Monday, November 17, 2014

Our Tiny House Solar Power Setup Part 2: Video Overview

And here is part two, people!

I was SO CLOSE to having this all ready to go last night- which would have met my promised deadline. It's only a day late though! Without further adieu- here you go!

Aside from the basic electricity and circuitry lessons I learned in middle and high school, I had next to no knowledge of electrical systems. In 2008, I received my second round of lessons, which was more like a crash course since I had suddenly learned that the house I had bought needed to be completely gutted. I turned to reference books in the library and youtube videos to understand how to re-wire that house. What's my point? I am not a Master Electrician or trained electrical professional of any kind. I simply did several hours of research and sought out a reputable company that would walk me through the process. I want to share our efforts and how our system is put together simply to provide a stepping stone resource for anyone considering solar power. It can be done, and you can do it. What I do not want, however, is to become the "Ask Jane" of the DIY solar power world. I urge you to read through every scrap of material I provide in these posts, review all the videos, and IF at that point you still have a question, you should probably contact a professional. I am giving you my entire knowledge base- if it isn't in these materials, then I don't know the answer either. 

As I mentioned in the previous post- I would be including the more detailed "how to" videos I have found that helped me to understand how certain pieces go together. The combiner box and e-panel are where most of the complicated connections live. These were the videos I found most helpful. 

This is a super professional video that helped me cement some concepts in the beginning, even though we definitely did not need a combiner box of this size.

This is a college student showing a very basic combiner box setup. This helped us the most, in regards to our combiner box install.

MidNite Solar Charge Controller Install to E-Panel
This was a super helpful video. We don't have the same size e-panel and therefore didn't mount the charge controller to the side. 

And now, here is our video showing a very BASIC overview of our system. I talk about a lot of core concepts and tried to remember to touch upon as much as I could- but it was cold and I was in pure business mode, so most of these clips were done in one take. I didn't touch upon the grounding that needs to be done at the "power center" or within your e-panel basically. But from the video you can clearly see the green grounding wires coming from both the inverter and charge controller, which then meet at a central grounding bus bar at the top of our e-panel.  That then leads out the bottom of our utility closet and to a copper rod buried in the ground. 

I really hope I explained the system in a way that most anyone will be able to follow!
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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Our Tiny House Solar Power Setup Part 1: Basics

This is part one of the eagerly awaited solar power setup posts.

I've finally organized my thoughts enough and decided to break the two posts out as follows: this post will contain a raw list of all our system components and a series of the exact resources I used to understand how solar power works, what the components do, and the general rules of assembly. The second post will have a video explaining our setup and additional videos that are very focused on the assembly/install of specific parts. BUT FIRST!

Aside from the basic electricity and circuitry lessons I learned in middle and high school, I had next to no knowledge of electrical systems. In 2008, I received my second round of lessons, which was more like a crash course since I had suddenly learned that the house I had bought needed to be completely gutted. I turned to reference books in the library and youtube videos to understand how to re-wire that house. What's my point? I am not a Master Electrician or trained electrical professional of any kind. I simply did several hours of research and sought out a reputable company that would walk me through the process. I want to share our efforts and how our system is put together simply to provide a stepping stone resource for anyone considering solar power. It can be done, and you can do it. What I do not want, however, is to become the "Ask Jane" of the DIY solar power world. I urge you to read through every scrap of material I provide in these posts, review all the videos, and IF at that point you still have a question, you should probably contact a professional. I am giving you my entire knowledge base- if it isn't in these materials, then I don't know the answer either. 

First let's begin with videos. I know I prefer some overview videos before I get into detailed reading, but that's just how my brain works. Feel free to review these materials any way you'd like!

This guy was one of my favorites, he does several videos in series taking you through the basics of solar power, so check out his channel.

Small Off-Grid Cabin Setup
This guy does a decent job of keeping it simple, but he has a pretty small system, so I gleaned more concepts than actual ideas on what components I would need.

