2011 is the year I move onto the farm
In this episode I will hammer wood. Punch myself with a solar panel. Play with gravel. And get lost.
The first thing I discover: the property, at least this lower part, is some wet come spring. Why the creek has done spilled it’s banks.
No worries tho. The flood will rise another 3 feet from where you see it in picture 2. It even closed in on the 100 year high water mark indicated on the map I found. Great. Now I know how far to set back my gardens and all.
The noble Hornet
In 2011 I realize I need a place to live. So I move a travel trailer onto the farm starting my full time off grid life. The travel trailer was bought used. I got a great deal (Thanks to Oak Hills Motors in NY).
I got a bit lucky with the Hornet. Not only did I get a very good price, but my dad helped me haul it to the farm with his trusty Ford F-150. I have a smaller F-150, bought that winter down in Florida, and I use it to tow the Hornet around the farm.
The third lucky part. I moved the Hornet down to the summer location while the ground was still just a bit frozen. If I had tried to move it two days later … uh. No way. I would have had to wait for a month, maybe two, for the soil to dry out. Eh, beginners luck for sure.
First order of business after I have the trailer in position. Get lost.
I have three fields and two forests. In the middle field I plant five apple trees. Two cherry and two pear trees.
The groundhog eats the cherry trees. The deer eat the apple trees. I’m all like, what, nobody likes pear? Oh wait. Then the bugs come.
In the front field I plant a row of hops for beer (good thinking right) and a row of asparagus. and potatoes for some reason. and garlic. and tomatoes.
They all do great. Whew.
Build a road
You can see my post on how to build a gravel road on soft soil. It’s great fun. And this is one of my favorite jobs. I get to use some of my favorite tools. The tractor. The plow. And some research.
I found a study done by a university in the mid-west of the US (sorry, it’s five years ago–UofMinnesota?). They did the study in the 70s. If I remember, it was called something like “How to build a long lasting farm road on soft soil.”
My soil is very soft
Basically what they worked out was: a) put down road tarp. b) put down a 4″ layer of 3″ crushed rock (the crushed rock locks together). c) put road topper on top of that!
Of course there’s more to it than that.
I used the plow (two furrow “genius 8″) to cut the heavy grass. Then the front end loader picks up the peeled turf and I set it aside. Next step is to roll out the geotextile. And finally spread the 3″ gravel.
Lots of going back and forth. I learn to drag the gravel with the loader, not load the bucket and spread (Thanks Ray-the gravel delivery guy).
And then Ray comes in and spreads the road topper layer (about 5/8” crushed) in one pass with the square back truck. Bless his heart.
Up your hill
So, in year one i get up the first shallow hill and around the corner. Cost: $1,000 for geotextile. $1200-1500 in gravel. Cost to have someone come and put 500 feet of road. $10k. Score one for the tractor!
The next thing I realize I need is electricity. Running the generator is not just expensive, it’s noisy. And tiresome. Running back and forth for gas, the racket, turn it on, monitor, turn it off etc.
The solar shed
So I start on the solar shed. I was really unsure where to put it. So I put it half way between the evening tree shade and the morning tree shade. Turns out to have been just about perfect. I could have gone a bit further north … but hey. Close enough.
And, in my phrase of the year, “it is what it is.”
To my shock and dismay I find I can’t just walk into a solar store and buy an offgrid system. Systems online are 10-15 thousand dollars. I decide to build my own.
Intrepid bargain hunter I am, I find used (recycled!) 250 watt 48v mono panels. The fellow who was selling them had brought in a container load for the microfit program in Ontario, only to be told they didn’t qualify as they had no “made in ontario” content. His loss. My $2/watt gain.
Here’s panel one outstanding in the field. And my first amps.
Online advice said mppt was a silly waste of money. So I ordered a pwm charger. The online adviser was matching solar panel voltage to battery voltage. I couldn’t find reasonably priced 12 or 24v panels anywhere. Six bucks a watt and up. And no, I’m not kidding. In 2010/11 that was the going price for solar panels.
So I ended up with 48v panels. That pwm charger is making 4.7 amps at 14v. So I’ve effectively turned my 48v panels into 12v panels. OUCH.
And guess who just ordered a Morningstar TS-60 pwm controller?
Ah well. Live and learn. Next year I’ll upgrade to MPPT and sell the TS-60 for what I paid for it. Eh.
Let the assembly begin
Once I found my 1kw of panels. I did other things: like buy 720 lbs of lead acid batteries. Crown 395s; A bunch of wire (I also had wire found while digging about on the property. I guess to avoid theft the previous owner buried about 500 bucks worth of wire, armoured cable etc). A switch box. a fuse. Bus bars. Boy the list grows and grows.
But now the question came up. Where the heck am I going to put all this stuff and how am I going to mount the panels??? Cause, yikes, trackers, my first thought, are phenomenally expensive.
Then I see a post where a solar shed floats down out of the sky. Magically the panels unfold. Easy instant solar power. Cool. I can build one of those I think to myself.
So I gets me my genius 8 plow and buy an auger (on sale of course) and prep myself a landing spot for the solar shed.
The solar build
Step one: Come up with a plan
Check out this plan. It even has math. And measurements. Pencil lines. I’m humbled by its complexity.
Clear a spot
I use the genius 8 to clear a spot for the shed.
