Energizing Our New Off-Grid Home

How to run a freezer with solar power

Our temporary solar power tower.  We will need a much bigger system to run our new house.

We have been doing lots of research about off grid solar systems for our new home.  For the last three or four years, we have dabbled in small solar systems that run our temporary living quarters, and have gained a basic knowledge of how off-grid solar systems work.

Well…at least Ray has knowledge in this department!  I still can’t get my head around the difference between watts and amps, inverters and charge controllers, and……..

ugh……..

Anyway, we’ve been talking with sales reps from different companies about setting up and installing a system for us.  Quite frankly, we were shocked at how much their systems were going to cost!

As I mentioned above, we have installed our own small solar systems that run our freezer, small refrigerator, satellite TV dish, flat screen TV and a bunch of LED lights, and so we are aware of the general cost of solar panels and all the components to run the whole shebang.  Therefore, we had a general idea of what a whole house solar system was going to cost, but unfortunately, we didn’t expect them to charge twice the cost of the equipment to install the system!

That’s when we found a few companies online that sell solar system “packages” to homeowners that can then do the installation themselves, or at least most of the installation.  We zeroed in on two of those online/direct to consumer companies.

One of those companies, Wholesale Solar, was only a few hour’s drive from our homestead, so we decided to drive up there in person and see what they could offer us.  Their online store lists quite a few options according to kWh size, ranging from a small 1 kWh system for a tiny weekender cabin up to a 16 kWh system for a large ranch.  They were also offering a 10% discount on an entire system, so we were onboard with that!

We had a great trip!  It was good to get away from the homestead and see the sights.  Mt. Shasta (the mountain) is right behind Mt. Shasta (the town and where Wholesale Solar is located) and is absolutely gorgeous!

Our first trip to Wholesale Solar. Isn’t Mt Shasta beautiful?

During our scheduled meeting, we met with Cheyenne, System Design & Sales Technician for Wholesale Solar.  Although we were pretty sure which “package” would work for us and were ready to purchase the system that day, she insisted that we go home after our meeting and do some research to figure out which electrical appliances we would use and how much power they would require, then send her this list so she could evaluate how big (or little) our system should be.

A freezer run on solar power

We used the stated manufacturer’s numbers to figure out how many kWh we would need for our everyday living.  This one is for our small 5 cubic foot chest freezer.

We sent her a sheet of the electrical appliances we plan to install, along with their kWh rating and our hours/day of estimated usage.  We used a lot of manufacturer’s baseline amounts, such as 5 hours of TV a day (which is what they rate their kWh usage per year on), though I doubt we will actually watch TV for 5 hours a day!  We sent e-mails relating to our potential usage back and forth for a couple of weeks, and it was then that I was starting to feel that Cheyenne was being unreasonable.  You see, our future potential usage is really an arbitrary amount that can only be estimated!  How can we say how many hours our whole house fan is going to run next summer, or the summer after that?  Who knows how hot it will be?  It’s all an educated guess!

But, the truth is, we appreciated her nit pickyness because we certainly didn’t want to come up short in the energy department.  When we all agreed which of their “packages” worked best for us, Ray and I were pleased to see that the system didn’t need to be as big as one the “other guy” wanted to sell us.

I had sent the same usage amounts to the second online solar store, and  got a decent quote from them within one week, but it was only a “sample” bid.  So, when we got the final bid from Wholesale Solar, we sent that bid to this second company to see if they could do any better.  They replied that the bid was solar panel heavy and battery light, and then gave us another “sample bid”.  I guess they didn’t want to give us a “real” bid?

That’s okay.  We really like the people at Wholesale Solar, and we also like to spend our dollars as locally as possible, so we decided to go with them.  One thing we did decide to do, however, was to NOT buy our batteries…yet.

how to run a freezer off grid

Here is the charge controller, inverter and batteries for our small solar system that runs the freezer.

Why?  OMG.  If you look at all the different battery options for off-grid homes, I can guarantee that it will make your head spin.  Last year we were actually on the list to get the new Tesla Powerwall.  This is supposed to be the next generation of energy storage and we were excited to be one of their first customers.  UMMmmm…No.  When we were finally “graced” with a phone call from one of their sales representatives, he informed us that even though we were originally told this would be good for off-grid situations, they would not sell it as an off-grid battery.

Well.  Nuts.  Back to square one.

