Friday, October 24, 2008

Conversion Photo Journal 3

Chapter 3: New Floor and Finished Solar Panels.

Yesterday I came home from school suprised to see that my brother had already installed the hardwood floor! He has a second job in flooring and got this really nice stuff for free.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Conversion Photo Journal 2

Chapter 2: Solar Panel Mounting and the Kitchen

Here are the fruits of this past weekend's labors.
Here is my new power plant, still in the boxes. Two 120 watt solar panels fed into a blue sky MPPT charge controller then into two 130 amp-hour trojan deep cycle batteries.
Opening boxes is always exciting.

Important information!!! When you get a solar panel you need to know its output in volts and amps, all of the maximum ratings, and just about everything else in order to safely use it and also to maximize system efficiency.
Here, I'm "dry fitting" the mounting brackets...
...and measuring to make sure everything will fit on the roof.
Once the measurements were made and everything was how I wanted it, I marked where the mounting brackets needed to be attached to the panels.
Then, I flipped the panels over and started wiring everything up. They needed to be wired before mounting because I wouldn't be able to reach under and wire it up once the panels were right side up.
10 AWG wire is hard to work with.

Panels wired together in parallel.
I used the measurements I made before to drill out the holes to mount the brackets.

I used tamper-resistant bolts that require a special star Allen wrench.

With the tamper resistant bolts, I used a few tamper resistant nuts. The top part breaks off once it is torqued enough and leaves an un-wrench-able smooth surface. This way no one can steal my panels!

Once all the mounting brackets were attached, I covered the panels in the foam they were packaged in and wrapped them up in bubble wrap just in case they were to slip while I was trying to get them up on the roof. Here I used a blanket to help me slide the panels up without scratching up my van.

On top! Unfortunately the mounting brackets scratched the roof up a lot. It's not that big of a deal though because no one can see the roof and it is made out of fiberglass so it won't rust.

I used putty to hold the panels in place while preparing the roof for mounting. The roof is curved and not level, but the panels are ridged and the mounts require a level surface. My solution: fiberglass roof extensions. I stripped the areas where the mounts would go and then made moulds and poured in more fiberglass resin to give a level surface.

Before I could pour the resin, I wanted to make sure that the van was level so that the new mounting surface would be even. First, I parked the van as level as I could get it.

Then I used a lot of heavy crap to get the van perfectly level.

Then I measured, mixed, and poured fiberglass. Here is the first one I did. The fiberglass resin filled the mould, bonded to the roof and leveled the surface perfectly.

This was the only one I got done before it was too dark to do any more. So I went into the garage and started work on my kitchen.

Cutting wood the old fashioned way.

Kitchen: I put the sink and stove top in just to show off how it will look. It's still far from done.

So that's all I got done last weekend. Today I finished bolting the panels to the roof, now I just have to wire them up to the charge controller and batteries. Thursday my brother is bringing over the hardwood flooring and is going to help me install it. I'm trying to get as much done as I can before it starts getting really cold outside. Once the floor is done I can start insulating the walls and getting the wiring in place and hook up all of the kitchen stuff. I'm estimating all of that will take about 2 more weeks.

Monday, October 20, 2008

An Overview of Solar Power

Solar Power
and why it's not the answer for everyone.

