go green

I’ve recently installed a solar system for off-grid living. I’m pleased by the original selection to use devices made by Victron Energy, a Dutch company.

My first step was to review some of the full-kit versions of solar panel systems. I quickly found that the $6,000 price tag didn’t even include batteries. I even visited a downtown Albuquerque business but found that they were most definitely not interested in off-grid systems. In case you didn’t know it, there’s big money to be made in this technology niche. Next, I decided of course to purchase the individual pieces and to install it myself.

Most of the equipment I purchased in a single round-trip visit to SanTan Solar in southern Arizona. The inverter and related equipment were purchased from Solar-Biz which appears to operate somewhat remotely from Panama, the products were shipped directly from the manufacturer.

Solar Panels = $800

I purchased four Jinko 400W solar panels for the job. This then has the capacity of producing 1.6KW of power. I will note that the highest instantaneous power I’ve seen from the system just topped 1KW with a 30-day overall total of 60kWh so far (about $350/month then at average rates for power or at most a $4200/year payback). Not sure what I was thinking there but the $5.83/kWh figure I’d found on the Internet is way off from reality.

Charge Controller with Bluetooth = $785

The Victron SmartSolar MPPT 150/100 – TR charge controller manages the incoming solar power, matches it to the batteries and load and keeps track of its three modes of daily operation.

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Batteries = $640

I purchased four deep-cycle Trojan T-105 6V batteries for the job, wired in series to present 24V to the charge controller and inverter. Each are rated for 225AH.

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Battery Monitor with Bluetooth = $235

The Victron BMV-712 Smart provides a shunt to measure the power consumed across the circuits, a small LCD panel and the Bluetooth endpoint for monitoring it via the phone app.

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Inverter with Bluetooth = $600

It’s the Victron Phoenix 24/1200 VE.Direct inverter which produces a sine wave output at 120VAC from the 24V provided from the battery bank. Add-ons allow it to be monitored over the phone app.

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Wires, Accessories, Connectors and Such

Mounting the solar panels was sort of a pain, to be honest. I purchased some 4×4 posts, brackets in some cases, SuperStrut rails, SuperStrut sliding nuts and a variety of bolts, 2×4 lumber, nails and a few bags of QUIKRETE ($200). I left some room for expanding by a couple more panels in the future.

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Of course, all this equipment had to be installed somewhere so I purchased and installed a SunCast storage shed ($700) having purchased pavers for a smooth footing ($84).

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Both a battery cutoff switch ($20) and a circuit breaker ($15) were part of the design.

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The panels were presented to the charge controller in a series/parallel way, electrically. This required MC4-style Y-adapters to be used ($24). The entire set is connected to the charge controller via PV cable ($30) and a pack of ten MC4 connectors ($10).

The battery wiring as well as the wiring to the cutoff switch, circuit breaker, shunt and inverter involved AWG-4 wire purchased in bulk in some cases ($10) plus jumpers ($30) and lug connectors ($20) as purchased from O’Reilly Auto Parts.

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Monitoring Software

Fortunately, the Victron suite of products either directly have Bluetooth connectivity or an add-on feature which allows this. The net result is an entry in the Victron Connect phone app with usually several screens of functionality and configuration options.

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Installation

Most of everything got installed into the storage shed. The inverter presents a single 120VAC outlet so I plugged in a three-outlet IKEA power strip for the sake of convenience. The box for the earlier DeWalt 1000W square-wave inverter is visible there in the corner. It decided to die during the first 30-days of use.

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Total Cost = $4200

Wow. It’s almost impressive that the total cost in parts and delivery exactly matches the single-year payback in the electricity that it’s producing for me. Not sure what I was thinking earlier; I’d used a $5.83/kWh figure from the Internet which is totally wrong. It may take four to five years for this to pay itself off.

Strategy

If you don’t have an off-grid solar system then you’re probably not savvy to the way the charge controller operates. As much as a third of the daylight hours might have the charge controller just idling.

For those people who have a solar system tied to the grid, often the local power company is forced to pay you for the overage in power that you’re producing.

That said, if I’m over-producing power that can’t be directly used or which can’t be stored in the battery bank, the charge controller basically throws it away. Knowing this, I find myself today charging almost everything I can think of: MacBook, iPad, iPhone’s, USB-based storage devices, those 20V batteries for my DeWalt drill, etc.

What I plan to do later is to make a hot tub or similar and “dump” extra power into heating that water. Why not? Of course, I’ll also have a hot water heater and other appliances, but I probably won’t worry quite so much about wasting power during those days when there’s an abundance of sun.

I could just let the charge controller idle, ignore the extra power I’m not consuming and not worry about it. A better strategy though would be to figure out ways of storing that extra power…

For example, I’m thinking that one could use PEM cells and that extra power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, storing each in separate containers. Later, when the energy is needed, PEM cells again can combine the two gases to generate power. It looks like the cost of PEM cells has risen sharply since the last time I dabbled in this technology, though.

One could also heat a large volume of water which is inside the house during the day and then allow it to radiate heat back to the house throughout the night hours.

Conclusion

The 1200W inverter is probably going to be enough for my needs for a while. During the construction phase I will note that I’m using a Briggs & Straton 3500W generator/inverter for running my power tools and such. So I’m not running a cement mixer from the Victron, in other words.

