Tag Archives: solar

Earthship Island, Day 3

So it looks like what’s going to happen with the blogging is Kat and I are going to alternate days. It’s really the only sensible way we can have enough time to make a post. If we both tried to post on the same day, we would spend all day on it and we do want to have time to work on other things.

That being said, today’s post is going to be Earthship technical.

So we showed you what the front of the tropical Earthship looked like last time, now we’re going to look at it in more detail. This first picture is from the side.

The first thing to note is the planters in this Earthship are outside. They are what you are looking at just beyond the bamboo railing. This also means they are part of the berm.

If we zoom in bit you can see this:

This is the outside end of a vent tube. Air it does provide, but the berm does not cool it like it would if the pipe were metal instead of plastic. Also, I don’t think the depth of the planter is quite enough to cool the pipe enough anyway, but to check that we would need some sort of remote, underground temperature sensor. One must also keep in mind that, in situations like this (i.e. building in a country like Indonesia), we’re pretty much building with whatever is available. There are several things in this place that could make a big improvement if only a different material had been used, but you use what you have.

If we head up onto the roof and look back at the planters, you can see the collection trench for the rain water. They used dead coral for the silt filter. There is a tonne of it lying around on the beaches here.

That trench channels the water along to the shown pipe with the screen over it. As the depth of the water increases in the trench, it will eventually drain through this pipe and into the red cistern.

This is a pretty decent setup, but there is one thing that would make it even better. If they had attached the screen to a sleeve that could easily be removed then (a) it would be easier to fix when it is damaged and (b) in the event of a tsunami you could quickly remove the sleeve and replace it with a cap. This would save your cistern from filling with sea water, which in the aftermath, it would be very desireable to have some fresh water, especially on a small island that has no natural source of water.

Unfortunately, the water channeling on the second Earthship here isn’t setup the same as this one. On Earthship2, it is channeled right into the cap of the cistern, which has been removed and a screen installed over top of it. The problem with this is that they embedded the edge of the screen in mortar, which you would think would make it quite secure, but as we discovered, both screens have suffered damage on Earthship2, one of them almost completely detached. With the screens embedded in mortar, this will not be an easy thing to fix. Had they done it the same way as Earthship1, the fix would have been simple.

On to the solar system.

There are four panels for Earthship1 and the system seems to be working just fine. We have DC based LED lights inside, as well as DC water pumps for the toilet and shower. There is a tiny 500W inverter with a single socket on it that we have been using to charge our phones and tablet. No issues to report there.

Earthship2, however, is currently without power. This is because its batteries are dead. We’re not sure if that is going to get fixed either as none of us are going to shell out the big bucks for new batteries. We contacted Earthship Biotecture, but haven’t received a reply yet.

I bet you’re wondering what that big black strip in the middle of the roof is there for? Well, let me show you a better view.

So the idea here is that this long, black metal duct will heat up in the sun and draw hot air into it. The vent tubes should then provide fresh air that is pulled into the main living area that is cooler. You can see one of the curved roof vents at the far end where the hot air is to be expelled.

The problem is there is nary a whisper of air coming from the vent tubes so inside isn’t really all that cooler than outside, especially at night. Things only really cool down if there is a nice stiff breeze blowing through the screen door.

At the opposite end of Earthship1, you’ll find this big black barrel.

This is supposed to provide solar heated water, but it has some flaws. The first one, is it’s made of plastic, so if the sun is shining on only part of it, the rest of the barrel doesn’t conduct that heat because plastic is an insulator. Secondly, not much of the barrel is actually exposed to the sun, so you’re really only heating a small amount of water at the top.

We noticed this when we took a shower today and we had full sun out. The water was almost down right cold. Again, this is probably one of those situations where they used whatever they had available, not necessarily what was most ideal.

I thought I would give you another look at the planters from above. It doesn’t look like they planted any food vegetation in these, just a bunch of grass and other things that were growing close by. We did find an aloe plant growing on the side of Earthship1 though, which for us Canuks who sun burn easy is a great thing to have.

