Monday, November 30, 2009

It all flows downhill, and that is good

When I got to the property today, they were finishing up the forms for the bottom part of the wall. They were filling in the areas around the footers where they dropped, and spraying foam into small gaps to seal things up. I saw that the plumber had been there, and had put in most of the drainage system. Maybe he worked on Black Friday to stay away from the crowds :-) The main waste line, goes from the kitchen all the way across the home, to the west wall. The lines from the two bathrooms and the utility room tie into this line.

Kitchen sink drain is just out of view to the left.

Newt was coming out to the property, but before he got there, the concrete contractor was looking over the plans and had a question about how the radon vent was being run. I explained that it was coming in over the ceiling through the garage, and then dropping down inside the master bathroom wall to where it would run under the slab. I am not positive that I will need a radon vent, but it would be very costly on this house to add one after it is built. So they measured and buried a length of drain pipe that can be tied into later to complete the radon vent.

The black pipe sticking up out of the gravel is the vent.

Newt and I looked things over. Newt had asked the plumber to put the floor drain in the utility room, right next to where the wall between the utility and office is. Newt wasn't sure it was in the right place. He got out the tape measure, and we checked, and it was right where it was suposed to be.

We discussed a bit about how the insulation would be put down on top of the gravel and how the drain was positioned. We talked to the concrete contractor about the vapor barrier and the insulation. He said it would be best to set down the insulation, then the vapor barrier. If he put down the vapor barrier first, then walking across the gravel to put down the vapor barrier would leave bumps and depressions in the gravel under the insulation. If he put down the insulation first, he could keep the gravel level and smooth as he did that and then walking over the insulation, he could put down the vapor barrier without messing up the gravel. That would also prevent a corner of the insulation from floating up in the concrete as it is poured and worked.

The drain pipes hadn't been buried as much as we would have intended. After I discussed it with Newt, I decided we had some height to play with (Hobbits don't need high ceilings), so it was decided to add more gravel up to the top of the footings, so that the drain lines will be completly buried (except at the kitchen sink). Then we will have the 2 inch insulation sitting over pretty much everything, before we pour the floor. This will minimize the areas that have to be cut in the foam to accommodate plumbing. We will loose a couple more inches of ceiling height in the back rooms, but I wanted a cozy feel in the family room, and a bit lower ceiling should actually help that.

Newt is working to see if Lowes can get him a better price than I got from Home Depot for the insulation that will go on the roof.

I am working on the radiant heating system. I have a handful of pages to finish reading in my text book. I started laying out where the tubing will go in the floor. I am also working on the rest of the design to make sure that the tubing that goes in the floor will work OK for the system. I picked up a couple thousand feet of tubing, and zip ties for fastening it down. Between that and the parts that I have bought for the solar power system, my bedroom is looking like an industrial supply store.

It is looking like Newt and I may be trying to lay the radiant tubing later in the week. With the cold temperatures, this could be a challenge, as the tubing won't bend as easily when it is cold.

I went back out later in the day, and got to meet the plumber. He had to finish a couple things before it could be inspected tomorrow. He had to take the waste line out through the west wall so it can be connected into the septic system later. He also had to add forms to keep concrete away from where the drain for the tubs was stubbed out. He did this, so that after they pour the floor, he will have easy access to the location where the traps have to be put in for the tubs. He also needed to put on a valve, that will allow them to pressurize the drain system, and verify that it does not leak. He had a little trouble with that, as it was getting cold and the glue did not want to hold the plugs in the pipes, so he couldn't do a pressure test this evening. They will need to pressurize the system tomorrow to check it out.

This evening, we had a full moon which I got a picture of. We also had geese flying over the property.

Full moon over plumbing.

Hmmm, I think after this is my home, I am going to need to shop for a more advanced camera. I am getting photo opportunities that my current camera can't do justice.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Walls of foam Lego blocks

I went out to the property to see what they were up to today. They were building walls of foam.

Getting another form to add to the wall.

