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Building from the ground up

Discussion in 'Home Power and Microgeneration' started by K. Jones, Jul 23, 2004.

  1. K. Jones

    K. Jones Guest


    I've recently purchased a one acre lot that I intend to build a home on,
    starting in about a year. I'm exploring the feasibility of building an
    off-grid home.
    The lot is in Southern Ontario, Canada, sorta midway between Toronto and
    Niagara falls. The lot is well sheltered, ringed with pine/cedar trees,
    averaging about 20 feet in height. It's dead-calm in the middle of the lot,
    even with the wind blowing hard enough to bend the tops of the trees over
    significantly. My (evolving) idea so far is incorporating passive solar,
    and active solar thermal, a wind generator for electricity, with a diesel
    powered generator for backup/supplement.

    I'm not new to solar PV, or solar thermal. I currently have a 6 panel
    Norsun thermal system that I intend to take with me (they're not currently
    "permanently" setup, and it's mostly dismantled in prep for moving to temp
    quarters until the house is built). With the design&size of the house, I
    expect the thermal panels to provide about 70% of my heating needs (I will
    be likely be using a forced air system, hot water feeding a heat exchanger
    in the air plenum, as I expect to have some sort of furnace
    (oil/propane/whatever to be determined yet, though most likely oil, if using
    diesel generator backup)).

    What I have *zero* experience with is wind generators. I'd really like
    to hear any comments / suggestions / criticism from current/past
    owners/users of wind generators.
    I currently have no idea of wind availability at the site, so I've purchased
    an anemometer with very rudimentary data storage, which I'll be mounting on
    a 60 foot pole. I'll be able to collect data for about 9 months before I
    actually begin to build, so hopefully I'll have some idea of the feasibility
    of potential wind generation. The wind+diesel generation is planned for the
    first part of the construction, to, well, supply power for the construction
    of the house.

    This is out in "the country", where I can hear my neighbor 1/4 mile down
    the road cough on a calm, still, night. What kind of noise levels would I
    be looking at for a smaller, one household, type system? Am I out of my
    mind thinking about a forced air heating system with wind generation? What
    do you consider reliable (mechanically) turbine/generator manufacturers?
    Reliable charge controllers, inverters etc? If you could build your wind
    generation system all over again, what would you do different?

    I'd also like to hear from anyone who uses *small* diesel generators.
    Has anyone collected any *real* data for quantity of fuel used per kWh
    produced? I've done some theoretical projections/models, however, "real
    world" data/experience would kick the crap outta any guestimated
    efficiencies I plug into my spreadsheet.
    (btw anyone done this with a VW 4-cylinder pre "tdi" diesel engine??).

    Any and all comments, positive and negative, (except for the "isn't
    economically feasible/smart to do if you have grid power nearby" type) are
    most welcome...........I'm well aware how to calculate payback schedules, et
    al, but that has very little to do with the drive behind my reasons for
    wanting to do's for the engineering
    challenge/keep-me-entertained/perverse-satisfaction/hobby kinda thing.


    K. Jones
  2. K. Jones

    K. Jones Guest

    Hi Rex, thanks for your reply.

    The Norsun is an older, evacuated flat-plate type of thermal panel. There
    is a thin, "hollow", evacuated flat plate about 3-1/2 ft X 7-1/2ft under a
    sheet of glass. The plate meets a header at the top, where the heat
    exchange takes place. The idea is the refrigerant gas boils, travels up
    towards the header, where it condenses on the header pipe carrying the
    closed-loop fluid circulating between storage and the panel. Thus you only
    have a small amount of glycol/water mix circulating through the system. One
    "selling feature" touted was it as a "solar-diode", meaning that even if
    your glycol pump ran all night, you wouldn't radiate your stored heat back
    out the collector. I bought the system used, about 8 years ago, I don't
    know how old this particular "technology" is.

    The house is going to be 2 stories, with a full basement, "normal"
    stick-framing. The floors are going to be a mix of carpets, wood, ceramics,
    etc., so it really doesn't lend itself to an under-floor radiant heat type
    system. I have been mulling over a zoned hydronic system, with individual
    room thermostats. (many of the bedrooms will only be "occupied" a couple of
    days a week). One of the reasons I like the forced air heat-exchanger
    system, is (a) I already have all the equipment for such a set-up, and (b)
    I've been fooling with my own absorption-type refrigeration for a few years,
    and should I get a satisfactory working design, I'd like to incorporate it
    into the house, but the forced air system isn't carved in stone.


    K. Jones
  3. George  Ghio

    George Ghio Guest

    What is the max height the trees could reach? 20 Foot is not much of a

    100 foot above that should be enough for consistant wing generation. Of
    course that depends on terrain.
    it is needed
    Ok add another 60 foot to your pole and you will get up to where the
    consistant and smooth airflow is.
    I think that your neighbor may learn to not like you very much.
    lot of motor for a simple genset to be used for a single house.
    If your property is in an area supplied by the grid and made up of 1
    acre lots then the question of economic feasibility should also take
    into consideration the possibilty of law suits.

