Ed Essex

Ed Essex

Monday, 24 June 2013 14:16

Mother Earth News Fair 2013

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWell, it’s official. Another wild weekend at the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, WA. Noooo, it didn’t rain. The weather was pretty decent and the place was packed. I’m pretty sure a good time was had by all. Well – sort of. We had to get up early Friday morning and pack our truck for the 300 mile trip to the fairgrounds, unload again same day, and set up a booth and be out of there by 7:00. What were we going to do for the remaining two hours until we went to bed?

The trip was uneventful except for the stop and go traffic as we got closer to our destination. Where we come from it’s considered busy if you see three cars on the highway on the 20 mile trip to town. Last fall on a Friday night we saw a whole bunch of cars on the highway all at once. We finally figured out it was the Friday night football game between competing tiny towns. They have tiny football teams too.  Not enough people to make a regulation team.

When we got to the hotel to check in I was pleasantly surprised to see they had put a few new concrete stair treads in. Last year they just duct taped the ones that were crumbling. (I’m not making this up. See the picture in last year’s blog – http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/living-off-grid-our-first-mother-earth-news-fair.aspx#axzz2VLmmHK00 )

I guess they made enough money from the packed house at last year’s fair to remodel.

MEN Fair 2013, off grid, living off grid, mother earth news fair exhibitor.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWe used our big truck because this was a big event so parking was a problem everywhere we went except for the fairgrounds of course. We parked in the Orange parking lot right next to the Purple one.

I have to admit, I felt pretty important with my Exhibitor Badge. Last year we hung them around our necks with some kind of organic hemp rope. It was way Granola. This year they used shoelaces with a clever little trick at the ends of the shoestring which kept the string from falling out. Of course that made them useless to re-use in my shoes after the fair was over which I thought was a little wasteful.

We arrived early just in case there were, well I don’t know why we arrived early. I looked all over for coffee but the one and only coffee stand was NOT going to open until nine which is halfway to noon where I come from. I saw the Blacksmith coming in from outside for coffee and waited around to see if the Barista would make an exception for him. He had a big Bowie knife on his belt but no luck for him either. She was tough.

We had booth 427. It was a corner booth in one of the hundreds of rows of booths. It cost money. I was surprised because I thought I was doing folks a favor just by being there. And I personally think if you can pronounce Puyallup you should get your booth for free anyway but someone higher up the fair chain nixed that idea.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThe Fair opened at 9:00 so I went to get coffee. We didn’t see any potential customers until 10:30 anyway. We were at the opposite end of the main gates. I’m not sure what color parking lot the fair-goers parked in. Hopefully the “Green” lot. Green is our favorite fair color!

By mid morning everything was up and running. Multiple workshops (yes, people paid money to come to the fair and work) and people everywhere. Many of them came to our booth just to say hi. We met them last year. Nobody bought anything but they sure were friendly. One person we met last year walked all the way from the waterfront off a ship to attend the fair. He is a pretty intelligent guy so I think he was the captain. He took a card. I wonder what he might be interested in for life aboard a ship. Maybe a solar flashlight for nighttime at sea. Maybe he will use it for a smugglers signal. I wonder what color dock he is berthed in? I digress.

You cannot believe the variety in booths, workshop, and speakers. Our booth was right next to one of the main event classes. One speaker talked about the benefits of raw milk which started out good but by the time she was through speaking about  “things that can go wrong with an udder” segment I was trying not to listen to the rest of it. On the other hand, in the fermented foods class the speaker swore to the audience that there had never been one recorded incident of botulism from homemade sauerkraut. Good to know!

Outside there was an organic Carmel Apple stand. Something you would only find at a Mother Earth News Fair. I saw one woman walking around with a corn cob that had to be at least 15” long. Tsk tsk – GMO – duh. I looked around for the organic deep fried spam but couldn’t find it. Maybe an idea for next year.

I also saw the blacksmith out there. He kept his knife in its sheath. Probably so more people would come to his booth. Many folks were dressed up in Pioneer garb. Leather, homespun, and calico, except for the blacksmith. He was wearing paisley. I asked him about it. He said paisley had been around since the 1800’s. Sure and MEN is going to give me a free booth.