These are the forms for the concrete. They are made from expanded polystyrene foam (similar to what is used in a foam coffee cup) and high density polypropylene. On the top and bottom of each form, there are plugs and sockets, sort of like Lego blocks. When they stack the blocks, these plugs and sockets get connected together and hold the forms in place with respect to one another. There are pieces of high density polypropylene that connect the two sides of the form together. These ties, will be embedded in the concrete, and also hold the steel that will reinforce the wall. Right now, we are just getting the first couple of layers put up, so that the bottom of the walls can be poured at the same time that the floor is. The means we don't have to set up forms just for the floor, and then build the walls around the floor.

 Here another form is being readied.

They actually come folded up, and they unfold them, and then stack them.

When they get to the center of the wall, they have to cut the forms to fit in. Here they are measuring.

Since the forms are made of foam and plastic, they can just cut them with a hand saw. They measure, then they trim the form to fit in.

 Here the layers for this wall have been put in place, and they are just adding the re-bar to the last form.

I took one of the pieces they trimmed off, so that I could get some better pictures to show what the forms are like. Each wall form comes as a 1 1/2 foot tall by 8 foot long block. For my walls, they unfold to be about 13 inches thick.

This is the form folded up.

The black piece of plastic that is running from the left middle, to the bottom center, is embedded in the foam. It actually serves as an anchor point for wall finishes on the inside and the outside of the wall. They will be able to drive screws into the plastic, and it will hold them. To find where these anchors are embedded in the foam once the wall is done, they look for the squiggly lines on the face of the foam. You can see them on the foam that is on top, in the above image. The ties that run through the concrete, are hinged on the pieces that are embedded in the foam, so the whole form can fold up to take up less space on a truck.

Here it is unfolded.

With these forms unfolded, the foam sides are 8 inches apart, for making an 8 inch thick concrete wall. You can also see how the foam has the plugs and sockets on the top edge (there are matching plugs and sockets on the bottom), which would connect to a form placed on top of this one. They also put teeth or grooves into the inside surface of the foam, so that it will hold tightly to the concrete. You can see the jagged edge on the inside of the form. The concrete will fill these in, and lock the foam to the surface of the concrete. So it is joined to the concrete with the ties, and in between the ties, the surface is firmly attached to the surface of the concrete as well.

 Here is a better look at the ties that will be embedded in the concrete.

Above, you saw where they were adding the rebar to the forms. To have it located in the correct place, they put it into the rounded slots you see in the ties. As they go up, on each layer, they shift the rebar from one set of slots to another. Then when they put in the vertical rebar, it will slide down between the rows of rebar they layed in horizontally, and it will end up being like a woven mesh of steel. They also layed a wire mesh in to the tops of the forms. I don't have a good picture of it, but it looks like a row of wire squares. This should make one heck of a strong wall!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Gravel, dump trucks, and bobcats, OH MY!

Well, for all those who have braved my driveway, it is in much better form now. I went out to the property at lunch time to see what was happening. Well, I found that the driveway was covered in a new layer of rock, that extended up to where the garage will be.

Looking across the driveway in progress, and seeing quite a pile of gravel in my garage entrance.

The rocks had quite a range in size. Some were almost as big as my feet. But most of them were just 2 to 3 inches in size. They were somewhat slippery but should provide a good base.

I went to see what they were doing with all the gravel they had sitting there. They had already spread quite a bit in around the footers when I got there. They were laying out the drainage system. They had put gravel inside the footers, and were starting to cover parts of the drainage system.

Working to cover the drain tile.

Adding more gravel for under the floor slab.

That is a lot of gravel.

This should be just a small amount of the gravel that will eventually be used in providing drainage around the home.

With the large rock on the driveway, it was still a challenge to drive up. They decided it needed to have smaller stuff put down, so that it would be more passable.

The first dump truck made it up the driveway. After a couple tries.

The second dump truck tried to come up backwards. That simply did not work. He had to turn around, and bring the load up forwards, then turn around at the top. He had some trouble when he got his back tires off the rock, and into the mud. But he managed to deliver his load of #411 (rock powder, up to pieces a little bigger than pea gravel).