Moving inside, if you look up at the ceiling you’ll find four of these screen vents to let the hot air out.

I you look above the front door, there are two big screen vents. As you can see, the screen is quite damaged. Replacing it will be quite the challenge as once again, it has been embedded in mortar.

This is our shower. It works quite well, though the water isn’t warm. It is gravity fed from the barrel on the roof. There is a pump that turns on to refill the barrel when it finds the water level has dropped.

This is the splash guard wall for the shower. I think all of us here are pretty unanimous on liking the look of the plastic bottles with the ends that look like stars or snow flakes.

This is our toilet. It too is working quite well. It is filled from a greywater well from under the planters. Everytime you flush, a pump comes on to refill the tank.

Lastly, we have the sink. We can wash our hands here, but you don’t want to drink the water as there isn’t a full filtration system setup in this Earthship. We brought a water filter with us so we can fill it from the tap and get drinking water without having to buy water all the time.

That takes care of most of it. There is some minor damage to the walls and floors, which apparently is due to earthquakes. It has made some of the doors difficult to open as a result as they rub on the floor now.

Earthship1 is in pretty good shape, but E2 isn’t. It doesn’t have the same facilities, the power isn’t working, so the pumps for the plumbing aren’t working either. There is no bed or bed frame and no lights, even if there was power. We are supposed to be working on making a bed frame another furniture for E2 but without power or proper tools, this is proving to be challenging.

I should also mention the humidity factor again, as it destroys a lot of things left lying around, especially anything made with iron based metal. Screens are rusted, tools are rusted, Kat found a can of nails that had all fused completely into one mass. It also doesn’t help that there is probably a lot of salt in the air from the ocean being so close by.

Overall, we’ve settled in and getting by, but Katrina’s living quarters are a little less than desireable and we need to improve on that.

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Solar Review 2017

Having been living with our solar power now for over a year (installed Sep 2016), I thought I might share a few of the things we’ve learned over the passed year living with it.

I guess one of the first questions people wonder about, for our area, would be “is it worth it?” This question does have several dependencies, but overall, I would say definitely YES! The more we hear about how the cost of grid electricity is going up and up, we are so glad we aren’t part of that. Especially up here where power outages are not uncommon. We never notice when this happens.

The other fun thing, especially during the summer, is that you can use as much power as you want during the day. In fact, this is recommended as this is when the sun is up and your batteries are being charged. Compare that to being on the grid (here in Ontario anyway) where they charge you extra for the power you use during “peak hours”. This always felt like being penalized for working from home.

Of course, whether it is worth it for you will depend heavily on how you expect to use it. Power used is based on energy and time (thus why your electric bill is charged by the kilowatt-hour). If you want to do a lot of work in a short amount of time, you will need a lot of energy. Anyone considering going off-grid should take some time to do some research. Figure out what things you are using right now, what appliances, kitchen gadgets, bathroom widgets, computers, TVs and so on. After you have that list, figure out how long you use each of those items everyday. Add all that up and you’ll get a rough idea of your daily use.

As a heads up, anything that uses electricity to generate heat will be a fairly big power draw. Hair dryers, hair curlers, hair straighteners, hair crimpers, space heaters, electric stoves, electric clothes dryers, toasters, electric waffle irons, clothes irons, soldering irons, electric welders… (you get the idea) will all draw a lot of energy. I put that in bold because how much power they draw will depend on how long they are used for. Unfortunately, most of all of those things I just listed have a long warm-up period before you actually start using it, so that will add to the time. Something like a microwave, which does draw a lot of energy, but it doesn’t have a warm-up time, can work to your benefit. Generally speaking, how long do you really run your microwave? Usually under 5 min. It may have a high energy draw, but it is a short amount of time. Compare that with something like a slow cooker, which draws less energy, but is used for long periods of time and you may find the slow cooker kills your off-grid system. If you can’t live without your slow cooker, we highly recommend a thermal cooker instead.

