Garage Update Feb 9 2017

by Ben N on February 9, 2017


Time for a Garage Update!

Ross the Electrician has been over a few times lately, and got most of the rough wiring done. The downstairs is wired for plenty of wall outlets, two electric car chargers, an electric boiler, and plenty of switched outlets in the ceiling for the LED shop-lights. There will also be two outside electric outlets, one each off opposite corners. Upstairs will also have 240V power for baseboard heaters. A line of can lights runs straight down the middle of the upstairs. Those will be on a three-way switch, so they can be flipped from upstairs or down.

IMG_3195The main breaker box is in, but the new extra-heavy-duty cable going to the house isn’t yet. I dug a trench the last day of above-freezing weather before winter hit. We’ll need to run the heavy cable from the garage to the house. In a separate conduit, we are going to have an RF Cable and two Cat5 networking cables. I figure that way I can have television, internet, and telephone/telecom in the garage. The best part of those LAN cables is that they have multiple small wires inside, which could be dedicated to communications, sensors, or all sorts of other things!

IMG_3202I went down into my crawl-space today to see if there was anything I’d need to move out of the way or otherwise take care of before asking the electrician to go down there. I used the mechanics’ creeper (which is left in the crawl-space for such a purpose) to scoot on my back to the north west corner of my house, where the existing garage electrical runs up into the main electric box. One thing I did see is that there already was a “Smurf Tube”, apparently put in on purpose for running future wires. However, it’s only one-inch tubing. The new garage main cable is going to be thicker than that. Perhaps the tubing itself can be used to fish up the new cable?

On the solar front, I think I’m starting to feel a bit more confident.

IMG_3146I ordered a pair of s-5! clamps and tested them out on a sample of my metal roofing. These clamps pinch right onto the seam, without going through it. So, they hold fast to a metal roof, but without requiring penetrations, flashings, or sealants. I went so far as to set up my roofing sample on end and literally stand on one foot on the S-5! Mini clamp. It didn’t budge! Dang powerful for a small block of aluminum and a set screw!

I was working in Madison yesterday. When I was done, I ended up driving right past Full Spectrum Solar. I stopped in to see if I might be able to arrange for some sort of short consultation. Project Engineer, Mike, said he had a few minutes before he had to run off to an appointment, and was happy to casually chat with me for a few minutes, answering some questions I had. Thanks, Mike!

IMG_3208I’m planning on using Iron Ridge brand racking for my solar. When I checked on their web site, I found a distributor only 17 miles away. I called up Werner Electric Supply and was able to order two pieces of racking, along with a few other small pieces of hardware. Today, I borrowed a vehicle with a good ladder rack so that I could carry home the fourteen-foot-long aluminum extrusions. Werner is a neat place to visit – all the electrical bits and pieces you could ever want, and the counter sales clerk was super friendly and helpful.

IMG_3221In real life, the rack pieces feel both more narrow and LONGER than I imagined them. The main reason why I purchased these was just to get a sense of the materials – to make sure I was getting the right components and that they would all work correctly together. It’s one thing to see a photo on a web page, it’s another to be lifting it onto a 7:12 metal roof and screwing it down. It’s the same reason you will often see me rough assembling a project in the middle of a home improvement store aisle. I want to make sure I’m getting the right parts and that they work together, BEFORE investing lots of time and money and STILL not having it right!

IMG_3206For the solar panels themselves, I’ve been looking at either Solar World 270w monos OR Helios 260 watt. Solar World is a good brand name and can be easily mail-ordered. (Shown in the photo is a Solar World 255 watt at Werner Electric.) More interesting though is that I found a lead on purchasing Helios brand panels. What’s exciting about that is they were MADE in MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN. Literally the closest solar manufacturer, only some 30 miles away from me! The downside….. they’re no longer in business. That means no warranty. I’m not too concerned about that, as there’s almost nothing to go wrong with a solar panel. (And YES, I’ll be getting a nice 25 year warranty on my micro-inverters, which haven’t been around long enough to prove themselves to the test of time.)
I’ll be able to get a bit of a discount on the Helios panels. Also, I’ll be able to go pick them up myself, saving freight charges I’d otherwise pay for mail-ordered panels.