Probably the most amazing booth (besides ours) was the Bookstore. Definitely competing with Amazon. Absolutely everything possible with part of the title being “How To”……

If you come Sunday afternoon and stay till the end, sometimes they discount the books – you didn’t hear that from me.

I have to tell you about the booth “behind” us. It was for sustainable cleanliness including non electric bidets. Get it – “behind us”? There was only a curtain separating us and I guess I don’t quite know how to describe the conversations taking place on the other side of the curtain. They seemed to be very grown up about it. Tasteful or clinical terms only. The best part was how the interested fairgoers approached the subject, not being trained in the more subtle terms of “bottom irrigation”. I just made that one up. I never heard it at the fair. I had to hand it to those people. They kept a straight face for the entire two days.

I was sad when the PA said the Fair was closing. I didn’t even get to ride in an electric car.

We had to pack everything ourselves and load it back into the truck. I thought it was part of the booth “package’ but I guess not. Organized Chaos is how you would describe a fair takedown.

I felt bad for one booth. They had to take all of their leftover goods to FedEx and package them. It was multiple trips for their little rental car. They were from Florida. Oh my.

All in all I think everyone who attended had a good time. Even the kids were pretty well behaved. They had to walk past the blacksmith to get in.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Friday, 10 February 2012 16:00

Water Cisterns

Just for fun, let’s be a little controversial – who owns the water that falls on your roof or land? To tell the truth I haven’t got a clue and I really don’t care but there are others out there who do. Believe it or not there are some states where it is illegal to catch rainwater and others that require a permit. I live in Washington State. A few years ago it was illegal. Now it is legal but anything over 3500 gallons requires a permit. If you don’t believe me just do a Google search and you will discover a lot of information on rainwater ownership from reputable websites like Popular Mechanics or even the New York Times. I’m sure there is a whole philosophical and legal debate to be done on the subject but not on this Blog if I can help it. Just be aware that if you do entertain ideas about catching your rainwater, you may want to check with your local authorities before you make any effort or spend any money.

We use rainwater we capture from the roof of the house to water our garden. If we aren’t using it for that we have a built in overflow that carries any extra water away from the house to a natural depression where the local wildlife can enjoy a fresh drink while wandering through. We use the water from the barn roof to water the horses all year long. Doing that helps to lighten the load on our solar powered electrical system. That is a lot of water we don’t have to pump with solar power all year long. The horses can use up to 10 gallons per day per horse. That’s 7,300 gallons per year. To keep the water use down for the garden we water by hand instead of blanket sprinkling. Last year we were able to water the whole season from just our cisterns.

When we built the house I contacted a local septic tank manufacturer who was open to the idea of a custom designed tank. I sketched out what I wanted on a piece of paper and they adapted my changes to one of their standard designs. I just gave them pipe sizes and locations for the entry, exit, and overflow pipes that I was going to use. I ran a PVC tight line underground from the downspouts to the tanks which I also put underground. Our garden is downhill from the house so it utilizes a natural gravity flow. The tank at the barn requires us to use an old fashioned rope and bucket retrieval method.

Our tanks are made of concrete. Most of the tanks sold today are made of plastic. I couldn’t recommend either one to be the best. They both have advantages. Concrete tanks are more susceptible to cracking than plastic but will probably last longer. Also, if you do develop a crack, there are products on the market now that work really well and are easy to apply.

My tanks are underground but they don’t have to be. You can use above ground tanks all year long in the right climate or you can use them seasonally to help water your flower beds etc .if that works best for you. There are many plastic above ground tanks with lids that have a built in adapter for your downspout and a ¾” fitting at the bottom of the tank for your garden hose.

No matter what kind or size of cistern you decide on, I do recommend that it be entirely enclosed including the top. It’s safer, more sanitary, and will help reduce evaporation.

Where to find them? You can look them up online or in the phone book under water tanks, cisterns, or even rainwater harvesting tanks. Check with your local feed store or farm supply company.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableoff grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableEd and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.



