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ManyTracks' House and Home
Solar ~ Underground

by Sue Robishaw and Steve Schmeck

solar array 2021

Power from the Sun
Our Photovoltaic (PV)  Electric System

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Homestead Articles


We're thoroughly involved with the sun and wind on our sustainable "green" homestead in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. From PV (photovoltaic or solar) panels to a water pumping windmill; from a solar oven to a solar food dryer. Our home is heated with hot-air solar panels and a wood-burning woodstove. To say we have a close relationship with the Sun is a bit of an understatement! 

Using solar energy sources is not an abstract theory or a fad, it's a wonderfully fun way of living. Our system started small and has grown over the years but always it's provided us with power for our needs and wants. I expect it will keep growing as we do. Here we'll take you on a brief tour of the evolution and current state of our solar electric system. If you've read "Homesteading Adventures" (which was written in 1996) this is an update to the chapter Power for the People - The Sun and Solar of Electricity. Our system has grown a bit since then!

For information on other solar aspects of our homestead, check out the many articles in the Homestead section.

Things in our life sure do change and grow!

1983 - Our first solar electric PV panels!

2 panels by clerestories

1985 - Finally on the House

solar array 2 panel 1990

1987 - Homemade Tracker

1993 - The Array Grows

our "new" (used) Solar Heating Panels

1996 - and Grows

solar array 1997

1997 - the trees in front of the house grew (surprise!) so the array had to move. Might as well add a few more panels while we're at it.

Windmill & Solar Panels 2000

Windmill & Solar Panels - 2000

2500-watt Inverter in entryway

Inverter in Entryway - 2004
System controls 2006

System control center - 2006 

solar array 2007

2007 - always room for a few more

 Solar array 2018

2015 - Four 250-watt Solar World panel plus two Kyocera 135-watt panels for a total of 1,135 watts at 24 volts.

 February 27, 2019 - New Solar panel finally mounted - in the snow
New sollar panel
Last fall a friend gave us a good deal on one of the last Solar World 300-watt panels but we didn't get it installed before the snows came. The other day I (Steve) decided it was time to get it out in the sun where it can help us out during the coming cloudy days.

The new panel will add about 20% to our charging capacity; up from 1135 to 1435 watts. We'll notice the increase in power mostly on cloudy days. The temporary mount is made from poplar 2x4's and four aluminum angle brackets. I had to dig 2-1/2 feet down to find the ground. I was going to adjust it a little but the bases are frozen in the snow already so it is there until spring - which may be some time in April. We had a high temperature near 20 degrees today but the sun was out and the wind was light so it was a fun project. 

solar array 2020 

2020 - an abundance of power


For those cloudy short days of early winter

Fall/Winter 2019 Update

In the summer 2019 we noticed that our solar system didn't seem to be fully charging the batteries as it should. We checked the batteries periodically throughout the fall and early winter and made some adjustments to the controller. Over a period of several months there seemed to be a significant loss of battery capacity so we decided to install one more 300 watt panel and replace the controller. The existing controller, a Solar Boost 50 was probably working fine but the new panel made the array too large for the 50 amp controller. The new one is an Outback FlexMax-80. The increase in capacity was welcome and the Outback controller setup is more user friendly.

At that time we also hooked up a battery desulfator with the hope that it might help bring those tired Lead Acid  batteries back to life. The combination of the additional panel, new controller and modified settings on the diverson controller worked well and the batteries recovered and served us well until the fall of 2021.

Fall 2021 Update

As we were approaching winter it became evident that our old lead-acid deep cycle batteries (the red-topped ones in the photo) weren't going to have the ability to get us through those long dark days and nights. Those 12 6-volt batteries were installed in DecemberOld battery bank of 2015 so they gave us good service for over five years - which is about average for that type of battery in a system like ours. At a cost of about $1,200 that worked out to an 'electric bill' of less than $20 per month for the last 5+ years.  After doing lots of research we decided it was time to upgrade our system to Lithium Iron Phospate (LiFePo4) batteries.

AmpereTime 200Ah 12-volt LiFePo4 BatteryAlthough the new batteries cost significantly more than our old set they should have a longer lifespan than  the lead-acid batteries and outperform them too. If we take care of them these new batteries should last at least 15 years and perhaps as long as 20 years. They will also provide almost three times the usable storage.

Another advantage of these batteries is that there are only sixNew batteries installed of them and they each weigh noticeably less than the old ones. The installation went well and the solar charge controller and inverter/charger settings have been updated. It has been fun watching the meters which have been confirming that the batteries are performing as expected.





AE System 2021

2021 AE System Components 

Here are the current components in our system:

  4 - 250-watt Solar World panels
  1 - 300-watt Solar World panel
  2 - 135-wat 12 volt Kyocera panels in series
        Total charging capacity = 1435 watts
    Outback FlexMax-80 charge controller
    Magnum 4000 watt, 24 volt sine wave inverter
    Samlex 20 Amp 24 volt DC to 12 volt DC converter
    Trimetric Volts/Amps/AmpHrs Meter
    Homemade Arduino microcontroller-based diversion controller
    6 - Ampere Time 12-volt, 200 AmpHr Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries
          (3 sets of 2 batteries for 660 AmpHrs at 24 volts)
    Appropriate fuses, circuit breakers and disconnects
  (updated 12/2021  ss)

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Copyright   by Susan Robishaw & Steve Schmeck

Our favorite sources for alternative energy information are...

Home Power Magazine, POB 520, Ashland OR 97520, 916-475-0830

THE print source on alternative energy; it was the first and is still the best.

Midwest Renewable Energy Association, 7558 Deer Rd, Custer WI 54423, 715-592-6595, info@the-mrea.org, https://www.midwestrenew.org
MREA is responsible for the largest and oldest renewable energy fair the third weekend in June (Solstice Weekend). Highly recommended if you are at all interested in alternative energy or alternative lifestyles and ideas.

Backwoods Solar Electric Systems, 1589 Rapid Lightning Rd, Sandpoint, Idaho 84864, 208-263-4290, http://backwoodssolar.com/
Good folks, good information, good prices. We've dealt with them for many, many years and send people to them regularly. Check them out.

To read more about the first two decades on our homestead check out

"Homesteading Adventures -A Guide for Doers and Dreamers"  

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    Thank you!

Updated 04/07/2018


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