Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Living with solar power

I actually started a post on this topic a few days ago . . . and that was the day our power went out! After our power was restored, I wanted to write about the actual events of the day, not an overview post like this. Today I'm coming back to this topic: what is a regular day on solar power like?

Living with solar power is different. I wondered, for a while, if we were doing it wrong, because it takes so much more thought than living on the grid. I guess I assumed when your system was up and running correctly, the situation would be as mindless as flipping a light switch in a regular house. It's not.

In talking with others about this, I discovered that some people feel the "intentionalness" (I'm pretty sure I just made up that word) of living with solar power is a benefit. Those were more green-minded people, who worry about hurting the planet through excessive energy use. I have to admit, I'm usually too busy keeping my family from being buried in dirty laundry to worry about how much power the washing machine is using. But it is definitely true that nowadays our family knows, at most every moment of every day, how much power is coming into our system, and how much we are using. There's no question: we are not just carelessly using electricity without thinking about it.

Here's what this looks like:

When we first get up in the morning, we check our power level. How low has the charge on the batteries gone since sundown yesterday? How much sunlight is there now? The answers to these questions determine our next course of action. Because the electric coffee maker, the microwave, and the toaster are especially high energy users, we often choose not to use those at breakfast time. Allen saves previously brewed coffee and reheats a cupful in a pot on the stove, if he wants/needs a cup of coffee before we have enough power to make a fresh batch. We rarely bake a breakfast, as our oven uses electricity (for it's thermostat). Our stovetop works on gas, so we can cook breakfast with that.

As soon as the power level starts rising significantly, we plug in the chest freezer. We have enough power to run the refrigerator all night, but the freezer uses more power, and since we aren't opening and closing it as often the freezer stays cold much longer without power than the fridge does. We do want to run the freezer as many hours each day as we can, however.

Some days we only receive enough sunlight to power the fridge and the freezer (and maybe the internet and laptop) through the entire day. On those days we don't do any laundry, we wash dishes by hand, and (if necessary) we run the generator to have enough power to get us through the evening. Days like this aren't common, but when we do have this kind of heavy, cloudy weather it often lasts a few days at a time. The laundry can really pile up!

Assuming that we're not having a low-power day, the next appliance we add, once we have enough power to do so, is the washing machine. Our family needs to wash several loads of laundry every day, to keep up (construction work means lots of very dirty laundry), and we're often running the washing machine as long as the input of power allows. Most days, around 3pm or so (depending on the level of sunlight) we have to stop using the washing machine, as we want to end the day with powered-up batteries, to hold us over through the dark hours.

On normal-to-very sunny days, we have very large amounts of power coming in for a limited number of hours. Best case, this might be from 8am to 2pm or so. During those hours, we can often run the fridge, freezer, computer, washing machine, dishwasher, etc, all at the same time, and we are still throwing away extra power (so as not to overcharge the system). During these hours, we're always having to be alert to use whatever appliances we need to use, while the power is available. Making sure the washing machine and dishwasher get unloaded and reloaded immediately when they finish their cycles is high priority. We also try to do any baking during these hours. We can't think we'll be able to "get to it later." The batteries just don't store that much power.

Not long after we stop running the washing machine we also turn off the freezer for the night, and we gradually start changing our mindset from "use all the power you can, while we've got it" to " conserve all the power you can, so we'll have enough for our after-dark usage."

On an average power level day, we can probably bake something (something that doesn't need too much baking time in the oven), watch a movie, run lights in both houses, and run a laptop with internet between the time we stop bringing in power from the solar panels and when we go to bed. Since we're not a family that generally stays up late, it works for us.

What I have just described is, of course, only one level of activity around the place. At the same time we are also trying to get school and ministry work done, and care for the animals and the garden, while remembering to keep track of the incoming power and matching our usage to that level.

Yes, it can get frustrating. It's like a juggling act - would my best use of power be to quickly unload and reload the dishwasher, or should I bake something . . . oh, but the sun is broiling the garden right now, and if I don't rush out there and water it right now it could be bad . . . meanwhile the child who was told to sit tight until I get back to read them their spelling words is still waiting . . .

And that gives you some idea of what it's like to live with solar power, at least in our house. I'm still kind of hoping we're doing it wrong, and it will someday be like flipping a switch.


Kris Thede said...

We do this also but to a lesser amount as our stove and frig are both gas. Sunny today therefore laundry in the washer. Plug in the freezer in the morning. No toaster, slow cooker or microwave but for rare occasions. You really do think about your power usage more when on solar. But so thankful with the batteries that I can enjoy power daily and not randomly, [both at random times of day and for random amounts like with government power anymore.]

Trish said...

Yep, sounds like we're living similar lives, Kris!