Sunday, January 17, 2010

There goes the sun



For all our obsessive planning and computing, Mother Nature, a.k.a. “The Lady Upstairs,” has had the last word by unleashing nearly three weeks of gray, clammy and rainy weather that culminated two days ago with a half-inch of snow.

We had fretted about not having enough water but our cistern, thanks to a series of rare winter thunderstorms, is nearly two-thirds full.

Yet our solar electric system, which we had taken for granted, has never worked properly, a fact complicated by the lack of sun and our installer’s inability to figure out what is wrong. As our batteries drained nearly down to exhaustion a week ago we had to run to Costco and buy what we had been assured we’d never need: a gas generator.

We were not amused.

To be sure this has been one spate of weird weather. It has rained almost two inches during the typically dust-dry winter season. Seemingly as confused as we are, blades of grass in the fields around the house are turning an ever-faint shade green, at least two months ahead of schedule.

Although it does get cold in San Miguel during the winter months, “cold” here typically means 40 to 50 degree lows—maybe an occasional overnight freeze—and temperatures rising into the 60s by noon.

Not this year. Lack of sunlight, drizzle and a couple of nights of nearly gale winds have made it feel much colder than usual. The chill is accentuated by the lack of central heating even in most commercial buildings.

Tellers at a bank downtown cringed in their cubicles wearing parkas and scarves, as if they were working for the Anchorage Savings & Loan.

At our church, which gathers in the unheated, hangar-like meeting room of a townhouse development, the faithful kept their coats and knitted hats on while singing the praises of Jesus two Sundays ago.

Stew wore a thick jacket he bought during our trip to Antarctica while I reached for an L.L. Bean hooded wool coat that hadn’t ventured out of the closet since we left Chicago five years ago. No, I didn’t wear the hood during the service.

But all these rarities and excuses don't diminish our disappointment—make that disgust—with the unresolved problems with our solar electricity system. The gauges indicate that the 12 solar panels on the roof are buzzing. We had a full day of sun yesterday and they supposedly generated 10.5 kw of electricity.

Yet the juice doesn’t seem to be going into the batteries, which register 25 volts at sunset—supposedly fully charged—yet wake up the next day at 23 volts—down in the low range. Where did all the electricity go at night, when there is nothing running but the refrigerator?

Our system’s two batteries are not the type you find in a Chevy, but two 900-lb. behemoths that should hold a reasonable charge for several days. Even during a cloudy day the solar panels generate some electricity, which combined with that stored in the batteries, should comfortably tide you over through three or four cloudy days.

Not this time: Every morning Stew would check the status of the batteries using a specific-gravity gauge and they would regularly register somewhere in the range of “feeble” to “buddy, crank up the generator.”

The reason for this failure remains a mystery, most notably to the guy who installed the system and who is supposed to know all about it. Though he keeps visiting and fiddling with the settings regularly it seems to no avail. It’s not a reassuring sight.

Though we had imagined that a solar electric system would be relatively fool-proof and simple, it’s quite the opposite. Two black controller boxes, each with a small screen offering an endless menu of read-outs and indicators, govern—we think—the interaction between the solar panels and the batteries.

But it’s hardly an electronics-for-idiots set up. Two spiral-bound instruction books came from Outback, the manufacturer. The guidance they offer, however, is mostly unfathomable, user-hostile gibberish. Even Stew, who loves nothing better than to tinker with gadgets and manuals, has given up trying to figure out what’s wrong.

Two days ago hope came from an unexpected corner: Dr. Schmidt, the orthopedic surgeon who is treating Stew for some back problems. Schmidt, a wiry, intense fellow with deep-set eyes, turns out to be a solar energy geek. He speaks English with a slight German accent which seems to give his opinions an added measure of scientific credibility.

Schmidt has an array of 18 solar panels at his house in Queretaro and says he’s had no problems during the recent rash of gray weather. In fact he says he regularly sells surplus electricity back to the government-owned utility.

Wunderbar.

Schmidt’s diagnosis of our problem is an insufficient number of solar panels, though there might also be something wrong with the settings on the Outback controllers. According to him, under-sizing of solar systems is quite common, at the hand of installers who expect their customers to live a life of monastic energy frugality.

You read about such lifestyles in hardcore environmental and organic living magazines: Unplug all the chargers, turn off all computers when not in use, along with VCRs and DVD players and any other gadget, large and small, which might be secretly nibbling at your electric supply.

It all sounds very virtuous and environmentally responsible until one night you are trying to read a book by the light of an energy-saving fluorescent light bulb that isn’t quite big enough, and an unsettling thought comes into your head: This a depressing pain in the ass.

We suspect that we will eventually have to add at least two more panels. Even on a sparkling sunny day like today our 12 panels can only be expected to produce 11 kw maximum, maybe 11.5 kw.

That sounds like a lot until you start adding all the gadgets. Our Rinnai heater uses 130 watts an hour and during most recent cold days it has been running 10-12 hours a day. That’s 1.3 kw. The refrigerator uses 1.7 kw daily. The dishwasher runs about once a day for one hour, during which it devours 1.4 kw of electricity. Our cheesy vacuum cleaner sucks up a surprising 1,300 watts when it’s on, about an hour each of the two days when the cleaning person comes. Toasters. Ceiling fans. Coffeemakers.

Suddenly even 11.5 kw a day is not that much.

So we’re inviting Dr. Schmidt’s solar whiz to come by and check out what might be wrong with our system. The myriad settings in the Outback controller might need some adjusting, and we might also need additional panels.

And we’re definitely getting some bigger light bulbs.

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