Power Down at Sunflower Farm

We have lived off the grid without power outages for 15 years. There have been several occasions of short ‘power downs’ while we were upgrading our system, but these were anticipated and we made sure to have containers of water handy and that everything we needed was out of the fridge and freezer beforehand so that we could keep them closed for the few hours they were without electricity.

On Friday night of the August long weekend we had just gone to bed when a storm rolled through. There had been no watches or warnings and things were pretty quiet until the loudest thunderbolt and brightest lightning flash I’d ever seen or heard hit us. It was unbelievably loud. I had a bad feeling about it but I was exhausted and already in bed so I went to sleep. The next morning I woke up to silence. With our nearest neighbors 4 kilometers away we are used to quiet but this was different. No hum from the fridge. No faint gurgle of the pump on the cats’ water dish.

Photo from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Photo from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

I went to the battery room and it was not good. Every red light on every piece of equipment was lit up. The inverter was off. Since it was installed 7 years ago our Xantrex 2524 inverter had never gone off. This was not a good sign.

I tried disconnecting everything and restarting them, but the inverter was broken. It would come on but it was not recognizing the 24 Volts from the battery bank and was not outputting 120 Volts AC. I would have called my dealer but the phone was broken too. The e-meter was also toast. The wind turbine brake was on which was not a good sign. And not only did this occur at the beginning of a long holiday weekend, my daughter Katie’s wedding was the following weekend and there was still some planning left to sort out. We planned to be away from the garden and the chickens while we attended the wedding, which was going to be enough of a hassle, but without electricity for the water pump it would have been a major hassle. Oh, and we were in the midst of a drought so we really needed to water!

Luckily our neighbor Sandy was able to come over. Sandy also lives off the grid and he’s an engineer who loves challenges. He suggested that we use a cheap ($120 on sale) 12V inverter from Canadian Tire as an interim work around. So I picked up a 1500-Watt unit, wired it to half of our 24V battery bank and then proceeded to spend the weekend juggling extension chords and power loads. I ran the gas-powered generator once a day to charge up the water pressure tanks from the pump in our drilled well.

Finally on Tuesday morning I figured that businesses would be back to work and so I began the task of trying to find a backup inverter. I needed to use a phone. Ours was broken. Our satellite internet was working as long as I could divert some power that way and my brilliant wife discovered the “call phone” function on GMail which allowed me to call people from my computer (for free!) with very little latency. It’s like Skype but without the video. Tuesday is also our delivery day for half of our CSA members, so I had to make calls to dealers in between harvesting and washing vegetables.

As usual there were various options, all with pros and cons. Finally at 5 o’clock I called a dealer in Ottawa whom I’ve known for a long time and I ordered a new Outback 24V inverter. I picked it up on Wednesday morning and Sandy and I had it installed and working by noon. While my instinct is often to deliberate for weeks about such investments, I decided after days of extension cords and inconvenience I needed to make this power situation go away.

It was a hugely stressful pain in the *ss. With the wedding and CSA it really couldn’t have happened at a worse time.

But I’m looking at the bright side. I learned an enormous amount about my system. I am now much more confident about how it operates. We have a large “DC Disconnect” switch, which shuts our whole power operation down. I’ve always been hesitant to do this when everything’s working. “If it ain’t broke…” What if the inverter won’t start back up? After the week I had powering our equipment up and down it’s now second nature to me. The fear is gone. I’ve just lived through the worst-case scenario, so what could be worse?

The biggest benefit of the whole episode is redundancy. Since we moved off the grid I’ve wanted a backup inverter. The inverter is the key component of our system. Without it, nothing works. But who can justify spending $3,000 on a backup inverter when the existing one had worked well, uninterrupted, for 15 years? But this weakness of the system has always nagged at me and my concern was well grounded as I discovered when it stopped working … on a long weekend … right before a family wedding.

