Off-grid Power

Rethinking, or, “State of the Barn Address”

 

It’s been almost thirteen years since the skeleton of the barn was erected, nine years since it was outfitted with the first of more than a dozen workbenches, and over six years since the first blog post.  Now safely ensconced in my 65th year, lately I’ve been contemplating the entire enterprise, reflecting on how blessed I have been and continue to be.  Whether it is good news or bad news, after serious consideration I have no plans to change the fundamental structure of activity on the homestead for several more years, but at some point life in the mountains will simply become too physically taxing and the barn and cabin will be in my rear-view mirror.  Until then, however, it is still full(?) speed ahead with a big smile on my face, albeit not necessarily in the exact same direction nor the exact same speed.  I’m working just as hard as I did when I was 30, but the output is demonstrably less.   My Mom is 102 and lucid so I’ve got to think about another forty years of engagement and productivity.

Here is a sketch of what future activities might look like.  No telling if it is accurate.

Conservation Projects

Early on I maintained a fairly vibrant furniture and decorative arts conservation practice but have no plans to continue much of that except for specific projects and clients.  Yes, I will continue to work with the private collection of tortoiseshell boxes that I’ve been working on for more than a decade.  Recently I was approached to collaborate on a couple high profile on-site projects and if those move forward, fine. I love it but at this point I’ve got other things I want to do on the priority list.  And I want to truly perfect my artificial tortoisehell.  And I want to explore new uses of materials in furniture preservation.  And invent new materials, or novel uses of existing materials.   And, and, and…

Making Furniture

I make no claim as a furniture maker of any note, but I hope to concentrate on making more in the future.  I would love to maintain a small output of Gragg chairs every year, and even modify them and take them in directions Samuel Gragg never went.  I also have enough vintage mahogany for eight more Daniel Webster Desks, so perhaps there are some clients who might want one.  Only time will tell.  I’ve always had a hankering to make some furniture in the milieu of Charles Rennie Mackintosh or Alar Aalto, so maybe that becomes part of the equation.  And I have these sketches for pieces representing a collision of Roubo and Krenov while they are sitting on the porch of a Japanese temple.  And Mrs. Barn has a list of things she would like for the cabin.  And exploring parquetry more intensely.   And finally get pretty good at woodworking in general.  And, and, and…

Metal Work

I’ve always had a interest in metalworking since my boyhood when I would spend time with my Dad in his shed, melting lead weights and doing a little brazing and welding.  Many of those skills have grown fallow but I am trying to get them back and take them to new places.  My love of tool making has been rearing its lovely head in recent times and I have every intention of bringing that focus closer to the bullseye.  And part of that has to include getting my foundry back on-line.  And tuning up all my machine tools like my machinists’ lathes and mill.  And getting really good at brazing and silver soldering, maybe even welding.  And, and, and…

Finishing Adventures

I remain committed to looking both backwards and forwards into the realm of finishing materials, ancient and super modern.  I truly believe Mel’s Wax to be a transformative furniture care and preservation product for which I have not yet discovered the key to marketing.  But I will keep at it because of my knowledge of its performance and my commitment to Mel’s vision for it.  And as for beeswax and shellac wax? Finishing with them may be among the oldest and simplest methods, but they can be extremely difficult and I cannot pretend to have mastered them.  And what about my fascination with urushi and its non-allergenic analogs and the beautiful things I want to make from them?  And what about the fifty bazillion things I do not know about shellac?And, and and…

Writing

My plate of writing projects is full to overflowing, building on a strong foundation of completed works.  Notwithstanding my current struggles with the manuscript for A Period Finisher’s Manual, due entirely to my having too much esoteric material to include in a reasonably consumable book (really, how much solvent thermodynamics does the typical woodworker need to know?), I enjoy every minute I am writing even when it is driving me crazy.  I’d better because my collaborator Michele Pagan is one full book ahead of me in the Roubo Series.  And there are two or three more volumes after that one.  And some day I need to finish the almost-completed manuscript for A Furniture Conservation Primer created with a colleague while at the SI and thus will be necessarily distributed for free via the web site.  And what about my treatise on the technology and preservation of ivory and tortoiseshell?  And the dozen mystery/thriller novels I have already plotted out?  And who knows how many short stories about the life of First Century craftsman Joshua BarJoseph?  And, and, and…

Web

My first of almost 1,200 web posts went up six-and-a-half years ago, which I understand in the world of hobbyist blogging, where blogs come and go like the tides, puts me as some sort of  Methuselah.  But certainly not in the same class as The Accidental Woodworker, who has been blogging daily for even longer IIRC.  Ralph, I tip my hat to you, sir.

