Hydro-Electric Evolution

An Interview with Hydro Expert Chris Soler
Intermediate
Chris Soler purging the lines
Chris Soler purging the lines
Chris Soler prepares for a job digging a penstock ditch
Chris “The Human Backhoe” Soler prepares for a job digging a penstock ditch. Chris has spent many days and weeks of his life scoping out hydro sites; mapping out the best locations for intakes and turbines and the best routes for penstocks and transmission lines; and digging thousands of feet of ditches to protect and secure pipelines.
Early homebrew systems used car alternators
Chris’ early homebrew systems used car alternators matched with homemade or cast runners, with a square plastic bucket lid sandwiched between. The bucket (with tailrace channel or pipeline) was dug into the ground, and the manifold lines terminated in simple nozzles in the bucket’s sides. Snapping the lid on the bucket aligned the runner with the nozzles and set up the system for production.
One of Chris’ early homemade runners
One of Chris’ early homemade runners. As his understanding of hydro and his customers’ budgets increased, Chris switched to manufactured runners with much higher efficiencies, capturing more energy from the same head and flow.
A modern Harris hydro turbine
A modern Harris hydro turbine in one of Chris’ upgraded systems. The square bucket lid was supplanted by a manufactured housing and the used alternator replaced with a permanent-magnet alternator that was custom-designed for hydro systems.
Hydro intake screen
Chris learned early on that poorly designed and installed hydro intake screens can cause a lot of trouble, requiring frequent cleaning.
Self-cleaning screen
When self-cleaning screens became available, Chris found ways to use natural spots in the stream and a dab of concrete to set up durable, maintenance-free intakes.
Chris prepares low-pressure PVC pipe
Chris prepares low-pressure PVC pipe for the top end of a penstock.
High-density polyethylene pipe is heat-welded
High-density polyethylene pipe is heat-welded for a high-pressure portion of a penstock.
Battery Bank
As Chris’ customers’ energy needs became larger, the systems grew and improved. Upgrading from early 12 VDC systems to standard 48 VDC battery/inverter systems increased efficiency and energy possibilities.
Modern solar controllers in smaller and simpler configuration
Modern solar controllers—with some protection and electronic wizardry—have allowed significantly better production from hydro systems. They can sometimes be used in smaller and simpler configurations.
Modern solar controllers in larger, multiple-inverter systems
Modern solar controllers—with some protection and electronic wizardry—have allowed significantly better production from hydro systems. They can also be used in larger, multiple-inverter systems with higher production and loads.
Using manufactured components
Upgrades like this one use manufactured components, while still keeping the budget low.
Underside of the turbine
The underside of the turbine is exposed as Chris inspects the runner and nozzles. The turbine bolts on a bucket that is cemented into the ground. Note the large tailrace pipe that returns the tailwater to the stream.
Chris Soler and Don Harris
Chris, along with many other hydro contractors and users, owes a large debt to retired hydro pioneer Don Harris, who helped a whole generation of people with his excellent equipment and generous technical support.
Chris Soler purging the lines
Chris Soler prepares for a job digging a penstock ditch
Early homebrew systems used car alternators
One of Chris’ early homemade runners
A modern Harris hydro turbine
Hydro intake screen
Self-cleaning screen
Chris prepares low-pressure PVC pipe
High-density polyethylene pipe is heat-welded
Battery Bank
Modern solar controllers in smaller and simpler configuration
Modern solar controllers in larger, multiple-inverter systems
Using manufactured components
Underside of the turbine
Chris Soler and Don Harris

Chris Soler has been tinkering with small hydro-electric systems for three decades. He started by configuring homebrewed systems for himself and his neighbors, and is known for his ingenuity and creative ability to wring a few kilowatt-hours out of a seasonal stream on a low budget. Chris has been living with a custom hydro-electric system at his home in the foothills of Washington State’s Cascade Mountains since 1986.

Over the years, Chris’ knowledge and experience have grown, and at the same time, his clients’ electrical energy needs and budgets have increased. Folks who may have been considered “backwoods” when Chris first worked with them are now in the midst of professional careers, or even starting retirement. Their originally simple homes have become more modern and complex, and require more energy. Chris has been modernizing several of his simple homebrew systems into more productive hydro-electric producers.

This history and evolution is full of lessons for potential hydro electricity users, and my chat with Chris allows Home Power to share some of those lessons, and the stories that go along with them.

What was your first experience with hydro electricity, and what attracted you to the technology?

As a kid, I pretended to make electricity by damming a ditch on my family’s farm. So, when as an adult on my own place in 1986, I needed to supplement my one 30-watt solar-electric module for lights in the cloudy winter, I naturally thought to try to harness water power.

I had installed a 1-inch pipe to bring water from a pond to my gardens, and it dropped 35 feet from the intake to the garden. I fitted the top end of the pipe with a fine mesh screen wrapped around the end in a cone shape, and the pipe was dug through the bank of a pond, which eliminated the need for a syphon. The pond was fed by a roadside ditch that ran heavily after a rain, but the flow quickly slowed after a few days of no rain. I fashioned buckets that slipped over the shaft of a bicycle generator, and aimed a jet of water to spin it.

Having 3 W to charge a battery for a reading light instead of relying on kerosene lamps hooked me on continuing to improve my hydro system. I upgraded to 4-inch pipes and added another 2,000 feet of pipe to gain 110 feet of drop from a second source. The higher source was runoff from a hilly pasture with flows between 10 and 200 gpm from November to June.

I upgraded to car alternators mounted on square plastic buckets, with the runner inside to direct splashing away from the alternator. Four nozzles accommodated varying stream flows. I started using a low-speed permanent magnet motor to produce 2 A at 12 V, jumping up to a 24 W output. Later, after talking with microhydro expert Don Harris, I started using 70-amp Motorcraft car alternators. After that, I bought “real” bronze Pelton wheels from him. Each change brought higher efficiencies and more power to do more on the homestead.

Describe your first few years in the industry.

The first hydro systems I put together for some local friends used a car alternator on a plastic bucket, with four nozzles and a Harris Pelton runner. I was nicknamed “the human backhoe,” as I hand-trenched thousands of feet of pipeline for my clients. The first system included some old solar-electric modules to provide power during the dry summers. A Trace modified-square-wave inverter ran some AC lights, and a TV, washing machine, and water pump. Radios and chargers were run directly at 12 VDC. That allowed the inverter to go into sleep mode at night. Everything was done to make the most of the small amount of energy available.

I built a diversion controller from a circuit described by Chris Greacen in a very early issue of Home Power (“Homebrew Shunt Regulator” in HP18). Before the Internet, I would scour the articles and ads in the magazine to get ideas on how others were dealing with producing their own electricity. Innovations were being pioneered by those actually using the systems, who then told their stories in Home Power.

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Comments (3)

jhd's picture

hi - i am very new to hydro power. me and my husband have bought a site with an old mill ruin - two leads and a weir. we want to develop the mill site into a small self sufficient house. it makes sense to use the power we already have in the stream. i can't seem to find turbines small enough to fit in the lead though. We have very little budget and are based in the uk..any hints on where to start? many thanks jo

Ian Woofenden's picture

Hi jo,

Hugh Piggott in Scoraig Scotland does a fair amount of hydro, and may be able to help you or refer you to someone closer. You'll easily find his contact info online by searching his name and location.

Regards,

Ian Woofenden
Home Power senior editor

Andrew Romaniuk's picture

very good

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