Versatile Photovoltaic Power – Part 2, by Tractorguy

(Continued from Part 1. This concludes the article.)

Refrigeration

Refrigeration will likely be one of the biggest loads on your solar power system, if not the biggest. I went back and forth for a long time on the propane vs. DC electrical discussion to run refrigeration. I finally came down on the side of DC refrigeration for two reasons: 1. The rugged terrain around my Buglout Location (BOL) would make it extremely difficult for a truck to deliver a tank and refill it; and 2. The availability of bottled gas after a grid-down or TEOTWAWKI situation would be pretty much limited to what you have on hand. Fortunately, the demand for refrigeration in the winter is much less, coinciding with the less energy you will get from your panels due to the shorter days.

12V refrigerator/freezers, such as the Whynter line, are commonly available and are a strong argument for having a 12V distribution system, or at least a 12V output on a higher voltage system.

Log Splitting

No, I’m not kidding here. I split wood with solar power. I am an aging Baby Boomer and did not have very much upper body strength even back in my prime. My BOL is wood-heated and I have eight acres of woods to support that. Sawing wood by hand is not too bad — splitting wood by hand is another story. I have read several articles here on SurvivalBlog about how splitting wood is easy, you just need the correct type of ax, or weight of ax, or wedge, etc. We cut a lot of wood last fall, and this winter, I thought I would spend an hour or so per day splitting it. I have a good axe and splitting maul, so I sharpened them up good and started on it one day. Oh My God. I spent a half-hour swinging both the axe and splitting maul with all my might and having it just bounce off the end of the log. Finally, after a half hour, I succeeded in splitting three logs. My shoulders ached and I was exhausted. Obviously, if I was going to have to split wood by hand to keep warm, I was going to freeze to death!

Some kind of log splitter was obviously required. I did not want to go the gasoline engine powered route because of the noise, the unavailability of fuel after a grid-down event, and the inability to use it outside. I toyed with the idea of putting a hydraulic pump on my two-cylinder Onan diesel generator to power a log splitter – that had the advantage of more efficiency than a gasoline engine, I had a lot of diesel fuel stored which would keep indefinitely, and the unit is installed inside and vented out through the exhaust stack previously used by the furnace. However, the limited supply of fuel after a grid-down event concerned me.

So I went ahead and searched for a three-point log splitter – this is basically just a frame, hydraulic cylinder, and wedge, that uses a farm tractor’s engine and hydraulic pump as its power source. This would be the basic unit, minus the power source to run it. I found one locally on Craigslist at a farm liquidation sale for a low price. Shortly thereafter, I was watching a liftgate truck unload at my job and the lightbulb went off in my head – I could drive the splitter with a DC hydraulic unit like is used to power a liftgate truck! I found a used one on eBay and bought it. I had to do some minor repairs to it, but when I got it running it would make over 2,000 PSI dead-headed. For a test, I powered it off the starting battery for my diesel generator, hooked it up to the three-point splitter, put a log in the frame, pushed the lever to the FORWARD position and the wedge easily powered its way right through the log. Success! It does not recycle as fast as a gasoline-powered one, but probably would if I got a higher capacity power unit.

Skeptical of how fast it would run the batteries in my solar power system down, I hauled it up to the BOL and hooked it to the solar battery bank. It was a bright sunny winter day, and I started splitting logs with it, thinking I would stop when the batteries were run down. I was hoping for fifteen minutes of run time. Two and a half hours later, I was still splitting logs! The six solar panels were putting almost twenty amps into the battery bank and were holding the battery voltage at 13.5 volts. I couldn’t believe it! I was worn out from loading the splitter and stacking wood before I ran out of battery power. As a bonus, my wife can split wood too, and we can split wood in the basement wood storage room and stay comfortable while we’re doing it, even if the weather is inclement outside.

Lighting

As I mentioned before, two 10W LED Edison screw base bulbs in a standard ceiling fixture will light up a room just as well as two 60W 120V incandescent bulbs, while only consuming 1.6 amps at 12 volts.

With OPSEC in mind, night lights along the floor of your BOL, to allow you to get around in the dark, are a great addition. Once your eyes become adjusted to the dark, you don’t need very much light. I have built night lights out of a single white LED (Cree part #C512A-WNS-CZ0B0152, Mouser Electronics catalog # 941-C512AWNSCZ0B0152, or Newark Electronics stock #61T8770, $.17 each), a series resistor, and a standard lighter plug.