I once thought the web site/blog would be a useful portal for soliloquies about my projects and things I’ve learned over a long and rewarding career, but now I am not so sure.  A while back I decided to make a concerted effort to blog at least five times a week for a year, and I think I came pretty close.  Surely this would increase my web traffic!  Well, not so much.  At the end of this effort my web traffic was 2% lower than when it began.  Despite fairly consistent blogging my visitorship has dropped by almost half over the past four-plus years.    So I just scratch my head.  I’m not whining, but instead recognizing that the flock who is interested in my musings is shrinking, not growing.  Oh well.  This is not a good or bad thing, it is just a thing, helpful in me making decisions about priorities.  I have no plans to really change anything about the blog, we’ll just wait and see where it goes.  When I am not somewhere else, with someone else, or doing something else, I will blog.

Recently I was chatting with someone who informed me that web sites and blogs are now passe and the currency du jour is the unholy trio of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.  Given that and my antipathy towards the latter two it is likely that I will undertake the former at some near date (yes, I know the relationship between Instagram and Stalkerbook) .  Something inside me rebels at the notion of validating the post-literate world, however.  Still, the economic treatise presented by Larry the Liquidator is not only dramatic but accurate.  Even the Professional Refinisher’s Group is moving forward, transitioning from a moderated email forum to a private Facebook Group, which will leave me behind.  But they will survive without me and I intend to maintain contact with that circle of fellowship regardless.

Trouble is, I am by temperament a bizarre mélange of buggy whip maker and hardline “emergent order” Hayekian.  Hmmm.  Not really sure how that works out.

Workshops

Integral to my vision for the barn was to have it be a place of learning.  As the facility was coming together, whenever I spoke to any kind of woodworking gathering the verbal response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.  The reality that unfolded was anything but.  I now realize that my vision was a faulty one and the enthusiasm was superficial.  Quite bluntly, almost no one wants to come to such an isolated location where local amenities are practically nonexistent, to spend a few days engaging in subjects I want to teach.  Fair enough, the barn is too remote and my topics are too arcane.  Like I said before, this is not a good thing or a bad thing, but just an instructive  thing to add to the equation.

As a result and in recognition of reality I plan to deemphasize workshops at the barn, perhaps even eliminating them altogether, notwithstanding that I created dedicated spaces for the undertaking.  Should a small group of enthusiasts approach me with the request to teach them, I will do so.  That is precisely what a quartet of guys have done for next June.  And, I might do an occasional blockbuster-type workshop (a Gragg chair class would be such an example, if that ever occurs; I had thought a ripple molding machine class might be such an event, but with zero response…), or I might travel a bit to teach but otherwise that part of the portfolio is likely to close.  Not definitely, but likely.

Videos

Hence my transition to teaching via video.  If I cannot get folks to come here perhaps my best strategy is to go to them.  I have a multitude of ideas (more than twenty full-length [>30 mins.]video concepts on the list) and a brilliant local collaborator to work with.  I am committed to this path to the degree that I have the time, energy, and resources.

Further I have decided that making shorter, self-produced and thus less polished “shop technique videos” might be a useful undertaking to post on donsbarn.com, youtube or Vimeo.  I will explore this avenue in the coming weeks and months.

The Homestead

With several buildings, several gardens, and a power system to maintain and improve there is never a shortage of things to do here on the homestead.  I want to build/expand more garden capacity for Mrs. Barn to spend time doing the thing she loves best.  And fruit and nut orchards.  And I want to finish creating a rifle scope for shooters like me who have lost most of the vision in their dominant eye.  And another hydro turbine downstream from the current one.

And, and, and that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject.

That is The State of the Barn Address, 2019.  To quote one of Mel’s favorite songs, “The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.”  Yes it is.  I am living the dream.

Combating Ignorance (My Own)

A couple months ago I had a “crisis”(?) with the power system for the barn.  I made it through most of the winter just fine, invariably shutting down the system on my way down for supper and turning it back on in the morning to save the power that would have kept the system up overnight.  Suddenly the power accrual fell off the cliff and I really got concerned.  A day that should have been inputting 300-400 watts into the system was instead producing 70, or 50, or even 20.  Since I had a generator wired into the system last year I was not at risk of being without power while working but the dysfunction was not insignificant despite the fact that I seemingly had enough power to work in the shop all day.

