Saturday, June 2, 2007

Not in the plans

Too much going on in the Big Woods; it's been hard to steal time to get here; sorry about that.

Not everything that happens is on the list. I've had solar (photovoltaic) power in the Little House for 20 years or so. In all that time, it has served me very well. It's not a path without bumps, however, which we may get into someday (like the old phone company batteries we got for free- huge, glass cased, single cell batteries with a high power rating- that were totally unsuited to our uses, which I carried carefully up the ladder, then down the ladder...)

Something you really need to understand. Being a pioneer is bloody expensive.

I never set out to "be a pioneer"; it just happened that what I was interested in doing- no one else had done here before. When you're doing something new - you WILL screw up; and that's expensive, in every way possible.

When I installed my 3rd collection of solar panels, 20 odd years ago- I screwed up. Because of a worry that was current then, and no one even mentions now- the potential threat to glass looking up at the sky from hail.

What!? Is hail a concern for solar panels?? Well, no, not really. But back before some of us knuckleheads went out and got experience, it WAS. Glass is glass, and if you drop big balls of ice on it, it could break. The reality is- this particular catastrophe happens so seldom it's not worth worrying about- at all. Your array is far more likely to be hit by lightning, or a tornado.

But back then, it was a worry. Particularly for me, because of where I am- in the summer the sun is very high, and in the winter very low. Summer is when we have thunderstorms- just when the panels are tilted the least; i.e. most likely to get broken. And we DO have big, nasty thunderstorms, on a regular basis.

So in a fit of brilliance I very carefully crafted plywood backing for the panels, so they weren't just a piece of glass waiting for a hailstone, but a piece of glass lying on a perforated (for heat escape) sheet of 3/4" marine plywood. Much less likely to break. Probably.

Outcome- 99.999% of hailstones just bounce off of solar panels (a true statistic I made up). And- wood rots. Even marine plywood. Eventually.

So I found myself, at year 20, with a solar array that was starting to fall to pieces. It was getting fragile to the point where one good windstorm could rip it into fragments- and falling off the roof WOULD smash the panels, no question. We took the array down; and for too long have been unable to muster the time and personnel to put it back up. Last weekend, we finally did.

The roof on the Little House is steep- when I built it, we were having normal winters, often with heavy snow, and it seemed like a good idea. These days I wish we'd built it with a less "A-frame" type top- I'd prefer that the little snow we get stay on the roof and keep us warm.

Steep roof also means it's tricky working up there. And while I put it up alone the first time, it's really not a sensible job for somebody 58 to tackle without help.

When I say "in the Big Woods" - that's the truth. It's a pretty silly place for a photovoltaic installation. The best site we've got is on the top of the roof; on a mast as high up as I could reach to work without too much danger of leaving my family precipitously. Over the years- the surrounding trees have continued to get taller, cutting our sun more and more. Still- it makes most of the power we use. In winter, or very cloudy spells, we will use a little Honda gasoline generator for back up; but it's usually once a week at most. Chances are if we were out of the woods, we would use far less gas, even with this very small array.

What goes up on the mast is kind of a museum of solar panels. Used to be 3 types, now only two-

The more modern panels are Arco's; the lovely old antique round cell panel is a Solarex. Actually- the older Solarex was better built; though it has so much wasted non-photon catching surface-

Something under the glass on the Arcos is browning; probably an adhesive? And at this point it's certainly cutting some of the capacity of the cells. Eh. So, my little pieces of rock put out a few less milliamps. I'll probably live. The glass on the Solarex panel is still as crystal clear as the day it was born.

Here is the process; me and a son up on the roof, bolting and wiring- 2 on here.

It takes a fair amount of time. You just can't afford to drop a bolt- most of them are special in some way, and finding it on the ground is no joke. So you don't drop anything. Which means moving slow. You also can't afford to step off the scaffold. It's all just a bit nervewracking. Amazing how good it feels to have your feet on solid ground when you get down.

Then, finally - it's up. This time with a steel frame; nothing to rot. Guy wires on; turnbuckles tight.

It's hard to explain the psychological impact of getting it back up. Great relief, in part. Satisfaction. Security.

The batteries are inside the house- so as I type this, I'm listening to the cozy sound of- batteries bubbling hydrogen right close by my desk. Can't tell you how much I've missed that.


Anonymous said...

Let me be the first to say how grateful I am that you share the bumps! I found this post so helpful and frankly riveting. The photos are so appreciated and not hard on the eyes ;)

Anonymous said...

Nice to see a post about some actual installations and nice to see that you are now done with the risky task. Your power needs must be extremely minimal as I see very little collection there.

Anonymous said...

Wow, looks great! I can barely pronounce the word 'photovoltaic' let alone assemble any of that on my balcony (I can't even afford it). You must be very satisfied with it up and working now...

Anonymous said...

Great post Greenpa. I really enjoy the narrative of what it takes to actually live off the grid -- the trials and tribulations, the occasional grrrs that comes with it. I continue to enjoy the blog. Cheers!