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Old 06-18-2011, 11:33 AM  
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Eureka, Montana
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The solar panels are wired to a charge controller, which regulates the charge and keeps the batteries from overcharging. We paid $150 for our charge controller but you can go up or down from there, depending on the size of your system and the features you want. We've got a read-out panel that tells how much amps the system is charging at the moment. When a cloud passes over the sun you can see the numbers drop.

You get the maximum charge from your panels if you can turn them to track the sun. This can be done manually (like we do) or with an automatic tracker (which you can buy or make). You can also build your tower or frame to allow different angles of the panels. In the winter ours are nearly upright to face the sun low on the southern horizon (this far north). Farther south you wouldn't need as much of an angle. We spend Feb/Mar/Apr in southern Nevada in a camper and take a solar panel along, so we've noticed the different in angle.

From the charge controller the wires go to the batteries. For the last five years we've been using 4 wal-mart Deep-cycle 12-volt batteries. They've done well. A couple of them went bad after a while but Wal-mart stood behind the warranty and replaced them. Next month we're planning to replace them with four 6-volt golf cart batteries from Costco. 6-volt batteries must be wired in pairs for 12-volt (and in 'fours' for 24-volt, but unless you're going with a huge system, I'd stick with 12-volt. You need a different inverter for a 24-volt system).

We can charge extra batteries using jumper cables. We'll use the batteries we're taking out for such things as our trolling motor and the camper, plus we keep a battery and small inverter in our workshop to power a light and radio. We just switch out for a different battery when it gets low.

We wired the deep-cycle batteries in sequence. You start at one end and wire the positive posts together, then the negative/ground posts together. We also drove a metal rod (I think we used rebar) deep into the dirt next to the battery box so we could ground the system. We've been using a huge picnic cooler with some holes drilled in the sides for the wires to run through and for ventilation. The batteries emit gasses when they're charging. We have the cooler sitting next to our porch, with an inverter box built on the wall above it.

From the batteries the wires go to the inverter. The inverter changes the 12-volt DC (direct current) to 110/120 AC (alternating current) house current. From there you can plug directly into the inverter and use extension cords, or you can make a 2-ended (Male plug) heavy gauge cord to plug your house into the inverter and use the household wiring as though you were hooked to the grid.

We have 3 inverters. We have an 800-watt Trace sine wave inverter, which we run our refrigerator on, as well as sensitive electronics such as our DSL wifi box. The phone company appreciates that, since many people in our area run them on the cheap inverters available at box stores and home building supply stores, and burn the DSL box out a couple times a yer! Just something to keep in mind. Just about everything else runs fine on the cheap inverters.

We have a 1,000 watt inverter from Costco that runs most of the rest of the house: lights, outlets. The type of things we use are mixer, blender, sewing machine, charger for tools, laptop computers (much less watt use than a desktop computer), low-watt 20" thinscreen LCD TV, radio/CD player, Fans (including ceiling fan),etc. We use low-watt LED light bulbs. When we buy anything we shop by watt/amp rating rather than price, though we try to keep things low budget. Wal-mart has an energy saver ceiling fan that takes about 45 watts even on high, and we have a 3-watt LED light bulb in it.

We have a 2,000 watt inverter from Harbor Freight in the work shop for small power tools like a drill or circular saw. Bigger tools like the radial arm saw, air compressor, and welder are fun off the generator, but it's not like those are run all day long, so the gas expense is minimal.

I'm not sure how long these posts can be, so I'll post this and keep writing on another post.
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Old 06-18-2011, 11:44 AM  
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Eureka, Montana
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In the winter or during extended cloudy spells, and especially when both happen at once, we sometimes have to run the generator for a few hours to bring up the charge in the batteries. That can depend on whether we've been good and read books or played cards or other non-electrical pastimes, or watched a couple of movies anyway! Before our kids grew up and moved out they played video games sometimes and we ran the generator more often in the winter.