I trouble shot every aspect of the system I knew, even getting so desperate as to READ THE INSTRUCTION MANUAL (even my pal BillR who is an EE and MS Robotics guy says the system product information is almost impenetrable).  In desperation I corresponded with Rich, the EE who sold me the system, and BillR, who installed the solar components.  They too were scratching their heads about the situation.

Then at about the same time they both had a suggestion: make sure the Dump Load switch is turned on.   The Dump Load is a resistance coil to “dump” any excess electrons once the batteries were charged to full capacity to prevent them from being damaged by over-charging.

Yup, that was the ticket.  Apparently during one of the evening shut-downs I absent-mindedly (or at least inadvertently) threw the Dump Load switch to “off” and left it there.  The Dump Load switch is right next to the switches for the inverters.  With the Dump Load off the system would literally only accept the trickle necessary to keep the batteries topped off.  So, when I saw the system first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, where no meaningful consumption was ongoing, the system had told itself to choke off any wattage input from the solar panels to protect the batteries.  During the day when I was using electricity the system would have shown an input equal to my usage but I would not have seen that.

In the moments following my turning the Dump Load back on I literally let out a whoop as the input went from 20 watts to almost a kilowatt because throwing that switch told the system to go full bore.

So I didn’t really have any kind of crisis, other than the one in my own mind due to the fact that I did not understand fully the intricacies of the power system, even after all these years.

Good thing ignorance is curable.

Winter Trompe L’oeil

As someone who has struggled with diminishing eye functions for over 50 years, I continually grow in appreciation of the irreducible complexity of the eyeball and its operating system.  That has been driven home in the grimness of winter in the mountains as my power system for the barn is dependent on solar panels with the hydro system mothballed for the season.  Some days now are brilliantly sunny, but many more are overcast.  While I notice the difference between sunny days and cloudy days, my eye fools me into thinking that all the overcast days are basically the same.

The controls for the power system is under no such illusion.  On some overcast days the output of the solar panels might be close to 200 watts.  Other days of heavier overcast are more like 50 watts.  Yet my eye and brain working together fool me into not even noticing the difference in utilitarian functionality.  The solar panels capture a measurable number of photons, turning them into countable electrons to feed the system.

I still check the system performance faithfully as it affects my power use during the days in the barn.  If the output is near 200 watts I can proceed in the shop with few restrictions.  If it is 50, I have to be very mindful and almost count every watt.  In addition, I shut the system down completely every evening as keeping it powered up uses watts I do not need to consume.

The days are getting longer, and even though we are expecting near-zero temps later this week I look forward to the time in 10-12 weeks when I can reactivate the hydro system and not be so mindful of the numbers of watts coming from the sun.

All of this reminds me of the research into diminishing visual acuity as we age, as our eye membranes as fluids become increasingly oxidized and less functional (transparent), our brains work to fill in the gaps such that other than on trips to the ophthalmologist we hardly even notice.

Amazing things, these meat machines we reside in.

Making a 1″ NPT Tap For A One-off Use

I am in the process of reconfiguring the plumbing at the bottom of the hydroelectric system (more about why later) involving increasing the size of the final flow route from 3/4″ to 1″, a dimensional increase of 33% and, more beneficially, a volumetric increase of almost 80%.  But in order to accomplish this I needed to fabricate some fittings with 1″ NPT female threads, requiring a 1″ NPT tap.  Ever priced one of those?  The number is exceedingly off-putting so instead I made my own using a $3 piece of  1″ NPT pipe fitting from the hardware store.  Since I was cutting threads in Schedule 40 PVC it was more than robust enough for the task.

I first tapered the end of the pipe with a file, then sawed four kerfs into the surface of the threads with a hacksaw.

With files I then reduced the cross-section of the threads such that each of the four kerfs became four cutting faces for the new threads which were being cut into a slightly oversized 1-1/8″ hole drilled in the PVC.

The “tap” handle was just an assemblage of plumbing pieces, and the thread cutting could commence.

This allowed me to screw in the fitting I needed for the radiator hoses that connect the penstock to the turbine valves/nozzles/impeller.

It took about an hour to make the tap, and it saved many, many dollar$.

