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The Power of the Sun Within Reach

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My dream started somewhere back in the late 1980s when I became aware of the possibility of generating enough electricity from photovoltaic panels to actually do something. Until then I had the assumption that you needed massive equipment to produce useful amounts of energy.

Renewable Inspiration

The very first seeds of my interest in power generation were sown in the late '70s, just after college. A college friend was involved in restoring a microhydro plant in southwestern Michigan. My roommate and I were invited to visit for a weekend. For me it was love at first sight. I was fascinated with the task at hand, the building, the people involved, and the setting.

Nothing else came of my interest in that microhydro project, but over the next decade I remained aware of power issues. My roommate became involved with the American Friends Service Committee. He spoke publicly about the problems of nuclear power in general and ComEd in particular. I listened intently, and slowly became aware of other possibilities for power generation.

At some point, someone mentioned Home Power magazine. There I learned that some people were producing enough power to perform useful tasks in a home environment. I was hooked. My first contacts in the renewable energy world were Home Power advertisers who had 800 numbers. I spent a year picking their minds and learning about equipment.

At the same time, I was trying to save money, and determining what changes I would have to make in my apartment to use home-produced electricity. I realized that I would not be able to power the entire apartment immediately, and decided to convert just the study and the refrigerator. In early 1991, I had enough money to begin collecting equipment.

Not much visible from the street.

Code Dilemma

When I began thinking of building a renewable energy system in Chicago, I wondered about city codes, inspections, etc. Since Mrs. O'Leary's (legendary) cow kicked over the lantern in her barn back in 1871, we have had a history of zealous inspectors and rigidly—if unevenly—applied codes. I called the city department of buildings.

When I began to explain what I was doing, I was transferred. Each person and department transferred me to someone else. Finally

Not much visible from the street.

over the

Almost all of the motley array of modules John collected m years.

over the

Almost all of the motley array of modules John collected m years.

Left: DC distribution. Right: PV disconnect.

someone confessed, "We don't know what that is, and we don't have any codes on that." I thanked him and hung up. Except for the National Electrical Code, I was on my own. As long as I didn't burn the place down or electrocute anyone, I was free to do as I wished.

First Gear

I started with twelve Tri-Lams from the Carrizo Plains project in southern California, a Trace 2012 inverter, a set of old Edison nickel-iron batteries, and a Sun Frost refrigerator. I replaced the lights in my study with compact fluorescents.

All this equipment was delivered to my workplace—a traditional 9 to 5 real estate company in the Chicago suburbs. My co-workers thought I was nuts. I purchased #3/0 (85 mm2) cable, #8 (8 mm2) cable, conduit, a number of boxes, fuses, disconnects, and lumber for the panel mounts. Then I started the project.

It was a task that took far longer than I expected. Had I known or stopped to consider how long and involved it would be, I might never have started. But I just plunged in with no definite plan other than an idea of how things were theoretically supposed to be hooked up. I started by building the racks. Everything had to be hauled up a 24 foot (7 m) ladder and through an 18 by 24 inch (46 x 61 cm) trap door to get to the roof.

The building directly south of me had a peaked roof that cast a shadow on my roof. I calculated the angle of the sun on December 21st, and figured as well as I could where that shadow would be then. I also needed to arrange the racks so that I could walk behind them to do seasonal adjusting. The space needed would put the panels in a shadow as the days in December grew shorter, so I made the racks 15 inches (38 cm) higher to keep them in the sun.

Panels were wired together on the roof after being installed in the frames. Perhaps the most difficult part of the job was getting two #3/0 (85 mm2) non-welding cables through 60 feet (18 m) and four 90 degree bends of 2-1/4 inch (5.7 cm) conduit by myself. The 21/4 inch conduit runs from the junction box on the roof, over the parapet, and down the wall to the basement, where it goes through a boarded-up window into the battery room.

