Posted by: highmountainmuse | January 21, 2009

Powered by the sun

Now back to basics… let’s talk about POWER.  Power from the sun, that is.

Our cabin powered by the sun, even at night.

Our cabin powered by the sun, even at night.

The few articles I have seen on “off grid living” (and I confess, up here I haven’t stumbled across too many…) make it sound one of two ways:  either you have to really rough it in a back woods existence and read by your tallow candle wrapped up in an old wool blanket to keep warm; or you have to spend a fortune and design an elaborate, complicated and expensive system to provide for all you fantastic wants and needs and desires and whims. 

I’m thinking there’s a middle ground that gets overlooked. Folks who want or need an alternative energy source, and are willing to give up luxuries, but not give up living. We have a system that I think nicely shows off that middle ground:  it was affordable, is easy to maintain, provides ample but not excessive power, and plain and simply, it works. And a few bonuses: it’s clean, and it’s self sufficient.

Our home and guest ranch are completely off-grid. I suppose we have to be since the nearest power line is over six miles away.  But after putting in a solar electrical system and living with it for seven years now, we have found living off grid is yet again living the good life.

Eight years ago, Bob made the investment of a solar electric system that his friend and “solar guru,” Ian, designed out of used components specifically sized and geared to work for our ranch.  We knew we were on a budget, so it was designed to run only lights.  No appliances, large or small (the fridge/freezers, oven/stoves and hot water heaters in all cabins are propane – and small appliance like toasters, drip coffee makers and hair dryers are simply not necessary). The total cost for this system was $7,500.  So far, it has powered a year-round home and seasonal guest ranch for seven years, with minimal additional expense or maintenance. 

The system Ian designed proved to be terrific. Year round, it can run lights and our communication needs (satellite internet service and 3+ laptops). During the off season when it’s just us around, we not only run lights and laptops, but even hang Christmas lights during the holidays, and listen to music via satellite or CD.  On a sunny morning, we can use the shop vac, and on a sunny afternoon we can run power tools like circular saws, and grinders.  At the very least, we use the sunny times to charge up our cordless tools, which are our first choice of tool anyway due to their convenience.

In planning a system, it’s not a bad idea to work with someone who really knows how this stuff works.  It’s not rocket science, but it can get overwhelming for us newbies. Ian came along at the right time for Bob, and we’d call on him for help in a flash again when and if need be, but there are plenty of folks out there working for small “alternative energy” companies who can help advise you or set you up with a system, either new or used. It’s a simple process, but it is great to work with someone who really understands this stuff and has good knowledge – at least to get you started. The technology is changing rapidly now, too, so the stuff that’s out there now a days is probably far more advanced than the system we have. But if it isn’t broke… and our system works great for us. 

First, figure out your needs.  How much power do you use?  How much power do you need?  Chances are you need a lot less than you use, if you know what I mean. We usually make do with one light on in our cabin.  We have an open design without many walls, with huge southern windows, and with a white ceiling that reflects light – all of which were design choices that help reduce our need for artificial lights.  

Take a look around your house or office.  Any unnecessary lights on our power being used?  It doesn’t matter if you’re on grid or off grid, the power comes from somewhere, though from the looks of some of these big houses with the big lights, too many folks still don’t consider from where, or how, or what gets burned up somewhere else to provide for those additional lights or appliances.  It’s not a bad idea for everyone to cut back their use a little bit.

 We limit our use of electricity to lights.  Heat producing appliances will trip the power instantly, causing Bob to head out on his “electric cop” run, going cabin to cabin to find the guilty culprit who may have tried to use a hair dryer. This is contraband here (as some of our guests learn the hard way). They don’t work on our system, and we don’t need them.  I didn’t own or use a hair dryer even when I lived “on grid.” Some of our guests have learned to sport hats when need be.  Good for them for learning to adjust, learning to do without.