When we moved up here to the trailer, we knew we would be going off-grid so we did the tough thing and got rid of all of our electric based heating devices. This included a really nice toaster oven we had, which was difficult to give up at the time. Now we don’t even think about it. We only have three solar panels at 250W each so our system isn’t huge. That being said, the seasons affect it big time.

From March until October, everything is golden. We get enough power to handle all of our needs without having to resort to using a generator as back up. This includes things like power tools and vacuums that draw a lot of power. For that stuff, we usually just wait for a sunny period.

From November to February, in this part of the world, it is cloudy more often than it is sunny. Also, the days are a lot shorter, so even when the sun is out, you don’t get a lot of time to recharge the batteries. Additionally, if your batteries aren’t kept in a temperature stable environment (ours are out in the cold), this will impose further energy loss to you for usage as it will take more energy to charge the batteries when they get cold. This is where having a generator as backup is necessary.

We have a little control unit with an LCD display attached to our inverter that tells us various things.

In the above picture you can see that we are in Bulk Charging mode and we have an input voltage coming from the batteries at 58.0V. If the inverter is telling you it is charging that can only mean one thing: the generator is running. When the generator isn’t running, we just have a read-out of what the voltage is coming from the batteries. There are other things we can check, but I find the voltage is the most useful. We have a 48V system and having lived with it for over a year now, I have a pretty good idea of how full the batteries are based on the incoming voltage.

If that 58.0V I mentioned above seems high, it’s not. Think of your batteries like a car tire. If your tire is full at 30psi (around 207kPa) then you will need a compressor that can generate more than 30psi to fill that tire. That’s just the nature of the physics. In addition to that, as far as the batteries are concerned, the colder it is, the more voltage (electrical pressure) you will need to fill the batteries. During the summer, we can top out the batteries at 57V, but during the winter, we can push it up to 62V before they are filled. The charge controller we have handles this automatically using temperature compensation.

Incidentally, that increase in voltage when it is cold comes with one interesting factor: the resistance in the wires drops as it gets colder, so you gain some extra voltage in the winter. If you can keep your batteries somewhere more temperature stable (like a garage), that would help a lot. Lead acid batteries don’t like it when they are cold.

There are other battery options, some of them are quite new and I would be fascinated to try them (e.g. the Tesla Powerwall), but they can also be more expensive. Depending on the added advantages (e.g. no maintenance, higher power storage), the extra cost may be worth it.

The things we mainly use our power for are the lights in the trailer, our laptops and charging our phones. Sometimes we’ll use a blender or hand mixer, but it’s definitely not every day. We don’t run any of the big power tools during the winter, as the shop isn’t heated and it’s not fun trying to build stuff when your hands are freezing. During the warmer months we do run a miter saw, table saw, electric planer, skill saw, compressor and a few other things. All of those have a big draw when they start up. The miter saw draws between 1100-1200W while it is running, but how long does it take you to make a cut: 5 seconds or less for most things so the energy usage is fairly small per cut.

I can’t say I was an expert going into the whole solar power thing, but I had done some research and I did have some classes on it when I did the Earthship Academy. I knew enough so when I went to talk to the guy at Solar Depot, I wasn’t a complete noob. I’m not an electrician, and I didn’t wire the thing together, but I do have a pretty good grasp on how to monitor it and maintain it.

In the end, if you can figure out what your needs are, do a bit of math, you can figure out what size of system you are going to need. That being said, you could build a system so huge that you could run just about anything. However if the cost of your system is so high that you will never recoup the loss, when compared to being on-grid, then there isn’t much point. If you can cut back on your usage so the cost of your power system is reduced, it can definitely pay for itself within a year or so.

December 2016

Time keeps moving on and it has been a while since my last post. There is a variety of things to cover, so stay tuned.

First, I’ll give you a solar update.

