The charge controller is a part of all solar or wind energy sytems. A charge controller is needed for your system. It is connected to your batteries and the panels. Our charge controller was mounted on our wall. Now it is downstairs in the cellar There are many different brands and types and it can get complicated. I am not the most knowledgeable person on this subject. I just know what we use and how it works. We have had all together three different ones.
The charge controller does just what the name says. It controls how much of a charge that goes into your batteries. It will stop the charge coming in from whatever power source you are using when your batteries are at full charge. It would ruin them to be overcharged. In the beginning with only two lead acid batteries and one 55 watt solar panel using this small charge controller was fine. At that time we used to charge the batteries with a car parked next to the window. I remember being able to do this myself. Using jumper cables.
As our system grew we added a better type of charge controller. It is made by Xantrex, which was a good quality brand. We used it for many years and still in fact, have it. This one was able to be used as our system grew. My husband always planned on adding a wind turbine so he kept that in mind when purchasing our various components. Each component is costly so you want to make sure that what you buy will be able to be used as you build your system larger.
Once we had the wind turbine up we had to make sure our charge controller could handle all the extra power. It took us a long time to get the turbine up. I will be posting about that on a future blog post. Once we got it up we had to do something with all that extra power. That brings us to our present charge controller which is a diversion charge controller. It does not mean it cuts off from the charging source when the batteries are at full charge. It keeps charging but will direct that energy somewhere else. It has a built in heater that turns on to use the power up so it won't over charge the batteries.
It was on our wall while the batteries were up here. Now they are downstairs in the battery room with the new the batteries. This controller will be hooked up to eventually sending the diversion load into our water heater that will heat the water instead of turning the heater part on. We have a brand new water heater and a pressurized water tank in the water room just waiting to be hooked up. I can't wait for that myself! That means that we will have running water in the house. I am promising myself that we will get it in this summer for sure. I have a brand new washing machine all hooked up and ready to wash.
Summer of 2017 wasn’t much of a summer for us really. Cool most of the time. Very wet and that makes for a very buggy season. Didn’t have much of a garden this year. Pretty busy with the projects on the house so not much time for anything else. Our lead acid batteries were failing fast and we had no way to equalize them and bring them back. I saw many YouTube videos on how to do that, but being off the grid, we had no power source to use to do the process. Finally we were able to purchase two Battle Born LiFePO4 deep cycle batteries. They are lithium iron phosphate batteries. With just TWO, we are able to run our whole house (granted our house is not the norm) with computers on all day with no generator. I was so happy not to hear the generator fired up every morning. Because that is what we had to do once the old lead acid batteries started failing and were not be able to hold a charge.
I will write more about these particular batteries in a future post. But for now, I want to just say they were worth every penny. Not having used the generator since the day they were hooked up has saved us close to $100. a month in gasoline. My husband mows our lawn with an electric lawn mower so no gasoline bought for that either. Now the only thing will be the chainsaw. Hopefully in the future, we will be buying an electric one for that also. Eliminating fuels is our top priority. Next one……..propane!
How to get rid of propane for cooking? Especially in the summer? We could cook on an outside fire and we did. Not as often as I’d like though. Now with more batteries and more solar panels, which are not all hooked up yet, we can use electrical cooking appliances. Not a big electric stove, but I am using an Instant Pot. Has been working great when we are charging from the sun. Actually I like it much better than the solar oven. The solar oven is awkward to set up. Carry outside and then keep moving it around. My thought on that is something I have seen online, setting up the solar oven in your kitchen, but so it is powered directly by the sun. You access it completely in your kitchen! Yes, that would work great for me. Would take a bit of remodeling in the kitchen to do it, but it could be done.
As we get ready for winter here, I will be using the wood stoves for most of the cooking. I don’t mind doing that since the firewood is burning for heat anyway. By next summer though, I figure we will have added more batteries and that will increase our cooking capabilities with electrical appliances. I have a brand new induction burner waiting to be experienced with. If we can use that, then I know we can get rid of the propane. It is just the oven in the summer that would be a problem. Just learning new ways of cooking foods that usually were cooked in the oven. I enjoy this new learning curve!
Powering up computers on your homestead is something you will eventually want or need to do. As I said in prior posts, at first we did not need it. We were busy trying to set this old house up for basic living. After awhile we felt like we were being left behind. Larry had been a computer person right from the start. He had worked at IBM in Endicott, NY, and had an early model IBM computer that used DOS (disk operating system) as the operating system. So he was missing it. He had taught me how to use that old system long before Windows ever appeared on the scene. I was soon doing my writing on it and I remember us accessing the old IBM bulletin boards in my old apartment.
