Follow the Sun

Puerto Rico's power grid was in bad shape long before last year's hurricane season. So it really wasn't a surprise when Irma skirted along the north coast of PR on Sept. 6, 2017, and the lights went out for over 1 Million people. It was a surprise when another major hurricane, called Maria, came only two weeks later but the fact that this one took out the rest of the island's power was again, not a shocker. Maria also came within a handful of miles of our new island home of Vieques (we weren't here yet), putting her destructive eye-wall winds right over this island and taking down virtually every power line around. She continued directly across PR from southeast to northwest leaving all 3 Million residents in the dark.

Then the hits kept coming, as deep corruption, government bureaucracy from Washington to San Juan, management incompetence (PREPA, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, are $9 Billion in debt) and arrogance kept restoration progress in check. In a recent town hall meeting, 6 months post-Maria, the politicians and bureaucrats presented their plan for the future of power delivery in Vieques. It raised many, many questions, yet no questions were allowed from the residents and business owners, leaving people frustrated and angry. I was shocked at first, that most people, especially business owners, didn't even bother coming to the meeting. Then I realized they know how things work around here and can't be bothered with nonsense.

Town Hall meeting on the future of Vieques power, where no questions were allowed.
Town Hall meeting on the future of Vieques power, where no questions were allowed.

So in the face of a system which we really can't trust to reliably deliver power to us, and which has no believable plan to improve things, we decided we needed a backup plan, or more specifically a backup power system. When power was essentially switched off on the island by the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) came in and delivered big gasoline generators to all the key businesses on the island (grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, bars, the bank, etc.). All that is great, these people serve the entire island and provide vital services, but those beasts are LOUD. And they emit engine exhaust. Also, they are LOUD. And many homeowners have their own gasoline powered generators which are also loud, but not as loud as the big ones!

But when the power goes out every few days, there is a perfect silence as all the air-conditioners go off simultaneously with every refrigerator compressor, fan, stereo, and anything else that makes noise (except vehicles). So we get this beautiful peaceful silence for a few minutes or maybe an hour or two, until the generators start kicking on and doing their thing. Then we long for the quiet drone of air-conditioners to replace the roar of generators!

It's funny too, so far when the power drops, there are three ways it's going to go down. One is the quick, silent type, like turning off a light switch. If it's during the day, we often don't even notice it until quite a while later. Another is when it goes down, up, and then down, like a prizefighter who got his bell rung but staggers back to his feet momentarily. He's going down, he just doesn't want to believe it yet! This isn't good for electronics and especially motors & compressors, whether you have surge protectors or not.

And then there is an exaggerated version of this, where it sort of goes down part-way, the lights dim, the neighbor's A/C goes quiet, but the lights just sort of hover at a mid-point brown-out stage. A little brighter now, a little dimmer now, (a little bit softer now, a little bit louder now), up and down and it goes on for 10s of seconds at least before finally giving up the ghost. This is when the fire drill / comedy show starts, as Deb races to the fridge to unplug it, and then to the Internet hardware. You can tell which is more important to her! I should note also that she's pretty freakin' fast! In the meantime, it's my job to unplug the computer / cellphone chargers, turn on some solar lights, and if needed, plug things into the solar power. We have one lamp with an LED bulb that is our sacrificial lamb or maybe it's our canary in the coal mine. We leave it on most of the time so we know what's happening with the power.

We would also wonder a bit each time, how long is this one going to last? We have seen so many of them now we're starting to get used to the whole thing, but it can still present some inconveniences. Sometimes it's cooking in the dark with only a small solar light. Or making coffee in our portable french press by heating water on the stove. Or, because we have an electric tankless water heater (instant hot water!), when the electricity goes out, you get instant cold water! Of course, the water is not very cold here, but at night you can quickly go from a nice warm shower before bed, to a real cool shower before bed, and of course finishing up (quickly!) in the dark. When the downtime starts to get long you wish you could go online and find out what's happening, or mindlessly surf the Internet, maybe play some Pandora music, but without power there is no music. We try not be complainers, but these are common situations.

