Saturday, February 16, 2013

Off Grid Solar

This post is long overdue, but after we moved into our stone cottage on the prairie after 2.5 years of hard work; we sort of took a break. Alas, there are things that need to be shared, some of them major. For starters, we are living completely off the grid with the use of our self installed PV system. Our only outside source of energy is our 1000 gallon propane tank (I use the term ‘only’ loosely). Here is a rundown of our system. It starts outside with 8 REC 235w solar panels. They are wired in 4 series strings of 2 panels each and mounted to our homemade tilt-able solar mount. It is constructed out of what is called telespar (stop sign post) with no welding. It has been strong and sturdy even in our heavy winds, although if I had to do it all over again I might use uni-strut instead of telespar. It is better suited for bolting together and they make all kinds of connectors for it.
From the mount, the panels are wired into an MNPV6 combiner box. The combined output travels underground via #4 copper up to our loft. We bought a pre-wired E-panel from Midnite Solar which I would highly recommend to anyone who is a novice in producing their own energy. Our system includes the 240v E-panel, 4000w Magnum inverter/charger, the Midnite Solar Classic 150 charge controller and all the NEC required breakers and disconnects. It wasn’t cheap, but very very worth it. I don’t know that I would have been able to figure out the hook up without the components pre-wired to each other. Plus, inside the E-panel every bus and breaker is labeled so figuring out where to connect the wires to and from the system is a lot easier.
So, speaking of wires – this is how our system works.
DC power from the panels combined and sent to the E-panel via Classic charge controller
DC power is sent to 24v 500 amp hour battery bank (seen without finished enclosure) and inverter
  • Batteries are Interstate Batteries DCM0100 sealed AGMs
E-panel sends 120/240v AC power to our house breaker panel via inverter
Generac standby generator is plumbed into our propane tank and AC output goes up to the E-panel
  • From there we are either charging the batteries or running the house or both

The system comes with a remote panel that I have wired into my utility room so we can monitor /control the system from the main floor. We are constantly checking the SOC (state of charge). You can also monitor the input of the PV panels via the charger controller. I haven’t set it up yet, but I have an app downloaded to my computer that allows you to check the charge controller using a local area network (LAN). After spending some time with our system, we couldn’t be happier. We appreciate the sunshine even more than we did before.

So, that is the basics. Any questions?

On a side note. We also couldn’t be happier with our masonry heater. The constant radiant heat is awesome. And we are slowly but surely learning how to cook in the bake oven – including pizzas and rustic artisan loaves.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Masonry Heater Facing

We have finally finished facing our heater. We faced it with Brampton bricks from Hebron Brick. I like that our bricks came from just down the road a spell, even though my original hope was to find reclaimed bricks.

I don't have a lot of expert tips on slinging mud and laying bricks, since before this project I had never laid a brick. However, I do have some tips for beginners like me.

We set plumb lines for the corners, because I saw that most professionals do this. In order to set them I borrowed a laser plumb line from a friend of mine. It worked excellent and saved us a lot of time.

If you have never done any masonry before, make sure you have a wife that is willing to tool all the joints. My wife is good at it and hides a lot of my mistakes.

Tips specific to this heater.
My hardware came from Northstone Heat. Their customer service is top notch! Our hardware installation came with a learning curve. Our firebox door said for a 410 x 410mm door, you need a 420 x 420mm rough opening (approx. 16.5"). I would have gone with 17" x 17" if I were to do it again. The frame of the hardware would more than cover the gap and it would have made them easier to install and gave us more room for an expansion joint. We installed ours using the hammer drill and screws supplied with the doors.

We did the jack arch based on Marcus Flynn's description.  My Dad did an excellent job of drawing the template for us. I used the cardboard template to cut the bricks with a diamond blade on my miter saw. Even though it is an arch, we still opted for a steel lintel for peace of mind. I lined the lintel with ceramic paper in order to block some of the heat.

We chose to wrap the core of our heater with fiberglass for an expansion/slip joint. Some masons use cardboard but fiberglass seemed more professional to me. We used fiberglass mat that you can buy at auto parts stores. It is normally used for bondo work. It worked OK but it only came in 8 square foot pieces. It wasn't until we had already wrapped it that we found out there is a shop in town that repairs fiberglass boats and would have sold it to us off of a roll. So, look for boat shops near by. The front and back (where it is hottest) got four layers. The sides only got one. I also put an additional piece of ceramic paper above the firebox door (not seen in picture, sorry) to try to keep the mortar from cracking in a spot that will see a lot of heat.