Before we moved here we had a desk top computer with a larger tower. That was when we had to use dial-up because that was all that was available at that time. It was packed away because we had to figure out what we were doing here first. At first we had no power and those type of computers take a lot of power. I know, I saw it in my electric bill and I was on the night rate at my old house. It didn’t take long to figure out that we really needed a computer. We needed it to make money. We needed a way to research what, why and how to do various projects we were working on. We had the little Backwoods Solar off the grid catalog, but we needed much more information than that. Driving to town to a library was not something you want to do when you are in the middle of something and need the answer now. Not to mention the fact that back then there was no internet at the library, just outdated books published before new technology in alternative energy systems took place.
Eventually we hooked up the computer after we got our small solar system operating. We had to run our generator much of the time, at first the generator being our old car or truck pulled up to the house window to connect it to the batteries in the system. I started selling on eBay and it wasn’t long before I bought a used desk top Compaq computer. I could not afford to share time on the computer with Larry and he wanted to be on it for long periods too. So we had two computers with two large towers and a printer and then I was in business. I was busy with eBay as it was back in its heyday.
It was also the time we were living without a motor vehicle, about a period of nine months. Instead of taking the packages to the post office we had to take them to our mailbox which was about a mile away on a desolate corner at the end of our dirt road. So they could not be left there to wait for the mailman. Larry bought a new mountain bicycle and an Instep bicycle cart for it to haul the packages to the mailbox every morning. Nikita, our dog, would get excited when she saw me start packaging my sales up because she loved going with Larry to the mailbox. It was good exercise for her and our neighbor’s dog would watch for her to come by. On their way back, sometimes they would stop there to visit. Larry would sit on a log to wait for the mailman to come by.
I know many people claim that technically you are not living off the grid if you have a computer, a phone, propane or buy your food and other supplies. Oh really? To tell you the truth, even the mountain men bought their supplies. That is why they trapped and hauled furs to trading posts. The Native Americans made items out of the animals they killed and other natural materials and traded them to each other, other tribes and white man too for other items they needed or wanted. Even Dick Proenneke (Alone In The Wilderness) had to have supplies flown in to him in the Alaskan wilderness.
People who go camping take a huge amount of stuff with them when they go. Some even take propane with them and generators. Now if you can go camping without one thing, no matches, no knives, no tools or anything at all and make everything you need, food, cooking, shelter, bedding……….then go for it! You’ve got that covered if you can do that. I’d say that is about as off the grid as you can get. Most people cannot do that. I know I cannot and I have no desire to do that.
Most people will tell me they admire how we live but they couldn’t do it themselves. I am left wondering “why?” Maybe it has to do with not having a television? What they don’t realize when they come here is, that we choose not to have one. We could, if we wanted it. We are computer people and a television holds no interest for me. If I want to watch a television show I can see it online. Some people like the constant noise from one going all the time. I know quite a few people who do. I hate that and I find the noise unbearable. Sometimes I just leave someone’s house if that is something I am forced to listen to all the time. Now my mother was bedridden and she had a television going on all the time, but that was understandable.
I love music and listen to it almost every day, but not nonstop all day and not extremely loud. Many nights I listen to my MP3 player or read books on my Kindle Fire. I am for the most part a quiet person and appreciate the sounds of the birds singing outside or my pet house rabbit chewing his hay. In fact, I keep my computer’s sound on mute all the time and only turn it on if I am watching a video.
The main thing to know is that you can build your system to accommodate whatever you choose to have in electronics or appliances. Right now we are in the process of adding more panels so someone said to me, “Now you can have a television.” No, as I stated above, “I CHOOSE not to.” I choose to add a water pump so we can have running water in our house. I choose to be able to power our washing machine so I don’t have to do my laundry by hand. I choose to add electric cooking since that means I can get rid of the propane bill. Electric is free for me. I choose to add electric heating, but that will be awhile. Maybe we could change the gas chain saw to the electric one and not have to purchase the gas. Before we can do many of those things in the future we need to increase our batteries. We have changed from the lead acid ones but that is a future post.
