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Back to the drawing board!

Oh well … It turns out almost everything I did on my first attempt at going solar was wrong.

Wrong wire sizes, wrong lengths, wrong assumptions about how a bank of batteries should be wired … All of which made for a lot of possible failures.

Overestimating how much power I would actually be using … And more than a little good luck keeping any of those failures from happening!

So … Back to the drawing board …

The first “order of business” was to get a real metering system installed … It was time to find out what was really going on with the batteries.

I needed a “gas gauge” I could trust.

The Trimetric meters from Bogart Engineering are highly recommended by a lot of folks. … I decided to try the 2025 RV model for the project.

The 2025 is a very neat device that keeps track of the power in Amps  going in to and out of the batteries … A quick look will tell you the voltage. Press a button and you will see how much power is going into or out of the batteries. Press the button again and the meter will tell you the batteries are 87% full (… Or 18% full … It might be time to start thinking about worrying … Soon!).

In any case … More information than I could have hoped for!

The folks from Bogart Engineering have designed the meters to do a lot more … But those three things were going to answer a lot of my questions … And keep me out of trouble … For a little while at least!

Adding the meters to my “rigs” was going to take some rewiring … and some math … More on that later.

Since I was going to have to get in and do some rewiring to install the meters it made sense to go in and fix as many of my wiring mistakes as possible … My good luck was only going to get me so far!

If  you’ve been following along since the beginning you may remember my first big battery powered show having some yellow “warning” LEDs flashing on one of the inverters. The band had not gotten any louder … But something had changed … It took over a year to figure out what had happened … the power in the batteries was not getting to the inverter.

Resistance was “robbing” the system of power.

The wire I was using was too small and too long for the current that was trying to get from the batteries to the inverter … Causing a voltage drop … Causing the inverter to “ask for more power from the batteries … Causing the resistance to go up …causing more voltage drop … Causing …

It was a good thing I pulled the amplifier from one inverter and plugged it into the other inverter when I did … Or that show might have been the last!

My common sense approach was not helping at all … Luck … On the other hand … Was!

When using batteries to power something you do not want to waste anything. Leaving a 60 watt light bulb on overnight will “eat up” a lot of your battery reserve. It can be done … You just need more batteries … And solar panels to make it happen.

A little common sense would tell you … If you do not need it … Turn it off!

Common sense probably won’t tell you how much power will be wasted by using the wrong wire. Too small or too long of a wire could waste as much power as that 60 watt light bulb.

When using DC power a good “rule of thumb” is always use the largest, shortest wire you can.

So … I bought a bunch of larger wire to replace the stuff I had started the project with, ordered some meters, shunts, heavy duty buss bars, fuse blocks, fuses, lugs, heat shrink tubing … and my new favorite tool … A hand held crimper capable of hand crimping up to # 4/0 cable!

I wanted my systems to perform as well as they could … The solar powered equivalent of a finely tuned sports car as it were.

I’m afraid I’m going to be  seeing lots of 4/0 in the near future …

January, 2013 … and the Flu!

January, 2013, a book to read, some questions to answer … And the flu!

“Armed” with my trusty old iBook G4 and the second last dial up internet connection on the planet …  it was time to try “Googling”again!

(I really hope I am not that last person still on “dial up”)

It turns out there is some very good information out there … Mostly hidden in between some small scale items used to charge your cell phone or iPod … and some amazing systems even I find too incredibly good to be true … But perhaps … I’m still learning here!

Searching for solar power will overwhelm you … Narrowing the search down a bit to solar powered sound will get you a lot of neat things to play your iPod on, an interesting sound art project … And if you look far enough you will find …

Www.solarpoweredsound.com

Some nice photos of a couple of portable solar power systems being used at events … But I was not able to find out more.

A lot more searching, will get you to the North Texas Renewable Energy Group’s “Solar Shuttle” … A very impressive silent portable power generator … That happens to be solar powered … Wow!

Www.ntreg.org

They keep redesigning their web site … So you may have to look a bit.

This morning (8/25/2014) I found it in the “member projects” page under “The Solar Shuttle solar trailer” link.

Make sure you check out the link to the “PDF photo journal”

Wonderful stuff to find, but no help with finding any answers to my questions.

