Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

Adding to the Array

By Cam Mather

Well the Aztext Press power plant keeps getting bigger thanks to my dwindling retirement savings plan. Most people, if they can, sock money away into their retirement fund so they can retire and relax. I, on the other hand, am drawing down my savings and investing in solar panels for my retirement. I really emphasize this strategy in my book Thriving During Challenging Times. I call it a “hard asset.” A soft asset, your Nortel stock for instance, can go down in value based on a number of factors, none of them under your control. A hard asset has functionality that doesn’t go away. Photovoltaic panels keep producing electricity regardless of the state of the economy. Solar domestic hot water heaters keep making hot water regardless of how low the stock market is or how expensive natural gas gets. In uncertain times owning hard assets makes real sense. Their usefulness can never diminish. Retirement plans go up and down, hard assets just keep giving and giving.

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These new panels bring our total PV to about 2,300 watts. It’s probably more than we need but I’m not complaining. Our nickel cadmium batteries are getting towards the end of their natural life, so having a bit more juice going into the batteries to try and give them a bit of kick makes me feel better. As an engineer Bill Kemp would probably disagree that it makes much difference, but sometimes when you live off the grid and you’re not an engineer, ignorance is bliss. Having the extra electricity is also helping us offset more of our propane use allowing us to cook more with solar powered electricity rather than C02 producing propane.

I purchased the panels about a month ago and had unsuccessfully been trying to find the time to get them installed. Then one morning I was at the computer working on my next book, “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook”, and my neighbor Ken arrived and said “Let’s put those panels up.” If there is one reason our move to an off-grid house as cidiots (city-idiots) with little grasp of electricity was successful, it’s Ken. Ken retired from Millhaven Maximum Security Prison where he was in charge of a large staff that kept the institution’s systems functioning. He’s a licensed electrician, a welder, and knows everything you could ever want to know about building, steel, concrete, all the other stuff we’ve needed to do at our house. Ken is one of those guys who has “skills”. He can fix stuff and he can build stuff and he can read the thickest hardware or tool catalog and actually understand what every tool does. He built the tracker that the new panels are installed on.

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Ken is also one of those great teachers. When I built a portable wiring display for my presentations on off-grid living, I asked Ken to make sure that I had the outlets wired up to code. He’s the sort of guy who could do the stuff himself but usually insists you do it, so that you actually learn something. He’s been around a number times as I’ve upgraded my system. I’ve continued to add panels as I can afford it, and you can see the various additions in the different panel types on my trackers. This time after he’d helped me drill the steel and bolt the panels to the tracker he said “well they look great” and off he went. And left me alone with the panels.

But Ken, they’re not wired up! What do I do now? Well as it turned out, I just wired them up, myself. It was a bit of challenge because I can have a mental block about electricity sometimes. This was a little bit tricky. The panels are 24V each, but I had to wire two of them as 48V. Direct current electricity, or DC, doesn’t travel as well over long distances and this tracker is a little further from the batteries than the first tracker. With DC you either use larger wire to reduce your line losses or you increase the voltage. We decided to wire the two 24V panels in series, which increases their voltage to 48V. Luckily I had a template because we had already done this once (or rather Ken had done  the first 4 panels we installed.) So I had to figure out exactly what Ken had done to wire them in series and then do it again. You can see by how much wire I left hanging off I don’t always have complete confidence in this department. Guys like Ken measure, cut, strip the wire, put it into the combiner box, tie wrap the exposed wire so it doesn’t flop around in the wind all in record time and it looks like a work of art. My work on the other hand, looks like someone who has cut the wire too short one too many times and doesn’t want to do it again.

The left hand side of the installation looks better because I had done the right hand side first and tested it to make sure it worked. But when it was done it worked great. And I did it! There really is no feeling like it. I took solar panels and wired them and now they’re making electricity that’s making my life better! And they are reducing my carbon footprint on the planet. How cool is that!

This is another one of my recommendations from “Thriving”, and that’s to develop real skills. In the future as the world deals with the challenges of peak energy, climate change and economic collapse many of today’s jobs will no longer exist, or will require far fewer people. Growing food and installing renewable energy systems on the other hand will be skills that will be in demand for a long time.

So go ahead. Buy some solar panels. Get someone to show you how to install them. Do it properly. Make sure it meets the building and electrical code. Then get going on your garden. Learn how to grow your own food. Learn how to plant potatoes. Learn how to store potatoes. These are real skills. They are timeless skills. They’ll never let you down. They won’t go away next time the stock market tanks. And in the future these are skills that you’ll always be able to use for barter.

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This is the sort of brilliant thing Ken thinks of. We had to drill through 2″ steel to make the hole to bolt the panel through. You can see from this picture that the drill bit is through the steel and since you’re applying a lot of pressure on it at this point to get it through the steel, the tendency would be to just keep going and drill a hole through the panel. This would be a bad thing. Ken just fashioned a piece of pipe to put between the drill and steel which prevents you from overdoing it and possibly damaging the panel.

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