I ordered the first set of batteries from Utility Free in Colorado (no longer in business). They arrived well battered and leaking electrolyte. There was no problem returning them to the shipper. A second shipment arrived in excellent condition. I unloaded them from the truck and lugged them into the basement. A battery rack was the next order of business. I used 2 by 8 lumber and metal shelf supports (L-brackets). Then I installed a fused disconnect for the array and a breaker for the inverter.

Main DC bus bars.

Main DC bus bars.

It Actually Works!

The Sun Frost had arrived earlier, so I had two refrigerators in the kitchen. Once the panels were connected to the batteries for a few days, the voltage remained well over the 12 volts necessary. The Cruising amp-hour meter showed that the batteries were full and overcharging.

I connected the wires from the Sun Frost to a fused switch on the system in the basement, ran upstairs, and listened. The compressors kicked on. I was amazed. It really worked!

Sometime during the next week, the Trace arrived. I installed it on the rack right next to the batteries in the basement. I separated them with a piece of wood to protect the inverter from corrosive fumes.

The giant print on the terminals and the even larger plus and minus signs, the cost of the inverter, and the warnings in the manual made me check and recheck my wiring. Convinced that I had installed things correctly, I gingerly attached the #3/0 (85 mm2) cables to the inverter. Nothing happened. I plugged my drill into the Trace. I was ecstatic—I couldn't believe that it actually worked! This was real 120 V power. This was what I needed to run the whole apartment. The system functioned perfectly—it ran two lights in my office, computer, printer, boom box with CD player, dual tape deck, and an AM/FM radio.

Author John Berton switches to solar power.

during the day and working in the study. So I planned to add a charge controller.

Nickel-Iron Batteries

When I go to energy fairs and talk to people about batteries, they worry about overcharging, equalizing charges, sulfation, and reduction of battery life by taking too much power out of the pack. They also need to be concerned about the age and size of batteries if they want to add to their lead-acid battery pack. When I first started planning a renewable energy (RE) system, the

From time to time over the next nine years, the batteries got low and the Trace would charge them from the grid. The batteries functioned flawlessly. I watered them every three to four weeks. The only problem was that I didn't have a charge controller. The nickel-iron batteries didn't care about being overcharged. It didn't hurt them. I just had to add water more frequently. Adding a charge controller would just increase costs, and I was running out of money.

On sunny days, the batteries would go over voltage at about 11 am and the Trace would shut off. This was annoying if I happened to be home

Nickel-iron cells:Twenty Russo-Hungarian (top) and thirty Edison (20 shown).

Nickel-iron cells:Twenty Russo-Hungarian (top) and thirty Edison (20 shown).

Close-up of a 30 year old Edison NiFe cell.

idea of taking care of lead-acid batteries was daunting. None of these things are a concern with nickel-iron batteries.

Nickel-iron batteries are not harmed by being overcharged. They don't need equalizing. You can add to the nickel-iron pack with any size battery of any age at any time. And, according to the supplier, they last forever.

KWH meter shows solar energy produced (left);Trace 2512 inverter.

KWH meter shows solar energy produced (left);Trace 2512 inverter.

The drawback was that they cost about three times as much as lead-acid batteries. Their energy density (power per pound) is half that of lead-acid batteries. Their internal resistance is greater, making it harder for them to give up large amounts of energy as fast as lead-acid batteries. And they tend to self discharge faster than lead-acid batteries.

Last but not least, they were not being produced anymore. The only ones available were at least twenty years old. But I was assured that they had many years of life left. The advantages seemed to outweigh the disadvantages.

The recommended way to store nickel-iron batteries is to discharge them completely and put them away. You can come back years later and charge them up. They never need equalizing. I have never experienced any problem with overcharging.

Watering them happens much more frequently than with lead-acid batteries, but this is not much of a drawback. There are precipitous voltage drops under heavy loads, but this has not yet been a problem. Carbonation of the plates or electrodes is supposed to be a problem, but has not happened yet.