Solar power during winter has its challenges. Optimally, it would be nice to have the batteries in a semi-heated/temperature stable location, but alas, we don’t have such a place so where they are is what we have. That being said, the solar system has been behaving very well. Unfortunately, the weather hasn’t been all that sunny. After that snow we had on my birthday, it warmed up a bit, rained enough to get rid of all of the snow and then it snowed again.

… and again… and again… In fact, there haven’t been too many days in December where it hasn’t snowed at least a few flakes. This means I need to get out and clean off the solar panels each time. I have a system where I don’t need to get on the roof, but it still has its own risks being up on a ladder. I fell from it once and I don’t recommend the experience. Nothing major was broken, fortunately.

The other thing I discovered is it is not sufficient to simply clean off the solar panels. The more you do that, the more the snow builds up at the bottom and then starts covering the bottom panel. Once that happens, your incoming voltage will drop so much that you can’t get enough power out of it to recharge the batteries. So I spent an extended amount of time cleaning off the roof below the panels yesterday.

If the panels are clear of the thick snow, any ice or minor coverage will quickly melt even on a cloudy day. Last Thursday (Dec 15th) was one of the first days where we had any sunshine at all, but it was bitterly cold. I think the windchill that night was down to -32C (-27F). Fortunately, we went back to getting snow and it wasn’t quite so chilly. Today, was a brilliantly awesome sunny day and we were able to get some good power out of it. If it is constantly cloudy, we can go three days or so from 100% battery down to 80% at which point I run the generator to top them up.

I’m sure you’re all wondering where the pictures are so here are some nice scenery shots of the snowy landscape that we now live in.

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In that last picture, on the far right you can see a black barrel beside the smurf house. The snow cap on it is probably 40-50cm (16-20″). As I said above, it’s been snowing a lot. We’ve certainly enjoyed having our driveway ploughing done by someone else, that is for sure.

Kat also managed to sneak a picture of me as I was cleaning snow off the roof yesterday.

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In case you’re wondering, I have a squeegee attached to the end of one of those telescoping poles you usually use for painting. It works great for the panels, but is less efficient at clearing the roof itself.

While I was outside taking pictures, our bird feeder has been quite the area of activity. Chickadees, bluejays, wood peckers and nuthatches all like to feast on what we have to offer. I managed to snag a picture at just the right time to get a shot of a nuthatch. They are pretty flighty and don’t stay for very long, even less so than a chickadee.

You can see this one on the side of the feeder on the right.

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Next, we’ll move inside.

As you may know from previous posts, we have a new bed frame that is working very well. Soon after that was put in, I hooked up this.

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That’s an LED light strip on a dimmer switch. It’s very snazzy and makes reading in bed very enjoyable.

Once that was in it was time to work on paneling the walls.

This is the area around the closet, before any paint was applied.

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This is the first section on the opposite side of the closet, by the window, after the primer was applied.

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Here you can see both sides after the primer.

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Progressing along, all of the window side is now paneled. Some has been painted, some are waiting to be painted.

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That last picture is a little out of date, as those unpainted panels now are.

Recently, we were back at my parents for our annual cookie day event. Friends of ours from the Ottawa area, Ian and his wife, Heather, who were attending said event, kindly donated a small set of cupboards to us that they no longer needed. As it turns out, the cupboards fit nicely over the counter where the sink will be going (yes, another project yet to be completed).

Unfortunately, this did mean some adjustments needed to be made to the spice rack we had made to go over the stove, but nothing that we couldn’t handle. But before we could install it, Kat wanted to paint the wall to match the rest of the area. So, she did.

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Isn’t that a lovely blue? Anyway, I did need to make a few modifications to the cupboards before I could install them. We don’t have standard wood studs behind our walls, so you can’t just hang it any which way you like. Here is a picture of me on the floor praying to the cupboards.

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It wasn’t a whole lot of work, and we now have a nice new storage location for more things. Actually, all of the spices ended up in the cupboards until I finish making the modifications to the previously mentioned spice rack.

