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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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Four tips for sawing your own lumber

Backyard sawmill

When Mark and I went to pick up more waste slabs of lumber for firewood, I talked our neighbor into letting me pick his brain about what it’s like to own a homestead-scale sawmill. I figured several of you might dream of setting up your own operation, so here are his top tips:

 

Don’t expect to make a profit.

Wooden octopus

Richard admitted that he started out trying to pay back the cost of the sawmill selling beautiful wood products. However, he soon decided the sawmill was better as a hobby rather than a business.

The biggest benefit he finds to sawing his own lumber is being able to save live edges and be an artist in a way you can’t when working with industrial wood. It’s also a plus that the sawmill allowed him to build most of the required infrastructure. Speaking of which…

 

You’ll always need more space under roof.

Sawmill shed

The sawmill itself, of course, requires a shed.

Lumber drying shed

Then there are the boards, which need to be stacked in a drying building for a year per inch of thickness. (Be sure to plan the length of this shed around the length of the boards you intend to mill if you’re going for peak efficiency.)

Board planing area

Next up, there’s the planing area, which Richard prefers to keep in the open air but still under roof to prevent dealing with massive amounts of sawdust inside.

Woodworker's shop

Finally, he has a workshop where he turns homemade boards into stunning works of art. He’s also been known to utilize the local makerspace when he doesn’t have all of the tools he needs at home.

 

Plan uses for the waste products.

Homemade butcher blocks

Richard told me that most new sawmill owners probably get started thinking of the beautiful things they can create. But it’s also essential to plan for the inevitable waste products.

In addition to the slabs he gives to us for firewood, Richard turns his massive pile of wood shavings into top-notch mulch in the garden. Next, he uses small pieces of wood to create cutting boards and butcher blocks, arranging different colors and patterns to create works of art.

In the end, there’s actually not as much waste as you’d think when you try to use every part of the log.

 

Find a way to entice your spouse with the output.

Woodwork artistry

Finally, Richard mentioned that owning a sawmill can be an expensive, noisy, space-consuming hobby, so it’s essential to get the whole team on board. He won his wife over by using the wood to create beautiful interior furnishings, by donating finished products to be auctioned off for a cause they both believe in, and by creating lots of gifts that build connections with family and friends.

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Microbusiness: Artisanal chocolate and seed production

Mark worked up this awesome video of the second half of our Trouvaille Farm tour. If you missed it, the first video looked at the larger picture of the farm business and ecosystem while this one zeroes in on their income-producing gigs: artisanal chocolate making and growing seeds for seed companies.

(Yes, I’m posting for Mark. He seemed to think it was more fun to rip out a stained old toilet and put in a new one rather than spend five minutes playing with a computer. His loss, my gain!)