A Little Help From My Friends

off-grid woes

A week or so ago I realized that the four golf-cart batteries which I rely upon for storage of the small amount of electricity I use every day were faltering. I unhooked the four weighty batteries and drove thirty-three miles to Sierra Vista in order to exchange the cores for four new batteries.

In case you might be wondering, four new six-volt batteries cost me about $500.00. The last quartet of batteries lasted for about three years. That works about to about $13.00 per month, a sum which represents my real power bill. Of course the money I spent on solar panels, a charge controller, and an inverter, as well as the labor I expend upon installation, monitoring, and maintenance, should be factored in. Basically, it’s a lifestyle choice. The alternative is paying twenty to thirty thousand bucks, money I don’t have, to the local power co-op. That’s what it would cost to have poles and overhead wires run to my place, which is about a half mile from the last pole — plus there would be a monthly power bill to pay for the remainder of my life. I’m willing to put up with some inconvenience in order to be independent.

After installing the new batteries I thought I would enjoy three more years of “free” electricity. I’m an optimist! After a couple of days it became evident that the new batteries weren’t being charged properly. A period of trouble-shooting was necessary, it seemed.

I drove over to my friend Marcia’s country place one quarter of a mile from here. I had installed her inverter a couple of years ago, a process which had involved another troubleshooting period. Marcia had ended up with a spare 2000-watt inverter which just needed some minor surgery to be useful to me. Marcia was on a vacation at a friend’s place in the mountains of Idaho, but she and I are good friends, so I took the liberty of borrowing her spare inverter.

Taking a modern Chinese-made inverter apart is not a project for the faint of heart or those with fumble fingers. I made the necessary changes which were needed in order to make the device usable.

Still no dice! My new batteries were discharged and the food in my fridge began to warm up and become potentially toxic. Why does this sort of situation always happen during a period when the afternoon temps are near one hundred F.?

I got out my trusty multi-meter and soon found that my solar panels, in service for several years, weren’t putting out the current that they should.

Time for some consulting! I called my poet-scholar friend Michael, who has been dealing with such solar power issues for over twenty years. He lives five miles north of me, a neighbor by country standards. He had some suggestions, all of which I tried, but to no avail. Finally he said:

“I’ll tell you what, Larry! I’ll come over tomorrow morning before it gets hot out, and I’ll bring my measurement equipment. Your multi-meter might be wonky!”

The next morning I was pondering the situation. Michael was on his way to my place, but then a familiar black pickup came down my lane. Mark is a neighbor for whom I’ve been working, off and on.

“Hi, Larry! I thought that maybe this little generator might be useful while you figure out what’s wrong with your system. At least you can top off your batteries with it and this battery charger and have a bit of power for a while. You can drop off the generator at my place later this afternoon.”

I was grateful. Now there is a neighbor for whom I will do favors in the future!

Soon after that Michael showed up with his dog Sailor. Mark took off and Michael and I began a prolonged trouble-shooting session. We drove over to his place and hooked my charge-controller to some of his panels.

The upshot was that my charge controller seems not to be working correctly, and my panels aren’t working well either. Now I suspect that an errant and malign lightning strike might have fried some of the sensitive electronics.

Oh, well, worse things have happened to people! I’m profoundly grateful to Mark and Michael for freely giving help to me while I deal with the situation!

It might seem like a royal pain in the butt to you, but I’m willing to put up with such episodes in order to enjoy future calm periods of bright sunlight transformed into usable electricity.