    What you want to do can be done. The trick is to do it without being a
    thorn in the side of your potential neighbors. I can here my neighbors
    genset on an average night. He is 2Km away and his gen set is not all
    that noisy. Still I did not move here to listen to it nor do I enjoy it.

    The money he has spent on fuel over the last few years would have bought
    him a good solar system.

    As for your;

    it's for the engineering
    challenge/keep-me-entertained/perverse-satisfaction/hobby kinda thing.

    the challenge will be doing what you want without getting lynched.

    Still and all everyone needs a hobby. Have fun.


  4. K. Jones

    You appear to have money to burn. I would guess that to become totally
    grid sufficient in a 2500 square foot home with solar, wind generation
    and auto-starting fuel driven generators would cost on the order of
    $50,000 in American currency. You will also incur routine maintenance
    expenses in addition to fuel charges and may have major equipment
    failures as well.

    I would burn the money in $1.00 bill increments to maximize the
    heating value if they are still available in Canada. If not, a quick
    trip to the US will get you a bundle of paper for Loonies.

    I live across the Niagara River near Buffalo. Your electric rates are
    probably 1/2 what mine are and natural gas is much cheaper which
    further leads me to question your sanity.

    If your lot is above and west of the Niagara Escarpment, then you
    will have more wind than below it. Unfortunately, you are also on the
    lee side of Lake Ontario. The sun will shine more often there than
    Buffalo though that is not saying much.

    I would guess is that a far better approach economically, although
    still not fiscally sound unless you are trying to make a point, would
    be to use Ontario Hydro, or whatever their local clone is now called
    near your lot, for backup. I am sure also that the on and off
    socialist power organization has net metering so you can get credit
    for any excesses that your home systems produce. Natural gas would be
    a better choice as a back up generator fuel source and you would
    likely avoid road taxes that you may have to otherwise pay for diesel
    fuel. It may not be available at your lot but propane would be my
    second choice. Some larger generator have carburetors that can be
    adjusted to burn all of the above.


    John Phillips
  5. K. Jones

    K. Jones Guest


    My biggest concern with "earth tubes" is mold, but your idea of a heat
    exchanger would solve that problem.
    They would help in both summer, and winter here.

    I hope to use plants and trees to help with summer cooling, like you said,
    deciduous plants won't interfere much with winter heating.

    When I first envisioned the project, I imagined using an eprom with a basic
    language interpreter as the driver for the controls, but
    now, PLC's are dirt cheap, and their programming is pretty simple nowadays.

    I'm looking a wind as a means to providing electrical power, provide noise
    and mechanical reliability isn't too much of an issue
    (and provided I can get the local building department to play ball).

    A "solar cooking ring" in the kitchen? I'd like to hear more about that!

    When I envision under floor heating, all that comes to mind is a grid of
    pipework buried within a concrete slab. I'm having a hard time envisioning
    system with a wooden joist type construction.


    K. Jones
  6. K. Jones

    K. Jones Guest

    Whereas I don't have "money to burn", I am willing to spend some to bring
    this project to fruitation.
    My costs are not going to be anywhere near your $50,000 USD. Each case is
    The solar thermal for example. Apparently the system I have used to retail
    for around $12,000CDN.
    I bought it used, from an ex solar-installer, who was moving to a townhouse
    where he wouldn't be allowed to use it.
    I paid him $1,200CDN for it. With my heating bills in the 1950's house I
    currently live in, that's a 4-month payback
    the first winter.

    I have a similiar opportunity for the diesel generator set-up
    ......and I'll be looking for a used wind generator setup.

