## Solar Panel Primer

Looking to buy a solar panel for your home, or maybe build your own? It can be confusing trying to sort out the actual capacity of a panel and what it will or won’t power. So here are a few facts about solar panels to get you started on your way to energy freedom.

Solar panels are composed of individual solar cells, wired in some combination of series and parallel to achieve the desired voltage and amperage that produces the wattage you need for operation. In order to charge a 12 volt battery, you need a panel that outputs 18 volts. Here is a fact you’ll want to know: a solar cell, no matter how large or small, puts out a total voltage of 0.55 volts. For the sake of making math easy, let’s call it 0.5 volts.

So in order to get 18 volts, you need to create a voltage multiplier circuit (which for those of you not following the photovoltaic course on this site means a SERIES circuit). Between 34 and 36 cells wired positive to negative will achieve this. (0.5 * 36 = 18 volts) Let’s say you have a bunch of cells that have 0.5 volts each, and 1.5 amps each. If you simply wire 36 in series, as is recommended, you will end up with a panel that puts out 18 volts with total amperage of… 1.5 amps. All together, this means you will get 27 watts (per hour of full sun).

If you’ve checked the back of any of your appliances recently, you may realize that this wattage is not enough for your needs. After all, even a compact fluorescent 12 volt bulb will probably use at least 9 or 10 of those watts each hour it operates, which is 1/3 of your total available power. (For the sake of this example we will ignore the fact that you probably wouldn’t need a light while the sun is shining!) Use three bulbs, and your power will run out with the sunshine at dusk. So how do you increase your available power?

Most photovoltaic system batteries are designed to operate at 12 volts (similar to a standard car battery), so you don’t want to up the voltage unless you want to start upping the number of batteries as well. If wattage (available power) is equal to voltage * amps, and you can’t change the voltage, then it stands to reason that upping the amps is the way to go. To do this, you wire groups of cells together in parallel. In order to wire things up in parallel, the things wired together should be the same, meaning you will be wiring together groups of 36 cells (wired in series). To double the amperage, you would wire two sets of 36 cells together, for a total of 72 cells, 18 volts, and 3 amps (1.5 amps * 2). Now, you have an available 54 watts (18 * 3) per hour of full sun. For every additional set of 36 panels in series that you add (in parallel) to your array, you get an additional 1.5 amps, and your total wattage is increased by 27 watts per hour of full sun.

There are a few other things to remember when choosing a panel for your needs. The first is kind of obvious: the sun only shines so many hours per day. In most places, you can expect between 5 and 8 hours of “full sun” (the conditions under which your panel produces its maximum output) per day. So if you have a 50 watt panel and 6 hours of full sun, you can expect around 300 watts of power production daily sent to your battery (or perhaps a little more from a few hours of partial sun production). On cloudy days, or if you live in an area of high particulate pollution such as a large city, you will get less.

Which brings me to fact #2: to get the full output from your panel, they must be kept clean. Over time, dust settles on the panels and reduces the amount of light hitting the surface. Or in the winter, in cold areas, you will have snow to contend with, and in the fall, you’ll have to keep an eye out for leaves falling atop the panel. Birds are another common culprit. We’ve all seen the ground under areas where birds congregate… it isn’t pretty. Basically, your panel will output at the level of the cell getting the LEAST sunlight. So if you have one cell in full shade (or fully covered with something), and others in the sun, your total output will be reduced more than you’d intuitively think. Save yourself some grief and locate the panels in a place easy to access for cleaning, and outside the regular path of avian neighbors.

Lastly, since solar panel setups are Direct Current (DC) systems, and since most household appliances run on Alternating Current (AC), you will usually need an inverter to convert DC to AC power your appliances can use. But there is a good reason to consider investing in some 12 volt appliances and lights. In the process of inverting the power to AC, about 15% of the power is lost. So if you have a total of 500 watts to use, and you invert it all to AC, you will have about 425 watts available for powering loads (appliances). There is an increasing variety of 12 volt appliances on the market, from light bulbs and radios to refrigerators. The more 12 V appliances you use, the more use you get for your available power.

This is by no means a complete list of considerations when buying a solar generation system, but it should be enough to help you sort through the eBay flotsam and find a panel that meets your particular needs. Stay tuned for next time, when we’ll be discussing batteries!

