Our power costs are CHEAP here in the MidWest!

I just read a blog at my friend’s website (www.runonsun.com) and learned that folks in California are paying 22 Cents/Kwh for their electricity. That’s over TWICE what we pay here in the MidWest. This is very likely the reason there’s so much residential solar built up out West. Our energy prices here in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Pennsylvania are all around 10 cents/Kwh, and we are blessed. But don’t think that our prices won’t go up. Coal fired plants are being closed every week because they are old, obsolete, or simply can’t meet the new EPA standards for particulate emissions. Yes, there are new gas turbine power plants being built, and yes, we are using LESS electricity (as a Country) than ever before, but this is not a balanced equation. Our prices have been held low due to coal subsidies from the government, and these will disappear with the coal plants. Solar panel pricing has bottomed out and prices are stabilizing in the 79 to 90 cents/watt range. We might squeeze a few percent out of inverter costs, but for now, we are riding near the all time price lows for residential AND commercial solar PV systems. It might be time to plan on installing that dream system in the early Spring, before demand begins to force component pricing to rise…

Best wishes and sunny days!
Joe

Power Point for Mother Earth News Festival in 7 Springs PA

Just thought I’d post this for the convenience of those folks who might attend my seminars this year, and would like to review them at their leisure from home. Even if you don’t attend the fair, there’s some pretty good info in this presentation for anyone considering doing PV Solar as a DIY project. The rest of my blog is filled with lots of detailed photos and text from solar projects of all sizes and equipment types.

Cinci Home Solar presentation at 2013 Mother Earth News Fair in 7 Springs PA

Warrantee work at East Fork

Had a small problem with an SMA Sunny Island grid backup inverter (6KW). After sending SMA the Smart Card data, they promptly sent out a replacement and even included return shipping! Back up and running and customer is a happy camper once again. Based on this event, I would highly recommend you look at the SMA Sunny Island if you’re planning a Grid backup or even OFF-grid system! Sorry, I forgot my camera this trip!

DIY Solar LOW electric bill!

Almost Zero electric bill for last month!

DIY Solar results in almost ZERO electric bill for the month!

Just a quick post. I’ve mentioned my little house in the country many times and I finally found the energy hog! It was my septic aerator pump. It’s a 3/4 horse air pump, and it was running far too often. I changed the timer settings and cut my biggest energy user by 70%. I added panel #13, and I think I’ve almost reached NET ZERO energy for this little house!

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a ZERO or near ZERO electric bill. Keep in mind, the solar also covers the fixed portion of the bill that is NOT electric usage. It renews my belief that doing this is the Right thing, right now.

Solar has never been more affordable, so if you plan on staying in your home for the next 20 years, CALL ME and I’ll show you how to do DIY SOLAR in a quick, effective and above all AFFORDABLE manner! It just makes good sense.

Finish phase 2 expansion at East Fork Stables

Racking goes up at East Fork Stables

Cinci Home Solar works with EFS to get racking up using 50% on hand materials.

Missed this photo on the first part of this adventure. The owner had materials on hand, and made the posts of Steel L channel, the beams from Steel S-channel, and the barn support brackets from 2 inch steel L material. The owner (George) is a VERY resourceful fellow – some might call him a scrounger, but I call him SMART! I passed along a great vendor deal on the solar panels and he purchased them direct. The BOS (balance of system) materials was purchased through Cinci Home Solar at great pricing, bringing the whole project in at about $3/watt, and this includes the battery bank and backup power inverters in addition to the Enphase micro-inverters behind each panel. The work was spread over 4 full days, with the helper crew varying from 1 to 3 guys and myself. Plenty of manpower to get this rather large project done in a timely fashion. Winter is really variable in Cincinnati, and whenever the weather was predicted to be above 40 and sunny, George called and we got the job done. Fortunately, this job was a quick drive from my home, and it wasn’t a problem. Normally, these 3 or 4 days would have been all condensed into one extended visit! I aim to please, whenever possible…

 

DIY Solar array expansion by Cinci Home Solar

DIY Solar expansion -adding 2 more rows to bottom of 32 panel array.