… Until Steve Gagnon sent me a link to Handy Bob Solar!

http://handybobsolar.wordpress.com/the-RV-battery-charging-puzzle-2/

Thank you Steve! … And Bob!

Bob has been “boondocking” … living off the grid … for years … And had to try a lot of things to get a solar power system to work on his RV.

Check out his blog … But start a fresh pot of coffee and get comfortable first … He has a lot to share with anyone willing to take the time. And if you are interested in off grid solar power … find the time. What “Handy Bob” has to say is worth it!

A lot of why someone boondocks gets lost as soon as you start up a generator … The peace and quiet of the wide open spaces is easily overwhelmed by even the quietest of internal combustion engines.

Bob seems to have his feet firmly on the ground of common sense … And what he was running into trying to set up a working solar power rig for his RV did not seem to follow what his common sense was telling him … It should work … The question was why didn’t it.

Backwards from my questions by about 180 degrees … It shouldn’t work … So why is it?

My problem was that I was overestimating what was going on … Leaving me with extra power at the end of the day … In the RV world … It seems that underestimating what was going on was leaving a lot of people with not enough power at the end of the day.

I have the easier problem to solve.

I have learned a lot … And will continue to learn  from Bob and the other folks out there who have taken the time (and spent the money) figuring out how to make off grid solar work.

Thank you all for sharing!

Now to put some of those lessons to work!

When in doubt … “Google” it!

I obviously needed to learn more about things … But how?

When in doubt … “Google it”!

Hmmmm …. Well … It was worth a try!

I’m not very tech savey … (Said as I sit here writing a blog on an I-pad!)

Getting around on the internet and finding what I was looking for has been a hit or miss proposition for me.

And having a smart phone that does not like me does not help things

… But I digress ….

My first attempts at learning about solar power and batteries on the web did not get me very far.

However … The folks at Boats and Motors sold me a wonderful book about how an electrical system works on a small boat!

The 12 Volt Bible by Miner Brotherton and revised by Edwin Sherman, full of lots of great information about DC power and batteries … And the occasional mathematical formula for us math fans out there (out there … A pretty good way to describe …)

Originally written in 1985 and revised in 2003 … It turned out to be a great place to start.

The boating world is a really good place to find both hardware and information … It is one of those places where being a little wrong can get you into a lot of trouble. The kind of reliability needed in the boating world is what I wanted / needed for this project.

In the entertainment world … failure is not an option!

The help I received from Boats and Motors and West Marine was wonderful … they were very happy to share what they knew and if they did not know, would try to find out … And if they were not able to come up with an answer, would apologize for not being able to help!

I really like these folks!

So lots of questions and a book to read for when things with the “day job” slowed down.

I had a busy fall into New Years season ahead of me and nine months until my next booked solar powered gig … So I “moth balled” everything … With a somewhat regular schedule of “top off” recharging to keep the batteries from an early death (I did get far enough into the 12 Volt Bible to learn that much).

Made it through the year … With what had become a wonderful tradition of ending the old year mixing the Concert for Peace at St. John the Divine in New York … And the quiet drive back the next day.

If you ever get the chance to … Go!  … It is an amazing event!

2012 had been a good year … Some amazing shows …  It was great to be involved with the Urban Nutcracker again … and everything about the solar project had been a lot of fun … My dad and I working, almost non stop to be ready for that first solar powered Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park “gig” … a 2:00 in the morning close encounter with a skunk kept things interesting!

I was truly amazed at what the batteries were able to do.

At a street fair in Andover I  “caught” one of the crew from the main stage down on his hands and knees looking to see if I had a power cord coming up from the manhole cover I had “parked” one of the battery boxes on top of.

Apparently I was not the only one being amazed!

11 events running over 42 hours … without running out of power … I was able to record 19.03 kWh of power used … It took a while to realize this was going to work and I should be taking notes … I missed three of the early shows.

Photos would have been nice too!

In any case … January was looking promising for figuring things out … A couple of quiet weeks … and the flu.

OK … What next?

The 2012 Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park series ended four weeks later with a crowd of people dancing in a warm rain to Ray Greene and his band.

It was a wonderful way to end to the concert series … With the heavy rain waiting until we were packing up the truck … Mother Nature’s own sigh of relief it would seem!

