Hydro-Electric Evolution: Page 4 of 4

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

To keep the unit cooler at high output, I carved a fan blade from a piece of 2-inch PVC pipe and slid it on the upper shaft inside the alternator. A digital pressure switch turns on several Belimo 24 V electric valves to automatically adjust the number of jets sending water to the Pelton. The stream flow varies daily and this allows maximum use of available water. I am also experimenting with a small needle-valve nozzle (an adjustable nozzle) to vary the effective size of one jet, but need a way to get it closer to the Pelton wheel for higher efficiency. My intake screens are 15-gallon barrels with dozens of slots cut all around the barrel, located in a hole off the primary stream flow.

Do you have any other RE systems to complement your hydro systems?

I have 1,500 W of PV modules charging through a Xantrex XW-MPPT60 charge controller, and more than 1,000 W of modules wired directly to the battery with diversion loads using surplus power to control the voltage. My house still has many lights and a refrigerator running at the original 12 V. A Vanner 24-to-12 V battery equalizer powers that part of the system. The battery bank is eight 360 Ah Surrette batteries in series–parallel for 24 V. The inverter is an OutBack Power Systems FX2824T with a thermostat-controlled exterior fan to increase capacity.

Dump loads include DC heating elements in a 50-gallon hot water tank controlled by a TriStar 45, DC air heaters in the kitchen run by a Xantrex C40 and a 24 V, 1-gallon countertop water heater set at 190°F turned on by the auxiliary output of the FLEXmax 80.

Have you implemented any innovations into your home system?

I have the auxiliary output of the OutBack inverter programmed to turn on a relay sending electricity to two heat pumps. The automatic controls can turn one or both heat pumps on. On sunny winter days with the hydro running at full output, the two heat pumps can draw up to 2,000 W. On low-output days, the smaller of the two heat pumps can draw as little as 300 W. If enough electricity is available, I can heat our earth-bermed house to above 70°F and heat our domestic water to more than 150°F. We cook all our meals with insulated electric pressure cookers, an electric frying pan or a 120 V convection/microwave oven. We use a converted 12 V refrigerator and a chest freezer with added foam insulation to cut our electricity consumption. The computer and TV are on plug strips to eliminate “standby” electricity usage when they are not in use. When hydro and PV input is lower, we use wood from thinning the trees around our orchard and garden to heat the house and water.

I continue to tinker with my system, and improve the efficiency of how the energy is used. All of our cooking and water heating is done with renewable energy—our propane tank has been shut off for 10 years. And I keep decreasing the amount of firewood needed to keep our house comfortable.

Even the chainsaw and lawn mower are powered with electricity from the system. My goal when I moved here in 1984 was to demonstrate that it was possible to live comfortably without fossil fuel, which is getting more expensive as the easy-to-obtain supplies are used up. Now I am helping others make the same transition.

Access

Chris Soler helps his neighbors with small hydro systems as Soler Hydro-Electric, from his home in Bow, Washington, where he has lived off-grid since the 1980s.

Home Power senior editor Ian Woofenden teaches and consults on hydro and other renewable energy systems in North and Central America, while enjoying site visits to those blessed with hydro resources.

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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