Tag Archives: Solar

Winter Solar Power Sucks

I’ve been charging my vape, my phone, and my computer using solar power for nearly a half year. It’s pointless for saving money because running these things only costs a few dollars, if that, over the year, but it’s fun to know that your phone, the thing that you carry around with you at all time, the little mini-computer in your pocket that can do anything, the games you play, and all the fancy stock-trading, money-making, email-checking, and social-media-browsing modern Swiss Army Knife of everything is being powered by the sun. Not powered by the sun in an abstract manner either (plants photosynthesizing millions of years ago, decomposing, turning to coal, being mined and burned, the heat flashing water into steam to turn a turbine to move electrons into your home via wires and transformers, to rearrange some chemicals in a lithium-ion battery) but directly. I’ve always wondered how people can be against solar power for this reason alone: it’s so damn simple and beautiful. The sun shines and makes electricity. Why complicate it?

Everyone not on the equator is well aware that the days are shorter in the winter due to the Earth’s axial tilt of roughly 23 degrees. In the summer the Earth is tilted towards the sun, and as you rotate around on a higher latitude, you get more sunlight. The opposite is true in the winter. Here in Northern Illinois (and for everyone around 45 degrees latitude; I also feel sorry for Europeans and Canadians being even higher up) we get about eight hours of good sunlight in the winter. Compare this to our summer daylight length of 15 hours; there’s twice the amount of daytime in the summer compared to the winter!

A nice graphical depiction of these Dark Days. The discontinuities in March and November are daylight savings time. Go check out your own day/night/twilight length!

This sounds stupid, but I didn’t think winter would cause my two solar panels much difficulty. Since we’re not using the lawnmower anymore (you don’t need to mow the snow) I took the battery and hooked it up to the solar panels. I currently have five batteries storing the solar power and that should be plenty right? Six hours of direct sunlight can charge those bad boys up and I can charge my toys off that the rest of the day.

Two of the five batteries…

It doesn’t work that way when it’s cloudy for two weeks straight. I’ve never paid attention to how cloudy it usually is in the winter, especially when those clear and cold winter days are so vivid in my mind, but apparently it’s cloudy a lot. And when you get only a few hours to make power, the clouds really do fuck you over in a way that they don’t in the summer. The summer months always have dramatic and quickly changing weather, sun for half the day, hellish storms in the evening, and then a bit more sun right before sunset. Now, in January? Clouds all day, every day. Boring grey clouds that hang overhead like a depressing blanket and refuse to leave for literal weeks.

The sun was out a few days ago, but that was only enough to kick the batteries up from 11.8 Volts to 12.1. As soon as I’d plug my phone in the voltage would drop to 11.5 and not wanting to damage the batteries had no choice but to charge my phone via natural gas/nuclear electricity from the boring wall outlet. The streak was broken, and my phone, computer, and vape are now methane/uranium powered like everything else around here.

The clouds aren’t the only issue. It sometimes snows in winter (big surprise there huh?) and snow does a great job blocking the sun. While the clouds are an ever present and annoying problem there isn’t much I can do about them except wait. Snow is a problem I have to actually deal with. Weeks ago we had some shitty ice/snow storm and the next day I found my panels iced and snowed over. Using my Amazon Prime credit card (which is made out of metal, 5% cash back at Amazon by the way!) I scrapped the snow off so they could make power when the sun eventually came out. The sun never came out and it snowed two days later. I walked out, brushed them off, and waited for the sun which never came. And then it snowed about a week after that. I walked out, brushed them off, and waited for the sun. It snowed yesterday and I haven’t even went out to brush them off because the sun isn’t going to come out ever again.

I guess the snow melted…

Remember how I said that I don’t understand why people don’t like renewable energy because it’s so damn beautiful and simple? It’s not. Solar is fucking great and I love it, but during these shitty dark, cloudy, and snowy winter months it’s not ideal. Solar always relies on good energy storage and apparently five fucking massive lead-acid batteries can’t store enough power to survive the winter. I could always add more batteries, but at $50-100 per battery do I really want to spend the money to charge my phone? Naw. I’ll just wait I guess. The sun can’t stay hidden forever.

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Solar Power Sucks: Powering a Home?

I suppose this is a continuation of my solar phone charger post and my broken solar panel post.