One neat trick
I realize that a fancy sun tracker is just outside of my time/money range. But I come up with a unique and original idea to use dock hinges to hang the panels on. This way I can adjust the panels to the season. I get some 30% increases in efficiency, but it’s most useful in the winter. I can set my panels to 60 degrees which allows the snow to slide off the panels easier and gets extra volts into the batteries at the time you need them the most.
Weather clears, time for assembly
Finally the weather clears and time permits. I install hinges. I have visitors (aka. the peanut gallery).
Putting up the rack
The panel rack has the dock hinge mates attached to a pt 2×10. The metal rails are also bolted to the 2×10. This allows me to adjust for wind storm (flat). summer 30, fall/spring 45, winter 60 degrees.
I wasn’t sure how to lift the panel rack up as I had assembled it on the ground. So I tied the inside rails to the fork lift bars on the fel (front end loader) with yellow lifting straps (you can see one hanging there).
I tried lifting the rack and it rose right up. I thought, well, let’s drive up and see how it fits. The hinge brackets slid right in. Put the brake on the tractor. Ran up the ladder. Slipped the hinge bolts in. Done.
Ya can get lucky sometimes.
Time for the panel install
I make a little panel lifting jig for the fel. I lift panel number one into place and bolt ‘er in. The used panels have predrilled holes from their previous install, so I use those.
On the second panel I don’t notice that a wind has come up out of the north. As I come around the building with the second panel a gust catches it. The blasted thing tips over onto the fel arms. slides down the arms straight at me. I have just enough time to get my hands up and push the panel (50 lbs) off the tractor, but not so much time that it doesn’t sock me right in the jaw.
Panel is okay. Some red paint on the frame. My jaw however.
Sometimes things don’t work out so well. Second panel up. I take a break.
Few days later I put the rack to “flat” and bolt in the final two panels from up on the roof. Much easier. No punches to the jaw.
Getting wired up
Alright. Time to get some wiring done. Just a point. I hate doing electrical. My beloved stepdad was an electrician, and no, nothing rubbed off.
Once again I find there is absolutely no way to buy anything I need locally.
(well. except for batteries. Total Battery gives me an good price on 6, what they call L16s, but actually use a completely different charging profile, Crown 395s. 120 lbs of lead ea. they also give me a break on the core charges as I haul in every scrap battery I can beg borrow or badger.)
All the wires and bus bars present a big problem. fortunately, with my ally, the www, I find a post by a guy who did all his own wires. and I discover, across the border, a terrific company called City Electric (note. they are not responsible or accessories to any of my shenanigans).
So I buy a bunch of wire. I follow the online instructions on how to connect lugs with a bench press. I get out my drill kit. Find my bench press (just moved, stuff’s all over). I start mating cables and connectors.
Using drill bits taped to the press I am able to attach the lugs to the wires. Then, a real good tug (real good) to make sure they are tight, and voila. Not as neat and tidy as using a proper tool, but it works.
Next, again at City Electric, I find these cool bus bars. What a marvelous invention. Strip your wires, plug your wires, tighten the honking big screw. You’re connected. Connections are super easy and water/critter/etc protected.
Finally. With various sizes of these bus bar things I wire the panels to the Midnight Solar combiner box using 6 gauge (two panels [48v at 11 amps] on each 20 amp breaker). I run 2 gauge to the Morningstar TS-60.
Solar control baby
From the solar controller I go through a disconnect switch. I found an old motor switch with two DC connections and an adjustable amperage safety trip switch. $20=score! Then two gauge runs to bus bar 1. And 2 gauge to bus bar 2. 2 gauge also runs to each serial connected 12v battery (2 @ 6v).
I have three sets of parallel connected batteries. I now know that this is not ideal. However, it’s not bad either. I found some excellent guides on wiring. I paid very careful attention to things like wire size. And each wire is exactly the same length. Etc. I have to say the batteries are now (2015) 4 years old and still functioning well.
The reason I use two big bus bars is so that I can connect battery and inverter (0000 gauge) wiring together. But bus bar 1 also allows me to add in a charger. And, eventually, a second solar controller. Plus I had thought to add a small morningstar pure sine inverter … but never did.
The positive 0000 wire goes through a fuse. Type T @ 300 amps.
Anybody still reading?
I don’t add the charger until 2012 and decide to stay later into the season to be fair. But it’s the only pic I’ve got. You can sort of see a 4″ vent pipe to the far left. This takes off gasses and funnels them outside. Probably too big. But it works.
To the right you can see the Ramsond inverter. A pretty good inverter. It blew up. But that wasn’t it’s fault. I should send it back for repair, just … haven’t yet.
And that’s it folks
That brings me to the end of my projects for season 2. My hops withered under a scorching hot summer sun. My tomatoes, I couldn’t give them away fast enough. Potatoes. Here’s a bucket of reds.
Getting ready for winter
Just before I leave for the winter I move the trailer and insulate the basement with straw bales. Helps. But man. That trailer is cold in the winter.
And I put in a couple of posts and a 2 wing cedar gate at the entrance. Which I close together with two screws and a piece of wood. High tech security.
Now off to visit family for xmas and then Belize for the winter. Life is rough. Here’s a pic of the cabin I lived in on Tobacco Caye. And a friendly native. Super nice folks all. R&R (reading and rum) is highly recommended for off gridders like me.
And snorkeling every day. Just lovely.
Are you ready for season 3?
Go to My camp build 2012
wait, missed the first page:
go back to My camp build 2010