## Coastal Cleanup Day 2008

If you’re in the Los Angeles area this Saturday September 20, join over 11,000 volunteers in the LA basin alone for California Coastal Cleanup Day 2008, a 24 year tradition that’s become the largest volunteer event in the world. Last year, over 60,000 volunteers picked up almost a million pounds of trash across the state, and this year, the Los Angeles event will pick up its millionth pound.  You’ll find everyone from the corner grocer to celebrities shoulder to shoulder attacking the coastal waste that causes visual blight and environmental danger.  Did you know that the North Pacific Trash Gyre, the large swirling mass of trash floating between Hawaii and Japan is more than twice as large as the state of Texas and is growing faster than even the scientists studying it had feared?  Or that plastics, which break down into little tiny pellets after extended exposure to water, are so prevalent that you could cover the surface of the world’s oceans with a saran wrap coating of the plastics in them? Obviously every bottle you pick up helps stem the tide.

If you’re not able to join everyone in Los Angeles (check out the website, complete with map of locations, here), consider starting a similar event in your area.  After all, waste has a not-so-funny way of wandering toward the sea, even from far inland places.  Or if this Saturday doesn’t work, make any day your cleanup day! With a few fliers and an ad on Craigslist you’re sure to attract a like minded crowd to help get some unwanted trash off the streets.  Often, local parks have cleanup days that offer both benefit and beautiful surroundings in addition to an educational afternoon.  Some of my favorite memories from youth are of going to my local park and cleaning up the riverbanks.  Needless to say, cleaning my room didn’t hold the same appeal.

If you can’t do any of the above… (you didn’t think I was going to let anyone off the hook, did you?)… then sit your butt down on that couch if you’re not already there and get to thinking.   The best way to eliminate waste is to avoid creating it in the first place. Find a way to encourage recycling or to make throwing things in the trash more appealing than tossing it on the ground.  Design a better trash can, out of which waste doesn’t blow away in high winds.  Create a non-toxic biodegradable packaging so that when people do throw their containers down, it’s not creating an everlasting toxic legacy.  There are at least as many ways to help the planet as there are people to try them, so find yours and get started! Hope to see all you locals at the beach!

## Celebrating Labor Day

What better topic for Labor Day than reduction of necessary labor by moving off the grid? When you make the decision to cut the power lines, you are making a contract with yourself: to do whatever labor is necessary to keep your alternative energy system running to provide your necessary power. Luckily, whether with solar, wind, or micro-hydro power, once you’ve invested in the initial construction phase, you’ve gotten a lot of that work out of the way and you can let nature take it from there.

However, all systems do require upkeep. Solar panels need dusting and readjusting, wind towers need tuning, and hydro systems must be cleared of debris.  This upkeep is one thing that turns a lot of people off about off-grid power. It SEEMS like a lot of work when one is addicted to simply having on-demand power by signing a check every month.  However, when you see the bigger picture of your energy consumption scheme, things make more sense.  The majority of the power generation in an off-grid system is generated by nature.  This is also true in a utility power generation system, but there, workers must transport the raw materials (usually coal) to the power generation site and physically feed the burners.  Between the labor costs of mining the materials and getting them to the power station, and then the labor required to string and maintain power lines to transport the electricity to you, you’ve racked up a lot of human capital for each kilowatt hour you consume.  By taking a pledge to do minimal maintenance on your own system, you are freeing up human capital for other tasks, like designing new generations of alternative energy delivery or other such noble tasks.  (I won’t expound on humanity’s likelihood for picking such noble professions over, say, sleeping on the couch on a holiday like today.  There are limits – enjoy your time off!)

In fact, this discussion underlines a concept that interweaves into a lot of simple living theory.  In order to see your real savings, you should be able to see outside your own life to the greater good of our neighborhoods, nations, species, and planet. By investing a small amount of time, you can count yourself a philanthropist.  Go ahead, put it on your resume! After all, time is a luxury of which each of us only has so much.  You’ll probably find that you end up freeing more time by not having to work to pay certain bills than you will spend in upkeep.  In conclusion, if you want to save energy, your fellow man, and the planet all at once while building your karmic bank account, start planning a way to get off the grid today.  That way, by Labor Day next year, you might celebrate by DOING some labor for a change, instead of needing a break from your daily grind. Happy holiday!

## HOW TO: Create a Seed Bank

As another hurricane bears down on the gulf coast, one has to wonder whether the glass half empty crowd which has been predicting increased damage in upcoming years due to natural disaster is correct. Nature does go in cycles, and we may end up laughing off current pessimism about the planet’s inability to regulate herself. But current data does suggest that we are facing at the least a massive migration of plants and animal species to inhabit new regions of the planet. Global environmental organizations are already seeing plant and animal species move to new elevations of previously frigid territory and dead zones showing up in previously fertile areas.