After we finished the 32 panel array, George saw that some minor grading of the ground near the bottom would allow plenty of room for 2 more rows! A week later he called me and said “Hey Joe, come on out and lets get these 2 rows installed – tomorrow’s weather looks great. So we did!  When I ordered the extra components, we also added 8 more rails – one under each of the 8 columns of the upper 4 rows. You can see them mid-panel in the picture to the right. This provided the extra strength and rigidity that the span required for both wind and snow loading. Splicing the extra rails that extend to the newly installed lower beam also provided a counterbalance to the free span above.
The two missing panels at the lower left were intentionally left off because of a stone access road to the hay barn that George didn’t want to move.

 

DIY Solar install of Enphase M215 Micro-inverters

DIY Solar installation of Enphase M215 Micro-inverters.

This is what the backside looks like after everything is in place. After the rails were set, the Enphase M215 Micro-inverters were mounted. Then the #6 bare copper ground wire was run in series to each inverter. We grounded BOTH ends of the #6 copper, just because we could. Next came the Enphase TRUNK Cable, mounted with stainless steel clips to the rails. Then the panels were added, the micros were plugged in to the trunk cable and the panel leads connected to the micros. One end of the trunk cable is sealed with a weather tight cap, and the other goes to a weatherproof junction box (white) to transition to standard exterior rated 12-3 with ground romex. The romex connects to a breaker box with a 20 amp 2 pole breaker for each string of 16 and 1 string of 14 panels. Then, the entire array is nicely dressed using tie wraps so that all the wiring is suspended between the panels and the bottom of the rails to keep it from whipping in the wind or getting snagged by anything.

 

 

Power panel mounted below array

Power Panel beneath the array, mounted to the side of the hay barn.

Here’s the power panel. Public Utility Commission in Ohio says any array over 6Kw must be metered by a UTILITY GRADE meter. Got one on Ebay for $35. Breaker box on left contains the 3 solar breakers. That feeds through the meter to the master breaker box on the right. Master breaker box connects to the utility grid via a buried conduit over to the other barn that had power in it already. Below the utility grade meter is the Enphase ENVOY monitoring unit that ties all this to the internet so George can watch things from his home computer. He can share a link with his friends as well. I’ll post this link soon as I get it from George! The Utility voltage here is rather high – close to the limits for most inverters, at 254Vac. This causes a few of the inverters to occasionally shut down (to protect themselves). I’ll be looking into this further on my next visit to see how we might correct this…

 

Almost finished array by Cinci Home Solar

Almost finished DIY solar array accomplished with a little help from Cinci Home Solar!

Here’s the finished array. Still need to trim the excess rail length at the bottoms. If you look close, you might just spot some mis-alignment within the array. George got 2 pallets of panels. Same part number, same vendor, but one pallet was 1/2 inch shorter on the long side (out of spec…). We didn’t catch this till 5 were mounted in the top row. George, being a prudent and thrifty fellow, called the panel supplier and negotiated a compromise that didn’t require a return of the panels. The size only affects the esthetics slightly, and a cost reduction is pending!  The Enphase ENVOY normally communicates over the power lines, but there’s a half mile of them back to the house and that’s too far for it to work, so I added an Engenius EOC-1650 at the house as an access point, and atop the array as a client/bridge. It works great – with 100% signal integrity, and also provides WIFI to his customers and visitors! The EOC-1650 is that little white gadget at the top right of the array.

Beginning new Array Construction

Beginning work on a DIY 32 panel Solar PV CANOPY installation

This 45 foot hay barn will gain a solar CANOPY extending from the South face just above the rain gutter.

This simple 45 foot hay barn on the East Side of Cincinnati is the location for a 32 panel PV SOLAR CANOPY.

With my help, the owner of this 32 horse boarding stable will erect a massive solar canopy that will cover about 80% of his electricity usage. It will include two Sunny Island battery powered inverters for off-grid backup capability.

This stable is located at the end of a long country road, and it seems he is always first to lose power and last to have it restored. Watering the horses is important to their health, and the backup system will keep trough heaters and well pumps operating when the weather is at its worst in terms of outdoor temperatures.

24 inch Auger on Bobcat makes DIY SOLAR hole digging easy!