Solar And Wind Setup
I like this guys laid back drawl, he does leave a lot out, but I did find this helpful in better understanding the DC Disconnect (also referred to as an e-panel) connections. In fact many of these videos are overviews that make assumptions about your knowledge or leave little bits out here and there. I can't promise my video will be any better than them, and I am thankful they posted at all, because they helped me along the way!

DIY Solar Panel System: Components and Cost & Savings
This guy does a pretty great job of reviewing his system, this video was one of the first I came across. It can be overwhelming at first, but as you learn more and more you can revisit these sources. He also provides links to all his parts, cost break down and so on. 

Charge Controller and E-Panel
In case you weren't overwhelmed by the videos yet.....haha. But seriously, I included this video because I did, once again, glean a few important pieces. The charge controller and the e-panel is where most of the complicated connections live. As you can see, the size of the system- or how much power you need- can drastically affect the number, size, and type of components you need. There is no cookie cutter version.

Now here are the main reading resources that helped me achieve this installation. 

Renewable Resources....Resources
I chose the AltE Store as my professional help. They were recommended by a fellow tiny houser and I liked that they were local- a Massachusettes based company. All in all, I would give them 4 out of 5 stars. There were a few components that needed to be sent back/exchanged/added, and I had a small part go missing and that was a challenge to resolve, but in the end, I did. I found the customer service to vary from department to department, but my main contact, my Sales rep, Greg, was great. I called him countless times to go over information, ask tons of questions, review and confirm concepts, and so on. Every time he was helpful, patient, enthusiastic, and encouraging. He could have just as easily filled my ears with solar electrical jargon and tried to get me to pay someone to install the system, but I like that this company is willing to talk you through it.

This link brings you directly to their learning center. This is a treasure trove of knowledge. Watch the webinars, read the articles! From here I learned basic schematics of a system, what types of batteries work best in different situations, how exactly the sun turns into power within a panel, figured out our power load needs using the load calculators, and much more. 

Back Woods Home
This was one of the earlier articles I found that resonated and made sense after the first read. It's a nice overview without getting too deep into any one aspect. I felt he touches upon just enough to let you know the basics, but also that there is a heck of lot more information you should probably get comfortable with before you start building anything. 

This site is pretty great. They provide a lot of in depth information, but in an organized way. They are trying to provide one of the most valuable assets for free- KNOWLEDGE. I appreciate what this group is trying to do- give everyone the opportunity to learn, understand, and perhaps even adopt solar power as their main source of energy. The more of us that switch, the better off our planet will be. 
I have the link opening up to information about the guage of wire needed between the panels and the charge controller. It is completely dependent on the amount of power that will be moving through the lines, and the distance it must travel. 

Solar Panel Tilt
This is a very clean cut and informative (I think) piece on the much debated best angle for solar panels.


Our solar power system is rated for 4079 watt hours per day. This number came from us defining what power needs we would require each day and entering that into a load calculator. To review a chart of our power needs check out my previous post. 

Our number and size of panels is dependent upon how much sun we get where we live (prime sun hours at our latitude is 2.9) and how much power we need. 

Our battery bank is dependent upon how much power we need and how long we would like to be able to have power if there was no sun. We designed our system to store and give us enough power for 1.5 days without any sun. Many people choose up to three days, but this plays a big role in the cost. The longer you want to draw power without sun, the more batteries you need. Batteries are fast becoming the most expensive component. 

We plan to monitor our battery levels closely and in a streak of cloudy weather, we will simply scale back our usage. Since we heat and cook with propane, and neither of those units requires electricity, we are comfortable with the thought of simply having no power for a day or two. Life actually does go on without it. ;)

Here is a raw list of our parts. Most of the links go back to the AltE Store, but in some cases the parts were no longer listed, so I linked elsewhere. Review the links, because many of them have a lot of great additional information about the part:

2     4 Foot copper rods, for grounding

Miscellaneous lengths of 6 AWG (guage) copper grounding wire.
Miscellaneous lengths of 4 AWG and 6 AWG covered wire.