Perhaps the hardest adjustment we as humans will have to make, provided we don’t all take each other out first, is that of food supply.  When the local soils no longer support the crops to which we’re accustomed, we’ll be faced with two choices: move, or learn to cultivate something new.  This migratory period will be critical to the existence of all life on earth.  By creating and maintaining seed banks, we are helping to sustain the biological diversity of life on earth.  This is the aim of the latest biological depository established in Scandinavia, into which governments from around the world are locking seed samples in preservatory conditions in case of Doomsday.

But while the establishment of such seed banks are admirable, the greatest potential for preserving biological diversity lies with the individual.  After all, your grandmother’s mint patch that grows in your backyard probably isn’t on the seed registry’s radar, and neither are your neighbor’s prize heirloom sunflowers.  For any planet to sustain a wide diversity of genetic material, it is we, the people, who will have to stash away the genetic legacy of our lives thusfar as a gift to the future.  So why not get started now?

Making a seed bank is ridiculously easy.  You could well go from a single set of seeds to more than you could ever plant within the span of a single growing season.  Of course, seeds are most fertile when fresh, but stored under the right conditions, most seeds will last for years.  It is a good practice to plant from your seed bank each year, and replenish the stock with fresh seed over the growing season.  This way, most of your seed stays fresh at any time.

Now, how to get started?  First, buy an pack of little brown paper envelopes, or even just a package of writing envelopes.  Then stash a few in your pocketbook, briefcase, or car, and start hunting!  Every time you see a particularly beautiful tree in fruit, a really nice flower, or healthy looking seed grasses, take a handful of seeds, pat them dry if they are wet (say from being removed from their protective fruit coverings to prevent rot), and place them in the envelope.  Be sure to label the outside of the package with what type of plant (if you don’t know, just describe it as best possible), the date on which you collected it, and ideally, where you found it. Then transfer your sealed envelopes to a cool dry storage place next time you are home, to keep the seeds from germinating and then dying from lack of soil nutrition. Then you simply hit the road again and look for more!  Most people won’t mind you taking a handful of anything from their lawn, but certainly some tact and discretion are in order always.

The next step in a successful seed bank is to increase the diversity through exchange with others. In most towns there are groups of seed savers who get together periodically to have exchanges, in which you give a little to get a little of something else.  This is the true gem of seed collection. You are gaining access to the best of all local areas, all of which should be relatively well suited to cultivation in your area, simply for having an eagle eye in your own neighborhood.

As with all great ventures, the best time to get started is before everyone else catches on. That way, when seeds become more scarce, you’ll already be a practiced veteran of the seed trade.  This is truly a return to the simpler life our parents parents experienced, and is a selfless act of philanthropy you can complete without spending a dime.

## Link: “How I built my Solar Panel”

How I built my solar panel

The link above demonstrates a nice DIY version of a solar array, using damaged solar modules that can be bought at low price on eBay. This resourceful astronomer also built himself a DIY wind turbine, so if you’re considering doing either, this is worth a look.

This panel was designed to work in sunny Arizona (a beautiful state!), which is a perfect place for setting up an array, especially given the large number of off-grid properties there which would be prohibitively expensive to wire up to the utility power company.

He includes lots of good tips about what to look for when buying your solar panel modules to string together into the final product, so you can learn from his mistakes, and also know a bit more about what is actually important to the functioning of the modules. Above is a picture of the finished box containing the panel. Good luck with construction!

## Solar Panel Installation (and Eating Your Neighbor’s Lawn)

Great news!  It’s been a while since I posted, but there are a slew of recipes that you’ll be seeing added over the next few days.  As few things in life turn out perfectly the first time, I have been refining the previous recipes and trying a few new ones, side dishes mostly.  Most have been successful, but more on that later.  Great news, you ask?  Yes!  I’ve just signed up to get certified as a solar panel installer.  This means that for the next eight months, I’ll be working toward completing the necessary coursework and study hours for the National certification exam, and hopefully getting some practical experience working with panels along the way.  You might be asking why this should interest you in any way… well, since I love to share, and since writing about things helps me to learn, I mean really LEARN things, I’ll be keeping a sort of study diary on this site.  So if you’re wondering where to start on that whole “watts vs. volts” issue, or if you need a little brush up on your high school physics or electronics (and who doesn’t?), keep checking back often to see if I’ve covered the topic here.  I’ll be using the SEI’s textbook on photovoltaic installation and repair, which is pretty much the best on out there as far as I can tell.  Class starts Wednesday, so more about that then!