The buzz that had showed up in the self powered monitor went away with an upgrade to a sine wave inverter … it turned out that a very slight buzz was audible when some of my gear was plugged into either of the modified sine wave inverters that I had started the project with … A very quiet humm or buzz I had thought was “normal” when using a high gain sound system … Plugging any of the “offending” pieces of gear into the new sine wave inverter silenced them! … At least while running off of the battery power.

Plugging into a standard wall outlet …even a dedicated electrical “tie in” at some of the larger venues I work would get a noise of some sort … At times almost inaudible … But there if you really listened for it. Hmmmm… (Well buzzzzzzz actually!) …

Something else to think about!

Aside from that buzz the systems worked amazingly well … The “To good to be true” kind of amazingly well … With run times between 4.5 and 6 hours per day … And never coming close to using up the battery reserves … At least according to the inverter’s built in meters.

I had been powering what I thought was a decent amount of gear, about 6,0000 watts of loudspeakers and amplifiers, a mixing board, some processing equipment, all the band’s instruments and amplifiers … And after the first show … Even their cell phones! (I had been a little worried at the start and had not been willing to take those kinds of chances!)

So what next?

2012 was going to be my second year of providing one of the sound systems for the Reading Street Faire … A wonderful day of local bands playing to the home town crowd on a gorgeous Indian Summer day in early September.

(I have a few clients that would love to learn that weather secret!)

The town supplies a gasoline generator for the event and I supply a couple hundred feet of power cord, some cable ramps and a couple of carpet runners to get the generator as far away from the stage and audience as possible.

This year I set the batteries up at the stage and had the DPW folks leave their generator … Just in case.

My idea was to run my batteries dry … If I could!

I brought in the same PA I had used for the event in 2011, a much larger sound system than the one I had used for the Elma Lewis series in Franklin Park.

A 12,000 watt sound system … Two pairs of three way concert speakers, two pairs of subwoofers, six stage monitors … plus all the band’s amplifiers, pedal boards … even an electric keyboard or two … Rock and Roll stuff!

As a bonus … the Master of Ceremonies / DJ wanted to set up his system too!

Perfect … This should drain the batteries in no time!

Well … I thought it would!

About three o’clock in the afternoon the DPW guys asked if we were going to need the generator … And with the inverter’s meters all showing 90 – 100% full … I let them take it … They had a longer day going than I did … And I was not going to need it by the end of the event.

Even with all that gear running for 6 hours the battery meters still showed full … This was just not making any sense … with the kill a watt meters recording a little over 5 kWh of power used … Without putting much of a “dent” in the battery reserve!

My intuition was starting to tell me not to believe the inverter battery meters.

I needed to find out what was going on … Before running out of “juice” somewhere!

Hmmm … I wonder if AAA would give me a jump start!

2012 Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park.

It had been a bit of a rush to put the new battery bank and inverter system together.

With no time to add solar panels for the much larger system, a plan “B” was going to be needed for recharging the new battery bank.

Christine from the Franklin Park Coalition came to the rescue!

She made a couple of phone calls and a place was found in the Franklin Park Zoo maintenance yard where the battery boxes could be parked between shows to plug into the grid and recharge each week. Not exactly solar powered … But we would not be needing a generator for the series!

Everything was ready … Well at least everything seemed ready …

The morning of July 10, 2012 started off nicely … sunny and warm.

A local community group had agreed to provide the sound system for the morning events and everything was sounding great … But when a third self powered speaker for the stage was added, it buzzed … a lot.

The poor stage monitor was not even close to happy.

After checking the cables to see if a bad connection was causing the noise,  running a power cord to the new battery / inverter system to see if that might help … and watching the clock tick as show time got closer and closer … I pulled an amp and speaker from my truck, set them up and turned them on … The silence was golden!

Something about that self powered speaker did not like the battery / inverter power.

The rest of the morning show went smoothly, with the smaller solar powered system running for a little over two hours, using .23 kWh of power  (according to the “kill a watt” meter), with the inverter’s battery meter still showing “full”!

And … aside from the buzz … a success!

The evening show, with one of my sound systems, started out fine.

I had hired Clara Rhee to mix the show so I could keep an eye on the battery systems for their “shake down cruise”. No hums or buzzes showed up in the sound system or on any of the band’s gear,  but the battery powered LED lights that had been rented for the series were not going to be able to compete with the evening sun as it set.

