First SOLAR Electric Bill

by Ben N on August 4, 2017

I was pretty excited today to get my electric bill.

No, I’m not usually excited to get bills in the mail, but this one was different. This will be the first electric bill with a FULL MONTH of solar production on it.

Last month’s bill, which included about two weeks worth of solar power, was substantially lower than the previous month, but I still had no idea how much savings I would earn.

So, my electric bill was…. (drum-roll please……)

NEGATIVE $40.54!

The power company owes me!

Two months ago, my electric bill was over $90. This month, it’s negative $40! I’m liking this!

Of course, solar production will be less in the winter, so I can’t expect these types of numbers every month. Still, I planned the system so that it would average out over the year to produce right around the same amount of power which we consume. On average, we will have NET ZERO electrical energy use!

Since I now have a full month of solar data, I can also start comparing the real-world numbers against my original estimates. I pulled up my original PV Watts estimate and compared it to how much I actually produced. Production was 5% ABOVE the estimate! I love that I’m above the estimate, but also glad to see I’m not too far off. Estimates are only really handy if they are at least close!

We’ll see what next month brings, but for now, I’d say that solar is off to a GREAT start!

That’s money in my pocket, and coal left in the ground!

Until next time, stay charged up!



Bye-Bye, iMiEV

by Ben N on July 30, 2017

This weekend, I said good-bye to the iMiEV.

Nope, not the white one, but the old purple one, which you probably haven’t heard about in a while…

If you’ll recall, a few years back I purchased an iMiEV through an auto salvage auction. I was really hoping to be able to fix it and get a great deal on an electric car. Long story short, the car was shot, with the Atlantic Ocean literally falling out of the battery pack. The upside is that I later purchased my daily driver, the white iMiEV, and would then have a source of parts for it.

IMG_5836In fact, I already pulled the mirror off the purple car when I smashed off my passenger side mirror in the parking lot of the Milwaukee Makerspace. (That is NO PLACE for a telephone pole!) I’ve also sold off the rims and tires and a few interior parts of the car, which helped recoup some of the money I spent on it. (Although it still was a money pit!)

So, earlier this summer, I met “Pdon” (just like Don, only with a P at the begining) who was interested in purchasing the purple car in entirety, as he has TWO Mitsubishi iMiEVs and his brother has a third. We made arrangements, and finally had a date where both of us could get together to make the sale and get the car out of my driveway.

IMG_5813The day before, I cleaned out the inside of the car, which had become defacto storage space. The Little Girl also gave me a hand washing it. After the quick car wash, it was looking brand new again, and was sort of making me regret losing the car, but I haven’t been making use of it, and I’d love to get the space back in my driveway. I did a little bit more work on the car, such as reinstalling the fender plastic liners. While I was doing that, the Little Girl decided that she would also be an electric car mechanic and set to work on her Solar PowerWheels Jeep. (We are now in Generation 2 of the Solar Power Wheels. See how we built the original one HERE.)

I had also agreed to purchase from a friend his entire lot of ElecTrak electric lawn and garden equipment. The guy was clearing out his barn and wanted it all gone. That left me needing to make a trip out with my iMiEV pulling the 12-foot cargo trailer and loading it up in the guys’ barn before trying to get home in time (and making it on one charge!) to sell the purple iMiEV.

IMG_5831On my way back, I saw some electric cars that I recognized. The Watertown High School Electrathon team was holding a fund-raiser, selling bratwurst, at the local meat market. I stopped in to say hello to the instructor, Jesse, and see what the students were up to. A few years ago, leant a hand to the team by doing some consulting and loaning out some equipment to the team. The students showed me their latest car, a fully-enclosed fiberglassed three-wheeler, which looked fantastic. The students also had some great comments and questions on instrumentation and telemetry about their project. In return, I showed them my electric car and the electric tractor and equipment up on the trailer.

After that, I was quickly on my way back to sell the purple iMiEV

When Pdon showed up, we lined up some heavy wood planks to his trailer. The iMiEV unfortunately can NOT steer. I was able to bust loose the ignition, but the steering still felt locked; perhaps because the electric power steering wasn’t powered up? Ahead of time, I had already put the front wheels of the car on a pair of furniture dollies, which allowed me to move the car’s steering end. The car was also in neutral, but still difficult to roll. I think that the drum brakes in the back are probably rusted up. I was able to move the car, but only by pulling it with a tow strap attached to my electric tractor.

IMG_5841Once we had the car all lined up with the ramps and trailer, we used a combination of an electric winch and chain hoist to pull the iMiEV up on to the trailer.

After exchanging money and the salvage title, Pdon was on the road, and I got to wave goodbye to the purple iMiEV.

The next day, I had one more run back past Watertown to get the rest of the ElecTrak parts, motors, battery charger, wheel-weights, and some other parts which I could fit without bringing a trailer. I backed all the way up into the barn and loaded all the gear into the back. Once packed, I said goodbye to the seller, Chris, and pulled forward out of the barn. As I did – KABAM! The car came to an instant dead stop! I backed it up a foot, then pulled forward again with the steering turned different. Theres a big concrete ledge going in to the barn, followed by a steep drop to the gravel driveway.

Sticking my head under the car, I could see what had happened. The car had dropped just exactly wrong with the concrete lip of the barn catching the underside of the car. The exact point at which it happened was the leading edge of the battery pack. Right there is a steel bracket which sticks down farther than the rest of the pack. That bracket slammed into the concrete, denting it, but otherwise causing no damage. Of any part of the car to absolutely SMASH into concrete, that was probably the best part, other than my teeth still chattering from the sudden stop.

I drove back home with no issues and the car seems fine.

IMG_5878Finally now THIS morning, I get a call out of the blue from a California phone number. It was a woman who got my phone number through PlugShare. She was traveling from Chicago to Minneapolis in a Tesla Model X and had stayed at a local hotel last night, but was only about to charge from a 120V outlet. That wasn’t enough juice to get her to the next SuperCharger (in Madison, WI.) The vehicle was also still very new to her, so she didn’t have much experience with what to expect for charge times, 120 vs 240V, or know too much about the various power adapters. I gave her directions to my place, and not too long later, a bright red X pulled up.

IMG_5880We hooked her up to my NEMA 14-50 outlet with the Model X charging at 40 amps. While the car charged, we chatted and I gave her the quick tour of the garage and the solar system.  The car charged for a little over an hour. Although 40 amps is a whole lot more power than my solar panels can produce, the solar is making power all day. Two hours of solar today should completely cover charging the Tesla.

So, there you have it. Just a typical weekend of electric cars at my house; Transporting Electric Tractors, meeting High School Electric Car Builders, loading disabled parts cars onto trailers, smashing my car, and solar-powering Teslas!

We’ll see what the afternoon brings!

Until next time, stay charged up!



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.”