I’m hoping to go visit the Helios dealer tomorrow and pick up one or two panels. Solar panels are NOT small. By actually having one of the panels, I can start planing around with the racking, logistics, and other issues. I did measure the back of the Prius (too far away for the iMiEV) to make sure a solar panel will fit. It will: exactly. At least, I sure hope it does when I go to pick it up!

Until next time, stay charged up!



Garage Progress, Jan 3 2016

by Ben N on January 3, 2017


What’s new since the last blog post about the garage? Glad you asked!

Here’s what we’ve been up to lately. Mostly, work on the garage has proceeded on Fridays and Holidays. We also had a cold spell there and some snow that slowed things down.

IMG_2540On the day before Christmas, we studded in and sheathed the ends of the upstairs. The end trusses are built to be open, and then are framed in for the opening of a door, window, or whatever else might go in there. In our case, there’s a single window in either end of the upstairs. We built in studs, framed out the window, covered the whole wall with the OSB sheathing, and then cut out the rough opening for the window. The upstairs felt very dark after filling in the wall, but before cutting out the window opening.

We also managed to nick the cord of the power saw while cutting. Fortunately, I had a replacement plug, wired it on, and we could keep working, even though the saw now only had a one-foot pigtail!

IMG_2624After the walls of the upstairs were done, I played around a bit with lighting. I dug up a few “clamp lamps” and clipped them to the trusses. I experimented with the spacing a bit and found that five fixtures spaced out more or less evenly did a nice job of lighting the place up. I was using 650 lumen, 8 watt, LED, BR30 bulbs. I bought them on sale for two dollars for a four pack, and the bulbs are fully dimmable. In fact, I think a dimmer switch would be rather nice. I can completely see using the upstairs of the garage as a possible guest space, and a dimmer switch up there would be nice!

Most recently, we got a lot of work done on this New Years Weekend.

IMG_2659Friday and Saturday were spent working on the fascia. Fascia is the outside piece of wood that covers the end of the rafters. On the gable ends, it’s the part that comes down from the roof overhang. We created the overhang by building a “ladder” – a long 2×6 which then gets short pieces of 2×6 nailed to it. This gets nailed up and under the plywood overhang directly to the building. After that, another 2×6 gets pressed up  against the “ladder rungs” and nailed to it and the plywood overhang.

On the front and the back of the building, a 2×6 is nailed across the ends of the rafters. Any rafters that are short get shimmed so that the 2×6 makes a nice straight line across the building. Needless to say, this building is pretty large, and a single 2×6 doesn’t reach all the way across any one side or the roof edge. Because of that, we had to measure and splice. That and working high in the air on ladders made all this work slow-going.

On Sunday, we finished the fascia, including installing the exterior face of the fascia, which is the finished side. This material was pre-painted, and I tried my best not to miss with the hammer when nailing it in place.

IMG_2688After that, we started to put the foam on the outside of the garage. This is 1/2″ thick urethane foam. While the r-value of the foam isn’t all that high, staggering the seams from the sheathing means it acts as a preventative to wind infiltration, and it’s a thermal break between the siding and sheathing. We had a mis-matched set of insulation, as part of the pile was close-out (half-off pricing!) at the lumber yard. When installing the foam, we did put the nice-looking matched panels on the side facing the road. No sense not to have it look somewhat nice until the siding goes on. The foam was simply plumbed and nailed on with roofing nails. It goes on surprisingly fast and actually felt like we were making some quick progress.

Next, we worked on the windows. When I mentioned on Facebook that I was installing windows, somebody asked “Have you considered Linux instead?”.  That, of course, is why I also have a photo of an Apple next to my Windows.

IMG_2696Installing windows is actually pretty straight-forward, as long as the rough opening is the right size. We just put the window in the hole, make sure it’s plumb, flush, and square,  and nail through the nailing flange on the outside of the window into the wall. A small piece of foam is stuck over the gaps in the corners not covered by the folded-out nailing flanges. We then covered the edges of the window with strips of Ice and Water Shield. These windows are Energy Star rated fiberglass double-hung.

The view from the windows is pretty good. Looking out the west window, I actually can look fairly far to the north, where the Solar Swing Set is now located. I hope that means that I can keep an eye on the Little Girl in the back yard during the summer from my garage loft.

