Property Progress #1
A few weeks back, I started out with my “PIREPS” series of posts – thoughts and photos from random trips I’ve made via small airplane.

This post starts a somewhat infrequent series of “property updates” – general updates on our property, and some feedback on what has or hasn’t worked particularly well for us.  Some ideas have worked wonderfully, some… haven’t.  It’s hard to find anyone else who documents similar projects online, and I’d like to help fix that where I can.

Curious as to how the trash trailer is working?  How about what I’m doing with that ancient tractor I own?  Well, I answer all that, and more!  Read on!

A Few Acres of Basalt in Idaho

For those who haven’t figured it out, I don’t live in Seattle anymore.  Yes, I’ve done posts about ebiking in Seattle, and I used to live there, but I don’t live there anymore, and I really didn’t like that area anyway.  Back in 2016, my wife and I said “Enough of that nonsense” and moved out to rural Idaho.  Some saw it as “the middle of nowhere.”  I don’t agree.  We’re in rural farm country, and I can see neighbor’s houses.  We have a good view of the middle of nowhere, and somewhat regularly head out there, but we definitely don’t live in it.

However, I’ll certainly agree that I live on a few acres of basalt, covered by a thin layer of dirt.  Yes, I know the difference between soil and dirt, and it’s dirt.  Crushed up bits of basalt, and the only stuff that likes living in it is tumbleweed (of quite a few varieties) and cheatgrass.  If you’re not familiar with those things, count yourself lucky.

The most common varieties of tumbleweed aren’t native to America.  They showed up in the late 1800s from Russia.  So, some of the cowboy movies with tumbleweed aren’t historically accurate.  However, if you’ve seen someone running from a tumbleweed most of their size, that’s real.  It’s worse when you’re little.  My daughter has, on occasion, found herself up to her neck in tumbleweed (“mean weeds”).

But, in any case, this is the land we live on.  It’s cheatgrass.  It’s basalt.  It’s… depressingly combustible late in the summer.  And this is what I’ve set out to make something of, because, well, it’s what we have – and, importantly, it’s near family (which we value greatly, especially with a kid and another on the way).

The Temporary Stairs

When we moved in over 2 years ago, I built some temporary stairs.  Some out of cinderblock, some out of lumber.  They met code for an occupancy permit, they were functional, and… well, they’re still here.  They’re good enough, and other things got in the way.
How have they held up?  Decently enough, though the main stairs we use (access to our back sliding door, which is the main entry to our house) have sunk a bit and need rework.  It was a challenge for a while for the kid.  The main problem with the cinderblock stairs has been the water – I thought I had the sand compacted enough, and that wasn’t the case.  They sunk a bit, and this has caused them to rotate slightly into our siding and pop the bottom board out slightly.  It’s not an issue, but it does mean they’ve settled (and, also, the step into the house is noticeably higher).

The furball is our property cat, and the structure is a little cat feeder cover I built last year to help keep the rain out of the cat food bowl.  It works well enough, though sideways rain will still get in.  This particular cat was wandering around in late 2016, and we tried to attract it, but it had no interest.  Sometime in 2017, it decided that our property was good hunting grounds (and we feed the cat as well), so it’s been hanging out.  It’s mostly an outside cat, though I let it hang out in my office most days – out of the sun, and the cat just sleeps in a box.  It took a few months of tossing the cat outside to convince it to not jump on my desk, but we’ve established an understanding now.  Don’t jump on my desk, and don’t hack up a hairball inside.  On more than one occasion, I’ve been listening to some variety of experimental music, and it’s taken me longer than it should to figure out that the odd counter-rhythm is actually the cat.

If you compare the stairs above with how they sat originally, you can see how much they sank in the rear (a few inches).  The front hasn’t actually sunk as much – we just had the driveway done with a few dump trucks worth of road mix, and the new level is up to the base of the first tier (a mud pit outside the door is fun, but not really useful as a driveway when everything sinks in and you can’t get to the door without hauling in a few inches of mud on your shoes).

The wooden stairs I built for the front are working perfectly!  They serve as a tiny little deck, and other than the plywood being a bit sunworn (south facing, totally unprotected plywood), they’re doing fine.  We’re planning a deck out there, but time and money just aren’t there right now.  With the absurdly rising cost of redwood and cedar, I’ll probably do it with one of the engineered materials (the new versions of Trex), but that’s not exactly cheap either.

The Trash Trailer

Last year, I decided that I was paying too much in trash service (and hated hauling the trash up to the street every week), so I built myself a trash trailer out of some old stuff I found laying around (a mid-1960s pickup bed trailer and a mid-1970s camper shell).  This creates a fully enclosed trailer that I can toss trash in and haul to the dump every few months (not on Saturdays, though – too busy).  Use is fairly simple: Toss trash in it, and when it’s full, haul it and empty it.
How has this been working?  Quite well!  I canceled my trash service at the end of October 2017, and I hauled the trailer for the first time in early February 2018.  It wasn’t full, but I had some other stuff to haul (trash from a banquet, which… I’m not at all sure why I even volunteered for that, plus a cheap couch that was absolutely falling apart), and I figured I may as well haul the trailer while I made the trip.  It still had a month or two of space left, but the dump has a minimum charge regardless of how little weight you haul, and with everything, I was still under it.

By May, it’s about 75% full again (a good chunk of the bulk is from tearing down the ferret room that was in a bedroom and moving them into the bonus room on the end of the house – sorry, ferrets, upcoming kid gets priority), so it seems like the trailer will hold 4-6 months of trash at a time.  I was paying $222/yr for trash service, and a round trip to the dump costs me about $8 in diesel and the $5 minimum charge (for up to 600lb of trash).  Run the math, and you get $30-$40/yr in trash service, plus a few hours of my time, instead of over $200.  The trailer ran me about $200 in build costs, so with $180/yr in savings, it pays off in a hurry.  Yes, I know my truck costs more than just diesel to run, but it’s only 75 miles a year, so… not much, even at the IRS mileage rates.

Beyond just the money, it’s quality of life.  I destroyed an ebike hauling trash cans up the driveway (sheared some bolts off), didn’t care for hauling it up by hand (the tiny trash can wheels sink into the gravel), and it just didn’t work well with the bursty nature of our trash.  We’d have no trash for two weeks, then a lot, and it’s far more convenient having a large trailer to buffer all this.

So, for now, the trash trailer?  I’m making a note: Huge success!

Property Boundary Firebreaks

Let’s go back to cheatgrass for a bit.  It has a major problem come mid-summer: It burns.  Aggressively.  Quickly.  The stuff is stone dead by June, and by August, it’s a tinderbox waiting for a spark.  Such spark, not-really-hypothetically, could come from some muppet quite a bit uphill deciding to mow their cheatgrass field on the windiest day of the month.  A wind blowing, let’s say, straight downhill.  Towards our property.  Now, I’ll let you do the math on “20+mph winds and bone dry cheatgrass,” but let’s just say it was more excitement than I care for.  By a large, large margin.
On top of that, there’s 4th of July.  We have an amazing view of fireworks – so good, that people like to park down our driveway to watch them.  And then light off bottle rockets.  There’s an iterative process here of keeping people from being stupid around our property, and I think this year, it involves me sitting on an old tractor with a shotgun, and an awful lot of custom “DO NOT LIGHT FIREWORKS” caution tape along the road.  Seriously.  Fighting grass fires in the middle of the day is bad enough that I just don’t want to fight a grass fire at night.  One of these days, I’ll sanitize my writeup of the event enough to share…
But, the takeaway here is that grass fires are a problem I deal with.  Historically, this hill is more or less on fire every decade, but recent data would indicate a rather disturbing increase in that frequency to “every few years.”  I don’t mind a good grass fire if it’s well contained and away from structures, but that wasn’t really the case last year, and I had a desire to make sure that even if the hill does catch fire again, it wouldn’t be a major problem.

This is the sort of stuff I’m dealing with.  It’s a blend of cheatgrass, mustardweed, tumbleweed, and probably a few other things I haven’t identified.  By mid-summer, they’re bone dry, have a surface area to volume ratio of “Yes,” and happily propagate any sort of flame that comes their way.  Or spark, or hot spot, or… whatever.  It’s tinder – and not the kind you swipe on.

What that means, practically, is that I need good firebreaks to protect the property.  A grass fire, for those unfamiliar, is fairly low on “burning material thrown into the air,” and fairly high on “direct radiant transfer from a fire front to more dead grass.”  If you have a large enough region with no dead grass, the fire won’t cross it (unless you’re really unlucky).  If it does cross it, it will be at one or two points, not the whole line.

Given all this, I decided to start early this year with cutting firebreaks.  The wet dirt in February is easier to rip up than dry dirt, and that nothing was growing yet meant, hopefully, I could disrupt things before they got started.

Regular readers of my blog will recall that I have an old tractor.  It’s a 1939 Ford 9N, with a whopping 23hp of fury (out of a 2L motor), and I spent a lot of time working on it last fall.  This is my weapon of choice for firebreaks.  I spent some time previously trying to cut fire breaks with a string trimmer (also featured on my blog – at 30 years old, it’s quite new), and evidence of the past summer indicates that this is nice to slow down a cheatgrass fire, but it’s really not at all sufficient to stop one.  I needed to do more.

Initial attempts to rip up the dirt with the blade simply didn’t work.  I could shove the draft control as far forward as I wanted (it’s a draft control, not a position control, which means it tries to maintain a constant drag force, not a constant position) and the blade would bounce over the dirt.  The problem, since the hydraulics can only lift but not push down, was simply a lack of weight on the blade.

Recall that description of my property as “a bunch of basalt”?  Basalt is heavy.  My basalt is “foamy” basalt (lots of air bubbles in it), but it’s still very heavy.  Throwing some rocks on the rear of the tractor, over the blade, really improved the blade performance.  But, they also kept falling off – even with the ratchet straps over them.

A quick survey of the local scrap iron field revealed some slightly more machined weight I could use that, hopefully, would not bounce off as easily.  After ratchet strapping this down and playing around… I discovered that it was too heavy.  The front tires didn’t exactly contact the ground if I was trying to drag dirt up a hill, and they barely contacted the ground a lot of other times.  Yes, I can steer with the brakes, but having the front floating along barely touching the dirt is the sort of excitement I just don’t need in my life.  There’s no rollover protection on this tractor, and I have no desire to die under a tractor that’s radically older than I am.  The tractor, meanwhile, is the sort of machine that lets you know, on a moderately regular basis, that if you’re going to persist in being stupid, it’ll be judge, jury, and executioner, and it will wait for that one brief lapse of attention before starting the process.

The right amount of weight is one scrap iron bar less than I had.  With three scrap iron bars and a scrap iron cylinder, the blade digs in wonderfully, but the front doesn’t come up.  I could find a way to load some counterweights on the front, but the front axle isn’t terribly strong and this configuration is plenty for my needs.  If I dig too deep, I can’t drag it anyway.  Remember, a whopping 23hp.  Gear it down, and it’s still 23hp.  I’m not sure how long those ratchet straps will last with this sort of abuse, but I suppose I’ll find out!