Not only would I use nickel-iron batteries again, but I would probably not want to set up a new system without them. The idea of using lead-acid batteries after the ease of nickel-irons is horrifying.

The problem is that the only new NiFe batteries available are produced in Shanghai, China or St.

Petersburg, Russia. Shipping is prohibitively expensive. Power Technology Systems is rumored to be trying to produce a North American nickel-iron battery, but nothing has happened yet. Nobody in the U.S. that I am aware of has any of the new batteries in stock. And I'm unaware of any used ones currently available.

Off to the Midwest RE Fair

When I was first getting my system set up, all contact I had with the renewable energy crowd was via 800 phone numbers. In the spring of 1992, after living with my system for almost a year, I attended my first energy fair in Amherst, Wisconsin (MREF), put on by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association. The range of equipment available, the people and their experiences, and the workshops, were fantastic.

Renewable energy or the grid—notice the position.

Over the next eight years, I went to the fair every year. As money became available, I purchased more equipment. Two MSX-60 panels one year. Three MSX-83 panels the next. Four ancient Solarex panels, a Trace 2512 inverter and control panel, an Air 303, fourteen BP-75 panels, an Enermaxer, two more strings of 30+ year old Edison batteries (300 AH each). Twenty brand new Russian-made nickel-iron batteries (300 AH each). Two 3 by 8 foot (0.9 x 2.4 m) panels to heat water, and two to heat air. Another Sun Frost.

Some people spend US$40,000 on a new SUV, and nobody questions them. I chose to spend close to that on my solar-electric installation, and was seen as eccentric.

Time & Money Merge

Much of this equipment spent literally years on my living room floor waiting for its companion equipment to be purchased. Then it spent more time waiting for me to find time to begin installation. A standard joke developed among suppliers at MREF. When they met me intent on making another purchase, they would ask if I had managed to install the stuff from three years ago. In the spring of 1999, time and money finally came together. I also swore to get the system installed before the 1999 fair.

First I changed all the bulbs in my apartment to compact fluorescents. I eliminated any phantom loads I found by using power strips and rechargeable AA batteries.

I was unable to install the new Trace alone, but I determined I could go off the grid with the old 2012 if I could just get the new batteries and panels installed. It was a lengthy procedure and went off largely as planned except for a scary battery explosion. As I was lifting the old Edisons onto a platform, something inside one of them shorted and with a loud noise sent a corrosive plume into the air. I happened not to be leaning over that battery at the time.

It was a good thing, since I was not using protective eye gear. My mind instantly recalled Richard Perez' story about exploding batteries. To this day, any time I look into my batteries, I have my goggles on. My vinegar is also close at hand (my batteries are alkaline, so baking soda is not the neutralizer).

When finally assembled, the battery pack seemed not to hold a charge well. I conditioned them by charging them twice with my Trace 2012 as much as I could, and then discharging them. They then held a charge and functioned as expected.

The Trace was still feeding only one circuit in my apartment, but I was now technically off the grid. Grid power was still available at every wall outlet and in overhead lights, but I didn't use it. I had long orange extension cords snaking their way throughout my apartment from the one circuit that was powered by the Trace. Clamp lights and power strips were everywhere. All my power came from my Trace. At the energy fair, I could honestly say I was off-grid.

Wind Power

I spent a long time at the fair talking to the people from Southwest Windpower about mounting an Air 303 without actually attaching it to the building. I had concerns about noise and vibration.

As an experiment, I designed a mount that would be anchored by sandbags. The base measured 22 by 22 feet and was 13 feet tall (6.7 x 6.7 x 3.9 m). In some places, on top of a two story building, this might be adequate. Not so in my neighborhood of Chicago. I had a two story building just north of me and a two story building with a peaked roof south of me. The peak of that roof was 10 feet (3 m) above my building, giving me only 3 feet (0.9 m) of clearance.