Black Swan Event Final(?) Report

Hmmm, two posts sans images in one week.

I’m not sure where exactly I left this tale of my formerly dysfunctional hybrid power system for the barn, but following the replacement of the solar controller guts by the manufacturer after they found ants had shorted out the main circuit board, the reconditioned unit was returned to me.  As we were about to leave town for several days I hurriedly installed it to give it a test drive.

It would not even turn on.  I stewed about that for several days.

On our return after traveling I reached out to the manufacturer’s support tekkies and related the situation, with resolute firmness and precise language.  After a brief silence from them they sent me a shipping label and I sent the unit to them.  Again.

Two weeks later it arrived back with the cryptic note that a disconnected fitting had been connected.  So much for the assertion that the unit had been previously tested, don’t you think?

Again we were on the cusp of leaving town for a few days, but at dusk I installed the newly re-repaired unit.  At least this time it turned on!  There was great joy in Mudville.  That it would not perform any controller function was not especially disconcerting since the evening was fast approaching and the unit normally puts itself to sleep for the night once the photon levels get lower than net operating power.

Assuming that the system would wake up with the morning sunshine I left everything status quo and left town.

Big mistake, but then you know what assuming does.

On our return three days later I discovered that not only was the solar system not turned on and functioning well, the entire system had shut down because the batteries had been drained to the point where, well, the system turns itself off in order to protect the batteries from harm.  Now, this is not a cluster of AA batteries.  These are four monster huge batteries, each weighing about 150 pounds.  Something was amiss.

Side note – when the troubles first began I tested the circuit from the solar panels to the control input terminals and noted the voltage.  It was fine (~100 volts at solar noon on a clear day).  In the follow up testing I was finding voltage variations not unusual for solar systems given that the voltage output varies with the intensity of the sunlight.   Just keep that in mind for future reference.

I contacted the tech weasels again, and spoke to them with increased fervor.  I was given a series of diagnostic exercises which I executed while I insisted the tekkie remained on the line, waiting for me to walk to the system, make the test and return from the power house fifty yards away.  Zilch, zero, nada.  The unit would not perform its functions even though it powered itself up.  The input voltage numbers were a bit low (~60), but certainly enough to jolt the system to action.  But it was not responding no matter what the tekkie told me to try.

“Would you like to return it to us for an further evaluation?” I was asked.

“What I want is for you to send me a unit that actually works,” I replied.

After a few minutes on hold I was told that a new unit was being sent to replace the old one.  It arrived a week later, smack dab in the middle of the ripple molding soiree (we had been using the hydro power and gas generator for that).  Anxiously I installed the unit at high noon on a brilliant sunny day, checking and double checking my wiring connections.  I threw the switches in anticipation of, something.

The unit turned on but refused to perform its function.

To say I was disappointed is to gloss over my mindset.  I took a couple hours to gather my thoughts, called the engineer who had helped design and install the system, dismantled the breaker box and re-took the circuit readings.  But something weird was happening with the readings.  They varied wildly and continued to drop regardless of the sun shine.  40 volts.  32 volts.  26 volts.  50 volts.  20 volts.  48 volts.  24 volts.  39 volts. 22 volts.

Second side note – the buried cable from the solar panel array to the power house was a type specifically certified for direct burial, no conduit required.

Third side note — when digging the trench for the cable with a rented trencher, the trencher broke in less than a minute due to the rocky soil.

With my friend Brint’s help we took some cable and bypassed the buried cable to connect the solar array bus on the side of the cabin directly to the power controller.

It read ~90-100 volts.

Something, somehow, the circuit had been breached, and through trial and error we determined that it was somewhere in the 75-foot buried section, not in the open cable that was suspended underneath the bridge over the creek.  We grafted in the new cable to replace the buried cable, this time enclosing all of it entirely in conduit sealed from the fuse bus to the power house.  This will be buried as time and weather permit.  The new circuit worked perfectly and at solar noon the next day the panels were cranking out over 1300 watts, pretty astounding given that it was September and the theoretical capacity rating for the panel array is 1410 watts.

So now I have a fully functioning doubly redundant power system for the barn; hydro turbine, solar panels, and gas generator.  As a friend once quipped, “The problem with being your own power company is that you are your own power company.”  Every part of it  must be maintained and attended to, but through it all my appreciation for the aggregate utility grid is immense.  Although this has been a supremely frustrating episode I find that my understanding of every part of my system has been enhanced immeasurably.

