Building Our Solar Energy System

Peaceful Forest
The road in front of Peaceful Forest.

 

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.

Siemans 50 Watt Solar Panel
Siemans 50 Watt Solar Panel

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.

Our First Solar Panel
Our First Solar Panel

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!

Solar Panels on wood frame
Solar Panels on wood frame

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.

The Generator
The Generator

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.

signature (1)

Copyright © 2016 Kathleen G. Lupole
All Photographs Copyright © 2016 Kathleen G. Lupole

I write this blog based on my experience living an off-the-grid life as a modern homesteader. Some of the links you may click or products I recommend may or may not compensate me for including them in my post. Be sure to read my disclosure page if you are concerned about that.

Our Water Supply

Pitcher Pump
Our Water Supply

Our water supply is the most important need we have here at Peaceful Forest. This house was built in 1850 and hadn’t had many changes since that time until we move in. I have done research on our house and it most likely had some changes before the 1940s but not after that.  For many years it had been a hunting camp. Owned by a bunch of hunters who lived to party, drink and trash this place. Garbage being mainly alcohol bottles and beer cans buried all over the place. We spent years cleaning it up. It did have its own water supply though – a hand dug shallow well with a pitcher pump. I don’t know if this is the original well that was put in when the house was built. It may have been, but the enclosure built around it may not have been added back then. I have no way of knowing that.

Horse Drinking Water
Horses drink a lot of water!

Our water supply has never let us down. Our well has never gone dry. Regardless of the weather, in hot dry summers under drought conditions, such as current conditions in July 2016. It is a spring fed well and the water is always clear, cold and good. Our three horses drink a huge amount of water daily. They have two 5 gallon buckets in their barn at all times. Their buckets are refilled several times through out the day. Many times when you refill a bucket and carry it into the barn one of the horses will immediately drink the whole bucket down right then. Then do the same with another bucket. Or another horse will come in from outside for her bucket of water. You can make several trips pumping a new bucket of water each time.

Pitcher Pump in Blizzard
A pitcher pump works good in the winter too!

“How do we use a pitcher pump in the winter?” “Doesn’t the pump freeze?” Yes, it certainly does freeze. As long as it is drained down when you are done using it, then the next time you need it, just pour a cup of warm water into the pump. Wait a few minutes and it should be primed. If not, repeat with another cup. It usually thaws it out the first time. To drain it down when you are done using it, wait a a couple of minutes then raise the handle slowly and you will feel it drain down. Leave the handle up. If you don’t, you may have trouble thawing it out the next time you want water. After hearing so many people complaining about frozen pipes and having to use heat tape on their pipes it makes me thankful for our simple pitcher pump.

Water Heating on Wood Stove
Water Heating on Wood Stove

It is very important if you are using a pitcher pump on your well, to keep it clean. For some reason visitors’ male dogs always want to pee on it. Keep them away from it. Children always want to play with it. It is fine to teach a child to pump it properly but never let them bang it or hang onto it. Teach them to only pump it when water is really needed. Never waste your water. Never wash hands or anything else at the wall with the water running. Using soap or emptying dirty containers over your well with the water running is not a good idea. You need to keep the well clean. My father-in-law always told about his sister dropping their milk bucket into their well. They had to remove all the water. Bucket by bucket, climbing up and down a ladder. He said it was a horrible job but they had to remove all the milk and clean it out. So we are super careful around our well.

Water Bucket in Garden
Water bucket in Garden

Through out my gardening season I keep empty buckets in different areas in the garden. When it rains I collect the rain water for watering the garden on days when it doesn’t rain.  Then I don’t have to carry the water from the pump to the garden. Every morning we bring in two buckets of water that sit on the counter next to the sink. They are both covered with lids so nothing can drop in them. We dip from that through out the day. We have another larger bucket that sits on the floor that we use for things like cleaning, baths, showers, etc. Our water is heated on the wood stoves in the winter. Then we have a constant supply. In the warm weather we heat it on the propane stove.

Off The Grid Shower
Off The Grid Shower

During the summer we keep a number of green 2 liter soda bottles in the sun. They give you an instant shower anytime. I use them in my bath tub, just pouring the warm water over your hair and body. I know it sounds like it would be hard to do, but it is not. Uses no fuel. Figure on six bottles per person though I never use all six even with very thick, long hair. Clear bottles will fill with algae very fast in the sun. The green ones (from 7-UP, Ginger ale and Mountain Dew), not so quickly. They will get it eventually though.

