The Unbearable Lightness of Batteries

By Cam Mather

In the words of Sal (Tony’s right hand man in the Sopranos) doing his best impression of Michael from the Godfather, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

Just when you think you have this whole “living off the grid thing” under control, battery issues drag you right back in to the thick of things. Batteries are the Achilles heel of living off the grid and it’s taken me 15 years to get my act together with a good set, and finally understand how to take proper care of them. That includes regular lectures by Bill Kemp and re-readings of “The Renewable Energy Handbook.”

A few years back when I upgraded my system to 24 Volts, which is what my new Bergey wind turbine required, I sold my old 12V inverter and my used batteries to a young couple of off-gridders. I had met them through my neighbor Ken and they were building a beautiful house nearby. Unfortunately they were preoccupied with the building and didn’t get a chance to install the batteries right away, so they sat in a garage for a few years. They did get a charge once in a while but it’s never an optimal situation for deep cycle batteries. So this past summer, once they had completed most of their building tasks, I started hassling them to get the batteries installed.

They started with 24 batteries but some had gone bad, so we salvaged 12 from the batch. One Saturday my neighbour Ken and I went over to help set them up. Well, I mostly read the manual again, contrary to the condition of my “battery changing outfit” in the photo. Greg (the young off-grid homeowner) did all the battery moving/heavy lifting.

the-battery-crew

Once Ken got them wired we switched on our old inverter. And as is often the case with these systems, it didn’t work. Or at least it didn’t work the way I thought it should. Greg had a small generator running to provide lights in the garage so I couldn’t actually hear that the inverter was “On” when we started it. Turns out it was working, we just couldn’t hear it humming over the dull drone of the “gennie.”

So we put it through its paces and it seemed to have survived its years in a box just fine. I’m not as confident about the batteries, though. I really think they’re past the point of no return and may not hold a charge very well. They may provide a few hours of minimal output, which will keep lights on and handle basic loads at night to save them from running the generator constantly. I think just getting the inverter installed will inspire them to get some photovoltaic panels to reduce generator run time.

In a worst case scenario, recyclers are paying a half-decent price for old batteries now, so Greg should be able to end up with a bit of cash to put towards a new set.

the-batteries

Installing batteries can seem like a hassle on one level. On another level though, it can be a Zen-like experience. Batteries represent the independence that most off-gridders are striving for. Electricity generation can be a lot more work for someone not connected to the electricity lines, but it also means that you know where it comes from. You understand how to produce it, how to store it, how much it really costs, and what a luxury it is. People on the grid take it for granted. It’s just there in the background, like the air, and water from your taps. In reality the machine that generates it and gets it to your wall outlet is one of the most complex systems we’ve developed, so the fact that it’s as reliable as it is says a lot for human ingenuity.

Greg told me that lots of people have made comments to him about how far out in the woods he lives, as if this is a problem. He has the opposite reaction. He has a good sized property that was very affordable, relatively low property taxes, a beautiful house he is building and a power system he is in control of. Sounds pretty great to me!

Greg is a very talented stonemason. The work that he has done in his kitchen makes it suitable to be shown in one of those fancy magazines. And every time he walks into it he can say, “Yup, I built that.”

I am pleased to say that after this round of battery installation my back feels fine. Greg did the lifting. And when I got home I checked the specific gravity on my batteries and it was good. And I did not resent the 5 minutes it took to do this battery maintenance. It means that I won’t be one of those people in Manhattan or New Jersey or Staten Island reading by candle light, watching their food spoil and wondering when they’ll finally be able to take a shower. With the convenience and relatively low cost of getting your power from the grid, they have made a rational choice to be reliant on it. Grid failures are rare. But when they do occur over prolonged periods of time though they are extremely disruptive. Suddenly 15 years of learning and tweaking my system and re-reading books seems pretty good.

2 Responses to “The Unbearable Lightness of Batteries”

  • Cat:

    Sandy was a very hard lesson learned. Most people don’t learn from the mistakes of others, they only learn after making their own. Like you.

  • Shreesh:

    Batteries are the weak link indeed. Thats what keeps me of solar and wind energy. Go biogas. Turn-on, turn-off convenience. Great fertiliser byproduct. I’ve seen this in action on a proper farm (not just a demo setup) but haven’t yet got it on mine.

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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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