First, a word about solar panels:
Harnessing energy from the sun the way that plants do is great and there is definitely a lot of potential in the idea. However, photovoltaic "solar panels" aren't all they are cracked up to be. I don't believe that photovoltaics are the best answer for society's energy needs. I think that there are more useful and efficient ways to use the sun's power than PV but I won't go into that right now. Today I'm talking about PV. Today's photovoltaics are expensive and inefficient. Perhaps in the future the PV technology will be better, but available PV systems today have a few major downfalls that prevent them from being a commercial energy source. Those downfalls are efficiency and power storage. Photovoltaics can only create power when the sun shines and if that power isn't being used, its wasted. So that means batteries must be used to store the power until it is needed. But battery technology hasn't advanced much in the several hundred years since it has been in use in western society. Lead-acid batteries are still the norm and they are extremely temperamental and contain toxic materials. Grid-tie PV systems avoid batteries but at the expense of being attached to a pre-existing power "grid" or a utility which then must manage the power. So in short, the biggest problem is not about getting the power but managing it. Some form of storage has to be used in order for large-scale solar to be viable. The power has to get used, wasted, or stored in a battery.
How it works:
The Panels:
The sun emits light which is converted into electric current by the PV panels. There are several brands of solar panels and for the most part, all the big names put out the same kind of product with a few exceptions. Panel prices vary and fluctuate often, so be patient and wait for a good deal. I got two 120 watt panels for $475 each when they usually start at around $700. The current produced by PV's is not constant. PV's put out the most power during the peak hours of the day and less during the early and late hours. That power, before going into a battery, must be fed into a charge controller which regulates the current and the voltage in order to keep the battery at an optimum charge without over or under charging it. Without regulation, the battery will be undercharged and/or overcharged which will shorten its life and in some cases cause it to explode or emit large amounts of explosive hydrogen gas. So it MUST be regulated.
The charge controller:
There are a lot of very cheap "regulators" out there but they are all crap and some only regulate either voltage OR current, when you really need to regulate both. There are even some cheap "regulators" that don't regulate at all but instead only limit the power going in while wasting the rest! If you skimp on the regulator you are going to lose at least 20% of your solar capacity right there. That means if you have 100 watts going into a crappy regulator, you're going to see 80 watts output at best. So invest in either a PWM (pulse width modulated) or better yet, a MPPT (maximum power point tracker) charge controller and stick with the known brands (don't by junk from china). The good charge controllers start at $150 and go up from there.
From the charge controller the regulated power is fed into your deep-cycle batteries. Most batteries must also be maintained regularly. There are super expensive AGM batteries that don't require maintenance BUT they have less capacity and a shorter life span. So stick with the maintainable flooded cell lead-acid batteries unless you are such a slacker that you would rather pay three times as much for a battery that won't last as long. Rechargeable "deep-cycle" batteries can only be cycled a number of times before they can no longer hold a charge and they are very temperamental about the kind of charging they get. All the more reason to invest in a good charge controller! A well maintained and properly charged battery can last for more than 5 years but an abused or neglected battery can self destruct in a matter of minutes. Also, deep-cycle batteries are not meant to be discharged below 50% of their capacity. For instance, if you have a 100 amp-hour battery, think of it more like a 50 amp-hour battery in terms of use. So not only do you have to monitor the power going into the battery, you also have to keep track of the power you are taking out of the battery. A lot to keep up with huh?
The yield:
After all that planning, money, work, and math what do you get? Not a whole lot compared to being hooked up to the evil corporate "grid" unfortunately. For their size solar panels put out very little usable power. PV panels are rated at their maximum output, which means that they will only put out their rated number for a couple of hours while the sun is highest, then the power will taper off into oblivion as the sun sets. But wait there's more! PV systems produce direct current (DC) SO if you plan on using you 110 volt AC (alternating current) appliances, you're going to have to convert the power once again. If you know anything about real-world physics you know that in every conversion there is a loss of efficiency. That means that even more of our expensive power is going down the drain! Because there is not as much power and you can't completely drain your batteries- using solar requires you to scale back your energy consumption. The upside is that most panels have a warrantied output for at least 20 years. So you have a very high initial investment that pays off very slowly but really barely justifies all that trouble. Solar doesn't create any emissions, except for manufacturing and lets not forget about the toxic batteries. The one advantage that makes solar great is that it can be hooked up anywhere and it will provide silent power without needing to be plugged in to any grid and that is why I'm using solar panels on my van-house-mobile.
Solar is not free or easy. Which is the real reason why it won't work in America. Let me be clear that I don't hate America, it is a beautiful country. It is such a shame that it belongs to so many lazy, over-entitled, complacent, and greedy Americans. Solar works for me though, it is perfect for being mobile. I'm sure photovoltaics will become more viable on a larger scale as the technology progresses but the technology just isn't there yet. If you don't need to be mobile and are looking for power alternatives, look at wind power. Wind turbines put out much more power than PV and cost less.
That's all for now, more pictures coming soon!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Conversion Photo Journal 1

Chapter 1: The Demolition and Sub-Floor.
Here is what the interior of the van looked like when I got it. Pretty nice looking on the surface but not built very well as I discovered when tearing it all out.

I took out all of the back seats in a day. They were bolted through the floor and then the foam and carpet were installed on top of that. So I had to tear out the carpet and foam before I could get to the bolts. You can also faintly see the rear AC unit in the back that I had disconnected. The two captains chairs were heavy! They weighed about 60lbs each. The back chair was no lightweight either. The whole van will probably the same after I'm done turning it into a home.
View from the rear.

Clean. All of the floor, walls and ceiling have been stripped. That ugly yellow stuff is adhesive that they used to glue the carpet to the wheel wells. I couldn't scrape it off without also removing the paint. You can also see three large holes in the floor from the previous conversion. I took out all of the upholstered stuff because it was filled with cheap nasty rotting foam.
The screws that hold the top to the body were rusting so I sealed them. It's not pretty but it serves a purpose and I'll make it prettier later.

I covered and sealed the large holes in the floor with aluminum flashing. Then I cut some of the better 1/4 inch plywood that I salvaged into rough strips to even out the ridges in the floor so that I would have a level surface to put the sub floor on. And then I glued it down.Say hello to my little friend... That is one hell of a caulking device. I was working well into the night with a halogen work light. Here is a picture of the various levels of my sub floor. On the bottom is the van body w/plywood strips, then there is 1/2 inch of insulating foam and then there is 1/4 inch of plywood. The foam helps insulate the van and also dampens the vibrations when walking around inside.

My finished sub-floor!

That's all for now. What's coming next? Well, on top of this beutifuly built sub-floor I'm going to install the hardwood flooring that my brother was kind enough to acquire for me. Then I'm going to build my kitchen counter and cabinets and install my solar panels. I'll probably devote an entire entry about solar panel workings and how to install and wire them correctly. It's going to be interesting stuff!