Day 10236

Winter's cold has slowed my pace of construction and tinkering on the bus, and the homestead vehicle collection. The panels aren't on the bus roof yet. The backhoe still sits in the barn.

I did, however, install the bench vise that aunt Zowie got me for Christmas. Thanks Zowie!

I did put a bench seat in the truck (remember I picked that up in Massachusetts in the last post?) The bucket seats were more than a little gross, and I think the mice were living in them.

With angle grinder, drill and wrench, I got the carriage bolts out of the cab and pulled the old seats. It was way more fun than you'd imagine. By that I mean it was awkward holding mechanic yoga poses, and my hands were freezing the entire time. I vacuumed the carpet. My mum came over and asked if it was the carpet or the seats that smell like cow manure... good question. This truck has fragrance.

Then the new old bench seat went in ($100 on craigslist, out of a rotten '85 F150.) I dressed it up with a worn-but-classy 1940's blanket I found on Etsy. I cut two small slits for the seatbelts to poke through. 

Etsy is a dangerous place, for the record.

I also bought a hydrometer for the bus's batteries. The cold is hurting those poor things, and it's been too cold and icy for the delicate work of installing the solar panels. Just running the bus once a week to keep the batteries charged isn't enough to keep these deep-cycles healthy; they need a good equalization, or overcharge, which the bus engine's alternator can't provide. The solar panels, however, can provide an equalization charge through the Morningstar charge controller once that system is up and running. All I want is one nice, sunny, 40' day...

The bus wouldn't start on it's own the other day; the engine would turn but the voltage and amps weren't high enough to light the glowplugs, as well. I shoveled and plowed a path down to it, and jumped it with the bed-less F350 (the ride, on the new bench seat, was quite pleasant.)

You may recall that these batteries once powered the bus. The same day I put the bench seat in I changed the truck's battery terminal lugs over to post-type, ditching the beat up clamp-on style. Without the lead adapter pieces on the battery terminals, the hood closes all the way! Hooray, less fire/electrocution hazards! I don't have any pictures of that job because I was cold.

After a full charge, and letting the voltage settle down for an hour, I used the hydrometer to check the bus battery's charge. Each of the individual T105's has 3 cells (a battery cell is ~2 volts.) The battery acid in a fully charged battery has a different specific gravity than that of an uncharged battery. With the hydrometer I found that two of my batteries were scoring in the 85% capacity range, and two were in the 70% range. They need an equalization, but it's going to have to wait until warmer weather and free time comes around simultaneously. I didn't take any pictures because I was working with battery acid... and I was cold.

In the meantime, I've been reading... a lot. I read Gaining Ground, by a disciple/contemporary of Joel Salatin's; Forrest Pritchard. After his parents make a profit of $18.16 off several truckloads of corn and soybeans, Forrest returns from college with the mission of saving his family's farm. Very good read with a lot of humor! I also read through the "Wranglestar" family's book, Modern Homesteading. I've been a big fan of Cody's videos on YouTube, and enjoyed this summary of the family's journey that was mostly stitched together by Mrs. Wranglestar. Now I'm onto Everything I Want to do is Illegal, by the illustrious Joel Salatin. I got to see him this weekend, at a National Organic Farmer's of America conference. As the keynote speaker he gave a talk with many of the themes of Folks, This Ain't Normal. He was preaching to the choir, but I enjoyed it very much.

The land search continues, and I've elected to set my sights farther North, for various reasons.

Day 10207

I struck gold on craigslist; six old Siemens 75 watt solar panels. Not only were these made in the glorious USA, but they have a reputation for durability. Like many things on craigslist, their origins are shrouded in mystery, but I will put them to good use on the roof of the bus.

The gentlemen I bought them from helped me cut the six-wide frame into three sets of two panels, which I loaded into the truck bed carefully with cardboard and blankets to keep them from harm on the ride home. Additionally, I found a bench seat that would fit the F350 (the bucket seats are pretty gross) which was on the way home from southern Massachusetts.