Tuesday, 20 November 2012 16:00

The Cost Of Water

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainable, water pump, As most of you know I’ve been defining living off grid as someone who provides their own sewer, water and power. It all costs money whether you live in the city and use government provided (public) water, private water association, or your own water.

We provide our own water from deep water well. It was here on the property when we bought it. The well is 300’ deep and has a 6” diameter casing most of that depth. The thing I like most about this water is that it is everything you would imagine fresh mountain water to be. Clear of anything harmful, full of minerals, and very good tasting. We don’t need a filter for our water so we are very fortunate.

If you have access to either public or private association water you either pay a monthly fee or have a water meter which keeps track of the actual quantity of water used and you are charged accordingly.

Having your own private source of water from a spring, creek, or well doesn’t let you off the hook for having to pay for it. In my case you would have to drill the well, put a pump in the well, provide an energy source for the pump, and a system for pressurizing the water you pump.

Here, we have a 300’ deep well. You are charged by the foot for drilling. Just a few years back it was about $35.00 per foot to drill (high) and for casing to line the hole. In my case that would be a total bill of $10,500. A pump would run about $1200 installed and I still have to power the pump and pressurize my water.

My solar power system runs my pump. It provides me with 220V required for the pump I wanted. The whole cost of the solar system was $22,000 but that is for a complete electrical system that runs everything I need to live including my water pump. I’ve calculated about $2,000 of that money would go towards the pumping of water based on average wattage used.

I installed a 1900 gallon holding tank 700’ away from the well up the hill. The pump pushes water out of the well and up the hill into that tank. From there it gravity flows down to the house and ends up being about 63 psi for pressure. My other choice would have been to install a pressure pump and tank which would have required another pump, tank and more electricity. It was a tossup for price. I decided to keep the mechanics and electrical simple so I chose the gravity system

The gravity system complete was almost $8,000 for hundreds of feet of pipe, wire, a holding tank, and excavation and backfill.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIn summary the cost for my water system would have been almost $22,000new. Fortunately I didn’t pay near that because the well was already in when I bought the property and I got a really good deal on all of it.

Some will pay more and many will pay less with different circumstances like depth of well, choice of pumps, choice of pressurization, distance from well and so on. There are many factors. I’m just sharing this information with you to give you something to consider if you are thinking about how great it would be to go off grid. It can be very expensive. It just depends on your individual circumstances.

Once all of this is done it is permanent. My wire, pipe, and holding tank should last as long as I do. A pump should last around 10 years plus. I just had mine replaced. It was the original pump that came from the property. It cost $1200 to replace.

If I live here 20 years it is going to cost me about $90 per month for water (if I paid full price for everything new). Your situation could vary greatly either way. More or less money. If I last 30 years it will go down to $60 per month. I have a friend who spent less than $1000 total taking water from a spring on his property. I also know of wells that go as deep as 1500’ located 100 miles from here.

It can be very expensive to provide your own water  -  or not -  but there is a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing once it is done, it’s done and I can drink all of the water I want.  If I want to grow a lawn and water it I can do that too.

It’s kind of ironic that now that I have the freedom to use water any way I want, I choose to conserve it. It seems to be a natural byproduct of living off grid.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Sunday, 20 January 2013 16:00

Home Made Deep Well Pump

In the course of blogging for MEN we have met many people from all over the world. Recently that included Darren and Linda Holliday from Missouri. Darren contacted me to ask my opinion on a water pumping invention he had created. He wanted to know if it might be useful for off grid use.

Not only would it be useful but it is something I could personally use in keeping with my philosophy of having a backup for everything here. We can pump water three different ways but all of them require electricity. There are hand pumps available but to really get the volume we would like from a 300’ deep well without electricity is something I have never seen before short of a windmill.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIt seems Darren is an inventor by necessity. He first ran into a problem with his own deep well. When he moved into his new place he discovered that the previous Owner had used the wrong rock down inside the well to help keep the sand out of the water. Instead of pea gravel they had used larger rock which not only didn’t keep the sand out but created other problems as well.

The only way to fix that was to drill a new hole or re-drill his existing one – both options were going to cost thousands of dollars.