Spring
Spring near our house

The thing about living this way is that it is not costly or your situation desperate. There is always a way to make things work out. If our well went dry, which it never has (knock on wood!) we have other options. If needed we have a creek within walking distance. There is a spring too, about two or three miles away that everyone uses for water.  I often see people there filling their water containers from the pipe that runs from the spring to the road. You can always find a solution to whatever problem arises on your off the grid homestead. Just “Google” it!


katlupe

Copyright © 2017 Kathleen G. Lupole
All Photographs Copyright © 201
7 Kathleen G. Lupole

I write this blog based on my experience living an off-the-grid life as a modern homesteader. Some of the links you may click or products I recommend may or may not compensate me for including them in my post. Be sure to read my disclosure page if you are concerned about that.

Off The Grid Kitchen Essentials

Off the grid kitchen
Off the grid kitchen

Essentials of the off the grid kitchen are not numerous. In fact the simpler you keep it, the easier it is to live with. Just because you are living without out grid power does not mean you can’t have any conveniences. Besides the more time you save by your tasks being easier and quicker, the more you will stick with it. These are items I use on my homestead almost daily. For the most part, they are not expensive or hard to find. I have a number of pieces of cast iron cookware, but the ones on this list are the ones I use more often.

the power grid
The Power Grid

By the way, when I refer to “off the grid” I am referring to living without the power utility grid. Some people seem to think it means no links to or life outside your home. No, that is not what I am talking about. I do not wish to live like that and don’t. The grid is the electric company that runs the big power lines that create a grid through out their area. Like in the picture above. That is what I mean when I say the grid. No power lines, no grid! Easy as that.

Now my list of off the grid kitchen essentials begins:

Cast Iron Cookware
My Cast Iron Cookware

1. Cast Iron Large Skillet

I have a number of pieces of cast iron cookware, but these are the ones I use more often. A large skillet is good for frying up some meat and adding vegetables or pasta to it on top of the stove. It can also be used in the oven for casseroles or for making biscuits. My skillet has a little handle on the edge so I can use two hands to move it or to pour something out of it. It is made by Lodge and even though I have a few Griswold skillets, this is my preferred one. It can be used on top or or in an outside fire pit or on your grill.

2. Cast Iron 7” Frying Pan

I actually have 3 of these and use at least one every day when I make our breakfast. Keeping them seasoned makes it easy to fry eggs in one pan and have home fries cooking in the other one. All three of these were thrift store finds. They can be used in the oven or on the outside fire pit or grill also.

3. Cast Iron Griddle

I would be lost without this! I use it for frying any kind of meat on the stove, but it can be put in the oven just as easily. It can also be used for making grilled cheese sandwiches, pancakes or French toast. I use it so much that I keep it in the oven instead of in a cupboard. Just make sure you keep it well seasoned.

4. Cast Iron Dutch Oven

The Dutch oven can be used for so many things. I can bake with it on top of our wood heating stove or on a campfire outside. For years I have called it my crock pot or slow cooker, it works the same. Simmering a roast, stew, soup, chili or whatever type of casserole on your stove in it will have your whole family waiting anxiously for mealtime. If you are using it on a campfire, just invert the lid and put hot coals on top to brown whatever you baking inside. Works great!

 

Pyramid Toaster
Pyramid Toaster

5. Pyramid Toaster

The camping toaster is pretty well known, but the one I use is called the “pyramid” toaster. The other type that is sort of rounded did not work so well for us here. The pyramid one is the one we have used for 18 years now. It will work great on a gas stove as well as over a wood stove burner or outside fire pit. You just have to keep your eye on it or your toast will be cinders before you know it. This is the second I one I have had to buy because it wears out if you use it a lot and I did.

6. Water Storage Tank

A water storage tank is needed in your kitchen if you do not have running water. My grandmother kept a milk can of water in her kitchen. It really is an off grid kitchen essential in that water is constantly needed as you cook. I bought a water storage tank and it can have a permanent table or counter in your kitchen that is close to your sink (if you have one, I do). I also have water in pails next to the stove and the sink. I really use a lot of water on a daily basis and I am very conservative with it. You learn to be if you have to go outside to pump it or get it some other way and carry it in.