Cutting the Firebreaks

The last summer or two, I tried to cut some firebreaks with that previously mentioned string trimmer – and they got the grass short, but short grass still burns.  My attempts were wider than this path (which I used for some drone testing last year), but fundamentally, short grass is a fire slower-downer – not a fire break.  This is not good enough!
I started out, once I’d loaded the blade up enough to actually cut, by setting the blade to a fairly aggressive cutting angle, slanted to one side (so it will push dirt over), and running back and forth on some areas I’d already cut short the previous year.  I ripped up the cheatgrass, and I ripped up tons of rock.  A blade, digging into the ground, will extract all sorts of rock you can see, and an awful lot you can’t.  The draft control will try to lift the blade, but I still stalled the tractor plenty of times in this early stage.  This is really exciting, because it means that the tires did hook up against the ground (almost like ag tires are designed to grip dirt)!  Clearing snow on an iced up driveway doesn’t stall the tractor, it just spins the wheels.  Traction is awesome!
After I’d gone over a section of ground, what I found was dirt (somewhat moved), and rock.  Lots and lots and lots of rock.  Big rocks, little rocks, pebbles… all of it.  Most of it was moved the surface, which is great for me – it makes it easy to pick them up, but they’re very much in the way.
I proceeded to go through the areas with a shovel, prying rocks out of the ground.  Some of the large ones I can’t lift, but can roll by prying (think 300-400lb of basalt).  However, most of the rock can be lifted, if you’re willing to work at it.  What do you do with tons of rock once it’s out of the ground and laying around?  Well, whatever you want, but I put it in my truck.
I own a fairly large truck.  This is a bad word in certain circles online.  I don’t care.  I like my truck.  I use my truck as a truck.  I somewhat regularly haul a 10k lb trailer for our church, and I do things like haul an awful lot of rock out of dirt paths I’ve ripped in our hillside.  I use 4-Lo for this, mostly because that helps avoid digging ruts.  This is one of many loads of rocks I’ve pulled out of the paths I’ve ripped.
If a rock is too large to move, there are a few options.  I can lever it out of the way and leave it.  At some point, I’ll pick up some pin and feather wedges and a good rock drill, and split rocks in place so I can move them.
But there’s also a much simpler technique that works often enough that I make good use of it.  If you were playing Kerbal Space Program (which, if you haven’t, you should), this would be described as something like “kinetic-gravitational lithofracturing.”  Or, in more human terms, “throwing a rock down at another rock until it breaks.”  Much like hitting a rock with a sledgehammer (which I’ve done a lot of), you continue until either you succeed or you give up.  It’s one of those “brute force” things – if you use enough of it, you will succeed.  But this is a great way to break up rocks in situ before hauling them off somewhere.
If you’re of a certain age, you could think of this as a particularly hardcore and violent version of pogs.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, well… just keep reading, because I certainly can’t explain why that was popular.
I used the guideline of, “When both sides are on the bump stops, I should probably go unload.”  Perks of leaf springs!  One of very few perks of leaf springs… but they do make some really good load indicators!
Are you wondering why I built a stone cutting bench?  This whole process should help you understand why!
Ripping the firebreaks is mostly a process of “go back and forth until you’re happy with the results.”  I found that things work best with the tractor running at full governed RPM, with the blade digging deep, turning over the soil and generally disrupting anything growing.  For grass sprouting in the firebreaks, you can kill it in a few ways.  You can rip it up and turn it over, which exposes the roots to the air, or you can just cover it with a lot of dirt and deprive it of light and air.  Either way is fine.
The trick is dealing with the rocks.  If the blade is cutting deep, you will hit rock.  Depending on the size, this will rip the rock out, it will rock it slightly, or it will drag the tractor to an abrupt halt.  The last case is rather jarring, but if the dirt is soft enough, the tires will move some dirt before stalling the motor so there’s enough warning that, if you’re quick, you can clutch, find neutral, and lift the blade a few inches before proceeding forward.  Or you restart the tractor and do the same thing.
After a bunch of passes of dragging dirt around and removing rocks (mostly removing rocks), I ended up with something resembling a firebreak!  The key to a good firebreak is having a lot of “not burnable stuff.”  Dirt is not burnable.  Grass is burnable.  This is a good chunk of “not burnable.”
Really, I just move dirt back and forth with the blade until I’m happy with how much grass is either ripped up or covered.  The grass grows back quickly, and this spring has required an hour or so of tractoring every week or two, depending on moisture.  I expect that will drop back a lot this summer.  Yes, it’s dusty work, but you can rip upwind, if you care.
Once things dried out a bit, I had something like this in a chunk of firebreak.  Grass in the middle, but even this is OK-ish for a firebreak – it won’t pass a flame across it.  However, I have a tractor.
A pass or two with the blade, and this is the result: Better firebreak!  Some grass ripped up and turned over, some just covered.  Don’t care!  It’s not going to burn, and that’s the key.
Eventually, I plan to turn this into more of a road.  Toss a few (ok, a lot of) tons of road mix over it and roll it, then keep it from growing things.  I expect a few readers to complain about my use of plant deterrent, and I don’t really care.  I’d rather fire not propagate onto parts of the property I care about, and this is a good way to accomplish that.
I’ve actually cut a few breaks.  Some on our property, some heading down the hill onto neighboring property.  I’m not going to poison the stuff off our property, but if I can keep cheatgrass fires from spreading, that’s of direct use to me.  See previous comments about fireworks.

Storage Improvements

One of the main problems we had when we moved in is that we didn’t have much in the way of outdoor storage.  We eventually moved a little shed back over from where it had been moved, but it was only barely better than nothing.  It mostly collected swirling dust, and random critters loved it.

In 2017, we tore that down in the process of doing the driveway.  It was surprisingly sturdy for how flimsy it felt, but we got it torn down and out of the way.  “Doing the driveway” involved expanding out the flat area around our house and bringing in an awful lot of road mix.  We’d still like to get some nice topping gravel (something white, or at least not road mix colored), but it’s a low priority at the moment.

With that out of the way, and the driveway opened up, we had room to put in proper storage!  We went with a garden shed, a shipping container, and a carport in the middle to shelter the vehicles somewhat.  It’s more space than a garage, and the combination ran us a good bit less than a garage would have, while offering better protected storage (eventually we’ll be storing antique cars, and the shipping container offers far better protection against the elements).
I’ve talked about the shed before (in the context of building shelving), but the shed is used for general garden equipment storage, motorcycle storage in the winter (it’s really tight with all the bikes in there, but it’s workable, and I ride the Ural all winter anyway so it doesn’t get stored).  With the shelves, I can store a lot, and while it does get tight with all the equipment in there, I can still move around.  I’m pretty bad about leaving lawn mowers out in the sun in the summer, so it’s not as tight as it might seem.
Next to it, we have the shipping container.  It’s a proper 40′ unit, and right now it serves as long term storage for things and a workshop.  I’m not making efficient use of it at all, and I have plenty of plans to improve that, but only so much time for projects right now.  I’m keeping up on the property maintenance, but I don’t have time for a lot of improvements at the moment.
After I’ve done some painting in the container, and the paint has dried, it’s nice to air it out.  One could do this by leaving the doors open – but overkill is awesome, and I found overkill in another junk pile up the hill (if one gets the impression I’m just slowly relocating the junk piles, I get that impression too).
There are fans.  Then there are FANS.  This thing?  You might call it a FAN!!!  It’s apparently part of an old potato silo ventilation system, and it has a grate to try and keep things out of the front.  That matters, because this thing is serious.  Imagine a lawn mower motor powered fan, and you start getting the idea of this thing.  I haven’t popped a breaker with it yet, but I have 20A circuits.  It pulls a ton of power, and moves an absolutely insane amount of air.  The thrust will try to scoot it across the floor, and you keep things away from the rear because the suction is terrifying.  This will vent out a shipping container in 10 minutes, no problem.  I’ve thought about doing some ducting to help it push air to the back, but I just don’t see a reason to – it does a great job already.  Not bad for something sitting on the hillside for quite a few years!

Property Progress!

So, that’s what I’ve been up to around our hillside.  Projects are slow this summer, largely because I’ve been devoting a lot of my weekends to helping with a church buildout (taking an old church building that got away from the Gospel and reworking it into something far, far more useful).  But I’ve got some good fire breaks in place that I can maintain until I turn them into roads, and a lot of the other stuff I’ve done is working well enough.  I should have left a bigger gap between the cinderblocks and the house, but I’ll resolve that soon enough with some smaller deck builds.
And, if anyone wants any basalt, please, let me know!  I’ll ship you a hunk of hand-mined Idaho basalt for the cost of shipping (really).  The contact form is on the right, and I’ll find something that fits in a USPS Flat Rate Box.  The maximum domestic weight in those is 70lb, and I think I can get close!

Book Review: Chaos Monkeys

I realized I haven’t been posting book reviews, even though I’ve been writing them, so I’ll try to catch up in the next few weeks.
Have you ever wanted to pull back the curtain that shrouds Silicon Valley in mystery, and peer at the raw genius that drives world changing companies?  To see the brilliant venture capitalists at work, as they find the next big thing?  To see how a product is built at Facebook, or how the various companies interact together in this modern internet age?
Read this book.
Warning: You probably won’t be nearly as happy eating the sausage afterwards.  This follows one guy’s trip through the Silicon Valley factory – working at startups, starting a startup, Y Combinator, venture capital, the buyout, deceit, backstabbing, designing new products, fighting with management, getting fired, and walking on the edge of lawsuits.  In other words, Silicon Valley operating normally.
It’s an eye opening look at what’s behind the scenes of the surface polished products we use and how they’re created.  It’s long, but a quite enjoyable read all the way through – I’d even call it a page turner.
Read more
So, you wanna go off grid…
“I want to go off grid with solar and batteries!”

I hear this, or some variant, increasingly often.  It seems to be a more and more popular concept, especially after some of the recent events in which people were left without power for long periods of time.  And, quite often, I assume the people asking are genuinely interested in what they see as the benefits of off grid power.  They’re just not familiar with enough details to really have an understanding of what they’re asking, or what it asks of them.

This post is my humble attempt to put a lot of information in one spot, such that I can link people to it when they ask about off grid power.  There are quite valid reasons for off grid power, but it’s not as easy or as simple as people tend to think.  And it’s certainly not as cheap as people assume it will be.

I’ve been dealing with a pure off grid office for nearly 2 years now.  While I don’t (yet) have a house capable of sustained off grid use, I do live within my energy budget in my office every day I’m out there (which occasionally involves generator use), and I get to deal with a lot of the quirks of off grid power.  So, if you’re interested in the pros and cons, keep on reading!

Off Grid Power

I didn’t realize until my Solar Shed Summary post that there are two conflicting definitions of “off grid” in use on the internet.  One refers to an electrical generating system that is not tied to the “power grid” – so typically some combination of solar, wind, micro-hydro, and generator.
The other use refers to being “off the information grid” – some Jason Bourne-esque mix of not using banking, the internet (with anything tied to your name), not having utility accounts, and probably a bunch of other stuff I have no clue about (one might safely assume I have no interest in this, given that, you know, I have a blog).
If you don’t realize the difference, you get an awful lot of comments about how your office isn’t really “off grid” because it has an internet connection (despite it having no grid power).
I’m not talking about the second one here.  I’m sorry if you’re looking for that and are disappointed, but that’s not the topic of conversation today, and I have no particularly useful advice there, as I assure you, I’m quite on that grid.
The topic here is off grid power – generating (mostly) reliable electricity without any contribution from “grid power” – the AC power that comes from centralized generating stations, through transformers, substations, house transformers, and eventually outlets.  Off grid power is power generated and stored locally.  Clear?  Great!