As it turns out, there is a company in Germany that produces a battery very similar to the Tesla Powerwall, called the Sonnenbatterie, which apparently costs less anyway!  But wait.  Then we found out about Lithium IRON batteries. And salt water batteries. And then there is the old tried and true L16’s (fork lift batteries).  We haven’t made a decision yet, and that’s okay because the house doesn’t even have the walls up yet.  We have time.

So, what we purchased from Wholesale Solar was the solar panels along with the brains of the system (inverter, charge controller, etc.), mounting brackets and wire.  We also bought a Kohler propane generator as a back-up.  And, so far this company has been very helpful and “hands on” in terms of customer service.  They even provide all the information needed to get the solar permit!

To save money on shipping (and have the opportunity for another fun, short excursion) we decided to pick up the system ourselves. We have a flat bed trailer that has come in very handy lately.  We brought up all our Faswall blocks on this trailer and will soon be hauling up all of the concrete blocks (CMU’s) for our retaining wall.

On our first trip up to Mount Shasta, we stayed at a hotel in Dunsmuir called The Oaks, which was the cheapest hotel we have stayed in…ever!   After one night in a clean, quiet room with a king sized bed along with all the amenities (flat screen TV, microwave, coffee maker, ref/freezer) we had a wonderful breakfast – included in the price!  All for less than $70.

SERIOUSLY!!!!

Our “free” breakfast after a very pleasant night in The Oaks, all for LESS than $70.

We did some sightseeing, and then we had lunch in the town of Dunsmuir at a place called Yak’s.

When we saw Yak’s from the freeway, we laughed ourselves silly at the name.  Isn’t that what the kids call, um, regurgitation?  And it’s the name of a restaurant?  Of course, we had to check it out and I took this picture to prove to my family and friends that there really is a restaurant called Yak’s!   It was good, and, no, we didn’t yak. 😉

We drove 10 miles up the road from Dunsmuir to the town of Mt. Shasta and the Wholesale Solar warehouse, and met Shae.  Shae was a very polite and friendly young gentleman who helped us load everything onto our flatbed trailer. Within an hour’s time, we were on our way back home.

This was the view of Mt Shasta two months after the first picture above, when we were at the warehouse picking up our system. After a few snow storms, the mountain was gleaming in white…so beautiful!  Could you imagine living in that home?

The drive home was uneventful and we made it to our property in record time, not that we were in a hurry.  Whew – we were lucky because the weatherman was calling for snow that morning, but we had dry roads all the way home.

Our solar panels all stacked together, and the back-up generator.

It’s going to be fun to finally get the panels installed, but we have to get our walls up first!  My next post will be all about the rebar in the walls.

Spoiler alert… we just (yesterday) passed our first county inspection for the walls, including the electrical conduit, the gas piping and the rebar.  Next comes the special inspection and then pouring our first “lift”.

It’s starting to get exciting and it finally feels real!

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Our Solar System

“We all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun.
                                  John Lennon

When we are up on our future homestead, working our bodies to an over-exhausted state, it’s always nice to have a hot shower and an evening television show or two to vegetate over.

We set up a really nice “camping” spot on our property to live in while we are up working (click here to see) and are completely off grid, so unless we want to run a generator (noisy and pollutes with fossil fuels) or bring up fully charged batteries from home (very heavy to lug around), living comfortably in the trailer on work weekends would not be feasible!

The first solar panels we obtained were from our brother-in-law, Danny, who got two of them from his work.  They were solar panels that had fallen off one of those digital roadside signs you see in construction areas.  The glass had shattered but all of the inner workings were still intact.  These panels still work pretty well despite their damage and have helped supplement our battery system when we are “dry” camping.  This was our first dabble with solar energy and we were quite impressed, but it didn’t completely solve our energy problem on rainy days, when the panels didn’t work as well and the batteries got low. We would have to choose between watching a little television or taking a shower, and the shower usually won.  Then Ray found a small 45 watt system sold through Harbor Freight (see here) that had three panels, an adjustable stand and a battery controller for less than $150.  We set the new panels on top of the trailer and they worked like a charm.  This system allowed us to camp for more than four or five days at a time without having to use our generator, as long as we were very conservative with our energy use.  In the meantime, we switched all of the lights in the trailer from those little incandescent bulbs to LED, which saved a tremendous amount of energy.

Dish Network Satellite Dish
This picture shows the satellite dish we bought to go along with the receiver we have set up in our trailer. It is mounted alongside a 75 watt solar panel that energizes the tool shed/guest cottage.

