Posted by: Dave Neads | December 9, 2007

Solar Powered in the Chilcotin Ark

What do you do when you live 25 miles as the crow flies from the nearest power pole? You make your own power, that’s what. And when you do this you discover that living at the other end of the Independent Power Producing (IPP) spectrum gives you a different take on what electricity really is and how it fits into our daily lives……

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I have 34 solar panels mounted on old satellite dish mounts. This arrangement allows me to track the sun as it moves across the sky. That means a two or three times a day a walk over to the panels to move them so that their flat black cells stare unblinkingly into the sun’s face.

Sure I could have a remote controlled device to do it, but, as you learn when you run your own systems, the old adage of Keep It Simple Stupid applies full force. Besides there is nothing more bracing than going out on a minus 30 morning in mid January and crunching through a fresh six inch snow fall to tend the panels.

On a morning like that, after a couple of cups of good coffee, with the early sun wanly peeking over the horizon, the walk to the panels becomes more of a ritual, announcing to the frozen wilderness that you have made it through the night, that you are stirring to go about the business of living here, being part of the local fauna.

Because the panels don’t work if they are covered in snow, I take a large push broom with an extended handle to brush them off, which can be an adventure in nimbleness itself. There are two arrays; one is 8 feet high by 20 feet wide and the other is 8 by 12. They sit on the satellite mounts so the tops are 12 feet from the ground.

To reach the top of the panels I have to stand quite close to the bottom edge, a dangerous place, because usually, when the panels are touched, the smooth surface releases the snow in a whoosh of mini avalanche. I tell you, nothing wakes up the senses more than a face full, or worse, a boot full of fresh powder at 30 below before breakfast.

Wind is another issue. The ridge that we live on looks directly west over the coast mountains. Wind blowing up the Bella Coola Valley and onto the plateau has an unobstructed fetch of a hundred miles. Until I got the hang of it, the panels were blown over more than once. There is no sorrier sight than to see your precious panels lying on their side half way down the steep hillside, jill-poked by a fir snag. Three broken last time.

Now I have a large steel base, anchored with 3/8 inch aircraft cable secured to four one inch stainless steel rods driven six feet into the ground. The steel base has about a thousand pounds of small boulders I collected from around the place and stacked like a miniature pyramid around the central steel pole of the satellite mount. No blowovers for the last few years, so maybe I have it right this time. Maybe.

On the power side , consumption is not as easy to control as you would think. Digital readouts tell me the state of the various system inputs and outputs. Early on I discovered that when all appliances were shut down, all the lights were off, no loads running, the inverter was still sending out power. But how can that be? Everything is turned off, right? Well, sort of.

Because we live in a culture of instant-on, most of our toys like televisions, DVD and CD players and food processors have a small circuit built in so that there is no “warm up” time when you turn them on. Even when “off” these things are gobbling power. The solution I came up with was to have a deadman switch controlling the receptacles that these ‘leaks’ in the system use. So when I turn off the unit, I don’t use the on/off switch, I throw a switch that kills the plug, really turning these little bleeders off.

Electrical systems are fussy beasts at the best of times. The solar panels charge batteries which act like reservoirs to provide the juice 24/7. A mystical device, called an inverter, changes the direct current, DC, of the battery to the alternating current, AC, that we are all familiar with. Very sophisticated electronics, of the type used in spacecraft. And, like astronauts, we are very conscious of the amount of power we consume. Don’t get me wrong, we have all the mod cons from satellite dishes to computers and a dishwasher, but we are careful what we use when.

It is more than just turning off the computer and the lights when you are not using them. You have to balance the loads, keep the demand down. For instance, you can’t run the microwave when the washing machine is running, especially in the spin cycle. Similarly, the nuker and the toaster can’t be on at the same time.

This may seem like a hassle, but it just becomes a habit, a way of using the miracle of electricity in a way that is responsive to the supply. Suppose society at large used the same principle, if every household had a threshold of demand that was adhered to.

Instead of having three computers on while washing the clothes with the dryer running and the microwave heating a quick dinner, what if the loads were spaced out, planned to keep the peak demand below a certain level? That way we could avoid the piling on of use that causes brown outs, black outs and equipment failure.
We can’t afford those things here. If we burn a transformer, kill an inverter, it is a long and costly affair, not to mention the logistics of transporting sophisticated electronics 25 miles into the bush by snow machine in the winter. Not a thing you want to do.

And so it goes. There is not a year goes by that I don’t learn more about inverters, loads and spikes, about how solar panels, flourescent ballasts, controllers, satellite Internet power sources and the like interact with each other. Life at the one household end of the IPP spectrum is challenging and rewarding.

I’ve been doing it now for 22 years and look forward to another twenty.




  1. I’ve just completed a post comparing compact fluorescents and incandescent bulbs. Would the CFs save you a lot of energy from your solar panels?

  2. Yes they do, switched some time ago.

    Watts are watts, the old saying ” No free lunch” still applies. The less you use, the less you have to generate/buy. Lumens are constant, how you generate them is the issue.

  3. what about using LED lights would that save more again?

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