The most important part of any off the grid energy system is the battery bank. The energy (or power) comes from the sun (hydro, or wind, or wind and sun both, as in my case) through the solar panels or wind turbine then goes through the charge controller and then into the battery bank. The charge controller does just what the name says, it controls the charge going into your batteries so they do not over charge. If the batteries are already at full charge, our charge controller, which has a diversion load on it, that means it diverts the power to another element. This charge controller has heating coils on it so the extra power goes to that. Eventually it will be hooked up to the water heater and the extra power will heat our water. At present our water is not piped in the house yet. Hopefully that will be done soon. Our plan is to have water collectors on the roof of the house as well as the electric water heater in the cellar.
Back in 1999 when we moved here lead acid batteries were the best option for off the grid home set up. We started out with two and added two more later, even though the experts say not to do that. They say it will cause your batteries to have a short life. Contrary to that advice, our batteries were great. Never had a problem with them and when we replaced them years later, they were still usable. We gave them to friends of ours who used them for their golf cart on their homestead. Those lead acid deep cycle batteries were 6 volt, which were sold for fork lift trucks at my husband’s place of employment at the time. So we got a good deal on them with his employee discount. I am sorry I don’t have any photos of those batteries but at that time I did not have my digital camera and I couldn’t afford to buy film then. Those were tough times getting started here.
A few years later my husband designed a website and I listed products for a friend, who was a solar installer. He paid us in giving us 24 lead acid 2 volt batteries that he was given by a customer who was switching over to being grid tied (connected to the electric company grid with no battery bank). These batteries were very clean. The plates had no build up on them at all. They originally had been used by the railroad and then the homeowner, of course. So we were the third owners of them and they worked flawlessly for over ten years.
It was just in this last year they started not holding the charge very well. They still didn’t look dirty inside, but they could have been. They needed to be equalized and we had no way to do that process. By putting each battery on an automotive battery charger and letting it trickle charge (very slowly charged) for a couple of days or however long it takes till they reach full charge. Then let it sit for a couple of hours with no load on it. After that it needs to be tested with a hydrometer. I imagine they can be sold to someone who is on the grid and has the power to do that. We could not carry out that process here.
When these batteries were charged, I would hear them bubbling all through the afternoon and night. That bubbling is what cleans the plates as it chips away at the sediment on the plates. Eventually the sediment will settle on the bottom of the battery and build up over the years. Someone can empty the battery out and clean the inside by hand. Then refill and charge. It is a lot of work, especially for 24 batteries, but can be done. We just couldn’t do it here, or knowing my husband, he’d have done it.
Since the batteries are the heart of our system, keeping them clean and filled with distilled water was essential battery care. Testing them, dusting them off and paying attention to them was important to keep our system running. These batteries served us well. I am proud to say we never abused them or misused them at any time. My husband is very critical of every element of our alternative energy system, especially including the battery bank. About a month ago we replaced those 24 lead acid batteries with 2 LifePo4 batteries from Battle Born Batteries. We were using our generator daily due to the batteries not holding the charge any longer. Using the generator is the last thing you want to be doing! I will be writing more about these batteries in a future post as I learn more about them. We plan on adding to the battery bank with more of these new batteries. The nice thing about them is you can add to them one by one if you need to. Yes, two of these batteries have replaced our 24 lead acid ones! If you are curious about how that works, keep an eye on this blog because I will be telling you about it soon.
Wiring was the most expensive part of our alternative energy system. The farther the panels (or turbine) are from the batteries and house, the more you need. We had purchased the various components needed by now, including the roof racks. Roof racks were needed to place them securely on the roof. We made sure to buy enough racks for future solar panels. The brand we purchased was Unirac, though the exact model we bought has probably been improved and changed since then. I will be honest though, it was very scary watching my husband climbing on top of our barn and installing the racks and later the panels. He had to do it alone with no assistance from anyone, because it is just the two of us here now.
Once the wire was bought, work began on the installation of it. A ditch had to be dug from the house to the barn, from the spot where it would come into the house. In the middle of this project, it had to be interrupted to do the work on the water system that would eventually bring it into the house. That will be a future post. At the house the wire then ran through the new room and into the root cellar to the circuit breaker box. The wire underground was strung through conduit to protect it from the elements and rodents. It was all set and ready to be connected in the barn.
2/0 cable gave use the ability to transfer 12 volt DC power with virtually no loss, saving us the need to add a converter at the barn that changes it to AC and a converter at the house to change it back to DC. Each converter would use energy to convert it. This set up would allow us to have less components. AC is a smaller and cheaper wire. It is really a preference thing. Whichever you want to do is up to you.
