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Saturday, June 20, 2015

FAQs

The following is intended to cover some of the most common questions we hear about off-grid solar systems. Please post your questions in the comments for a Part Two!

What is the most important component in an off-grid system?

The charge controller.


This is actually a hard question to answer, but if you consider that your battery bank is usually about 1/3 of the total cost of your system, it makes sense that you should do your best to protect that investment. Buy the best charge controller you can afford, and avoid controllers that don't have a reputable manufacturer's warranty to back them up. Warranties are generally 2-5 years for the good equipment. Even the smallest micro-solar systems should at least have a Low Voltage Disconnect built in so that you cannot discharge your batteries to the point of damaging them.


Why don't I have enough power in the summer?

Because you didn't size your system for the summer.


The most common problem we come across in the summer months is that people don't realize that they are using more electricity when the weather gets hot. Summer is when most homes in the Big Bend use the most electricity, and the same applies to solar-powered homes. In the summer you are likely running fans all day and into the night, and also your refrigerator has to work harder to maintain its temperature. This is why solar systems should be sized for a Worst Case Scenario.

A system that is adequate in the winter may struggle to provide enough electricity in the summer. Big electric companies often have the same problem, which is why brownouts are more common in the summer (when everyone's air conditioner is running at the same time).


I want more power. Should I buy more batteries?

No.


While adding to your battery bank may seem like an easy way to enlarge your system, what you are actually doing is upsetting the balance of your system. If you make your battery bank bigger, your solar array may not be able to charge it adequately. If this happens your system will stop working once the batteries are drained, and if you cannot keep the batteries charged, they will quickly become junk.

Also, it is not advisable to mix new batteries with old batteries because it will shorten the lifespan of your new batteries.


I want more power. Should I buy a wind turbine?

Probably not.


Wind turbines are a great renewable energy technology, but it is both difficult and expensive to make them work on the residential scale. Per Watt, wind turbines are much more expensive than solar panels. Plus, you have to build or buy a very tall tower and install the whole shebang. This can get extremely expensive if you are paying a professional installer, and it's not a ton of fun to do it yourself either.

If you have your heart set on a wind turbine, you should adhere to the following guidelines:

Choose your site wisely. Being near a hillside or structures will cause the winds to swirl unpredictably and not get you a good electrical output. You want your turbine to be either on the top of a hill or in the valley. A wide open expanse with a strong prevailing wind is best.

Buy a reputable brand with a good warranty. Anything with moving parts is prone to problems. Buying from a well-known and respected company can help you avoid those problems, and a good warranty will save you a lot of headache if issues do arise.

Get your turbine as high up as you can. At least 20 feet off the ground is recommended, and the higher you go, the better the wind conditions are.

Brake your turbine. In powerful storms, it is best to stop your turbine spinning. Otherwise it could over-spin and get damaged. You will also want to brake your turbine if your batteries are fully charged and you don't have a dump load ready to accept the extra power from the turbine.

Ground the turbine well. Wind towers are lightning rods and if your system is not adequately grounded with over-current protection, a lightning event could destroy your system in part or in whole. Not to mention the possibility of setting your house on fire (rare, but certainly possible). It doesn't even have to be a direct hit to do severe damage, so you're definitely better safe than sorry when it comes to lightning protection.


I want more power. What should I buy?

More solar panels.


Even if you don't have enough batteries to store the extra juice that additional panels will make, you can still use the extra power if you are mindful about when you run your heavy loads. If you use your energy-intensive appliances (washing machine, vacuum cleaner, etc) when the sun is high in the sky, you will probably be running them directly off the solar array and not dipping into your batteries at all. This is very good for the batteries, and allows you to have more power at night. You can always increase your battery capacity later, when finances allow or (better yet) when your battery bank is due to be totally replaced.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Make Hay

You may have noticed that we haven't posted in over a year. That's because we have had so much else on our plate lately.

Don't worry, All Energies is alive and well!
Sara, Arick, and I have acquired a piece of property on State Highway 118, just south of the Terlingua Ranch Road intersection. We have recently erected a 1200 square-foot building on a concrete slab, and we just need finish it off over the course of the next year.

The next order of business is to install a solar system there, which we have in stock. The planned system uses 1700 Watts of PV, a 4400 Watt MagnaSine inverter and a MidNite Solar "Classic 150" MPPT charge controller.

For updates and pictures please check out our Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/AllEnergies

Monday, August 19, 2013

Jelly Time


Summer is coming to a close and autumn approaches, which means that canning season is here! 

While we have always enjoyed these preserved-at-home treats, we have only just made our first foray into canning. While were twiddling our thumbs, waiting for the garden harvest to mature, our neighbor Dan from the Shady 80 fearlessly went into the wild to harvest nature's bounty of prickly pear cactus fruits.



Armed only with a plastic bucket and a pair of grill tongs, he collected some of the prickly pear tunas and made a fruit juice at home with a little sugar. He raved about how tasty and refreshing his juice turned out, which inspired us to grab the tongs and a bucket, too.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it turned out that gathering the spiny fruit was actually the easiest part. Then the tunas had to be cleaned, cooked, and pulped with a potato masher. 

