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.
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.
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.