Solar Tracking

Solar Tracking
How low can you go? Snow and ice and cancelled school.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Planning for Solar Panels, part three

The planning and execution of our greenhouse/solar panel structure has been complex. We needed to shift installation companies, apply for retro-active permits, and build the structures during the hottest summers on record. It was a whole summer project, which has just wrapped up last week.

Because of rebates, a real concern about climate change, striving for the Georgetown Energy prize, and peer pressure, solar panel installation is way up in Corvallis this year. In March, solar companies were seeing a ten fold increase in the number of people interested in installation and that continued throughout the summer. All of the companies in town were booked out early. We worked with Benton Electric, who was able to reach further afield for teams, but the press of business made communication difficult, which had long term impacts on the permitting process.

In late June, we worked with Benton Electric to begin the process. They calculated that eight panels, creating a 2.2 kw system, should cover our use for the year, if we were conservative. Nine would be better, but they would block considerable light into the greenhouse, and we decided against the extra panel. Once we had the dimensions for the layout of the panels, our builder went to work constructing the greenhouse and panel rack. It is an uneven hexagon, a bay with windows of three different sizes projecting into the yard, with a long annex that reaches all along the neighbor’s garage. Because of the design, it does not dominate the view of the gardens, but blends in, even without mature plantings. For days, he dug deep post holes and planted the treated beams that would hold the structure upright. Once they were all planted, he needed to cut the roof angles, all different because of the shape. When the angles were cut, he had down the roof and framed in the windows, then hung them, and framed them in with cedar. Once the greenhouse was finished, we painted the clawfoot tub and moved it in, setting up the shower.

When the greenhouse was complete, Mark, our builder, moved onto the rack for the panels, which is also a funky structure of angles and braces, raising the panels thirteen feet above the ground for maximum light and minimal visual intrusion. He finished the evening before the panels were to be installed. The next day, in early August, the installers arrived. “That’s interesting,” the head installer commented, “but I can work with it.” In four hours, they had installed the panels, wired the system in, and added an outlet in the greenhouse.  We were on track for completion, just waiting on the electric installation….

And then things came to halt. The electrical inspector, seeing the structure and thinking “that’s weird” referred us for a building permit before the electric could be inspected.  “But we don’t need a permit,” I argued, “the structure is too small.” “Code says that you do,” the city returned. What code? We don’t know. What did we do wrong? We don’t know. One person talked about earthquakes, another about hurricane force winds. Maybe we should cement the posts in, even though that rots them faster….it was never really clear. Don’t ask, was the general message. Hire a structural engineer to write a letter saying that the whole plan is ok. It will be easier than bringing it up to building code. So we did. “Humrph,” he said. “That’s interesting.  Lets put a little brace in here and call it good.” “A trellis? I can live with a trellis.” Several weeks later, we received the retroactive permit and passed the electric inspection. But the panels were still not on.

Pacific Power needed to replace our meter—and Benton Electric needed to repair a fuse so that the system worked. That added another week to the whole process….finally, I came home to a new meter. Two days later, to a functional system. The meter was spinning backwards! For the first week, we produced four to five kwh  per day; when the clouds went away, production went up to six, then seven, and today, eight. We are at the equinox, with the sun sliding down in the sky further every day, so production will slowly drop off for winter.

So, what did we learn from the process? Perhaps to ask very specific questions before building—despite talking with three city departments, we did not know that we needed permits for the structure that attaches the panels to the greenhouse. Now that we are done, we are working to live within our means, to not use any more electricity that we will produce, even if we are not always using fresh electrons.

Fish Pie


This is a layered dish.

Layer one: finely diced carrots and celery to cover the bottom of the dish, followed by .25 pounds of various fish—shrimp or scallops, salmon, and white fish. Scraps are good.

Layer two: 1.5 cups of white sauce, with leeks, salt and pepper.

Layer three: mashed potatoes for a crust.

Bake until bubbly in a 350 degree oven.



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