So I have sent my old inverter off for repairs. I hope it will cost less than $1,000 to repair. When it comes back, it will be my backup. I will mount it on the wall next to my new inverter and should anything ever happen to the Outback, I will transfer 6 wires and be back in business within the hour.

Power grids are pretty dependable. When they do go down the “powers that be” are usually able to get them back up fairly quickly. In 1998 there was an epic ice storm not too far from here and many were without electricity for weeks. I am comforted to know that should I ever have another catastrophic failure in my system, I will be back operating “fully and completely” within hours. It’s too bad it took a rogue lightning bold to get me off my butt and to this point, but now in hindsight I almost grateful it did. After you’ve lived that worst-case scenario, things don’t seem quite so scary. (And yes, I had lots of lightning arrestors installed at various points in my system, but apparently these strikes were just too much for them!)

My life is based on always having a “Plan B.” Now when it comes to powering my home, I finally have the “Plan B” I’ve always wanted.

Now to get the wind turbine fixed…..

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Michelle’s Note: From time to time I like to point out that box along the righthand side of this blog where we invite you to show your appreciation for Cam’s writing by making a donation. It’s been an expensive summer!

6 Responses to “Power Down at Sunflower Farm”

  • alex english:

    Thanks for posting this account. There are no affordable 100% protection systems for lightning strikes, and it is therefore a difficult cost benefit analysis to make. However it is also true that many components of a system are not checked and/or improperly installed. Few electricians have ever tested the quality of the electrical ‘grounds’,a key to reducing spikes and shedding current. Good luck with the windmill. A serious cost of business for wind farms.They are not a ‘fan’ of lightning.


  • Chris Parsonson:

    I don’t know whether this counts as a comment because it’s a question really. I’ve designed my house. The drawings are now being done officially and then approved. Meanwhile I’m thinking about powering the house. Your talk about inverters started me wondering how you arrived at the inverter, battery and PV panel ratings. I’m thinking of running all my lighting as LEDs at battery voltage with, to begin with anyway, separate battery and PV panel. Probably for me the easiest way to arrive at ratings for powering the rest of the electrical stuff is to use prepaid electricity for a year, which I have access to, and measure means and maxima and then build accordingly.

  • Will:

    Yes, the major disadvantage to living offgrid is becoming your own power company…a friend lost their charge controller last month and of course had no power until they could get a new one in.
    I had a spare sitting on my shelf, but who has time to look around when the power goes down?

  • My MX-60 solar charge controller got fried (all FETs blown) last spring. As these things seem to happen, it was not until midday on a Friday I realized a problem when the battery charge did not come up. The “what” was almost certainly due to lightning the previous evening. But as for the “how”, it was not due to a direct strike and the best guess divined between the Outback Tech and myself is that a nearby lightning hit caused a spike to come “up” through the ground wire. I’m still not sure how possible that is. But, in any case, I had to order a replacement from the local dealer eta end-of-day Monday afternoon… glad I had a backup gennie, though it is a good idea to keep a cheapie solar charge controller on hand. At Outback’s suggestion, I shipped ($50+) the damaged unit to them in WA for repair so I would have a backup on hand in future, only to get a call a few days later saying they didn’t have the parts to fix the “obselete” MX-60, and would I like them to dispose of it or ship it back to me (at my cost). Grrr. There’s more to the story (for details read the May 7, 2012 entry on my blog) but anyhow there are pluses and minuses to being your own power utility 😉

  • Interesting , do you think the lightning cam through the 120 VAC side or through the 24 VDC side?

    with regards tot he lightning arestors , what where you using. I have seen MOV’s (metal Oxide Varesistor) used in cheap power bars an they are practically worthless. No indication of when they blow and not to mush interrupt capacity.

    I have had some issues of power surges knocking out PLC memory in some the panel I have built. What I use are TVSS (Transient Voltage Surge Suppressors). I have not had issues with the panels that have these installed. You may want to look into some thing like that or check with the manufactures of you new inverter and see what they recommend for protection

  • Bruce:

    2 is 1 , 1 is none….

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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