First let me digress on how this quarantine is making people crazy. It’s a subtle kind of crazy — nothing too obvious — but everyone seems so damn anxious being trapped inside. Knowing you can’t do random trips to the stores or grab a bite to eat at a sit-down restaurant. Being off of work and stuck at home. Hanging out with your friends has been put on hold. The entire world is in limbo and everyone is waiting for that unknown time in the future where we can get back to normal.

Everyone is coping differently (spiraling into alcoholism, doing home improvement projects, gardening, lawn care, reading, binge watching Netflix, etc.) but my mode of coping seems to be gaming and doing stupid random projects more than usual. I’m thinking about making hand sanitizer for my work buddies. I’m thinking about selling vape juice online. I’m making random purchases of things on Amazon to give myself projects to do. I was thinking of brewing wine to give to my friends. In the past week I’ve made five gallons of window washer fluid for the cars; I should be stocked up for nearly a half-year. And as I’ve written in the previously cited two posts, lately I’ve been fucking around with solar power.

At first I wanted to charge my phone with solar power, but these projects take on a life of their own once you get started. My tiny 10 watt solar panel wasn’t charging it fast enough so I purchased a big 100 watt panel. The one I received was defective and didn’t provide any power, so I returned it and got a replacement panel last Sunday. This one works like a champ and I charged my vape using only solar power for three days straight. It’s not like it’s saving the house electricity really, but it’s still fun to think about. The only problem I’ve had with vape charging is I cannot leave the vape on the charger long enough to top it off.

The panel being 100 watts is a bit overkill for phone/vape charging and the natural question to ask is “What else can I do with this?” Well, power as much shit as I can with it, obviously! Consider this panel can rake in about ten hours of power per day: this will give me 1 kilowatt-hour of energy in a day. Also consider the shitty 10 Watt LED bulbs placed around your house: each one of these ran for 10 hours requires 100 watt-hours. I should be able to run ten of these fuckers per day. Since each room has a most three of these, I should still have power to spare.

And how much power does our household use anyway? I was bored enough thanks to the quarantine and it being Saturday that I looked: about 2,000 kWh per month: this is an average of about 65 kWh per day. Shit, that’s a lot of power. I blame most of this on our shitty 240 Volt electric clothes dryer. Anything that makes heat from electricity is notoriously bad with power consumption so if we stopped using this bastard and air-dried our clothes I bet we could cut this in half. Anyways, since each panel can provide up to 1 kWh per day, I’d need like 65 of them to power the entire house along with enough car batteries to store all the power. Fuck. Each panel is about $100 (everything being around an even number makes the math so much easier) so it would cost about $6,500 to buy all the panels! Jeez. But since our electric bill is about $300 this investment would pay for itself in under two years.

I’m not really trying to power the entire house off solar — that’s too big of a project — and am just trying to get some numbers to get a feel for how much a solar panel can do. I do think I’ll try to power a room or two though and if this works keep upgrading the system as my boredom allows. My plan is to hook an extension cord into an inverter (which takes 12 Volt car-battery stored power and turns it into 120 Volt AC) and plug that into the wall via an extension cord. By turning off the room circuit breaker I can isolate the room from the main power supply while supplying 120 Volt power to the room from the inverter. ElectroBoom did a video with this general idea (without solar power but the idea is the same): check it out if you’d like. Not that there’s anything else for you to do now, right?

And appreciate the fact how all of this started by me trying to charge my phone with solar power so I could go hide in the woods for a week. And now I’m seriously considering powering part of the house with a fleet of solar panels. This is my madness during the quarantine. This is how I’m spiraling. But considering some other ways to cope I think I’m doing pretty damn good indeed. I’m still only drinking on Sunday. If only Amazon would hurry the fuck up and ship my goddamn inverter…

Streak Day #33 Sucks: The Shitty Solar Panel

I’m on break at work again. I think I should make a habit of writing while on break. Sometimes magical things happen when you sit around bored and force yourself to write. Get the creative juices flowing and see what happens.

Not that there is much else to do on break. I sometimes read but it’s hard to force yourself to read if you’re not in the mood for it. Also, reading fantasy books like The Wheel of Time puts you into a strange state where you almost cease to exist in the world; it’s shocking to come back to the real world, especially when the real world is work. It’s a jarring feeling.

As is standard, I have no idea what to write about. Well, maybe I do have one thing to bitch about…

A half week ago I bought some massive $110 solar panel from Amazon. I think I mentioned that already. My little 10 Watt panel wasn’t doing shit to charge my phone, so upgraded to a 100 Watt panel. It arrived yesterday and is ridiculously huge for charging a singular cell phone. Whatever. Overkill is never a bad thing here.

