May 2004 Archives

Off-grid System Maintenance

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I'm not sure why but some people seem to have it in their minds that living off-grid, generating your own electricity involves lots of work (though if tinkering is what you want it can, as a quick browse through the the archives of Homepower magazine will demonstrate). However for most people, myself included, the system takes care of itself quite well. So for the benefit of the curious I thought I'd detail the maintenance needs of the various parts of my system.

The Solar Panels
The panels themselves are solid state and require no maintenance. In the winter I prefer to brush off the snow, but that's just because I don't want to wait for the snow to melt off. If I'm up on the roof I usually do a quick inspection of the panels and racks just to make sure that nothing is loose or damaged in any way, and in the last year nothing has been.
Total Time: one hour every six months (if that)

The Wind Tower
Like the panels whenever I'm at the top of the hill I do a visual inspection of the tower, just to make sure nothing is obviously loose or noisy. Every two years the tower must be lowered to do an inspection of the generator itself, and lubricate/clean/tighten various parts.
Total Time: visual inspections / half day every other year

The Batteries
Once a week we try and make sure that the batteries get a full charge in them, this often means running the generator for a few hours. Once every month to three months (depending on the season) we do an equalize charge, which requires sun, wind, and the generator running all day. Every month I check the fluid levels of each cel, and top them up with distilled water if needed. Before and after an equalize charge I take readings of each cel with a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity of each cel, this is the most accurate method of determining stage-of-charge.
Total Time: half an hour every month

I'm lumping the inverter, solar charge controller and wind charge controller into this group, and aside from monitoring (see below) there is no maintenance for any of this equipment, it's all solid state.
Total Time: zero

Monitoring the system performance is important for many reasons: first it lets you know how your power generation and power consumption are comparing, which I think we can all agree is pretty vital, second by tracking base line numbers you'll realize if something does go wrong. My biggest gripe with various aspects of the system is the lack of quality monitoring, especially where the wind generator is concerned. I keep a chart by the inverter and every night before I go to bed I write down how much the solar panels generated that day and cumulatively, the battery voltage, amp/hours away from full charge (which is an approximation), and details about whether the generator was run, if we achieved float, full charge, equalize, and if water levels were checked.
Total Time: two minutes each night

Gas Generator
Unfortunately this is still an important part of the system, and with months like November likely always will be. Aside from adding gas, I check the oil once a month, clean the air filter every other month, and just generally check it over whenever I gas it up.
Total Time: one hour every month

To sum up that comes out to about three hours every month, which is less time than I spend cutting the grass. Every couple of months I might have to spend an extra hour on some aspect of the system, and in fact most of the extras (like equalizing) are highly automated, start the generator at the beginning and stop it when the equalize is done.

For most people using a wind generator or solar panels in a grid inter-tie situation there is even less work to be done, since the vasy majority of my maintanence is the care and feeding of my batteries.

I have a well planned system installed by professionals (I recommend the fine folks at Generation Solar), if you're a hard-core do-it-yourselfer your milage may vary, and if you go with some fly-by-night installers all bets are off. Remember when you're talking to any kind of contractor ask lots of questions, if they can't answer them in a way that you can understand that's a bad sign. Ask for references, and CHECK THEM! Ask to see some systems they have installed, pay attention to the details, is the wiring neat and well routed? Does the system look like a pro job or some kid's science fair project? How long have they been in business? How many systems have they installed? You might spend a bit extra but the results will be worth it.


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As much as possible we have tried to use wood off our own land inside the house. The inside and outside walls of the bathroom are cedar milled from trees on our land, as are the maple window and door frames.

Before we started the house we marked 102 trees and sold them to a logger. They had a big machine that carried out the logs, and that could navigate nearly anywhere. Before the job was over we traded them an additional ten maple trees in exchange for taking down and cutting into 12' sections 6000 board feet of white cedar. White cedar are difficult trees to drop because their branches come directly off the trunk and run from the ground up. They can be very dangerous when they fall. The trees are also problematic because, unlike most hardwoods you can't tell if the tree is any good until you've dropped it. White cedar, like Poplar, tend to rot from the inside out. We were very lucky, it turned out that most of the trees they cut were very good. The boards we got from those cedars built a deck on the back of Dad's house, and most of the walls of his garage. It was the leftovers that went into our bathroom.

Over time, walking around the land, we started finding sections of trees that had been left in the bush. Good trees, on the sides of hills, in gullies, even out in the open. We pulled eleven oak and maple sections, all solid, at least 18" in diameter, and about 12' long, out of the north west corner a couple of years ago. We had them milled and have just come to the end of the maple.

Recently Dad and I have managed to pull out two pieces of black cherry, five really nice pieces of ash, and a bunch of oak from the south east corner of the property. The main section of ash was 22' long and 18" in diameter and had fallen across a small gully with a creek in the bottom. There were tracks from the logger's big machine but they couldn't seem to get close enough to grab the logs. We pulled them up from the other direction, up a very steep hill using a pulley and my truck. While we were down there we found two more pieces of ash and several sections of oak. We're also going to drop a couple of cedars from the same area.

In addition to this wood we've also cut up and dragged out two poplar trees that were solid, but had blown down in a wind storm. We've also been marking and dropping ceadrs from other parts of the land. The various hardwoods we're going to cut up into 1" planks, possibly for use on our ceilings. The cedar we're going to cut into 2" stock that will be used to build decks on the south and east sides of the house.

Four of the cedar trees that we took down were just below the house near where we park the cars. They were taller than any of the trees around them and spoiled the view to the south east. With them gone the whole view from the front door is greatly improved. How much? Well check the pictures and see for yourself.

Switch Complete

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Looks like the change is complete. Now I just have to rebuild my templates and everything will be back to normal.

Because I didn't have enough space at my old hosts I was forced to split the images across two domains, please let me know if there are any broken links. Things look OK to me, but there's an awful lot of stuff to sort through.

Switching Hosts

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I'm switching web hosts over the next week or two. The site (and my email) might be down temporarily. There's almost 200MB of pictures to move, and I'm on dial-up, so this could take some time. I'm going to try and poach some hi-speed access from a friend of mine, we'll see how it goes.

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