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Kindling splitter update

We’ve had our Kindling Splitter for over 2 years now and it continues to make kindling safe and easy.

It seems to help to cut your pieces a few inches higher than the height of the splitter.

Cutting shorter pieces runs the risk of the hammer contacting the splitter and dulling the edge.

A few minutes with an angle grinder is all it takes to bring it back to its full cutting potential.

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What to do with old solar panels

Using old solar panels

In my last post, I shared my brother’s journey to upgrade his off-grid home from the multi-decade-old original solar system to a new one that meshed with his needs in the modern age. But what did he do with the old panels?

The trouble with utilizing ancient solar panels is that they’re so much less effective than new ones that it often makes more sense to just replace them than to add them into a larger array. The panels don’t have to end up in the trash, though.

Instead, Joey came up with a clever hack that takes advantage of the panels with almost no supporting equipment. What’s the solution? He uses the old panels to pump water from his spring up the hill into a pair of large tanks. The result is free water pressure combined with enough storage to carry him through the dry summer and fall.

 

The setup

Water tank below a spring

The system starts when water gravity-flows from Joey’s spring into a 500-gallon tank. On the right, you see the original spring box, which he’s bypassed.

Inside the plastic tank is a float switch and a pump intake. The switch turns on the pump when water reaches a certain level then turns it off when the water drops to another level. Zero management!

Cooler turned into a pump box

Of course, the pump is fueled by the sun. That doesn’t happen quite by magic, though. Instead, Joey made a pump house out of an old cooler that keeps everything dry while also channeling noise away from the house. A more traditional electric box connects the solar panels and pump.

Water storage tanks

Water is pumped up the hill through pex tubing and into two 550-gallon tanks connected together. Then the water gravity-flows back down whenever Joey turns on his faucet.

The hill just happens to be high enough to provide 30 PSI!

 

What would he change if he had to do it over again?

Cat on a spring box

Joey installed his old solar panels on swivel mounts. Now, he wouldn’t bother — solar panels are so cheap, he doesn’t see the need to add fancy infrastructure to soak up every last bit of sun.

Otherwise, his water system is running perfectly! It’s even cat-approved.

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Firewood Teamwork

How do we cut up those long wood mill discards in just the right size for firewood?

We now use a fence post next to some porch steps.

Anna pushes the board up against the fence post where I cut a piece that drops straight down.

Slowly but surely we are filling up the greenhouse woodshed.

 

 

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An upgraded, off-grid solar system

Remember my brother, Joey’s, underground solar house? Thirteen years later, I dropped by for a tour to see how it’s aged…and been reenvisioned.

Upgrade, round 1

An underground solar house

Five years ago, Joey took out the old panels and installed a 1-kilowatt solar array.

It cost him about $2,000 at that time to pay for the panels and racking to install the new panels on the roof, although he notes that prices have gone down considerably since then. (More on that later.)

This allowed him to add on a satellite internet system (1.2 kwh) and a fridge/freezer (0.5 kwh).

 

Upgrades, round two

Photovoltaic equipment

A couple of years later, he spent $3,500 on four lithium-ion batteries, in part to bring him up to speed for the new panels and in part to prepare for further upgrades. Since then, he’s started adding in all of the associated wiring for upgrade part 2, the goal of which is to let him add a hot-water heater (6 kwh), an electric vehicle (variable, depending on how much you drive), and an induction stove (2 kwh) while never again dealing with low-power days.

The new system, which he hopes to bring online within a year or two, will involve completely covering the roof in solar panels (a roughly 10-kilowatt array). The solar panels aren’t anywhere near the most expensive part since he’s planning on buying them by the pallet-load, which will cost anywhere from $2,700 to $5,200 for 25 to 30 panels adding up to 10 kilowatts. He hasn’t pulled the trigger on this because, as we learned, delivery of a pallet to a rough-drivewayed homestead can be tricky! (Plus, he needs to change out his roof first.)