Pros of Off Grid Power

Off grid power is pretty neat.  You generate your own electricity, which is kind of cool, in a geeky way.  You’re not reliant on the power grid, and power outages don’t bother you at all.  Plus, you can build a system anywhere.  If you’re miles and miles from the nearest power line, and the power company wants $100k to run power to you – doesn’t matter!  You can generate your own power!  If you’re mobile (say, an RV) – mostly indefinite boondocking, as long as you don’t run out of water.
… and, really, that’s about it for the pros.

Cons of Off Grid Power

Well, everything else.  I can’t cover this in a few paragraphs, and the rest of the post is pretty much detailing the cons.  It’s expensive, it’s not environmentally friendly, it’s fiddly, and you’d better enjoy maintaining your power system, because it’s sure not as easy as just flipping a switch and having infinite power, with 3-5 9s of uptime, depending on where you live.
Answer this question: “How do I feel about the concept of designing and operating my very own multi-source power generation and storage facility?”  That’s what an off grid power system is – it’s a reasonably complicated power plant, but with the added complexity of storage (and the plant is radically too small to get any sort of decent efficiency).  For some people (including myself), this concept makes them giggle with joy.  It sounds awesome!  You get to monitor generation, use, storage, check the frequency and voltage, and have an excuse to buy all sorts of cool shunts and meters!  For other people, it sounds like a circle of Hell.  They just want to flip the switch and have the lights turn on.  Or push a button and have the kettle warm the water for their tea.
If you’re in the first category (excited), then some of the downsides of off grid power probably don’t count as downsides to you – they count as upsides.  If you’re in the second category, well… maybe off grid power isn’t for you.  At least not without some serious considerations as to the details.

A Typical Solar System

The common perception seems to be that you need some solar panels, some batteries (usually a particular brand is mentioned), and you’re good to go.  That’s not at all the case for a typical off grid system, so it’s worth describing how a common system actually functions.
A typical off grid power system starts with the power generation.  This can be solar, wind, micro-hydro, or generator (a pure generator based system is less common, they certainly exist, especially in the RV realm).  Solar is, by far, the most common power source, but wind is often paired in for full off grid homes to help in the winter, and if you can find enough water for year round micro-hydro, you’re golden.  Most year round systems have a generator as well as whatever other sources they have.
Solar panels for off grid power are usually set up in strings (panels in series) with those strings wired together in parallel at a combiner box.  The string length (and therefore PV array voltage) is determined by overall system design, but 100-250V is a common range for the winter open circuit voltage (the open circuit voltage goes up as the panels get colder, so winter is the design factor), and there are some charge controllers that handle up to 600V, which is useful if you have a long run from the panels to the rest of the system (higher voltage means fewer amps for a certain wattage, which means you can use thinner wires – it saves a lot on long runs).  The series nature of the panels means that shading is more of a problem than with typical microinverter based grid tie systems.  If you are dealing with severe shading, DC optimizers can help improve system output, but they’re fairly rare.  Off grid solar tends to be deployed such that all the panels in a string are in full sun at the same angle.  If the roof isn’t suited to it, then the panels are ground mounted somewhere appropriate.
Wind turbines and micro-hydro are a bit more complicated to deal with, and I’ll touch on them a bit later.
Coming off the power source (or power sources) is a charge controller (or several).  This unit handles converting the power from the energy sources into a form the battery bank can deal with.  For a very small solar setup, this may be a simple PWM unit (a solid state switch – I use one on my morning panels) that connects the panels directly to the battery, but most off grid systems will use one or more MPPT controllers – Maximum Power Point Tracking.  These are a controllable DC-DC converter that converts power from wherever the generation array is producing maximum power into whatever the current battery bank voltage is.  So, it may convert 120V@10A (1200W) from the solar panels into 48V@24A (1152W) going to the battery.  There are some losses in the charge controller (nothing is 100% efficient), but on any larger system, the gains of a MPPT controller make them entirely worth it.  In the winter, a MPPT unit will extract significantly more power from solar panels than a PWM controller because it can utilize the higher voltages produced by cold panels.
Behind the charge controller is the battery bank.  The details of the various battery technologies are the subject of other posts on this blog, and there are a huge number of details to consider in picking a battery technology and designing a battery bank that will work.  Bigger is not always better in terms of cost effectiveness, given the nature of renewable energy, and batteries generally have a somewhat fixed useful life regardless of cycle count and how you take care of them, but it’s easy to kill them early with abuse.  Avoiding killing lead acid is also the topic of another post on this blog.  I’ll cover Tesla’s bit of marking later, but they’re not at all common in off grid systems, for very good reasons.
In a very small off grid system that runs purely 12V lights and appliances (small weekend cabins or hunting cabins, some RVs), this may be the end of the system.  But most large systems keep going, because it’s quite expensive to wire a house for DC power (the wire size needed to safely run a lot of power is massive, which costs a lot).  Everything runs on AC these days (even if it converts it internally to DC), so most off grid systems have an inverter.
An off grid inverter is a very different beast from the small micro-inverters that grid tie systems typically use, because many power-using devices rely on the ability of the power grid to provide massive surge currents for startup.  A micro-inverter may be rated for 300W, and can provide exactly 300W – there’s no overhead beyond that.  A typical off grid inverter may be rated at 2000W (for a small system), but can provide 4000W or 6000W briefly to help start compressors and motors.  A larger inverter (the Outback Radian GS8048A as a specific example) is rated for 8000W sustained, 9000W for 30 minutes, 12000W for 5 seconds, and 16970W for 100ms (the ratings are in VA, which is yet another complexity for starting inductive loads, but I’m ignoring that particular bit of complexity right now – just be aware that starting motors requires more capacity than you think).

Beyond being able to simply provide power, an off grid inverter is responsible for every other aspect of power in the system as well.  It has to rapidly respond to changing loads, deal with inductive or capacitive loads, generate and maintain a 60Hz (or 50Hz) output frequency, and possibly deal with multiple phases and balancing them as well (a large off grid system is almost always two phase/240V to power shop tools, well pumps, irrigation pumps, etc).  There’s a lot that goes into it, which is why they’re significantly more expensive than a micro-inverter that simply has to sync to an external signal and output some amps.
Finally, most off grid systems have a generator and charger as well.  The generator may run into the inverter/charger (many off grid inverters include charging and transfer switch functionality), or may run through separate hardware.  Historically, the generator tended to be used for heavy loads, but recent advances in power electronics and inverter design make that less common than it used to be (two decades ago, inverters that could start a circular saw didn’t really exist at a price anyone could afford, so most systems used the generator for that).  Today, the generator more frequently serves as a backup power supply in case something goes wrong with the battery/inverter, and it’s used in the winter when there’s not enough power coming from the renewable sources to meet demand (in my area, I’ll get at least a week of inversion a winter, which means no sun and no wind).

Plus, at various stages in the system, there’s monitoring and logging.  Any serious off grid system should have good data logging and reporting for the system, because this makes it easy to find problems before they get serious.  You should spend time looking at them instead of just ignoring them, because learning how the system functions lets you identify maintenance that needs to happen when things are different.  I can usually tell when my batteries need water based on morning voltages, because they tend a bit higher when the batteries are lower (higher specific gravity electrolyte).  There are lots of little quirks like that to system operation, and they matter.  Good monitoring will let you identify problems with your expensive battery bank when you can still correct them.  Without monitoring, you simply run blind until the system stops working, then throw money at it again.

Wind and Micro-Hydro

Far less common than solar are wind and micro-hydro setups.  Wind is what you think – a turbine, spinning in the breeze (or, ideally, much stronger winds).  Micro-hydro is a small turbine sitting in some stream of water.  This requires a reliable source of water (and a decent head), but can make for reliable year round power (or, in some areas, reliable power through the winter, when solar isn’t able to provide much).
There are two types of wind turbines: Toys, and serious turbines.  If you can buy it for a reasonable amount of money and it doesn’t show up in the back of a semi truck, it’s probably a toy.  The small turbines generate very, very little energy in typical winds, and only start producing serious power in excessively windy conditions.  They’re not worth the cost.  Large turbines, mounted high, are useful – but they also tend to be very expensive.  A good wind turbine is best done as a DIY project, and the OtherPower folks have a lot of experience they’re willing to share.

Micro-hydro typically requires plumbing, filters, penstocks, and a lot of other engineering I simply don’t know much about.  Home Power Magazine is a great source for a lot of good information on how to do a good micro-hydro setup.

Any sort of turbine requires a “dump load” to handle the full output from the turbine when the battery bank is full and there’s less demand on the system than the turbine is currently producing.  A turbine cannot be unloaded or it will overspeed and come apart in short order, so there has to be some way to dump the power generated when it’s not otherwise needed.  This dump load is typically an air cooled resistor bank, though it’s quite common to first heat water with the excess energy before going to the air cooled system.  In the winter, this can be a quite welcome source of heat!

Off Grid Living

With the system concepts explained, what does living with off grid power consist of?
For a typical solar-only system, it’s about nine months of things working smoothly, and three months of serious attention to power use, every single year.  Some areas may be slightly better, some may be slightly worse, but that’s about what you can expect on average.
Spring and fall are the easiest months.  The air is cool, which means the panels are cool (and produce more power if you’ve installed a MPPT charge controller).  There’s less demand for air conditioning or heating, which reduces overall power demand and makes things easier.  The days are still fairly long, so there’s a lot of energy to suck in during the day.  The system still needs attention every now and then, but a properly designed and configured system is fairly easy to live with in the spring and fall.
Most people assume summer is the easiest, but it’s often a bit tricky.  Yes, the days are long and bright, but the days are also hot.  For something using earth coupled cooling, this isn’t a big deal, but something with mechanical cooling (air conditioning) is going to use a lot of power.  The panels are also quite hot, which reduces power production by a good bit.  Finally, summer (in many areas) has less rain, which means the panels are going to get dirty over the course of the summer.  In my area (western United States), we’ve got plenty of wildfire smoke as well through the summer, and a hot day with heavy smoke doesn’t produce much power, while you still need a lot of power for cooling (plus the smoke will make the panels filthy in short order).

That’s the sun.  It’s a dull orange disk in the sky under the heavy wildfire smoke.  Why is there a large blackened region just beyond my solar panels?  Long story, involving a much more local wildfire.  Maybe I’ll tell it sometime.  When it’s hot, hazy, and there’s no sun, solar is tough.

Winter is where things get tricky.  There’s simply no power available with heavy winter clouds.  Wind can help, if you live somewhere that reliably gets wind in the winter, but turbines can still ice up in the freezing rain and stop working efficiently.  “Not using power” works, to an extent, but winter is often just generator time.  Did you do your generator maintenance the previous summer?  Does your generator start, reliably, when it’s quite cold out?  Are you sure?  You’ll find out it won’t start when cold when it’s really, really cold out.
Heating is also not easy in the winter.  Most off grid systems will either use biomass (wood/pellet stove) or propane for heating.  Propane heating is quite expensive (I heat with it, but don’t have much space to heat), and wood can be a good bit of work, though pellet stoves have come a long way, if you can get pellets locally.  Heating with electricity is simply not possible in most areas – there’s just not enough excess.  For a house system, a ground source heat pump is worth considering, but it still requires a lot of power to run, and should be paired with some alternative method of heating for the days when there’s just no power.
The details of your system will impact how much impact winter has.  If you’ve got a system with a large generator and have a properly configured remote start, you could just generator through, letting the system run the generator when it wants, but that gets expensive, in a hurry.  And it goes through a lot of fuel.  It’s much better to limit your use when the system isn’t generating much, but you’ll still need the generator.  Most smaller systems rely on a pull start generator.

