I started seriously trying to think about electrics two days ago. Since then I have been frustrated, lost, emasculated and burned. Electrics are not easy. At school I was never very good at math, fell in love unrequitedly all the time and spent the majority of my classes drawing, sniggering, or just plain somewhere else. I remember one of my science teachers, actually I remember all of them, but my least favorite, Mr Parkhouse, was my physics and electronics teacher. A Plunkett handled biology and Kinard, a bizarre, but unfathomably charismatic Liverpudlian handled chemistry. I loved chemistry, if only to gawp in awe at Kinard, but Parkhouse bored me. He was a small man with an awkward disposition and at the time I felt his knowledge had somehow crippled him. He had poor eye sight, a large head (no doubt stretched by his unfathomable brain) and sadly was neither popular nor respected. Not exactly a great role model for knowledge. So I did poorly in his class, I was (am) superficial that way, but these last few days his face with its oversized sun tinted eyeglasses, perched on his beak at the equator of his bulging head with its sunken cheeks and thin lips has haunted me. Whats most frustrating is I don’t remember a single thing he taught me. I am sure if I could then it would not be applicable anyway, but it is almost the fact that it might be that is bugging me. He’s probably still alive somewhere, if not still teaching at that school, blissfully unaware (as unpopular people consciously are) that his mantra is falling yet on deaf ears. If I could wind back time I would go now to one of his classes and slap myself. Or maybe use this new found ability with time to ensure that all kids are made aware of their futures (to a certain extent) so that their learning can be vocational, purposeful, and perhaps not such an idle, ill directed excuse to piss away fifteen years of life as mine seemed to be.
Sitting in front of my battery bank today I felt like a child. The weight of knowledge, the language of symbols, of rules, under-understood dangers, ill appreciated precautions, and the sheer cluelessness crushing me. The previous day I had electrocuted myself three times. The fourth time was simply a demonstration to scare the kids. As with every stage of this conversion I find myself in a new section at the hardware store, feeling the kind of hopelessly lost you feel when trying to buy a nice, inexpensive bottle of wine. Handy men come and go. You try to look interested in labels. You jokingly refuse the help of staff who find you crouched on the floor surrounded by packets of esoteric junk, most of which you have opened to see if it fits together. The last few days have been no exception.
It all started when I tried to turn the bus on and found that the cranking batteries had died. After locating my multimeter, which of course isn’t really mine, but on loan, and found that it too had died. I reasoned, with considerable help, that perhaps a fuse had blown. If you can find a 0.1amp fuse with ease.. well, I defy you to. Auto Zone laughed at me. Ace Hardware took the pity approach (the one where you laugh later), and Radio Shack, bunch of amateurs that they are, after braking from their loud, senseless teenage dialogue had just begun to grace me with the overly concerned but still going to laugh at you as soon as you are out the store approach when a little guy, probably a relation of Mr. Parkhouse, squeaked from behind a counter that I needed to go to Paul’s Electronics on 167th and 4th Place.
Now for those of you who aren’t aware of our situation, we are totally broke. We drive a car that we are hiding from the creditors that runs permanently on the empty light, we live off food stamps and game that we find or kill, and adorn our bodies and home with things that other people throw away. In short, on the surface we are trailer trash, but yet daily we continue to keep focus on our undertaking, despite poverty and often detrimental experimentation, and despite the initial costs, both financial and emotional, to better ourselves, feel more independent and essentially learn. We make light of the situation, because really, how bad can it be? But having to drive 100 blocks on an empty tank for a 60 cent fuse just to fix a multimeter that will tell me how dead my incompetence got those batteries really pissed me off. What was worse was that when I got to Paul’s, after he gave me the fuse for free because I tried to pay with card, I learned that the fuse wasn’t the problem at all, in fact we never found out what the problem was and I came away with a new multimeter, which of course isn’t mine either, and an administrative fee of $35 bucks at the bank for going overdrawn (I knew I couldn’t afford a new multimeter, even a small one, but what was I going to do? Suck on the battery terminals and have Sam read how puckered my ass got?).
Thankfully I am pretty charming when it comes to getting charges refunded at the bank (experience), and so began the unfettered pursuit of an operable electrical system.
For a while my veg pump and solenoid weren’t getting power, then I started taking pictures (above), scribbling on them and sending them to our creator, Transit Antenna founder Bob Snead, who, from a series of manky old photographs managed to diagnose the problem – that I had put the 12v lead back on the wrong studs after trickle charging the batteries back to health. In fact, this was perhaps the beginning of the story, so forget everything you just read and lets begin again. Ahem.
