Saturday, August 26, 2017

Off-grid Living is More Energy Efficient!

Image result for average energy consumption per household per day

Just look at the above graph. People complain about how expensive it is to set up a solar power system (photovoltaic system), but in my last article I showed you how to set up a quality off-grid system using parts ordered right to your door from Amazon.com for about $2.2k. Hold on, look at the graph again! The average home in the United States in 2009 spent $2,024 in one year. So basically: 

You can set up a solar power system that will power your home flawlessly for 5 years (until you may have to replace the batteries) and another 10 years (until you may need to replace the panels) for the cost of powering your home from the grid in one year!

I'm sorry, but it sounds like the person who said solar power was expensive was the idiot here....

In the United States the average household uses 901 kWh of energy per month or about 30 kWh per day (eia.gov).

I've spent a lot of years living in apartments and overall I rely on electricity a lot less that most people I know (example: I don't own a TV and I don't spend all day playing video games). Keeping track of my average power consumption over the last two years I spent living in an apartment I was surprised to see that my energy consumption was actually higher than average (possibly due to the old appliances like refrigerator, stove, water heater, and the old electric heating system). Once I was away from home for an entire week and I was surprised to see that I used about 20kWh per day just having my water heater heat water for no one to use!

Since I updated my electrical system at the beginning of this summer I've been keeping track of my energy consumption. Over the past three months I have used 128 kWh of energy. That's only about 1.4 kWh per day!  Keep in mind it wasn't just me living here during the summer. It was me and my two kids (with my kids playing a significant amount of Minecraft). Just to give you some perspective:

The energy consumed by the average american home could power 21 tiny homes like mine!

or

The energy wasted by a conventional electric water heater could power 14 tiny homes like mine!

Now I should keep in mind that I haven't just been using electricity. I have used about 3 gallons of liquid propane (maybe less) for cooking and heating water, and about 2 gallons of gasoline (to run my generator for power tools), but that's barely anything over the course of 3 months! In the winter I used quite a bit more propane for heating (like 20 gallons for the entire winter), but I got a new propane furnace for this coming winter and I'm making a new wood stove. So, only time will tell for this coming winter.

The way I'm living is about 20 times more energy efficient than the average American household! Why do we live in such a wasteful society? Imagine if we could downscale our consumption we could easily reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions to a 20th of what they are today.

The interesting thing is I'm not really having to make any conscious sacrifices in energy consumption as far as my daily life goes. I still use my laptop, phone and other devices just as much as I did when I lived in an apartment--maybe even more. The big difference is really not in the lifestyle change, but in eliminating the appliances that waste energy and replacing them with more energy efficient appliances. 

How to Setup a Quality Solar Power System for Off-grid Living on a Budged


I know I've written on this before, but I decided it was time to make a detailed step-by-step guild to setting up your own off-grid solar power system.

In this post I will show you:

  • Everything you need to buy
  • Exactly how everything needs to be wired
  • Tips on building your system
  • How to make simple rotating solar panel stands

What You Will Need:

I've found that one of the hardest parts about setting up an off-grid photovoltaic system is that you either have to hire a professional to set them up for you or you have to spend weeks researching what components will work well together. Well, I've been living completely off the grid for over a year now and through a lot of research and first-hand experience I've found what works well and is hassle free.

I've done the hard part for you and setup an Amazon shopping list where you can just directly add everything you need to your shopping cart (pay attention to the quantity as it doesn't automatically add multiple or the same item to your cart).

Off-grid PV System Shopping List
Items with * are optional depending on your needs, but you're probably going to need them.

Total cost: $2,212.86


 Just over $2k may sound like a lot, but believe me trying to go cheaper is just going to cause you a lot more problems than it's worth.

How to Wire Everything:

Basically I wired the 6 solar panels in series (believe me it's much more efficient this way than a parallel wiring, but you absolutely need an MPPT controller for this to work). Then I followed all the directions on wiring that came with everything else. For the most part it was pretty straight forward.
I will provide a detailed wiring diagram here once I get it drawn up. Also, if you ever need more power you can safely wire 8 100 watt solar panels to this same system instead of 6, but you'd have to wire them in sets of 4 in series then parallel the two sets. The maximum output charge power of this controller is 520 watts, but it can safely take solar arrays that are rated much higher.

It's important to know that a 100 watt solar panel almost never produces 100 watts (this is an absolute maximum rating under controlled conditions). With 600 watts of solar panels the most current I've ever seen flowing into my batteries is about 420 watts and that was when using a microwave on a very sunny day.

The amount of power flowing into your batteries doesn't just depend on your solar panels, it also depends on how charged your battery is. Charging a battery is like blowing up a balloon: the more full the balloon gets the greater the pressure required to fill the balloon. So, the more charged a battery gets the less current can flow into the battery.  You will only see the max current flowing into your battery when it is at its lowest state and the panels are in direct sun light. You will also see higher currents flowing into your battery when there is a high current flowing out of your battery.

