You Learn to Be Handy When You Live Off the Grid

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather
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 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.

With a compression fitting you just squeeze your 3/8″
copper pipe into the fitting and it should seal. “Should” being the definitive
word here. The alternative is to hot solder it. This involves cleaning the
copper, using flux, then heating the copper up with a propane torch and placing
solder on the heated copper to make a permanent seal. As you can appreciate,
doing this anywhere is an art form. Doing it perched on a roof, potentially a
slippery roof, in a high wind, or rain, or brutal sun, isn’t always going to be
optimal. Problem is, sometimes the easy solution isn’t the correct solution.
The compression fittings are easy to install, but in my case eventually they
started to leak. I would much rather have just had to take the time to hot
solder it when I installed the system initially, rather than have to go back
and do it a few years later. When I’m in “install” mode, I’m in “hassle mode”
where I expect problems. I just resent having to go back later and do it again.
As my neighbor Ken said about working for the government, they always had the
time to it twice, quickly the first time, and then correctly the second. He
advocated for just taking the time and doing it correctly the first time.

The other day I was able to get up on the roof and properly
solder the pipe. Then I pressure tested the system to make it wasn’t leaking,
and then I recharged the system with glycol. When I first installed the system
I did everything but charge it, because I wasn’t comfortable doing that step.
This time Renewable Energy of Plum Hollow just said “here’s the pump” and I was
on my own. And now that it’s done I’m back again loving my EnerWorks systems.

 I love EnerWorks because it’s a local technology. It was
developed at the Queen’s University Solar Lab in Kingston, Ontario near where I
live. It was manufactured in London, Ontario in my province. The plant employs
a number of people who were laid off from the auto industry. They pay taxes
that go towards my provincial health care system and contribute to the same
government pension plan that I do. They make a marvelous product. They used a
flat plate collector, which is perfect for a climate like mine that experiences
snow. The morning after a snowstorm the snow just slides off as the sun warms it
up. Vacuum tube systems get hotter than flat plate systems but they are almost
too hot for most domestic hot water needs and because they are cold on the
outside snow and ice can accumulate on them, reducing their efficiency.

So if you’re installing a solar domestic hot water heater
and it comes with compression fittings, run screaming. Take the time and do it
right and solder them. If you don’t know how find a neighbor like my neighbour
Ken and get him to teach you how. And practice. Practice on old pipe until you
get it right. And then, on a freezing February day you too can go and see how
long you can grab that copper pipe the sun is heating up. Bet you can’t hold on
long! Woo hoo! Go solar!

Michelle’s Note: When Cam has accomplished a handyman task like
this, he quotes the TV character Red Green who said “If the women don’t
find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.”

Photos by Cam & Michelle Mather.  For more information about Cam Mather or his books visit or

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