Thursday, September 25, 2014

Solar Ruminations - In Defense of Austerity

extreme plainness and simplicity of style or appearance.
"the room was decorated with a restraint bordering on austerity"
conditions characterized by severity, sternness, or asceticism.
"a simple life of prayer and personal austerity"

Austerity has been much in the news in recent months. Various nations have been drowning in debt, their governments facing insolvency, resulting in severe cutbacks in social welfare programs and government services. In some of the more severe cases, such as what occurred in the nation of Cyprus, the banks even confiscated a significant portion of the people’s savings accounts.

The tendency of humanity is to expand one’s standard of living as personal income rises. I lived according to this pattern for many years. As I was receiving annual increases in my pay year over year, I increased personal spending. I bought a larger house with a bigger yard. I purchased more expensive automobiles. As a family we ate out more. Our home was filled with an increasing array of time and labor saving appliances, etc.. Consequently, no matter how much I was earning, I found that I was living paycheck to paycheck.

Living in a materialistic society that is saturated with advertisements and enticements to purchase the latest gadget, inducing us to spend money to acquire whatever thing our mind sees as desirable whether it be some new food item at a favorite restaurant, or the sports car of our dreams, it requires self-discipline to resist the forces all around us. The world is clamoring out “CONSUME! CONSUME! CONSUME!” Yet the example of Christ is that of emptying oneself and setting one’s focus on giving to others. The character of Christ is contentment, not consumerism.

Living at the end of this age, we are observing the greatest surfeit of consumer gluttony the world has ever witnessed.

People accustomed to fat living are not going to know what to do when the days of abundance are peremptorily cut short. The shock of adjusting to an austere lifestyle will be too much for many. People who were used to living in their McMansions funded by easy credit, will despair when they cannot pay the power bill to keep the lights on, much less service the massive debt they have accrued. How much better it would have been if they had chosen to live modestly. Many could have a small home that is paid for, rather than a larger one that is mortgaged. Many could drive a used car debt free rather than being in debt to pay for an automobile they could not purchase outright. Having experienced both a heavy debt load up until 1999, and being completely debt free since, I know it is possible to make the transition. Significant changes are required, however.

There is much wisdom in voluntarily reexamining your lifestyle before things collapse, and reducing your standard of living while you are able. If you have no debt, if your monthly expenses are minimal, if you can survive comfortably on a fraction of the money spent by those around you, the coming collapse of the global financial system and its concomitant effect on all facets of society will impact you far less than those who are living large when the global ship founders.

Costa Concordia Wreck

As Christians, we often are selective about the Biblical admonitions and instructions we choose to obey. We may read the words “Do not commit adultery,” and agree that this is a behavior we should avoid. What do we do, however, when the same Spirit inspired book tells us to reduce our use of this world, and to travel lightly through it?

I Corinthians 7:29-31
But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none... and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.

James 5:1-5
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!... You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

I have been as guilty of living selfishly as any man. Up until 1999 when I answered the Lord’s call to leave behind the life I had been living and to follow wherever He would lead me, I had led the life of the profligate consumer. Since that time I have had less in the way of income, but due to adopting a leaner, far less material lifestyle, I have been able to give away a larger percentage of my income. Both in percentage and total giving, I have given away far more in the past 15 years than I did the previous 38 years combined. When I have extra income, rather than looking for some new thing to buy to sate my soul, it has become my habit to ask Yahweh who He wants me to share with.

I continue to find the Father guiding me to embrace austerity. Austerity is not synonymous with misery, or poverty. It is to live frugally, and simply, having reduced needs (and wants) while manifesting a spirit of contentment. There is a great peace to be possessed when an individual exhibits a spirit of contentment. It is a peace that many who are rich in the world’s goods never know. It is reported that a century ago when John D. Rockefeller was making a million dollars a week, someone asked him how much money was enough. His reply was “Just a little more.”

Ecclesiastes 5:10
He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income. This too is vanity.

I have found that as I labor to complete my solar auxiliary power system on my bus that the principle “less is more” continues to assert itself. This is true not only in the amount of material goods we accumulate, and the living space we occupy, but in the amount of power we consume. Living simply and freely is far easier when our electricity and other power demands are small, than when they are large. In revamping my solar design I have found that the greatest benefit is accrued by cutting back to bare necessities.

