The intriguing thing about alternative energy sources is that, once you’ve experienced the independence of producing your own power, you’re hooked. The same goes for wind power, and this article presents the achievement of one of our readers who lives off the grid in Canada.
Starting an off-grid life
Bill Morey started his off-grid adventure in Georgian Bay, Ontario, Canada, and since then, he lives a peaceful life without being dependent on others. He managed to provide all the comfort for himself and his family through his own means and knowledge. One of the first problems he had to find a fix for was the need for electricity.
Bill Morey started with a 12-volt system fed by an old automobile generator he powered with a gas engine originally used to run a wringer washing machine. He filled the fuel tank with one quart of gasoline: when the fuel was used up, it charged a pair of 12-volt automotive batteries enough to supply light to his four-room summer cabin.
Morey preferred the convenience of this lighting set-up to grope for a flashlight or oil lamp every time he had to calm one of his children during the night. But as he watched the winds gust across his native Georgian Bay, he got impatient with his little invention. Why pay for gasoline when all the power he needed was right there for the taking?
Morey started reading books about wind power; he checked wind charts, and it didn’t take long for him to realize that his Georgian Bay cottage site was almost ideally suited for wind power. First, the area frequently recorded winds in the 12 to 16 mph range (roughly, this speed of the wind will raise dust and cause small branches to move). Second, this sweep of Georgian Bay was as flat as any stretch of water can be, with wind-swept rock surrounding the proposed wind generator site, and the shore open to the prevailing westerlies. There were few trees on the island; the cottage was a good 300 feet from the intended wind generator site.
Next, Morey looked at his power needs. Since his refrigerator was propane powered, he figured that his needs were mainly for lighting and radio equipment. A 200-Watt generator would be ample. After some comparison shopping, he purchased a 200-Watt 14-Amp Win-charger he could buy and install for considerably less than the $1,000 he had slated for the purpose. Of course, had he wanted a 120-volt system, or required enough juice to run a 12-volt fridge, he could have opted for a larger unit.
The Wincharger served the purpose he wanted. First, it was fairly simple and something Morey considers when buying equipment. Since he’s far away from anyone who’s experienced with wind equipment, he wanted to make sure he purchased something he could repair by himself. Second, Morey needed a unit light enough to move by boat, and install with little help. Thirdly, he considered the cost. One thousand dollars seemed a suitable cut-off point for the amount of power the unit would provide.
True it would be cheaper than paying for underwater cable to the island, but the amount of power it
would provide could easily be handled by a 120-volt gasoline generator he had been given when the original owners couldn’t find someone knowledgeable enough to repair it.
Despite this back-up power source, Morey felt that a $1,000 investment that could eliminate dependence on a fossil fuel was worth the money. More would have been impractical. Less was unlikely when he considered the fact that most available wind equipment was American-made, and, being a Canadian, he was going to have to pay some pretty hefty exchange rates.
Since his cottage is on a wind-swept island with few surrounding trees and no hills, Morey mounted his Wincharger on an 8- by 10-foot storage shed located on a rocky promontory open to the prevailing westerlies. He did do one thing his reading had warned him against.
Since his shed’s roof was already a good 10 to 12 feet above the waterline, and the tower provided with the wind generator offered another 10 feet, he decided not to worry about removing a row of cedars concealing the shed from his cottage. Because of this, winds occasionally gust around the cedars, reducing the wind speed, and therefore decreasing the generator’s charging capacity.
Since the generator more than amply supplies his needs, however. Morey wasn’t worried. Ideally, he should have either remove the trees or build a tower high enough that the prop is 30 feet higher than any obstacle within 300 feet. Morey feels the disadvantage of eddying winds is far outweighed by the expense of having to build a tower he doesn’t feel his system needs.
Morey braced the inside of his shed with 2x6s spiked to the roof rafters, then mounted the tower on top, and held it in place with 3/8-inch carriage bolts—two per leg, that he inserted through pre-drilled holes in the roof, and nutted on the inside.
To protect his investment from the lightning that frequently snaps across the open bay, he then grounded the tower with some leftover aluminum cable he bolted to the top of the tower, ran down the inside of one of the legs, across the shed roof, down its lakeward wall, and into the water.
Morey prefers either aluminum or copper cable because of their excellent conducting capabilities. Although he had some on hand, he has since noticed that some utility companies often have scrap cable they’re willing to give away.
Before mounting the charging unit, Morey drilled two holes into the holly bearing (the shaft on which the generator head rotates) and inserted two grease nipples. He felt this would protect the bearing from rust, an important consideration when you realize that it’s this bearing on which the generator swings back and forth to keep the prop faced into the wind. The grease job also eliminated any squeaking.
He warns novices not to mount their wind generator directly on to their home or any building where they spend a lot of time. As the blades speed up in even a slow wind, they sound like the propellers of an airplane about to take off, an unnecessary inconvenience for people who have gone to wind in an effort to use more natural sources of power. There’s also quite a bit of vibration.
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With the tower and grounding system in place, Morey next mounted the actual generator (minus its blades), and connected #8 lead wires to its positive and negative terminals—black for positive, white for negative. Although 120-volt users can get away with inexpensive wire, it’s important to have heavy gauge wire when working with 12-volt systems.