I installed two power meters in my system: The top one shows the power flowing out of the battery bank, and the bottom one shows the power flowing in. It also shows the energy stored in the battery and the energy used from the battery. The energy flowing into the batteries will always be higher than the energy flowing out of the batteries because batteries are not 100% efficient and lose a lot of energy as heat. You can see how efficient your batteries are by taking the energy out and dividing it by the energy in. Your batteries will become less efficient as they age.




Tips on Building Your System:

You want the components of your system to be somewhere where they can maintain a decent working temperature and so air can flow around them, yet at the same time you want to mount them in such a way that makes the length of your wires as short as possible. Shorter wires means less electrical resistance. 
  • Make wires as short as possible to reduce electrical resistance.
  • Use as high of gauge wire as possible for high current areas (battery cables, charging cables, etc.). Higher gauge wire means less resistance.
  • Use a low power fan for ventilation.
  • Using a vice carefully bend the battery cable terminals to right angles before crimping them. This makes it so you can make much shorter battery cables. You can buy right angle lugs, but they are way more expensive and they are way easy to bend.
  • Use heat shrink and securly crimp all wires

Here are some pictures of how I wired my system together:

Ignore the fact that the battery cable on the upper right corner is black (it should be red, but it was getting dark).



Simple Rotating Solar Panel Stands:


Dig a 2ft hole and cement a 7foot corner post into the ground. 

Buy two of these for each post.
Cut 4 6" pieces of 2.5" PVC Conduit

Stick the pipes together with couplings (these stop the brackets from sliding down the pipe)

Slide the metal post clamps and pipe sections over the post. I added some grease to make it turn easier, but it turns out it's completely unnecessary.

Secure two 2ft sections of Super Strut to the top of each pipe section using 2.5" pipe brackets.

Attach 4 angle brackets.


Cap the post.

Buy some zink-platted slotted angle bars to connect the solar panels together and bolt them onto the angle brackets as shown:


I had these short metal plates I used to extend the reach of the top angle brackets, but they probably aren't needed.

I use a half cinder block and a wheel block to both support the weight of the panels when I'm not turning them and also to keep them in place so they don't rotate in the wind.


 The end result is a simple and inexpensive solar panel mount where you can effortlessly rotate your panels to directly face the sun any time you want. I'm planning on eventually hooking up an automatic rotation system, but as is it's pretty easy. I just move them three times a day (once at 12 noon--facing South, once at around 5:30 in the evening--facing West, and when the sun goes down at about 8:30 facing East. So they are ready for the morning). This keeps my batteries fully charged all day long. They drop down to about 12.6 volts at night (that's the lowest I've seen) then in the morning they are fully charged by 10:00am and they stay fully charged until about 7:00pm even with my evaporative cooler running all day long.

If I didn't have a system for rotating the panels I would get a maximum of about 2/3 the power I get now. So, I feel it's well worth it. When I'm out of town I just face them south and that's plenty of energy to maintain my batteries: since the only thing that's running when I'm gone is my fridge.

With this system, I produce more than enough electricity for my needs and have never run into issues with my battery voltage dropping lower than 12.6 volts. Since it can safely drop to 11.8 volts, and if it drops further than that my battey protector shuts everything off until it charges back up to a safe operating votage. So, my system is completely worry free.





Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Solar Eclipse


So the solar eclipse was kind of interesting. It got pretty dim here. The voltage on my solar panel array dropped from 120 volts to 16 volts. It also got significantly colder. I felt myself grow uneasy for some reason. Maybe it's because the eclipse reminded me how much life depends on energy from the sun and a glimpse into a world where the sun isn't quite as bright was somewhat frightening.

Anyway, I didn't have special eclipse glasses so (without looking at the sun) I used my cellphone camera to view the eclipse and take some pictures. Now the sun was way too bright to view the eclipse directly with my camera but by angling the camera lens I was able to view the eclipse through the lens' internal refraction of the sun light. That's why you see two suns in this picture.

Exploring


A sandy area caused by the flood of last winter.

A dry stream bed that only has water during flooding.


Evidence of flooding in the middle of nowhere. I think it's a caved in animal burrow.

The sun light was just right to strike this van in such a way I could finally tell what it was through my binoculars from my property. I decided to hike out there and check it out.


I would totally make this into a guest room if I could somehow tow it to my property.


I also found this giant pile of tires about a quarter mile from the van. They'd been sitting there untouched for years.

And this giant fiberglass pipe thing???

Also, I found this cool rock with an amazing fossil layer on the top. I'm not sure what the organisms are, but they remind me of the crusty dead brine shrimp on the shore of Salt Lake. This area used to be part of Lake Bonneville so they very well could be brine shrimp.