My hope is that the real gung-ho readers will devour this information, and by the time my second post with our video comes out, you will at least have a loose grip on the different components I am naming off and pointing out. I hope this has been helpful!

Thanks for Reading!

Monday, November 10, 2014

It's Official! We are OFF THE GRID!

The Annoying Fitness Couple of the 80s
These past two weekends have been full of major progress!

In the past two weekends we have done a plethora of stuff ranging from post-wedding to life in general to tiny house related tasks. In between, I flew out to Little Rock, AR for a busy work week. My apologies for the long awaited next post, but there has been just too much going on! And I'd rather be out DOING than in Writing. ;) I know for a fact that many of you are squirming at the edge of your seats, waiting to hear all about our solar power set up, so let me just break it to you in the first paragraph- this isn't the post. HOWEVER, I will be doing something a bit different this week- since there is so much to talk about. I will be doing some posts in rapid fire! Expect two more posts from me within the week! I have tomorrow off, which I plan to make wise use of, and also spend a little time with my favorite veteran- my older brother, Adam. I am going to break down the solar power set up in two posts. In the first post I will catalogue the components of our system so you know exactly what we have. I will also introduce some of the major items you should be evaluating when you first make the decision to go solar. I may even include some helpful resources in that one- or maybe the second one. The second post will most certainly contain a video of me showing our setup and giving and VERY rudimentary explanation of how it all connects and works.
But for this post- I will stick to the highlights and plaster the place with photos.

Halloween weekend- we did something fun and unusual for us- we made a little effort to plan costumes and then headed out to Twin River to meet some friends, take in the entertainment, a few beverages, and we even gambled a smidge. We walked out with five extra dollars. 
The gifts keep trickling in! We love it!

Saturday was a slow lazy start, then we suddenly had to help out a family member which ended up taking a good part of the day. So we scrapped the rest of it (as far as work on the house was concerned) and tended to a few errands of our own- like laundry. And we put together our new Berkey!! Thanks Lupo! :) Gotta love the late wedding gifts that keep showing up.  

Dan digging out a trench to bury our grounding rod.

On Sunday, we completed the last few connections that were needed. We realized part way through that we didn't have the additional wire and teeny weeny connector pieces for the Trimetric monitor, but we kept going. The Trimetric is not necessary to allow the system to run and produce power- it simply monitors the battery levels and a few other things. We just wanted to make sure the whole system worked at this point! We didn't turn on the inverter. It was late in the day and we wanted the batteries to get a good charge before we asked for any power. 

I'm not sure I can describe the slow steady rise of joy that came over me as we flipped the breakers at each point. First, we were at the panels, flipping the connector box breakers- and seeing the little blue lights of the lightning arrestor beam up at us was a lovely first sign. We then headed to the utility closet and began flipping those breakers too. When the charge controller powered on we were AMPED!! (See what I did there?)

It's lit up!!

By that point in the day it was getting dark and quite crisp. We headed inside and started reviewing manuals so we could start understanding what all these little monitors needed from us, and what they would tell us in return. 

This past weekend, we spent Saturday getting the materials for the heater and the Trimetric. We finished installing the battery monitor to the system and programmed both the Trimetric and our charge controller as needed. At first the charge percentage didn't display and we got a bit nervous, but after more reading we realized it would not display the first time until the batteries were at 100%. 

On Sunday, we finally saw it hit 100% within the first half hour of morning sun. We decided to go for it! We turned on the inverter and plugged ourselves in! We are now proudly, joyously, FINALLY using power from the sun!!! YYEEEEEHAAAWWW!!!
The rest of Sundays light hours were spent installing the heater. Dan's Dad came over and gave us a hand. Since I did most of the homework on the solar power, I told Dan that the heater was his homework.