While the normal operating current of a single LED is 20 milliamps, or .02 amp, the white LEDs are way too bright at that current level. Limiting them to .3 milliamps, or .0003 amps, with a 33K ohm series resistor to run them on 12 volts, results in a dim glow that enables you to see to walk around at night, but cannot be seen outside of the house. When connecting the LEDs, look carefully for a flat spot on the collar at the widest part of the LED case. The lead next to it is the cathode, or negative lead. It should be connected to ground, or the shell on the lighter plug (assuming you have a negative ground system) and the other (anode) lead should be connected to the center (hot) pin on the lighter plug, through an appropriate resistor for the current and brightness you want the LED to make. Don’t try to run the LED without a series resistor or it will burn out the minute you connect it to a current source of more than 20 milliamps. Once I got the series resistor and the brightness like I wanted it, I then put heat-shrink tubing over the whole thing for insulation.

Single gang stainless steel wall plates with a standard automotive lighter fixture in them are available on eBay, and I have a number of them in wall outlets in my BOL, with the homemade night lights plugged in to them and aimed at the floor.

Remote Buildings

The barn at my BOL was a challenge for solar power. It is in a heavily treed and shaded location, and is too far from the house to run DC lines to it without excessive loss. Fortunately there is no refrigeration or other high-current draws on its system, only lighting, so the panel requirements are much less. The main door faces South and has the most sun on it of any part of the barn, so I went with a single 180W panel mounted in a frame above the door. In the picture you can see the three pieces of angle steel in the bottom of the frame that allow the panel to be set in the summer, spring/fall, and winter positions.

I have three 60W equivalent Edison base LED lamps in standard ceiling fixtures for the main part of the barn. In order to light the workbench, I got a set of 12V under-cabinet lights off E-bay and mounted them under the shelf immediately above the workbench. They are each one foot long, are rated at six watts each, for a total of 18 watts. They really light up the workbench well.

The entire barn system. The extension light hanging there is the 12V conversion that I refer to below.

Miscellaneous

If you have a backup generator that has a starting battery, run a feed from your solar power distribution over to it, connect it to the starting battery through a diode (to prevent backfeeding) and a automotive brake light bulb for a current limiter, and your battery will always be fully charged and ready to start the generator, even after long periods of inactivity.

Locating your solar system batteries near where your vehicles are parked, or at least one set of them near where your vehicles are parked, gives you a convenient source of power to jump-start a vehicle if required.

I took a standard hanging extension light fixture, such as is popular for vehicle maintenance, cut off the 120V plug, and replaced it with a lighter plug, screwed a 10W 12V Edison base LED bulb into it, and have a handy extension light for working on vehicles. Again, I have several of the wall plate lighter outlets located near the vehicle parking area to plug it into.

A backup generator with a heavy-duty battery charger (thirty amps or more) is an excellent idea in case of prolonged rainy weather rendering your solar panels unable to keep up with your system demand. Obviously OPSEC is important, but running it for one hour and putting thirty amps back into your batteries will help restore them for a while until the sun comes back out.




13 Comments

  1. I have found retrofitting your generator with a automotive muffler, placing the generator on a thick rubber mat, think Horse Stall Mat for vibration reduction and placing a straw bale wall (well AWAY from the heat of the Generator) will do much to muffle a noisy generator. A well built INSULATED generator shed is also useful.

    However useful a generator is IF it draws Dangerous Pests is it worth it?

    Solar’s main disadvantage is it’s Visual Signature. Every morning I can see a flash from across the valley as a neighbors solar array becomes for a moment a mirror to the rising sun. Far better than the constant loud drone of a generator giving even city folks something to follow through our scary NH Woods (Bears, man, BEARS) but something to ponder.

    Also I am concerned given the Burn Loot Murder type folks intent to destroy things. A few pot shots at a large solar panel array is perhaps an attractive target?

    Personally I plan to go dark until the smoke clears if the grid goes down. Portable Solar Panels can be deployed carefully to keep enough batteries charged for the critical refrigeration, water pumping needs. Also those panels are the same voltage as my main panels so they can replace damaged panels.

  2. I highly doubt the mobs we see in the city will leave the city any further than the suburbs. However out here in rural America the local criminal element will be looking for whatever they can steal. More than normal. We might see them even doing home invasions. Depends on how bad things get. I am hopeful things will turn around. All we need is Americans as a whole to wake up to what is going on and put the brakes on this BS. The log splitting addressed above is good info. After the last storm we are blessed with many cord of maple firewood to be processed. We are surrounded by camps used by city types, who unfortunately are too lazy to cut there own firewood and routinely steal what you have worked so hard for. We use a small barn to store ours which is now kept locked. When it was stacked outside it disappeared on weekends when people were up to their camps. It’d be nice to live where there were no thieves, but its everywhere, I’m afraid. Let’s hope it doesn’t get worse. But be prepared…

    1. Greg, you make a good and important point. The criminal element is everywhere. It’s easy to see it “out there” in the big cities, but we must also pay close attention to these same bad actors who are much closer to us in rural areas than we might imagine or want to believe. When we first had our home in a very rural place, the few people who were here slept with their doors unlocked. It was just that safe. People did not harm one another and there was no theft. The words “home invasion” were not part of anyone’s thoughts or vocabulary. We live in very, very different and much more dangerous times.