In the barn condit was fastened to the walls to enclose the wire. From the downstairs wall the wire goes upstairs and is connected to the combiner box (made by Midnight Solar). The circuit breakers are in this box and each panel has its own circuit breaker and are connected from the roof to it here. An AC wire is run to the barn from the house in the same conduit along with the DC wire. In the downstairs of the barn, the AC wire is wired to a light switch for a light downstairs. It runs upstairs also to be wired in to various wall plugs and light switches. A DC motion light was installed in the upstairs of the barn and works great. If you see that light on at night, you wonder what is going on up there. The equipment was purchased over time until we had all the parts needed to complete this project.
Finally the day arrived for the solar panels to be installed on the barn roof. Each one had to be carried up the ladder and mounted to the roof rack. Once in place their wires were plugged into the MC4 connectors. A wire runs from the panels to the combiner box. That completed the installation of moving our first five panels to the barn roof and the process of wiring them in. To add more panels now, the roof racks are all set for them to be mounted in. Should be easier.
Moving the solar panels to the barn roof was a big job for my husband. There was much involved with accomplishing this feat. This didn’t take place until 2009, but the years before, he was trying to put this one objective in place. First he dug a room under our porch connected to the root cellar. This room would eventually house the water heater and pressurized water tank and pump. The wires coming from the barn, underground, would come through this room to the circuit breaker box, batteries, charge controller and inverter. The plan was in the future to move the batteries downstairs to the vented battery box which is in an area behind the root cellar. Digging out this room took more than a year by hand. No equipment except manual tools, a ladder and manpower. The huge rocks that were underground had to be carried up a ladder and out, one by one. Some were huge! He carried them out to the backyard and built a very large raised bed for the garden. A lot of hard work for sure!
Are you wondering why moving the solar panels to the barn roof took so long? Winter is why. During the winters the work would halt. Here in NY state we get a lot of cold weather and snow. Our house is in what is called a snow pocket. That means we get even more snow than the surrounding local area and it usually sticks around longer too. Winter is hard here at Peaceful Forest, heating and cooking with wood means a lot of work. Hauling water into the house daily and out to the horses. Bringing in at least two loads of hay a month and caring for the horses, along with a long list of other daily chores around here.
In the middle of digging out this room downstairs my husband discovered the foundation wall on the house needed to be rebuilt………oh no! That took a bit of money, time, and hard work. He replaced the stone foundation on that wall with cinder blocks and built a sliding door connecting the two rooms. I am not positive of the time frame on this, but I know it was before 2009, he had to work on the roof too. Funds were limited and the upstairs had leaked ever since the tornado in 2000. Six trees had fallen on the house and ruined the rain cap on the chimney, as well as some damage to the peak that caused the leaks. We were tired of all the pots to collect the rainwater every time it rained. While doing the roof work on that part of the house, he discovered rotten boards on the back half of the kitchen roof. So that had to be replaced as well.
Some of this work is still being worked on. Some is just ongoing due to living in an old house. Like all people, we had other things in our life that took precedence over our work here. Mostly involving our families, our three grown kids and two sets of elderly parents. We kept buying the materials, components and other items needed to finish the job of moving the solar panels to the barn roof. Paying as we go, without taking out a loan to do so, makes our pay off on this project immediate. Sacrificing to save money, such as living with no vehicle in a rural location for over nine months was not easy, believe me. The hardest by far for me, was living without any refrigeration for more than six years. Yes, it was hard to do while we were doing it, but well worth it in the long run.
Finally panels are installed on top of the barn roof! It was quite an undertaking for someone to do this with no help. Having to carry the panels up the ladder along with whatever tools were needed. Sometimes I held the ladder. I could not imagine doing this job myself. My husband, Larry, will force himself to do any job no matter how intimidating it may be. Especially if it is standing in his way of moving on. This was an important job that needed to be finished. He did it. Little by little over time, but he got those panels on the roof pretty quickly once he started. I wouldn’t recommend doing a job like this on your own, alone. It would have been nice to have help, but we had no one to ask.
Larry made a little wood frame that was tied to a tree behind the barn. That is what he held onto when getting on the roof. I was as nervous as could be the whole time. He kept assuring me it was secure, but I figure he was just saying that so I would be quiet and not worry so much. The first thing that had to be done was to attach the roof racks to the barn roof. He put up more than we needed at this time with the future additional panels in mind. He had to be careful screwing the racks into the roof so that it didn’t create leaks in the roof. As far as I know, it did not.