As I mentioned, our large appliances like fridge/freezers, hot water heaters and oven/stove units in each cabin are run by propane. And we do have back up propane lights in each cabin.  These are a great investment I wouldn’t want to live without, use very little fuel, and provide ample light.  We rely on them for back up light, but also for light of choice, as they produce a lovely, soft glow that those energy efficient light bulbs we have in almost all our light fixtures just can’t match. (I confess I keep a regular 60 watt bulb over our kitchen table so I can use the dimmer switch and create “mood lighting” for dinner, definitely one more of my Little Luxuries.)  Still our propane bill for this small guest ranch, including a heated utility building, 5 rental cabins, and our year round home, is minimal as we don’t rely on propane for our primary heat source.  We’re lucky to have plenty of wood to clean up in our own woods, and have a mill near by that sells the scraps for fire wood at a great bargain.  This ends up being the “greenest” option for us, considering wood stoves are much easier and cheaper to install than some of the other heating options that sound great, but leave a mighty large “footprint” to both build the components  and then to install.  We choose to stay simple while we can.

We do have a clothes washing machine.  I have lived with the ringer washer and even the wash board, so I’m glad to say “been there, done that,” but I’m more than glad to have my washing machine.  It uses more “juice” than our solar electric system provides, so rather than putting in a larger system just to handle this occasional need, once a week at most, we fire up the generator to run the machine. We try to coincide wash day with cloudy weather or in the evenings when we’d want additional lights on.  Our clothes dryer consists of laundry lines strung between two Aspen trees in the summer, or strung up in our sleeping loft in winter.  This works great for us, though I understand folks in a more humid climate may need a dryer machine.

As far as the technical stuff on these systems, it’s really simple.  Our system consists of three basic components to turn the power of the sun into electricity:  the solar panels, a bunch of batteries, and a controller (which controls the amount of juice coming in from the panels to the batteries). The solar panels soak in the power from the sun.  That power is wired down to the controller, then wired into the batteries.

From the batteries, you need an inverter, which turns the power from the 12V juice in the batteries to the 110 or 120 AC that is standard for use in any house. So, the power is wired from the batteries, into the inverter, then is plugged into our standard household wiring that has a network grid throughout our ranch to each of the cabins in the buried electrical lines. The power then comes to standard outlets or ceiling lights.  And voila!  Power from the sun!

We buried our electrical lines even here around the ranch so all people know is that if you flick a switch, the lights work!  Pretty amazing.  But pretty simple. Old timers who come to our ranch remember power provided only between the hours of perhaps 6 and 10 pm, when the generator would run for use of lights in the cabins, and over head lines would bring power to the cabins for a light or two, that would work only when the generator was humming. 

Well, as you know, the sun sometimes does not shine. More often than not here in Colorado, you can pretty much count on it about 350 plus days a year. On those low sun days, we usually hold our own by just being a little more careful with our use. But if we have a storm that lasts for a few days, or days with exceptionally high electrical draw (OK, who’s got a crock pot plugged in?), we resort to Plan B. 

Plan B is running the generator for the peak use hours – say, about 4 hours in the evening when folks are most likely to need additional light for cooking and washing up.  The system runs pretty much the same directly from the generator as it does from the solar panels, you just eliminate the step of the panels, controller, battery and inverter, and instead plug the main plug which feeds the ranch directly into the generator. The generator is set to also charge up the batteries as long as the generator is running. So, you run the generator for the few hours of peak use, and the batteries get a little boost, which carries us through the other 20 hours of the day with minimal electrical use!  Pretty slick system…

Our system was initially put in during the Fall of 2001. Some of the components were already used (like our panels).  During this time, we have had to replace our bank of batteries once about 5 years ago (we use golf cart batteries from Sam’s Club) – and we did have to replace the inverter about 3 years ago.  That’s it for maintenance, except for the occasional cleaning of battery terminals and keeping up the water level on the batteries.

So, I suppose it’s not completely maintenance free, it’s a little more complicated than just flicking a switch and never considering from where that power comes from. But it’s even easier than owning a vehicle.  Get in the car, turn the key, and off you go.  Maybe once or twice a year you change the oil and replace a filter.  That’s how we feel about our solar electrical system, probably even easier. (Our system doesn’t have to go to the shop on a regular basis for repairs and breakdowns!)

