Working, Playing & Living ... with Renewable Energy

Beginner

Inside this Article

Aerial photo of the Eckert homestead
In the spring box
Dave Eckert in the spring box that supplies potable water, irrigation, and hydro power to their homestead a mile away.
The homestead
Simple and solar: passive design and energy efficiency combine with renewable energy for off-grid, country living.
Solar hot water collectors
Solar thermal collectors, brought back online recently, reduce the run time of the heat-pump water heater.
Furnace and solar
A wood-fired furnace, with a water jacket, combines with a heat-pump water heater and a solar preheater (shown in photo above).
Inside the turbine shed
The Eckerts upgraded hydro-electric system includes a heat shield for the diversion load and equipment grounding.
Microhydro power shed
Until modifications were made, the power shed amplified the noise of the microhydro turbine.
Eckert system batteries
Eight Trojan L-16HC batteries provide 435 Ah of energy storage capacity at 48 VDC.
Inverter and other balance of system equipment
A Schneider Electric charge controller and inverter are mated to the AC and DC distribution panel for a unified installation.
The Eckerts' solar array
Twenty Trina Solar 240 W PV modules provide 4.8 kW of rated solar power.
Surplus energy charges their EV
David and Penny use their surplus RE energy to charge a new set of wheels, a Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid.
Aerial photo of the Eckert homestead
In the spring box
The homestead
Solar hot water collectors
Furnace and solar
Inside the turbine shed
Microhydro power shed
Eckert system batteries
Inverter and other balance of system equipment
The Eckerts' solar array
Surplus energy charges their EV

Our RE system is more a testimony to a lifelong interest in energy alternatives and experimentation—always looking for the ideal system—than it is to rational, market-driven decision-making. We enjoy experimenting, trying everything, discarding many things, and continuing with what works best for our household. We have funded this passion with two full-time jobs over the years, and find that the investment provides delightful dividends in knowledge and independence.

[Note: This article is updated from the original
published article; to reflect more recent
upgrades to the hydro-electric system.]

First Electricity

David—In 1975, I was working on a logging crew up a steep logging road in the Pacific Crest range of northern California, near the town of Orleans. As the crew traveled the rough old road, we bounced over rocks and dodged logging trucks. On the way home, we’d often stop at a reliable spring, where we would drink some water and wash off the worst of the dust before loading back up in the “crummy” to continue making our way down the hill.

There was a bit of private property along the way—below that spring and above a river—that had some potential as a homestead site. I found the owner and bought 80 acres in 1976 for $20,000. It was cheap because the potential building sites were all above the two seasonal springs on the place, and water would always be an issue. But I kept thinking about that deep, reliable spring on the old road, and I started clearing a little bit of land for a building site, in between jobs and when I was laid off for the winter.

In 1976, by the time I wanted to develop that spring as a water source for my place, the Forest Service had abandoned the rocky old road in favor of a paved route that more closely hugged the ridge. They ripped up the old roadbed as best they could, which meant that it was available to lay my water line from the spring to my place. Though it was full of rocks and went through some really nasty bedrock, it had a fairly steady slope.

I got some friends together, put some beer on ice, and with my 1946 bulldozer, plowed a trench along the old road, rocks and all. We laid 5,000 feet of 11/2-inch PVC pipe in that trench from the spring all the way down to a saddle. The waterline then dropped fast across my property, barely buried, until it reached our building site.

Penny—Getting permits to use this water was not easy. David had started this process for the first domestic water right before I met him. In fact, I met David in 1979 when he was applying for a minor change to his special-use permit to cross National Forest with his waterline. I was fresh out of the Peace Corps and new to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). I came out to review the waterline, revised the special use permit—and married David about 18 months later.

Soon after we were married, I worked to develop a water right for a hydroelectric system to capture the winter high flows from the spring. Later, I pursued a separate irrigation water right for our “lower flat” area. We also ended up with an official number from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) as exempt from licensing for our hydroelectric project. Because I worked for the USFS, some extra effort was required to become a co-owner in the property and the water line because of conflict of interest issues surrounding the Special Use Permit to cross National Forest. We now file papers annually with FERC and pay for all three water rights with the State of California. We periodically pay the USFS for the privilege of crossing National Forest to convey essential water to our homestead. These fees add up to about $500 per year for the privilege of owning and maintaining our own water and power systems.

Comments (3)

Frank Heller's picture

Up here, I recommend a small hot water tank, glass lined if possible or just used to install a resistance heater. The tank stays in the generator house and keeps it warm during the winter. Some use air dispersion heaters.

With the evolution 'one stop' design and video based installations from companies like Outback, most of the worry about this has been replaced with 'plug n' play' components, so I focus on the generator side and let a power dist. company do the rest.

Peter Gruendeman_2's picture

Nice work building your system. One suggestion is to move the 300 watt hydro diversion load into your water heating system. At least some Stiebel Eltron HPWH have an electric resistance element though I could not determine what size thread is used on it. One day your present gas water heater storage tank will rust through and could be replaced with a non-powered electric water heater. This would be an ideal location for the MH diversion load. Sinking 300 watts at 48 volts requires a resistor that has the same resistance as a 2,000 watt, 120 volt electric water heater element. This is the element from a point-of-use water heater, $15-20 at the home center. Thread this standard element into your HPWH if the threads match, or into an electric water heater when you replace the existing tank, run cables from your hydro charge control and take advantage of your surplus.
Boring part about calculating diversion resistor values:
(voltage x voltage)/ watts= ohms.
(48 x 48) / 300 = 7.68 ohms, your present diversion resistor.
(120 x 120) / 2,000 = 7.2 ohms, the resistance of the above mentioned element. Add in a few feet of 10 gage wire and the resistances will be exactly the same.
Pete Gruendeman, La Crosse, WI

Frank Heller's picture

IN Maine, permitting even the smallest micro hydro power plant will involve a review by 11+ agencies, a time commitment of several years---a recent piece of legislation, LD 1244, to streamline permitting was 'pulled' by D.E.P. according to one source and according to another it was done in Committee two weeks ago.

So it's back to expensive permitting---several thousand dollars, a wait of 5+ years, or discretely hiding the intake, penstock and generator house. A turgo for high head sources of water can fit in both hands.

Even tidal and riverine devices which float on the surface or just underneath it must be permitted; while jet skis, float boats, and a wide variety of commercial and recreational craft pass by.

Meanwhile, gigantic wind farms with towers that can be seen for over 100 miles and whose 'footprints' clear-cut hundreds of acres of CO2 loving forest are routinely permitted. Apparently, rare birds and valuable insects like bees and bats aren't important to D.E.P. Imagine if every commercial wind turbine had to have a 1" mesh filter around it to prevent insects and birds from flying into it, like riverine tidal devices are mandated by Fish & Wildlife.

In many states and Canada the regulatory restrictions are being loosened; but not in Maine....even a 1 Kw, $1,495 POWER SPOUT requires paying a $2,000 permit fee. Living off the grid is a romantic notion to many, but the reality is vastly different.

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