While the Powerstroke diesel in the nose is very good at providing the bulk charge to the battery bank, the absorption charge which completely charges a battery is best done by a tapering power source like solar panels. I have been reading up on HandyBob's blog again for more insight into crafting a solar power system (his writing was indispensable to the design of my electrical system thus far.) I also bought a Morningstar TS-45 charge controller, because HandyBob said so, which essentially feeds the batteries palatable electricity from the panels. I also bought a hydrometer to check the specific gravity of the battery's fluid, which is the best way of determining the health of the batteries. I really should have acquired one a while ago. More on these two pieces of gear in future posts.

There is a surprising amount of geometry involved in setting up a solar system. The goal will be to get all six of these panels on the roof, pointed true south for maximum sun exposure, angled for the winter sun at our latitude, and out of any shadows created by trees or the chimney. The exact location of the panels is still somewhat up in the air, but I think I'm going to put them above the front door, on the passenger side, running back to where the chimney comes out. I will have to accept an evening shadow from the chimney with this configuration, but it minimizes length of cable needed to reach the battery bank, avoiding excessive voltage drop (very important.) We'll see what happens.

For elbow room, and access to a lot of 110v amps, I elected to do this project in the big cold barn, instead of a nice warm bus. The hardware holding the panels to the thick steel frame was very corroded, so I cut the temper-resistant bolt heads off with the angle grinder (clearly not tamper-proof, or I wouldn't have been able to get them.) A hammer and punch knocked the bolts loose, then I picked the frame pieces up off the bolts, which had to be sliced in half again to remove from the thin aluminum frame of the panels.

The aluminum frames had also corroded where they were bolted in. The brown and orange material is rust from the steel frame. The off-white powder is aluminum oxide. Corrosion... gross.

The panels, standing tall on their own, free of the nasty, heavy frame. I neglected to mention earlier that all the wiring linking  these panels together was still intact, and of a proper gauge for my application. More on that in the future (parts are on order.)

With the panels separated, I continued to clean them up, and think of ways I could mount them to the bus. This took some time; I turned to Google and saw a lot of things... some good ideas using perforated angle... and some horrible monstrosities using perforated angle. I personally think perforated steel angle is ugly (and not the good kind of ugly like the A-10 Warthog, Black Hawk helicopter, and all of my vehicles) so I want to minimize use in the final design. 

The panels need to be able to pivot, and be easily adjustable, so that they can stare up at the summer sun, 20 degrees from horizontal, or out at the winter sun, 66 degrees from horizontal. (your latitude +/- Earth's tilt) To do this I am going to use perforated angle as both the interface between the mounts and the panel, as well as the adjustable piece of the mounting system. I bought the metal I needed, and cut my first prototype pieces with an angle grinder.

The mount feet are 1-1/2 x 1-1/2 12GA steel angle. The mount rails are 2' chunks of 1-1/4 x 1-1/4 18GA steel angle, with the bottom corner filed round to pivot freely.

Using a 4', 1/4" steel rod roughly bent to shape while cold with a vise, I can make a triangle to secure the panel upright. The rod acts as a spring, pushing out into the holes of the perforated angle, and could be easily adjusted for different seasons. The bottom of the "V" would have a bushing, and go into another mount foot. The angle would also be different on the curved roof of the bus; once the pivot feet are all mounted in line at a good spot on the bus roof, I could come through and position the support rod's mount so that it could adjust between 20 and 66 degrees, and hopefully some kind of stowed position.

With a functioning prototype, I went to work cutting out feet and rails from stock.

In total, I made 18 feet (which is overkill, I'll have extras) and six pairs of mirrored rails. I left Tractor Supply with another $15 bag of 1/4x20 nuts and bolts. Now for the tedious task of removing flashing and burrs with a file... I really ought to get a bench grinder...