*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

by Ben N on 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 had to do that since last March!

On the other hand, the bill is lower than what most people in my area pay. Lets take a look at the numbers.

My usage was net use of 590 kWh from the power company. That’s how much power I bought from them even counting the power I SENT from my solar panels. On my actual electric bill, it doesn’t state specifically how much power I sent out. Even if it did, that still wouldn’t account for power created by the solar and then directly used at my house. (If it’s sunny out AND I’m charging my electric car, the power essentially goes right into the car, it’s not tracked at the meter!)

So, I went to the Enlighten software and ran a custom production report for the time period covered by my bill. That gave me a number of 278 kWh produced by may panels in that time. Adding the 278 kWh to the net 590 kWh gives me a total of all electricity used in my household of 868 kWh!
Wow! That’s a lot, almost exactly the current U.S. Residential average!*

I usually try to be BETTER than average, but winter means running the furnace blower more, having lights on longer, and even holiday entertaining. We’ve also been using the electric car more, and the preheat feature (while it is nice to hop into a warm car!) DOES use more power!
(Unfortunately, a project truck parked in the garage right now means I can’t keep the Mitsubishi iMiEV parked in-doors.)

So, what does that 868 kWh cost me?
Power cost at my house is actually very close to national averages, so it works out nice for comparing cost across the country.
If I simply paid the average ($0.1289) per kilowatt times 868, that would be $111.89.

Instead, my cost was reduced by a $15.87 for solar power produced in previous months and a reduction of 278 kWh for solar produced this month, bringing my final bill down to $57.30.

Solar saved me about HALF on my electric bill!

These numbers can vary quite a bit throughout the year, as available sun and electric use change depending on the season. I designed my system so that ON AVERAGE through the year, it should more or less cover how much electricity I use.

Even if I have a December electric bill, that’s covered by the fact that I didn’t have an electric bill at all for the entire spring and summer!

I also ran the lifetime production numbers at the end of last month for energy created for all time with the system. It’s still on track for paying for itself in 6.5 years. That means I hit my simple economic Return On Investment (ROI) in only 5 more years!

Take a look at my solar production anytime you want to at: https://enlighten.enphaseenergy.com/public/systems/PqBp1213167

That’s it for now! We’ll see you next month for the January 2019 Electric Bill!

-Ben

PS: Snow really hasn’t been an issue. We’ve had very little total snow so far this year. CLOUDY days are a problem. In my area, we often have days where the sky is just a solid gray and you can’t even see where in the sky the sun is, reducing power production to almost zero.

*2017 U.S. National Monthly Average Residential Electric Use.
Data from forms EIA-861- schedules 4A-D, EIA-861S and EIA-861U
https://www.eia.gov/electricity/sales_revenue_price/pdf/table5_a.pdf

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Electric Truck Camping

by Ben N on 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, dropping this into the bed of an electric pickup truck would be the easy way to do it! As a matter of fact, I happen to have an electric pickup sitting in my garage…

Of course, batteries have a limited range (still) compared to gas and diesel fuel tanks. However, a decent sized battery pack, a CHAdeMO or CCS quick charge connection, and the ever increasing network of public electric car charging stations would mean this could actually be a practical way to see the country…

If one doesn’t mind a meandering pace, anyways.

I’ve already done some electric camping with my Mitsubishi iMiEV as the tow vehicle for a Teardrop Trailer. The rear-wheel drive pulls great, and the regenerative brakes stop the car and trailer better than friction brakes ever would!

A friend of mine drove his Tesla Model S with a teardrop out to the Grand Canyon and back. Another friend of mine built his own camping trailer specifically for electric cars and now tows it with his Tesla Model X! Tesla itself has showcased the Model X by towing an Airstream out to various events.

Campgrounds and RV parks are actually pretty ideal for EVs. RV’s often use a NEMA 14-50 connector for power. That’s the same type of 240V outlet I use in my garage for daily EV charging. I also used State Parks as charging stops for my modified Vectrix on my 1,200+ mile all-electric motorcycle trip around Lake Michigan.

While I wouldn’t mind a Tesla Model X pulling a trailer or a Rivian high-end pickup, those options just clearly aren’t in the financial picture for me. But a 20 year old electric truck with an almost 50 year old bed camper? Hmmm… Intriguing.

What do you think? How long will it be before we can have REAL electric Recreational Vehicles?
Leave a comment, let us know!

-Ben Nelson

PS: I realize that those truck campers are usually designed for “full-size” trucks and the Ford Ranger EV is a “compact”. However, as somebody who has built a camping trailer from scratch, I’m pretty confident I could simply modify an existing truck camper or build one inexpensively from scratch.
Aerodynamics is a different subject, but it’s also one more good reason to just drive a little slower!

PPS: Some comments on social media got me thinking about Lloyd Kahn’s TINY HOMES ON THE MOVE. I’ve met Lloyd a few times. He’s a VERY interesting guy and has a number of fantastic books, but TINY HOMES ON THE MOVE is specific to camping trailers, truck-houses, bus conversions, even houseboats. All of those things sound like they could work SO WELL with electric! Check out his book. https://amzn.to/2RGjfRW

One last thought!
How could I forget about the pop-up Nissan NV200 electric camper! I guess it’s probably because we can’t even get the electric version of the NV200 in the States, let alone the camper van version of it! Maybe I can see one if I ever visit Spain!

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Electric Truck Range Testing!

by Ben N on 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 a person test various parameters. One of those is total battery pack voltage.

Unlike the first time, I could now keep my eye on the total voltage while doing a test drive. I’m also trying to figure out exactly how the instrumentation on the truck works. For Lead-Acid batteries, voltage is generally a pretty good proxy for state of charge. However, the “Miles to Empty” and “F to E” gauges on the truck don’t seem to exactly follow the voltage. Perhaps it checks the voltage while under load? Maybe there’s a watt-hour meter involved? I don’t know exactly, but it sure would be nice to have an ACCURATE sense of how far the truck can travel!

So, I set up the camera, plugged in the computer, and went for a ride. In the end, I drove the truck 17.2 miles! Not a tremendous range, but better than the 12 miles of the first trip!

After making it back home, I plugged in the truck to charge. By tracking the power used to recharge, and dividing by miles driven, we can calculate the efficiency in Miles Per Kilowatt-Hour or watt-hours per mile. Unfortunately I think the efficiency will be poor, due to the fact that the batteries appear rather worn.

I’ll let you know the efficiency once the truck is charged up!

-Ben

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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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Ford Ranger EV

December 10, 2018

In December, 2018, I had an opportunity to get a FACTORY-BUILT electric pickup truck! This was a 1998 Ford Ranger EV. Back at that time, GM had built the EV-1 and there were other factory-built electric vehicles on the road. Those included electric versions of the Chevy S10 and the Ford Ranger. An owner in […]

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Tire Rack

December 1, 2018

Recently, some friends were posting on social media about best practices for storing tires, and mentioning various racks to hold them. While I would normally try something like this as a DIY project, the price was right, so I simply ordered a the rack. (Besides, one more project may have meant I wouldn’t have a […]

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Heat Hacks! Electric Blanket!

November 30, 2018

You might not believe it, but possibly one of the best things I’ve ever done to improve the heat in my car is to add an ELECTRIC BLANKET! I’ve had my Mitsubishi iMiEV electric car for a few years now. Overall, I love it. But one thing I do find lacking is the heat in […]

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