There are great advantages to being off-grid. For example, two weeks ago, an ice storm a bit northwest of us left more than ten thousand homes without power for several days. Thankfully, we avoid the frenzy of stocking up on batteries and water before a big storm, and the inconvenience of power interruptions afterward. Outside of a few rare equipment failures, we’ve never had a power outage in the past 20 years that wasn’t our own fault — usually caused by not paying attention to power use or proper battery charging. Weather failures, on the other hand, are starting to become noticeable. This past December has been incredibly cloudy, and the wind abnormally non-existent when we count on it to deliver. Fortunately, the diesel generator has always provided reliable backup power.
Yesterday evening we had a brief, wet, snowfall amounting to about a quarter of an inch. Later at night, the soft whir of the wind generator suggested that the cold front promised by the weather forecaster was moving in. This was confirmed in the wee hours of the morning by the sudden, cold breeze zipping through the slightly open bedroom window, waking me with a frosty slap in the face.
As I sipped my coffee this morning, the low winter sun just coming up through the trees, I knew what had had to be done without looking. Perhaps I’d wait another hour and let the sun do some of the work for me. Checking my web-based energy and weather monitoring systems on the tablet, I saw that the temperature had fallen from a balmy 40 degrees F yesterday, to a more normal 15 this morning. Unfortunately, the batteries that store the energy for our off-grid power system were at a voltage that showed a little too much neglect. It’s been an incredibly cloudy and wind-free December! One last sip of warm wake-me-up and out I went.
Renewable Energy Systems in Snow
I aimed the push broom with the long extension handle at the top of the solar-electric panels mounted on the garden shed roof and started chipping, scraping, and sweeping. If I had come out late last night before the cold front moved in, this would have been a fast, easy, slushy, sweep. Somehow though, this was not an option for last night. The panels would not come clean right away, so I shifted my attention to other cold morning chores: opening up the chicken coop and collecting eggs before they froze, then up to wind tower to shake the layer of ice off the guy cables. Not nearly as bad as the storm two years ago when the turbine blades were iced up for a week before the sun finally came out hard enough to melt it. Icy blades do not spin in any amount of wind. A few times I’ve forgotten to switch the generator from biodiesel operation back to fossil diesel during cold weather, and that means some quality time with a torch to turn the biofuel trapped in the filters and lines from Jell-O back into liquid.
These chores are less chore-like when I don’t have some professional deadline or a meeting to prepare for. In fact, without deadlines I start to feel more human, and actually look forward to meeting the needs of the day that are simultaneously mundane and meaningful. I took a break to take a few pictures of the sun sparkling through the icy tree branches. Then back to the PV panels, now in direct sunlight, and the remaining ice slid off easily with just a little more coaxing from the broom. One last chore awaited.
Our diesel generator has performed flawlessly for over 8,000 hours with little more than oil and filter changes. Until recently. And of course, major failures occur when you can least deal with them. We use more power in the winter months, but as it happens, that is when nature provides less of it. You’d think we could take the hint and just go to bed early, sleep late, think more, and do less. During a cloudy and frigid week in early December, we started up the generator and ran it for an hour before realizing that the batteries were not charging. I’ve been taking things apart since I was about 7 years old and putting them back together since I was about 12. For better or worse, I’ve been “blessed” with the ability to fix things, which means I’m compelled to repair rather than replace, and visits by qualified repair technicians are reserved only for “special” occasions, like when I run out of effective equipment repair cusses.
The culprit was a $700 voltage regulator (plus overnight shipping and tax). No repairs possible on this “potted’ electronic device, and no deals or sympathy to be found. There were two available in the eastern United States. My son holding the flashlight over me in the frigid generator shed, the power in the house had just cut out due to low battery voltage. One last wire to connect, a quick prayer of hope to the generator god, we fire it up, wait, then look up to see the lights in the house come on. High fives all around!
Oh, the last chore? A piece of the generator’s exhaust pipe has broken off. Again, after 8,000 hours, I can’t complain, unless I have a meeting to get to. I’m just happy the sun is finally out!
Paul Scheckel is the author of The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook, your guide to getting off the grid. He and his family have lived off grid in Vermont for over 20 years. Visit Paul on the web at www.NRGRev.com.