This worked well until a few years ago when we had to switch from analog TV to digital.  Being off the grid and having no prospects of getting cable TV, we opted to use one of our digital satellite receivers from home and purchased another dish that we set up on a tall tree snag.  Unfortunately this brought another energy using appliance into the equation as the satellite receiver also uses energy – not a lot, but enough so that we again had to be very conservative in energy usage if we wanted to watch the news and an hour long program in the evening.

Ray fixed all that with an ingenious system.  We bought two more Harbor Freight 45 watt solar systems and instead of hooking them up to the trailer battery, Ray devised two more separate systems, one for each the TV and the satellite receiver.  The TV now has it’s own set of solar panels linked to two deep cycle batteries.  The satellite receiver also has it’s own system of solar panels and batteries.  Inside the trailer Ray installed a simple switch for each system, so now all we have to do is flip a couple of switches to watch TV.  Last Sunday we watched about 6 hours of TV (1 hour of morning show, 1 hour of news at noon, 1 hour of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, and then a 3 hour movie) without any glitches in the power supply!  The best part is that our trailer has never run out electrical power for the lights and the water pump since this entire system has been set up!

  • Solar panels Solar panels On the trailer roof we have three sets of the Harbor Freight solar panels and two old damaged ones. One set of the HF solar panels and the two damaged ones energize the batteries for the trailer, which runs the water pump, fans and lights. The second set energizes two batteries for the television, and the third set is for the receiver!
  • The inside view The inside view This is an inside view of our set-up. You can see the receiver and above it is the TV. Each is plugged into an inverter which is then plugged into a wall socket, turned off and on with a toggle switch, which saves a lot of wear and tear on the 12 volt sockets and plugs.
  • Outside connection Outside connection You can see the electrical wire running from the outlet in the side of the trailer down to the batteries and charge controllers. The wires from the solar panels run down the other side of the trailer. through the charge controller and the power is then stored in the deep cycle batteries.
  • Batteries and Charge Controllers Batteries and Charge Controllers Under the trailer you can see the two charge controllers, each with two batteries. The power goes from the solar panels, into the charge controllers and then into the batteries. When the TV and receiver are turned on, the power goes from the batteries up into the trailer, through an inverter and finally to the appliance.
  • Trailer Batteries Trailer Batteries We actually have three deep cycle batteries for the trailer itself, run by one set of Harbor Freight solar panels and two free (though a bit damaged) solar panels courtesy of my brother-in-law, Danny. Since we have had this system set up we haven't run out of power, though on dark and rainy days we are still a bit conservative.
     

After a hard day of working, it sure is nice to sit in front of the TV and vegetate!  Besides, I truly think Ray would surely go through withdrawals if he wasn’t able to watch Wheel of Fortune.  I secretly think this was his motivation for getting this set up!  😉

We bought these solar landscape lights for $2 each at the local box store during an end of the season clearance!  They have been a very valuable light source, lighting paths from here to there on our property.

We bought these solar landscape lights for $2 each at the local box store during an end of the season clearance! They have been a very valuable light source, lighting paths from here to there on our property.

Our son, Matthew, gave this solar powered LED motion detector light that Ray mounted on our tool shed.  It works very well.  When we arrive at our property during the night, we always have some light so that we can see to unpack!
Our son, Matthew, gave this solar powered LED motion detector light that Ray mounted on our tool shed. It works very well. When we arrive at our property during the night, we always have some light so that we can see to unpack!

We are also using solar energy in several other places on our future homestead.  Our paths are lighted by small solar landscaping lights.  My middle son, Matthew, gave my husband a wonderful motion activated, solar powered, LED light that he mounted on our shed.  We also have another solar panel mounted above our satellite dish that charges three batteries in the shed, which powers the light inside the shed, a porch light, a small refrigerator, and a TV (not all at the same time, of course).Needless to say, we are sold on solar!  When we build our home up on our future homestead, we plan to use a lot of solar power!  We will use it to power the house (lights, fans, very energy efficient refrigerator, small water pump for upstairs) and also for heating water in a hybrid system with a propane tankless hot water heater.   If you haven’t seen our soda can heater, which uses the sun to heat soda cans that in turn heat a room, click here to read the post!  We plan to build a bigger, more efficient and 🙂 prettier 🙂 one that we will permanently attach to our new home.

Our ultimate goal will be total energy independence.  Only the future will tell how successful we will be in this goal!  Life is good.

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