Yesterday, we installed the skylights. SKYLIGHTS!?!? What kind of person installs skylights in a GARAGE!? Good question! If this was only a garage, nobody would. However, this building is also acting as a workshop and possibly yoga studio/writing office/secret headquarters, you name it. One way or another, the upstairs “storage space” will get some pretty regular use. Because the upstairs is sort of a long wide hallway, it doesn’t get all that much light from the ends. Skylights add plenty of light to the middle of the building.

IMG_2742To install skylights, you first have to decide where they should go. We already picked which trusses they should go between. This was roughly one-third of the way in from either end of the building, and eight feet apart. After measuring and marking, we cut 2x6s for the top and bottom of the rough openings and nailed them in place. Next, we cut through the roof with a Sawzall from the inside. That’s also the moment when you really hope you measured everything right and wonder why you just put a hole in a perfectly good roof.

IMG_2741We put up a pair of long 2x6s on roof brackets to make a place to stand for working on the skylights from the outside. Wayne and I handed the the skylights up through the hole to my Dad. We then centered them, and Dad nailed the skylights in place from the outside. He then applied Ice and Water Shield over the bottom edge of the skylight and up the side, making sure that the roofing felt was still layered correctly.

Of course, we also had a ladder set up so that he had a way to get back DOWN from the roof, now that the hole were filled with the skylights. It took longer than I thought to apply the sealing materials to the skylights, but this is one part you want done right. A properly installed skylight is a great way to let in light – an improperly installed one is a nightmare of leaks.

IMG_2773While Dad was finishing up on the roof, Wayne and I worked on the front of the garage. We framed out the garage doors the rest of the way to the proper rough opening, trimmed the plywood to size  and installed the last of the foam. After a quick lunch break, we finished all the foam by taping all the seams.

I also painted the cut ends of the fascia. The material itself is sort of a fancy OSB. Left exposed to the weather, the cut ends could absorb rainwater and swell.

At the very end of the day, the roofer stopped by to take some measurements. He told me he’d probably get the metal roofing ordered in the next day or two. I hope that also means that the roof can go on sooner rather than later. That, of course, depends on his schedule and the weather.

IMG_2781Lastly, I still need to find a paint sample of our house color. We are able to get siding PRE-PAINTED! Of course, this costs a little more, but it’s also a lot of time, work, and risk for me to be painting siding while dangling off ladders, especially at this time of year. I dug a can of paint out of my crawl-space and applied it to a piece of fascia scrap. It didn’t match at all! This color looked like a lemon compared to my house color. Why I have a can of paint this bright yellow, I’ll never know. I don’t have ANYTHING this color. I’ll have to keep digging in the crawl space and see if I have a can of the right color down there somewhere…

I’m pretty excited about the garage. Each step brings it closer to completion. Even if some days are cold and the other days are muddy.

Until next time, stay charged up!





Solar Pathfinding

by Ben N on December 17, 2016


The last two days, I was working with my friend, Kurt. Kurt and his wife, Monica, helped out on the garage a little while back when I was putting in the Pex tubing for the hydronic heat. Kurt mentioned that Monica had a Solar Path Finder. I asked if I could borrow it, and sure enough, the next day Kurt had brought it with him.

So, today, I got to use the Solar Pathfinder.

In essence, the Solar Pathfinder is an optical tool which makes a circular reflection of the trees, buildings, and other obstructions which may block your access to sunlight through the year. I used a Solar Pathfinder once before in a class, so I only needed a quick review through the manual before heading outside.

IMG_2445The device sets up on an included tripod. There’s also a bubble level to make sure it’s oriented nice and level. The first main thing to do is orient the Pathfinder due south. That’s pretty easy to do since there’s a compass built right in. It even accounts for magnetic deviation. If you are somewhere that True North and Magnetic North don’t quite line up, the compass can be adjusted to compensate for that. Where I am in the Midwest, the lines of magnetism point straight north, so I didn’t have to make any adjustments.

With the Pathfinder pointed straight south, I laid in place the piece of black paper that comes pre-printed with lines marking both the time of day and height of the sun at each month. (More than one diagram is included. I used the one that most closely lined up with my latitude.) On top of that, I placed the smoked plastic dome. Looking at the dome, I can see both the reflections in the dome AND the white markings on the paper UNDER the dome.

Looking straight down at the dome, the bubble level is right in the middle, and reflects straight back up. The edge of the dome is the horizon, with south at the top and north at the bottom. The left and right edges are the eastern and western horizons.