As the concert progressed the meters on the 1,250 watt inverter powering the PA started to blink yellow on some of the louder parts. … The meters on the 2,000 watt inverter powering the stage seemed fine …. So I warned Clara, and in between songs (with fingers and toes crossed) I unplugged the amplifier powering the six stage monitors from the smaller rig and plugged it into the larger rig …

No sparks, smoke or buzzes … or blinking yellow lights.

I don’t think anyone noticed … though someone may have wondered what the huge sigh of relief coming from back stage was for!

Did I mention that batteries are very heavy!

The two battery / inverter systems used to power the 2012 Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park concert series. The smaller system was recharged each week using two 120 watt solar panels.

The concert ended as scheduled … 3 hours and forty five minutes after we had turned everything on for sound check … Using a total of 3.49 kWh of power between the two systems …. Most of that coming from the smaller system powering the PA.

My assumptions about how much power would be needed for the PA and the stage were way off base … But nothing that could not be fixed by just swapping power sources and loads … The morning’s buzz had me a little more concerned … It looked like I would be visiting the electronic supply store again in the morning!

The morning after …

After Town Day I was very excited about how well the gear had worked …if only I could explain how it could have worked … The numbers I had been using just did not add up.

Something was certainly up … I just had no idea what.

The few e-mails I sent out telling folks about the “experiment” were met with a mixture of curiosity, rolled eyes and one set of “raised eyebrows”.

The “raised eyebrows” belonged to Richard Wood of Wooden Kiwi Productions.

Richard had been hiring me to bring in sound for events around Boston … And he was curious if I thought the battery system could power the sound system for an upcoming event with the Boston Pops Brass Ensemble in Franklin Park.

A great question to add to the others running around in my head.

I was still trying to figure out how two 120 watt solar panels captured enough electricity to run a 1,500 watt sound system for seven hours in just four days … And never mind about where the three batteries “hid” all that power?

My brain was starting to hurt!

Another trip to the electronics supply store supplied a “Kill-A-Watt” meter … an afternoon in the shop experimenting with sound equipment, a couple of cups of coffee, some scratch paper and things were beginning to look like they were making sense … or so I thought!

Most of the gear behaved as I thought it would. Turn it on and it would use about the number of watts listed for it, typically a little less, but pretty close … the exception being the amplifiers. A 1,500 watt amplifier only used about 10% of that when I turned it on. Playing a CD through the amplifier did not seem to have much of an effect on the power consumption … At least until it was turned up to the point where it started to get pretty loud. But even then it seemed to use a lot less power than the advertised 1,500 watts. Even overloading the amplifier would not draw that much power.

I did notice that the readings on the “Kill -A-Watt meter” jumped around a lot with the music on the CD … Hmmmm …

“Armed” with this new information and a calculator I started adding things up for the concert with the Pops Brass Ensemble. Using what I figured would be the average current draw for the sound check and concert … Multiplying that total by the number of hours needed for the sound check and concert … An added safety margin … and It looked like another three batteries would do the trick.

Being me, I bought four!

The person who had asked Richard to bring in the sound system for the event was very excited about using a solar powered sound system and I gave her a “tour” of the power system … She asked when was I going to turn it on … catching me a bit off guard … it was on!

The concert went off without a hitch!

Enjoying the sounds of the Boston Pops Brass Ensemble in beautiful Franklin Park, 6/24/2012

Enjoying the sounds of the Boston Pops Brass Ensemble in beautiful Franklin Park, 6/24/2012

I had all the gear running through the “kill-a-watt” meter during the event and was starting to get a better feel for just how much power was being used …

A lot less than I had expected.

In the mean time I was not the only person getting excited about the project.

Christine Poff from the Franklin Park Coalition was thinking even bigger things.

The Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park concert series was looking at ways to stay within their budget. The folks from Wooden Kiwi had been brought in a number of years earlier to help with the same challenge … Save money … and keep the concerts going.

It was that time again.

After doing some math it turned out that using a battery system for the Tuesday night concerts was going to be less expensive than hiring a diesel generator for the event. (Gasoline powered generators are not allowed in Boston).

Fifteen very long days and nights later, with a lot of help from my dad, 1,700 amp hours of batteries, 3,250 watts of pulse wave inverters, the wonderful help I received from Fred and Mary at Boats and Motors, too many cups of coffee to count … And …

Show time!