Now the driveway has a better surface.

It will be interesting to see tomorrow how it feels to drive up the new driveway.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Stomping in the mud

I decided to go out to the property, to see whether the rain from late last week, had made my foundation into a swimming pool. We didn't have that much rain, but the change was interesting.

There are now a couple mud puddles.

Most of the ground, while still damp, was quite solid. It looked like the water drained down through it without a problem. There were a couple puddles though, where the soil was a dramatically different color. As I walked near the puddles, I thought it was going to suck my boots off my feet! Very sticky wet clay. On the one hand, I am interested in how it would have behaved if we had a large amount of rain. On the other hand, I want the build to progress, so I don't really want to see a deluge just to satisfy my curiosity.

I talked to Newt. He was picking up the first Nudura forms and rebar. He is planning to have gravel show up tomorrow, and it sounds like by later on Wednesday I may have a drainage layer in my footers and the first of the forms installed.

Now I am off to continue reading my book on hydronic heating.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Learning about hydronic heating, and building racks

I ordered a book on hydronic heating, since I am now going to be designing that from the ground up. It arrived on Thursday, and I am now trying to read through a colledge text intended for a 1 quarter course in about a week. It seems well written and very detailed. I like details!

Today my dad and I contined with the construction of the rack system for the photovoltaic panels. Dad had constructed the first of the templates, which will be used to place the L bolts into the concrete piers. Once the concrete has set up, we will be fastening the racks to the bolts. Here is a picture of one of templates which will be used to hold the L bolts in the concrete.

You can see two of the stainless steel L bolts attached on the left. The template is sitting upside down on the floor. It will be flipped over to set the L bolts down into the concrete.

We now have the left and right base pieces drilled for setting on the L bolts. Here they are.

Dad got a drill press last year. It has come in very handy. We built a jigg to hold the pieces of aluminum in just the right place to drill them.

Dad bought this drill press from a friend of ours. It is going to get quite a bit of use for drilling all the holes we need to make in the aluminum yet.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Of walls, and wide angle lenses

Newt and I went over some of the build details with the rep from Nudura. Nurdura makes the insulated concrete forms we are planning to use. As I have said, the walls will be poured concrete. The concrete will be 8 inches thick. However, if we just poured concrete walls, and backfilled around them, I would end up loosing a lot of heat in the winter. In the summer, they would draw a lot of heat out of the inside air, however they would probably do such a good job at it, that they might sweat like a cold glass of lemonade outside. Neither one of those outcomes is desired. The walls must be insulated so that heat loss is managed and to prevent condensation when the air gets humid.

There are a few different approaches to building and insulating the walls in an earth sheltered house.

One is to pour traditional concrete walls, but then before backfilling with gravel and dirt, insulation and waterproofing is applied to the outside of the wall. This actually provides the best positioning of insulation and mass of the wall for the desired effects, according to what I have read. The best route from a performance standpoint is to have the insulation enveloping the house. This limits the influence of outside temperature, and allows the large mass of the concrete to most effectively absorb and release heat into the inside, to maintain comfortable temperatures.

Another way to construct the walls, is to pour traditional walls, waterproof the outside and backfill, then add insulation to the inside of the wall. This however prevents the mass of the concrete from being able to assist with moderating inside temperature swings.

Block walls can also be constructed, and then insulated the same way the poured walls would be. If I were building the wall myself, this might be a consideration, as building a block wall is something that one person can do. I have read about successful use of block walls, however it is labor intensive, and since I am having someone else build the walls I did not really consider block walls.

Pre-fabricated concrete panels might be used. I have seen a couple different systems of factory built concrete panels. The are built in a factory, then shipped to the build site and set up and fastened together. This could be a very quick system for getting a wall, but with so much of my walls burried, I was concerned with how well the panels would hold up against the forces from the ground. From what I have seen this also has much less mass than a poured wall, and the insulation is on the inside of the mass.