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This was right before it got really cold last week, so we haven’t done much since then. I still need to go outside into the truck shelter to do things like make cuts in the pieces of wood we want to use. If it’s -20C (-4F), I’m not really inclined to go out and do that.

Things are winding down now and we’re getting ready for the holidays. We won’t be doing any major traveling this year, just visiting our family and friends within easy driving distance.

Make your holidays great 🙂

We’re lovin’ the sun

A few posts back, I showed you this picture…

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… as a hint of things to come.

Well, things have come.

While Kat has been working hard on tearing out the interior of the trailer, I have been working on getting the solar array up and going. We bought the system back in the Autumn of 2014 and we are just now getting to hooking it up.

With the help of our good friend Andres, who happens to be an electrician, we went over all of the components one day in mid August, and then we went out and bought a whole bunch of little fiddly bits that he needed to get the job done correctly.

One of those fiddly bits was a grounding plate.

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This is a big plate of solid metal that you bury in the ground and run a large gage wire (#6) from it to your electrical box. This provides proper grounding to all of your electrical system. This is especially important if you get hit with lightning. ZAP!!

Here is the picture of the hole I dug for it and the trench for the wire. The plate needs to be at least 60cm (24″) underground.

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In addition to the electrical stuff, I also had to buy some stuff to make a rack for the solar panels. I chose to use these things.

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I’m sure they have an official name, but I don’t know what it is. They’re L shaped pieces of heavy gage metal with holes all along them. The holes make it convenient to connect them together.

I cut some pieces and bolted them together. Then I painted them with rust-proof paint so they will last longer in the weather. Then I started to haul them up and attach them to the roof over the trailer.

Here is the very start.

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I chose a spot on the roof along a screw-line so I knew there was something to connect to. I also reinforced the wood strapping underneath the roof, with a much larger piece of wood, and then drilled holes through it so I could bolt the metal rack supports I had built through it.

It seemed to work just fine, though I had a heck of a time climbing up and down the ladder, going back and forth from under the roof to on top of it. Oh, and I had to remove a hornet’s nest the size of a volleyball to be able to do the work under the roof. Nothing a little late night spraying couldn’t fix.

Here is the shot of the two bottom supports in place with a cross piece at the bottom.

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Lo and behold, here we have the first panel mounted on the rails.

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I ran more of the same metal rails down the back of the roof, which is what I connected the main supports to. I can unbolt them and change the angle if so desired. However, after getting all three panels up there, it felt a bit wobbly, so I added some extra supports. It’s nice and sturdy now, but the number of bolts I need to loosen to change the angle that the panels are set at has increased drastically.

Oh well, I’d rather have it stable and a bit more work to change than have it fall over in a big wind or heavy snow storm. Here is a picture of the final result with all three of 250W PV panels installed.

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Here is another look from a different angle.

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With the rack completed, we now needed to build a platform for the batteries to sit on. These aren’t regular car batteries. They are massive, deep-cycle, marine style batteries and we have eight of them. Each one weighs in around 55kg (120lbs). Needless to say, they aren’t the easiest things to move around.

For the platform, I took three cinder blocks and spent some time leveling them as perfectly as I could. The batteries have liquid in them so you want them to be as level as they can be.

Once I had that part completed, I took a nice new wooden pallet we got free from one of the building centers in town, and I cut a section off it to the size that I needed for the batteries. A piece of 3/4″ (1.9cm) plywood was screwed down on top of the pallet and then I put extra pieces around the edge. The final result looked kinda like this, but less blurry.

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With that all done, we could cart over the batteries. Here is the picture of all of the batteries in place on the wrack, with their connections to each other.

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The solar panels are mounted and the batteries are connected. Its time to start putting all of the connections together, so we need to crack open that big control box you saw in the first picture.

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Electrical work, like a lot of things, seems very complicated at a casual glance. In addition to the complicatedness, you have the issue where if you mess up you can electrocute yourself or burn your house down. These are not good things.