This 24 inch auger accessory makes drilling the foundation holes an easy task

We were very lucky on this installation, since the property owner had a small bobcat and an augerattachment with a 24 inch bit. The array will measure 13 feet tall by 42 feet wide, which is more surface area than the wing of a regional jet!

This makes it doubly important to anchor the panel mounting structure to mother earth! The property owner is a bit of a scrounger, and he had a nice supply of 1/4 inch thick X 4 inch angle iron for the front row support legs. This will be capped by an S shaped steel beam across the front and rear row. Standard UNIRAC solarmount 160 inch rails will then carry the panels. Brackets attached to the barn vertical wall beams will carry the rear steel rail. Prevailing winds are directly from the south/southwest so the majority of wind loading will be in a downward direction. The steel angle iron and 24 inch concrete columns exceed the requirements needed to achieve the 90 MPH wind rating for the array. AND, the owner saved a bundle since he had the parts on hand!DIY SOLAR Hole

Why bother to take a picture of a hole in the ground? Depending on the jurisdiction and how it works in your area, you may need an inspection BEFORE your pour, so that hole depths can be validated, to assure safe anchoring of the ground mount array. In this case, the property is zoned AGRICULTURE, and inspections are not needed. But just to be safe we documented the depth of every hole. Paperwork can be a pain, but documenting your actions can be worth it’s weight in gold if problems crop up down the line somewhere. And, above all, if you are unsure of where you’re digging, CALL BEFORE YOU DIG. If you need them, GET PERMITS as well. They might be a bit of a hassle, but they are there for a reason – mostly to protect YOU from getting in trouble. Your solar array will be productive and last for MORE than 25 years, so take your time and do things RIGHT the first time!IMG_1826 So here is where we left the project yesterday.

Those blue forms for the concrete area 50 gallon polyethylene barrels that can be had for about 5 bucks apiece. Cut the ends out and they make forms that will last forever. metal posts and cross beams provide some stability for the steel angle beams that will form the front supports for the array. I’ll add more posts as the project moves along.

It IS January, and weather can always be an issue, but this DIY SOLAR enthusiast plans on seizing every opportunity to get this array completed an online as soon as possible to start reaping the benefits that PV solar can provide!!

24 Volt Battery Box Vent Fan Control Circuit

Battery vent fan control switch

Schematic for 24VDC Battery box vent fan controller

One of my backup systems uses a Magnum MS-PAE 4024 inverter, which doesn’t have any built-in fan controller. Since batteries give off hydrogen during both normal and equalization charging, it’s important to vent the batteries to the outside with a brushless fan. This little circuit does the job nicely for a 24 volt battery bank. Here’s how the circuit works: Battery voltage comes in and goes directly to the LM358 op-amp and P1-R1. P1 sets the trip point where the fan will turn on. VR1 and R2-R3 provide a stable reference voltage for the op-amp. R4 adds some hysteresis so the fan doesn’t cycle on/off when near the trip point. the 4 volt zener assures that Q1 turns fully off, since the output doesn’t swing to the rails. R5-R6 assure that Q1 turns on/off completely. Q1 is good for fans that use up to 100 milliamps of current. If you have a bigger fan, use Q1 to turn on a relay… This won’t work for 12 volt or 48 volt systems, but I might design those if there’s any interest here…. Enjoy!

Lightning Arrestors. Use them!

I’ve never discussed this, but these devices are cheap insurance (not really, but you get the idea…) against all kinds of problems that can come about as a result of electrical storms. I’ve used the powered type in the past, and have one installed currently, but I came across a totally passive version that uses no power, is self resetting, and if it does fail, it fails OPEN, so it won’t cause problems. Best of all, you can get them for 30 bucks on ebay, brand new, including shipping. Just search for “LA302R”.  It has 3 wires, and you simply install it in your electric box to a breaker connected to L1, L2 and Neutral. If you’re not an electrician, hire one to do this. It takes about 2 minutes. It takes longer to get the cover off your breaker box than it does to install one!!

Serious grid-tied/grid-backup system!

DIY Solar grid backup system

Ground mounts are an attractive alternative if you don’t have much roof space and want a system that allows you to live comfortably WITHOUT the grid!!