The Nature of Off Grid Power

Expensive, environmentally unfriendly, and somewhat maintenance intensive.

Off grid power is incredibly expensive.  Solar and battery is cheaper than 24/7 generator power, but providing your own power is just insanely pricey.  Think $0.50/kWh range – for all the power, not just during peak times.  Most of the cost relates to the lifespan of the batteries, though the rest of the system isn’t particularly cheap either (and doesn’t have an unlimited lifespan).  A lot of this depends on how you design the system and how much work you do yourself, but don’t expect to beat grid power with an off grid system.  You might beat the most expensive tier in your area, depending on where you live, but expect a far higher cost per kWh.  On the plus side, you may end up with better power reliability!

Environmentally, off grid power is not particularly great either.  The batteries require a good bit of energy to manufacture, often a good bit of mining and material extraction, and you have to replace them every decade or so.  Plus, the panels you use aren’t able to produce as much power as they could feeding into the grid (because there will be large parts of the year when the battery bank is full and the panels are lounging along doing nearly nothing).  It’s not a complete disaster, but neither is it all flowers and kittens and amazing green free energy.  Lead acid, at least, has a good recycling pipeline.

Finally, off grid power requires a good bit more maintenance than grid power.  You have to pay attention to it.  If you’ve got flooded lead acid batteries, they need water every now and then.  Sealed lead acid can still use some voltage testing.  Lithium is better on this front, but doesn’t get you away from having to monitor the system state and only use power when there’s power available.  It is not nearly so easy as a typical grid system, in which there is no maintenance to speak of.

Generators and Chargers

It’s certainly possible to run without a generator, but almost every off grid power system should have a generator and charger.  Up until fairly recently, a generator was required for heavy loads (power tools, a washer, etc), though recent trends in inverter power delivery have eliminated that need.  A generator is needed for charging the batteries when there’s no power coming from the sky.  Solar panels don’t work when there’s a week of dark and cloudy weather, and lead acid batteries do freeze if they get cold enough while discharged enough (at least in my area, this is almost always with no wind around either).
Plus, most off grid power systems have a wide range of single points of failure.  A generator that can run your loads (or at least some of them) is a good backup device.  It’s not ideal, but if you’re waiting for a replacement inverter, being able to power your system with a generator is kind of nice.
Typically, the generator will output AC (inverter generators are nice but tend to be more limited in power output for the price), and a charger will feed the battery bank with them.  One can find combination inverter/chargers (and I have a nice Aims Power one), but if you have a big inverter and a smaller generator, having a separate charger is a good idea.  Most inverter/chargers pass the “shore” AC through when the generator is running, which means you can’t start a load beyond what your generator will start.  My inverter has no problems starting my air conditioner (brief peak around 2kW), but my generator (1.6kW max) won’t start it.  If I had a separate charger, I could be charging the battery bank from generator and still run everything from the inverter.  It’s a minor issue, but worth mentioning.
Generator fuel is another topic worth covering briefly.  Because a properly sized system will easily run most of the year without generator (I prefer somewhat overpaneling since panels are cheap), the generator won’t be needed quite a bit of the time.  A gasoline generator can gum up the fuel system, especially in the summer – you should drain the carburetor and fuel tank before storing it for the summer, unless it happens to go with you for camping trips and the like.  Propane is a much better generator fuel for a “winter use” generator.  It stores more or less perfectly (it doesn’t go bad like gas does), it’s a bit easier to start with in the winter, but it does require a bit more effort to haul it in.  If you’ve got a large propane tank for heat, absolutely run the generator from it as well (and maybe have a few smaller tanks in case the big one runs out).  If you don’t have a large enough tank to run the heat and the generator, it’s a bit more of a toss up.  I still use gas for my generator, complete with extended run tank, but I wouldn’t mind going to propane at some point.  The propane carburetors are annoyingly expensive (roughly what I paid for my generator), so I haven’t gone down that road – yet.

So: Why Do You Want Off Grid Power?

All of that said, there are certainly some valid reasons to go with an off grid power system.  It boils down to how much you’re willing to deal with the downsides and maintenance of such a system, and if it actually makes sense for your situation.  Here are some of the common reasons I see, and my thoughts on them.

“I’m going to get some solar panels, a PowerWall, and kick the utility company to the curb!”

Or some variant on this theme.  I see this a lot, especially in certain circles, and this type of comment is, near as I can tell, a virtue signaling throwaway that won’t be followed through on.  It’s typically someone with a power hungry electric car, presumably a large-ish house (I suppose someone, somewhere, owns a Tesla and lives in a tiny house, but that’s likely to be rare), and zero understanding of the nature of off grid solar.  It’s not that the task is literally impossible, but it’s likely to be so expensive as to make it never happen (and cost radically more than even expensive grid power).  A typical suburban home is not designed for off grid power, and pretty much only functions with an awful lot of energy input for heating, cooling, and general function.  They’re not efficient, and they are oriented based on what’s convenient, not where the sun is.
If one really, really wanted to do this, I’d suggest having a natural gas furnace as a backup for winter heat, and a natural gas generator with auto-start.  But, really, it’s a silly thing to do.

Plus, the PowerWall is not some magic micro-fusion generator.  It’s a fairly small battery pack that consumes some amount of energy to thermally manage the cells (How much?  Nobody has any clue!), and it isn’t rated for off grid use.  Plus, you can’t get one on any sort of schedule – “Sign up for a preorder, wait for someone to call” is not a useful way to order a product you need to build a house.

“It’s criminal that we’re not using the free energy coming out of the sky, man!  Free power for life!”

I see this a bit less, but I have run across it.  Yes.  The energetic photons are free.  The equipment to capture them and turn them into electrons is certainly not free, and certainly not free of environmental consequences.
If one wanted to build a system along these lines, you could.  Build something without battery storage, that provides a trickle of power when the sun is actually shining.  Accept that you won’t have power in the winter, or during any darker weeks, and have fun.  Direct DC use from the panel would be good here, and perhaps one might add a tiny little battery to buffer power for when clouds go past, but nothing sized for overnight storage or weeks of darkness.  You’d be able to charge a cell phone, and maybe run a laptop, but that’s about it.  Nothing resembling grid power.

“The power goes out a lot where I live, and I’d like to have proper backup power for my house.”

This is another reason I hear for wanting off grid power – or, really, a grid tied system that can run without the grid for sustained periods of time.  I plan to put something like this on my house at some point, and the costs are higher than a typical micro-inverter based system, but this is a reasonable enough system design that I’ll cover in great detail at some point in the future (when I have time and money for it, which is unlikely to be particularly soon).
The cheap way to do it is to have an automatic transfer switch and a backup generator, but if you’d like something nicer, there exist some inverter/chargers that will run most of a home and can request generator power when needed.  One would have a smaller battery bank for this sort of setup (AGM is well suited to standby use like this), and rely on the generator instead of batteries for higher overnight loads.  If you wanted, you could run your house on an Outback Radian and generator (plus some batteries) without any solar at all!

“I’m building a house somewhere awesome, and the power company wants $5k/$20k/$100k to run a power line.”

This can be a very good reason to use off grid power!  A lot of the decision is based around how convenient one wants power, and how much the power company wants.  I wouldn’t suggest going this route on anything under about $10k to run a new power line in, but for higher costs, an off grid power system is a reasonable alternative.  Plus, one might consider the repair time for a long power line, if a tree falls on it during a storm.  You’d be at the far end of the repair queue.
My advice for this reason is to subscribe to Home Power Magazine, with the digital archive option.  Start reading backwards (designs from the 80s and 90s are historically interesting but not as useful today), and look closely at the off grid homes featured.  Designing a home specifically for off grid operation is a far better option than building a standard box and trying to power it with solar, and the system will be much smaller for a well designed home.  Heavy insulation, earth coupling, and various other techniques can lead to a home that requires very, very little energy to remain comfortable year round.

You’ll still have to pay attention to energy, and still likely have to heat with biomass or propane, but a properly designed off grid home, out in the middle of nowhere, can work very well indeed!

“I have an RV and I hate generators.”

This is another good reason to design an off grid power system.  Up until fairly recently, the general belief was that you couldn’t run RVs without a generator – but there are plenty of people doing this now.  One of the better known is the Technomadia folks (a bus conversion that’s pure electric – they talk a lot about solar and battery for sustained off grid living).
RVs fall into two categories: Short trip use (weekend or so), and full time living (or anything longer than about a week).  For short duration use, going with a larger battery bank and a bit less solar is a viable option – you may not make up the charge every day, but you have enough capacity for the trip.  For a full timer RV, extra solar matters, and a lot of people carry panels they can deploy on the ground for increased collection area in the winter.

Handy Bob has much to say about solar in RVs.

Consider the Problem Closely

My goal here isn’t to discourage you from going with off grid power.  It’s simply to describe some of the nature of it, and to give you a bit more in the way of information to make a decision.  Many of the common perceptions about it are simply wrong, and I haven’t found many places that compile a lot of information in one place.  This is one of my series of posts related to solar and off grid power, and you might find something of value in the others along this line as well.
If you want to build an off grid power system – go for it!  Just go into it with your eyes open.

Oh, and if you’re curious about the top photo, where it looks like the two banks of panels are aimed quite differently – they are.  I’m lazy.  I get enough power out of them aimed like that, and haven’t had to adjust the top bank yet.  The top bank is nearly vertical, which captures the low winter sun and sheds snow well.  The lower bank is aimed closer to summer peak, and while I should lower it a bit, I haven’t felt like doing that.  It’s heavy, and I’ll probably need to borrow the winch truck to lower it safely.  Perks of being overpaneled – optimizing every watt doesn’t matter!

Read more
Or “Pilot Reports.”  Number one.  Because this is the first of them on this blog.

Flying.  It’s awesome.  I do it.  I’m finally able to do more of it.  Keep reading for more!

Yes, I’m a Pilot

And you can’t make the joke about how you tell a pilot in a bar, don’t worry, he’ll tell you – well, at least, until now.  I figure a few years into the blog is long enough to mention such things in passing, especially when I’ve spent my Friday flying, my Saturday re-roofing an old church building, and haven’t had time to put together my more usual technical posts.  I’ve got plenty in the works, just none ready at this time, and I’ve had this percolating for a while.

I’ve actually had my pilot’s license for a hair over 9 years – I got it back in April, 2009.  I flew a lot in Iowa, and then didn’t really do much flying for a while.  It takes me a while to get settled in an area and have the time to really start flying again, and in some areas, I’m just not that comfortable flying.  I learned at an uncontrolled field, and the Seattle airspace, when I lived up there, was just sort of intimidating.  I never flew in it enough to be comfortable in it, and Seattle isn’t a great place to fly single engine anyway – it’s icing conditions in the (low) clouds a depressingly large part of the year, and… just, nope.  I don’t have my instrument rating yet.