I took it out of the box and even inside the house attempted to check the output of it. Usually ambient light in the house gives some voltage even if it isn’t near the peak that it could output. This panel was only putting out like a half-Watt. Whatever, it was cloudy and it was inside so it wasn’t a big deal.

The damn panel had plastic connectors on the wires that had no obvious way to plug into the charge controller that came with the panel. The was inconvenient. I thought about the problem and decided to solder my own wires to the output on the panel. I decided to buy two cheap extension cords because that’s an easy and convenient way to purchase wire at Walmart. I even came up with a better idea: I could leave the plug attached to the cord and put the female end of the extension cord into the charge controller. This way I could simply plug the panel intothe charge controller. If I wanted to add panels, just plug those bad boys in as well. Let me take a picture of it to clear up what I’m talking about.

Don’t judge my setup too harshly.

I did all of this work yesterday while drinking heavily. I put the panel in the window and plug everything in. It was ready to go for today and I was eager to see how the system would work.

I woke up and the panel didn’t seem to be doing shit. None of the lights on the charge controller were on, and checking the panel output with my tongue (yes) proved that it wasn’t putting out a damn thing, nowhere near 20 volts. Using a multimeter showed it was providing about a half-volt of potential. This thing should’ve been putting out 24 volts max and 0.5 volts was way too small. What was wrong?

I eventually took the panel outside into the direct sunlight and measured the output. 3 volts. THREE GODDAMN VOLTS. You can’t charge a 12 volt battery with 3 volts. Maybe I could charge two AA batteries with it? I kept trying to find something that I was doing wrong, but a solar panel is about as simple as anything can be. You put it in the sun and it gives you power. That’s it. There isn’t a button or a switch or anything technical about them. I wish I could’ve found something I was doing wrong, but there wasn’t anything.

I’ve came to the conclusion that my $110 solar panel from Amazon is simply a piece of shit. It’s defective. It’s broken. I got a piece of junk. So now what? I was thinking of taking it apart and trying to fix it — maybe there was a broken connection somewhere — but the panel appears to be sealed very well. There aren’t any screws or anything to remove. I really think I’ll just have to ship the damn thing back which is another major pain in the ass.

Amazon has a ‘defective item’ option which I’m assuming means if I want to return it I’ll have to package it back up, print off a shipping label, and haul it to UPS. I’ll have to track down all those stupid styrofoam packaging things too. I know I work there, but I really don’t like the idea of going to work with a massive boxed up solar panel to ship back to Amazon. I wonder if I could go down the road from UPS to the Amazon building itself and give them the junk panel. I’m sure that wouldn’t work though.

And I don’t know if they’ll ship me another one or if I’ll get a refund. I was really excited about my new panel, and it’s frustrating knowing this project will have to be put on hold until I get a replacement panel or order a second one. My Amazon solar panel fucking sucks.

Solar Phone Chargers Suck

A few nights ago, in bed and unable to sleep (like always) I had a drunken idea. I wasn’t drunk at the time but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a classic drunken idea. You might know exactly what I’m talking about; it’s one of those ideas that sounds amazingly amazing at the time but upon waking up and mulling over the idea ten hours later you realize it sounds kinda silly, undoable, and stupid.

I want to go live in the woods for a week.

I don’t want to get too much into my reasoning here, but I think I need a break from life in general. Just to get away. Being poor means I can’t hop in an airplane and fly away for a vacation, and I don’t have any scheduled vacations until July, so living in the woods seems great because it’s cheap and doable. And I can’t think of a better way to escape life than to live in the woods like a bum.

My main issue is this: I don’t want to totally abandon society. Writing is part of the introspection process for me, and there is no goddamn way I’m going to write in a notebook. I want to make some progress with my stories and continue blogging and transferring notebook writings to a computer is a time consuming mess. Most of the time I can’t even read my writing, especially the hastily written scrawl that appears when I’m in the zone. To live in the woods I need my phone and preferably my computer. Sounds easy enough, right?

I’m going to ignore all the other logistical problems here like where I’m going to sleep, what I’m going to eat, where I’m going to park my car so I can still get to work, etc. and focus on the phone and computer problem here. It’s a pain in the ass to solve.

The main problem is going to be charging the damn things. I’m totally ignoring the WiFi needed for my computer here by the way. A phone is easy enough to charge given a power source (the obvious one here is a car) but the computer is different. It requires a 120 volt AC source to charge. The easiest solution would be to use a car inverter (which I have) to charge it, but these options involve the car again. I want to live in the woods far enough away that if I am doing this project illegally in the park that I’m well hidden. Camping too close to a parking lot might get me booted from the park straight away.