    This is part of the reason, I stated in the original post, I'm not
    interested in a discussion regarding the "economics"
    of what I propose to do. (a) I've discussed them on usenet/investigated
    them -at length- for a number of years, (b) I
    have several unique opportunities available to me, that will mitigate the
    costs far, far, below someone buying the
    components retail, and paying someone to install them, (c) weather or not
    it's the "smartest money", is not germaine
    to my reasons for wanting to embark on this project.
    I've been the first one, on many occasions, to reply to a newbie that wants
    to put a grid-independant PV system on
    his roof in the middle of his subdivision house and get "free electricity"
    for the rest of his life.......
    Like I said, I'm aware of payback schedules (or lack thereof of them, as the
    case may be), and although I will be
    spending in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $20,000CDN for the entire setup,
    that's not the point of the
    When it comes to finishing the interior, I intend to do all the millwork,
    and the cabinetry, myself. Looking at the
    expense of the tools I have in the shop, and the time I will spend doing it,
    it would be far more economical to
    go to home depot, buy pre-painted MDF moulding, and a kitchen in a box, and
    be done with it. I don't have a
    dozen people saying "that's not the cheapest or easiest way to do that",
    people tend to understand the satisfaction
    /hobby/ whatever angle of spending the cash, and the time, to do that. In
    my case, this "off grid" project is, essentially,
    the same thing. Utility rates have nothing to do with the motivation behind
    the project.
    We are "neighbors"! Our electric rates have gone through the roof lately,
    with "surcharges" amounting to
    darn near, and in some cases, more than half the bill. "The Grid", is
    available where I am going to build,
    Natural gas isn't. Pre-painted MDF molding is much cheaper than making my
    own, am I insane for wanting
    to make my own?
    Good guessing. Yes, it is above and west of the Niagara Escarpement, though
    not very far from it.
    It's "OPG (Ontario Power Generation) and "Hydro one" (for the grid
    management) now.
    I worked for a number of years for the "old" Ontario Hydro, running
    coal-fired generators, 300MWe and 500MWe units...
    ....hmmm, maybe that *is* part of "the point" of the project! *grin*

    I embarrased to admit, I don't know if we have net-metering or not.
    I never really thought about it, as I don't intend to bring grid-service to
    the lot.


    K. Jones
  7. K. Jones wrote:
    I believe the "cooking ring" is a reference to an electric stove top.
    I've envisioned a solar thermal stove top as well and, in fact, such
    things have been built in the past.

    The typical design used previously is to have a large parabolic tracking
    mirror trough focusing sunlight on to a pipe. This pipe has oil pumped
    through it and this hot oil gets stored in an insulated container which
    may also contain some phase change material. Cooking top is a loop or
    spiral of small diameter pipe through which the hot oil gets pumped when
    you want to cook. It works but it's a little expensive and the hot oil
    is a little hazardous.

    The version I was envisioning would use a parabolic heliostat to focus,
    through a small porthole, inside a thermal storage consisting of some
    loosely stacked scrap steel encased in a well insulated box. Air would
    be drawn out of this box to blow out of the cook top. I figured a
    mirror around 10 feet square would likely suffice for the average home.
    The disadvantage to this design is that the storage box and stove top
    would work best if built together. I.e. box outside the kitchen on the
    shady side of the house, stove on the inside wall facing the box. There
    might also be issues with the steel rusting over time when this is
    used in a humid location. Stainless steel might work better but then
    it gets more expensive. Some folks suggested lead sealed in copper
    pipes for the storage since it melts at just about the right temp.
    I've a slight (and possibly illogical) aversion to using lead.

    You can, of course, just use a heliostat mirror to focus light through
    a window on to your cooking surface (typically from underneath, so you
    don't go blind). This only works during sunny days.

  8. Having read some of the other responses you have had I am surprised that
    no-one has raised the potential energy source of your household wastes. You
    will also probably have some potential in your surrounding trees (if they
    are yours to cut (coppiceing rather than wholesale deforestation). This
    will require an audit of the likely waste products your intended lifestyle
    will produce (don't forget the sewerage). Burning this stuff at a high
    enough temperature in a furnace and using the heat for a cooking range and
    a Stirling powered generator instead of the diesel option may gain you more
    and cost you less. It is, at least, worth a look. How good are you with the
    practical side of things?

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    Forth based HIDECS Consultancy .....<>
    Mob: +44 (0)7811-639972 .........NOW AVAILABLE:- HIDECS COURSE......
    Tel: +44 (0)1235-811095 .... see for details.
    Going Forth Safely ..... EBA.
  9. Chris Torek

    Chris Torek Guest

    This *is* one method (plastic tubing in long U-shaped loops, usually,
    rather than a grid), but:
    You just clip the tubing up against the subfloor.

    Using mixing valves to moderate the temperatures, a single hydronic
    heating system can feed tubes that go to all kinds of different
    floor materials. It really is a nice way to provide heat.
  10. Lucky Strike

    Lucky Strike Guest

    seriously consider using a lot of thermal mass with your passive solar

    look into things like the blue max wall system and take it to the roof.

    insulate well and use good quality doors and windows.

    check out a book called "climactic building design".

  11. Another option...

    I live in a trailer. ( 'They' hate it when you call it a trailer :)

    So, retrofitting with floor heating would be a big job. You have to
    consider how the insulation is hung under a 'trailer'.

    What I've done over the last year is pick up electric baseboard heaters
    at thrift shops and swap sales. I've got about 90 feet of heaters for
    about ten bucks. There are two kinds of baseboard. One where the
    resistance element is runs the length with aluminum fins. It is only
    good for electrical heating. The other, (the ones I bought), have a
    working fluid, antifreeze, and the heating is done with 3/4" copper
    tubing with aluminum fins. I'm not from an eastern state, but I do
    believe they use the same baseboard without the electric component and
    where the home has a boiler. The reason they can be had so cheap here in
    Arizona is that they only look like electric heaters to most folks. ( I
    live at 7000 feet, hence the need for heating. )

    I'm on the way to heating our home and the shop in the winter with a
    wood fueled boiler outside. That's why the above. I've also planned for
    phase change storage with paraffin. I'm figuring if the storage is
    independent of the source, I can also utilize solar as an input next year.