Out in Idaho?  It’s a great part of the country to fly in, there are an absurd number of little backcountry strips (dirt, gravel, or grass strips, usually in out of the way places, mostly along rivers in canyons, generally with amazing fishing or camping) scattered around the state, and even if you don’t do that sort of flying, it’s the sort of state that flying makes sense in.  The weather is generally quite good for large parts of the year, and there are plenty of places that simply don’t have direct roads between “here” and “there.”  While a lot of Idaho is quite mountainous, there are also plenty of plains regions, and most of the mountains have valleys between them you can quite safely fly up.

This would be the sort of thing I see out where I live – big, flat, open plains, with snow capped mountains in the back.

Also, the whole commercial drone operator thing (“Part 107”)?  If you already have a pilot’s license, it’s literally an hour or so of some online slides and videos, take a quick quiz, and sit down with your CFI to sign off on the paperwork.  Super easy.  If you’ve got a pilot’s license, there’s no reason not to get your commercial drone operator cert.

Flying to Ogden, Utah for an Aquarium

The opening photo is actually of a Cessna 172 we flew to Ogden, Utah on Friday.  Why?  Well, my daughter has been pestering us to see a different aquarium than the one we usually go to, and there was a a SeaQuest (not DSV… sadly) in one of the malls out in Ogden.  It’s a weird place for an aquarium, but it’s actually a quite good aquarium, and we really enjoyed the trip out and back.  It’s the type of thing you can do with a small airplane that just isn’t easy to do any other way (unless you like an awful lot of time in a car).

Driving, Google says it’s about 5 hours – each way.  And that’s with I-84 running almost directly between Boise and Salt Lake City (seriously, we followed the interstate a large chunk of the way).

Flying, in the Cessna 172 we took (which cruises around 122kt, or 140mph), it was about 2.3 hours each way, with a bit of time on the ground.  Total time logged on the Hobbs (airframe time counter) was 4.9 hours, and that includes ground time, runup, etc.  I didn’t take the most direct route, either, because that would have put us directly over some mountains peaks, and there’s just no good reason to do that when there are perfectly good flatter, lower areas you can follow.  Also, a direct route would have put us over the Great Salt Lake for a good bit longer than I’m comfortable with in a single engine aircraft (especially with a pregnant wife and a 3 year old in the airplane), so we flew around the north edge to keep within easy gliding range of something hard.

The way out, in the morning, was silky smooth the entire way.  The way back, less so.  It wasn’t violently rough, but we were getting rocked around a bit by the mountains and the thermals.  You’d think a Cessna 172 wouldn’t be bothered that much by thermals, but we certainly were!  I had to shove the nose down and pull the throttle back to keep from overspeeding the prop (fixed pitch) quite a few times, and I also found a solid hunk of sinking air that dropped me several hundred feet despite trying to climb.  So… not nearly the nice ride back that it was on the way out.  However, I did get a chance to play in some very nice ridge lift (wind blowing against a mountain side and going up)!

For those who haven’t flown into a halfway decent sized airport in a Cessna, you can usually get a “crew car” out of the FBO (Fixed Base of Operations) you stop and and, ideally, fuel up at.  Crew cars are an interesting little beast, and the best you can normally say is that “they run.”  This FBO had a BMW 7 series – which seemed a good bit excessive as a crew car, until I saw it.  For a 115k mile BMW, it was rough.  The driver’s mirror was cracked, there was body damage on the front bumper, the seat belt and/or airbag system was malfunctioning, and it generally met my expectations for a crew car.  I was afraid it was going to be too nice!  You get nice crew cars at some places, but you usually pay about $1/gal more for fuel at those places…

Why SeaQuest instead of a larger one?  Two reasons.  First, 3 year old.  Their attention span for something like this is limited to a few hours, tops.  Second, I haven’t been doing enough flying in controlled airspace recently to really feel comfortable going into SLC and mixing it up with the jets.  Plus, their 100LL is something like $6/gallon, and the 172 I took is sort of a thirsty girl.

Trip Costs and Alternatives

The round trip, flying, cost us around $400, total.  I’m not going to claim general aviation is cheap, but remember, we took 3 people, could have carried 4, on our own route, seeing what we wanted to see on the way, on our own schedule.  I can find round trip flights into Salt Lake City from about $240, which, for three people, is $720.  Plus, that’s from a good bit further away (Boise vs Nampa), to a good bit further away.  The flight is only an hour, but the rest of the time more than makes up for it (TSA time, boarding, etc).  Plus, their schedule, versus ours, and having to get a rental car at the far end.
Driving, it’s around 650 miles.  At the IRS mileage rate of 54.5 cents per mile, that’s an estimated cost of $354.  Plus over twice the trip time.  Yes, I’m aware the IRS rate is higher than some people can operate a vehicle for (myself included), but it’s relevant to an awful lot of people with newer cars.
So, really, it’s quite comparable to other methods of taking a trip like this – even on literally a best case route (an interstate that goes between the two points).  Add another person (as will be the case in… oh, right about a month now), and the numbers look even better!

Cessna 182s

Another somewhat recent upgrade for me, flying-wise, is that I’m now checked out to fly the club Cessna 182s.  If you’re familiar with small high wing airplanes (which is what Cessna makes), they have three very common airplanes – the 152, the 172, and the 182.  The 152 is a fun little two seat trainer.  I love how they fly, but “gutless wonder” is, perhaps, generous.  They’re just enough airplane to get two people into the sky, they’re tiny (I’ve seen motorcycles with more space between people than you get in a 152), and they don’t have very long legs because they only carry about 20 gallons of fuel.  They don’t burn that much, but they’re not exactly fast, either.  My now-wife and I did a long cross country to visit family in a 152, and we we still liked each other after that enough to get married!
The Cessna 172 is the standard four place (really, two plus two – you can’t usually carry four adults, but you can fit two adults and two kids easily) Cessna.  They also have fixed pitch props, but they carry a useful amount of fuel (typically 40 gallons), have a useful payload, and are the bog standard Cessna you’ll find at every airport in America (and probably the world).  They’re the Honda Civic of airplanes (yes, Piper folks, I know Piper makes airplanes too, but you can’t deny that Cessnas are more common).  That’s what I learned to fly in, and they’re a pretty good “do everything” airplane.  They’re forgiving to fly, fairly easy to land, but the vast majority out there are set up as trainers, and aren’t great traveling airplanes as a result.
Then you get to the Cessna 182.  This is, according to many people, Cessna’s smallest “real airplane.”  They typically have a big snarling 6 cylinder Continental O-470, a constant speed prop (like a transmission for airplanes – it lets the engine be more efficient at a wide range of airspeeds), and enough payload capacity to haul four adults – or, alternately, two adults, two kids, and an awful lot of 100LL avgas (80 gallons is typical).  That leads to a wonderfully long range traveling airplane, and because it’s bigger and heavier, it’s a more stable platform as well.  They have more handy features like rudder trim, and they cruise a good bit faster than a 172, and will climb much more rapidly.  Plus, the constant speed prop helps them be a good bit more stable in cruise (a minor increase in airspeed isn’t met with a faster turning prop, which lets the engine make more power, etc).  Great, great airplanes.
And I’m checked out in them now.  There’s more to keep up with, but for long distance work?  They’re great.  They also are the sort of airplane that’s equally happy potting around the country in 500-600nm legs, or flying into little dirt strips in the middle of nowhere.  They’re not the most efficient airplane out there, but they’ll do just about anything you ask.
So, expect some PIREPs out of this blog about 182 travel at some point going forward!

Some Interesting Area Photos

Finally, I’ll end with a few photos I’ve taken from the air that I happen to like.  This is the Swan Falls Dam on the Snake River – one of many little hydro dams that power southwest Idaho.  This particular dam was installed, originally, to power Silver City – a former mining town up in the Owyhee mountains of Idaho.

Celebration Park, along the river, is another great place to spend time in the summer.

And one of many new solar installations in Idaho.  This one is out by Murphy, but they are popping up like weeds – there are two between Boise and Mountain Home, and they’re just going up everywhere.  I won’t say I see a new one ever single time I fly, but I’ve certainly discovered quite a few from the air!

So, that’s PIREP #1.  I hope to work a variety of others into the mix of posts over time as I do more worth talking about in the air.  One of these days, I even hope to perfect satellite connected Planegressing…

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Off Grid System Design Considerations and Battery Types
People are regularly surprised that my solar powered office is driven by a moderately sized bank of lead acid batteries instead of a fancy modern lithium bank.  I mean, I do work on lithium batteries regularly, and I could certainly build myself a large lithium bank at fairly minimal cost (compared to purchasing one, if I were willing to do that much spot welding).  But, in a deck box behind my office, I have a boring set of 8 Trojan T-105RE batteries in a 48V/225Ah (10.8kWh) bank.  Why?

Quite a few reasons – which I’m about to dive into!  Read on!

Off Grid Power

Before diving too far into the types of batteries used off grid, I’d like to define what I mean by off grid use.  Some of the characteristics I mention are of great value off grid, and of far less value for a grid tied system.
By off grid, I mean a battery system that is the primary energy store for a structure without a power grid connection.  So, a home without the power grid, a business without the power grid, a little solar powered shed without the power grid, etc.
In general, this sort of system is subject to daily cycles.  This means that the battery is charged and discharged (ideally both, but sometimes only discharged) every single day.  Or very close to it.  The system never has a chance to sit and rest, because it’s always under some sort of load (charge or discharge).  And, generally, it means there’s someone around who can pay attention to it.
An alternative I’ll mention occasionally is “cabin use” or “RV use.”  This refers to a system that is used sometimes (often on weekends or for a week at a time), but isn’t used for full time power.  For a cabin in the mountains, the system may get used a few days, and then will have a week or more (unattended) to charge.  For an RV, the same applies.  If you’re full timing in an RV, you have a power use much closer to a standard off grid system, so pay attention to those bits.

Lead Acid Batteries

As much as it stuns a lot of people to learn this, the vast majority of off grid power systems out there today use lead acid batteries.  Most of them use flooded lead acid (it sloshes when you move it), though there are certainly some systems using sealed batteries (typically AGM).  They work – quite well, in fact.  And they have some characteristics that are very well suited to an off grid power system, especially with some of the new developments.
I’ve written a post about keeping lead acid batteries alive in an off grid power system, which you may find very helpful if you’re using them, or if you’re interested in their quirks and how to keep them alive.

In general, lead acid batteries really like being fully charged, and the system should be designed around keeping them as fully charged as possible, as much as possible.  The various lead carbon blends reduce the requirements for this somewhat, but it’s still helpful to charge them fully and regularly – regardless of the type.

Types of Lead Acid Batteries

There are a few different axis you can categorize lead acid batteries on.  Some are great for off grid use, some are reasonably terrible for off grid use.  It’s important to understand this, because using the wrong type of battery for the use case will generally work incredibly poorly, and lead to a uselessly short battery life (and will make off grid power even more expensive than it already is).

Common to all lead acid variants is that they really, really like to be fully charged – regularly.  If lead acid isn’t fully charged quite often, they suffer (to varying degrees) from sulfation.  In the context of battery longevity, sulfation refers to the hard sulfation that builds up on plates, blocking active area and preventing the battery from delivering rated power or capacity.  If you’re interested in more details on lead acid, I’ll refer you to my detailed post on lead acid.

One problem for off grid use with lead acid is that they don’t charge instantly.  To properly charge lead acid, pump current in until the voltage is at a particular temperature compensated value, then hold it there until the charge current drops off.  A “quick” charge cycle for my bank is 5-6 hours from sun up until I drop to float, and that can be a good bit longer (or even all day long) if I don’t get as much sun.