 It was quite nice, just hanging back and taking photos, letting him and his Dad do the work. :) We found that we are missing just one little connector piece, which we plan to get tonight. Then we will see how our new heater works!

Marking the hole...

After these past two weekends, two major major tasks have finally been accomplished, and we are ahead of the winter weather still. I have felt this rare, remarkable calm settle over me. The entire vision is finally coming together. I am beyond proud of what we have done together, and even more so now that we can say we successfully installed our own solar power system! It can be done people!

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Cutting the hole with a jigsaw.

Finishing the cut on the outside!
Hey there! Our pipe fits!


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

About To Leap Off The Grid!

We are just a couple connections away from running on sun power!

This past weekend, Dan and I spent two full days carefully reviewing, prepping, assembling, and installing our solar power system. All that remains to be done is to ground a few different items in our "power center", install the Tri-metric battery monitor, and then actually connect the line leading from the house up to the panels.

We had a fair mix of plain old labor (digging trenches and yanking wire through conduit) and the more cerebral challenges of making sure we understood and replicated the many schematics and diagrams that came with all of our parts and pieces.

We are both beyond excited to finally get this system up and running, but certainly did not want to rush through anything. With great hesitation, we packed up and put everything away for the weekend around 4pm on Sunday. After all, when you work full time, your weekend should have at least a couple hours of down time right? Not to mention my body needed a break. 

Now THAT is a tiny space.

I spent the better part of this weekend folded up inside our utility closet. Dan's a lot bigger than me, and I did the bulk of the homework on this stuff, so I wedged myself in there to put all the pieces together. When I get locked into a project- everything else seems to fall away. My awareness hones to a pinpoint, and suddenly I am unaware of anything sound, temperature, physical sensation, passage of time and so on. At some point, my legs had gone numb, and when I crawled out of that little space at the end of the day I nearly fell over! My muscles had cramped into that position, so for a few entertaining minutes, I hobbled around half hunched over like a 90 year old lady.

**Note- I began writing this post's draft before receiving some very sad news. My uncle passed away late Sunday.  For anyone who may have known Paul Belhumeur and would like to pay respects, we welcome you to his services on Thursday October 30th. More information is here. **

As a result, this post will remain brief. I had plans to begin laying out the details of our system in a two or three part series, but my mind and energy are elsewhere. I will begin doing so with the next post. 

Please send love, prayers, warmth, hugs, or any kind of support to my family- if you would.

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If you plan on leaving your panels mounted but not yet connected-
tape the ends of the cables! Some sort of flying insect decided to lay larvae
in our male MC4 connector ends. Not fun to clean out.

He's such a hard worker :)

Lightning arrester...

Wiring the combiner box...

Lightning arrester wired.

Time to wire these panels together!

Mounted the combiner box.

Feeding wires through the conduit.

Finishing up the wiring of the panels into the combiner box. 

Working on the e-panel wiring.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Annnnnd We're Back!

One of many TH inspired pieces of decor. :)
What an amazing whirlwind!

The past couple weeks have been jam-packed with wonderfulness. Major milestones, long time friends uniting, and more. As many of you know- Dan and I GOT MARRIED on the 10th! Wooo!
It was nothing short of surreal. Every bit of it was perfect- (well I was a little late and had to rush through photos, but I have every confidence that the photographer got some great stuff!) everyone could not stop gushing about the decor, the ceremony, and I must say- I felt like some kind of celebrity. :) I was greeted with gasps as people saw me for the first time- and that elevated me to a level somewhere well beyond bliss. I wanted to look unforgettable that day, as I married the most amazing man I've ever known, and I think that was accomplished. ;)

One of the outdoor bouquets. 

