Off-Grid Morning Routine
by Cam Mather
So what’s your morning routine? Shower? Coffee? Let the dog out?
When you live off the grid in a northern climate your winter routine can change depending on the weather. After a snowfall we clean off the solar panels. This isn’t necessary, but we like to do it anyway. We want to make sure we get every potential watt out of the panels as possible, and at this time of year every watt counts. We just celebrated the winter solstice which means we’ve just had the shortest day with the least amount of sunshine. So from an off-grid point of view we really do celebrate the solstice at this time of year because the days start to get longer and with that comes more potential solar power. We also are generally over the roughest part of the year when it comes to cloud. We find that once you hit January you get far more brilliant sunny days and a lot less of the endlessly cloudy periods.
Michelle cleaning one of photovoltaic panel trackers. The poplar trees in the background are lighter because they are in sun which hasn’t hit our panels yet.
Winter brings several other advantages as well. Photovoltaic panels (PV) actually work better when they’re cool, so with the cold temperatures at this time of year the panels really crank out the juice. This time of the year the air is much cleaner as well. In those hot muggy summer days there is often a lot of particulate and smog in the air which makes the panels less efficient. And as a third bonus right now we have snow on the ground. Since our solar panels sit on trackers not too far from the snow we get a boost from sunlight reflected off the snow. So it’s a triple whammy, cold temperature, cleaner air and reflected sunlight off the snow. I just love this time of year.
I digressed from our snow clearing. I put together some long brushes using scrap lumber and we use them to clean the snow off the panels each morning. In the last couple of years this has been a pretty regular occurrence as we’ve had more snow and it’s been fairly consistent throughout the winter. Operating Aztext Press out of our home allows us to make sure the solar panels are clear. It also allows us to track the sun. Our trackers aren’t automatic so we have to go out periodically and move them as the sun tracks across the horizon. This isn’t necessary, but since we’re here it gives me an excuse to get out of the chair and away from the computer for a few minutes every hour. This is the best way to ward off carpel tunnel syndrome.
If your panels are on your roof you can just let nature do it’s part to clean the panels for you. The panels are dark so once the sun comes out it will start warming exposed parts of the panels. As sections heat up snow will begin to melt and as more dark surface is exposed the faster the snow melts. Eventually you’ll find big chunks of snow sliding down and off the panels. If we have a wet snow that then freezes you simply can’t get it off with a broom. It’s stuck on there. But once the sun comes out and starts warming the panels the icy snow is gone in no time. It’s quite amazing.
If you had panels on your roof, depending on how high it was you could try to fabricate a snow rake like this. This comes in three sections of aluminum pole and is 5 meters or 16 feet. I use it get snow off the north side of our roof but if you could put a piece of carpet on the plastic rake part so as not to damage the solar panels.
Lots of people would consider me obsessive when it comes to maximizing the output from my solar panels. I won’t disagree. They were expensive and they’re how I power my home, so the more electricity they generate the more I can reduce my carbon footprint and use more electric appliances rather than propane. On the days when I have to head out and be away from home I hate the fact that I have to leave the panels fastened in one position and may lose a few kilowatt hours of potential energy. I admit it though and Michelle tolerates me.
Winter is a great time of year here at Sunflower Farm. I don’t have the constant need to be out in the garden, and since it’s covered in snow, I can’t be even if I wanted to. When I need exercise I skate on our pond or cut firewood. With our addition of more photovoltaic panels I’m cutting an increasing amount of my wood with the electric chainsaw. This year I’m thinking of adding an electric log splitter since I’m finding it a little hard on my arms to split a whole seasons worth of wood by hand, regardless of how much I love swinging an axe.
Clearing off the solar panels is just part of the rhythm of living in an off-grid solar powered house in winter. And it’s a good thing!