I had not anticipated making further cuts to my electric usage in order to operate entirely off of a solar power system. Two years ago when I wrote an article on solar power I mentioned that it is far more economical to reduce one’s energy consumption than to build a solar electric system large enough to power all of the wasteful appliances and devices that a nation accustomed to cheap and abundant power have become dependent upon. I had taken steps prior to 2012 to reduce the power consumption of my bus. Following is an excerpt from the article I wrote back then.
Setting up a solar power system can be an expensive proposition, so you need to give much thought to what you will do with it. The more you can pare down your power needs, the better off you will be. As I have mentioned in another post, it is far more cost effective to reduce your electrical current needs by replacing inefficient appliances and electrical devices than it is to purchase enough solar panels, batteries, and other components to run wasteful devices.

I have a thirty foot school bus converted into a motorhome.

Picture of The Dreamer with Trailer

I have been living in my bus for a year and a half as a full-time RVer (This was in June of 2012. I have now been in the bus nearly 4 years). During this time I have been making it more energy efficient. When I painted the outside of the bus I added a space age ceramic additive to the paint that I applied to the roof. This additive greatly reduces the amount of heat absorbed. You can find the product in powder form that I purchased at the following link.

You mix this into your paint prior to rolling it onto your surface to be painted.

Another thing I did was to apply mirror tint to all of the windows on the bus. This further reduces heat absorption. The mirrored tint I used can be purchased at Lowe’s or Home Depot. It acts like a one way mirror. You can see out from the inside, but from the outside it appears as if you are looking into a mirror.

Also, I kept as many windows as possible unblocked so that I could open them up and get air circulation inside the bus during moderate temperatures and if I am ever unplugged from the power grid and need some ventilation. All of these windows are screened to keep insects out. Additionally, my front door has a screen, and it too can be opened to increase air circulation. (I also installed a roof vent.)

Inside my bus all of my lighting is 12 volt DC. The fixtures originally came with standard incandescent bulbs, but I replaced them with LED bulbs. LED bulbs can be purchased to fit practically any 12 volt light fixture. They are just as bright as incandescent lighting if you purchase the appropriate bulbs. LEDs produce less heat, and most significantly, they use only about 1/10th of the power of standard incandescent lighting. Following are two types of LED lights I have purchased, and the vendors I got them from.

The light pictured above is simply amazing. It puts out a remarkable 315 lumens while using only 3 watts of power. 315 lumens is a lot of light... This light costs $19.99. I have 8 lights in my bus that use this LED. The company also sells a brighter 450 lumen LED that costs $24.99 each. I purchased 4 of these to go over my computer work area and in my kitchen where I need more light. As you can see, the cost can add up when purchasing LED lights, but the lights will last many times longer than incandescents... Over time they will pay for themselves, and even save you money. It is also more cost effective to replace incandescent bulbs with LEDs than it is to add more solar panels and batteries to a solar power system.

In other areas where I need less light I have some small round 12 volt dome lights. These use what are called festoon bulbs.

Festoon Bulb

You can purchase LED replacement lights that fit in the exact same fixture without having to do any modifications.

Festoon LEDs

Pictured above are several types of LED replacement lights. You can purchase these on Ebay or from Amazon’s website. A word of caution though, some of these bulbs are very cheap and you get what you pay for. I had some where the LEDs began failing immediately. This sent me back to do more research and I am quite happy with the LEDs I now use. They are much brighter than my previous ones, and they are not burning out. Following is an image of the type of LEDs I purchased.

These have the large single LED. I have found that they put out more light than the ones with multiple small LEDs and they seem more durable as well. This particular LED is sold 2 in a pack for $10 on E-bay...

As I mentioned, there are many appliances in my bus that I do not plan to run on solar power as they draw too much current. My toaster, microwave, Panini grill, bread machine, crock pot, and refrigerator are items I will not run on my solar power system. They are too inefficient and building up enough solar panels and batteries would be cost prohibitive. I do like to cook in a Crock Pot, and I have found a suitable alternative when I am not connected to the power grid. A solar oven acts very much like a slow cooker, and can be used for practically anything you would cook in a Crock Pot. In fact, if your Crock Pot has a removable crockery insert, you can take it out and place it in the solar oven, and so much the better if the inner liner is black as in the case of my Crock Pot. You can also bake bread in the Solar Oven, something my friends the Furmans in Arizona have been doing with theirs.