Darren took matters into his own hands and created a rock extractor of sorts that he used to clean out his existing well. His story in detail can be seen on his website wellwaterboy.com. It is one of incredible ingenuity and well worth reading. There are several homemade inventions in that story besides the rock extractor.

Now that Darren had cleared his well with his own invention saving tons of money he decided to put his ideas and efforts into a better human powered hand pump. Something that would produce more water volume than anything out there to date.

The following is their story in their own words:

During the 2012 summer drought, Darren and I wore ourselves out pumping with a hand pump from a cattle pond (a depth of about 7 feet) for our small trees and plants. At less than a pint per stroke, I had to pump 10 minutes to fill a 2-gallon watering can four times. I spent two hours pumping early every morning so I could be done before the temperature hit 100 degrees. Eventually, the pump broke and was replaced.

Again, even though industry professionals told him it was impossible, Darren designed and built a hand pump machine this summer that matches the lift of a 12’ diameter (blade length) windmill. No other hand pump exists that can do the same.

According to one popular pump’s specifications, it takes a 6-foot tall, 200-pound man stroking 60 times per minute to get the maximum water out of any of their pumps – about 4-1/2 to 5 gallons per minute at a 30-foot static water level. At that rate, the man would be exhausted after 10 gallons. At a 78-foot static water level, their pump delivers only 4 gallons per minute.

I am 5’ 4”, in my 50s, and comfortably pumped almost 5 gallons per minute with Darren’s hand pump machine. The motion was smooth and nowhere near my maximum effort. Darren (in his 50s, height 5’

10”, weight 150 pounds) pumped 6 gallons per minute in just 18 strokes. With only human power and a mechanical advantage formula, this is already an accomplishment, but it gets even better.

(Eds note – These numbers are close to the ones my 240V electric/hydraulic pump puts out)

After making some adjustments, Darren pumped 5 gallons in 30 seconds in 10 strokes, although it took more effort. Twice as much water could be pumped per minute at a 40-foot static water level. Depending on the fitness of the operator (or with 2 operators), 20-30 gallons per minute are possible, enough for irrigating gardens or watering livestock.

The pump machine uses a 4” cylinder and 2” drop pipe with a 3/8” metal sucker rod. At a static level of 80 feet, the device overcomes about 1,100 pounds of force. The force would be less with a wood or

fiberglass sucker rod and rod guides like windmills use, but we thought those choices were too expensive for a prototype.

According to a representative of a company with 47 years’ experience in windmills and pumps, a windmill must be at least 12’ in diameter to operate the 4” pump cylinder Darren is using at 80 feet. And, the 12’ windmill maxes out at 86’ depth with a capacity of 830 gallons per hour (13.8 gallons per minute) in a 15 to 20 mile-per-hour wind. Using only human power, Darren’s prototype can exceed that capacity per minute. Darren pumped 5 gallons in 30 seconds. With another adjustment in the mechanical advantage, a young, fit man could pump 14 or more gallons per minute. Since the water table is dropping all over the world beyond the reach of common hand pumps, we believe Darren’s invention is a viable solution for not only Third World countries and people living off-grid.

It will also enable anyone to get water from deep wells without electricity or to pump volumes of water from shallow wells. In just a few minutes of pumping daily into an overhead storage tank, an entire household’s water needs can be met, enough for watering livestock and irrigating gardens.

Darren hasn’t been able to test it yet, but believes because of its proven ability so far, this hand pump machine can reach 500 feet. It has already surpassed common hand pumps in volumes of water and mechanical advantage.

Unless our well goes completely dry, we will never have to worry again about not having our own fresh drinking water.

This article with pictures, video, and more, can be seen at their website wellwaterboy.com. It should be noted that this is a new invention in the development stage and is not for sale.

Ed and Laurie – We hope you enjoyed this type of blog. We sure did. After all, the whole point of our blogs is to create and share an information database for the common good of all.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Monday, 27 February 2012 16:00

Reduce your electrical use

Are you kidding me? Just two easy steps? If it were that simple everyone would be doing it right?

