Game of Drones!

by Ben N on June 26, 2017

I’ve been wanting to get some video of the garage solar panels from a drone. However, I don’t own one, so I just threw out on social media “Hey, anyone have a drone they could bring over?”

My friend, Teng, who I know through Drive Smart Wisconsin (originally Milwaukee Hybrid Group) said that his brother had one and that he’d bring it over.

IMG_5428Teng stopped out in his bright blue 2017 (Gen 2) Chevy Volt, so we got his car plugged in right away to suck up some solar electrons while he was here. Unfortunately, the weather quickly turned windy and cloudy. The solar panels still make power (although not as much) when it’s cloudy outside, but it certainly didn’t make for good photography.

We did snap a few photos of our cars in front of the garage when the sun did peak out, but the wind certainly made it hard to get good video footage. Also, neither of us really had experience flying a drone before, and on top of that, the auto-focus didn’t always work right!

So, we really didn’t get too many good video clips from the drone, but it was still plenty of fun and a good experience.

I also hadn’t driven a second generation Volt yet, so we got to go out for a ride, with me driving, and the Wife and the Little Girl both piled in the back seat. The Little Girl commented that the car “smells like Jenna’s van”. I had to let her know that’s what people often call the “New Car Smell”!

IMG_5447We went for a spin, and I easily got over 100 MPGe, without even trying. I also tried the adaptive cruise control. It’s a strange feeling letting a machine adjust the speed on the freeway automatically like that, but it works great. Overall, the gen 2 Volt is a very nice car.

While at my house, we put about 5 kWh of power into the Volt. Teng had plugged in to my NEMA 14-50 wall jack with an adapter, running the portable “Level 1″ EVSE on 240 volts. That 5 kWh of energy is worth about 20 miles of all electric travel and let Teng drive back home on all electric with a few miles to spare.

Flying the drone may have been somewhat of a bust, but it’s always nice to see friends and take cars out for test drives!

Until next time, stay charged up!




by Ben N on June 24, 2017


What does LEGACY mean? To some, it might be computer software that still needs to be supported, even though it’s old. To others, it might be something you think about with retirement planning. To me, it’s always just meant what we leave behind, our footsteps in the sand.

This last week, I had plenty of time to think about legacy, as we dropped everything and hopped in the car for a 2,000 mile+ road-trip to New York State and back for my wife’s grandmother’s funeral.

IMG_2112Caroline Yawney was 99 years old when she died. She outlived her husband, her son, and nearly everyone else of her generation. She was a feisty old Polish lady who smoked most of her life and knew that no recipe ever had enough butter in it.

With her age, death was expected. None of us were surprised at that. The funeral was a small gathering of family. It was always good to see everyone, despite the circumstances.

Beyond the funeral, it was mostly stories from relatives.
Whether family tales with an uncle over a beer in the hotel lobby late at night, or the actual eulogy itself, it was all stories.
Stories of making ethnic foods. Stories of childhoods and what it was like to grow up with her as a mother. Thanks to modern technology, the dearly departed could even tell her own story. An uncle had filmed Grandma Caroline with his smart-phone, and asked her about some tales from her past. Right there, over cold-cuts and coffee at the wake, we were able to hear the shocking story of a Great Aunt’s shotgun marriage. Something I had never heard before, and never would have without that iPhone and some fore-thought.

An aunt made the famous Chocolate Cake that Grandma was known for. Even without the woman, the recipe survives and we could literally eat that legacy.

Beyond that, there was only three boxes of posessions at the nursing home, including the flag from my father-in-law’s military honors at his funeral, plenty of rosaries, and family photos.

My wife once asked her grandmother what it was like to live in the world today. After all, Grandma was born nearly a century ago, and it’s been the greatest century of change the world has ever known. Cars, computers, airplanes, telephones. Grandma replied “I don’t even recognize the world any more.”

But there’s plenty of things that do stay the same: family, traditions, and story-telling.

