. “The incredible attendance numbers showed us that the tiny house movement is more popular than anyone imagined,” says Coles Whalen, president of Tiny House Jamboree and event lead coordinator. She’s also the vice president of marketing for EcoCabins. “We had supporters from all over the nation – people from every state. Tiny house enthusiasts have been under the radar – they prefer to be under the radar – but they all came out of the woodwork for this event.”

Tiny house systems
An example of the tiny house systems we can design

The Backwoods Solar booth experienced a large number of attendees stopping by on their way to and from the speakers or tours of the houses. “We had several hundred people come by our booth to check out how to power their tiny houses with solar, micro-hydro, or wind. They were very interested in our flyer showing some example systems that we can design for people,” said Krista. And, “We pointed out to folks that Renewable Energy of a Tiny House can vary as much as the homes themselves do,” said John.

Mandi Kinder from Primus wind, manufactured in Colorado, joined us in our booth for one of the days to be on hand to answer questions about wind power systems specifically for tiny homes as well as general questions regarding wind power. “It was a joy to represent Primus Wind Power and to interact with so many different people.  I loved being able to discuss the benefits of combining wind and solar ultimately creating a smart hybrid system.  Tiny house people are so cool!” said Mandi. We were thankful to have her there to help.

The event featured 50 tiny buildings ranging in size from 150 to 308 square feet, including a handicap-accessible house, a tiny tailgater house by the Air Force Academy and a mini chapel by EcoCabins. Nearly two dozen speakers lead informative talks, question-and-answer sessions and book signings. Completing the picture were 40 vendors including Backwoods Solar, a kids’ corner, food, beer and wine. Friday night featured live music, and on Saturday night one of last year’s tiny house speakers was married in the tiny chapel.image - Tiny Home Flyer

“Tiny houses are a way to build equity. They’re easier than traditional real estate. Also, people are looking for a home they can own that is relocatable – they can take their whole lifestyle with them. They don’t have to settle down in one place”, Coles said.

Backwoods left the 2nd annual Tiny House Jamboree event feeling exhausted from the excitement of thunderstorms and a very engaged crowd, but looking forward to next year. John remarked that, “It’s neat to see so many people engaged in DIY on such a human scale. On a personal level – I enjoyed helping people – all at various stages of the process – continue to move in the direction of their dreams. The process is filled with excitement for a new future and it was fun to share that with them!”

2016 Mother Earth News Fair

168 188For the last four years the crew at Backwoods Solar has been tending a booth at the Mother Earth News sustainable living fair. This year Sequoya Cross and Krista Miller packed up three wooden crates full of components, giveaways, and information for the thousands of attendees that pass through the Linn County fairground gates.

Even the heat wave didn’t stop dedicated self-reliance folks from venturing out into the sun to find the Backwoods booth. And they were rewarded with our DC Fan and double shaded space which we shared with our favorite Primus Air representative, Ken Kotalik.  The searing heat encouraged questions about the effects on overheating solar panels efficiency, as well as, inspiring a brilliant D.I.Y. AC invention to take place right in our booth!

As people came in to our space they were greeted by us and a table full of components showing an example of what an off-grid or grid-tied system generally includes. This year we had informational title cards explaining each piece of the system from the solar module and mounting options to the battery bank and everything in between including various loads like water pumps and lights.

Everyone seemed very engaged this year and asked great questions. The Primus Air Breeze drew a lot of interest as did our DC direct fan and of course the Sunjack solar charging system. The kids loved the solar flashlight giveaways generously provided by MorningStar and waterproof cell phone holders provided by Roof Tech. We were really impressed with the amount of time people spent in our booth checking everything out.

We would like to thank our old friends Roger with Unforgettable Fire and Angela. We can’t wait to see you in August for the Tiny Home Jamboree and thank you for introducing us to Thomas and his father of Eagle Log Cabins!  Of course Ray and David of Outback Power for being very supportive and sending many folks our way during those hot hours following their presentation on the Solar Stage.

Check out our new friends John and Nathan with Alpha Electric Scooters. Thanks guys for keeping us smiling during the heat. Also, our neighbors Barn-to-Door and Sow1Farm were truly super cool. A special thank you to Kevin with Fire Mizer who created a D.I.Y. bucket style AC unit for his booth and in chatting with us on his rounds discovered the Sunjack battery pack would run the USB fan that pushed air through the unit. It was truly an instance of necessity being the mother of invention!

In addition to our old and new friends, our regulars came by to visit and many of them went away with one of our Backwoods Solar T-Shirts. We had a winner for the Sunjack Solar charger who happened to not answer her phone because it had died. She was very excited and said that she was really lucky to win the Sunjack so that won’t happen again!

Finally a huge thank you goes out to all of our vendors who generously provided demo units, information sheets, freebies, and products to showcase at this year’s fair. Without your support we wouldn’t have been able to do this.

Backwoods-Summer-2016-Road-Trip
Participating Vendors at our booth

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