Ideally I could charge my stuff via something that is usually present when living outdoors: the sun. It’s big, it’s bright, it’s in the sky for about half the day, and it’s the primary source of power for everything on earth. It’s an obvious choice. And I also have about three solar panels.

The one I want to use is a larger maybe 1.5 sq. ft. solar panel that puts out about 20 volts max. The other two are smaller 6 volt panels. It’s this guy right here:

AA battery pack for scale.

Any project that you attempt should start as simply as possible, only adding complexity to solve a problem. The most obvious way to charge my phone (and let’s worry about charging that piece of hardware before even worrying about the laptop) is to connect the solar panel directly to the phone. But seeing as the panel puts out like 20 volts in direct sunlight and the phone charges from a 5 volt USB supply I’m terrified to do this. It might not even work and in the worst case scenario I might blow my phone up or destroy it. Do I want to risk my Samsung S7 by hooking a panel directly to it? No way.

This is probably a good way to fry the circuits in your phone.

Luckily I also have an LM7805 integrated circuit (IC for short: this basically means there’s a bunch of shit in the chip to make it do what you need it to do without working out the details on your own) which takes some input voltage and outputs 5 volts: perfect for a USB charger. So now the plan is this: hook solar panel up to the LM7805 and hook that to my phone. Here’s a poorly-drawn example:

The LM7805 is not really this large.

And the phone did charge! But damn did it charge slowly. I started charging it (while off to save power) at 59%; about 45 minutes later it was at 62%. Jeez. This wasn’t going to work at all.

Back to the drawing board. Solar panels don’t put out a whole lot of current. They provide free electricity, but it takes a huge solar collection area to do anything useful with it and this is why the phone was charging so slowly. I was directly trying to capture energy into the phone, and it was slow indeed. If only I could store the energy into another battery passively to use later. Collect power all day in the sunlight and then charge quickly when I needed to. So here’s the plan now:

Another good question is how all of this shit is supposed to survive in the woods for a week.

I’m going to take eight rechargeable nickel-metal hydride batteries and charge them via the panel. (Note: These things are great. I use them in gaming remotes, TV remotes, and anything else that eats through batteries. When they die, you charge them, and you don’t need to constantly have a stack of alkaline AAs laying around the house.) Since each battery provides 1.4 volts, the entire pack should be around 11.2 volts; 12 volts from the panel (regulated by a charge controller. I know I said 20 volts earlier) should be perfect to charge them. And when I want to charge the phone, I use them along with the LM7805 circuit to give the USB line, and the phone, 5 volts. The batteries should store all the energy passively through the day, and I can charge (hopefully) quickly when I need to. I don’t know if this will work as well as I hope it should. I currently have the batteries charging and after the sun goes down I’ll see how charging the phone works.

The full setup so far. I would have my phone in the picture charging, but guess what I had to use to take the picture?

An easy work around here would be to grab a car battery and haul that around with me, but car batteries are heavy. I don’t want hauling a 50 pound battery around to be part of my living in the woods project.

I charged the 8 rechargeables with the panel for about two or three hours. I was then able to charge my phone with those from 43% to 49% in about a half-hour at a half-amp of current. This isn’t too bad even if it is slow for a phone. It’s doable at least. Obviously I need to start with freshly charged batteries so all the panel has to do is “top them off” periodically instead of doing all the heavy lifting of charging them in the first place. I’d like to stress again how little current a solar panel puts out. To do anything you need a large solar panel.

And to close this really boring post: let me bitch about solar powered cell phone chargers, like the kind you buy in a store. My mother-in-law kept talking about them today. Apparently there’s one that’s about the size of a cell phone and can charge a phone very quickly. It even works in the shade! she mentioned. I call bullshit on this. If it has a tiny, phone-sized solar panel, it won’t be able to do jack shit. The product probably has a big, fat, lithium-ion battery which can likely charge a phone multiple times before it dies. The solar panel is there to charge it in the meantime, just like my shitty setup detailed here. The problem: the panel is too small! To charge the internal battery I’m guessing this shitty, tiny device must be left in direct sunlight for at least three days, probably more. While it might work great if the internal battery is fully charged, the solar panel will be unable to top it off even under low use. This is simply physics and can’t be worked around. Charging your phone by solar power fucking sucks.