Sunday 22 December 2019

Turning point

Some long but welcome shadows on the shortest day of the year. A hearty and merry solstice, all! 

Friday 29 November 2019

Another breath of sunlight

Feels like it's been raining for months now, but not giving up yet. Nearly on the 8 month mark and hoping for a few more days like this. 

Think I might have broken my charge controller though. 

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Update / On resourcefulness

Hey world. I got a partially cloudy day when I was at home, which I've been hoping for since my last post, so I put the solar controller out hooked up to my larger 60W panels and my cheaper 10Ah battery - at least it''s cheaper to replace if something does go horrendously wrong, huh? The clouds were quite high level today, so it was continuously semi-bright, with a bit of variation - not the massive clumps of grey/blue that were in vogue a few weeks ago. I slurped just under 2.5Ah into the battery, which is OK for a few hours, and better than nothing - given the grey clouds in the week ahead's weather forecast.

So I'm pleased it works, at least. The controller screen doesn't come on, but I have no way of knowing if that's because of my weird setup. Maybe I need to find someone with a battery and some knowledge on this stuff nearby...


Which leads me into the other part of this post. I finally caught up with the RSS feed, and watched the two videos of Jaimie Mantzel's island life. Worth a watch, even just the first one of his solar sail/panel boat.

What most struck me wasn't the engineering, but something else - the resourcefulness. This has been an attribute of people I've always admired, and always seems central to that hacker mindset - that things are possible if you get creative. I love that sense that you're not waiting for somebody else to OK something, or even to teach you something. You have an idea, you can get hold of what you need - even if it's not what you expected - to make it a reality.

Resourcefulness seems like a key aspect of a solarpunk world, but I don't even know if it's something you can teach.

Either way, I need to reconnect to my own resourcefulness as I carry on picking up electronics stuff. Learning is nothing without creativity.

Tuesday 12 November 2019

Experiments in USB batteries + solar controllers

Current status: Can you hook a USB battery up to a cheap solar controller using a 12V-to-5V converter? I looked in online forums a lot and couldn't see anyone saying you couldn't - to be honest, I couldn't see anyone asking either. So. Punk it - 20 quid and some sunshine and let's find out:

60W panel top right, going to solar controller in blue on the right via a DC cable. Then through the converter mid-bottom-left, out through the USB voltage metre in the middle, to the battery bottom-right. 

And technically, yeah, the battery still charges. Initial tests show the output from the controller swings around a lot more wildly than plugging the battery straight into the panel, which probably makes sense as we're in unchartered territory? And the panel makes a high pitched noise but I read that that's a common thing cos frequencies.

I feel like it sort of works, but (instinctively?) maybe I'm more likely to kill the battery faster cos of the power fluctuation. And I haven't seen what happens when the battery is full - it should probably shut itself off, unlike a lead battery. The use case is really when the sunshine is patchy, or I want to put the panels out but the sun isn't up yet. Need to run some tests when I'm at home on a partially-cloudy day. Maybe that'll happen now the weather is getting cold and crisper.

On the plus side, still going strong despite a long run of wet weather recently... 

Friday 18 October 2019

Current kit photos

As sun is a rarity this month, I'm getting a little tetchy about battery usage now. The weekend should bring something though, so I'm hoping I'm in the right place at the right time. Sometimes I think my solar harvesting is more like trawler fishing than crop harvesting.

In the meantime, I thought I'd gather together all the kit I'm running for a few "family" photos. I missed out a few things, but I think it's nice to see what it largely looks like for real. Maybe I should even start videoing this stuff? 😐

So here are some pics - I've also added them, with more detailed info about what's in them, to the new Kit page on the blog. I'm hoping to start building up a bit more of a reference guide here, now that I have some bigger pockets of time around.

The panels:

The batteries and cables:

The devices:

Thursday 10 October 2019

The Challenges of the Joy of Autumn

Autumn has traditionally been my favourite season, the recuperation from the haze of summer, heralded by muted rainbows emerging from trees. The promise of cozy evenings ahead, yet still the warmth to enjoy the air, a sense of work done, crisp and fresh smoke-tinted breezes.

Past the autumnal equinox, solar power becomes much more of an active challenge. Gone are the lazy days of sunshine embracing waking hours from beginning to end. Long shadows and longer nights cut in round buildings and jagged trees, slicing up beams into bursting energy sources. The sun moves fast across the sky and all the cherished angles have shifted, threatening precious efficiency powering your settled routines.

But this challenge is part of the seasonal cycle, and what makes solarpunk gorgeous. Nicholas Haney asked whether Solarpunk is a Pagan thing, and noted that "we face a lot of challenges in the days ahead ... I think we can build a renewable civilization and weave nature and culture back together." And weaving technology into the strips of sunlight, every day the sun gets lower is another day I'm thinking about the fragility of energy, the dependencies of this net that surrounds me, and the assumptions of my every action.