Flooded Lead Acid (FLA)

The most common type of lead acid battery out there, especially for off grid, is flooded lead acid.  This has plates of lead and lead dioxide dunked in a liquid sulfuric acid (“battery acid”) electrolyte.  If it sloshes, it’s flooded lead acid.  They’re very robust and hard to damage, but they require good ventilation as they offgas hydrogen and oxygen during charging, and then watering to make up that hydrogen and oxygen.  The oxygen isn’t a problem, but you don’t want hydrogen building up in enclosed spaces.  It’ll ignite if you look at it wrong (seriously, the ignition energy for hydrogen is frighteningly low), and hydrogen explosions are no fun.

Flooded lead acid is best for a daily cycled system that can get regular maintenance.  They need watering every few months, and if they’re left fully discharged, they can freeze in the cold (as well as badly sulfating the plates up).  However, they’re incredibly tolerant of being moderately overcharged (useful as the string gets older to help keep things balanced), and you can get the “ground truth” about the health of each cell by measuring the specific gravity.  There’s no need to rely on voltages and guesses to figure out battery health.

Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM)

The other common type of lead acid battery (and certainly more common in some uses) is Absorbed Glass Mat.  This type still has the lead plates, but instead of liquid electrolyte sloshing around, the spaces between the plates are filled with a weave of glass fibers, and the electrolyte is soaked into these.  The weave isn’t fully saturated, though, so the acid remains fixed in place.  There’s no liquid to slosh around, which means these batteries can be mounted in almost any orientation, and they don’t (typically) release gasses during charging.  The cells are designed such that the hydrogen and oxygen can recombine in the cell if the charging proceeds at normal rates.  There are vents that will release an overpressure, but they shouldn’t trigger during normal operation.
AGM has some advantages over flooded lead acid for certain uses.  They tend to have a lower internal resistance, which makes for better power delivery and faster charging.  They’re maintenance free (“maintenance impossible”), which can be nice if they’re sitting unused for part of the year.  They also do somewhat better in cold temperatures, but it’s still a bad idea to let them freeze.  And, if you have varying battery angles (say, a sailboat), they won’t spill.

However, they’re more expensive than flooded, typically have a shorter service life (compared to comparably priced flooded), and since you can’t measure the specific gravity (only voltage), it’s harder to make sure that they’re being fully charged.

Gel/”Lead Crystal”/”Lead Silicon”

The final variant of lead acid is the gelled electrolyte type.  This involves some additive in the electrolyte that turns it into a stiff jelly instead of a liquid.  It’s similar to AGM in many ways (orientation independence, maintenance free/impossible), but it’s a lot toucher about charging voltages, and it doesn’t work very well in the cold.  They’re somewhat more than a “gimmick” battery, but an awful lot of the marketing makes them seem like a gimmick.
They have no business in an off grid power system of any sort, and if you run across some quirky sounding lead based battery with slick marketing, it’s probably a gel battery – and you should avoid it.

Lead Carbon

Lead carbon isn’t actually a type of lead acid, but it’s something you’ll see in the marketing.  It refers to blends of lead and carbon, usually on the negative plate, that help prevent hard sulfation from building up.  It’s a good thing for an off grid power system, because it means that if the battery doesn’t get fully charged during some of the winter months, it shouldn’t cause the same sort of capacity loss and damage that you might see without the carbon.
The problem with this sort of technology is that it takes an awful lot of years, in real world conditions, to find out how good it is.  The shorter term tests are very promising, but it’s not until people wear out batteries in the real world that we see how good things really are.
For an off grid system, I think the various carbon additives in the plates are worth the slight extra cost to experiment with, though.

Lithium Ion Batteries

Moving on from the ancient lead acid technology, the next battery technology I’m covering is lithium ion.
I rebuild lithium ion packs for people, and I’m quite familiar with the characteristics of lithium batteries.  They’re absolutely an established technology, and by traditional battery terms, they are impressive.  The energy density (kWh) is awesome, the power density (W) is awesome, and the cycle life ranges from “meh” to “wowzers,” depending heavily on the particular chemistry involved and how they’re treated.  The lithium ion cells people are most familiar with are 18650s – 18mm in diameter, 65mm long.  And a cylinder.

There is an incredible amount of research and investment going into the various lithium ion chemistries, and they’re quite exciting for many applications.  The modern wave of electric cars wouldn’t be possible without them, cell phones rely on them, and pretty much any long lasting device uses lithium ion cells of one chemistry or another.  They also charge quite rapidly and don’t need any sort of “absorb” cycle during charge.  Just pump current into them and don’t exceed the fully charged voltage (you’ll get a tapering of charge current, but it takes far less time than lead acid to fully charge).

We’re seeing more and more lithium ion for stationary power storage, but they’re still not particularly common in off grid systems – and, I’ll argue, most of the variants aren’t a great fit for off grid power storage for a few reasons.

Characteristics of Lithium Ion

Lithium ion batteries are amazing for portable energy storage – cell phones, laptops, and electric cars wouldn’t be anywhere near where they are today without lithium ion batteries.  They store a ton of energy, they can release it incredibly quickly, and they can maintain a reasonable cycle life while doing this.

But, all that said, they have a few characteristics that make them a bit annoying to use in an off grid system.

The first is that they’re most stressed when fully charged and when fully empty (or deeply discharged – you really shouldn’t let a normal lithium chemistry below about 2.5V/cell, and there’s no good reason to be down even that low).  Sitting fully charged (4.2V/cell or 4.35V/cell, depending on the chemistry, though some go even higher) is really hard on lithium cells – and an off grid power system is likely to be doing this for a large part of the year if it’s been designed for year round use.

The second is that lithium ion cells require good thermal management.  Getting them hot really hurts cycle life (which is true of lead acid as well, but lead acid has an awful lot more thermal mass to prevent them from getting hot) – but being hot and fully charged, as one might find in the summer with long, hot days of sun, just slaughters them.  In addition, they can’t be safely charged if they’re below about 45F (7C).  You get lithium plating and that’s permanent capacity loss.

So, what this means for off grid use is that you really either need to have the batteries inside where they’re thermally regulated, or you need a separate heating/cooling system for them that keeps them in a safe temperature range.  This is part of why some of the packs out there have cooling loops.

Thermal Runaway and Venting

Lithium chemistries also have a particularly nasty failure mode called “thermal runaway.”  If they get too hot for whatever reason, they start degrading internally at an ever-increasing rate – which releases energy.  Once they get hot enough, they start gassing their electrolyte and melting their internal bits, which gets really exciting, really fast.  The electrolyte gasses are typically flammable, and it’s not at all uncommon to have molten bits of metal coming out the vent as well – so you get a nice little torch.  This failure mode releases enough energy to propagate to other nearby cells, and YouTube has many videos of this happening (either intentionally or by mistake).
There’s a great paper from 2014 comparing the failure modes of a few different chemistries, and the takeaway should be that you shouldn’t use LiCoO2 anywhere.  LiFePO4 is far better, and the other more recent lithium chemistries sit somewhere in between.
The takeaway here should be that you really want to use LiFePO4 if you’re going with non thermally managed lithium.  Alternately, a pack that does proper thermal management and can prevent runaway.  Yes, I know the “DIY Powerwall” folks do things differently.  No, I don’t think that’s a good idea.  Yes, I think they’re building hazardous fireballs waiting for a place to happen.  Don’t build one of those monstrosities out of junk cells if you plan to keep it within fire spread range of where you sleep.

Slick All-in-One Lithium Packs

You know, “Powerwall” type devices.  If you have the money for one, have the tolerance for the unknown unknowns of one, and can find someone to install one for you in an off grid setup, have a ball.  I don’t treat them as a particularly useful option because they’re almost always seriously short on documentation, and are not (near as I can tell) particularly configurable.  They’re a black box, and I’m not really OK with those in an off grid system I have to maintain myself.  If you can find one with open documentation such that one can interface with it externally (or, ideally, that drives the voltages like a lead acid pack so you don’t even need to talk to it if you don’t want), let me know.  Until then, I stand by my view that they’re likely to be more trouble than they’re worth, off grid.
If you’re going to insist, in the comments, that they’re the future and I should promote them, please answer one question first: How much energy does a Powerwall consume in the winter to stay warm?  Or in the summer to stay cool?  That type of thing matters for off grid use.

Nickel Iron (“Edison Cells”)

Finally, I want to touch on the nickel iron chemistry.  On paper, it looks amazing.  They last nearly forever, don’t care if you overcharge them, aren’t hurt by sitting drained, and are the sort of robust battery that means you can probably buy them for life.
Which… is mostly true.  The problem is that they’re actually quite the royal pain to actually live with.  There are a few people over on SolarPanelTalk who have the NiFe cells, and they try, ever so hard, to like them – but they mostly find them annoying.
The major downsides of NiFe are that they’re insanely inefficient (in terms of round trip energy), they absolutely guzzle water, they’re quite loud when charging, and they suffer (fairly badly) from carbonate poisoning as they absorb carbon from the air.
“Round trip efficiency” means “Power out versus power in” – in watt-hours, not amp-hours.  NiFe cells have a much higher charging voltage than discharge voltage, percentage-wise, and they’re pretty good at gassing during charge (which isn’t “useful” from a charge perspective).  If you get about 60%, you’re doing well.  This means that you need more solar, or more generator use, to get a certain amount of energy out of the system.
The aggressive gassing during charge means that the battery bank is insanely loud (as in, “You should have hearing protection to work around it during charging”).  This also means that a good sized bank will go through many gallons of distilled water a month (you may wish to consider running your own distiller if you have a NiFe bank).  A good sized lead acid bank will go through a few gallons a year.
On top of that, while you can replace the electrolyte every decade or so (and have to), there’s no particularly good place to dump a lot of hazmat (potassium hydroxide and lithium hydroxide).
Plus, the up front costs are staggering.
It’s useful in some situations (I might use them for a mountaintop power outpost if I could find an automatic watering system I trusted), but it’s just not a good general purpose off grid solution for most people, in most systems.

Off Grid Seasons

Before diving into what I think the best battery choice is, I need to discuss the four seasons of off grid power and how the system will typically run – because this directly feeds into why I make the suggestions I do.

Solar Summer

Most people assume that summer is the best for an off grid power system due to the long, sunny days.  It’s actually a bit harder than it seems, at least if you have any sort of mechanical refrigeration (“Air conditioning”) powered from solar.

Yes, the days are long, but the days are also very hot!  As solar panels heat up, they produce less power (at least if you have a MPPT charge controller, which you should).  My panels lose output as they heat up at the rate of 0.41%/C – so on a hot day (40C), with the panels baking in the sun (say, 60C), they produce 20% less power than on a cool, breezy day with the panels at 10C.  You notice the difference.  Plus, summer time tends to have less rain (at least in a lot of the country), so the panels are dirty.  And, worse, in the west, you get wildfires.  That cruds up the sky quite badly, and the smoke coats the panels.  By the fall, my panels are absolutely disgusting, and I can tell the difference in power output.  I’d say they are easily 25-30% down on power by the first rains of fall.