The E Water Band performing, Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park 7/10/2012

The E Water Band performing, Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park 7/10/2012

The E Water Band taking the the new battery rig out for a “spin”

 

Franklin Park, 7/10/2012

Franklin Park, 7/10/2012

Something new under the sun!

Always a bit on the curious side … This project started with a visit to the local electronics supply store … Waiting in line and seeing some 15 watt Coleman solar panels on sale. It was a long line … and well … I bought one … and a battery, a small DC to AC inverter, some connectors and a solar charge controller … and apparently … a new project!

Back at my third floor apartment I put the solar panel in my bedroom’s south facing window, read the instructions and had my fish tank’s water circulating pump and heater running off the rig in no time.

I do not think it made it through the night!

I disconnected the pump and heater and waited.

Almost a week later the charge controller said the battery was charged again. (It was a very small battery).

Another trip to the store, a second solar panel … and then a third … this was getting more expensive that I had “planned”.

I plugged just the water pump back in and waited!

The system made it through the rest of the winter, but as the sun started to climb higher in the sky and the leaves on the tree across the street started to sprout the system started to fail, went into hibernation is probably a better description of what happened.

But in any case … The fish were back on the grid!

Fast forward a couple of years … The low winter sun seemed to be the key to keeping the fish happy, though the system seemed to be getting tired. A single cloudy day would shut things down.

Adding a second bigger battery helped … but I had run out of south facing windows,

Meanwhile … back at my “day job” as the owner of a small sound company I had a dilemma. My longest running client’s annual Town Day event was growing, adding another stage in the middle of the town common. With no electrical outlets handy the somewhat uncomfortable solution was to run 100′ of extension cord to one of the outlets they used to power the holiday tree lights. Add hundreds of attendees, some pony rides, a Kids Olympics and a dog show and uncomfortable was starting to be an understatement.

Moving the electronic gear closer to the outlet and using wireless microphones to get to the performers did help, but it was less than ideal and … I was curious.

Later that year I had the chance to fill in as an engineer for a friend at what was supposed to be a wonderful evening concert on a hill top in Vermont. The weather that day was threatening and the concert was wisely moved into an old barn on the property.

While waiting for the “go/ no go” on the outdoor site we checked out the hill top location and saw what was to be the power for the event. A small trailer with a solar panel, not much bigger than all three of my 15 watt panels put together, some batteries and some sort of inverter. The folks from Yestermorrow had donated the trailer’s use for the concert and I seemed to be the only person worried about it … after all, It was my sound system that was going to be plugged into it!

The trailer was used for off grid construction projects. It would be set up at the site, the panel pointed at the sun with the trailer left alone for the week to soak up the sun and charge the batteries.

A construction crew would show up on the weekend with their skill saws, drills and other power tools and build something!

I never saw it in action … But it got me thinking …

A close inspection of my gear showed me the wattage each piece used. Some mathematics some coffee and a trip to the local marine supply store and it looked like I would be able to run everything for the three hour event off of two deep cycle marine batteries.

I bought three just to be on the safe side!

I explained the idea to my contact at Town Day and he gave me the go ahead to try it with the understanding that I would still bring the extension cord … Just in case.

I set everything up early that day and went off to set up the other stages. I left a note explaining that I would be back at 1:00 to pack everything up and gave them my cell number if they should have any questions.

They did.

Apparently a couple of things had been added to the schedule and they would be needing the sound system until about 4:00!

Oh well … I told them I would be by around 1:00 with the power cord but that they should use the battery power anyway.

When I arrived at 1:00 everything was going nicely. I checked the inverter’s built in power meter and it showed that the batteries were still in the same 90-100% full range they had started the day with.

The system ran until a little after 4:00, a total of 7 hours with the inverter’s meter still showing the batteries in the 90-100% range at the end of the day!

The initial voltage off the batteries was 12.8 volts … The ending voltage was 12.3 volts.

I had purchased two 120 watt solar panels and a new charge controller to recharge the batteries after the show.

I brought the batteries up to my father’s house, set the them up on his back yard patio and plugged the two panels into the charge controller.

Four days later the batteries reached a high of 13.7 volts … The first two days rained most of the time … The second two were mixed sun and clouds.

I was very excited and happy, but more than a little confused.

It was time for the learning to begin … And there was lots to learn!