My New Sliding Barn-style Bathroom Door


 I got really sick of having an ugly curtain for a bathroom door. So, I went outside and found a small scrap of weathered and badly warped plywood and something inside me said, "Yes! This is exactly what I need to make a door!" I had a small piece of paneling left over from building my wall and I cut it in half then I cut out a frame from the plywood scrap. Basically I cut it into strips then put the strips on the front and the back of the paneling so they bowed in opposite directions. After screwing the strips of plywood to the paneling the bowing actually helped produce a perfectly flat door. I contemplated using hinges on my new door, but I hated the idea of having to deal with the extra space of a swinging door. So, started watching some tutorials on YouTube about making your own sliding bar doors.

I eventually found this article: http://www.epbot.com/2013/03/make-your-own-sliding-barn-door-for.html and I basically did what he did except I don't have a vice yet, so I just used a block of wood and my muscles to bend the metal. I modified the design a bit by adding some bolts and washers under the rail: this makes it so the door can't accidentally fall or be pulled off the rail.  I decided to use garage pulleys instead of going through all the trouble of removing one from the casing; plus they already came with the nuts and bolts I needed. You might also notice that my pulleys are hung off center. I had to do this because my door is longer than the wall to the left of it and I didn't want my rail to have to hang off the end of my wall.
I decided to bend the rail around the corner of my wall to prevent the door from sliding off and I love how it looks.
I purposefully made the door with a gap on the top and bottom because my bathroom is very small and I really want to keep it well ventilated.

I also added a plastic headed screw (the kind that hold together some computer cases ) between the wall and the bottom of the door just to keep the bottom of the door from dragging against the wall.

I really didn't care for the bare side of the paneling (on the inside of the bathroom) and I've been really into painting since I started two weeks ago. So, I painted it.

Getting Rid of a Bad Window = An Artistic Opportunity

So, I realized during last winter and this summer that keeping the front loft window was a really bad idea, but I already made that mistake and I had to deal with the consequences.

I'm currently unemployed since Wendover High School decided not to hire me back (because you know physics teachers are worthless nowadays).  So, I decided to patch up the window using the supplies I had.

The end result from the inside looked like a painted white piece of plywood inside the wooded frame that was previously around the window. It was pretty ugly so I had the idea of painting a picture in it with my kids. I was a little concerned that the plywood wouldn't be a good painting surface especially since I painted it with glossy paint. Then my daughter had a great idea: buy tiny canvases of different shapes and sizes and paint lots of little pictures to go inside the frame. So we did:








We still have a few paintings to finish.

My New Climbing Wall

Keeping an RV warm during the winter can be quite challenging, even one like mine that's had the thickness of the walls doubled. One of the big problems I had was with the fact it was practically impossible to keep the cab of my motor home insulated, after all it is just glass and metal. Last year I used several curtains and a thick insulating blanket between my house and the cab and lots of bubble wrap on the windows. The end result was the heat still seeped into the cab and caused the entire thing to sweat. As if sweaty wall aren't grose enough... the moisture caused mildew to grow under my bed. I've since killed the mildew with lots of bleach, but I'm not going to relive that experience.

This year I decided I'd start preparing for the winter during the summer and I'd take Trump's advice and build a wall.... Seriously though the only way to properly insulate my home was to build a wall between the cab and the house. So, I did, but I didn't want to build an ordinary wall and I've seen a few tiny homes with climbing walls. I really didn't like the way my paint ladder looked anyway and I kept stubbing my toes on the damn thing.

The end result:







Now I just need to better insulate the loft floor under my bed.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

My Love Hate Relationship with Watching Tiny House Videos on YouTube

Image result for tiny house
Sure it looks perfect, but you'd totally freeze to death in this house out here. I did -20 F last winter bitches!
Okay, I love watching tiny house videos on YouTube especially Living Big in a Tiny House... maybe part of that is the cute host with the awesome accent...

but anyway there's something about watching these videos that kind of pisses me off. I think a big part of it is so many of the people that live in tiny homes are young married couples that seem so damn happy. It fills me with the same sad/happy lonely longing that comes from watching romantic comedies. Yes, it's a sad addiction... watching tiny house videos and romantic comedies on a Friday night while eating chocolate.

The other reason these videos get to me is the fact most of these homes look so amazingly nice--almost perfect... and mine well, my house is made of like 75 to 80% scrap wood and I threw it together in a hurry because I was homeless. I'm always working on remodeling mine--really I've been building it as I've lived in it, so my place is always disorganized with tools and crap everywhere.

Here's an example of one of my favorite perfect looking tiny homes:

I really shouldn't feel that bad though. Most people spend at least $35,000 building one of these houses. I've spent about $4500 on everything including appliances and my photovoltaic system (that price also includes maintenance costs over the last 3 years). Including the land I bought I've spent less that $10,000 on a completely functional home and 10 acres of land that will easily be worth way more than I payed for it when I get old and crusty.

Anyway, at least I can build a cool climbing wall.... I'm about 3/4 finished with mine.