I have retreated my panels to the top of the garden, and am noticing how the extra battery and larger panel make such a difference this year. A tropical season has settled, with most days being fairly grey or wet. Heavy showers with fat droplets have swept through overnight this week, accompanied by large marshmallow cumulonimbi clouds worrying the charge controllers buried in my batteries like sleeping worms. A few minutes of heavy cloud has the potential to switch off the charging circuits.

Fortunately, there have been enough cloudless days - or, rather, days which are bright enough, when the cumulus shapes have given way to more strata-like formations, acting more like a lightbox than a puppet show. My 60W panels have given me a real boost - overcast days still often have enough voltage in them, and even though the days are shorter, a sunny day or two means I can mostly max out one of my larger (20,000+ mAh) batteries. 60,000 mAh of storage is enough to last at least a week if I really want, so when I've not been able to charge up, I've still had one whole battery on standby.

This contrast shows how one can run a 'second level' of USB-based solar power these days. Where 'level one' is probably under 50W, 30,000 mAh, and costs under a hundred pounds, its usage is limited to optimal conditions. I feel like I'm a stage up from that, and a step down from doubling the cost, and being able to bring in a solar controller for more automated sufficiency.

But currently I still enjoy putting the panels out in the morning, taking them down like washing in the evening. My main enemy is the wind, in the these parts - the few times I've put my panels on top of an aging shed, I've come home to find the panels down in the garden waste, blown off by the strong south-westerly whirling around. My new battery has luckily had its fall cushioned by decaying iris branches, but I don't want to continue the risk.


Still, I don't think this will work well for the winter months. Yet it seems a shame to waste the sunshine based on my routine, rather than my technology. I'm around the house a little more these days, which means I'm able to grab a sunny patch when it coincides, but that leaves a fair few days where the shadows and schedules still conflict. I'm over 6 months in, and don't feel threatened by shade like last year. Let's see what happens.

Thursday 22 August 2019

Autumn creaks and preparations

August 22nd, and I'm getting some creaks. Mentally, I still think it's mid-summer which might be true-ish for temperature, but not for light. We're now 2 months after the solstice (1 month until equinox!) and the shadows are shifting rapidly.

The daily pattern of shadows affects me depending on my daily pattern of life. It's easier to work around the shadows if I'm around the house during the day - but if I'm out, like at work, then it's trickier. I still suspect that the electronics inside some of my batteries throttle the charge if it's too low, and don't unthrottle it when it picks back up again. If I start my panels out in shade, then I don't seem to get much charge even if the sun hits them for a full day starting half an hour later.

I think I'm going to need to look into solar controllers more... (Or work from home 😏)

I'm also being confused by my batteries not charging properly with certain combinations of panels. Having run some tests yesterday using my USB power measurers, I'm now fairly sure my big old red battery is playing up, so maybe it's time to replace it. But it seems to have a knock-on effect when I plug in a different battery to the same panel, and I get the same charging problem - but then a while later it seems to work. Hmm.

I was out collecting the first crop of early blackberries yesterday, and the strawberries in the garden are dying away and rotting now. Autumn is on its way, and it feels like time to start preparing.

Wednesday 7 August 2019

Recharging the batteries - a holiday roundup

Status: 4 months complete.

This year's family holiday was to the same French campsite we went to last year. This made it a little easier to plan - see last year's notes for what happened - but the biggest differences this year have been a couple of changes:

1. I am so full of batteries now. The sun has been good in the run up to holiday, so I was pretty much full up to go away - the usual ~79KwH worth of batteries I have now is way enough to keep my phone and watch going for 10 days, whatever happens.

2. Learning from last time, I knew that the biggest battery sink for my phone is taking pictures and videos. This year I decided to keep my photography simple - I didn't even take a film camera! 😁 Instead, I picked up a little Apeman 4K device which I can charge up via USB - the efficiency of a separate device, rather than piggybacking photography on top of a whole phone OS, is huge. I've been taking a bunch of footage, and needed to charge up the camera battery once every few days.

3. Relaxing on holiday is great - I've got free data roaming (thanks Europe!) so it's not been expensive at all to use Internet on my phone. But I've been reading books and magazines and drinking wine, mostly. The phone has either been idle or off, apart from the odd bit of GPS when visiting strange new towns. I've also been posting a few postcards via email and am really loving email for status updates, without all the overhead of a web browser.

4. I've had so much battery, and used my phone and watch so little, that I've been able to charge up the camera, plus my wife's iPhone, from my batteries without too much worry as well. I've brought my 20W solar panels with me as a bit of a top up, but either the clouds have been too cloudy, the panels are struggling, or I'm spoilt by my new 60W set - I haven't had much luck charging up my battery anyway. I've had something, so I think it's just not being able to get a full whack of sunlight.