Solar Spring/Fall

Spring and fall are, at least for me, the easiest times of year.  The days are shorter, but the skies are clear, the panels are cool, and I need far less in the way of cooling.  I have plenty of power to ride through the night (admittedly, my night use is fairly low), and there’s a ton of surplus to throw at diversion loads.  Plus, we get rain often enough that my panels are clean.  I don’t clean my panels other than letting them sit outside in the rain, so this makes a difference.  The jump in production from the rain of fall is huge.

For the sunny three seasons (spring, summer, and fall), your battery bank is likely to be fully charged, almost every day.  This means that the battery bank will be spending a lot of time full – which, if you recall, is something lead acid really likes doing!

Solar Winter

Sucks.  You have a backup generator and charger, right?
Winter is the worst time for solar, obviously, but I’d thought I could overpanel my way through it.  Nope!  We get inversions in the winter, which roughly translates to “A week with no sun and no wind.”  You’ll need some variety of backup heat.  I use propane, though one could just as easily use biomass (a wood stove or pellet stove).  

Getting through the winter is the challenge.  If you can do that, the rest of the year is easy.  For winter, the battery bank will be drained a lot more than the rest of the year.  This is a time when lithium’s tolerance of being partially charged is really handy, but it’s only a month or so when it’s really a big problem in most areas.

Panels: Quantity and Orientation

Assuming a heavily solar based system, what should one do with panels and how should one orient them?
My advice would be to put up somewhat more panel than you think you need – in two orientations.
For the bulk of your charging, you should go with south facing panels.  However, absolute max theoretical production is not useful to an off grid system.  You don’t have the grid to soak your power, so what’s far more useful is to have panels that extend your day as long as possible – with a focus on morning power.

East Facing Panels Rock!

After I built my main solar arrays, I had two panels left over, and for lack of any better ideas for them, I built a set of “morning panels” on the east wall of my shed.  They swing south if needed, but mostly they sit docked on the wall and soak up the morning sun.

I assumed these would be generally helpful in the morning – but I didn’t realize just how amazing they would be!  On a typical morning, I get 1-2 hours in which these panels are outproducing my main array – on an absolute basis.  Not producing more per panel – these two panels outproduce all 8 main panels, in terms of amps into the battery bank.  It’s amazing, and what it means is that I have a significantly longer “solar day” to help get my battery bank charged up than I do with just the main array.

When you’re trying to recover from a week of generator use on the first sunny day you get, this sort of thing makes a huge difference in the winter!  And even in the summer, it reduces the time of discharge on my battery bank by 1-2 hours, every single day.  These are absolutely worth it!

Consider a Split Bank

If you have enough area to put panels (and are ground mounting), doing a split panel bank (some facing southeast, some facing southwest) would be worth considering as well.  You can’t do this with the different directions in series, but as long as each direction is in parallel with the other direction, it’ll work fine, and you’ll extend your solar production by a good amount.  Evening production just doesn’t matter as much, since your bank should be full by then, so if you have to pick one, go with a southeast panel facing.

Panel Angle

Another area to think about (if you have the option) is the panel angle to the ground.  Ideally, you’d swing the panels to the sun angle in the sky, which I can do, but it turns out that with enough panels for some of winter, I’m so overpowered most of the year that it doesn’t matter that much.
If you get snow, vertical panels are awesome in the winter.  They shed snow wonderfully!  As soon as they get any light on them at all, they start heating up through the snow, and the snow comes sliding off.  It’s fun to watch, and beats manually clearing snow!  Even though you lose a bit of theoretical production compared to a 20-30 degree angle, the snow clearing aspect of a vertical panel is worth it!


I talk about overpaneling a lot, and it solves a lot of problems with solar.  My system is rather heavily overpaneled (2850W of panels hung for a 300-500W running load during the day), but what it means is that I can rely on solar, without having to run my generator, even on cloudy days most of the year.  I’m able to fully charge the batteries, which is key to longevity, quite often.  It doesn’t work all winter long, but it works wonderfully most of the year!
If your battery bank can’t tolerate the full charge of your panels, no problem.  A good MPPT charge controller will let you limit the max current into the battery bank, which means that you can use more panel area than might be otherwise allowed, and still avoid abusing the battery bank too badly.  Splitting your panels (some southeast, some southwest) is another good way to increase panel area without increasing peak charging current.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that while having panels pointed at the sun is helpful when there’s sun, on a cloudy day, the only thing that matters is raw panel area.  I’ve had many days when swinging my morning panels from east to southwest changes the charge current by no more than 10% – min to max.  For clouds, panel area is king!

So… What’s the Best Off Grid Battery?

Based on all this, what should you pick as your off grid battery?
Well, unpopular though it is in some circles, it’s really hard to beat good old flooded lead acid for a daily cycled system!  They have a wonderfully long lifespan if treated properly, and they absolute love the 9 months of the year when they can be fully charged daily (or nearly so).  Lithium is quite stressed in this situation, which a properly designed system will produce on a very regular basis!
For something like a cabin that’s used on the weekends, you might consider AGM for the lower maintenance requirements.  It depends on the use cases – if you’re up there regularly, flooded is fine, but you need to be careful to not let it deeply discharge during the winter (or it will freeze and burst the case – which is just a nasty mess in the spring).  AGM is going to be more expensive for a daily cycled system, and I don’t suggest it when flooded will work, but it’s a good compromise for infrequent use.
If you do insist on lithium, LiFePO4 is the way to go, but back off the charging voltages in the summer.  It’s a robust chemistry, but sitting fully charged, especially while hot, does wear them out quickly.  It’s rare to find anyone with this type of bank really getting rated life out of the pack, but if you can keep them cool and charge to 80% or so in the summer, they should be fine.  Make sure they’re warm when you charge them in the winter, though!
And, whatever you do, consider pointing your panels something other than due south.  More panel area is useful, and splitting the panel aiming will lead to a much more useful power curve as compared to everything facing due south.
Hopefully this helps out a bit with your system design!  Good luck!
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On the Art of Repair: Re-Capacitoring an Old Mainboard
One of the misconceptions about electronics is that if there are no moving parts, the system should last forever.  This is closer to true than not, but one really common item that does wear out on many systems are capacitors.  Electrolytic capacitors are the usual problem, but, fear not!  You can repair them easily and at home!  Beyond just repairing a mainboard, this week is a bit of a discussion on the art of repair, and why you should get good at it.

Get out your soldering iron and join me!

Mainboard Failure and Symptoms

This particular mainboard has been in service since around 2008 in my main home server.  It’s an Abit IB9, an old Core 2 Duo 1.86GHz chip, and a whopping 4GB of RAM.  The CPU was the cheapest one I could find, but this was my home workhorse for many years (it made it a decade, and I haven’t been gentle on it).  But, one day a few months ago, I noticed my fileserver was not responding.  I power cycled it, and that didn’t bring it back on the network, so I dragged it out and attached a monitor to it.
At which point things started to make less and less sense.  It would start booting, but fail to find the device for the root filesystem – which was on the same drive it had just loaded the kernel and initrd from.  Weird.  Before I could puzzle this particular issue out, though, the problem got worse and it simply stopped finding the IDE drives at all.  The IDE controller didn’t even show up in the boot sequence trying to enumerate the drives.  Sigh.  I ordered some replacement parts for the server to bring it up to modern specs, since an ancient CPU, 4GB, and some old IDE drives just don’t work very well for what I’ve been asking of it lately.
I pulled the board out of the system, and tried to boot it without anything attached.  Sometimes it would boot, sometimes not.  Nothing reliable, and nothing particularly repeatable.  Obviously, it was toast.

And then I saw the capacitors.  Now, if you’re not one who stares at electronics regularly, take a look at the capacitors (the round things sticking up) in the upper left.  Now compare them to the ones at the bottom and along the right.  See how the tops are bulging up, and there’s crud leaking out?  They didn’t come from the factory like that!

Looking around the board, I found more bad ones in the center section.  These are all 6.3V, 1500uF capacitors – and about half of them on the board are visibly bad (bulging and leaking).  That’s generally not a good sign, and capacitors (of this size) are usually related to power supply regulation and powering things.  Like an IDE controller!

The Capacitor Plague of the Early 2000s

If you were working with electronics in the early 2000s, this issue probably sounds familiar.  There were a ton of electronics that failed due to bad capacitors in the 1999-2005 era, and it was a bad enough problem that it has it’s own Wikipedia pageEverything was affected by what, as near as researchers can tell, was industrial espionage gone wrong (or right, in that the stolen formula was incomplete).
During that era, it was common to be able to buy “failed electronics” for remarkably little, replace the capacitors with ones that didn’t suck, and go on your way with a screaming deal on a computer, TV, etc.  At least if you were one of the people replacing capacitors.  If not, you were probably stuck replacing things, or paying one of those people a hefty chunk of change to fix your stuff.
But, what it boils down to is that if your capacitors have failed (which some of mine very obviously have), it’s not that big a deal to replace them.  Even if they haven’t obviously failed, capacitors age with time, and it’s a good idea to understand the process of replacing the failed ones on equipment that has gotten flakey, especially on the power front.  If we do hit an era in which new equipment is harder to come by (likely during the decline of an empire), those who can fix things are likely to be in demand – and those skills are seriously missing in our culture today.

Replacing Capacitors

In general, solid state capacitors don’t tend to have issues (which is most of the surface mount ones).  The ones that (usually) fail are the electrolyte ones, and on most systems, they’re through-hole mounted!  This means that they have a pair of pins that go all the way through the circuit board to the backside, where they’re soldered in place.  It also means that they’re the easiest style of component to replace!
You can see quite a few rows of through-hole mounted components here – they’re all the little legs sticking up through the back of the board (this is the back of the mainboard).  Replacing them involves removing them, cleaning out the holes, and putting new ones in.

Of course, one must first figure out what capacitors one is replacing and buy some replacements.  I decided, based on the visible failure of 5 of the 10 of one particular type, that I’d replace all of those.  The failed ones are entirely 6.3V 1500uF capacitors, and eBay is a great source for replacement capacitors (though I’d stay clear of the incredibly cheap ones).  Just make sure the diameter is the same, and the height is close (it usually doesn’t matter, but sometimes there are clearance issues with taller ones).  If you really wanted to hunt down the detailed specifications of the failed ones (ESR, ripple current rating, etc), you could, but my experience has been that “close” is more than good enough for capacitors.  Any decent board will be designed so that the exact ratings don’t matter much on the capacitors that change as they age.

Removing a capacitor is fairly easy.  Get your soldering iron hotter than you think is reasonable.  This is lead free solder (which I hate), so you need a hotter iron than you might use for proper solder.  I normally keep my iron around 250C for lead solder, 300C if it’s a big surface, and for lead free I crank it up to 350C or a bit higher.  You’ll want to use the heaviest tip you can, because a lot of capacitors will have one leg in a ground plane, which will soak a ton of heat.  I’ve met some things I can’t remove from a ground plane, but hopefully you can get the capacitors out.

Put a bit of fresh solder on the tip for heat transfer, and go back and forth melting the solder on the two legs.  You can either get both legs molten, or do one at a time and “rock” the capacitor out.  Eventually, it should come free!

I’ve tested a few of these, and the bulging ones are less than 10% of rated capacity (about 130uF instead of 1500uF).  That’s enough to cause problems…

After the legs pop out, you’ll almost certainly have a hole filled with solder.  To resolve this, use your handy desoldering braid, flux the joint up, put a bit of solder on the braid, and it should suck the solder right of the holes.  You may have to try a few times, but it should work quite reliably.