Well, that’s all it takes and I will list them for you now and save you the trouble of reading this blog if you want.

Turn it off

Eliminate phantom power

When Laurie and I knew we were going to go off grid and be on some type of solar/battery/generator electrical system we started doing our homework and research. The most common theme in everything we read was about lifestyle changes. Everyone told us that we were going to have to change the way we live if we were going to be successful in our off grid adventure.

That being said, I need to be real clear on this – not once have we sacrificed or gone without in terms of electrical convenience. I’m sure you are wondering how that can be?

In our condo we had all electrical appliances with the exception of a gas hot water tank and a gas furnace. Everything else was electrical including the dryer and stove.

We were using an average of 11 kwh (kilo watt hours) per day. If you don’t know what kwh means it doesn’t matter for the purpose of this blog. All that matters is that we were using 11 of them.

We made a commitment to practice reducing our electrical consumption before we moved off grid. All we did was make a conscious effort to turn it off if we weren’t using it and to reduce electrical phantom power. We managed to get it down to 9kwh per day instead of the 11 we had been using. That is a reduction of 18%!

Before we made our move off grid we had to project our electrical usage in order to size our solar generating system. We projected using just under 5 kWh per day. Well, alert readers, you are already asking how that was possible when the best we could do was 9 kWh in the condo?

Here’s how we did it: We installed on/off switches for all of our wall sockets. They look just like light switches only they are connected to our wall plugs. That is to eliminate phantom power. That is the power you see on appliances like the clock on your microwave and stove, the power lights on your TV’s and stereos, and the clock and power lights on your DVD player. Nobody really knows how much phantom power really adds up to but it surely costs you something in electrical usage. Your appliance is supposed to be turned off! It isn’t if it is using power to light up a clock or be on “power saving mode” or standby.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIt would not be practical for you to have switches installed like we did in your existing home but you can do the same thing by either unplugging your appliance or using a multiplug with a switch that allows you to turn off your appliance. Many of you already use these for plug in convenience for your computer work stations. As a bonus these will help prevent electrical surge damage from a storm or power surge.

One of the biggest reductions we made was by purchasing a propane dryer and stove and going to wood heat which eliminated the forced air furnace. One could argue you are just trading one natural resource for another by switching from electrical appliances to propane. True, except we also switched from a hot water tank to a tankless heater and we eliminated the gas furnace by using wood heat which helped cut our gas consumption considerably. Over all we reduced our electrical AND gas usage with the choices we made.

The last thing you can do in your current home is to turn it off when you are done with it. We made a conscious effort to do that and got immediate results on the next bill. See how much you can save in a full year!

Remember, just by turning the power off and eliminating phantom power we reduced our electrical bill by 18%!

When we moved and made the appliance changes and added the plug in switches we reduced our electrical usage by over one half and reduced our gas consumption at the same time.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableJust a couple of side tips, we also started using solar flashlights and battery operated headlamps. You can replace a lot of batteries with the money you save by not turning on certain lights.

Did you really need to leave that light on when you left the room? Do you need all of your electrical entertainment appliances to be on standby or can you wait just a minute or two for them to warm up when you turn them on? Did you need that outdoor floodlight on when you took the dog out or the garbage to the curb, or could you just grab that headlamp at the door and use it instead?

I still use my electric and gas appliances as much as I used to. I just don’t pay as much to run them.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Thursday, 08 March 2012 16:00

Our Solar Power Reviewed

Solar Power has come a long way in the past decade or so. We are living proof of that. What do we know about solar power or even electricity for that matter? Yet here we are in our second full season, living off the grid with solar power.

Systems today are so sophisticated they run by themselves and the only thing you really have to worry about is battery maintenance if you have a battery storage system as part of your package.

While I am sitting here telling you that modern solar power systems are relatively hands free, I don’t recommend that you operate them that way. I believe you should get as involved in your system  as you can. For me, that meant there was a lot to learn and it has taken some time to do so.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableMy system consists of 8 each 215 watt REC panels on a fixed position steel pole. The panels were recalled by REC, rebuilt and put back on the market at a discounted price. My inverter is a Xantrex XW 4024 with an automatic generator start control module. My charge controller is an Apollo T-80 HV. I also have 12 each Solar One 2Volt batteries for a 24 volt system. My backup generator is a 12,000 watt Kohler Residential outdoor unit. I bought this unit knowing Kohler wouldn’t warranty it for off grid use.