Once the racks were in place, it was time to start adding the panels. These panels were bought at various times. The only two that were the same size were the last two we had purchased from the altE Store (an online alternative energy store). The other three were bought as single panels from time to time whenever we could afford one. Back then, panels were a lot more money than they are presently. Two of them were bought on eBay. All of our equipment has been purchased online. It is much easier for us and we can usually get exactly what we want. Well almost……..but that is a future post.
As each panel is brought up on the roof it has to be connected with MC4 connectors in the back then bolted in. Then they are set in place on the rack. So Larry had to spend some time up there. Now they are all in place and ready to generate more power. He spent a lot of time studying the pattern of the sun during all seasons, to find the right spot for the panels. It paid off. We do have some shading due to the large trees across the road. But that is what we have and we have to live with it. If you are in a more open spot, you would get more power coming in. Several times over the years, that forest has been logged, but sadly they never took down the trees closest to the road which is the ones shading our panels. I figure one of these days some of those trees may just fall over on their own. It is the price of living in the forest and I wouldn’t want to give that up.
Building our solar energy system slowly, one piece at a time over the years, was a more affordable way to do that for us. As much as we enjoyed our simple life here, we had that yearning to watch our movie collection of over 300 VHS tapes. Especially on cold winter evenings. Even though we had given away my large screen television before we moved here, because I felt it was out of place in this house. Saying we wanted to live a life based on self-reliance and then having a huge screen television taking up half of our living room was saying otherwise. We still had our small DC powered television that had a VHS tape player built into it. It was what we used when my husband, Larry, drove an over the road truck. Our cat, Nutmeg and I traveled with him over the whole country searching for our potential homestead. As you can see, we ended up back here where we started from in New York state. We did not find another place as pretty (to us) as our home state. We both grew up here and loved our rolling hills, mountains, abundance of water sources and most important to us, our dark green forests.
It wasn’t too long before we got a 5o watt solar panel (still have it, in fact), a very small charge controller, an automotive inverter off the shelf at Walmart, wires and two batteries. Ah, yes……..batteries are the heart of the off the grid system! Best to learn to care for them right away. We started off with two fork-lift truck lead acid batteries purchased from Raymond Corp. where Larry was employed. We did not have a generator at that time. Instead we would pull our old car up to the house and connect the batteries to the car with cables and let the car charge the batteries. It was stinky, noisy and expensive, but it worked. Once we saw how well that was working, we set up a regular size television with surround sound and hooked up the VHS tape player (which was one of those older models that is quite large compared to the small compact DVD players now). We never used it to watch regular television, except for the week of September 11, 2001. Pretty soon Larry had our big desk top computer hooked up and we added dial-up to our phone service. So we were online, which opened up a whole lot of opportunities for us. I remember how during a long movie our batteries would need a charge and Larry would have to go hook up the car to run while we watched to the end of the movie. Very primitive now, when I think back to it.
With just one small panel on a wood frame we were able to move it from one side of the house to the other. Chasing the sun, so to speak. The addition of two more panels changed our ability to do that. Now we had to have a permanent spot for them. Kind of heavy to be moving them around all day long. So Larry built a wood frame for them and put it in front of the house. Another addition was a generator. First it was a Coleman generator that is usually used by campers. It wasn’t built for this kind of use and did not last very long. In 2004, we bought two more panels, these coming from Alte Store (highly recommend!). From Backwoods Solar we purchased an Xantrex charge controller, an Xantrex inverter and a TriMetric meter. Now we were getting serious!
From Backwoods Solar, we also purchased a generator kit they had at that time (they don’t sell it any longer). It was built for off the grid systems and charged DC only and that is the one we are still using today. It has a different motor though, as that has been changed and rebuilt many times. You know how those fuel powered things are! This new motor is working better than any of the other ones we have had in the past (knock on wood…..). The key to the generator is to buy a good one, then use it as little as possible. To hook up various components of the system we needed wires, fuses and hardware. I can’t begin to explain every detail of that since I did not do the actual work. I will share more details of the various components on future posts on this page.
My husband did a lot of research and learning while building our system over the years. He had a friend who helped in the beginning because he had his own system, though not off the grid. He maintained and built systems for other people in our area. So he helped us in the beginning. Now my husband has passed him in his knowledge of our system. Building your own system is good for you because then you KNOW your system and usually can troubleshoot it when need be. Sometimes the advice you get from others and even professional solar installers, might not apply to your system at all. A mistake can be deadly. Take a course, read some books, view some videos. Learn, while you plan and build your system. It is an on going process since this equipment is constantly updating and changing.