Luckily, I had Andres there to do all of the connecting. Each individual part is fairly straight forward, but once you start putting a lot of simple things together, it gets a lot to keep track of.

We eventually got everything connected. That was late yesterday, and the sun had already gone behind the trees, so we weren’t going to get much solar power that day. Today, however, it was a beautiful sunny day and around 10am I snapped this picture of the display on the charge controller.

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In case you don’t read “electric”, that basically says we have 79.5 V(olts) coming in from the solar panels and the batteries are currently sitting at 51.8V. I’ll talk a bit more technically about it at the bottom, so read on if you want the technical stuff.

The system we bought is pretty fancy; far more than what we need for just the trailer. We bought it for the house, though we will be adding a few more solar panels to it when we get to building the Earthship. It will be overkill for the trailer, but that means we shouldn’t have to worry about having power, once the batteries are fully charged.

Our inverter came with a nice little monitoring device. It came with 15m of cable too, so we disconnected it from the control center and ran the wire into the trailer so we can keep an eye on things without having to go outside. Here is a picture of what it was doing this evening.

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At the time that picture was taken, it was about 18:00 and I had turned on the generator. You see, with the batteries having been unused for two years, we want to make sure they are fully charged before we start using them. This is why we are still running the generator in the evening, to help top of the batteries.

Charging batteries is an interesting topic all on its own. We have 8 batteries, each one being 6V. A good analogy for a battery is a car tire filled with air. A tire stores a certain quantity of air at a certain pressure. Volts can be thought of as electrical pressure. Electrical quantities are measured in amperes, or just A(mps) for short.

Let’s say your tire is getting low and you want to put more air in it. If your tire is at 25psi (172kPa) and you want to get it up to 30psi (207kPa) you must be pushing air into the tire at a pressure greater than 30psi. If you don’t, you will never fill your tire. This works the same for batteries, except I can connect batteries together to make larger batteries. You can’t really do that with tires :P.

In our case, our eight batteries are connected in series to create one big 48V battery (8 * 6V = 48V). So if we want to be able to charge those batteries properly, we need to be pushing more than 48V into them. On top of that, you don’t ever want your batteries to drop down to only 48V, that would be too low. For this system, getting them up around 57 is where they will be fully charged, roughly speaking.

Luckily, each of our solar panels puts out 30V at max capacity. The panels are also wired in series so, they can push over 90V into the system. There is a magic box called a Charge Controller that takes that incoming voltage from the panels and regulates it to properly charge the batteries. Ours is pretty fancy and it does a lot more than just that, but I can’t say I know even half of it yet. Having the solar system now so we can learn about it and get used to it will make things easier when we get to using it in the Earthship.

You may be wondering where Watts come into all of this, as electrical devices usually have a maximum Watts rating on them. Well, Watts are just Volts * Amps, or pressure * volume if you’re following the analogy. Watts is a measure of energy. Electrical companies charge you by the kWh, which is kiloWatt-hour. A kiloWatt is just 1000 Watts. An hour, obviously, is a measure of time. This gives a unit of power, which is energy used for a duration of time. If I have a light bulb on that uses 60W and I leave it on for 1 hour, that’s 0.060kWh of power used.

The math can get heavy as you go further, but you can start to get an idea of what it would take to determine:

  • How much energy your batteries can store
  • How much energy your solar panels can put back into your batteries, on a good day of sunshine
  • How much energy you can expect to use per day, based on the electrical appliances you use

Once you start working that out, you can figure out just how large a system you will need to run the stuff that you want. However, solar equipment isn’t cheep and your best course of action is to reduce your usage. If you can do that, and buy only the solar gear that you need, it will easily pay for itself within a short amount of time. As the costs of being connected to the electrical grid continue to rise, being disconnected from it makes a lot of sense.

Oh, just so you know, we put 3.3kWh worth of power into our batteries today from the sun. We look forward to days like this.

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