February Electric Bill

by Ben N on March 8, 2019

I just got my February Electric Bill!
But how much will I save with my solar? February not only has short days, but it’s been terribly cloudy all month as well! At least the days are slowly starting to get longer!

I got my electric bill and opened it up. Drumroll please….. $72.71! Yipes!
I’m charged for the use of 633 kWh of electrical energy. That’s the NET energy, INCLUDING what I get credited for from my solar production. If I look on the back of my electric bill and do the subtraction, I can see how much power I exported to the power company.

In this case, the power I was CREDITED with the electric company was 194kWh. But that’s not even the entire picture. Remember, if I’m using any power at all at home while the sun is shining, I simply USE that electric power and it is NOT tracked through my meter!

I went to the Enphase Enlighten software and ran a custom production report for the dates of my electric bill. Total energy produced at the inverters came to 288kWh! (You can see my live solar production HERE.)
Multiplying that by my unit cost of electricity means it would have been worth $33.66. In other words, if I DIDN’T have solar, my electric bill would have been $106.37!

Although my $72.71 is the highest electric bill I’ve seen in a year, I’d still rather save over 30% and NOT pay a $100+ electric bill! Even though I’m not making too much solar in February, it’s still saving me money.

If you want to learn more about solar, do a search through this blog. I’ve posted information about my garage and one of my favorite videos on my DIY approach to solar can be seen HERE.

Adding up all the savings so far, the garage has produced almost 12 mega-watt-hours of solar energy and is on track for a 6.5 year return on investment.

Until next time, stay charged up!
-Ben Nelson

PS: So far, the solar has produced almost 12 Mega-Watt-Hours of energy at a value of over $1,500!

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The other day, a Tesla Model 3 driver stopped by to top off his charge while visiting some nearby relatives. It was VERY cold out (-20℉ when I woke up…) The car charged at 40 amps, and I thought I’d film some THERMAL VIDEO of the car charging out in the cold!

I’m on Plugshare, which is a way of sharing and finding electric vehicle charging stations, whether commercial or private. I got a text message from Marc, who was hoping to stop by to charge his Model 3. I normally charge with a 16A Amazing-E EVSE, but would want to be able to charge the 3 faster than that! I also have a 32A GE EVSE on the other side of the garage. That with the snap-on Tesla adapter would work fine. But best of all was that I also happen to own an older Tesla universal mobile connector. That’s a very compact, portable, EVSE for Tesla which can plug into a 240V 50A electric outlet. I simply unplugged my daily charging cable, and plugged in the Tesla connector in its place.

Marc pulled up with his car, and we plugged him in. After a brief tour of my solar array and EV projects in my garage, he headed out with relatives in a different vehicle to spend the afternoon at a local lake cottage. Before leaving, he offered to pay for my electricity. When I refused it, he asked if I drink beer, and I said that indeed, I do.

The car was charging at 40A. Modern electric cars have all sorts of information on the display or on a phone app. My Mitsubishi iMiEV is more basic, so I had added a multimeter to the 50A electric outlet in my garage. I was able to track how much power and energy the Tesla used, even without looking at the dashboard or an app. It drew a fairly steady 40A for the entirety of the 3 hours the car was plugged in.

When we first plugged in, the solar array was producing 10A – a solid 25% of the power being used to charge the car! Unfortunately, the sky clouded up not too much later, so the solar energy to the car ended up being relatively low.

After charging for a good hour or so, I pulled out the thermal camera to take a look at what heat was being created and where. I’m shooting thermal images with my FLIR ONE smartphone attachment (https://amzn.to/2S90ZRv)
I started at the 50A electric outlet. That was a nice clean connection with minimal heat. Next, I looked at my “Remote Box” – a switch, contactor, power/energy display, and NEMA 14-50 electric outlet. I was surprised at how much heat was being produced right in the middle of it. That’s where the contactor is, and the full 40A would be running continuously through it. I later looked up my original order and the specs of that component. It is rated at 40/50A, so it’s the right part, but it might not hurt to have purchased one with the next higher rating.

The plug of the Tesla universal mobile connector was also rather warm. I expected that, as the end is detachable to swap between a standard electric plug and a NEMA 14-50. Being detachable means another set of contacts in close proximity to the blades that plug in to the wall.