I outlined the trees by reaching under the dome with a white grease pencil. There’s space designed to reach through with the pencil.

Solar Pathfinder w graphics_largeAfter I had done that, I headed back inside to take a look at my tracing. The markings on the paper list what percent of the sun’s energy is in that hour during that month. I added up the percent of all the hours in which the sun was NOT blocked by trees. When the sun is highest in the sky – May, July, and June, trees only block the sun very early and late in the day. And when the sun is blocked, it’s only a very small percentage of the total daily sun energy. During those sunny months, the sun would be directly shining on my solar panels 92% of the time.

April and August give me 84% of the maximum solar energy.

Spring and fall, the numbers aren’t quite as good. A row of maple trees (belonging to my next door neighbor) blocks the sun in the late afternoon. Of course, a month like March will be a little better than September. In March, there aren’t any leaves on the trees yet, whereas in September the leaves haven’t fallen off yet. By October and February, I’m only getting 75% of the maximum solar energy.

In December, solar is at it’s absolute worst. The sun is just SO low in the sky that shadows stretch impossibly long. According to the Pathfinder, I might be down to as little as 25% of my maximum solar. The only upside is that all the trees in view are deciduous, (other than that pine tree right in the middle,) so at least there’s no leaves on them in the winter.  Then again, by February, that pine tree no longer reaches the garage. It’s also this same time of year that it’s completely possible for the solar panels to be simply covered with snow, producing essentially NO solar energy.

Solar-Pathfinder_sunnyThe important thing to remember is that MOST of the solar energy comes from the middle of the day and the summer season. So, do I have perfect solar access? No, I don’t. Ideally, you almost want to be in the middle of an empty field. I’m in a neighborhood, but at least I don’t have a great big tree right next to my garage! (Anymore.)

The other thing to remember is that I made this Solar Pathfinder tracing from THE GROUND. While my solar panels will be on the ROOF of the garage, I couldn’t figure out any convenient and safe way to do that at the moment, while we are in a brief pause between two snow storms. With the solar panels higher in the air, they will be LESS effected by the shadowing objects. If you look at the video I shot the other day, there’s clearly some times where shadows fall on the front of the garage (where the Solar Pathfinder was) but not on the ROOF of the garage.

The Solar Pathfinder didn’t really tell me too much new. I already knew that I’d lose some energy in the afternoons in the summer because of my neighbor’s tree-line. I also knew that the distant pine tree could reach the garage during those shortest days of the year. Using micro-inverters will help somewhat with shading in that only the shaded panel will stop producing energy. The others will keep producing power.


Ben’s Garage: Winter Solar Access

by Ben N on December 14, 2016

The rough shell of the garage is now up! We got the roof boards and felt on just before the first major winter storm of the season. Since then, a cold front has moved through. While that DOES drop the temperature (single digits F. right now,) it also means CLEAR skies! It’s cold, but sunny!

So, how much sunlight will I ACTUALLY get on the solar panels on the roof of the garage in the winter? Not only are there fewer hours in the day, but the sun is SO low in the sky that shadows stretch unnaturally long.

The winter solstice is only a week away, and it was sunny out, so I thought I would test the ACTUAL solar conditions by filming a time-lapse video of the roof of the garage. I set up a step-ladder about 20 feet back from the garage and put a camera on it to shoot a still image every thirty seconds. What resulted was a video showing EXACTLY how shadows will fall on the garage roof.

DCIM100GOPROMost notable was the shadow of a pine tree in my front yard. That clearly sweeps across the garage roof. The upside of this is that it looks like it only swings past the lower third of the roof. I’m planning on installing 21 solar panels, in three rows of seven panels across. That shadow shouldn’t effect the top two rows of solar panels.

Secondly, I also noticed some deciduous tree branch shadows. I’m afraid to say that I really don’t know how much of a negative effect those shadows will have. They are thin and spread out.

Lastly, the largest and most distinct shading is very late in the day, when the shadow of the peak of my house infringes on the garage solar access. At first, just the peak of the roof reaches the corner, but then most of the garage roof ends up getting covered. The one upside of this is that it IS late in the day. It’s only about the last hour of daylight that the house shadow blocks the garage. By this time, the sun is so low in the sky that the solar panels would be producing minimal power anyways.