The system capacities are as follows;

Panels – 1720 Watts

Inverter – 4000 watts

Battery Storage – 1160 Amp Hours or 22 Kw Storage which means about 3 days for us because we don’t like our batteries to go below 60%. I actually don’t usually let them go below 70% discharge.

Inside the house we have a Trimetric Reader that allows us to see at all times what our electrical usage is and what state our battery capacity is at. It also helps to track how long it has been since our batteries were charged to 100% and how long it has been since we equalized our batteries which for me has to occur once a month.

Our system will run our house, barn and 220V water pump for two people easily. When the sun shines it produces more power than we need. The only reason we have the backup generator is because it doesn’t always sunshine. You could have as many panels or battery storage as you want. No sun, no power. We use our backup generator about 100 hours per year.

Total cost of this system was about $22,000. The current Federal tax code allows for a 30% credit so we only ended up paying $15,400 for our system. Our panels are warranted for 25 years and the batteries should go at least 10 and up to 15 years.

If there was an electrical source for power at the edge of our property it would have cost between $14,000 to $19,000 just to get the power from the road to our house and then you would have a monthly power bill on top of that.

So in our situation it cost the same amount whether we brought in power or installed solar power and with solar, there will be no monthly bills. The decision to go solar was easy.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAs I mentioned earlier, these systems are almost hands free if you want it to be that way. You can program your inverter to “run” the operation with no input or help from you. The only thing you would have to do is maintain your batteries.

In our case, with our preferences, the inverter would do the following:

Allow the panels to charge the batteries to 100%. Once they reach 100% the inverter switches the charge controller off except for just enough power to keep the batteries tweaked at 100%. If there is no sun, the batteries will discharge to 60% capacity at which time the inverter will turn the generator on automatically, charge the batteries back up to 100% and then turn it off again.

That’s the simplest explanation I can give you about how sophisticated this equipment is now. It could manage the whole charge/discharge/ charge process if you wanted it to without you ever lifting a finger.

I don’t allow my system to do everything automatically. I keep my panels tilted in the most advantageous angle. I start and stop my generator by hand. By doing that and watching the weather reports pretty close I can squeeze a little more amps out of my system for less time on the generator. It also helps me to keep an eye on things like battery temperature, water levels and equalization. I also decide when my water pump goes on. It is set up on a float system and would pump automatically but if I see that we can reach 100% first and then pump water because we are going to have sun for a few days I may delay the pumping until it’s the perfect timing for my battery condition.

As stated earlier my system totaled about $22,000. I had other quotes ranging from the same price with different equipment (different design), to $37,000 and $45,000.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012 16:00

Our Solar Costs Reviewed

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableSolar costs have so many variables, it is difficult to put an exact number on the cost of solar power. It will vary greatly from household to household and state to state. There are currently federal tax credits to consider and some states also offer tax credits or deductions to install solar power.

Added to that, solar panels will last about 25 years, inverters 15 – 20 years and batteries anywhere from 10 – 15 years. The good news is that all three of those components are lasting longer all the time and the purchase cost is going down as more and more products flood the market and solar becomes more popular to consumers.

There are a lot of numbers out there in cost per kilowatt of every kind of power including solar. Many of the solar numbers being quoted are outdated so if you are doing your own research be careful of that. There is a general consensus that the costs are going down and will continue to do so.

Another problem you will run into is that the cost numbers that are published don’t include all of the costs. For example, Washington State has one of the lowest basic electrical rates in the country but by the time the state and local authorities get done tacking on their add-ons the price goes up considerably.

We decided to take a look at our own costs which we can identify now that we have been operating for two years, going on three.

Our system operates a modern 1500 SF house with attached garage, woodshed, and carport and a 1300 SF barn. We also have a well with a 240v pump. Our appliances are typical of most households.

