Friday, June 26, 2015

Solar panel and equipment warranties

Note: this is a revised re-post from my old defunct blog

A year ago I was using the Enlighten web interface for the microinverters on my solar array and noticed immediately that one of the solar panels was dropping out at different times of the day and producing only 1 or 2 Watts.  (Microinverters convert DC from the solar panel to 240 Volts AC that feeds into the building and electric grid).  The Enlighten user interface lets me replay the energy produced by my array throughout the day showing Watts produced per panel and the brightness of each panel representing relative power output.  This system granularity is a very helpful tool and is one of the best features of using micro-inverters because you can isolate and identify issues at specific panels very readily.
screen shot of Enlighten web portal
I emailed Enphase tech support and they responded by saying that they would try uploading new software to the microinverter behind that panel.  (Doesn't it blow you away that they can do that!).  A week later the panel dropped out completely and was no longer producing any power so I called tech support and talked to very helpful person who explained that they had tried the upload and it had not worked so they had already issued a replacement microinverter.  Apparently inverters tend to fail within the 1st 2 years of operation and it is unusual for one to fail after 4+ years.

Enphase inverters have a 15 year warranty and solar panels ALL come standard with 20-25 year warranties.  Once the replacement inverter arrived, it was a relatively simple matter to shut down the array and go up on a couple of ladders with my neighbor and remove the solar panel to access the inverter.  At which point it is largely plug and play to replace and then bolt down the new inverter and solar panel.  Here is then new microinverter:

And now I am back to normal again:  
The value of my solar power system is enhanced by excellent warranties and customer service.  I hope that by sharing this experience I will allay any concerns my readers may have about their potential investment in solar energy.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Safe disposal of unused medications

Last year I had to have emergency surgery and the hospital prescribed some opiate painkillers for my recovery.  I only took one or two of those pills because they made me feel so woozy, and the pain was quite tolerable with a little help from ibuprofen.  Recently I looked at that bottle of painkillers in my medicine cabinet and decided to dispose of it safely.  I am quite aware that there has been a significant increase in the abuse of opiates nationally and here in the state of Maine.  Apparently some house break-ins are now being attributed to drug addicts looking for opiates in medicine cabinets.  Medications are typically placed in the trash or dumped in the toilet, neither of these options are environmentally responsible.  In previous years, my wife and I would take our unused medications to an annual return drive at one of the local fire departments. 
Me disposing meds in the MedReturn box at our local police station
Last year there was a big push on a national level to make it easier for people to keep these dangerous narcotics and pharmaceuticals off the streets so now there are return boxes located in police and sheriffs departments throughout the country.  This makes it very easy and convenient to safely dispose of these potentially dangerous medications.  Here is a good article in the New York Times about the new return policy implemented by the DEA.  To locate a MedReturn drug collection box near you, you can go to their website:  Medications are collected and responsibly disposed, typically by incineration.  They have a map you can use to search by ZIP Code and I found 5 drop-off sites within 10 miles of my home.

The other reason it is a good idea to dispose of these medications this way is to keep these chemicals out of the waste water treatment plants which cannot process them.  For instance, when birth control pills containing synthetic estrogen or other hormones enter the waste water stream they can have significant adverse effects on aquatic life. According to this NPR article, it has caused some species of male fish to become feminized, even causing them to produce eggs in their testes.  The issue can be severe enough to cause a collapse of an entire fish population resulting in near extinction.

From a sustainability standpoint is up to us to take full responsibility for all aspects of our waste, particularly to protect the environment from harmful side effects of these chemicals entering our streams, rivers and lakes.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Solar water heater benefits and ROI

Back in 2006 I decided to install solar collectors for the domestic hot water system in my home in Maine.  At a purchase price of around $3000, I calculated that it paid for itself within 4.6 years (after incentives) by reducing use of propane to heat domestic hot water by nearly 50%.  I did do some modifications of my own to improve performance and I expect to save well over $11,000 in propane costs over 25 years.  

I enlisted friends and neighbors to assist in the installation and it went quite well.  Just a few hours one afternoon to get the collectors mounted, and a few more afternoons to do all the interior wiring and plumbing.

I wrote a detailed blog about the installation on my website that details the entire process of installing this well-designed kit.  I purchased the kit from Butler Sun Solutions in California and could not be more pleased with everything they provided.  The system has required little to no maintenance and continues to perform extremely well.
The chart above shows two days worth of temperature readings for the collectors and storage tank from June 17 and 18, 2015.  Click on the image to see a live version of this chart on my website.  Because the collectors are mounted vertically to the south facing wall of my house, the performance is a little compromised during the summer when the sun is higher in the sky.  (Solar collectors for work best when they are pointed directly at the sun).  I get best performance in spring and fall when the sun angle is lower and the temperatures are moderate.  Water from our well comes into the house at approximately 55°F and temperatures in the storage tank can exceed 110°F after a good sunny day.  Performance is quite good in the winter depending on outside temperatures which remain below freezing for most of the winter here in Maine.  

Preheated water from the solar storage tank is fed directly into a propane tankless demand heater that I installed in 2010 to replace the old tank water heater that failed.  By feeding pre-warmed water into the demand heater I am dramatically reducing the amount of propane needed to bring the water up to temperature.

The image above diagrams the complete system and makes it look relatively simple.  If you are comfortable doing basic household plumbing and carpentry, then this DIY kit is an excellent choice as a retrofit to reduce the energy consumption in your home and I cannot recommend Butler Sun Solutions highly enough.