Insulated concrete forms were the route I chose. I had seen some references to them being used in earth sheltered houses and so I researched them. They would offer the potential for a single person to set them up since the systems consist of individual pieces one person can handle. However they also offer a fast system for having a contractor come in and provide an insulated concrete wall. The various insulated concrete form systems all end up producing a similar structure. They consist of rigid foam peices that are tied together through the concrete wall. They offer insulation and a form for the concrete to be poured into in one product. The insulation is on both the inside and the outside of the concrete. From the research I have done, this will produce a wall that won't perform as well as if all the insulation was on the outside of the wall, but it offers a number of other advantages over a traditional poured concrete wall. So ICF is the route I have chosen.

As for photos, it is a bit of a challenge to get a photo that has the whole floor. To get back far enough for my camera to be able to photograph the whole floor, I have a wall of dirt blocking the view. I need a wider angle lens.

See what I mean? You can see the southwest corner here, but that is it.

So here is one where you can see about 3/4 of the floor. It is a pretty big floor.

This was taken from the opposite corner. This is the southwest corner. In this corner will be the master bedroom and bathroom and the hobby room. If you look close, you can see where I set out a tape measure where the garage would end. You can see the yellow tape starting to the left of center and angling across the dirt toward the right to below the center of the photo. The garage is about 20 feet by 20 feet.

There probably won't be much to update on for a few days. Newt has some more information to get before we proceed any further. I just ordered a text book on designing radiant heating systems. We were not satisfied that we got enough details from the contractor who was supposed to design it, so I am off to fill in my knowlege on the finer details of designing a radiant floor heating system. I am going to be very knowlegable about the systems in this house and how they should operate. BD Heat and Power is at it again.

Oh, and yes I am having fun!!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Then there was concrete...

I went in to work early, in the hopes of leaving early and getting to take photos of the progress. That strategy failed miserably! I apologize, the photos today were taken late in the day, under an overcast sky, with no tripod, so they turned out rather blurry. If we don't get rain tomorrow, I think I will try to take some better pictures. However, I know if I don't post tonight, I will be getting some email asking how things are going :-)

Marcus hasn't been out to the property in a while, and I was showing him where the property line heads into the woods. You can see in the background, where the dirt piles have been re-arranged, knocked down, and packed.

Here is the garage corner. The footer needs to be down low enough to prevent frost getting under it, and heaving it, and damaging it. Toward the top, you can see where the footer for the north wall steps up. That wall, will be well below the final grade, and so the footer does not need to be lowered to escape frost. The frost line on that wall will be well above the level of the floor. In fact when we are done, that frost line should be above my head when I am inside.

Here you can see how the footer goes up and down as the levels of the ground around the home will be different. The footer under the center wall, starting at the lower left corner, and headed toward the top center, shifts up once it gets past the garage floor. The footer at the bottom shifts up as it goes behind the berm that will be on the southwest corner, and shifts back down as it gets to where the front wall will be exposed for windows and doors. At the top of the photo, you can see where the footer goes back up as it gets behind the berm that will wrap around the south side from the east side of the home.

Here is a better picture of the southwest corner. I'll have to ask Newt about the fact that the concrete isn't continuous. I had expected that the jogs up and down, would involve thicker concrete extending from the lower level of the footer up to the higher level.

Here is the view from the northeast corner. Directly in front of me is where the family room will be.
Something that is missing from this footer, that you would normally see, is the re-bar to connect into the walls that will be poured on top of it. In this case, we decided that drilling holes and putting the rebar in epoxy after the footer sets, would allow better alignment in the re-bar. With a typical framed home, you have a concern of severe wind trying to pull a house off its foundation, and so often times threaded rods are inserted into the wet concrete, and the bottom board in the walls (or sill plate), is bolted down to this. In this house, we will have so many tons of weight, and it will be so well sheltered from the wind that uplift is not a concern. The only concern is providing a link between the footing and walls, to prevent the earth from pushing the walls out of alignment on top of the footings.

