You Learn to Be Handy When You Live Off the Grid

| 4/21/2011 3:16:19 PM

Tags: solar domestic hot water, solar thermal, DIY, fixing things, Cam Mather,

 I love living off the electricity grid. I love producing all my own electricity from the sun and wind. I especially love heating my water with the sun. My Solar Domestic Hot Water Heater (SDHW) is probably one of the coolest pieces of technology that I’ve installed. The fact that I had to fabricate and weld the frame that it sits on over my back porch is part of it. But I love it when I try to touch the copper pipe and find out it’s too hot to touch even in February when the outside temperature is -30°C. It just blows my mind. It’s absolutely the coolest thing ever.

But like many of the technologies I use, being an early adopter can have its pitfalls. I’m not complaining. No one held a gun to my head and forced me to move to the bush 4 miles from the nearest utility pole. It’s just an observation. With most of the technologies that you can use to reduce your carbon footprint and make yourself more independent, the learning curve of the manufacturer has been well established and for the most part the equipment will just quietly do its job just like any other appliance in your home. They’ve worked the bugs out.

Wind turbines have been my biggest challenge and understandably so. They have moving parts. And the moving parts have to go fast, then slow, the get buffeted from all sides, and stop quickly and start quickly, and dodge lightning strikes. I buy my equipment from a local dealer called Renewable Energy of Plum Hollow and they didn’t really want to sell me a wind turbine. They made it very clear that I was on my own. They’d installed enough wind turbines and had had enough problems to know that they preferred to deal with solar. Point taken.

I just had to have my Outback MPPT Charge Controller repaired. Luckily I had kept my old one so I could use it again while the new one was being fixed. Well it wasn’t really getting fixed. I had an early model and the “firmware” or permanent programming in it needed to be updated. They did it under warranty and actually paid for the shipping. So no complaints there. And as much as I like to whine and complain about it, it forced me to go through the whole installation process again. Shut down the solar panels. Shut off the power from the batteries. Turn of the inverter. Remove the wires from the one unit in the correct order. Install the new unit. Rewire it. Then start everything up again in the correct order. For a cidiot like me this is a scary prospect, but it gives me tremendous confidence that I’m in control of things. I can do this when I have to, so if things go wrong I’m not at someone else’s mercy to fix it. I like this feeling. No, I love this feeling.

About a month ago I noticed my solar hot water heater wasn’t working as well as I thought it should. After a few weeks it was still pumping glycol but wasn’t heating the water. Turns out some of the heat transfer fluid, the food-grade propylene glycol had leaked out. It had leaked out through compression fittings on the flat collector on my roof. EnerWorks, the company that made the unit had used compression fittings to try and simplify the installation. Since they don’t know the skill level of the people their dealers will be using to install their systems, they want to eliminate as many potential problems as they can.

4/23/2011 9:14:59 AM

(So if you’re installing a solar domestic hot water heater and it comes with compression fittings, run screaming.)!!!! You are not talking about true compression fittings, you are talking about push in fittings. True compression fittings have a ferrule and a compression nut that you tighten. They can be taken apart many times and reassembled and if you have a leak you haven't tightened it properly. True compression fittings are fantastic and can be reused over and over.

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