Owing to the success of the rapport with Bob (and my complete ignorance) I began inundating Bob’s email, free chat service and cell phone with messages concerning the set up of my solar system, battery bank and house power. Selectively, wading waste deep in my confused verbal effluent, Bob responded to my cries for help and finally we, or rather I, now have a basic grasp of what I am trying to do. Which is a first let me assure you. A large factor in this was a back and forth of hand drawn systems diagrams that I would like to share with you, the first being the title image for this post.
Unlike those found in manuals or the stuff Google vomits, there is something extra useful about hand drawn system diagrams. Not only do they often relate to your exact project, but there is also something phonetic about them. Maybe its just that Bob is trying to make things easy for me to understand, maybe its his graphic sensibility, but they speak to me, kind of, and that says a lot.
So before we get into the diagrams, I want to explain a little (lets see if I am able) about what we are trying to do. On our bus we currently have no house power. But we do have four Trojan 350amp 6v golf cart batteries (lets call them house batteries), four 50 watt solar panels, an isolator (salvaged which may or may not work or be suited), a large converter (which could be an inverter or junk), a charge controller, two small converters, a bunch of wires, slicers, lugs, nuts, the makings of a circuit breaker, two junction boxes, and massive, massive gaps in our understanding of how all of this is supposed to come together. Honestly, its nothing short of magic to me. If only I knew some pixies who could help me, but the only person who has extended any offer of physical help is Sam’s half uncle and we aren’t following up with him because he is bi polar and apparently committed patricide.
The bus came with cranking batteries, two 12v deep cycle things that weight a ton and make a nasty spark (pictured two photos above). They are connected to the alternator via a switch, the 12 accessories in the bus, the starter, and something else I haven’t worked out yet. The four 6v house batteries should, I think, be wired in series (making 24v) and connected to the alternator and cranking batteries via an isolator that will allow the voltage from the cranking batteries (or alternator) to charge/power my house batteries, but not the other way around. The solar panels will be connected to a charge controller that will already be connected to the house battery bank. The house bank will provide 110v power for the ‘house’ when its voltage (24) is run through an inverter to make it 110v. I also plan to pull the 12v accessory lead off the cranking batteries and attach it to the house batteries so that the cranking batteries are free to crank and crank only. I have also been advised to employ a fuse block.
Did that sound simple to anyone? If It did please email me at info at transitantenna dot com and we can talk.
Now, the first diagram (top image), was drawn when we were wiring the batteries in series+parallel (basically 2 pairs joined together which somehow makes an output of 12v. I had a few questions about this diagram… well, I’ll just show you.
Email ping pong between Bob and I:
So the fused "blue" line from the photo i sent you of the cranking batteries needs to be cut above the fuse, pushed through a hole in the left side of the battery compartment, run to a 12v fuse block that I am to buy from ebay into which my hot line from my battery bank/chargecontroller will also run thus bypassing the cranking batteries for 12v power and ensuring that 12v lights etc in the bus dont drain the cranking batteries? you got it! You want to keep those 12v accessories off your cranking batteries so the only thing those batteries are used for is crankin'.
Other questions: (numbers listed on above image) FYI I already have everything in green set up. 1. can this wire, which is 10 gauge, instead of connecting with the 2 gauge wire simply attach to the battery either at the positive terminal or the stud, or does it need to be sliced somehow to distribute the charge? It does not need to be spliced. In fact that will be a very dangerous bad idea. I just drew as such to illustrate they are all connected to the 12v positive stud. In reality they should all be bolted at the stud with uninterrupted wires. You can daisy chain accessories (with those little blue connectors) but not large accessories like the inverter or solar panels.
2. Does this wire have to be thinner than 2 gauge? no. If you can bolt a 2 gauge wire to it, I would do it. With DC power, the more load being transmitted the bigger the wire.It's better to over do it on all of these major points close to the batteries because if you do too thin a line and gets major load it can get very hot and start a fire.
3. Is this wire spiced to the existing wire (drawn in blue on this image), tied to the same terminal or does it replace the existing wire? If it is a new wire, what is the gauge? This line would be new and the same as the existing wires on those batteries (1awg).
4. What is this thing? If not the converter I have, then something I must buy? One of the two silver boxes I had you buy before (I think for like $5 or something) *might* do the job. When I had them in my hand before, they just seemed to be a little too cheapy and I fear they won't be able to handle the voltage coming from the 24v side. 5. Is this the converter/inverter thing Boyce gave me? YES. from now lets just call it the inverter so we don't get confused. It inverts because it takes DC power and switches it to AC power. Converters keep within the same current set. 12v dc to 24v dc converter. 6. What gauge wire? 1awg 7. What gauge wire? This should be the existing wire that was (is) connected to the positive side of the cranking batteries. 8. Will this wire go to my house breaker box? yes 9. Can this wire be connected at the ground stud, the terminal or the battery post? Or does it HAVE to be spliced in the ground wire? again no splicing. bolt to battery terminal. FYI again I have 4 50 watt panels solar panels. I am not sure about the max output amperage, but Boyce said that they should be enough to run the fridges fine. you should do some more research on this. See how much the fridges are rated for consuming. I would really be surprised if that much will be enough to power one fridge. they are energy hounds. Check out how much amp hours (this rating basically means that if you had something running off the batteries that took 1 amp you could run it for this many hours off the battery) your batteries are rated for. And I forget how solar panels wattage are rated (I seem to remember that in a set your size you would get something like 4 amps of usable juice out of a full 7 hour cycle of sun intake).