Nestled in the middle of a 26 acre plot is this cozy updated farmhouse with almost 6KW of solar power. The home is well insulated, and fitted with all the high efficiency goodies. Propane fired DEMAND water heater, wood stove for heating, LED lighting and more! At first I assumed he wanted a ground mount to keep it away from the house, but when I arrived on site I knew right away the real reason – no room on the roof! But seriously, this setup goes way beyond just a large array. The owner wanted plenty of AUTONOMY – that’s lots of days of off grid operation without worry of running the battery bank down. And plenty of power, so that if he wants to do laundry while off grid, it won’t be a problem. So we got together and discussed the options and the owner decided to DO IT RIGHT the first time. I explained that batteries would be a large part of the project cost, and he would have to understand and CARE for the battery bank if he expected it to last 10 years or more.  He was more than willing to listen, read, study and understand the care and feeding of his battery bank, and as a result is VERY pleased with his installation.

 

DIY Solar ground mount everything in place and ready to add panels

Trench backfilled, horizontal pipe (3 inch galvenized) added front and back, and vertical rails to carry the solar panels installed. Ready for panels and wiring. Owner and a few helpers accomplished this in 2 days of hard work. Not much daylight in December, but DIY folks are not afraid to work sunup to sundown!!

While all this activity was going on outside,  I was busy in the basement, hanging the TWO Sunny Island inverters on the wall, mounting the small EMERGENCY POWER breaker box and running conduit between the inverters, the main breaker box and the new Emergency power box. I’d come up for air once in a while to check on the ground mount work, just to make sure it was square and plumb, but these guys knew what they were doing and got it all right on the very first pass!  Looking at the pics below, we chose to use TWO Sunny Islands for several reasons. 1st and most important was that the Sunny Island is without question the best BATTERY TENDER around. It can use the grid or the array charge the batteries, and it has sophisticated software to monitor the battery health and adjust things as needed to optimize the battery care. It LEARNS over the 1st 8 weeks how the battery supplies power and how it accepts charge and then adjusts itself for the best possible care. We used TWO Sunny Island inverters so that we could SLAVE them together and create 240VAC “split” phase. The Sunny Island is a 120VAC unit and would otherwise need a lossy transformer to boost the output to 240VAC.   We doubled the available continuous output power to 13,000 WATTS by doing this. That is a LOT of backup power, and will allow completely normal living in an off grid situation. The owner wanted lots of autonomy (days of power off grid) so we went with the largest batteries withing the budget – Rolls FLA 6 volt 820AH.  EIGHT of them to reach the 48VDC the Sunny Islands need.  That’s almost 40KWH of backup power. And remember, when off grid, the sun on the array will recharge them, as well as power the house!  I didn’t have time to hang around while a battery BOX was built, so we put up a poly tent and connected the vent fan. This was only a temporary fix and has since been replaced by an appropriate battery box. The exhaust fan is programmed to come on while the batteries are charging – since this is when they give off Hydrogen gasses which are explosive in small amounts.  The owner has since also installed RECOMBINATION CAPS which reduce the outgassing by 99% and reduce fluid losses considerably – making it only necessary to check acid levels in the battery every two months or so, rather than every 2 weeks. A wise investment – since it minimizes outgassing of Hydrogen if the vent fan were to ever fail! Batteries are a VERY serious bit of hardware and you MUST care for them if you expect to get 10+ years of service!  Always wear safety glasses, a rubber apron and rubber gloves when checking/filling the cells!

DIY Solar grid-tied backup system connected and ready for power!

Some of the AC lines have been moved to the emergency breaker box, all covers are on, and temporary poly cover over battery box has been connected to the power vent fan. When the battery bank charges (at 38 amps DC) the batteries bubble up hydrogen gas and without the fan and cover, the room would reach explosive hydrogen levels in less than 1 minute. NEVER power up a battery system without a vent system!! A 4% concentration level of Hydrogen gas is highly explosive.