 And just like with buying a vehicle, you can spend as little or as much as you like.  We’re simple and prefer to stay small and straightforward.  So, we went lower end, and it’s worked just fine.  So fine that the only time I’ve even checked on the Power Plant over the past few days was when I went to take these photos.

Outside the Power Plant

Outside the Power Plant

Inside the Power Plant

Inside the Power Plant


Here’s a quick view of the inside and outside of our Power Plant.  And here’s how it all works.  First, the sun shines!  The panels on the outside of the Power Plant absorb the sun, the wires bring the energy through those wires into the vented building.  The wires come down and into the controller (white box in center of photo), then are wired into the batteries (bottom right) which are grounded by that big black wire on the far right. From the bank of batteries, it is wired up to the inverter (the black and blue rectangle), and you see the yellow plug which ties us directly into the power grid around the ranch. You can also see our two back up generators for when we have to rely on Plan B.  And that red box above the batteries on the shelf, that’s what we use to charge the batteries when we’re running directly off the generator.  Pretty simple, eh?

Note the spare truck batteries (bottom center) and air compressor (big blue thing) also in the picture.  Sorry to complicate matters. They have nothing to do with this system, we just store them in the building!

That’s it.  See, not rocket science.  It’s simple. Or rather, it can be really simple if we’re willing to simplify our lives. Look around your world right now and see what you can give up. Just start small.  I’m glad I don’t have to give up electricity all together.  I couldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t have power. 

But I want to know where my power is coming from, just like I want to know where my water is coming from (I’ll go into that some other time).  I want to be responsible for my needs and uses and be as conservative and caring as I can. I want to provide for my self, my family, and our guests without depleting this beautiful world I love so much.  And I can.

So simple!




  1. I’ve been wondering when you would write about this! Ron and I are very curious about solar energy especially since we would love to have a remote cabin someday. I’m surprised and pleased at the cost, too, I was thinking it would be more. Maybe someday Bob can be our “solar guru” :~) I must say, too, that, as a guest at the ranch, I have never once felt like I was “roughing it”, of course how CAN you feel like you are roughing it in a place of such magnificent beauty?

  2. I should have said this in the post, Karen, but if anyone is interested in more specifics, to just write and ask. I didn’t know how detailed to get. When you’re ready, I’m pretty sure Bob has learend enough about this solar stuff to at least point you and Ron in the right direction. And as you said, we’re definately not roughing it. More often than not, I feel rather decadent. Lots more simplifiying I would like to do, too. And I will HAVE to do!

  3. Maybe we’ll “tour” the power plant when we are there in the Fall. Our hope is to someday have a small cabin…about the size of Cabin 1 at the ranch…maybe a little larger, say 600-800 square feet. How many panels would it take (provided our large appliances run on propane) and could we just have our “power plant” in and on our cabin? Are the propane refrigerators expensive and hard to find? What about travel trailers? Can they run on solar power, too?

  4. We’d love to show you the Power Plant and show you how it works. Its cool because it is so simple. I always say, “If I can figure it out, anyone can.” I’m not very high tech (says me here “Blogging?”). You have a lot of different options to consider: you could go larger and then run some of your appliances (hot water heater, fridge) off solar. My brother, Kevin (the Newfie guy!) is both on and off grid and did something like that. But it takes a much bigger investment. I’m crazy about the propane fridges. They last forever, are super reliable, and do not use that much fuel to operate. They run about $1000 brand new – not bad. I have seen travel trailers with solar panels. I think it would work the same way, just on a much smaller scale – but perhaps even more simple if your trailer runs directly from 12V of the batteries. That way you wouldn’t need the inverter. I bet there is a ton of info out there on this, I think Bob would find it fascinating, so I’ll put him on it and have some answers for you when we see you this summer!

  5. Thank you! I look forward to learning all about it and I’m sure Ron will, too. He’s really the one in the family who thrives on knowing how things work!

  6. […] know.  We know where our power comes from (if you have an other few minutes, please see the post Power from the Sun). We know where our water comes from. And if we run out of either power or water, we have no one to […]

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