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Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Recharging Batteries

We live on a lake deep in the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and must generate our own electricity; the nearest utility lines are more than ten miles away. When we constructed our house in 2005, we installed solar panels on the roof (to catch the sun above the tree line), a large battery bank, and a propane generator to provide a backup power source for rainy stretches, excess demand, and during the winter, when the sun is low in the sky (and for a short time at that).

Solar panels comprise many cells. Over time, some cells stop functioning at peak levels and the overall efficiency of the panels declines. You may have noticed something similar happens as we age, and our muscles aren’t as strong as they once were. Other than periodically cleaning the glass and removing snow in the winter, there isn’t much you can do for the panels.

Batteries need constant care. The charging process converts some water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules and creates water loss. (Kind of like breathing causes us to lose water.) We systematically refill them. After a few months of the same old, same old charging cycle, the battery bank can get a little out of whack. Counteracting that requires a ten-hour generator run to equalize the charges in each of the batteries’ cells. After that supercharge, the battery bank returns to peak performance.

Until it doesn’t. Eventually, batteries wear out, can’t hold charges for as long, and must be replaced. (Just like with your car, you can limp around on dying batteries, relying on jumper cables and the kindness of strangers.) Our weaker batteries meant the generator runs much more frequently, sucking down propane like a frat boy on a bender.

When we put in the original system in 2005, we determined the number of solar panels and batteries based on our expected electric draw. We’ve been well-pleased with our decisions, but what worked well was proving inadequate for 2020. We use more power than we did fifteen years ago. Computers are on 24/7; our aging eyes have us using lights more, and we forget to turn them off when we leave a room.

Despite promising improvements in batteries, not much has changed for the type I need (other than price, which increased a lot). Solar panels, however, have become more efficient and less expensive. Rather than replacing my old panels with newer ones, I asked: what would I do if I were starting fresh?

Solar Panels

I’d want a much larger solar array to keep my batteries fully charged more of the time. That would require more sunlight than woods tight against the house allowed. Which got me thinking about how trees break in the woods.

The scramble for sunlight causes forest trees to grow tall as fast as they can. That growth means they are thinner and more brittle than suburban or park trees that tend to be wider and stronger. When our maple trees fall, they rarely uproot. The wind works on weak spots and breaks them fifteen to twenty-five feet above ground, toppling the top forty or fifty feet of tree. Usually it’s a north or northwest wind that does the damage. I’ve been lucky and had only one tree hit the roof. The metal withstood the blow with only a minor crease. Dozens of trees had that roof in their sights, and it was only a matter of when (not if) one would make a serious dent or punch through the roof.

Taking down the threatening trees would open a solar window for a pole-mounted array to augment the panels on the roof. A win-win. Except, our attitude has always been to keep as many trees as we can. We (and our animal visitors) were accustomed to having trees close in around our house and might not like the change.

When I considered the pole placement, another idea popped into consideration. I could create a larger landing area for storing trailers, the wood splitter, Bobcat attachments, brush hog—all implements I didn’t have fifteen years ago.

I suspect I am like many people and make incremental changes to accommodate circumstances as they arise. Over time, those individual decisions accumulate to create creeping inefficiencies. Because each change is small and the modifications occurred over years, they each seem right. Only when I step back and view the larger picture, do I see the mishmash I’ve developed.

Deciding to proceed with the new array, I placed the order and faced preparing the site. The Bobcat did much of the work: hauling logs and brush, excavating stumps, taking down part of the hillside, moving rocks, and digging a hole for the pole. By the end of September, the trees were down, the solar array was up, the larger landing created. The clean-up continues. Light floods an area previously shaded. If it ever stops raining and we see the sun, my batteries will experience extra juice and the generator can relax from its duties.

The birds adjusted without issue to the new birdfeeder locations. One black-capped chickadee was so blasĂ©, it remained on the sunflower seed feeder while I moved it! When all the trees were present, it was difficult to follow birds as they flitted from branch to branch. Now with a more open space, I can watch them fly in and out of the birdfeeders; and it’s much easier to see the juncos and sparrows foraging on the ground.

At night, I experience a larger portion of the sky. Working up the firewood in the landing is simple with the added room.

Taking time off from writing to perform weeks of physical labor provided another bonus. It recharged my personal batteries. Instead of each day being caught in a familiar daily work cycle, it allowed me time to think about what was working and what wasn’t. It served the same purpose as a vacation, which I haven’t taken this year because of COVID-19.

This taking time off, stepping away to view the larger picture, looking at a problem from different perspectives is not a new concept for me. I know its value. What I keep forgetting is to intentionally create opportunities to incorporate it into my life. Sometimes, I’m lucky and stumble into it, but I should include it more naturally.

What about you? Have you stepped back and evaluated your life and work during this year of surprises? What did you discover?

* * *

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. Furthermore, a novella is the most recent addition to the series. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at


Annette said...

Jim, I've been thinking about converting to solar power and had no idea about all the battery upkeep. Clearly, if we ever get serious about it, I have a lot of research to do.

As for your question, it seems re-evaluating my work and life is ALL I've been doing this year. Everything is in flux, the future is uncertain... Lots to consider.

Jim Jackson said...

Annette, Those who are tied into the normal electrical grid generally don't use batteries. They are either powering their house with solar, selling excess solar power back to the utility or buying power from the utility. No batteries required.

If you are off grid, as we are, then your batteries replace the utility.

I hear you about everything being in flux.

Kait said...

Glorious photos, Jim. We considered solar power when we first moved here but didn't move forward. It may be time to reconsider.

Re-evaluation has been the theme of this year. There have been huge changes both personally and professionally. I'm looking forward to seeing how some of our decisions work out.

Susan said...

A very thoughtful post, Jim. I’m not looking forward to this winter, but I’m often inside for long periods once it snows. However, that’s my choice. I don’t like that being taken away from me by the dictates of a virus.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Beautiful photo and an excellent solution to your "need more panels" problem.

2020 has been a year of personal and family reassessment. Hoping for a better 2021.

KM Rockwood said...

What a lovely place to call home!

We are planning a move to a retirement community that use a solar panel system for most of its electricity. They have a huge field of them.

Right now, we have a rural electric cooperative supplying power.

I'm sure further advances will make us less and less dependent upon fossil fuels, unless our political system falls even more under the influence of coal and oil interests.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Right on the mark about recharging and perhaps not realizing the battery has faded.

Re-evaluation is the name of the game right now. I think a lot of people are rethinking or contemplating what's important based in light of the world today.

Jim Jackson said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. It appears that re-evaluation is a common theme. I've read that people who have a near-death experience often change the focus of their lives. I wonder if one result of COVID-19 is a general rethinking of life goals. Of course, we all are of a certain age, so our collective experience may not indicate larger trends.