    At the least, I'll have the boiler heating the shop for next winter.
    I'll post a page when it is done.

    Best, Dan.
  12. George  Ghio

    George Ghio Guest

  13. My immediate comment is "why off grid?" The biggest issue with virtually all
    renewable energy systems for electrical power is storage during non peak
    loads and then peak demand exceeding capacity. Batteries are themselves a
    serious cost and environmental issue. The grid makes for an excellent
    battery provided you can actually sell any power. With increasing efficiency
    in lighting systems, the only significant steady loads come from motors for
    pumps and air circulation. What is left are intermittent loads from such
    items as washing machines, blow dryers, microwaves etc. These high
    intermittent loads present a very large requirement on power inverters and
    batteries. Batteries self discharge and the larger the battery, the greater
    the rate of this energy drain. The self discharge of an auto sized battery
    would power a high efficiency LED lamp and/or small fan continuously.
    Another concern I have is your site. The things that make the site
    attractive also make the site less than ideal for solar or wind energy.
    Trees grow and as a result, direct sunlight times shrink. Wind generators
    need to be quite a bit higher than these trees. This is a significant
    maintenance issue that many would consider an eyesore. Keep in mind that
    lightening generally seeks the closest (highest) object to strike. Emotional
    dislike for utility companies does not make for sound energy or
    environmental decisions.
  14. It was somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the
    drugs began to take hold. I remember "K. Jones"
  15. K. Jones

    K. Jones Guest

    Thanks to everyone on the info about under floor heating.
    I do plan on using engineered floor joists.
    What material is the piping made of, and are there expansion joints, or 'U'
    bends periodically along the piping?\
    Do you use a room thermostats to control individual zones?


    K. Jones
  16. K. Jones

    K. Jones Guest


    George, thank you for your candor.

    A bit more about the site. I appears it used to be a "Christmas tree" farm.
    Keeping the trees trimmed back near the house isn't much of a problem.

    There are neighbors on both sides of the lot, each would only be about
    500-700 ft away from where the windmill/genset shed would be.

    Getting the windmill into "clean air" through about a 200 deg arc isn't a
    problem, the lot borders on cleared farm land, and the nearest hill/tree,
    etc, anywhere from about E.N.E. through to about W.S.W would be several
    thousands of feet away.

    I was hoping to use the VW diesel motor for a backup genset, because (a)
    it's already laying around my shop, doing nothing, and (b), I have lots of
    parts for it, laying about the shop. (c) I can rebuild the injectors on
    these things blind-folded, I know them well. It would be housed in an
    insulated shed. I suppose the PLC could be set up so it would only run
    during "daylight" hours, and I imagine the noise would be less objectionable
    than that of some of the farm equipment that would operate within 100 ft. of
    the other two houses, during the growing season. I would hope to fire it
    somewhat infrequently. The windmill however, would run whenever the wind
    blows, 24/7. Not having any experience with these things, I have no idea
    what kind of sound level that would produce. I also enjoy quiet evenings,
    and if it does produce appreciable noise, it kinda defeats the purpose of me
    wanting a house out "in the country"!

    It would also kinda ruin my day to spend several thousands of dollars on a
    wind set-up, only to be forced to dismantle it by pissed-off neighbors.


    K. Jones

  17. K. Jones

    K. Jones Guest

    I know I'm responding to my own post, but, well, please ignore my

    The link supplied by Anthony Matonak (thank you, btw) didn't work when I
    first tried it, but now that I've seen it, it pretty much has everything I
    would want to know about under-floor heating.

    Thanks everyone!

    K. Jones
  18. ....

    You'll want to talk to various vendors to see what their
    particular products are and how they work. Typically they
    would use a kind of plastic tubing and this stuff doesn't
    need expansion joints or ubends because it's fairly flexible.
    A good system would use individual thermostats in each room
    but that part of the design is up to you and your supplier.

  19. K. Jones

    K. Jones Guest

    Thanks for the link Grimly, that pretty much covers exactly what I would
    like to do. I've bookmarked the site, and it will certainly make the
    fabrication of mine much easier!

    K. Jones
  20. If you can find a four pole alternator, and they are out there, you can
    direct drive the thing from your diesel. I have a 20kw Onan that runs at
    1800 rpm. They are pretty cheap used. I've seen 10kw units go for $1000.
    Hardly worth the work to build one if you can get one at a good price.
    If it has many hours, a set of rings and bearings can make it like new.
    Best, Dan.
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