(Hopefully someone is finding this interesting)
Eventually, after a glut of emails that were obviously not penetrating my comprehensions sufficiently, we finally spoke, around four times in the space of an hour owing to my shitty phone. The outcome of the conversation was that adjustments needed to be made to the diagram (and eventual set up) to accommodate hither-to unaccounted for factors (my vagueness is not by accident) and that I was to make the next drawing which I would then send to Bob for approval. This is what I made:
The unlabeled three stud box to the right is an isolator.
As you can see from this diagram, the batteries are now wired in series, thus producing 24v, thus negating the need for a stepdown converter between the series bank and the isolator. Also in this diagram I have correctly shown the solar panels wired again in series, which hopefully will mirror the series battery bank in terms of voltage output. Finally, the last change is that the inverter is now a 24v to 110v inverter as opposed to the previous 12v to 110v inverter. As it seems I don’t have the right equipment anyway, this change cost nothing to realize, unlike the rewiring of the batteries that cost what is for me a small fortune in lugs, splicers and wire.The only thing wrong with my diagram is at the isolator I should leave everything that’s connected to the battery (including the mystery wire), disconnect the fattest wire on the switch and put it in the center of the isolator, then wire the right post of the isolator to the switch where the fat wire was. Sigh.
Oh, and by they way, if you didn’t catch it yet, for anyone in my situation, when following a diagram like this…
…or even the diagram Bob sent (title image), don’t follow it blindly. On both of the a fore referenced diagrams, hot (+) lines are clearly shown as being spliced, when in actual fact, according to Bob it is an advisable rule of thumb to NEVER SPLICE A HOT LINE mainly because the splice can cause short outs (when live wire grounds at the wrong place in a circuit) if not properly insulated. I have since removed the splices (pictured four photos above) and simply attached multiple whole wires to the terminal posts (I call them lead nipples) and to the threaded bolt/nut posts (officially called side posts I think).
So now I feel I am getting somewhere. My batteries are in a 24v series, I have my solar panels ready to go up on the roof, I know what I need to buy (isolator, inverter and maybe new converter) and I have a good enough diagram to follow. Right now I am going to watch the biting, bleak, literate, stylish, wry and understated movie The Squid and the Whale in an attempt to decipher if my parent’s break up in my formative years had anything to do with my later inability to master electrics, but tomorrow I will be attacking this project with renewed gusto, just as soon as my inevitable hangover subsides (broke, but still drunk – if the bums can do it, why can’t I!?).
Should I survive I will update this post with some pictures of tomorrow’s fruits. Until then, once again, its been my pleasure.
News just in (and why even if I try I might as well always just ask Bob):
Just had another thought that would make life easier (and cheaper). Ditch the isolator. Connect a 1awg wire directly to the post that the really fat (alternator) wire is connected to the switch. Then connect it to your house batteries. When the switch is on (which would only be when you want to run anyway) the two banks are connected to the alternator. When the switch is off (when you don't want to run) the two banks are isolated. The only issue I could see with this way, would be that all 24v accessories would always be powered, which would be a drag on house power. So to prevent this, you would put another switch (that would need to be turned off when not running as well) on the positive terminal of your house bank that would look like one of these. http://www.mcmaster.com/#battery-disconnect-switches/=bdp3gz The only thing connected to this switch would be the wire coming from the other switch. Then you get real isolation for about 40 bucks (make sure to get one rated for enough amps). Like Antarctica.
Part of me loves these crazy hack solutions, part of me seethes that I cannot yet compose them myself. All of me is grateful to Bob for his insight, experience and his altruistic assistance, but lets be honest, if it weren’t for him I would still be on easy street, gobbling down turds and loving it like any old Joe Shmoe. like I said to Bob earlier today, no matter how this project eventually kills us, whether its my negligence, poor judgment, starvation or just plain old failed brakes, Bob’s done everything he could and more to make our tenure successful. More than we could ever have hoped for. The man has the patience of a saint, a heart of gold and if you are reading this, the restraint not to exercise his powers as an administrator to obliterate this last paragraph for the sake of his admirable humility.
Until next time. PBZZZZZZT