Last side note — in retrospective contemplations we have arrived at the un-provable conclusion that somewhere in the original underground cable a sharp rock had encountered the cable and through essentially micro-seismic vibrations had eventually breached the sheath of that cable.  Not enough to cut the circuit entirely, but enough to ground it, the amount of the grounding discharge probably dependent on temperature and soil moisture.  As I said that is un-provable but does explain a lot; varying voltage, draining the battery bank, failure to wake up, etc.

Black Swan Update – Solar

As we last left our adventure the solar system control module had been declared to have some as-yet undefinable hardware failure and the unit was returned to the manufacturer for repair.  They diagnosed the problem as ants getting inside the unit and shorting out the main circuit board.  I authorized replacement of the damaged component and two weeks later the unit arrived back here.  I was about to leave for a couple weeks worth of travel but quickly reinstalled the unit just to see the system working again.

It did not.

the original installation in 2011

I double checked and confirmed I had wired in the system exactly as it had been done originally and even had the detailed photo to work from.  I spent many, many hours corresponding with the EE who designed the systems and the different EE who helped me install it.  I spent many hours on hold with the tech line and was eventually told with metaphysical certitude that the system could not have been working uneventfully for seven years because the original wiring scheme could not, would not, and did not work according to their engineers.  I sent them the installation photos and asked them to explain how the system had been working fine for all these years if this wiring schematic was as wrong as they said.  I was told that it had never been working given the wiring diagram and photos they saw.  Apparently I have been the direct recipient of a Divine miracle.

When I asked them again to explain my harvesting electrons with this system for seven years they basically hung up on me.

Then I was traveling.  On my return I made the wiring changes that the manufacturer said were necessary for the unit to function.

It still did not work.

After more hours of painstaking troubleshooting on the charge controller wiring circuits, checking everything from the solar panels through the in-line fuses, the underground cable, the system master controls all the way to the buried copper grounding rod with a meter several times to make sure all the circuits were functioning as required, the unit would not power up.  Again I corresponded and spoke at length with the EE who installed this unit and who directed my efforts (he gave me many very specific tasks to check the current between point A and point B, etc.) and in the end we were mystified.

Once again I called the manufacturer’s tech line, and after very little conversation with me but much discussion at their end they decided that my unit had not been repaired properly.  I was told it was probably something simple like forgetting to plug in the ribbon to the display module.  This makes no sense to me unless the fan is also hooked up to the same display module ribbon as NOTHING happened whenever I diverted power to the unit.  Before this episode, even when the unit would not “wake up,” whenever I threw the breaker for the unit there would be a brief burst of fan activity in the load dump function, but this time, nothing.  I remained bewildered as I had been assured the reconditioned unit had undergone two hours of testing, but how could they test it for two hours in this condition?

Whatever the case they sent me a new shipping label and I returned it to them.  Now I wait again.

Ugh.

Black Swan Update – 3 is 2…

With all the disruption of two robust independent electricity producing systems going belly-up at the same time I decided to add another producer into the mix, is essence to modify the “two is one and one is none” rubric for logistical planners into “three is two, two is one, and one is none.”  In the absence of the hydro and solar electron hamsters I relied on my gas powered generators and a bunch of extension cords.

I decided to contact the local electrician to see if he could wire the generator into the service panel of the barn, and he suggested instead wiring it into the power system at the bottom of the hill, alongside the electrons provided by the hydro and solar units.  I got a quote, smacked my forehead and said, “Of course!”, and authorized the work.  Plus, since there was already a buried cable from the powerhouse to the cabin, could he perhaps also wire that into the system?  Sure, he sez.

The day came when he and his son, also an electrician, arrived to do the work.  The first step was to clear the work area, which translates into “ripping off the raggedy shelter over the electronics closet.”  I’d been wanting to do this anyhow in order to build a more proper enclosure for all these components so this was the time.

In no time flat they were abuzz with work, installing a new sub-service panel to provide for vastly improved current distribution.

After a bit of time they separated so one was completing the sub-service box to serve as a new router for the electricity and the other was making the modifications to the service panel inside the cabin, alowing it to be powered by the same auxiliary system.

By lunchtime they were finished and I test drove the system in all its iterations available at the time: inverter/battery bank power to the house or barn, gas generator power to the house or barn.

Brilliant!