By my estimate we used about 11 1/3 cubic yards of concrete for the footers. From the widely varying estimates on concrete density I found, that is somewhere between 11 and 22 tons just for my footers. I guess I don't have to worry about that blowing away :-) Just for fun, I will have to ask Newt how much concrete they actually delivered today.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Solar panels and 2x4 wood

Alright, so the picture of a crate wasn't a great way to show what the panels are like :-)

Here is Matt holding one of the panels, well keeping it from falling over at least.

It is about 6 1/2 feet wide, as you are looking at it, and about 3 1/4 feet tall. Two of them will be stacked in this orientation on each rack. So each rack will have a roughly 6 1/2 foot square facing the sun. So, about 42 square feet of collector will be on each rack. There will be 7 racks, so that is about 294 square feet of total collector. With the racks having some space between them, the array will be around 49 feet long.

The racks will be bolted to concrete piers embedded in the ground. To place the bolts in exactly the right positions so that the aluminum frame will mount on them, we are constructing wood frames that will hold the bolts in the proper position. We will place the frame over the concrete while it is wet, and push the bolts into the concrete. This will ensure that as the concrete sets up, the bolts will be vertical, and spaced correctly. We had previously bought the wood for this, and cut it. Then the size of the panels changed, so we had to go get more wood and cut it to the correct lengths. We should be able to make use of the scraps as well, but this was a little frustrating.

 Here is dad trimming up the new boards, so they are the correct length for the frames.

Newt expected the contractors to work on the footings tomorrow, so maybe tomorrow evening I will have photos of concrete to show.

Friday, November 13, 2009

I have a finished hole, and I have panels!!

The excavators finished up this morning. I went out with my family to the property today, and we saw a nicely finished hole the ground :-)

Our friend Bob is providing scale, while mom inspects the excavator's handy work.

Here you can see the size of the drop from the east side (to the right) to the west end. Mom is standing where the garage will be, while Matt my brother plays King of the Hill. He would have lost, if the buck that has been sharpening its antlers on a nearby sapling showed up.

This morning, the shipper showed up with the solar panels. They were a challenge to get off the truck, and up my parents' driveway. With Matt, Bob, my dad and I working with the driver, we got it up the drive and into his garage. 14 solar panels at about 60 pounds each. 840 pounds of solar power!

They were all there, and they didn't look damaged. So horray, that part of the saga is done.

This evening, Matt and dad worked on fabricating the aluminum angle into the parts for the rack system.

Matt said we had a few small pieces of aluminum go flying when they got cut off. But all the big pieces are now cut the way they need to be. Next will be drilling a LOT of holes for all the mounting bolts.

We have a big hole!

The excavator showed up early yesterday morning at the property. Newt and I explained to him what we were looking to build and how it would sit in the ground. He set up a laser level and made some measurements. Then he adjusted a sensor on a long pole, so that they could check that the bottom of the hole was the same height everywhere.

Here as the early morning sun peeks through the trees, the great hulking beast begins to burrow :-)

Jerry was the gentleman driving the track hoe, tearing into the frosty ground. First he dug down to the correct depth in on direction from the first corner.

Here he is checking to see if he is deep enough.

Digging deeper.

Then after he got a space dug in that direction that was deep enough, he moved around, and started digging in the other direction out of the corner.

 Digging toward the west now.

By later in the morning, the two corners on the east side of the house, were dug out, and he was working on making a very large hole, and some very large piles of dirt.

A little after 11am, and there is a big enough hole to drive a delivery truck into.

3 hours later, and Jerry can almost hide the track hoe behind the dirt piles.

Jerry continued to get a level floor in the bottom of the hole.

Here I am in my future kitchen, looking toward where the family room will be.

The shadows are getting long. Time to call it a day.

When we left, they said they had about an hour left to finish the excavation. So most likely by the time you read this, the excavation for my home will be complete. It was a fun day watching, what I had imagined in my head, finally start to take shape. There were some frustrations, and delays. Jerry found that no one can reach him on his cell phone at my property. He almost ran out of fuel, and the other gentleman who showed up, had to go get some diesel so Jerry could keep working. Some of the bearings were squeaking, and Jerry found that they had not left the grease gun where they were supposed to. But over all, it went quite well.