So, we wanted a backup power system, but what did we really want in it? Most of all we wanted it to be quiet, but we also wanted it to be clean (no fumes from internal combustion engines), and we didn't want to have to sit in gas lines for generator fuel like so many people have to do. We also wanted it to be transportable. Since we rent our house we wanted the ability to take it with us if our situation changes, and as important, to take it inside if another big storm approaches. It needs to power our laptop and tablet chargers, phone chargers, Internet antenna and router, some LED lights, and a fan. These are all relatively low power devices, the fan being the biggest hog as it would run all night and uses a fair amount of juice.

There were things we really didn't need and were willing to do without. This backup system doesn't need to be tied into the power grid, with all the complexity and cost that would carry. Remember we're only trying to solve a small problem here. For a while, we could do without that high powered water heater. And for a while, we could do without the washing machine, the bedroom air conditioner (which we still haven't used even when we do have power), and the big ole refrigerator.

Probably the biggest key to modern living is refrigeration, but we can get by without even that for a while. We figure it would be a good 4 or 5 days before all the food in the freezer & fridge is spoiled because the freezer is loaded with ice and the fridge with cold water. Actually, most of it wouldn't spoil anyway since we'd use up the food in a smart way in order to minimize losses. Now if “a while” turns into weeks and weeks then we'd have to at least consider the possibility of moving somewhere with actual electricity. This is an unlikely but real scenario – the power on this island is just bad enough to make us discuss all possibilities.

Solar and wind were both candidates but I went with solar because the wind turbine would have had to go on the roof (the windiest place) and be mounted, and I didn't really want to do that. The solar panels could go on the ground since our dogs are small, we don't have kids, the chickens and cats are no threat, and we keep the wild horses out of the yard. Plus, I've always liked the idea of solar!

BTW, early on I did the math on the system size that was needed to run big appliances and it was obvious that it was well beyond what we were willing to spend (which was several hundred bucks, not several thousand). As a backup solution, this should cover everything we needed except those big power hog appliances mentioned above (and we later discovered, a couple smaller ones like a coffee maker). If the power is out for a couple of weeks, we'll make do in other ways on those items (hand washing clothes, cold showers, buying ice from the store). But if it's only out for hours or days, this system will work just fine for us because we'll still have the fridge, washing machine and warm showers whenever the power is up.

The system I decided to try is very similar to an RV solar system. Well, it's pretty much identical to an RV system except you know, no wheels. Our solar panels are on the ground and our batteries are on the back porch.

RV with 3 solar panels on the roof
300W of Solar on the go

To get started, let's take a look at a typical small solar power system. They have four main components, the solar panels, the charge controller, the battery bank, and the output devices.

3 Solar Panels on the ground
300 Watts of Solar on the Ground
30 Amp Charge Controller
30 Amp Charge Controller
Two marine batteries cabled together
Small Battery Bank
GoPower 300W Inverter
Pure Sine Wave Inverter
SimpleSolar

Small solar power systems like this are pretty simple. You can see that the solar panels connect to a charge controller. The controller takes the solar panel energy and uses it to charge the batteries. The batteries are the core of any of these off-grid systems because the sun doesn't always shine (and for wind systems, the wind doesn't always blow). You need to store that energy for later use. Once charged, the batteries supply the power for all of the electrical devices you use. If they are 12V devices like a USB car charger, you connect up directly through a power port. If they are devices that plug into the wall, then they go through a box called in inverter that converts the power to the normal 120 Volts that you would get from a wall plug.

We put our system together from two sources: the local tire store (for the batteries) and Amazon.com (for everything else). It cost right around $1000 which is a bit painful (and out of reach for many people here) but it will save us some money once we start getting power bills again (I think that is coming soon). Rumor has it that we will be getting power bills from PREPA to catch up with all the time (~7 months) they haven't been billing. But also during this time the power was supplied from generators with fuel supplied by FEMA. And we still don't have a working power meter, so they may estimate our bill. But the Governor signed a law that said we shouldn't have to pay for power that comes from a generator (this whole island, and the island of Culebra, is on generators). Confused yet? Join the club – we meet at the tiki bar at 4pm daily! 🙂