  3. What a great article, Tractorguy! …and timely too. We are looking seriously into the question of solar power, and trying to prioritize our endeavors given our concerns about the Grand Solar Minimum, interaction of our sun with the approaching plasma sheet, and the increasing risk of a solar EMP or solar excursion. Your article has been tremendously helpful, and we thank you for sharing so much information with all of us!

  4. Very good information , what you may not have in upper body strength …you make up well in brains. Stay safe and as others say, don’t be so sure of the bad element even in rural areas. Thanks again for the solar ideas.

  5. Hey Tractorguy, thanks for this article, lots more good info I can use.

    Amen to what you said about night lights. My cabin only has a 600 square foot footprint with additional space in the loft, and one little night light (still 115v for now) pointed downward, gives me all the light I need at night if I’m checking on something. I have a second one in the bathroom and it’s all the light I need in there most nights. For an entire year, it only uses 1.46 kilowatts of electricity which comes to 11¢ per year. I’ll definitely be looking at how to hook up some 12v ones as you did and get some of the shop lights you mentioned.

    “Shortly thereafter, I was watching a liftgate truck unload at my job and the lightbulb went off in my head…”

    Don’t you love it when that happens? I don’t know how many times I’ve been working on a problem around the homestead and have had a particular problem that I just couldn’t come up with a satisfactory solution for. If I just let it ruminate for a couple of days or weeks, an answer will eventually pop into my head when I see something like you did with the lift gate. I had one of those “ah-ha!” moments while reading your article this morning so many thanks for that.

    For me, probably the biggest post-TEOTWAWKI problem as far as self-reliance goes, is how to cut firewood. It just not practical to go out with an axe, chop down a giant oak tree, cut it up with an axe and then split it so I’ve been picturing myself like those folks in third world countries carrying a big bundle of sticks on their head for firewood. If you have a few people to share the load, and using a big two-man crosscut saw, I can see it. But I had never thought about an electric chainsaw before. I never thought to really do any research on the, thinking they were just tiny ones for city folks to trim the occasional limb off the maple tree in the front yard. Your article just inspired me to google electric chainsaws this morning and I had no idea they were so cheap, that they came in 18″ models, and that some big name companies even make them. As cheap as they are, you could afford to buy five of them to have in your post-SHTF preps.

    Now I’ll do some serious research into electric chainsaws. If anyone has any recommendations, I’m all ears!

  6. The Rise of Sol-Ark!! (Retrofitting Sol-Ark Inverter [EMP-proof] and New Batteries)
    (YouTube Video, 16:41)
    Engineer775
    Premiered Aug 27, 2020
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCpmtWcRePY

    In this installation video, we went to a previous customer’s property to update their solar system with different batteries and an EMP-proof inverter (the Sol-Ark 12k). Watch to see what all went into making this retrofit work!

  7. funogag – I have an electric Ryobi chain saw with an 18″ bar. Unfortunately it is 120v/13A, but that gives it almost 2hp to work with and anything smaller then 36″ is pretty much toast. I have used it on live hickory 24″ in diameter and it went right through it. Also have a smaller(16″) Homelite that does a pretty good job on the smaller stuff.
    If you are thinking of battery powered tools I would recommend the Ridgid line as they as close to pro stuff as can be had. I own and use DeWalt, Ryobi, and Ridgid power tools and the batteries for the Ridgid are far superior to those on the others – as well as having a lifetime warranty.
    FWIW for everybody, Ryobi, Milwaukee, and Ridgid are by the same company.

    1. The saw would used 1560 Watts of power. Any decent inverter would provide this from your solar array. Easy to make a 12vdc extension cord, and then use a short 120 volt cord in at least 14 gauge wire to plug the saw into and you would be making little ones out of big ones in short moment.

  8. Thank you for fine article.
    Iron sharpening iron.
    I use a 1500 watt modified sinewave inverter fixe to the back of the front seat of my farm truck. The battery has a 300 amp switch and fuse. I use this to run electric chain saws, pole saws for clearing brush etc.

  9. For indoor LED lighting at night you can also buy those small solar powered yard lights that you see at Lowe’s and Home Depot. Charge them during the day, then bring them indoors at night. Doesn’t require any special wiring.

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