Our initial cost installed was $22,000. The Federal Government offered a 30% full tax credit so we only had to pay $15,400 for the system.

I am going to assume the life expectancies of the main components per the following;

Panels – 25 years

Inverter – 20 years

Batteries 12 years

I’m using 20 years as my cost timeline because the panels and inverter will last that long. Maybe the inverter will be a couple of years short but the panels will last even longer so that would even out. It’s just an estimate and any one of these components could go over or under this valuation. Since the batteries only last 12 years give or take, I will prorate the next 8 years with todays replacement costs for a total of 20 years.

We also have to add the generator and fuel costs. We use our backup generator about 100 – 125 hours per year. To keep this article simple I’ve calculated that cost to be $538.00 per year.

Here is how the totals break down:

System cost for 20 years               $15,400

Battery Replacement 8 years          $ 4,200

Generator and Fuel                        $10,750

Grand Total for 20 Years                $30,350

That equals $1,517 per year or $126 per month or .68 per KWH (per what my system produces).

Where I came from we paid .20 per KWH for public power. Some areas of the country pay much more.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAt this point it looks like I am paying a small fortune for solar power but the above information is not complete. If I am going to compare apples to apples I also have to include the cost of public power installation in our formula. It is stated above that I paid .20 per kWh for power where I used to live. That’s true. That is everything that is on the bill but the bill does NOT include costs to hook your power up to your house. The solar numbers quoted above do. Remember that my solar price included installation.

If you live in the city next to a power pole, you might pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars on up to have your power connected but if you build your house further away from the power lines it can cost anywhere from  $8.00 to $14.00 per foot to get connected to the power lines. In my case it would have cost $8,500 IFmy property were next to a road that had power lines on it. I just had an estimate done for a client that wants to build on 80 acres and his quotes ran from $17,000 to $25,000 to connect to the local power utility.

If we use the example above of paying $.20 per kWh and then add the power connection fee to it, that would compute to another $.14kwh bringing the total to $.34kwh and $.62kwh for my client. All of a sudden, solar power looks to be much more competitive.

We can draw several conclusions from this pricing exercise by looking at the numbers above. It is cost effective to have solar power if you live in a sunny climate and don’t have to use a generator much. It is cost effective to have solar power if you build too far away from the power grid (the rule of thumb is ¼ mile).

There is also one other factor to add to the equation. My price per KWh won’t go up for 20 years. I doubt you can say the same for those on public power. By that time my price of $.68 per KWh might be looking pretty good.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Monday, 13 August 2012 17:00

Our Solar System – Part 2

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIn Part 1 we looked at the different components of a solar power system and what their purpose is. In Part 2 we discuss the actual hands on management of those components.

It sounds like the system operates by itself once it is set up, other than a little battery maintenance. That’s true but the system is not as efficient as it can be when it runs on “automatic”. What do I mean by efficiency?

By managing a few things myself I can extend the life of my batteries and backup generator and keep the fuel costs for the generator down.

The inverter is programmed to turn the generator on when the batteries go down to 60% capacity. That is fine for when we aren’t home but the rest of the time I choose to start the generator when my batteries are at 70%. I choose when to start the generator and when to turn it off. I choose the most opportune time to pump water which takes a lot of power. If the pump comes on automatically at night and I catch it on the monitor, I will go out to the panel and turn it off if I know it is going to be a sunny day tomorrow and can use the sun to pump rather than my reserve battery power.

Whether the sun or your generator charges batteries the following will occur:

1. Bulk charge – the batteries will accept the maximum charge possible

2. Absorb charge – in this mode the batteries will only accept a partial charge. They do this to protect themselves for reasons over my head. It’s enough for me to understand that they need to do it. I think it is kind of like eating. You don’t eat your whole meal in one bite. You take many bites but end up the same – full.

