Adventures in the Early Days of Solar Power

Reader Contribution by Aur Beck
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by Aur Beck

Growing up completely off-grid only using low-tech energy sources, including candles and kerosene for lighting with an occasional battery-operated device, such as our shortwave radio, made me desire to figure out how to avoid needing to constantly buy these items. When The Farm, an intentional community near us, had an alternative energy fair in 1990, I was extremely excited to learn about photovoltaic (PV) solar energy and right away started studying and learning about it.

I distinctly remember the magic of seeing a PV module directly powering a fan — and that I could control the speed of the fan by how much light I blocked by causing a shadow. The power of the sun was cooling me off! Note that I interchangeably use solar “module”, the proper tech term, and solar “panel”, a more common name that industry folks consider technically a device for heating hot water or hot air.

Life Powered by Batteries Before Solar

Before discovering this PV magic, I had been powering my shortwave radio using many D batteries and lights by setting up jumper cables to charge an older starter battery on the floor of the passenger side of my truck. When I was driving around, it would charge the battery, which I could then remove from the truck to power 12-volt halogen lights, my CB radio (my early days phone), my shortwave radio for news around the world, and a small, 6-inch, 12-volt fan.

I would have to recharge that battery every couple of days. I somehow was given a little PV panel (either Frank Micheals or Albert Bates made a trade for it); it provided under 5 watts of power. I needed to recharge via my truck less often after I hooked it up, but in retrospect, it probably was doing next to nothing.

Saving for My First PV Solar Panel

I worked all summer at low-paying, “menial” jobs (in what I have been told was the poorest county in Tennessee) to save up to buy my first solar module — with 45 watts of power! I’d use it to primarily power lights in my camper-house, using 12-volt halogen tail-light bulbs.
Do you know what “backer” is in these parts? That is tobacco. Do you know that suckering baccer is a hard, menial, manual hands-on job? Suckering baccer is going through the whole field and breaking off the little shoots (leaves) so that the big shoots can leaf out to big leaves of tobacco. I was 14 when I worked all summer saving up. I wasn’t told to wear gloves or I simply didn’t, and the gooey stickiness of the sap of the tobacco plant (nicotine) entered through my skin and made me the highest and the sickest I have ever been. I highly recommend this approach to ensuring someone doesn’t ever want to be exposed to tobacco ever again.

I picked rocks out of a field, I completed a variety of odd handyman jobs, and finally I picked pimento peppers being paid by the pound. I saved up over $400 for a 45-watt Kyocera solar module — consider this costing me at the time $10 per watt when these days, solar can be purchased a less than $1 per watt. Wow! — to hook up to an old starter battery I had.

Using Early-Generation Solar Power

After I bought the “large” (and would now be considered small) 45-watt PV module, I thought I could eliminate the hassle of toting that heavy battery around. I hooked up the PV module and promptly over-charged and killed the battery.

I had bought what was called a self-charging solar panel, which was 30 cells instead of the standard 36-cell module. The two most common solar panel options on the market today are 60-cell and 72-cell. By having fewer cells, I had a lower-voltage solar module, so the idea was it would be harder to over-charge the battery.

It was heavily advertised (as I see modules advertised still nowadays) as a self-charging solar panel, so I thought I didn’t need a charge control. Later, I learned that a solar module wired to a battery will charge the battery during the day (or under a light), but at night (or in the dark), the energy will flow in the other direction out of the battery and stream out of the solar module and, of course, discharge the battery. The simple solution is a diode, which is a one-way check valve.

For entertainment, every person in the family was allowed to choose one hour of TV a week, which we watched on a little 4-inch screen; a 12-volt DC television hooked up to our truck battery. In place of regular TV, we were all very much into listening to the radio, including BBC broadcasts from London, on our shortwave radio, which operated on D-cell batteries. (To this day, I rarely watch television.)

Full set up of solar panel with battery pack.

Moving Into a Solar-Powered Camper

When I was 14, I personally bought a truck-mounted camper to move into. It was a completely self-contained home wired for 12-volt DC, including a fan, a CB radio, lights, and a propane stove and heater. I did build a small room where the cab of the truck would have been and installed a small woodstove there in order to use less propane for heating.

To supply power for the 12-volt DC system, I charged an extra battery in our truck as we drove around. It was a hassle to constantly hook up the heavy battery in the truck, so at some point, I horse-traded for a 2-watt PV module and a copy of the last free issue of Home Power magazine.

I noticed that I had to charge the battery less often after I hooked up the little PV cell. I soon became obsessed with getting my hands on a larger PV module.

In the summer when I was 15, I hustled any paid work I could get — in the poorest county of Tennessee. I picked pimiento peppers (which paid by the pound) and suckered tobacco plants (while absorbing enough tar and nicotine to make me sick). I even got a job picking rocks out of a field, but I eventually saved up the $400 or so to buy a Kyocera 45-watt module. So, at 15 years old, I legitimately went off the grid, solar-powered.

I couldn’t afford a charge controller and figured I would use enough power to keep from overcharging the system, but I soon destroyed my old battery. It was an old car battery, but as I learned more, I bought a deep-cycle marine battery and a charge controller. (Later, I learned that wasn’t a true deep-cycle battery, but it did work for a couple of years before it failed prematurely.) So, finally, on my third try, I bought the proper batteries and they lasted for eight years. Those batteries were true deep-cycle, 6-volt DC batteries wired in series for 12-volt DC.

For four years, my whole system consisted of one 45-watt module, one charge controller, and two 6-volt DC batteries wired with fuses between each component. This was enough to power a DC fan, a CB radio, a shortwave radio, and lights, which were repurposed halogen taillights. Eventually, I wanted to watch movies, so I bought a DC to AC inverter to power a TV and VCR, but it drained my batteries too quickly. The 300-watt inverter was only 80-percent efficient, so I lost at least 20 percent of my power in the conversion process.

Off-Grid with Solar to This Day

At the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair in Wisconsin, I bought a new Photowatt 100- watt module, but ended up trading that for three used 50-watt ASE America modules. This meant I had to buy a bigger charge controller to handle my “new” modules, which I did. My system, slightly expanded, had operated as my primary power for a total of 18 years.

I have replaced the batteries twice, changed the charge controller when I added more modules, and had to replace the pocket inverter once.

Aur ‘DaEnergyMon’, is a NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer™ with AES Solar in Carterville Illinois and started educating himself about renewable energy as a teenager even before (at age 15) he moved into a camper in his parents driveway to live off grid solar and ended up living off grid for 18 years. Aur understands that living how he does makes it very easy to advocate for a life of simpler living, energy efficiency and renewable energy. His name Aur (pronounced “or”) means light or to enlighten in Hebrew. Aur Beck has lived completely off-grid for over 35 years and he works as Chief Tech for AES Solar. He can be reached at . He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page, and read all of Aur’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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