The cord itself was slightly warm.
When viewed in thermal video, the cord stood out in stark relief against the colder concrete. In fact, I could even move the cord and see the heat after-image on the concrete of where the cord had laid.

I headed outside to take a look at the car.
The cold outside air easily dissipated any excess heat from the cord. The Tesla end of the cable looked warm, but really didn’t feel that way. The thermal camera essentially uses an auto-iris, so the warmest areas in an image are red, even if they are only a few degrees above zero. That means that the sunlight – even making something a degree or two warmer than other areas, can very much change the look of the thermal video. That’s one reason why I use the on-screen thermometer to be able to spot check the temperature in the middle of the screen.

Viewing the rest of the car with the thermal camera, I was hoping to find particular hot or cold areas. Unfortunately, I did not. I know that there is an active fan and radiator on the front of the car, but didn’t notice anything in particular. The front of the car looked slightly less cold, but that end was also facing the sun, so it’s hard to be sure.

One friend on Facebook said “Wait, you are PAYING for somebody else to use your electricity!?”
I sure was! Sharing an electric outlet is a great way to build good will and meet new and interesting people. But how much was this costing me?

I took a photo of the kilowatt-hour meter before the start of charge, and after the car was unplugged. Going from 189kWh to 218kWh means that the car used at least 29 and no more than 30 kWH. That’s the financial cost equivalent (at $0.13/kWh) of $3.77 to $3.90. I also checked later in the day and found that the solar only produced 3 kWh in that same time, subtracting a mere 39 cents from my bill! Charging somebody else’s Tesla still cost me $3-$4!

A while later, the owner returned. I heard a *clink, clink* on my front porch as a package was dropped off. I headed to the front door, grabbed my coat, and went outside to put away the charge cord and say good-bye. Just as Marc left, it started to snow.

Back inside, I had my fireplace cranking away. Nothing beats the super-cold temperatures like roaring wood heat and 75 degrees in the living room. The mysterious package turned out to be a paper bag six-pack of bottled Milwaukee Brewing Company beers. I’m not sure of the exact economic cost of the six-pack, but it’s certainly more than the addition to my electric bill.

So, I get to make new friends, learn more about charging at higher currents with electric cars, AND drink a beer.

Life is good.

Until next time, stay charged up!

-Ben

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We finally got our first really good snow-storm of winter! Five inches of thick, fluffy snow blanketed our driveway AND our photovoltaic solar panels. Should I clear the snow off the solar panels? How much more power will the panels produce? Is it worth it?

Waking up on a Saturday morning, the whole driveway was covered with snow. After clearing it, I started wondering about the solar panels. Checking the power-meter I have dedicated to the solar, I was surprised to see that even covered with snow, the panels still produced power. Only 40 watts, but hey, that’s SOMETHING!

The weather forcast for the following day predicted cold temperatures (High of 9℉, Low of -4℉) but also FULL SUN! So, should I clear the solar panels? I have a Snow-Joe brand roof rake. https://amzn.to/2RYU0dZ
It extends to 21 feet long and has a plastic blade for clearing snow from a roof.
I’m still recovering from a traffic collision last spring, and part of the injuries is a reduction in range of movement in my left shoulder. Frankly, it takes a lot of shoulder strength to use a roof rake. I was just about ready to decide NOT to clear the snow from the solar panels when my brother stopped by. I asked him, and he agreed to clear the snow from the panels.

While he did that, I set up the GoPro camera to record a time lapse.

Actually clearing the snow from the panels is a bit of work. It’s not terrible, but it’s a chore, in the same way that shoveling snow is. Normally, I’d welcome it in a “at least I’m getting some exercise in winter” kind of a way.

In the case of my particular solar setup, the 21 foot roof rake only just barely reaches the top-most row of solar panels. However, I’ve found that even clearing PART of the snow from that row allows the sunlight to get to the panel, start heating it up, and eventually cause the snow to melt enough to slide down.

This morning, the sun did come out! It was a glorious sunny day with blue skies. I took a few photos through the morning to see how much that remained of the snow would melt. The thin, icy layer left from scraping the snow quickly melted off. The big thick chunks of snow remained. As the panels heated up from the sunlight, they did eventually start sliding down, but only because most of the snow had already been removed.

By 1:00 PM, there wasn’t that much snow left. Even the snow from the top row of panels had slid down to about the middle. I pulled out the roof rake again and cleared the rest of the snow. A little while later, I checked the production of the solar panels and found that the output had more than TRIPLED just from clearing the rest of the snow!