In the meantime, I’ve been reading a lot about urban foraging.  It’s a huge topic with relatively few available references.   But starting with Christopher Nyerges’ excellent Wild Foods and Useful Plants guides and also covering specific guides to my local SoCal area, I’ve been out every morning hunting for food.  And it’s everywhere!  Did you know that most of the plants in your garden, never mind those that professional landscapers use in public places, are edible in one way or another?  Geraniums, pansies, daylilies, lavender, nasturtium, chrysanthemums, marigolds, roses and more all make tasty snacks alone or blended into recipes.  You can even replace some of the gourmet items in your pantry with wild alternatives, adding an exotic flair to your cooking.  For example, nasturtium seeds make an excellent caper substitute when pickled, and you can make jellies straight from your yard instead of store-bought marmalades.

If you’d like to find out more about the plants of your area, I’d highly recommend you check out a book that specializes in your area and start looking for wild foods every time you go out the front door.  I have to admit that though I’d never even noticed what was edible before, now I’m finding myself distracted trying to walk down any street, looking at the possibilities.  And the fruit you pick is SO much sweeter than the one you buy, even if just in principle.  The book I just finished Edible and Useful Plants of California (can’t remember off-hand who wrote it) also included many great anecdotes about the Native American food and medicinal uses of various plants.  When moving away from reliance on the grid, you’d do well to know a bit about the native flora of your community.  And I hardly need to spell out its importance after grid-crash, except to point out that it will be the few months following immediate aid and before people’s sowed crops mature that will be hardest for individuals to survive.  If you know about edible plants, then you can sit happily munching on your neighbors’ lawns while they sit inside their houses panicking.  You might even get an “I told you so” out between bites.  How’s that for sweet justice!  Until next time, happy foraging!

## BOOK REVIEW: the Self Sufficiency Handbook

The Self-Sufficiency Handbook: A Complete Guide to Greener Living by Alan and Gill Bridgewater

The title of this book is perfect. There are no crazy survival tips here, although I wouldn’t mind having this book along in a pinch. It’s a guide for getting your existing house off the grid, and also for evaluating properties in terms of their sustainability potential. The writers live in the UK, after years stateside, so the companies and tips are both oriented toward those countries. But there is a nice discussion of navigating local laws no matter where you decide to drop your hoe and start gardening.

After a nice discussion of housing, which includes talks about insulation, orientation, ambient heating/cooling, alternative energy sources, and materials, they move on to daily living practicalities. First, getting light. That done, next you need food. This is where the book really shines. There is an in-depth lesson on growing an organic garden, including successful composting and which crops should be planted where and when, what needs rotation (and a sample rotation schedule that will leave you with fresh foods year-round) and what can stay put, and the care profiles for a large variety of different garden plants. They are careful to share wisdom on how much land you need to make your off-grid dreams happen, and also on how to choose property that will lead you to success.

Animal husbandry is covered in detail species by species, along with construction considerations, possible worries and probable successes of owning each type. The sections are not overly in-depth – I thought they were perfect for the off-grid enthusiast with lots of commitment but no experience with husbandry. Of course, one can never emphasize enough the time it will take to properly care for animal on your own property. They cover it nicely, if briefly, by saying this: if you own animals, you will have to feed them EVERY DAY, holiday or not. Yes, that’s EVERY day. Having kept horses growing up, I can relate to the urgency with which they repeat this statement throughout the book. Take heart.

The last section of the book can best be described as a tutorial section of recipes for survival. Not pemmican or Gorp-style recipes, but rather old-fashioned recipes for things like candles, making soap, making chutneys and jams, and brewing beer and making wine. Their recipes are pretty short and look easy to handle. In fact, the whole book was particularly well planned to fit each concept on two facing pages, so you’re never left looking for information in a thick chapter of words. I’m sure this limits the amount of information that can be presented a little, but I didn’t notice.

If you’re even considering moving off-grid, or even just converting a section of your yard to an edible garden, you should pick up this book. It’s fairly new, but with its special emphasis on looking at your actions in terms of an overall lifestyle, I think it will one day be considered a standard text in self-sufficiency. Which, as gas rises toward the \$5 mark, is something we could all afford to learn more about.