I spent a couple days making more proper housings for the system electronics and the generator and this chapter was complete.

Black Swan Update – Hydro

This is a rare blog without pictures as there is literally nothing to show.  It’s almost like Claude Rains telling you to move along because there is nothing to see.  But it is not without exciting information (to me, at least).

The return of the hydro turbine core last week was a time of great celebration.  I am delighted that I decided to return that unit to the manufacturer for the replacement of the rotor bearings; I did not want to be learning-on-the-job by trying something I had not really done before – replacing the bearings on an expensive, high-stress high-precision delicately balanced machine.  I know that come a zombie apocalypse I will have to do it myself or find someone locally who can, so I purchase two extra pairs of the sealed bearings necessary for the task.  Given existing performance projections that gives me another 25-30 years of functionality to the unit.

Reassembling the turbine unit took almost no time, 10-15 minutes or so.  Reinstalling it into the system took about the same amount of time.  Tracking down the location of the breached water line from unrelated storm damage that had occurred since I dismantled the turbine took the longest.  A tree branch had fallen and cracked the penstock (the 2″ PVC pipe from the water capture to the turbine) disrupting the water flow to the turbine, and once the damage was found the repair took only a few minutes.  I keep a good inventory of repair parts on hand since my water line is above ground, snaking through the forest for almost 1200 feet.  I would love to have the water line buried but with our climate, topography and geology it would require digging a three-foot-deep trench a quarter mile in rocky sub-soil.  Until I inherit a new family tree with gobs of money I will make do with the status quo.

Once the system was all together and running I knew instantly that something was dramatically different.  For starters, the turbine unit was so quiet I turned it over just to make sure it was running!  For the previous nine years ever since the system was installed, when the turbine was operating under full load it produced a whine that was distracting for quite a long distance.  Since it was that way from Day One I had no idea it was not supposed to be so.  But now?  Eerily quiet, just barely audible even at the stillness of dusk.  Although I know what to listen for I still have to strain a bit from the front porch to hear it working.

A second observation was that the output of the unit had increased a fair bit.  I have not yet installed the new digital metering unit for that part of the system, but I can tell the difference in the integral monitor which is nothing more than a blinking light indicating the input current to the charge controller.  All I can say is that it was blinking about twice as fast as I had come to expect for that particular water flow.

I wrote back to the fellow who replaced the bearings with these observations, and asked him if he noticed anything during his work (he succeeded the previous owner of the company since I purchased my unit a decade ago).  He confirmed that he noticed one of the bearings was not seated properly  and he took special care in aligning everything correctly.   It appears that the misalignment caused both a whine in the turbine in operation and also some substantial drag on the turbine rotor shaft.  Hence the “new” turbine is both quieter and more efficient in operation.

Who knows?  Maybe the properly aligned bearings will last 20 years instead of 8-10.

Needless to say I am thrilled with this outcome, and await the developments in the solar panel controller malfunction situation.

Black Swan Events, or 2 is 1, 1 is None

Among the few public observers to whom I pay attention, Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a place at the table if for no other reason than his monumentally insightful book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.  Now, change gears to the old insight from the military logistics and supply realm, “Two is one, and one is none,” an exhortation on the value of redundancy for important operating systems and supplies.  Well, that particular old black swan bit me in the nether regions recently as I found that I’d better start with a bigger number for electricity supply.

Since becoming my own Power Company for The Barn there have always been hiccups; a connection or section of water line breaks, storm debris clogs the hydro system intake or turbine nozzle, even a nearby lightning ground blowing the fuses on the solar array.  In these cases the interruption of one or the other power source is not an activity-stopping hurdle, although it can be a bit of a nuisance and interruption to address.

 

In essence my system is a hybrid of the microhydrolectric turbine generating power 24/7 through much of the year, along with the array of six 235-watt solar panels cranking out juice whenever it is daylight and they are not buried under snow.  When you are your own public utility, maintenance is never far from the “To Do” list.

My two electron sources are tied together in a complex control system designed and installed by Rich at Nooutage.com and my friend BillR, a retired electrical engineer with a robotics specialty.  For the past half dozen years or so it has been humming along, providing all of what I need in the barn for general usage.  Even in the dead of winter, when I have the hydro system mothballed during the coldest weather, the solar panels keep the batteries charged and I can operate pretty much normally if I am the least bit attentive.  If I know I need to use a lot of electricity with a machine or a heating coil (processing beeswax in cookers, for example) I know I need to wait for a nice sunny day.