Using micro-inverters also helps maximize production. Each panel is independent from the rest. If one panel is covered with snow, is doesn’t effect the uncovered panel next to it. In traditional serial string solar arrays, anything shading one panel brings down the production of the entire string. Usually, it’s a shadow, but the same applies to snow.

I checked my total energy production at the end of the day. We produced 13.3 kWh of energy for the day. Electricity in my area cost about 13 cents per kWh. So, multiplying the 13.3kWh times 13 cents gives us approximately $1.73! In other words, that’s the value, that’s what I got paid to clear the snow. On the other hand, if it was sunny tomorrow as well, it might DOUBLE that value. However, the weather report looks like it’s nothing but clouds and more snow for the next four days.

So, is it worth it? Was clearing the snow worth that $1.73?
I guess it depends. How bad do you want that power, and what does it take to get?

If I can stand on the ground and clear the snow and get a little exercise, that doesn’t seem like a bad deal. On the other hand, if I needed to climb onto the roof, or even stand on top of a ladder, those both offer risk of falling, maybe even a broken bone. I don’t want that for $1.73.

Probably the most motivated individual for clearing snow from a solar array might be somebody Off-Grid. In that case, it’s not the economic value of the electricity, but rather HAVING electricity or NOT! It’s also been my experience that many off-gridders use ground mount arrays, with the panels either steeply mounted, or adjustable to go to a steep tilt in the winter. Either way means more production from the low sun and LESS likelihood of snow accumulation.

What about you? Do you make it a practice to clear snow from you panels? Do you just let the sun melt it? Do you figure that production is at a minimum in the winter anyways and instead concentrate on maximizing summer energy production?

Let us know! We’d love to hear what you are doing with your solar panels in snowy winters!

Until next time, stay charged up!

-Ben Nelson

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*Not a Flamethrower

by Ben N on January 13, 2019

Last night, I got to play around with a Flamethrower!
OK. The device itself is actually named NOT a Flamethrower…

This was actually an odd promotional item by the Boring Company. I guess Elon Musk didn’t want the company to be boring, and issued these flamethrowers as a fun promotion.

A friend of mine had one on order, and it arrived in the mail a while back. He’s been a busy guy and also lives in an urban area WITHOUT a good space to play with a flamethrower – at least NOT without somebody calling the police or fire department.

I got the flamethrower on loan, and was hoping to try it out at a New Years Eve Drone Battle event. Unfortunately, that even got snowed out. Hard to get there when I couldn’t see the road!

So, finally, I had the opportunity to try out the flamethrower.

First thing was just to check out the device and read through the manual. The manual is very straight-forward. It shows how to hook up the propane bottle, adjust the valve, and fire it up. There’s also about a solid page of warning with strong suggestions such as “Do not use to light your grill.”

The Boring Company Not a Flamethrower has a stout plastic body in the design of some tactical or military type weapon. The standard 14 oz propane bottle threads to a gas grill style connector and short piece of hose before sliding into a clip on top of the gun.

Near the front of the grip is a red ignition button. It’s literally the same red button most people have on their LP BBQ grill! https://amzn.to/2skx4rc
After opening the gas valve, a small amount of propane comes out the end of the barrel. Clicking the red button causes a spark, igniting the gas. An “idle” adjustment allows the user to adjust how large the flame is which burns continuously at the end of the barrel.

Once lit up, pulling the trigger releases the full flow of propane and creates the fire blast.

We headed out to some private property which already had a bonfire ring. We also had a large fire-extinguisher and several 5-gallon buckets of water.

After remembering to adjust the idle valve, the flamethrower fired up.
Right away, it made some nice large blasts, but the size and power of the flames seemed to diminish as we used it. The change in pressure from any pressurized gas tank will cause a drop in temperature. We noticed the propane tank frosting up. We took a break for a few minutes to let the tank warm up again.

I also noticed a few times that there was some liquid spray coming from the end of the barrel. I can only assume that was liquid propane. Using a regular torch, common practice is always to keep the end of the tank UP. I don’t know if the horizontal orientation of the tank was less than ideal.