We haven't been able to fire it yet, since we have to install the chimney now. Winter is coming and we have a large stack of firewood just begging for flame.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

More Finishing

Since the last post, we continue to put the finishing touches on the house. While it is very exciting to us, it may be uninteresting to readers. Nonetheless, here are a few pictures of some of the work.

We couldn't be happier with the way the staircase turned out. Especially since we did it ourselves. I must admit it, finish work makes me a lot more nervous than simple framing.
In the meantime we had our slab for the garage poured. And then we decided to do a four person barn raising. It was a lot of work and we should have planned for a few more people. We were very fortunate to have my Dad and Uncle there to help us even though neither of them is Amish.

While the finish work may be 'normal' and somewhat boring to readers. We still have a few surprises left up our sleeves.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Flashing the Field

No, this isn’t an activity in which I bare my chest to the wheat field next door. It’s a highly scientific and odd process involving electricity.

This week our generator inexplicably stopped producing electricity. The motor ran fine but nothing was coming out of the outlets. After checking the usual suspects;  breakers, wiring harnesses – I even took it apart and stared blankly at the AVR (auto voltage regulator) – we were stumped. Not knowing what to do we turned to the grandmaster of information. The internet. My wife did some research on the situation and found a hail mary. Flash the field. I can’t explain the science behind it because I’m not that bright. Nonetheless, it has something to do with the copper in the genset needing a little hand in remembering what its job is. So, we would try it.

There were a few different methods to take a crack at. The only one that seemed easy enough and safe enough for us to try was ‘the drill method’. Here’s how it works. Take a corded drill and plug it into your generator. With the generator running, set the drill to forward, pull the trigger and spin the chuck backwards. I’ll pause for giggles and snide remarks.

In order to spin the chuck of the corded drill fast enough my Dad came up with this idea: cut the head of a nail off and chuck both the corded drill and a cordless drill up to it. Essentially you use the cordless drill to spin the corded drill in reverse, which then acts as a tiny little generator sending a bit of current (the reminder) back into the big generator. If this all sounds ridiculous to you, it did to me too, but I’ll be darned if it didn’t work. The generator is working fine again.

One thing I should mention. Be ready to let go of the trigger of the corded drill. Once the generator remembers what its job is, it will immediately spin the drill. I don’t want to be responsible for any broken fingers out there.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Making It Work

Over the last few weeks our key focus has been function. We've been running gas lines, putting in fixtures and just generally making things work. These are a few pictures of the progress.

This is the upstairs bathroom. It now has a working vanity and working toilet. I am currently working on plumbing in the shower and tub. It has proven to be a little bit more confusing than I thought but I am figuring it out and it should be done by the early part of this week.
Here is our kitchen complete with working appliances. I still have to hook up the supply water for the dishwasher, other than that it is nearing completion.
We can cook!
Another project I would like to tackle this week is plumbing in the water heater. A home isn't a home without a hot shower at the end of a long day.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Wallcoverings II

Ninety-five percent of our walls are covered and finished. The exceptions being one wall in our bedroom and the utility room. The bedroom wall because it is a foam wall that takes a different skill set and the utility room because I am still doing some plumbing in there. The pictures below are the pine upstairs. It was a fairly big project (especially the vaulted area above the stairs) but we couldn't be happier with it. Our point and shoot camera doesn't do a very good job of capturing the vastness of the vaulted stairwell, but here it is.
I called this our sistine bedroom because of all the 'artfully' cut angles. You can see I still have one spot where all the angles come together to figure out.
That's the foam wall that still needs to be finished.
Here is a bird's eye view of the finished walls on the first floor ... and a lot of tools and mess.
In other news. I have finally pumped water out of our well. This may not seem like a large feat for anyone reading this, but it was a big deal to me as my plumbing and electrical skills are lacking. We are using a Grundfos deep well pump and a Square D pumptrol switch with a 32 gallon pressure tank.
I left the wires long because I wasn't all that confident that I was going to get it right on the first try, so they still need to be cleaned up a bit.
Next week, a toilet! Indoors!

Sunday, May 13, 2012


While we are busy hanging the pine carsiding upstairs, we hired a couple workers to hang drywall on the first floor. They should be back this week to tape and mud.
It's blue because it's pretty. Not really, it is mold resistant drywall. It's a little more expensive but we thought it was worth the money.
Also, we had them spray lacquer the beams and sealing.
So far we have the hallway and one bedroom mostly covered in pine. We are working up to the vaulted ceiling over our stairwell. It will be our pine finale.
Once the walls are covered we can work on putting in fixtures and making the house functional. We are so close to having toilets!