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93 My solar / photovoltaic history

I became interested in alternative energy, really solar electricity, around 1963 when I
saw the science fiction movie titled "The Flame Barrier" one Saturday evening on the
local science fiction / horror television show.
My mom let us stay up late on non-school nights.
In the movie "solar batteries" (which looked like spray painted plywood) helped
Arthur Franz save the world from an alien life form that hitched a ride to earth on a satellite.

In 1964 I had saved up enough "cleaning up the truck shop" money to go to a hobby store near
where my dad worked in Long Beach, California.
On a display rack was an International Rectifier experimenters booklet "Selenium Cell and Sun Battery".
It had instructions on different solar electric experiments and in a bubble on the front
cover was an "SM2" selenium cell.
I walked out of the hobbie with empty pockets.
I still have the booklet - the selenium cell was lost a few decades ago (I found an original one
a few years ago to replace it).

Not long after that I was at my Uncle Ben's house in Huntington Beach.
He showed me a Hoffman Solar portable radio - that really got my attention.
Put it in the sun and you get music, shade the top with your hand and the music
stops - pretty cool for an eleven year old.

In the late sixties and early seventies I picked up up a few solar cells and small panels from
Edmond Scientific and a couple of other outfits.
The biggest panel was around five watts.

My interest ebbed and flowed until around 1978 when I bought some "real" solar panels, nowadays
referred to as photovoltaic modules.
They were Solec 12 volt modules (made in Torrance, California) with a rating of about 33 watts each.
The upside was that I finally had some panels that put out some serious power.
The downside was that they cost about a months rent on my apartment for each one.

Christine and I moved in to our house in Long Beach, CA  in 1984 and I did not waste any time.
One of the first things we did was mount photovoltaic modules on the roof and hook up some 12 volt d.c.
lights and fans.
If you can believe it, I mounted the batteries in the attic so I did not have to run cables down the walls.
Not much fun when it came time to water the batteries.
Fortunately we did not have any serious earthquakes until after I moved them.

In 2001 I decided to put in a small utility grid-intertie system for giggles.
The system consisted of a 24 volt / 400 watt array which used Evergreen string ribbon modules and
Trace Micro-Sine inter-tie inverters.      

Once up on the roof I decided it was time for a re-roof before putting any large modules up in racks.

Off came the panels, and old roofing, and once the new roofing was installed I put together a
400 watt grid-intertie system.
Back then the State of California paid for half of the equipment cost.
The city building inspector and I had to have a sit down so I could explain how the system worked -
he had never inspected a solar electric setup.
As you can see in the picture of the system on page 47, I made up the racks out of stainless steel
square tube to keep a good air space under the panels for cooling - it was handy to have
heli-arc (TIG) equipment on hand.   

Shortly thereafter we put up 12 volt panels for new battery based systems.

When we moved out of California we had about 2,500 watts of generating capacity in
one inter-tie system and eight battery based systems.

The battery systems consisted of:

One 48 volt system which used two Morningstar pulse width modulated controllers and
powered up two Exeltech true sine wave inverters.
It also operated a 48 volt d.c. inverter/ballast in an ultra-violet algae control system in our
cobbled up fish pond.

One 24 volt system which used a Solar Converters (PT 48-7) maximum power point tracking
charge controller which powered up a Samlex true sine wave inverter (to run some office equipment),
some 24 volt d.c. lighting and a 24 volt d.c. fan in our office.

A 12 volt system which used two Morningstar pwm (Tri-Star 60) charge controllers, with remote
display monitors, which operated two Exeltech sine wave inverters, storage and stock room lighting
and outside lighting.
Because of the different size and shape of the panels (I had been scrounging them up over the years) I
had to cobble up the racks out of stainless steel cut-offs.  

A 12 volt system which used a Flexcharge PV7D controller to light up one stock room and charge a
portable emergency battery pack.

A 12 volt system which used a Flexcharge NCL30L12 charge controller with the dusk to dawn night time
feature.
This powered and controlled all of our outdoor security lighting as well as provided lighting for our
packing room and garage.

A 12 volt system which used a Morningstar ProStar 12 (yup, the original U.S. made controller) for
lighting in our office.

A 12 volt system which used a Morningstar SunSaver 20 which powered up attic ventilation in our
house and operated two water pumps which used our laundry water for the landscape in our
front and back yards.

A 12 volt system which used a Flexcharge PV7D controller which ran some outside lighting which
started out as fluorescent and was changed over to LED when the fluorescents (after over twenty
years) finally gave up the ghost, and powered up a waterfall pump.

If you wonder why we had so many different sytems, the question has two answers.

The first is that I put them together based on how much money and time was available.

The second is that it gave me experience with completely different kinds of solar panels, charging/controller
systems, system voltages and battery types.

This is one of the many reasons why I have no time for the "armchair" / "weekend warrior" types
spouting nonsense about solar electricity.

I have spent lots of time and money, as well a picking up a few scars along the way, learning about
solar electric system components, systems design and installations.
It has given me an insight into what works, and just as important - what does not work.

If you would like to see some of our systems before we made the move out of California, please
click onto the following link:


John