Once connected to the generator, the lead wires were run down the inside of one of the tower legs, then through a hole drilled in the shed roof at the base of the tower (Morey used a tar patching compound to reduce the chance of any leakage. He didn’t think the rubber-coated wire needed a through-wall fitting), and into the control panel supplied with the Wincharger.
After a little use, Morey adapted the control panel to eliminate a suspected weakness. In the first two months, he noticed that one part of his charging system kept breaking. In the control panel, there’s a solid-state diode that permits current to flow in one direction (i.e., from the windmill to the battery being charged), but not in the other (from the battery to the windmill).
Morey noticed that this diode kept popping. It wasn’t evident on the diode itself, but, during a calm, when he noticed his wind generator blades turning, it didn’t take long to figure out that they were being powered by the battery. Something had happened to the diode to allow current to run backwards along the line.
Morey knew that diodes heat up when current moves through them. At first, he suspected that the stock heat sink supplied with the Wincharger wasn’t large enough to transfer enough heat to protect the diode and that the tiny device was simply becoming over-heated. He replaced the finned heat sink with a larger one (actually, the connection block from a clothes dryer), he purchased in an electronics shop.
Only later did Morey discover that his diode was being “fried“—but not in the way he suspected. The culprit was lightning. When there was a thunderstorm in the vicinity, a lightning strike, even one several miles away, would zap the diode, causing power to run both ways along the lead lines.
Unless he quickly noticed the problem, his batteries were drained despite the healthily spinning generator blade. To prevent this, he added a switch that disconnects the diode from the windmill’s power line (but still allows current to flow to his charging batteries), thus protecting it. Morey throws this switch at the first sign of a thunderstorm and turns it off when the lightning danger is past.
Once he had completed the wiring, and before he mounted the blades. Morey connected a wire to the windmill’s brake cable. This wire cable leads down the water side of the shed, and to a large hook connected to one of its wall studs. Morey added a turn-buckle to the end of the wire. In order to stop the Wincharger’s blades, he simply tightens the bolt enough to pull out the brake cable on the base of the wind generator.
Morey put on the brake while he mounted the blades. When he loosened it off, he checked that the blades really were zipping around as intended; then sat back to admire his creation before wiring the control panel to the pack of batteries that power his 12-volt system.
Rather than use the fluctuating current supplied by the wind, Morey stabilizes and stores it in two 6-volt batteries connected in series to provide 12 volts of storage. He keeps this power pack on a covered shelf just outside his cottage’s kitchen door. He uses deep cycle batteries, such as those manufactured for use in a trolling engine of a golf cart. Their advantage over automotive type batteries is that they can withstand a large number of charges and discharges. Although lower-priced, automotive batteries can’t take the constant charging and discharging that a wind power system requires.
Morey houses the batteries on an outside shelf where acid spills aren’t a problem. When being charged, especially overcharged, batteries give off hydrogen and oxygen. Since both gases are volatile, it’s a good idea to keep charging batteries away from any source of spark. Placing them on a well-ventilated outside shelf prevents harmful gases from escaping into the house.
Since he uses his 12-volt system only during the six summer months, he protected the batteries from the wind and rain but didn’t worry about insulating them. Had he been a winter user, he would have had to build a well-ventilated indoor room.
Morey connected his two 6-volt batteries in series, using a cable to join the positive terminal of one to the negative terminal of the other. He then wired a voltmeter into his system. He feels that the average voltmeter doesn’t give detailed enough readings. Instead, he purchased an expanded scale voltmeter (available from most hardware, automotive, and electronic supply stores). Such meters show only the 10 to 15 or 12 to 18 readings, precisely the figures he requires.
If the needle drops toward the 10 mark, he removes the brake from his wind charger or prays for wind (not often a necessity on his wind-swept island). When it climbs towards 15, he realizes that the batteries have sufficient charge, and applies the brake.
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Free Wind Power
When he first set up his wind system, Morey was a little careless about his last step. Since he hated to see all that free wind go to waste, he allowed his wind generator to charge batteries that already had enough juice. The result was “fried” batteries. Now he turns off the generator when his voltmeter nears 15 because he knows that charging full-charged batteries will: Overheat the battery.
Dry out the electrolyte (this is the sulphuric acid mixture). Generate undesirable gases. Shorten the battery’s life. Not store any extra electricity.
“It’s rather like being offered 50 gallons of free gasoline,” Morey explains. “The catch is that you have to put it in your Honda—all at one time. 10 to 15 gallons will be usable; the rest will be all over the ground.”
Although Morey hadn’t had any problems with plugging the wrong appliance into the wrong outlet (except when his wife plugged the 120-volt vacuum into a 12-volt outlet, then wondered why she didn’t have any suction), if he had to start again, he would use cigarette lighter sockets.
Then, if he wired some female terminals into this boat and cabin, his radio equipment could be used in his car, summer cottage, or cruiser. This improvement would also prevent a guest from destroying a 12-volt appliance by plugging it into an L20-volt socket. Using cigarette lighter leads would also make it easier to use some of the many 12-volt appliances (coffee makers, bottle warmers, air pumps, spotlights, etc.) manufactured for recreational vehicle use. “Just make sure you use all American type wiring,” Morey advises. “The sizes aren’t standard.”
This off-grid living story was sent to us by Bill Morey, who lives off the grid in Ontario, Canada. All credits go to Bill.
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