Upgrades waiting to be wired in

Other parts of the new system include about $500 on wires, $550 on charge controllers (about which, more shortly), $1,000 on combiner boxes/breakers/lightning arresters, and a whopping $3,200 on roof mounts. Total estimated cost (including the recently purchased batteries): $13,500.

(Of course, the full math also includes the federal tax credit he’ll get back as well. In some areas, there are )

Computerized load-control center

Sounds like a massive investment, right? That price tag still represents a huge savings over hiring an installer to come in and build the system. Joey estimates the installer cost would have been at least double what he plans to pay.

 

A unique charge controller

Joey wanted me to mention that his choice of charge controllers is very off-beat. He loves living far away from civilization, where birds and crickets are the only noises he has to deal with. He wasn’t willing to disrupt that tranquility with the usual charge controllers, which run a fan constantly.

Instead, he chose a cheap Epever charge controller that’s silent…but only¬† handles one or two kilowatts. For upgrade 2, he installed more controllers, but will still lose half his power.

He’s okay with this because it ensures that, on a cloudy winter day, he’ll still have enough power. Since solar panels are so cheap, it’s now okay to overdo that part of the system.

 

Another side note: 24-volt system

During the first upgrade, Joey changed over from a 12-volt to a 24-volt system, which required him to change out the lights in the house. (You can decide whether you’re running a 12-volt, 24-volt, or 48-volt system based on the way you wire the batteries.) The benefit of a 24-volt system is that it lets him use industrial automation equipment, versus the automotive equipment you’d use with a 12-volt system. It also lets his charge controllers handle twice as many panels as they could otherwise.

 

What happened to the old panels?

I’m so glad you asked! That’s the topic of another post. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

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A solar flashlight that actually works

Old solar flashlight

In 2012, Mark and I invested in two solar flashlights for camping and power outages. They lasted an amazingly long time, but eventually the batteries stopped holding a charge. Rather than crack open the plastic to try to replace the batteries, I decided to see how much a decade has improved the technology.

TOMETC solar flashlight

After poking around on Amazon for a while, I settled on the TOMETC Solar Power Bank. It had a lot of good reviews, a large battery capacity, and a large solar panel…all for under twenty bucks. Sounds like a winner, right?

Wrong! I’m guessing something about the frosting they put over the solar panel to waterproof it blocks light. Whatever the reason, two full days in the sun resulted in absolutely no change in the charge level of the battery. When I dug deeper into the reviews, it turned out I wasn’t the only one who had this problem, so it wasn’t a defective unit.

Meanwhile, the flashlight is way too bright for what I usually use it for (reading in my tent). An overpowered light drains the battery faster than it should. I estimate I got about eight hours of use out of a full charge. To cut a long story short, I sent this one back.

HybridLight Journey 300 flashlight

Next up, I decided to return to the model that served us so well for eleven years. Unfortunately, the original flashlight had been discontinued, but HybridLight has a replacement available. Their offering doesn’t look as flashy as some of the alternatives and costs $10 more than the competition. But they wisely included the option of a low-light setting so I won’t drain the battery bank too quickly while reading and their longevity track record speaks for itself.

How did the actual flashlight do in the field? I wasn’t as thrilled as I’d hoped to be. On low, I estimate I’ll get about twelve hours of use out of a full charge, far less than the fifty hours they promise but still better than the competition. Meanwhile, a day in the sun did little to top the battery up.

I’m starting to suspect that my goal — being able to set a flashlight in the sun for the day then read for a couple of hours at night using that solar energy — is a pipe dream. But perhaps I just haven’t found the right solar flashlight yet. Have you tried a different model with better results?

(For the record, I decided to keep the HybridLight flashlight. It works well charged from the wall and will presumably help us through power outages if left in the sun to trickle charge when grid electricity is available.)

 

 

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Shopping cart for firewood transport and storage

We upgraded from a firewood tote carrier to this Wellmax shopping cart with wheels last year.

Now we can carry twice the amount with less effort.

The side spokes mostly popped out but weaving some steel wire or thin rope is an easy way to fix it.

Once inside it provides a tidy way of storing the wood.

Anna lifts from the top while I push from the bottom to make it even easier and safer.