Adding to my problems was a giant cottonwood tree well over 80 feet (24 m) tall across an alley just east of my building, and a row of three story apartments across the street. These proved to be enough to make my Air 303 almost useless unless there was a constant northwest wind. The solution would be to raise the turbine another 10 to 30 feet (3-9 m).

So far, the noise was negligible compared to the roar and shaking of city buses, ambulances, trucks, and general street traffic just two houses away on Lawrence Avenue, a major four-lane east-west artery. I was told, however, that once the Air 303 started to self regulate in strong winds, the vibration and noise would become intolerable.

I am unsure about whether the sandbags would have supported an additional 30 feet (9 m) of tower, or how to attach more cables. I concluded that the time and expense would be better spent on additional photovoltaic panels, so I decided to take the Air 303 down. A taller tower was the solution. But the effort to do this, the maintenance necessary, the possible conflicts with city ordinances, and potential problems with neighbors if the thing fell during a storm influenced my final decision.

Pull the Plug Party

One day during the summer of 1999, I returned to my apartment to see a group of my neighbors gathered in the alley behind my garage, chatting with each other. I pushed the button to open the garage door. They were quite surprised. There was a power outage in my

The Air 303 just didn't have the exposure it needed.

All solar energy is counted with a KWH meter.

neighborhood, the first of many in Chicago that summer. None of them had power, nor would they for hours.

They were already aware of my efforts to produce power and that I had "some equipment" on the roof. But suddenly they realized what it really meant that I was producing my own power. I ran an extension cord to my building partner's refrigerator (she also has a Sun Frost RF-16 but hers is 120 V). She disconnected the extension cord when power came back on.

By late summer, I still had not finished the installation. I decided to have a "Pull the Plug" party to celebrate being off the grid. I wanted to have the system really finished so people would not be tripping over extension cords. The date of the party forced me to get the system finished.

My friend and electrical consultant, Vladimir Nekola (see the cover story of HP46), came over and had me change a number of things that I had wired. He also helped me install the Trace SW2512, Enermaxer, resistor dump, meters, and disconnects.

The final task was to wire the whole system into the breakers for my apartment through a disconnect that would, in emergencies, send grid power back into my apartment and disconnect the solar power. We finished one day before the party—just enough time to stock the Sun Frost with beer and pop. The highlight of the party was to be "the only solar-cooled beer in Chicago."

boxes, lack of welding experience, and a host of other problems have delayed this project. I hope to have it completed by Spring 2001.

I have purchased more panels that are not yet installed. These, added to what I already have, should allow me to recharge the truck. I hope to eventually stop selling excess power back to the utility, and instead use it myself—recharging electric vehicle batteries.

Berton System Loads

Dealing with the Surplus

I have recently started selling back to ComEd. ComEd has instituted a program to buy back power from people like me. There is a special meter that they have installed, and an external locked switch they can throw if they need to work on lines in the area.

It's not ideal for me, however. I want the inverter to sell back to ComEd only when the batteries are full. So I want the charge controller, instead of shunting the power to a resistive load, to send it to the utility. When the batteries get low, I want the inverter to stop selling solar power and redirect it back to the batteries.

I want the house to be powered from the batteries all the time, unless the batteries are low and there is no sun. At that time and only at that time do I want the inverter to take grid power to charge the batteries. I have talked to Trace. They say the inverter I have can't do that. Right now I sell to ComEd only when I'm home and can get out of "sell" mode when the sun goes down. This seems complicated. I hope I have misunderstood Trace and that someone can tell me how to do what I want to do.

Future plans include a car charging station in my garage, and an electric truck. The truck has been purchased, as well as all the parts necessary for the conversion except the batteries. Construction of motor and equipment mounts and battery

Berton System Loads




Average Hours / day

Average WH / day


Solar Panel Basics

Solar Panel Basics

Global warming is a huge problem which will significantly affect every country in the world. Many people all over the world are trying to do whatever they can to help combat the effects of global warming. One of the ways that people can fight global warming is to reduce their dependence on non-renewable energy sources like oil and petroleum based products.

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