SOS Solar Oven

I purchased a portable freezer/refrigerator that is in my trailer. It uses only 1 amp of power whereas the refrigerator in my bus uses 2.7 amps. The freezer uses 37% of the power of the RV refrigerator in my bus.

In place of the microwave, toaster, crock pot, and bread machine, I can use the stove and oven in my bus that run on propane. One tank of propane lasts me nearly a year at current usage...

As far as heating my bus during the wintertime, I have a wood stove installed. Overall, I have greatly reduced my electrical energy demand for those times I will be off-grid, or when shore power will be unavailable.
[End Excerpt]

As you can tell by this excerpt from the article I posted two years ago, I had already given considerable thought to reducing my reliance upon the electric grid. I did not expect when I set out to revamp my solar power system that I would be making further reductions, but less is more (more better). I had forgotten that I had previously determined that the Dometic RV refrigerator in my bus is too inefficient to run on solar power and batteries. This one appliance alone consumes more than all of my other electric needs combined (excepting the roof air conditioner which I have no plans to run when off the power grid). The RV refrigerator would drain all of the power out of my batteries in a single day, even with the sun shining brightly on my solar panels. RV refrigerators designed to operate on either propane or electric use far more electricity than a home refrigerator that runs on AC power only. In fact, they can easily consume the same amount of power as 2 or 3 home refrigerators. Consequently, when I am not plugged into shore power (the electric power grid) I will not be using the RV refrigerator. I will unplug it and use it as additional pantry or storage space.

A couple years back I purchased an Edgestar 80 quart freezer that runs on either 110 volts AC power, or 12 volts DC power. I recently made a happy discovery that has had a major impact on the re-design of my solar power system. When I first purchased the freezer I found a plate on the back of it that provided the following information.

One thing I wanted to know is whether the freezer was more energy efficient when running on AC (alternating current) or DC (direct current) power. Being a little slow to catch on to the principles of electric power, I looked at the amp rating on the back of the freezer, and it informed me that when running on 115 volt AC power the freezer draws 1.0 Amps. When running on 12 volt DC power the freezer draws 5.5 Amps. Being electrically ignorant at the time (a condition that is curable), I saw the higher amp draw on DC and concluded that running on DC power would consume much more electricity than running on AC power.

For those who are as ignorant of electric nomenclature as I was (and who have no desire to rectify this situation at the moment) I will not bore you with a bunch of electrical jargon and theory. I will simply mention that comparing AC amperage and DC amperage on a 1:1 ratio is an erroneous approach. The far better way to calculate and compare power usage is in watts. Watts are arrived at by multiplying volts and amps. Following is what I should have done.

(AC) 115 volts x 1.0 amps = 115 watts
(DC) 12 volts x 5.5 amps = 66 watts

Now which one is more efficient? The correct answer is “DC.” This does make sense since the freezer has a DC motor that runs the compressor. If I plug the freezer into AC power, the AC power has to be converted to DC in order to run the motor. There is always power lost when converting from AC to DC, or from DC to AC.

EdgeStar 80 Quart Freezer

Consider how inefficient it would be if I were not hooked up to the power grid and I was running everything off of my solar power system and my 12 volt DC battery bank. In order to run the freezer on AC power I would have to use the Inverter in my bus to change the 12 volt DC power coming from the batteries into 115 volt AC power. In turn, the freezer would change the AC power back to DC to run the compressor motor. That is super wasteful. In contrast, if I run the freezer directly from my 12 volt battery bank no power conversion is needed.

When I came to understand this, it was very plain what I needed to do. I will install a 12 volt DC outlet at the rear of my bus so that I can run a line to the freezer and run it on 12 volt DC power. This led to an epiphany. Since I did not intend to run the refrigerator in my bus when off-grid, and since my freezer was best run on 12 volt DC, there was no reason I would need to keep the power inverter in my bus running at night.