While it was fun to test the flamethrower with some blasts in the air, I really wanted to try it in practice against a real target. Ahead of time, I had grabbed a Christmas tree off the curb that somebody was throwing out. I propped it up in the bonfire ring. It was a six foot tall tree, and looked very fresh. I was a little concerned that perhaps it wouldn’t burn well, because of how green it was.

Boy, was I wrong.

Flaming the tree, it quickly lit, and then took off with a life of its own.

While I was standing in front of the camera, the direction of the wind changed and the full force of the flames came my way. Yipes! That’s one good reason for wearing a sturdy natural fiber work-coat! I was standing far enough away, but it’s still startling if it catches you off-guard!

We extinguished the flames. (Another fun thing to do. If you ever get the opportunity to do fire extinguisher training, do it.)

While the tree was burnt down just just the central trunk, I still wanted to test out my own LP Burner. A few years ago, I built a burner designed for use with a small forge for blacksmithing. I never got around to building the forge itself.

We hooked up the burner to a 20# LP tank and lit it. The torch burns hot and blue. It looks more like a rocket engine, whereas the Not A Flamethrower is an orange fire blast.

We didn’t have much flammable material left (especially any that WASN’T covered with Dry Chemical…) but still fooled around with toasting the tree. The burner was created with a TOTALLY different intent than the Not A Flamethrower. It’s much less impressive to watch, but does a great job of making hot, concentrated heat for metal-working. It’s also great for burning weeds!

Playing with the Not A Flamethrower was a blast. Literally.
It’s not the sort of thing I’d play with every Saturday night, but sure was fun just to try out once! I was really surprised at how fast and hot the Christmas tree went up. That really makes me re-consider the safety of having one of those at home in the first place!

While we did have fun playing with the device, safety first! For real, if you do want to go play with fire, be safe about it – open space, handy water, fire-extinguisher, watch for wind, and use uncommon sense.

Do you or a friend have a Not a Flamethrower? How did you like it? Let us know!

-Ben Nelson

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Solar vs Snow!

by Ben N on January 12, 2019

I love my solar panels, but how much power do they produce when covered with SNOW!?
Since we’re now going into our SECOND winter with solar, let’s find out!

First off, YES! Solar panels DO make more power when they are cleared of snow! As you can see in the first video, clearing the snow has an immediate effect of allowing the panels to make more power. It’s also interesting that the panels still covered with snow do produce SOME power. Although it’s greatly reduced, some sunlight makes it through the snow.

Just based on those numbers, it seems like it should be a “no-brainer” to always clear the solar panels immediately after a snow-storm. But it’s actually more complicated than that. Through both weather records and personal observation, I can see that in my area, snow-storms are usually followed by days of VERY HEAVY CLOUD cover. I’ve recorded days as low as .21kWh of total production just from it being cloudy!

One kilowatt-hour of energy is worth 13 cents to me. So, .21kWh would be the economic equivalent of LESS than three cents! The economics of a VERY HEAVILY Cloudy day are terrible. Fortunately, they tend to average out with nice days. However, those cloudy days tend to stick around right after a snow fall. Even if I clear off the snow, it might be only to collect the equivalent of 3 cents per day in energy!

On the other hand, a good, clear, bright, sunny winter day might mean I produce about 20kWh of energy. That’s the equivalent of $2.60.

RISK VS REWARD

The other consideration would be “What does it take to clear the panels?”
For a ground-mount system, it probably means just a little exercise and a push broom. It’s relatively straight-forward to clear the snow. For solar panels mounted on a roof, a person might need to use an extendable “roof rake”, stand on a ladder, or go onto the roof itself to clear the snow. This does present a risk. Slips and falls are always a risk working higher up, but they are even more exaggerated with snow and ice are involved.

SUCCESS THROUGH DESIGN

Probably the best approach to making a solar system produce well, even in a snowy winter, is to make sure it’s steeply angled. The steep angle helps prevent snow from accumulating, and easily slide off if it does.
Roof mounted panels are typically installed at the same angle as the roof, so a steep roof is ideal to help the panels shed snow.

Ground mounted panels also have an advantage in that they are sometimes designed for adjustable tilt. Twice a year, spring and fall, the owner will tilt the panels from a more flat angle to a steeper angle. The flatter angle points the panel more straight up, maximizing summer solar production. Titled to the steeper angle, the panels help with winter solar production, but also help shed snow.

