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How I Lived Off The Power Grid Using Solar Energy

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Living Off The Grid Solar Energy Adventure
- My Solar Panels Struck By Lightning -
By GS Carpenter

solar panels struck by lightning
This solar power adventure took place back in the early 1980’s while I was experimenting with living completely off the grid with solar energy.

At the time I was using a grid of surplus solar power panels wired in a series array to produce 120 volts DC to charge a bank of car batteries and then converting the DC to AC with a expensive, back then, sine wave inverter. This supplied power to run the house.

Since my house was way out in “the sticks” I could only receive two TV stations and they were both weak and snowy. (prior to digital TV)

So I decided to build a satellite TV system.

Receiving TV Way Back Then...

As you may remember, the direct type of satellite service to homes did not exist then, it was the old TV antenna on the roof, but you could receive programing video downlinks designed for TV station use (not the public) if you had one of those large 12 to 14 foot C-Band satellite dishes.

So I decided to build a satellite TV system. As I said, back then the satellite receive dishes were these giant 12 to 15 foot diameter aluminum monsters that were motor driven to point from one satellite to the next satellite to get another program.

I was able to get hold of a 14 foot dish and I bought a nice downconverter and remote controlled satellite receiver. Now I could watch crystal clear, stereo TV in style!

One weekend I invited a friend of mine up to visit and experience "living off the grid" for himself. He brought along a large pizza with him and I had a cold 6 pack or two waiting in the propane operated refridgerator.

That day I noticed a large thunderstorm was brewing in the south when he arrived. After showing him the solar array, the battery room (outside the house) and answering questions about how it all worked it was time to go inside and get out the pizza and beer and turn on the TV in time to watch a Star Trek episode that was being downlinked to TV stations across the country.

My friend thought it was all pretty cool because here we were out in the middle of nowhere, with no commercial power, sitting in comfortable chairs eating pizza (which I heated in the microwave oven) drinking beer and watching next weeks episode of Star Trek. On the satellite the TV programs were downlinked a week early from what you would see on the local station and this added to his amazement.

Keep An Eye On The Weather

The thunderstorm was starting to get very loud and we could see flashes of lightning coming through the curtains on the windows. Suddenly about three quarters of the way through Star Trek, we heard a very loud “crack” followed immediately by ear shattering thunder. At the same time all the lights and the TV went out, a small puff of smoke came out of a wall outlet (I had MOV surge protectors on each outlet and one smoked.) and all we could hear was the wind and rain hitting the roof.

We looked at one another in amazement and he said “I guess a power pole got hit by lightning”. But I thought about it and said “wait the power can’t go off because we’re totally solar powered” we don't have commercial power. We both rushed outside and over to the battery room and as I opened the door you could smell the strong combination of ozone and burnt insulation.

The fuse to the array was blown, but that was not the main problem! The last battery on the top shelf was now missing a terminal and clamp, just a burnt battery cable hanging loose was all there was.

Always Ground Your Panels

Melted lead from the battery terminal was sprayed around like paint. The lightning had somehow managed to blow the terminal off the battery! I was flabbergasted! I said to myself, I knew I should have put in a ground rod on this system!

Even although we missed the end of that Star Trek show, it was a very exciting afternoon, and a day later after I replaced the battery, I checked all the solar panels in the array and was very happy to find that both they and my precious sine wave inverter were all just fine.

So always make sure your solar power system is well grounded, the pizza is hot and the beer is cold.

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