If that doesn’t work, you can always use a solder sucker, but that runs a non-trivial chance of ripping traces out and trashing the interior plating on the hole, so… use a desoldering braid.

Installing the new capacitors is easy – just solder them in place.  With your proper 60/40 lead solder.  One thing to be aware of: Capacitors are directional!  You must make sure you get the negative on the proper side, or the new capacitors are likely to blow up or, in the best case, just not work.  On this board, the negative side has white silk screening, but pay attention to the alignment when you pull the old ones out and match it.  Capacitors typically have a stripe with “-” along it indicating the negative pin.

You can see my shiny new caps here, next to one of the old ones (the brown one at the top).  That one hasn’t failed (yet), but you can see that the new ones are slightly taller.  It’s not a problem for this board, so I don’t care.  Both of the capacitors I’ve removed are leaking.  They haven’t blown the bottom rubber plug out, but they’re both toast.  Luckily, they’ve only been venting on the top, and haven’t blown crud down onto the board.  That’s no good at all!  If your capacitors have blown gunk onto the board, you’ve got to clean it up – that stuff can cause short circuits and literally burn up your mainboard.

<The Count>Six!  Six new capacitors!  Ah hah hah hah!</>  Yes, I have a toddler.  Why do you ask?

The other four I replaced are in the center of the board, right around the BIOS chip (socketed for your hacking enjoyment, if you’re the kind of person who keeps chip readers around and enjoys messing with BIOS images).  Yes, the mainboard is really dusty.  I blew it off after taking these pictures and realizing just how bad it was.

I’m left with a pile of 10 removed capacitors.  Five of them are definitely shot, but I wasn’t about to give the rest the benefit of the doubt since they’re obviously the same type.  Overall cost?  About $3 (I ordered more capacitors than I needed, because… well, who doesn’t need more capacitors?) and about an hour of time to replace them.  You might need less – any blog project takes longer because I’m taking photos and interrupting my work cycles.

The Results

After replacing all the capacitors, I powered the board on with a drive attached to the IDE controller…
And it properly recognized the drive!  I rebooted a number of times, and it rebooted cleanly without hanging.  Everything is back to working, as near as I can tell!  Yay!

On Repair

With the board working again, I’d like to dive into the (increasingly lost) art of repair, and offer some advice and encouragement for my readers on the advantages of learning to fix things.

I’ve been doing deep level repairs on computers and cars for the past 15 years or so, and it’s been very beneficial.  I’ve been able to get some awesome computers over the years for nearly nothing, I’ve been able to keep my cars running for very little money (when money is tight, that’s a useful skill), and I’ve generally been able to build a reputation as a “Fixer of Things” that’s served me very well.
I can even tell you the event that started it.  Back a long time ago in undergrad, my roommate and I picked up some old Powerbook 520s from the university surplus sale (a dangerous place for what little money one might have).  They worked well enough, until one day, for some reason or another, a can of soda ended up dripping through the keyboard of one, filtering down through the rest of the components.  And the unit stopped working.  After much debate about how one might repair this and if it was worth trying (neither of us having any sort of laptop repair skills in the early 2000s), we realized something that’s been fundamental over the years since.
If it’s already broken, you can’t possibly make it worse!  This isn’t something I grew up with, but it’s something that, once grasped, is the key to getting good at repair.  If some gizmo is not working properly, the absolute worst you can do with a failed repair is… have it not working properly.  But you almost certainly learn something in the process, even if the repair doesn’t work (I’ve learned the most from repairs that failed initially and I had to bodge into working condition – IDE cables are a wonderful source of very fine bits of wire, once you destrand the individual conductors), and that builds your knowledge base for future repairs.  Iterate on this over time, and you get some awesome skills built up that let you tackle things nobody else around you will even dream of doing!

The Value of Broken Things

Quick: How much is a broken laptop worth?  Let’s say the power jack broke internally and it won’t charge anymore.  If you’re most people, that’s a catastrophic failure and the laptop isn’t worth anything at that point, because it doesn’t work after the battery discharges.  If you’re handy with a soldering iron and have a set of geekdrivers (those tiny little screwdrivers you need to work on laptops and phones), that laptop is an hour or two of work away from being almost entirely functional again.  I’ve repaired an awful lot of broken power jacks (the Pentium 4 era laptops were horrible about melting the solder away from the center pin where it went into the mainboard), and for a while, I got a steady stream of used laptops in from people with broken ones who would give them to me for free, or barely more than free.
Even if the laptop doesn’t work for deeper issues, it’s still worth something.  The screen is probably still good (or maybe it’s not, and the rest is).  The keyboard probably still works.  The CD drive is probably fine.  And on and on.  Even a badly shattered laptop that’s fallen out of a car has some parts of value left on it.  If you can build up some common parts for popular laptops of the time, it’s often possible to mash a few together and get something that works.  I ran around with a MacBook for a while that had a mismatched screen and body (I think it was a white screen and a black body) – because I’d been able to scrounge enough broken ones that I could put a working one together.
My favorite repair in this category revolved around an old 12″ Powerbook G4.  Remember those sweet little machines?  This one had what, for nearly everyone who looked at it, seemed to be a catastrophic failure.  It had bad display corruption on power on, and refused to boot more than a few seconds before kernel panicing.  Some analysis indicated that it was likely the onboard RAM chip having gone bad (the machine had 256MB onboard and a slot that could take up to 1GB).  What do you do with bad onboard RAM?
At the time, I didn’t have surface mount soldering skills (or an iron to do so).  So, I did the next best thing and simply disconnected the power for the onboard RAM.  Those Powerbooks were a royal pain to take apart (about a million tiny screws), but I got it apart, found the RAM chips, verified which pins that were the power pins, separated them all with a tiny knife and pick, stuffed some external RAM in, booted it, and… hey!  It worked!  And I had a 12″ Powerbook, nearly free except for the 2 hours it took me to disassemble, analyze, repair, and fix the problem.  It was broken already, the only “official” repair for it was a whole new mainboard, and there was really no risk in trying to fix it this other way – if it failed, well, I’d have to find a new mainboard, which is exactly where I started.

Repairing Cars

Have you ever had one of those deals where both parties think the other side is a sucker for taking the deal?  That describes an awful lot of the cars I’ve owned in college and post-college.  In the days before Cash for Clunkers ruined the used car market, you could find some properly cheap cars.  In order of cost, from cheapest on up, I’ve paid $100, $150, $200, and $350 for cars that more or less ran.  The $350 car was one that involved spending the morning at a junkyard trying to get it running, failing, going back home, removing parts from my other car (that had just tossed a timing belt – non-interference engine so it wasn’t a big deal to get running again), and bumming a ride back to the junkyard.  The people behind the counter thought I was some variety of idiot for spending my day at the junkyard, in the mud, to get this old beat up Subaru wagon out.  I thought they were silly for selling me an ’87 Subaru GL wagon, with dual range, for $350.  Yeah, it pissed fuel and the brakes didn’t work well (you had to pump them a few times to get pressure), but they didn’t realize that the leak was from the fuel pump (which was on a separate plate in front of the fuel tank) and that the rear brakes were just comically out of adjustment because this particular model didn’t have automatic clearance adjusters on the rear brakes.  I didn’t tell them these things, either.
Over the years, people have asked me how I learned to work on cars (mostly when I lived places where most people didn’t work on their cars).  I didn’t grow up with it.  I learned it because, quite honestly, I didn’t like walking that much.  I bicycled a ton as well, even through the winter (studded snow tires on a bike are incredible), but if I wanted a running car, there was a long period of my life when the only person who could make that happen was me.  A shop bill wasn’t an option on my budget.  So I learned.  I’d buy a Chiltons or Haynes manual for a car, and dive in.  They’re really helpful guides, and this was long before YouTube had videos for every car under the sun (that’s one area where video can be helpful).  I’d go hang out with other people who were doing things on their cars and learn.  I’d find forums for cars and read.  The old Subaru forums were awesome, because if there was a way to fix the car with bubble gum and a half piece of duct tape, there were about 5 writeups of it.  Such a lovable bunch of cheap rascals.  General wisdom was that if you bought an EA82 Subaru with “a blown motor cuz the timing belt failed” for $100, you really should get a friend to help you tow it around the corner before you put a new timing belt on and drive it home.  There were a few… incidents… when someone bought a car for $100, spent the half hour to put a new timing belt on it, and drove it off.  The old Subaru motors, unusually for the time, were non-interference engines.  That means that if the timing belt fails, the pistons and valves don’t collide – which means that the repair for a failed timing belt is to simply put a new timing belt on, retime the cams, and drive off.  Most engines were interference engines at the time, and so people would get faulty advice from mechanics.  Their loss!
I hate to dive too far into the personal finance realm (it’s badly overdone, and there are only so many ways to say, “Don’t spend more than you make”), but if you’re on a tight budget and need to own a car, one of the best financial decisions you can make is to learn how to fix your own car.  The vast majority of repairs can be done at home, or in your apartment parking lot (yes, I know that the lease usually says you can’t do that, and I’ve done an awful lot of repair work in those sort of lots – just don’t be obvious about the jack stands if you have the suspension torn apart, and maybe park so the wheel you’re working on is the least visible one).

Getting Started

So, what do you need to get started?  In any realm you choose to start fixing things in, you’ll need the proper set of tools.  For electronics, a set of geek screwdrivers is a requirement, as is a good soldering station.  I’m a huge fan of the iFixit guys – and if you can swing $60, get the iFixit Pro Toolkit.  It’s got just about everything you might need for modern electronics repair.  If you can’t afford $60, try the $20 Essentials kit.
You’ll also need a temperature controlled soldering station.  Yes, you can do some repair work with a Radio Shack woodburner, but a good station makes a huge difference.  I had an Aoyue 936 for quite a while, and I did a ton with that – including some surface mount repair.  I’ve recently upgraded to an Aoyue 968A ($175 on eBay).  This is a far, far nicer station with a solder fume extractor (no more stream of flux smoke in your face) and a hot air rework gun.  It has a digital temperature readout for the various hot bits, and it’s fast.  It gets up to temperature in under 15 seconds and comes with about a dozen tips for all sorts of work.  I really, really like this unit.

You’ll also need some solder wick, some flux, and (obviously) some solder.  Keep your sanity intact and buy lead based solder.  So much easier to work with.  If you have a Micro Center nearby, they may have an amazing DIY electronics section by now!

For car work, if you don’t have any tools, pick up a Mechanic’s Tool Set on eBay (or at your local parts store).  This will take you an awful long way to car repair.  If you don’t have a torque wrench or an adequately calibrated arm, get one of those as well so you can torque fasteners properly.

And then, as you run into things you need for projects, go buy it.  I don’t feel guilty about buying tools for repair work.  In almost every case, the cost of the tool is far less than the cost of having someone else do the repair, so I still come out ahead – and I have a new tool!  New tool day is exciting…

So – Get Fixing!

Hopefully this encourages you to go fix something!  Beyond just fixing your own things, fixing other people’s things is awesome.  And, if we truly are an empire in decline, these sorts of skills will be ever increasingly in demand.  If you’ve got the tools and the skills, you’ll be a very valuable person in times of economic contraction when people need things to last longer.
And, on that note, I’ll end with one of my favorite memes, created by a friend many years ago.  Be that guy!
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