When I have a particular need for ultra high wattage consumption, like my smelting furnace of kiln, I have to fire up the smaller (3500w) of my two Coleman Suburu generators for that isolated need.

Flash forward to three weeks ago as we were spending a day in the studio recording another session for the Gragg Chair video.  I had checked the system the night before as I do routinely, and it was working fine.  Batteries were topped off, solar panels pounding out watts, hydro puttering along.  (On a normal day each of the production components produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 5kwH, higher on a sunny summer day).  Just as I was coming to the end of a session of steam bending some chair parts the room went dark.  Quickly I hustled down the hill — I do not run any longer since breaking my hip three years ago — and saw that the system had shut itself down for no apparent reason.  It booted back up manually, but still the work for the recording session was lost.

I was leaving town the next morning for a week so I put off conducting the investigation of the hiccup until I got back.

what it should look like

what it did look like

On returning I was able to confirm that the solar panels were contributing zero to the system performance.  It.  Jjust.  Went.  To.  Sleep.  The hydro turbine was still working as it should so the overall system function was adequate, but several days of chasing down the solar inactivity proved fruitless, despite numerous emails and phone calls with BillR, who assigned me several detailed troubleshooting tasks, and literally hours on hold with the tekkies at the solar control module manufacturer.

In the end the tekkies told me there was some sort of hardware failure and I needed to disconnect the solar control unit and send it to them for their ministrations.  So I did.

As all of this was unfolding, the hydro turbine suddenly (literally overnight) developed the growling rumble of worn out bearings.  I took it off-line as soon as I noticed this, dealing with two $15 bearings is one thing but letting them run to destruction might have damaged the $2k turbine and that was not high on my list of risks to take.  After speaking to the turbine manufacturer I decided to remove the turbine core and ship it back to him for new bearings.  Replacing the bearings myself was not really an option as I do not possess some of the specialized tools required for the job, although I will have to address that shortcoming in the future.

Quick as a bunny I was without any power system input to the barn and things ground to a halt, including cancelling/rescheduling the Boullework Marquetry workshop that was slated for this weekend.

For now all I can do is wait on the turbine manufacturer to return the turbine core with then new bearings and hear back from the solar control module manufacturer for a report on that unit, and contact the local electrician to come and wire in my gas generator to the system.

I clearly need for “2 is 1” to become “3 is 2,” or maybe even “4 is 3.”

Stay tuned.

In a true Black Swan event both my redundant power sources failed at the same time.  Maybe I should have called Nassim Taleb first.

A New Design for a Debris Catcher on the Hydroelectric Pipeline Intake

cIMG_0256

With the recent reconfiguration of the pipeline, called a “penstock,” for the hydroelectric turbine I began to give some thought to dealing with the problem of floating debris, and ever present problem in an intake system.  Since this reconfiguration the intake was protected only by a piece of 1/4″ hardware cloth, which clogged every few days with the autumn leaf fall, and the large trash grill I built to shroud the area.

cDSC06812

 

The previous configuration allowed me to utilize a capturing basin (basically just a polypropylene tub) with a top protected by a Coanda screen I made myself.  The water was collected in the tub and the debris washed over the Coanda screen.  It worked just fine, and resulted in the need for clean-off only once or twice a year.

The new location of the capturing point being simply the end of the pipeline submerged into the stream was not amenable to a capturing tub with a Coanda.  So, an entirely new and different approach was needed.  After some noodling I settled on a device I made from two PVC fittings and some pieces of PVC pipe I had already ripped into slats for some reason long since forgotten.

cIMG_0408

By affixing the slats to the outside of the joint fitting and the PVC pipe cap I derived an apparatus that functions essentially as a piece of perforated pipe.  But it has two fairly important differences from something like a piece of drain pipe.  First the openings are vary narrow slits, about 1/16″ wide, preventing anything from entering into the system that might clog the water jets down at the turbine.  Second, the orientation of the slits long-wise, in other words parallel to the flow of the water, should provide a self-flushing effect for any debris sucked to the surface of the cylinder.

I’ll know soon enough whether the new arrangement works long-term.  On Thursday we installed it, and the system is humming along just fine.  I will check it again tomorrow to see the situation.  The heaviest leaf-fall will be in less than a week, and although the large grill over the area should handle most of the debris it will not catch it all.

Stay tuned.