In the summer we have more power than we can use. We run an electric dehydrator on sunny days, and we run fans whenever we feel like it. Our neighbors bought an electric weed-eater and run it off their solar to cut the grass everywhere within reach of a cord! Free lawn mowing! Electric weed eaters take around 150 to 200 watts, so you can do that on most inverters. The electric lawn mowers we looked at at Home Depot start around 1,200 watts, and that's more than we want to do on our system. The neighbors have a much bigger inverter than ours. I believe it's around 2,500 watts, a high-quality sine wave inverter. We may get the electric weed-eater for free 'mowing', but we already use "his" and "hers" motorless reel lawn mowers to cut the grass! They're actually kind of fun, free to use, and quiet.

A few years ago lightning struck a nearby tree and it blew out our inverter. A fireball came out of the back and an awful smell of melting plastic filled the house! It was the 1,000 watt Costco inverter, thankfully, and not the Trace inverter. We bought another one, plus a spare that we keep new in the box in the barn. We're 60 miles from town, so you don't just pop out and buy another one, especially with gas so expensive.

We're really pleased with our set-up and we enjoy the challenge of living within the electric capacity of our system and NOT having a power bill or power outtages. It's a nice feeling.
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Old 06-18-2011, 12:08 PM  
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Eureka, Montana
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Well, now after a marital disagreement/discussion about inverters and sine wave, modified sine wave, and pure sine wave, I'm confused as to what is what and feel like I know less than I did an hour ago!

All I know is they power our stuff, and we have certain things running off one inverter and certain things off the other inverters. I know the Costco and Wal-mart ones will overheat if they have too much of a load on a steady draw. They have cooling fans on them, which use minimal power and are more of a background annoyance than power draw when they kick on and run.

Here's some pictures of ours:

On the left is a 1,000-watt Inverter from Costco. To the right is a Xantrax Charge Controller from Axman's in Missoula. They're mounted on the wall inside the door of our log cabin.


These are the batteries inside the cooler outside the door.


This is the Trace Inverter in a box mounted on the wall above the battery box/cooler


This inverter from Harbor Freight is mounted under the box the Trace inverter is in. This one powers the workshop.

Maybe seeing pictures of the inverters and charge controller will make you feel more familiar with the stuff if you decide to start putting together your own system.
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Old 06-18-2011, 01:50 PM  
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This was really great information, and I appreciate it, and sure many others will as well!
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Old 06-18-2011, 02:39 PM  
mohel
 
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Keizer, OR
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The frame is made out of bed frame iron, welded together. The pole drops inside one that is set in the ground in cement, and we can easily pivot the whole thing to face the sun. We mosey out and give it a nudge several times a day, whenever we think of it.
Good common sense. Given the time I'd probably waste a month trying to invent a Rube Goldberg device to turn it. (waste of time) It looks good against Winter Montana snow.

"I finished planting the garden today. June 17...in the rain...42 degrees... Sigh..."

Raining here too but 10 degrees warmer. Yesterday hit 80, 100 in my van and I DID NOT ENJOY IT! I want the sun but not the heat and I only want the sun at all for my plants.


How far to the nearest running water like a stream or river?
Just curious if anyone here grows rhubarb? I'm in sudden need of some information on growing it. It's a fantastic taste that can come in many forms.
Gardening in Montana-r1.jpg 

Gardening in Montana-r4.jpg 

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Old 06-18-2011, 02:45 PM  
mohel
 
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Keizer, OR
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Originally Posted by havasu View Post
This was really great information, and I appreciate it, and sure many others will as well!
I can 2nd that!

Quote:
I know the Costco and Wal-mart ones will overheat if they have too much of a load on a steady draw. They have cooling fans on them, which use minimal power and are more of a background annoyance than power draw when they kick on and run.
Computer cooling fans come in all types and sizes. Papst is a German fan maker who manufactures the best. If you can jury mount one on the inverter's case and tie into the existing fan leads I'll mail you a free one I'm not using. Electronics stores like Frys sell anything you could think of.
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