MEANWHILE, AT THE SOLAR GARAGE

It’s been our personal experience here in south-eastern Wisconsin (at about 43 degrees north latitude) that clearing snow from the panels should just be based on watching the weather report. If the snow will be followed by days of solid clouds anyways, it’s not worth doing at all. If the snow fall will be followed by sun, but not too cold, the sun will melt the snow enough for it to slide off.

Only in the case of snowfall, followed by COLD and SUN is it worth actively clearing the snow. The cold weather makes sure the snow stays in place, preventing it from sliding off. And it sure would be a shame NOT to capture that sun the few days that we have it in the winter!

Ideally, I would have liked our solar array to be mounted steeper. However, it was roof-mounted, and the local building codes and ordinances prevented us from building the garage roof any steeper. As it is, the final slope of the garage is just shy of 30 degrees. On a previous solar experiment, I mounted a solar panel to my daughter’s clubhouse and swing-set. The solar panel mounted to that roof is at 45 degrees. After a snowstorm and some sun, I’m often looking at both the garage and the swing-set comparing how long snow stays on them. The steeper solar panel always clears faster, but by how quickly depends on sunlight, temperature, and the quality of the snow (sticky, fluffy, thick, wet, dry, fine, etc.)

MICRO-INVERTERS

One other thing I’ve realized with snow is that it does act similar to shadows. Even a small shadow across a solar panel can significantly reduce solar production. Snow acts the same way. My system uses micro-inverters so that each panel is independent of the others. I decided on that system because I have some late-day shadowing from a neighbors trees. What I hadn’t realized is that it also helps with snow. As snow is melting off the panels, it might cover certain panels, but not others. Since each panel is independent, the ones not covered by snow keep producing at maximum power.

I have a friend in our area who has a similar size solar system, but his is a traditional single inverter, with all solar panels connected in series. Partly blocking even one panel reduces the power of all of them. After a snow storm, my solar consistently outproduces his.

OUR TAKE-AWAY

Yes, snow can definitely reduce solar output in the winter. But we also have to keep in mind the greater weather patterns, especially in areas that get extreme winter clouding. Smart design, such as steeply angled panels and micro-inverters help passively maximize solar production.

Manually clearing snow is certainly possible, but a person also needs to think about the risk and reward of it. I’d be happy to get a little outdoor winter exercise standing on the ground and clearing snow with a roof rake AND collect $2.60 per day in energy. I’m much less likely to want to stand on a ladder or climb a roof in the cold, and risk injuring myself to earn a measly 3 cents!

If you live in an area with regular winter snowfall and are considering installing solar, go for it! Just keep in mind what we’ve just mentioned about snow. Of course, it can make a big difference whether you live in Chicago, IL versus Buffalo, NY, so you always want to design your system as appropriate for your area!

To learn more about our solar garage: LINK
See how much power we are making, anytime, at the public data.

Until next time, stay charged up!

-Ben Nelson

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December Electric Bill

January 10, 2019

I just got my December electric bill! What will it be this month? December is notoriously cloudy in my area, and has the fewest hours of daylight of the year. Is this the electric bill I’ve been dreading? Let’s open it up! Unfortunately, I have to actually PAY an electric bill this month! I haven’t […]

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Electric Truck Camping

January 8, 2019

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of “For Sale” items popping up on Facebook, including one that intrigued me – an old-fashioned Truck Camper. This particular one was a 1971 model year, in overall good condition, and going for only $500. What would it take to build an ELECTRIC RV? As far as I’m concerned, […]

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Electric Truck Range Testing!

December 31, 2018

After some disappointment in the original range testing of the factory-built electric Ford Ranger EV, it was time to try again! I did a little work on the truck, cleaning and testing the accessory 12V battery and learning about the “Star” tester that came with it. The hand-held computer communicates with the truck and lets […]

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The Long Shadow – Winter Solar Shading

December 17, 2018

We’re coming up fast on the winter solstice! It’s been sunny the last few days, a nice change to all the cloudy weather we have had for so long! However, the sunny weather also reveals the LONG shadows cast this time of year! My garage does NOT have IDEAL solar access, but it’s pretty good. […]

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November Electric Bill

December 15, 2018

I recently got my November electric bill, but set it off to the side until I had the chance to open it on camera. Since installing solar, my electric bill has often been NEGATIVE, but with the bad weather and short days, what would it be this month!? After opening the bill, I saw that […]

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