Battery bank, inverters and emergency breaker panel on DIY Solar installation

Two Sunny Island battery/inverters on the wall, eight 6 volt 820AH batteries below elevated off floor to make watering easier. DC cables connected and AC interconnections in Plastic conduit for safety. Ready to move some wiring from the main box to the emergency breaker box. Only items in the emergency box will be powered when running off grid. System cuts over instantly when grid drops out. Barely a flicker of the lights, it happens so fast! Same thing happens when power is restored. Back on grid in an instant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When a lead-acid battery is discharged, the electrolyte (sulfuric acid) and the active material on the plates of the battery (lead) are consumed to produce water and lead sulfate and current flow. The chemical equation for a lead-acid battery during discharge is: PbO2 Pb 2H2SO4 –>PbSO4 2H2O Ideally it’s just hydrogen gas, but when doing Equalization charging, you’re going to get some hydrogen sulfide as well – you’ll know it by it’s Sulfur smell and the stinging sensation to your eyes! Make sure the battery box power exhaust fan works BEFORE you turn on your system. In this setup, I programmed the fan to run whenever the batteries are charging. As long as the fan is running, there is negative pressure in the box (or temporary tent in this case) so even any holes or leaks will take fresh air IN to the box/tent and then OUTside the house through the white PVC vent at the left. Happy to say that the 1st charge cycle was free from problems and there wasn’t even the tiniest hint of any gas in the room. The use of RECOMBINATION caps is HIGHLY recommended. They will eliminate almost all of the outgassing and make the battery liquid levels go down MUCH slower.

Backup System finished at Little House

Magna Sine inverter and Rolls batteries. Whole house transfer switch also.

Off-grid installation complete at the Bunker!

Wow, it’s taken a while to get this posted, but I’ve got the grid-backup system completed at our little house (we fondly refer to it as THE BUNKER…). I was recently out there during a freak snow storm that dumped 5 inches of wet snow in about 2 hours, and when the power went out, there was just a slight flicker of the lighting as I was sitting at the computer checking my email. The UPS on the computer didn’t even get a chance to kick in! I excitedly went downstairs to the basement to check out the inverter, and sure enough, it was on line, quietly humming away, providing full power to the main electric breaker box for everything that was presently on in the house. The Magnum MS-PAE 4024 inverter can provide about 4,000 watts of continuous power until the batteries discharge 80% of their capacity. Since the house normally consumes only about 500 watts (average) power, this represents about 20 hours of run time. Fortunately, when the backup system is in operation, the solar PV system can “back feed” through the breaker box and provide the power the house needs as well as re-charge the batteries, so this setup can run pretty much indefinitely, as long as there is a few hours of sun each day. Even on a cloudy day, the 2.4KW (Twelve 220 watt panels) solar array provides about 500 watts, so that extends the capacity of the system pretty well.

 

Home Brewed Genset simulator for transfer switch activation

In order to make the TRANSFER SWITCH operate, I had to build my own little GENSET SIMULATOR. It connects to the output of the backup inverter and provides the necessary voltage and control signal to the transfer switch to make it kick over when the power goes out. These TRANFER SWITCHES are designed to normally work with a gas or diesel GENERATOR SET, as they are called.

It took a little studying and research, but I figured out how to SIMULATE the voltage and signals that normally come from a GENERATOR SET that would connect to a WHOLE HOUSE TRANSFER SWTICH on the V+, GROUND, and PIN 23. These are the 3 wires that are standard on any gas or diesel generator. Since I’m using an electronic inverter (Magnum MS-PAE 4024), such signals were not available, so I came up with a little box that has 2 relays in it. One is standard and the other is a 5 second delay unit so the system won’t “chatter” if power drops in/out rapidly. If you’d like the details on how to build one, I’ll be glad to send you a schematic. Just drop me a line at: Joe@cincihomesolar.com

back up system Battery Bank

ROLLS 520 AH 6 volt batteries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are the batteries I chose. Since I’m on a tight budget, I chose the best bang-for-the-buck, and it ended up being the Rolls 6 volt 520AH model. I splurged on the funky looking RECOMBINATION CAPS, rather than the normal vented caps that come with the batteries. By installing the RECOMBINATION CAPS, the hydrogen gas generated during charging is sealed inside the battery 99%, and the battery loses MUCH LESS liquid over time than a VENTED battery would. A box and vent fan are still required for safety though, and I will add this to complete the project very soon. Without these special caps, in just 30 seconds of charging at 90 amps, the hydrogen gas coming from the batteries would reach 4% concentration and become highly explosive, so this is nothing to fool around with! VENT YOUR BATTERY BANK TO THE OUTDOORS!