7. Ice Chest Or Refrigeration

Refrigeration of some kind is needed even if most of your foods do not need to be refrigerated. Storing leftovers or an ingredient you needed that had be kept cold. An ice chest will work and that is what I used for over six years. We had a styrofoam ice chest that we kept in our vehicle and every time we went to town we bought ice to put in the ice chest that we kept in the pantry. That ice chest was a regular Coleman type. Everything got wet and the labels came off jars of condiments and made the water in the chest get slippery and I hated it. But I did it till I could afford solar refrigeration.

Coffee Percolator
Coffee Percolator

8. Coffee Percolator

Coffee making is essential here! We love our coffee! Even now that we have more solar power than we did before, we still use a percolator that does not use electric. We can make coffee on our outside fire pit or on our wood heating stove. In cases of power outages people haul their percolators out and try to figure out how to make coffee in it. If you have a gas stove, gas grill, outside fire or wood heating stove you could still make your coffee. It makes better coffee than any coffee machine you can buy anywhere. So why change?

9. Stock Pots

Stock pots are always on my wood stove full of water. It seems like I always need some hot water for something and instead of having to wait for it, I usually have some ready. In summer, I heat one pot of it on the propane stove and just let it sit there. If I notice that it has cooled off too much, I will reheat it. In winter we have at least two on the big wood heating stove in the living room. That is how we heat water for laundry or showers or baths too.

10. Pressure Cookers

Pressure cookers (not pressure canners, there is a difference) are great for cooking a meal that would take a long time in just a few minutes. Mine is used when I am in a hurry to get a meal on the table. I can never believe how tender everything turns out in such a short time.

This is my list of off the grid kitchen essentials based on my personal choices. Your list could be completely different from mine. I am no expert and don’t claim to be one either.


katlupe

Copyright © 2017 Kathleen G. Lupole
All Photographs Copyright © 201
7 Kathleen G. Lupole

I write this blog based on my experience living an off-the-grid life as a modern homesteader. Some of the links you may click or products I recommend may or may not compensate me for including them in my post. Be sure to read my disclosure page if you are concerned about that.

 

Moving Off The Grid

Off Grid House
Our house in 1999

Moving off the grid in 1999 was an experience for me. I had never really thought about it or what it would be like. The scariest part of it for me was being in the middle of the state forest. At that time my husband worked at night and I would be alone here. Yes, I would be lying if I said I was not afraid. I had our dog, Nikita, with me and she was a good watch dog. Only sometimes she would get scared herself! That did not help me. She was a young puppy and outgrew that phase pretty quickly. The bears and mountain lions I pictured forcing their way into my house at night never materialized in all these years.

Eventually I found that there was nothing to be afraid of. It was all in my head! In fact, living in the forest especially now in 2017, feels much more safer than living in residential areas. If it wasn’t for the hunters and the party people, I would say it was the best place to live. In all the years we have been here, we have only seen evidence of bears twice near our home. The property up the road used to have a rental trailer and the man who lived there said he had seen a really big bear. Not us down here though. Mountain lions or bobcats…….none of them either. We had a tomcat hang around here who looked like he had some bobcat in him.

Woods and House
Woods around the house in 1999 with outhouse in back.

The actual day we moved here it was raining. We had to try to move our stuff in and move the stuff the previous owners left behind out. Most of it went to the local landfill. It cost us some money to do so, especially because there were several mattresses and box springs. Since this property had been a hunting camp, there was a number of beds scattered about the house. We managed to get rid of them and make room for our furniture and belongings in a short time. We were still not considering electric power in any way. Moving off the grid for us meant that we just lived here the way it was. Not having electric is not really a hardship unless you need computers and the internet connection equipment.

Servel refrigerator
Propane Refrigeration works well for off the grid living.

The house had propane lights and refrigerator, though we brought our own collection of kerosene lamps and used them. There was a gas cooking stove and I used that. We changed the downstairs bedroom into a bathroom and installed our claw foot bathtub that my husband, Larry had found at a junk shop. I had located a SunMar composting toilet for $200. that a family had used while living in a school bus. It was like new. So we had all that we needed at that time. It didn’t cost much to move into an off the grid house. Using a propane refrigerator made the transition to this lifestyle much easier. We were fortunate that it came with the house, otherwise they can be quite pricey. Finding a used one for someone starting out would be the best option.

Exhaust Pipe for SunMar composting toilet
Exhaust Pipe for SunMar composting toilet being installed.