Finally the mess was filtered through cloth and we had over a gallon of primo cactus fruit juice in one hand, and about ten pounds of leftover skins and seeds (pomace) in the other. The pomace went to the compost, but one day we could dry it out and pulverize it into flour (apparently people are doing this with wine pomace, already).

Now that we have so much tuna juice in the fridge (disclaimer: no fish were harmed, only cactus tunas were used), we have a lot of jelly to make. Cooking the juice with sugar and pectin isn't hard, or very time consuming. Priming, filling, and processing the jars is a little intimidating. Doing both and having everything ready to go at the critical moment is hard (so is not making a huge, sticky mess). 

Eating the finished jelly is really easy, though. Casey's on his second 10oz jar. And we've got a lot of beta-testers out there, chowing down on the cactus confection. We're looking forward to their feedback (and hoping to get them hooked so they'll buy some at the farmers market later!). 
A Texas persimmon at the Lake Ament picnic area.
Meanwhile, we've been looking around and noticed how well the Texas persimmons are doing this year. We found another Texan blogger who has successfully made jelly from the dark, sweet fruit, and perhaps we can give his recipe a try this summer. It probably wouldn't be a bad idea to plant a few female trees around the homestead!
Dark, sticky, messy, and delicious!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Calabasa


Since we began in earnest this spring, our garden has been a wonderfully fun experiment with a respectable amount of success, to boot.  Above are our first two pumpkins harvested. The one on the left weighs 14.2 pounds, and the one on the right weighs a little less, 11.2 pounds.

But after those first two were harvested a couple weeks ago, there seemed to be no more pumpkins, sadly. So I decided to brush up on my third grade botany, and quickly realized that the male and female flowers are easy to differentiate.


You can see above that the male flower on the left has a single anther, and the female on the right has a stigma with several fronds. Behind the showy part of the flower, the female flowers have a very noticeable ovary, or as I like to call them, proto-pumpkin (below). 

After observing the flowers over a few days, I noticed two problems.  Not only did males flowers outnumber female flowers three-to-one, but the female flowers were not developing into fruit!  Instead, the little proto-pumpkins shriveled up a day or so after the flower withered.

So in retaliation to the poor reproduction rate, I have used a soft paintbrush to pollinate the female flowers myself during the past few days.  Yesterday, while searching for female flowers to pollinate, I found this sneaky little pumpkin growing in the shade of other plants:

Woo-hoo! These squash plants have been so easy and fun to grow, I can't wait to try some interesting heirloom varieties next time. I have a particular weakness for Cinderella (AKA fairytale) pumpkins, which are supposed to be as tasty as they are pretty. I also have a passion for Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, so I am really looking forward to autumn this year.

But that's not to say I want summer to be over too soon. So far, the summer of 2013 has brought us a lot of rain. In July alone we were lucky enough to get 3.6 inches of precipitation. 

Rain also spurs almost every desert critter to reproduce. We've tolerated the mosquitoes and other annoying bugs, but the worst plague so far has been an onslaught of caterpillars that came to a head last week. The green monsters decimated both the pepper plants and the cabbages in our garden. Thanks to their rapacious appetites, our first promising pepper was a very sad, premature harvest.

 

If you like our Facebook Page, then you might remember that back in March we were gifted a cutting from a Terlingua Creek cottonwood tree. We planted that cutting (basically just stuck it in the dirt and watered it) in front of the Last Resort, and it has really been growing like a weed, despite the constant nibbling of insects.


On the left is the original cottonwood tree cutting just after we got it home. It was just over 12" long back on March 20th of this year.

About four months later, it stood four feet tall and didn't show any signs of slowing down. It has already grown inches in the days since the photo on the right was taken.

The sapling is a reminder that despite the many challenges,  it is possible for something not only to survive, but even thrive. Every day we learn more about gardening in general, and about the peculiarities specific to growing in the mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert, but there is still so much wisdom yet to be acquired.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Solar Hot Water

Existing solar-thermal array.
We are very pleased to tell you that the swimming pool at the Lajitas RV park is now solar heated! Using an existing array that was never fully installed, we were able to complete the project, meaning that the solar-thermal collectors pictured above are no longer only decorative.

Lajitas Pool
Solar-thermal is also part of our Grand Scheme for a low-impact home, for both hot running water and hydronic heating in the winter months.

The concept of solar-heated water is pretty simple, and has been used for over 100 years.

Everyone should be using solar-heated hot water! We are always surprised to find people using electric or gas water heaters out here, where there is so much sun and heat.

A basic solar batch heater can be made inexpensivly using an insulated box with south-facing glass and a tank of your choice. Plans can be found on the Mother Earth News website.

Best of luck y'all.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Presto Pesto

Homemade pesto from the garden -- delicious!

Our purple prickly pears are getting ready to bloom.