Tag Archives: winter

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.

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December 2017 Wrap Up

Well, here we are in December already. Things are moving pretty quickly, as we try to get ready for our trip and the holidays at the same time. I thought I would take a few moments to wrap up things here at the trailer and let all of you good folk see how things are doing here.

This post will also serve as a test. As we are heading to Indonesia in January, Kat and I will be updating our blogs from there as well. However, we are not taking our laptops as they are rather expensive and we would hate to have anything happen to them. So what we did instead is we bought a keyboard for our tablet computer, which I am trying to use right now to type this out. The keyboard is quite a bit smaller than your standard one, so is taking some getting used to.

In any event, things up here have progressed pretty much as one might expect at this time of year. It gets colder, things start to freeze and eventually you get snow.

Going back to November 10th, we had a particularly frosty night and woke up to rather stiff looking pond.

It wasn’t perfectly smooth, but it look pretty neat, none the less.

The driveway received a light dusting of snow as well.

By this point we had already put up the plastic shield on the front of the trailer. It can be a bit of a pain to put up, but it is entirely worth it as it gives us a nice clear walk way over to the smurf house.

Speaking of the smurf house (composting toilet room), unlike the plastic shield in front of the trailer which we take down in the spring every year, the shield on the smurf house has never been taken down or replaced since we put it up. This will be it’s third winter and the 6mil plastic still looks to be in great shape. All we did this year was detach the one side and tighten it up a bit. People have told us that 6mil would deteriorate quickly, but so far that has not been the case.

Of course, it wasn’t much longer after that we received our first real snow. This picture was taken on the morning of Nov 20th.

A day early, in my books, as usually it is the 21st (my birthday) when we wake up to the first snow. Of course, if you’re going to mention the first-snow, there better be a picture of some trees with snow on them.

Fast forward to Dec 11th and things are looking even more winter-like.

Interestingly enough, that evening it began snowing again and didn’t stop until early morning on Dec 13th.

We have our bird feeder up now as well and the bluejays and chikadees are regular visitors, especially if you put peanuts out. They can clear out the whole feeder in one day if you do that.

Random picture of snowy evergreen.

Here you can see the trailer, with smoke coming out of the chimney and the solar panels cleared of all white stuff. That is a regular chore in the morning as you want to grab as much sun as you can, what with the days being so short and cloudy most of the time.

To help with the cloudy days, we bought a new generator as our old one died last February. The new one isn’t quite as nice as the old one, and it is definitely louder (unfortunately), but it is a bit more powerful and it gets the job done nicely and quickly, so we can’t really complain.

Lastly we have a shot down the snowy driveway after it was ploughed.

We’ll be heading out on Jan 2nd, but we will be having a friend of ours (and brave soul) come to stay at the trailer to take care of the kittens while we are away. The only small snag we have is that he can’t start until the 4th so we still need to find someone to take care of the cats those first two nights. If you or anyone you know wants to experience winter life in a trailer for two nights in January, please let us know.

Kitchen Counter, reprise

Okay, way back in July I posted about finishing the kitchen counter around the sink. In case you forget, this is what it looked like:

As you can see from that picture, there was still some work to do below the counter: namely build some drawers and cupboards. The drawers were finished fairly soon after the counter but we had a few delays with the finishing of the whole thing.

Let me share that particular adventure.

After we had put the counter in, I immediately went to work on the new drawers. I used the same technique I came up with while working on the kitchen cabinet. So it wasn’t long before I had the basic drawers constructed and ready for a fitting test.

Here is Fizgig trying out the first drawer.

He had to try it while it was pulled out as well. He matches the wood pretty well.

The high back on that drawer will make more sense in a moment. Moving along, I made the other two drawers that were to be installed above that first one. We put them in and it all looked good.

Of course, after that they headed out to the staining department. Our staining department (Kat) was also busy working at her new job this summer, so finding time for her to get some of these projects completed meant things were delayed more than once.

In any event, the drawer interiors were all stained a nice red and put back into position.

At this point, I also installed the interior hardware for that bottom drawer.

Yes, we made it a drawer for all of our baking trays and cutting boards. It is awesome because those types of things are a pain in the butt to put in a stack in a cupboard. If you want one close to the bottom, you have to shuffle through the entire stack. We knew when we had put in a drawer like this when we lived in Ottawa that having a similar drawer in the trailer would be really handy.

After that, we needed to put the drawer faces on along with handles and knobs. We also needed cut the pieces for the cupboards, put their edges on and finish them as well. You wouldn’t think that would take very long, but it did.

