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Let Me Off of This High Tech Train!

11/16/2010 1:23:37 PM

Tags: off-grid, technology, complexity, Cam Mather

Living off the grid sucks! No wait … living off the grid rocks! Do you sense I’m a bit muddled right now? I’m really conflicted by this whole technology thing. I wouldn’t be living here in paradise in the middle of the woods unless some researchers had figured out how to put silicon and a bunch of metals together to make solar panels that produce electricity. My life here would be quite different if some engineers hadn’t figured out how to take the DC power those panels make and store it as DC in my batteries, and then invert it to AC so that I can use regular electrical appliances.


I wouldn’t be posting this blog unless some software designers had figured out this whole internet thing, and unless some space engineers had figured out how to let me use a little satellite dish mounted on my house in the woods to beam electronic pulses 25,000 miles into space to a satellite and bounce them back to another dish and plug me into the internet.

My brain hurts at the concept that I can type a word into my Firefox web browser and within seconds not only do those pulses travel a billion miles into space and back, Google then searches a gazillion databases of information and uses algorithms to sort the order and blast it back on to my screen, almost instantly. Have you ever just thought about that for a minute in wonder? When I wrote essays in high school in the 1970s, I’d have to spend hours in the library to research them. I thought I was state of the art when I typed the final draft of my essay on an “electric” typewriter! It was soooo much better than an old-fashioned manual one!

I’m 50 now and technology is a young person’s game and I’m getting really, really burned out on it. I bought one of the first Macintosh computers off the line in 1984 and started our business in 1987. Back then our desktop publishing service was vastly technologically superior to our competitors who were still using traditional typesetting machines. Those machines quickly ended up in a landfill, as do many computers when the software has advanced so far that they just don’t have the horsepower they need to make the cut.

Several years ago we invested thousands of  dollars in Apple’s video editing software “Final Cut Pro” and began using it to produce our DVDs. This basically meant we had the capability of a video production studio with millions of dollars worth of equipment at our disposal. But for me the learning curve was pretty steep.

I cut out a great photo years ago from the president of Reuters News, standing in the mayhem of a stock trading floor with the caption “Our business is just too complicated.” So I don’t feel so bad.

A couple of weeks ago we arrived home after enjoying lunch with friends and I went to check on the charge of the batteries. We’d had almost 4 days of cloud and I was getting close to having to run the generator, but by noon the sun was out, so figured the batteries would be in good shape. I checked my Outback MX80 MPPT charge controller to find out it was allowing only 20 Watts out of my 2,000 Watt solar PV array into the batteries. It was basically asleep. I wanted to yell “Wake up. You’ve wasted 2 kilowatts of power today you idiot!” but unfortunately I’ve learned that most of my equipment doesn’t respond to me when I yell at it.


So I put it into “equalization” mode which overrode its napping and off it went, immediately allowing 1,700 watts of juice to flow in to the batteries. Then on the following day, even though the batteries were low, the controller went right into “Absorbing” mode, which it does when the batteries are almost fully charged and it’s just topping them up. I knew that after all of the cloudy weather we’d had, the charge controller should not have been in “absorbing” mode!

So I sent an email to Outback with all the details, serial numbers, model details, all the information I could provide. And I got a two paragraph step-by-by set of instructions to reset the system. This involves shutting my whole system down including the inverter, and rebooting it, then hitting a bunch of buttons on the controller. It reminds me of what I used to have to do on our Macintosh computers before OS X (which is Unix based and doesn’t need to be rebooted anymore). Outback wanted me to tell them which version of the “Firmware” I have. Their technical explanation for what had happened was that the charge controller was “stuck in a rut” and rebooting it would get it unstuck. “Stuck in a rut?” Is that the high tech explanation?

Outback is a great company that makes great products. This charge controller is awesome and the maximum power point tracking (MPPT) it does optimizes the charge in from the panels to ensure I squeeze every Watt out of them that I can. I love this product. But crap, rebooting it? This stuff is just getting too darn complicated.

Has this ever happened to you? Ever had software problems on your…. cell phone? wireless router? microwave oven? washing machine? Of ya, your washing machine has lots of computers in there. Ever forgotten a PIN number? Ever tried to access your bank account when their systems are down? Ever had your windshield wipers stop working and find out that you have to replace a $500 computer system that requires new programming by the dealer? Come on, they’re windshield wipers. It’s just a little motor that makes them go back and forth. The motor is worth, what, $15? $30?

Call me a hypocrite but technology sucks! Stop this train, I want to get off. I’ve had enough. Let’s stop all technological development. This is good enough. No more!

It’s what I love about growing garlic. You plant the garlic. You nurture the garlic with water and weeding. And you harvest the garlic. There is no firmware. The garlic never needs to be “upgraded”. The shovel and hoe for weeding work regardless of whether their ROM BIOS is compatible with the current version of the operating system. You just take them out of the garden shed and use them. Then put them away. And they’ll work just as well next April after sitting there unused all winter.

Sorry for the rant. I’ll be back to being all happy and shiny about living off-grid in no time.


For more information about Cam Mather or his books visit or

Photos: Cam Mather

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11/18/2010 8:36:06 AM
Great rant Cam.

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