You Learn to Be Handy When You Live Off the Grid

By Cam Mather

I love living off the electricity grid. I love producing all my own electricity from the sun and wind. I especially love heating my water with the sun. My Solar Domestic Hot Water Heater (SDHW) is probably one of the coolest pieces of technology that I’ve installed. The fact that I had to fabricate and weld the frame that it sits on over my back porch is part of it. But I love it when I try to touch the copper pipe and find out it’s too hot to touch even in February when the outside temperature is -30°C. It just blows my mind. It’s absolutely the coolest thing ever.

But like many of the technologies I use, being an early adopter can have its pitfalls. I’m not complaining. No one held a gun to my head and forced me to move to the bush 4 miles from the nearest utility pole. It’s just an observation. With most of the technologies that you can use to reduce your carbon footprint and make yourself more independent, the learning curve of the manufacturer has been well established and for the most part the equipment will just quietly do its job just like any other appliance in your home. They’ve worked the bugs out.

Wind turbines have been my biggest challenge and understandably so. They have moving parts. And the moving parts have to go fast, then slow, the get buffeted from all sides, and stop quickly and start quickly, and dodge lightning strikes. I buy my equipment from a local dealer called Renewable Energy of Plum Hollow and they didn’t really want to sell me a wind turbine. They made it very clear that I was on my own. They’d installed enough wind turbines and had had enough problems to know that they preferred to deal with solar. Point taken.

I just had to have my Outback MPPT Charge Controller repaired. Luckily I had kept my old one so I could use it again while the new one was being fixed. Well it wasn’t really getting fixed. I had an early model and the “firmware” or permanent programming in it needed to be updated. They did it under warranty and actually paid for the shipping. So no complaints there. And as much as I like to whine and complain about it, it forced me to go through the whole installation process again. Shut down the solar panels. Shut off the power from the batteries. Turn of the inverter. Remove the wires from the one unit in the correct order. Install the new unit. Rewire it. Then start everything up again in the correct order. For a cidiot like me this is a scary prospect, but it gives me tremendous confidence that I’m in control of things. I can do this when I have to, so if things go wrong I’m not at someone else’s mercy to fix it. I like this feeling. No, I love this feeling.

About a month ago I noticed my solar hot water heater wasn’t working as well as I thought it should. After a few weeks it was still pumping glycol but wasn’t heating the water. Turns out some of the heat transfer fluid, the food-grade propylene glycol had leaked out. It had leaked out through compression fittings on the flat collector on my roof. EnerWorks, the company that made the unit had used compression fittings to try and simplify the installation. Since they don’t know the skill level of the people their dealers will be using to install their systems, they want to eliminate as many potential problems as they can.

A compression fitting

With a compression fitting you just squeeze your 3/8” copper pipe into the fitting and it should seal. “Should” being the definitive word here. The alternative is to hot solder it. This involves cleaning the copper, using flux, then heating the copper up with a propane torch and placing solder on the heated copper to make a permanent seal.

Working up on the back porch roof

As you can appreciate, doing this anywhere is an art form. Doing it perched on a roof, potentially a slippery roof, in a high wind, or rain, or brutal sun, isn’t always going to be optimal. Problem is, sometimes the easy solution isn’t the correct solution. The compression fittings are easy to install, but in my case eventually they started to leak. I would much rather have just had to take the time to hot solder it when I installed the system initially, rather than have to go back and do it a few years later. When I’m in “install” mode, I’m in “hassle mode” where I expect problems. I just resent having to go back later and do it again. As my neighbor Ken said about working for the government, they always had the time to it twice, quickly the first time, and then correctly the second. He advocated for just taking the time and doing it correctly the first time.

Hot Soldering the Connection

The other day I was able to get up on the roof and properly solder the pipe. Then I pressure tested the system to make it wasn’t leaking, and then I recharged the system with glycol. When I first installed the system I did everything but charge it, because I wasn’t comfortable doing that step. This time Renewable Energy of Plum Hollow just said “here’s the pump” and I was on my own. And now that it’s done I’m back again loving my EnerWorks systems.

Soldered Copper Pipe
Recharging The System

I love EnerWorks because it’s a local technology. It was developed at the Queen’s University Solar Lab in Kingston, Ontario near where I live. It was manufactured in London, Ontario in my province. The plant employs a number of people who were laid off from the auto industry. They pay taxes that go towards my provincial health care system and contribute to the same government pension plan that I do. They make a marvelous product. They used a flat plate collector, which is perfect for a climate like mine that experiences snow. The morning after a snowstorm the snow just slides off as the sun warms it up. Vacuum tube systems get hotter than flat plate systems but they are almost too hot for most domestic hot water needs and because they are cold on the outside snow and ice can accumulate on them, reducing their efficiency.

So if you’re installing a solar domestic hot water heater and it comes with compression fittings, run screaming. Take the time and do it right and solder them. If you don’t know how to,  find a neighbor like my neighbour Ken and get him to teach you how. And practice. Practice on old pipe until you get it right. And then, on a freezing February day you too can go and see how long you can grab that copper pipe the sun is heating up. Bet you can’t hold on long! Woo hoo! Go solar!

Michelle’s Note: When Cam has accomplished a handyman task like this, he quotes the TV character Red Green who said “If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.”

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5 Responses to “You Learn to Be Handy When You Live Off the Grid”

  • Excellent article Cam. I’m going to file it away for future reference. I’ve got the money together for a solar hot water heater and want to install one on our next home, which is going to be outside of Ottawa. I hoisted aboard the recommendation of the EnerWorks system. From what you say its local and appropriate – two key things about any technology. But sigh, you’re right. I’m going to have to learn how to solder!


    Ssutainable Living Blog

  • I don’t think they are, as his chainsaw pants are green with red trim. These pants COULD be his gardening pants with the built-in kneepads though. He seems to be wearing those pants for more than just gardening these days!
    ~ Michelle ~

  • Ha ha! I’m glad you enjoyed it! I am always quick to tell Cam that I find him BOTH handsome AND handy! 🙂
    ~ Michelle ~

  • Heidi:

    Are your soldering pants also your chain-saw pants???????

  • CJ:

    I love the quote at the end. I think I’ll be using that a time or two myself.

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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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