The drawer fronts didn’t take too long, but the cupboards sat around for quite a while. Part of that was Kat working, distractions of other projects and the fact that several measuring mistakes were made. The cupboards were cut to fit the space, but once you put the hinges on it forces them to sit within a certain small area. I ended up having to trim and redo two of the cupboards because they ended up being too big to fit once mounted to the hinges.

This also meant that Kat had to refinish the edges that I trimmed, which delayed things even further. As a result, it was the third week of October before we reached this stage.

We finished all three new cupboards and everything looks rather nice now.

There is that small space between the center pair of cupboards and the one on the right that needs to have something put in it. I do have a plan for that, but as it is cosmetic, it may wait until next spring as we do have some other things that we are currently working on.

I should mention that the cupboard on the right holds a little secret: I mounted our recycling bin to it and it is hinged at the bottom.

You pull it out and have easy access to the recycle bin, and it’s also kept out of sight which helps to reduce the clutter. You can see I put in some stops to prevent the cupboard door from dropping to the floor (they’re just below the white recycle bin).

In addition to this, while we’re getting caught up on things, remember that bed frame with the drawers we built last year? It looked something like this:

It sat like that for quite a while, with no faces on the drawers. That has now been resolved as well.

Kat painted them green and I put them on sometime in August. It’s so nice to have handles on those things, having scraped the flesh off my fingers a few times trying to get the drawers open without handles.

That gets us caught up with the kitchen and bedroom. We have a couple of other things going on, but time is rapidly running out. It is getting colder, we run the fire quite a bit now and we’ve even had a bit of the white stuff.

We’ve also started into more cloudy weather, so we’ve been trying to conserve our solar power to make it last as long as we can. This means no long days using power tools.

Winter is coming. Are you ready?

Not so spring 2017

So the spring equinox was back on March 20th. By now I bet you figure we should be out planting our garden and enjoying some warmer weather.

Well, in many ways we have. The temperatures have warmed up. Most days are above freezing now. A lot of snow has melted and we were starting to get into the swing of spring, as it were.

That is until yesterday. Mother nature decided she wasn’t done with the snow and sent us a doozy.

This is what it looked like outside this morning.

Yesterday, it started as some rain which turned into wet snow. Wet snow turned into freezing snow when nightfall arrived. If you are unfamiliar with freezing snow, it is wet snow that sticks and freezes immediately on contact. It does make for a pretty picture, but the trees certainly don’t do well.

Point in case.

If you look closely at that picture you can see two trees have snapped off. Actually, the broken part that you see is really the top of the trees that has fallen over and inverted themselves with the tops pointing at the ground.

Let’s take a look down the driveway.

Very white, with a lot of small trees (and a few big ones) all bent over.

Now we’ll move further down the driveway.

We had several instances of trees that had completely broken off and fallen onto the driveway.

Near the driveway entrance we came across quite a few trees that were overhanging it.

There was about 10cm (4″) of snow, but it was that really heavy wet snow that is awesome for building snowmen and snow forts. It’s also really good for doing maple taffy.

Alas, our maple syrup supply is carefully guarded and rationed out so no home-made maple taffy for us.

We’ll just sit cozy by the fire place in our very humble abode.

I should also mention that there were several communities that were without power today. Some friends of ours didn’t get their power back until 6pm, it having gone off at some point the previous evening. Fortunately for us, we’re not connected to the grid, so we really don’t care when the power goes out 😀

We were happy to find that the drain pipe that we had put in two springs ago is working well, even with all of this snow and the fact that the pond is still mostly frozen.

The part around the pipe is flowing so fast that it would take quite the drop in temperature, at this point, to freeze it. It now happily travels under the driveway and comes out to form a little stream on the other side.

Another sign of spring are the interesting tracks that have appeared around the trailer. We came home from March break to these little cute guys.

For those not familiar, that is a raccoon track. They really look like tiny human hands.

In other news, we finally finished redoing our spice rack. We had to shorten it a bit when we put in the cabinet over the counter last fall. Cutting it was easy, but we also planned to add another shelf to it, which involved more work. That got put to the wayside as winter came upon us.

Now that things have warmed up, I had the chance to steal some time in the workshop to add the new shelf. It then went to the staining department and sat there for a while, lost in the bureaucracy. Eventually, it was finished and now we can present it to you.

There it is installed, sans spices.

Once you add spices, it looks much better. As it turns out, not all of the spice jars will fit on the new bottom shelf. Some are just a few millimeters taller and the space is pretty tight. We seem to have managed though.

So after we get over this last batch of snow and things start to clear up outside (again), hopefully I’ll be able to get back to our other trailer building projects. We’re really looking forward to that new kitchen sink. Not having one is big pain the rump.