Another milestone that kind of got glossed over in the chaos- October 1st marked one full year of living in the Pod! It's hard for us to believe most days. It still feels like we just got ourselves moved in. Even a year later, we are still working out different details. Where to best store things, how to manage the mess (I think we need to invoke a no shoes policy) and of course, we are still working on that dang siding. It has taken a backseat over the past few months, but we need to do something to protect and seal it before winter! 
A phone camera shot from later in the night- I'm sporting my reception dress here. 

Another, slightly less related event, after returning from my wedding, I also went back to work at our brand new office building and I LOVE IT. Not only did they purchase and renovate (not wreck) a building, but the place, like all our other offices is beautiful, inspiring, and full of art. But that's not even the best part! With this new building, they are putting their green initiative into full swing. 

No trash cans at every desk! No throw away containers in the cafeteria! Centralized recycling stations every 15 desks or so. And an AWESOME fitness center! There are some whiners already. God forbid you have to get up and walk 20 feet or so to throw something away. We all need to move more! It makes sense! Our brains, our bodies, all work better when we move more throughout the day. Not to mention we are choosing to be responsible and respectful of the ONLY HOME WE HAVE. I hope all the initiatives stick.


REAL DISHES- no more plastic salad containers!

Okay, so maybe this conference isn't so bad. Roof top pool!
I am writing to you all, as I sit in my hotel in Phoenix. Yes, not even a week after being wed, I am off on a four day conference. I thought it would be fine, and in reality it is- I'll live, but being away from my hubby the very next weekend kind of sucks. And I lose a weekend of working on house stuff.  (I left early Saturday morning.)

You can see the top right corner still unsanded.
The whole wall looked like that. :/
But Dan is still home and was very enthused about putting in some serious hours while I was away. We have plenty to do- no surprise there. We have to clean up the siding that has been weather beaten and started to gray over the last couple months. It's been a sore spot for us both, each time we pull into our driveway and see the once pretty blonde siding all mucky and black/gray. Over Saturday and Sunday, Dan was able to sand the full end wall of our house. I am elated. It was weighing on us both, and I can't wait to get home and see it myself!

Perhaps a more immediate need is to install the direct vent propane heater we recently purchased. Since we are moving to solar power, electric heat in the winter is a definite no go. There is less sun, less power, and it just wouldn't make any sense! We hee'd and haw'd over propane versus a wood stove, and although we both really love and prefer the wood stove, we had to be sensible. First- the TRULY American companies I found that produce quality stoves in a size we can use are all back ordered until the spring- second, any stoves that were available required safety dimensions that just would not work for us. If the stove has to be at least 3 feet from everything, it would be smack in the middle of our main floor! Nope. 

The second aspect of wood stoves for tiny houses is the fact that they are a lot of work. Not just cutting, splitting, and hauling wood into the house or cleaning up the ash on a regular basis, but the fact that a stove that small can only hold so much wood. Finding the perfect placement of the flue can help with how fast the wood burns, but lets face it, if you have two tiny logs that are 15 inches long, they will only burn for so long.  We would need to be able to tend the stove every hour at least, and since we both have full time schedules, that's not a possibility. I grew up with wood heat and loved it. The kind of heat produced from wood stoves is unparalleled, and I like that it was very DRY heat. We are worried about the moisture loads we dealt with last year (only two or three instances) and the idea of wood heat drying that place right out was nice. But then I thought about our lungs. My parents had two huge humidifiers going at all times, and even a cast iron kettle full of water on top of the stove. We have neither the space nor the power considerations to handle propane it is.

We still have not given up on the idea- maybe later on, if we find a great stove that can hold its own throughout the day, or one of us can be around or close enough to stop in and tend the stove, we would consider it. 

Next up after the stove install is solar power. We have set the panels to the correct angle, collected all the parts we need (I hope), dug the trench for the power line leading up to the house, and now we just need to suck it up and hook it up. I will be reviewing the schematics when I have free moments throughout this week.

Well that's all for now! I have to get ready for day two of the conference, but I promise we will get back in the swing of regular posts!

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