This morning, I am anxiously awaiting delivery of the solar panels. I haven't heard from the company in Florida again, but the freight company contacted me about arranging a time for the delivery. They could show up between 8am and noon.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ok, we are getting this worked out now

Alright, time for another update. While I was dealing with trying to order solar panels, the metal suppliers were hurling metal my way as fast as they could!

I ordered the stainless steel hardware last Monday from McMaster-Carr, it arrived on Tuesday! These guys don't mess around. Then I found out the folks at the apartment complex office were no longer accepting shipments that require a signature (the policy apparently got changed Tuesday morning). Bummer, it was too late to pick up at the UPS office, so I picked up 26 pounds of bolts, nuts and washers on Wednesday at the UPS depot. This should work quite well to hold the racks down on their footings, and should provide plenty of strength for the joints in the frames.

Next, the aluminum was shipped. This is from a company called MetalsDepot. It took them a little longer to get that order put together. UPS called me on Friday night to know when they could drop off almost 300 pounds of aluminum! I talked to my dad, and we agreed we could both make it to his house for their latest time I could schedule for Monday (I was concerned about scheduling for Tuesday, since it sounded like the excavator might start today). We scheduled that, and last night my dad and I helped the driver of a UPS semi haul the metal up into my dad's garage. They pack the metal very well, but there was still one piece with a bent corner. It shouldn't be too difficult to straighten out that one corner.

That was quite a pile of aluminum. My arms are going to ache for a couple days I think. Behind the aluminum on the floor, are the boxes with my steel.

Looking at all that aluminum, my dad and I had the same thought. How many aluminum cans did I just buy? I did a little looking, and it appears that I just bought the same amount of aluminum that would go into making over 9500 - 12 ounce cans!

Here is what the aluminum and steel will be used to construct.

This is one side of a rack. The solar panels will be attached on top of the aluminum that is angled from the floor and back toward the top of the garage door. There will be two panels on each rack, one above the other.

I also got an order put in last Monday for a bunch of miscellaneous components for the solar power system from a place in Arizona called Northern Arizona Wind and Sun where I already ordered other parts. These parts are arriving tomorrow. Finally, a delivery that I will be able to accept in person, without requiring last minute adjustments to work schedule.

Now you are probably wondering how the solar panel saga has turned out. Well, it turns out I am getting a different number of panels, of a different type than what I ordered last Monday. I talked to the rep for the company in Florida on Wednesday, and he said that I could use PayPal to pay for my order. The account I was moving money into to be able to do a certified check, is also the one that I have setup with PayPal, so that would work fine. Now I just had to wait for the money to get from one bank account to another. Friday morning, it was there, so I went into PayPal, and started to send the money. Oh wait, thats right the credit card I was trying to use on Monday, was setup as my default PayPal payment method, so I was going to pay with the credit card anyway. Alright, money was sent, PayPal said so, now I just had to wait for confirmation that they would be sending my 16 panels that I ordered.

Friday afternoon as I was dealing with trying to work out a delivery time for the aluminum, I got a call from the company in Florida. Well, they got the money, so they were going to ship my order, however there was a hitch. They sold my panels, and were out of stock now!! You have got to be kidding me. While I was arranging payment, they apparently didn't consider the order real, and so they sent my panels (which they had in stock when I placed my order originally) to someone else. I was not happy! They offered me a discount on other panels they sell. I told them that I would have to sit down and look over the specifications to decide what I was going to do.