Cotek S1500 Pure Sine Wave Inverter

It is fitting to say something about inverters at this point, though I will be brief and address this subject in more depth in a following post. An inverter takes the 12 volt DC power from the battery bank and changes it to 110/115/120 Volt AC power to run various AC appliances. Something I had not previously considered about inverters is how much power they consume even when they are idling, having no load on them. This is a MAJOR consideration, and I had no clue until recently.

I was a bit hasty in my initial redesign plans. I knew I needed a larger inverter than the 600 watt model I had previously been using. I have a grain mill that draws 900 watts that I want to be able to run on auxiliary power, a laptop computer, a printer, and various small appliances and tools. 600 watts was insufficient. I initially thought to get a 3000 watt inverter that had a large enough output to connect it directly into the 30 amp RV power distribution box, literally replacing the shore power connection with the power coming from my battery bank. For various reasons I will mention later, I found this to be impractical. However, I had already ordered a Go Power! 3000 watt inverter for this purpose.

I eventually decided to discuss the matter with some highly experienced and knowledgeable individuals on a solar power forum, and they informed me that the inverter I had purchased was not a good match for my system. One thing they pointed out is that it draws 2.5 amps of power even when it is idling. This means that 24 hours a day it would be drawing a minimum of 2.5 amps, even more when it was under load. I have not yet figured out whether this is at 110 volts AC, or 12 volts DC. I am assuming that it is at 12 volts DC since its incoming power source is DC. Even at 12 volts, 2.5 amps being consumed continuously adds up.

12 volts x 2.5 amps x 24 hours = 720 watts

If the amp rating on the inverter is at 110 volts the situation is truly dire.

110 volts x 2.5 amps x 24 hours = 6600 watts

6600 watts is greater than the entire capacity of my battery bank. Either way, that is a large power draw down for a device that serves only to convert DC power to AC. Fortunately, I had purchased the inverter through Amazon and was able to return it with no problem. Amazon even paid the return shipping cost.

The Cotek S1500 inverter I have now settled on has a power saving mode where it draws less than 1.5 watts when there is no load on the system. It also consumes a lot less power when under load. That is a remarkable difference.

1.5 watts x 24 hours = 36 watts

This is a much leaner device. Lean is good. Less power usage equates to fewer solar panels, less battery capacity needed, smaller gauge wiring and fuses, etc..

When I consider what I can truly live with (lights, fans, laptop, printer, chest freezer, 12 volt water pump, food blender, grain mill), and what are unnecessary convenience appliances (microwave, panini grill, toaster, RV fridge, crock pot, bread machine, etc.), I am able to design a very useful and adequate solar auxiliary power system that will not be a burden to maintain. Some of these non-essential appliances could be used occasionally as battery power allows. The more likely ones are those that operate for brief time periods such as a toaster, or microwave. These may have a high watt rating, but they usually run for only 2-3 minutes at a time. A crock pot and bread machine may have similar power ratings, but they run much longer which would drain the batteries considerably.


A 1100 watt toaster or microwave running for 3 minutes (1/20th of an hour) consumes a total of 55 watts. (Watt ratings are per hour.)

A 800 watt slow cooker running for three hours would consume 2400 watts of electricity. (Time to break out the solar oven.)

Working on the design of my solar power system has afforded me a good opportunity to consider how to reduce my power usage. It is proving to be a profitable exercise as we often take so many things for granted. As we lower our requirements for living - minimizing our space, our material goods, our power needs - we inevitably reduce our risk of experiencing a traumatic adjustment when those things we take for granted are suddenly interrupted. As I observe the signs of the times, and the very real chance of significant societal disruptions in coming days, this seems to be a prudent thing to do.

More to come...

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Mailing Address:
Joseph Herrin
P.O. Box 804
Montezuma, GA 31063

1 comment:

practic said...

Just stumbled across your blog, and want to thank you for posting your experiences. I've just sold my house and am contemplating getting a truck and either 5th wheel or regular tow trailer (probably in the 30 ft. range). I'd like to live in it and use it also as a working area. Your power-saving tips are most helpful, and I agree with your philosophy about living more simply.