3. Float – a trickle charge to just maintain the batteries at 100%

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIt is harmful to charge the batteries too fast or overcharge them. I am more efficient at generator use than the inverter. When my generator is charging it might be putting out as much as 140 amps. That is fine in bulk charge but when the inverter slows down the amperage to 60 amps (absorb mode) then the generator is still running at full capacity using fuel but not sending all of the amps to the batteries. That is inefficient. When they get into absorb mode I may choose to go hook up my smaller generator to charge with which only puts out about 45 amps.

I also choose when to equalize my batteries. My monitor will tell me it’s time and I will hold off for a bright sunny day so I can use solar power to equalize. That is more efficient than using generator power and paying generator fuel costs.

So in summary, I basically choose when to charge the batteries with a generator (when to start and stop the generator), when to pump water (my pump is 220V), when to equalize and whether to use the sun, batteries, or generator to pump water. By doing those few things I can prolong the battery life and minimize my generator fuel costs. Seems like a lot of benefit for very little effort. I can do all of those things with the push of a button.

Besides that I just think it is a good idea to know what your system is doing at all times. Just by having some interaction with the system allows you to know if the system is working the way it should be – or not. You don’t have to become an expert. You just need to be familiar enough to know when all is well or not. By doing the things I do with my system, I can know at a glance that everything is working the way it should. Knowing all is well gives me a great peace of mind. I’m glad you can program these systems to be independent but I still want to know the programming is working. After all, we are on our own and striving to become more self sufficient. You can’t achieve that by programming alone.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Monday, 13 August 2012 17:00

Our Solar System – Part 1

Part 1 – System Overview

As most of you know, we get all of our electrical power from our solar power system. In the blog Our Solar Power I describe a system that is completely “hands off’ automatic if you want to use it that way. I choose not to.

I’ve never had any experience with solar energy before now. When the system was installed I received a pile of literature, user manuals, and an hour of instruction. For me the instructions when right in one ear and out the other. It takes me a while to absorb information that is so unfamiliar.

As you gradually get used to working with solar power you become more familiar with how each component works. The components for us are broken down into the following categories: solar panels, battery charger, inverter, batteries and Trimetric monitor.

There isn’t much to do with the panels. Keep them clean and free of snow in the winter. Adjust the tilt twice a year for maximum exposure to the sun. The sun is high in the sky in the summer and low towards the horizon in the winter. The sun stirs up the little electrons in the panels which creates electricity which is then sent to the charger.

The charger receives electricity from the panels and maximizes that power in terms of efficiency to charge the batteries. Once it is set up it is virtually hands free.

The panels make electricity which then goes to a charger which maximizes the power and sends it to the batteries where it is stored for future use. The larger the battery bank, the more storage capacity you have. This is where our power comes from when the sun is gone at night or on a cloudy day. We have enough storage capacity for about three days. Once my batteries get down to about 60% capacity the generator will come on to charge them back up if the sun isn’t shining.

Batteries need to be maintained at all times. I keep the terminals clean, the water filled up in the cells and the batteries equalized once a month. There are a lot of opinions on how often to equalize batteries. My warranty requires that you do it once a month. Equalizing batteries is a controlled overcharge for a given length of time to desulphate or kind of like a self cleansing. It also causes all of the cells to become equal. For instance if you have one weak cell it will cause the whole system to be less powerful than it should be. By “equalizing” that weak cell will be brought up to the same level as the other cells and your system will be as strong as it can be.

The inverter is programmed to do a lot of things. It is talking to the charge controller, the batteries, and the AC panel all of the time. It coordinates all of those along with your backup generator when necessary. It is the Manager of the whole solar power system. One of the most important jobs an inverter does is to convert the battery DC (direct current) to AC (alternating current). Solar panel and battery power are DC.

Most homes are wired for AC. Ours is too. The inverter sends the converted DC power to our AC panel. From that point on our house operates just like yours for electricity. We use the same appliances and light bulbs as everyone else. Once an inverter is programmed to do what you want it to, it is also hands free.

Inside our house we have a Monitor of what our system is doing all of the time. It tells us how much power there is to use, how much we are using, and how much is left. It is only a monitor. It doesn’t manage or operate anything but is a necessary source of information you can use to manage your system if you choose to.

Part 2 next week – Managing the System

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid works.

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  • Our Home Design Features Part 2

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