Bottom line: we are happy to have our backup system, because 7 months and counting after the storm PREPA certainly has no backup for us. Lately the power situation has been getting worse not better (it's been out pretty much every day in the past week), and PREPA is expecting 4-5 years before we are reconnected with a new undersea cable to the main island (where the power is also unreliable). But here in Vieques, I see three camps: first, it's the “Get used to it” crowd; there are many people here who don't worry, they be happy! This is the Puerto Rican way in many parts of their lives, to just let it go. Next we have the “Work around it” group, which we've joined with our small backup system. It allows us to be happy as well! Well, we're almost always happy, it just lets more happiness flow. 🙂 Finally there is a small group of people who I imagine will eventually fall into the “I gotta go” group. They are not happy and they make sure everyone knows it every time the power goes out. No amount of complaining will help their situation, but it goes on regardless. Deb and I have a favorite saying, "Why you cry? You in Vieques!". But I imagine at some point they'll give up on this place and leave, which is a shame. It's a great place to be in spite of these challenges.

Final note: with this system, and the fact that our Internet provider also has a solar backup power system, we don't get nailed with an outage right when we're trying to post the next blog. So that makes me very happy!

That's it for the semi-non-technical discussion of our small backup power system. I'll follow this with more technical details (Geek Warning! Geek Warning!) for the crowd that wants more of that info.

Anybody have any solar or other alternative power experiences, good or bad? We always like to hear from you!

A toast with Champagne in the setting sun
Cheers to the Sun

TODAY'S SPECIAL: “Follow the Sun” by Xavier Rudd, 'cuz it lights the way!

11 Comments

  1. Zack on May 12, 2018 at 10:24 am

    When the batteries are fully charged, how long do you get out of them?

    • Norm Pyle on May 12, 2018 at 10:54 am

      It depends on the usage, but they should be able to run a fan all night, even after having charged everything. I haven’t tested this yet though. But in general, the idea is to fully charge during the day and discharge at night. I will discuss this more in the next blog post.

  2. Kevlar on May 12, 2018 at 5:34 pm

    I’m looking forward to the technical details. For example – I know that it is bad to over-discharge lead-acid batteries. Are there alarms to keep you informed, or cutoff settings to automate the disconnect, or do you just have to keep a good eye on your voltmeter?

    I think this is quite ingenious – it seems to solve all the most important short term needs. Classic 80:20 solution. I toast your inventiveness!

    • Norm on May 12, 2018 at 9:18 pm

      Great questions! All will be revealed in the next episode, and if not, call me on it!

  3. Mark Pyle on May 15, 2018 at 2:48 pm

    I am so much in the “I gotta go” group I’m not even visiting till they get that shit sorted out. That’s just me, got no patience for it.

    • Norm Pyle on May 16, 2018 at 6:46 am

      I’m shocked you would say that, ha! But I know it can be a hassle. On the other hand, if you stay in a hotel, they will have a generator so it wouldn’t be a problem.

  4. Casey M on May 16, 2018 at 1:00 am

    Oh man, I am so excited for the next post! Been researching my own small RV solar system for a minivan RV. Will be interesting to see what components you picked. Check out sol-solutions.com for their cool but expensive solar generator. builditsolar.com is another favorite site of mine. 12v CPU power supply muffin fans may be your most efficient cooling method.

    • Norm Pyle on May 16, 2018 at 6:50 am

      It’s coming soon! Do you mean using muffin fans for cooling us people? Aren’t they high pitched and loud?

  5. Tawnya on May 16, 2018 at 10:11 pm

    Very cool! David and I have been considering a small system for the cabin. We don’t use much electricity, all the appliances are propane, we’d just like a little something for LED lights at night and to charge iPads without turning on the generator! What size battery did you go with, and why? Can you send me links to those Amazon items, we’d like to check them out!

    We have several friends that have retired the last year or two, it’s so much fun to see how different everyone is enjoying living out their dream! We will celebrate one year on the 21st!

    • Norm Pyle on May 17, 2018 at 7:37 am

      The next post is almost ready, I hope it answers your questions. As far as the batteries go, we got Interstate SRM-24-ES deep cycle batteries, 2 of them. Why did I pick that one? Because it’s what the local shop had – that’s the only reason! I later found out they had the larger size (SRM-27) in the back which I would have bought for just a few dollars more, had I known. Also, the price I get here is about $70 more PER BATTERY than you will see in the States.

      • Tawnya on May 17, 2018 at 9:16 am

        Great! Thanks! We have a SRM-31 at the cabin for the little trolling motor. If we can we’d like to use that size. Always fun to read your posts, thanks for the information!



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