IMG_5327Our daughter got to meet many relatives for the first time. Plenty of them already knew her through social media and online photographs, but finally got to see her in person. We also met my brother-in-law’s family there, who has a daughter the same age. It’s both strange and wonderful to see young children at a funeral. They don’t fully understand everything, and yet they sometimes seem to make more sense of it than the rest of us do. It’s good to see that even while someone passes away, that the family carries on. Cue the music, recall the scene in THE LION KING where the lion cub is held up by the monkey, but it’s all true, even though it feels cheesy to actually say so. The circle of life, and all that…

IMG_5343Besides the situation of the funeral, it was neat to be in upstate New York. Just last weekend, I was showing off my General Electric Elec-Trak lawn and garden tractor at the MREA Energy Fair. Stamped right on the tractor is “Made in Schenectady, NY” – the exact town we were visiting. In fact, both my wife’s father AND grandfather worked their entire careers for G.E. Unfortunately, I didn’t even know what an Elec-Trak was until after they had both passed away. Perhaps they worked in that exact building, or were best friends with somebody who worked on that very assembly line. I wish I had those stories. It’s too bad that I’ll never know. Still, I feel a certain kinship with my wife’s departed family members every time I mow the lawn, on a legacy piece of equipment, built before I was even born.

IMG_5365On our ride home, we got to stop at the Triple Cities Makerspace, in Binghampton, NY. The collaborative workspace is a place for hobbyists creators, but they also have a huge emphasis on teaching and public education, including a dedicated classroom at the space. It was a pleasure to speak with Steve there about the origins of their space, and the story of what it took to make happen. Like the Milwaukee Makerspace, the story was one of people working together, wanting to share and learn and make.

Every day, we all make our own legacies. I try what I can, learning, teaching, sharing. Even at the Triple Cities Makerspace, the Little Girl set to work building an “invention” in the craft lab. She was making it from shoe-laces, tracings of maple leaves, rubber bands, and a golf tee. In the end, it became a pretty cool tie-on sandal. I hope that her view of the world is part of my legacy.

In the end, all we really have is stories. Whether those are stories of great-grandparents, stories of road-trips and electric lawn mowers, or the stories we create living our lives every day.

It’s our story. Let’s make it a good one.



MREA Energy Fair 2017, Custer, WI

by Ben N on June 19, 2017


(Editor’s note: Unforeseen circumstances prevented this post from being immediately written after the fair. This post was written 7/1/2017, but posted as though it was directly after the June 16 to 18, 2017 Fair.)

I gotta say, the ENERGY FAIR WAS AMAZING!!!

And to be clear, I wasn’t blown away by attendance, but rather by ENTHUSIASM. There are some GREAT people doing AMAZING work out there, and the Energy Fair is one of those places where you can talk DIRECTLY to those people, whether it’s at one of the many professional presentations, at a vendor booth, or just over a beer…

I headed up to the Energy Fair this past Thursday with my G.E. Elec-Trak in tow on a trailer. I showed off the tractor and an electric mini-bike conversion in the clean transportation car show. One thing that made me feel more like a part of the event than ever before was that I was there the previous weekend, installing electric vehicle charging stations. I also made it up in time for the kickoff Thursday evening dinner, which included a moving memorial to energy pioneer and HOME POWER publisher, Richard Perez.

IMG_5240The Car Show was amazing! We made plenty of good use of the car chargers, as we were packed with over 30 Teslas, 2 Chevy Bolts, (the first time I’ve ever seen one in person,) plenty of Volts, Leafs, Focus Electric, a Mitsubishi iMiev (not mine) and even a Spark EV. My buddy, Ryland, was showing off his home-brew Electric Motorcycle, and there were electric bicycle vendors there as well. Saturday evening featured JB Straubel, co-founder and Chief Technical Officer of Tesla.IMG_5253 He had a great keynote, although I had to see that from the far back end of a VERY full tent. The Tesla enthusiasts did a great job organizing a rally that day with a special “Tesla Only” parking area and some fun group photos. Personally, I love how Teslas seem to have a pretty high ratio of custom license plates. I made sure to snap photos of a few fun ones.

