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ManyTracks' House and Home
Solar ~ Underground

by Sue Robishaw and Steve Schmeck

Homestead Articles

Alternative Energy News


Power from the Sun
Our Photovoltaic
(PV)  Electric System

solar array 2018

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.

solar array 2007

2007 - always room for a few more

Solar array 2018

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

solar array 2020 

2020 - an abundance of power

For those cloudy short days of early winter

AE System 2018

2018 AE System Components 

MT Control Center 2019
Mid-winter 2019 Update

Last summer 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 will be welcome. Also, the Outback controller setup is more user friendly. The other changes you may notice in the two photos above is the addition of a battery desulfator and a disconnect between the solar array and the new controller. We're looking forward to the combination of reliable solar control and the desulfator to bring the batteries back to life. The next upgrade to the system is likely to be installation of lithium LiFePO4 batteries but we really would like to get a couple more years out of our current batteries. Here are the current 'balance of system' components:

  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
    Battery Lifesaver desulfator (questionable but giving it a try)
    12 US Battery 2200 6 volt batteries (3 sets of 4 batteries for 660 AmpHrs at 24 volts)
    Appropriate fuses, circuit breakers and disconnects
  (updated 1/23/2019  ss)

Yet another update Note  ( 3/8/2019  ss):
It turns out that the real culprit causing our charging problems last summer and fall was probably the settings on a home-made diversion controller. It was set up to divert power to some heating panels in the house whenever the Solar Boost controller was in absorb or float modes. This was incorrect as it prevented the batteries from ever getting fully charged. I have reconfigured the diversion controller so it now interfaces properly with the new controller's aux. mode relay. The heaters come on only when both 1) the Outback controller is in float mode and 2) the battery voltage is above 27 volts. The batteries are now fully recharged any day there is a few hours of full sun; lately, nearly every day. Battery capacity seems to be slowly coming back to more acceptable levels.

 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 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. 

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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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