Solar and Batteries are Sweet, Living Off-the-Grid – I

Ideas and Issues

DSCN0313Rock Creek, Montana      We are along Rock Creek about an hour below Missoula. Once we turn off on Rock Creek Road, we lose cell coverage about 5 miles in. Some people on the Creek have internet but power lines end around a dozen miles from the interstate once the road turns to dirt, so internet is pricey and almost unknown, and depends on solar, and that’s not bad. Here we are in the Silver Bullet at 9 PM at night. My son, Chaco, is watching a Hannibal download on his computer. We’re charging both of our cellphones, more out of habit than anything else, and I’m typing on my computer.

All of this is possible thanks to a 3 foot by 3 foot solar panel standing up ten feet away in the small meadow near the trailer’s “front porch,” so to speak. Now in its third season connected to two marine batteries and a converter that takes the juice through a heavy, yellow fifty-foot extension cord from the back of the Airstream through the screen door to a power strip and then on to multiple devices. The light behind me and the ones over our bunks and in the galley are powered by a smaller one foot by one foot solar panel connected to another marine battery from Allied. It rained off-and-on over the last two days, but the converter was running from 11.9 to 13.2 volts the whole time. Montana needed the rain, and we had stored the sun in these batteries, so “no problem.”

Anyone who has looked at electric cars or home solar batteries knows that batteries are part of the puzzle still being solved. These little marine batteries are pricey, running around one-hundred bucks even at Walmart and the like. The first two winters we lost them, and it hurt to replace them, but this winter the system along with the rest of this setup, designed by my friend and Rock Creek co-conspirator, Bergamin Fortunato, originally from Butte, worked like a charm. We bought what he calls a “trickler,” and I call a “tickler” for each battery. Auto supply stores that sell them call them battery modulators or regulators or some such. Plugging them into a wall socket in a friend’s garage in Missoula over the winter, and then attaching them to each battery pole meant that they were running a very, very low charge to the batteries to keep them alive and well, which is to say, not freezing, throughout the winter, so that when we disconnected the tricklers, the batteries were raring to go, once installed on the trailer again.

The rest of our setup out here is fueled by propane. Sure, we have a couple of trusty Coleman cook stoves that a couple of old campers and Eagle Scouts, like Chaco and myself, use mostly as security blankets in case we aren’t on top of game and run out in the two tanks on the back of the trailer which have to be taken to the only gas station in Missoula that will fill them. Propane runs the stove, and the refrigerator, yes, the refrigerator. We haven’t got the frig fired up yet, but it’s on the top of the “to do” list. Fire alerts mean no “open fires” this season on the Creek, but the grill works on a replaceable propane tank, rather than the trailer’s old school models, so that’s an easy fix, and there’s a couple of backups in the shed.

This is our sixth straight year on the Creek living in our Katrina-veteran Airstream, so little by little every year we’re getting better at making our stays a bit easier and more comfy. Our “utilities” so to speak are strictly “on demand” with no monthly bills, utility hassles, or line charges. Our neighbors seems to have rooftop systems, solar panels on 50-foot posts, and all manner of systems that put our little portable contraptions to shame. For the life of me it seems like these folks have something to teach us in the city as well.

We caught three nice sized trout as the sun mottled the water and shadows descended from the mountain ridges. Dinner was fresh to the plate. Life is sweet on the stream bank.