I went down to my parents home for the weekend, and looked over the specifications for these panels with my dad. They were a different size, so the mounting holes were going to be in a different location than the panels I had ordered, but we figured that the rack design would still work for them. I had bought some wood for positioning the bolts in the concrete footers, that would no longer be the right size, but that wasn't too costly. Then I looked at the power specifications. The power output of the panels was quite a bit more than the ones I had designed for. It meant that I didn't need as many panels, I would only need 14 to get the power I wanted. However, with the way the panels need to be wired, I wasn't going to be able to divide this up into two equal arrays, and this will possibly hurt the performance of the system. This also meant that I had stainless steel and aluminum for one more rack than I was going to need. I was sorely tempted to go back to Norhern Arizona Wind and Sun and order the panels I had originaly designed the system for. However, the cost savings of going to these panels from the place in Florida, versus the panels from Northern Arizona Wind and Sun along with all the other items I would need less of, means saving over 7% on the cost of the whole system. I talked to the guy in Florida yesterday, and he said they could ship the panels out today. No word yet. I had better have a shipping confirmation tomorrow, or I am going to be very upset.

I talked to Newt today, and he says the excavator should now be starting on Thursday. So in a couple evenings time, I will hopfully have pictures of a large hole the in the ground, where I will someday reside. Hmm, time to make sure all my batteries for my camera are charged.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why is it difficult to pay people?

Well today was an adventure in frustration. I recieved a call from the company I was ordering bolts, washers and nuts from, for assembling the racks to hold the solar modules. They had shipped my order (I only ordered it yesterday), but the credit card company had declined the charge. I verified that I hadn't mistyped the number, then I gave them a different credit card to try to bill me on.

I called the credit card company to find out if they could shed light on why I couldn't buy my solar modules yesterday, and why the charge for nuts and bolts was declined, I should have had plenty of credit available. That was when I got to inform the automated system that yes, I really had authorized the purchase for the solar modules, and yes I really did want to buy all those stainless steel nuts and bolts. They then informed me that my credit card was no longer locked out. How nice of them to not inform me that it was locked in the first place! I decided I needed to talk to a human. Once the automated system was sure I wasn't going to talk to it any more, it transfered me to a nice gentleman. He explained that there has apparently been a lot of credit card theft going on. My order that was canceled for a large amount had put the system on alert. So when the smaller but significant charge came through for the nuts and bolts, it was declined. But since there wasn't enough suspicious activity, the system didn't inform me the account was being locked. I have another charge that will be coming through for more parts for the racks. So he made a note on the account that there was an expected large charge, so it wouldn't get locked again.

With that out of the way, it was time to see if I could get the other solar modules for the ridiculously low price on the website. So I called the folks in Arizona who I had bought other parts from, to inquire if I could buy a pallet of modules. They went off to check into that. I didn't hear back from them, so I looked at the website after lunch, and the price was no longer listed. Uh, Oh, not a good sign. I called them back, and they informed me that they could no longer get those panels from the manufacturer, and they would be taking that product off the site. Bummer. Time to talk to the place in Florida to see if they would be willing to take my money and send me some solar modules.

Another phone call, and I am talking to a gentleman in Miami Florida. He looked into my order, and spotted the issue (I later found they had responded to the email I sent to them last evening as well). It turns out that they have been having issues with bad credit card transactions, and are currently not taking credit card orders over $1000. I have to say, that with what solar equipment costs, that has to be making business challenging. I am working on getting money moved to an account where I can get a certified check to send them, or I may see if I can do Paypal.

It shouldn't be this difficult to pay people money!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Shopping and redesign

There is an upside, and a downside to doing major work on your own house.

The upside, is that after you get an initial price for materials, you can continue shopping for a better price, on better materials, until you actually have to order the materials.

The downside, is that until you order a particular item, you may have to keep redesigning other elements as you change which item you are ordering.

My choice of solar panel may have changed 3 times in the last 3 days!!

I said in one of my first posts, that I was designing a system to generate my own power from sunlight. The primary element in a system like this is what is called a photovoltaic panel or module. Its job is to sit out in the sun, and soak up sunlight and produce electricity. It should do this for the next 25 to 30 years, or longer. It has no moving parts, makes no noise, and in my case will sit on a rack out in the field behind my house.