The very first thing Larry did was to install drains to the sink in the kitchen and to the bathroom for the tub. That way we were able to use them by filling them with water and letting it go down the drain. Made my life much easier as soon as that was done! At first I had to wash the dishes in a dishpan and then carry it outside to empty it. Kind of scary when I had to go outside to do that in the dark and I was home alone! I really appreciated the drains and still do.

Ditch for Drains
Ditch for the drains from the kitchen sink and bathtub.

Moving off the grid is not for everyone. No way would I say it is. It can be hard on you as you get older and don’t have everything done yet. It can be difficult to buy the equipment for an alternative energy system. My question is do you really need all that electrical stuff? I have had this on my mind for awhile now, as our batteries for our system are in need of replacing, and they are VERY expensive. If we did not want to be on the computer or use our electric refrigerator, it would not matter if we had a system or not. Those are things to think to think about. If you want to move off the grid, do you want a regular house with all the conveniences? If so, that will cost some money. I am not saying it cannot be done. It can be but you will need to spend some money to do so. The big question is how big of a system do you want or need?

 

katlupe

Copyright © 2017 Kathleen G. Lupole
All Photographs Copyright © 201
7 Kathleen G. Lupole

 

 

 

Welcome to Solar Baby!

solar and wind on Solar Baby
The alternative energy system at Peaceful Forest homestead in April 2017.

Welcome to Solar Baby and take a peek at my husband’s and my life of living off the grid in this day of fast paced living centered around easy convenience. Larry and I have been living this way since 1999. It has not always been easy and I am not saying it is, even today. I previously began this blog back in 2008, but it was attacked and I lost all those previous posts. I believe the people who destroyed it are web designers, SEO people and hosting sites. I just don’t need them. And I am going to rebuild this site, but now with more information than before.

I have been trying over the years to share how to live with a small system. It is more affordable that way. So here I am attempting to teach the average people about solar energy. To the average person the thought of solar or wind power is way beyond their world. Yet they think nothing of throwing their hard earned money to the grid powered systems daily. Most people think you have to be making a six figure income to put one in their modest homes. I am here on Solar Baby to tell you that is not so. I know because I live with it….every day and have since July of 1999. Yes, it is a learning experience over time, but it is VERY affordable for the simple living folks like us.

3 solar panels on Solar Baby
Three solar panels powered our system for many years.

Back when I started this blog, in 2008, we lived with 185 watts of power coming from three solar panels. In the dark days of winter, we had to use our generator more often. In the summer, it was a very different story. We only had to run our generator about once a week. In case you didn’t know, we have to run the generator to charge our batteries if the sun doesn’t shine enough to do it. I call our system a “add as you can system”. Meaning that we add a component as we can afford it. It is best to buy good equipment so you have to spend some money on each one. That is better than buying cheaper equipment that doesn’t last.

Right now we have 24 used locomotive batteries that we replaced our original fork-lift truck batteries with. A charge controller is essential to any alternative system as it controls how much of a charge is going into your batteries. Our controller is the Xantrex C-60 charge controller (60 amps, 12 volt) and back in 2004 it sold for $245. at Backwoods Solar. We have never had any problem with it at all. I would highly recommend it to anyone just building their system. A meter comes in handy for letting you know how much power you have going into the system and how much is going out or what you are using. The meter we have is the Tri-Metric meter made by Bogart Engineering.

generator wagon on Solar Baby
A generator powers the system when there is no sun.

The generator we use is made especially for off the grid systems and is sold at Backwoods Solar. It is a DC only generator and has made the biggest difference in our system. When we started out we used an old car for charging the batteries and not only did the exhaust stink, the car was noisy and the gas was expensive. The generator is not as loud as most generators, but you can definitely hear it. Works great and uses less gas than a regular generator. Some day when our system is built bigger, we will use our generator less and less.

My thought is that anybody can do this. How many people complain about the cost of their electric bill every month? Just start small. Hook up one 50 watt solar panel with a small charge controller and pick up a couple of the golf cart batteries. Then hook up an automotive inverter that can be bought at Walmart or any truck stop store to your system. Now you can run your lights and television without adding to your electric bill. Do you know what the best part is? You will not be without them during a power outage! Everyone else will be in the dark, and your house will be all lit up.

Be sure to check back here on Solar Baby as I rebuild my site. I hope to cover everything needed for anyone starting a new alternative energy system with a low budget. Thanks for reading!

katlupe

Copyright © 2017 Kathleen G. Lupole
All Photographs Copyright © 201
7 Kathleen G. Lupole