The main thing that I would like to point out is that this shading is the WORST CASE SCENARIO. Essentially, we are seeing how much sunlight shines on the garage during one of the SHORTEST DAYS, when the sun is about as LOW IN THE SKY as it ever is, and SHADOWS are LONGEST.

The rest of the year, there are many more hours of daylight, and the sun is much higher in the sky.

IMG_2418My plan for solar is to have 21 panels of the 60-cell variety in a grid of 3 rows of 7 in a portrait orientation. Each panel will have it’s own grid-tie micro-inverter. This will produce a faceplate value of over 5,000 watts. In my area, we average 4 to 4.5 hours of peak sunlight per day. This should produce a year-round average of about 600 kWhs of electrical energy. My running 12-month average for electrical use is 563 kWh. So, on paper at least, installing 5,000 watts of solar on my roof SHOULD bring me an annual NET ZERO electrical use! That’s for all the power of running my house AND charging an electric car.

Of course, if I can fit a little MORE solar than that on the roof, I’d certainly like to. That would help produce additional energy to offset converting the natural gas furnace and water heating to electric or adding an additional plug-in car in the future.



Ben’s Garage: Raise the Roof!

by Ben N on December 10, 2016

Today, we put the roof on the garage!

Planning was interesting, because the big weather forecast was for a large snowstorm to be coming in. Fortunately, it shouldn’t start until near the end of the day.

We weather was cold but clear as we got started – about 15 degrees F., but sunny. The first thing to do was build a scaffold to work from. Once we had the plank up, it gave us a place to stand to set our first piece of plywood, make sure it’s centered and squared, and then nail it.

IMG_2366All sheets of 5/8th” plywood run horizontal, and the trusses are on two foot centers. Steve and Josh stopped over, and it wasn’t too long until we were rolling right along, lifting sheets of plywood onto the roof and nailing them in place. We were really just nailing all the corners. Once all were in place, we went through with the nailing gun and put a nail about every six inches. That plywood ain’t going nowhere! (Laugh all you want, but there’s going to be a LOT of solar panels on this roof, and I want them to survive 100 MPH wind…)

(PHOTO: Josh takes a break to tune a guitar. I got a tiny used guitar for my daughter as a Christmas present. Josh plays, and was happy to tune it for me.)

Once all the plywood was down, we laid down the felt. This is actually a modern synthetic material. Instead of starting from the bottom, as would be typical, we started from the top and worked our way down. That way, we didn’t have to step on the felt. The roof was steep enough to merit cleats when we were laying down the plywood. Trying to walk up the roof on slippery synthetic material did NOT seem like a good plan. The only downside to this was that we needed to leave the bottom edge of each roll loose to tuck the next layer under as we retreated down the roof.

Try as I may, I personally wasn’t that useful on the roof. Ever since the notorious “Ben’s Ankle vs the Electric Motorcycle Incident of 2012″, my left ankle doesn’t flex the correct direction for walking uphill on roofs. Instead, I mostly kept busy lifting plywood to the roof, reloading the nailing gun, and moving lumber.

Once we completed the south side of the roof, we took a break for lunch (Sloppy Joes!) and to warm up.

Then, it was back to work, moving the scaffolding to the back of the building. Steve stuck around, but Josh had to go. Fortunately, I had Fred lined up for the afternoon, who had just showed up.


The north side seemed to go a little quicker. All the minor adjustments on the south side make everything line up better on the north side. It was mostly just lifting plywood, flopping it down, and nailing it. The time lapse video ran out just before finishing the felt on the north side.

At the end, I was down on the ground, pushing lumber around and moving materials to INSIDE the garage. That’s right… INSIDE! With the floor already in of the upstairs, and now a ROOF in place, the garage is more or less closed up. (Not that it has doors or anything, mind you…)

As a finishing touch, Wayne and I strung up my single spare strand of LED Holiday Lights on the east gable end, which faces the main road. Instant Festive!

The other guys went inside for pie and coffee. As I finished sweeping the driveway, the first snowflakes started to fall. We had beaten the storm.

I tucked the car into the garage, hoping for plenty of snow, feeling perhaps a little smug that we got the roof on. Even without garage doors, or hydronic heat, or actual roofing, my car somehow seems a little warmer being in the garage, and under a roof.

Until next time, stay charged up!