I’ll probably not plug in a hair dryer, a clothes iron or the espresso maker anytime soon. I’d hate to fry the electronics. I will probably try out the crock pot or smaller appliances, though. I’ve just tested running two simultaneous GermGuardian air purifiers on their highest settings, a Polar-Aire desk fan, a 4 cu. ft. Magic Chef refrigerator, lots of things charging all at once and the phone app reported perhaps a 70%-load at its worst. It’s working admirably, it was a fair investment up front but I think I’ll pay for all this within the span of a year.

save the bees, save ourselves

Bee colony numbers have been in decline over the last 70 years. I’d suggest that coverage maps like this are behind one of the reasons.

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Now imagine that you’re a bee and that those signals from the cellphone towers disrupt your ability to navigate. Just like the way that water molecules are targeted to spin in a microwave oven (by carefully tuning the frequency of the radio waves), the tiny magnetic beads in the abdomens of honey bees are the accidental victims in this “marvel” which we call wireless communications. Bees depend upon their own ability to interpret the “feeling” they get when those magnet beads orient themselves in the Earth’s magnetic flux; they are flying compasses if you think about it.

For every particular antenna length, there is a corresponding center frequency upon which it may communicate. The higher the frequency, the smaller the antenna. Conversely, the higher the frequency, the smaller the antenna which will pick up that signal on the receiving end. Today’s race for higher bandwidth and “coverage everywhere” means that wireless communications in the high frequencies used create perfect resonance for those tiny beads and that there’s nowhere for the bees to hide to escape this magnetically-noisy confusion.

History of the cell phone

The real history of the cell phone begins in 1946 when Bell Labs used WWII technology to commercialize wireless telephone in the states. Here is a graph indicating the number of cell phone subscribers from the period beginning in the mid-80s to about 2003.

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Compare this to a graph of the count of bee colonies since 1940, noting that the cell phone was introduced commercially in the year 1946 and would represent the year that cell phone towers started being erected here in the states.

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Where’s the nearest cell tower?

There was a time when you could drive out of the city and immediately be frustrated by a lack of cell phone signal. That’s not so, today. You can drive almost anywhere in the U.S. and get a signal from either your own carrier or someone else’s if you have roaming turned on.

But in our own quest for always staying connected with friends and with work we have really hurt nature this time. We’ve hurt the honey bees’ ability to navigate successfully and they’ve attempted to move away from the disruption, flying further from cities and into zones which are dryer (less irrigated by humans).

Reviewing Verizon’s coverage map above, you realized that there’s nowhere to hide now if you’re a bee. They’ve been pushed to the brink. The further they travel, the less likely there is that there will be water to keep the hive alive and a steady supply of water is crucial for honey production.

What bees mean to us

If you think that bees are only good for creating honey, then think again. Bees are important for our own survival. It is estimated that a third of all food that we eat is pollenated by bees. But then, what about the feed for the chickens and cattle which represents the meat that we eat? The bees pollenate the wheat and the corn as well.

In short: when the bees die off, we’re next.

It’s in our best interest to help the bees as much as we can. We need to learn from our mistakes and to make the tough decisions required for the bees to return in number so that our future will have enough food to eat for our ever-increasing population.

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Speaking of which, more people means we need more pollination for the food crops and the feed crops, right? There are about three times as many people in the states since 1946 so we’d need the bee colony numbers to increase at the same rate or we’ll be hit by ever-higher food prices, one could suggest. The decreasing bee colony numbers mean that food prices will have inflated more than other consumer items over that same period. If you’re older like myself, you would reasonably agree with me on this one.

Solutions

Lose the towers, change the technology

The best solution would be to radically change our wireless strategy and to ban the use of frequencies which negatively impact honey bees. Given the US$272B which the carriers alone will make in 2018 and the untold amount received in the sales of the phones themselves, it should be impossible to wean these vendors from this business model. Even if you presented the data to them, they wouldn’t believe it. They are simply making too much money from our own daily “need” to take selfies in the Grand Canyon and to instantly upload them to FaceBook or Instagram or similar.

They [the carriers and smartphone manufacturers] are simply making too much money from our own daily “need” to take selfies in the Grand Canyon and to instantly upload them to FaceBook or Instagram or similar.

We’re to blame in this one. A corporation has no soul nor a conscience. We did this to ourselves.

Help the bees in other ways

Perhaps the best thing that we could do is to attempt to help the bees in other ways. This is the approach that I will be taking personally since it’s something that I can hope to accomplish in my lifetime.

Varroa mite

At the moment, hives are under attack from an aggressive mite by the scientific name of Varroa. I am designing prototypes which should hope to help prevent the mite from entering the brood chamber of a typical hive.

A little help from us

Beekeepers typically introduce a foundation sheet of pressed beeswax to make things easier for the bees to start a frame. These sheets may only be shipped from spring to fall since the cold weather will result in frames which have become cracked and brittle. It would be good if beekeepers themselves could create either the foundation sheets themselves or an even better solution.

I’m currently designing 3D-printed molds so that the sheets may be cast in place in the frames in beeswax in the beekeeper’s home (and even during the winter months).

Lowering the cost of beekeeping

Finally, if we as volunteers can introduce free designs into the open source space, beekeepers may take advantage of these designs and to make their own solutions locally. The honey-producing industry includes many vendors who hope to solve the beekeeper’s many problems as they try to remain profitable only these solutions can be quite expensive.

My approach is to provide free solutions and let the beekeepers benefit from my help. By helping them, I’m helping the bees. And when I help the bees, I’m helping myself. I don’t see this as lowering the cost of honey production; I see this as saving the human race, to be honest.