For me, camping at the “Back 40″ campground has also become part of the experience. This campground is nearby and run by the fair. Many volunteers, vendors, and presenters stay there, often huddled at the “Coffee Bean” trailer early in the morning for caffeine and conversation. I love the motley array of campsites, ranging from walk-in tents, to a Geo Metro with a rope slammed in the door and a tarp thrown over the rope, to a 50 foot converted Greyhound bus. I also saw a strange modern yurt that appeared to be designed especially for festival use.

IMG_5263My friend and fellow Solar-Powered Electric Car Driver, Bruce, was at the camp-ground with his home-made camping trailer. “Campy McCampface” is a foam trailer built on a custom aluminum frame, designed for light weight to be towed by an electric car. Bruce gave me a tour and I got to see the details of how he built it. With this being one of his first trips out, Bruce also let me know of a few improvements he already had in mind.

The Energy Fair is also about people, whether that’s old friends or new ones. I got to see plenty of the usually suspects, including Ryland with his electric motorcycle, Chris from Honda Motor Works, and Jeff Lindow, our favorite experimental archeologist and moonshiner!

After my Sunday presentation, a regular attendee, Ivan, gave me a hand carrying some of my items back up to where I was showcasing my tractor. He’s a bit older and I noticed him getting winded. He told me how he’s going through chemotherapy, and how crummy it makes him feel, but also how glad he was to be at the Fair. I could only commiserate. I saw the first-hand effects of chemo when my father-in-law went through multiple treatments. After all that misery, cancer got him anyways. Back at the booth, I had a nice long chat with Ivan. When we parted ways, I said “See you next year!” I was glad to hear Ivan say that he absolutely would be back.

IMG_5283We have to put a few checks in the “New Friends” column as well. Also in the car show area was a DIY Pop-Up Camper! Being a camping trailer builder myself, I had to check this one out! I talked with the owner just a little bit. (Was it John?) The trailer had a clever design. It’s basically just plywood on a Harbor Freight trailer, but folds from fairly small to full standing height and what looked like a Queen-sized bed! You can see more of the trailer on his blog:

Probably the most interesting person who I met this year is James. He showed up on a three-wheeled electric bicycle called an ELF. He’s modified his quite a bit and it tows a bicycle-sized pop-up trailer, covered with solar panels. During the day, the solar charges the batteries for the electric motor, and at night the lid pops up and he sleeps inside the trailer.
All day, James preached Love and Peace and Solar Power. James has travelled all over the country in his solar/human-powered vehicle, including to places like Standing Rock, wherever he can be of service.

IMG_5280I probably only really talked to James for about 15 minutes the whole weekend. When I left, I got a BIG HUG, in a way that was LOVING and BROTHERLY, along with words of peace. I’m not the type that goes to church regularly, but I’m a believer. I’m a big believer in what we all can do, especially when we all work together to do good. I try to do what I can, teaching, promoting, creating good things. Standing in front of me was a man who literally had LOVE tattooed on his face, and his works reflected it as well. Somehow, it just made me feel that perhaps I could and should be doing even a little more… Although probably not involving tattoos.

On Sunday, I gave my one and only presentation. Mine followed the DIY Portable Solar on a Balcony presentation, which I got to watch. Diane Cheklich did a great presentation that anyone could follow on designing small portable solar systems. Her systems have been used for both apartment-dwelling (charging her electric bike) all the way to powering audio equipment for walking tours. As an indie film-maker, she based her portable solar system in a case typically used for video and photography equipment. I got a kick out of the fact that I instantly recognized the exact case. (Nope, not a Pelican. It was a Seahorse!) See her good work at:

IMG_5271I was really looking forward to giving my presentation and was glad to see that I had a full tent! I had the projector hooked up to my iPad to show off photos from my Solar Garage Project. I launched right into the specs of my solar system and why I chose products such as those by Enphase and Iron Ridge and the advantages of finding local suppliers such as Werner Electric. I also brought lots of props with me, including pieces of the racking system, a grid-tie inverter, and even a custom demo piece of my roof. I wanted people to be able to see and feel these things in person. It’s easy to show photos and perhaps give an explanation, but I was really hoping to convey the EXPERIENCE of how I built my own solar system. People seemed to like my presentation. I got plenty of positive responses, including finding the world’s greatest evaluation form that accidentally got mixed in with my papers.

Some of the people who watched my presentation wanted MORE! I promised that I’d make a video based on my presentation. Here’s that video. I’m sorry that it doesn’t include my improvisational stories, sound effects, or props, but hopefully it includes the information that you are looking for.

The end of the Energy Fair is always bitter-sweet. It always comes too fast, and then there’s the good-bye’s, the packing up, and a bit of sunburn and fatigue. But it’s tired and sun-burned in a good way. It always feels like I’ve done something good for a few days.

Perhaps that’s the greatest appeal of the Energy Fair – being with other people who are just there to do some good. Whether you’re the CTO of a world-changing car company, a street-preacher with LOVE written all over his face, or just some guy who likes to build things and blog about it. We’re all just there to do some good.

Like I said to Ivan, “See you next year.”




See You Soon!

by Ben N on June 19, 2017


Hi folks!

First, let me say that the MREA Energy Fair this weekend was AMAZING!

We had TONS of plug-in cars, JB Straubel doing the keynote address, and of course all of the weekend workshops! My DIY Solar Garage workshop was packed! I promised a few of the folks there that I would be making sort of a “webinar” version of my presentation.

Unfortunately, we have had a death in the family, and I’ll be spending the better part of this week on the road, visiting relatives.

Blogging, making YouTube videos, and other renewable energy education work will have to wait until I’m back.

If you visited me at the Energy Fair, either at my electric lawn tractor, at my workshop, or over a beer, thank you SO MUCH for being there.

Please check back in this coming weekend for the big blog post on the Energy Fair, Photos, and the workshop webinar.

Until then, stay charged up!



PS: In the mean time, please check in on my garage solar array and see how much power it’s using.



by Ben N on June 14, 2017

Today, I was up at 4 AM for work and had a short day. As I was driving back home mid-morning, I noticed the roads were wet. We had a thunderstorm roll through my neighborhood while I wasn’t there. I saw a power utility truck at the transformer just past my backyard. It didn’t take me too long to realize that we were in a BLACKOUT! What did that mean for my SOLAR!?

Let me first say that this is RARE. I can’t remember the last time we had a blackout, other than the odd power hiccup of the power being out  for ten seconds or less. (EDIT:  The last time we had a blackout was five years ago. I specifically remember it because that summer was a crazy heat wave and I powered my house from my electric motorcycle. Here’s how I did it: Motorcycle Power Backup Link)

The other thing is that a blackout usually isn’t really a big deal. I have windows and skylights at my house, so electric lights aren’t even needed. At this time of year, it’s light at 5 AM and doesn’t get dark until after 9 PM.

IMG_5173I checked my power meter, which is digital, and saw that the display was blank. We had NO power. Of course, that means that my micro-inverters don’t produce power either! I also checked my AC disconnect. It was still in the on position. I thought that perhaps because my system is SO NEW, and a utility electrician was literally working right in my back yard, that perhaps he would have come over and thrown the switch to off. (Unnecessary, of course.)

Grid-tie inverters (including the micro-inverters I’m using) automatically disconnect the solar panels from the grid in the event of a power failure, or even if the voltage or frequency of the grid power is out of spec, such as in a brown-out situation. The micro-inverters are under each solar panel on the roof, so even if I wanted to, there’s no way to unplug the inverters from the solar panels and connect the solar panels to something else, like a DC battery charger.