So, I have about 15 companies bookmarked in my browser, who sell components that I will need to build the system that will generate my electricity, including photovoltaic modules. I have been watching to see which modules would give me the most power for the least cost. I had designed the system to utilize 18 modules made by Kyocera. Each of the modules I chose will theoretically generate 205 watts under bright sun. Then things changed...

Oh, how much electricity is that you ask? Well, 205 watts would be enough to light up a couple hundred watt bulbs which you might use for areas where you want a lot of light. Or, it would be somewhat more than what 3 60 watt bulbs would need, the sort of bulb typically used in a hall light, or a table lamp. The entire array was going to have 18 of these modules, and generate 18x205 watts at maximum, or 3690 watts. If you have an electric water heater, it probably uses more than that. The burners on an electric stove can use more than that. A hair dryer on high may use almost half of that. The modules aren't expected to provide all the power the house will need, all the time. They convert energy from the sunlight into electricity, and that energy is stored in batteries to be used when needed. If used effectively and efficiently, you can do a lot with that size array.

Now the modules aren't going to just sit on the ground. They need to face so they get hit by as much sunlight as possible. To do that, they will face toward the south (since I am in the northern hemisphere), and I will put them at an angle that will try to maximize the energy that I can use. If I was connected to a utility, I could use the utility as a battery, and try to generate as much electricity as I could throughout the year. So, I would angle the modules to they can take full advantage of the bright and long hours of sun in the summer. Since I am using batteries, I can only store a small amount of electricity for a short time. Therefore, I want to generate it close to when I will need to use it. This means that during the short days of winter, with the sun lower on the horizon, I want to get as much out of the limited sunlight as I can. So I will tilt the modules at a high angle. Much higher than a normal roof pitch, more like the roof pitch on an A frame house. I am the solar contractor, I am designing and buying or building everything. I needed racks to mount the panels on. My dad and I had worked out a design, and we built a prototype.

Now it was time to order the rest of the materials for the racks. However, some of the measurements for the racks will be determined by which modules I buy. So I went and looked to determine if the ones I had selected were the ones I really wanted to use. I found where I could get some other modules for a significantly lower price for the amount of power they would generate. They would generate 225 watts each, and so for a similar amount of power, I would only need 16 modules, and they were less expensive per module than the Kyocera modules I had been planning to use.

I ordered the modules this morning. The company sent me an email confirming my order, and the credit card company, indicated a pending charge on my credit card. So I went and ordered the materials for building the racks, and ordered enough to build the 7 remaining racks I would need. Everything was going smoothly.

Then I checked my email this evening. They indicated that there was a problem, and they had refunded the charge on my credit card. Of course by the time I checked the email, they were closed. So I couldn't get this straightened out today. I decided to take one more look at what other solar modules were available at the various companies I had bookmarked. As I was looking through the products, I spotted one which looked strange. It was a huge price on a module. This didn't make sense, so I clicked on the listing to see if it was just a typo. It turns out that the listing was for 20 panels, not one. From the write up, the price apparently includes the shipping, and is about half of what I was originally going to pay for the 18 Kyocera modules! However, I can't just order it on the website, I will have to call them. So, I have my fingers crossed, if this works out, it could cut a large amount off the cost of my solar modules. It will however entail another redesign of some of the wiring, as the modules will need to be hooked up differently than I was planning, and I will have to order material for another 2 racks.

Ah, the fun of redesign

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Wheels of change

So the drillers have left, now what. Time to get something with more ground clearance than the New Beetle has. Last Thursday, I decided it was time to get something that would be able to get up my driveway a little easier, and which could haul larger items than what I could stuff in the Beetle.

I went truck shopping. I was fortunate enough to find a vehicle that was in a price range I was willing to pay, and had most all of the characteristics I was looking for.

We did some test driving on Saturday. The 4 wheel drive makes getting up the driveway much easier.

Some have commented that this is a larger vehicle than they imagined me in. I have to agree, this is larger than what I intended to get, however, I found that there really wasn't much of anything available that was smaller than this, with 4 wheel drive, where the engine seemed adequate. Oh well, at least it drives well, and it should provide quite a bit of utility with its carrying capacity.