Grid-tie inverters do NOT let you make power when the grid is down. This is commonly considered the biggest draw-back to this style of photo-voltaic system. There are also “hybrid” systems, which combine grid-tie and battery backup, but they are less efficient, and more expensive and complex. There is also another setup which I think is very clever. SMA Sunny Boy grid-tie inverters have available a “Secure Power” outlet. They are grid-tie systems, but in event of a power failure, the solar panels (during daylight) will still provide AC power to one electric outlet directly off the inverter. That’s one AC circuit, enough to run an extension cord to a refrigerator, a radio, and a few lights. That’s the system I would have chosen if I hadn’t gone with the micro-inverters..

So, how did the blackout effect me?
Well, pretty much not at all.

IMG_5175I used my battery-powered smart phone to communicate with the internet and could pull up my solar production information, including seeing that there WAS NO power being produced at that moment.

I was also hungry and was planning on making some coffee. Making a sandwich doesn’t exactly require electricity. On the other hand, I usually use an electric coffee pot, but without power I instead put the tea kettle on the range and match-lit the natural gas. Even without power, I can pan fry or boil water, I just can’t use the “spark-start” on the range. (The natural gas oven will not work in a blackout as it uses an electric glow bar.) In the winter, I also have my wood-stove not just as backup heat, but also available for cooking. I used my wife’s French Press to make the coffee.

I also have some battery equipment that is NOT RELATED to the solar system. Specifically my electric car AND an electric riding lawn mower.
IMG_8698My lawn tractor is a GE Electrak. These were made in the 1970′s and basically have an electric golf cart driveline. They are typically powered by six 6-volt batteries for a 36VDC system. I recently purchased some ElecTrak equipment from a friend, including a power inverter designed to run off the lawn tractor. If I wanted to, I could run an extension cord from my lawn tractor to my refrigerator or other electrical equipment.

I also have a Mitsubishi iMiEV electric car. It would be pretty easy to connect a 12V power inverter to the plug in the car. The car has a 16 kWh battery, but was at only about half charge when I got home. Even so, 8 kWh of energy is quite a bit to just run some basic power equipment.

Perhaps what’s most interesting is that just moments before I shot the cell-phone video of me talking about all this, the power came back on. I had only been home about 10 minutes total.

I could have spent thousands of dollars on a battery-based system to go with my solar panels. Perhaps if I lived further out in the country or otherwise in an area prone to common or long-duration power failures, I would have. As it is, a simple grid-tie system is the least expensive, lowest maintenance renewable energy system a person can get.

SHOULD I want something else available to me for blackouts, I still have it. Besides the batteries in the car and the tractor, I also still have the 400 watt solar panel on the Solar Swing Set. I was planning on rigging that back up to a basic DIY 48V battery system. I have no urge to run out and buy a Tesla PowerWall or any other similar system.

June 14, 2017 BLACKOUTAs I type this, I double-checked my solar panel power production. The solar panels are making power, although it’s an overcast day, so they are NOT making as much power as they could. Using the Enphase software, I could view when and how long the black-out lasted. It was 50 minutes. Looks like solar power would have been about 3 kWh during that time, so I probably missed out on producing about 39 cents worth of electricity.

Keep in mind that blackouts in my area usually happen at night or during very stormy weather. At night, the solar panels will produce no power, and during clouds and rain, PV production would be minimal. In essence, when I have a blackout, solar panels wouldn’t do me any good even if I DID have them connected to a battery system.

Would a battery-based Photovoltaic system be the right thing for you? I don’t know, that’s for you to decide. If you live in an area with unreliable grid power, and the power is out during nice sunny days, it might make the most sense. Everyone’s situation is a little different.

As for me, I’m glad I went with a straight-up grid-tie system, even if it doesn’t produce power during a blackout.

Until next time, stay charged up! (Especially during a blackout!)


P.S. Here are some of my previous experiments with solar and battery backups.