I'm starting to get a bit low on battery now - here's hoping the sun comes out for a few days when I'm back home...

Monday 1 July 2019

3 months: Devices, Solarpunk gaming, and Laptop experiments

April, May and June are under the belt, and the European solstice heatwave - milder here on the UK South coast at around 29 degrees C max - is certainly helping with electricity at least.

I'm not having to think about power source and energy conservation much. I had to plug my phone into the mains one weekend when I was travelling and misjudged how much battery I had left in my bag, true, but one to learn from.

I've expanded out the devices I'm feeding with solar power as a result, currently sitting at:
  • Phone
  • Pebble watch
  • Kindle (e-paper version) for e-books
  • Nexus tablet for news reading (see previous post)
  • Nintendo GBA SP for retro gaming
  • Bedside light for reading by
  • Bluetooth headphones (which also have audio in as backup/battery preservation)
I've also got a USB cable coming in for the Nintendo DS as well, for extra solared-Zelda'ing.

I'm continuing to develop this idea of tying devices to usage functions, so that it becomes easier to add/remove 'ways of life' according to solar power usage. A bit like how money gets 'ring-fenced' and reserved for certain purposes. The aim of this is to more consciously prioritise and choose between my activities, and to work out what is 'essential' and what's 'luxury' if/when the time (winter) comes.

It also makes it easier to see how much battery usage a particular activity takes up. Is there scope for, say, retro gaming to be a more "solarpunk" version of gaming, for instance, if the older tech uses up less battery?

Finally, I've also started playing around a bit more with powering up my laptops:

Attempt at laptop charging (nestled below bench)
So far I've only run proof-of-concepts. My new Kingsolar panels have a USB output and an 18V DC output. My Macbook laptop has USB-C power in, while my Entroware Linux laptop is DC only.

Initial results are useful:
  • The Macbook does get charged via USB straight from the panels. I think it may help to turn it off first, to avoid software management kicking in, but need to test this. I'm also not sure yet if directly connecting to a fairly/potentially irregular power input can damage the laptop battery yet, so I'm not planning to continue this. 
  • The Macbook also charges up from a USB battery, or at least the one I tried. Leaving it over night, the laptop charge went from about 9% to 84%, and the 25000mAH battery was empty afterwards (from full). 
  • Charging from the USB battery has the added benefit of not having to leave the laptop outside. I'm definitely a lot more comfortable leaving a battery out (no personal data, much cheaper) than a device...
  • Charging the Entroware laptop using the DC adapter provided with the panels didn't seem to do much. This isn't too surprising, given the maximum voltage on the panels is 18V, but the laptop wants 19V.
There are a few options around to charge up a device via USB, such as this XTPower battery bank, or a bulkier setup with a charge controller I think. I'm wondering if I can afford the XTPower, and whether it even makes sense to run a laptop off solar.

I'm also going to have to start reading up on electricity more at this point, I think.

If you've got this far, thanks for reading? If you're at all interested in supporting the experiment, then you can donate via various ways here. Currently any donations will go towards a few small e-books, each the price of a coffee or two.

Tuesday 21 May 2019


Helloooo, 60W. [Amazon link]

It's pretty sunny recently. All batteries are full. A quick test shows this gets very nearly 2A (around 1.95A) in direct sun, where the 20W panels hit around 1.5A. Time to level up...

Monday 13 May 2019

Solar-powered, Re-purposed Feed Reading

One of the key questions going through this exercise is on what next? I'm deeply aware I'm at the start of a personal journey - that others know more about electricity than I do, or have richer setups, or endure with less technology. But all experiments at this small scale should be a personal endeavour. So, in fact, the question is - what's next for me?

Solar-powered feed reading

At the end of last year, I grew a bit tired of trying to read RSS feeds and do emails on my phone. At the time, I made a conscious decision to do more email on my laptop instead - I love the feel of physical keys holding onto  my fingerprints. The travel and bounce seem to convery more speed and emotion than any virtual input device. It's a hard habit to shake. Moving to a laptop for email was pretty easy though.

This didn't work so well for RSS feeds though - laptops are too bulky and intensive for lightweight reading. I'd had a couple of tablets before (through work), and I also have an old Kindle which is OK for reading e-books, and I wanted something similar. I liked the idea of separating reading out into its own function, isolating it from other network activity. Distraction-free, I'd be able to lose myself in some of the longer form articles I've been saving up to read for months now.

So this was my plan:
  • Run off second-hand hardware - re-use is becoming a a new part of my tech ethics, which I'm slowly formulating.
  • Run off free software - free as in speech. I'd seen some discussion of LineageOS on-line, and wanted to try it out as an alternative. I really shoudn't need anything fancy to read feeds. I also already have a Tiny Tiny RSS server and a wallabag server set up, with associated apps on my phone via F-Droid.
  • Run off solar power for reading. Because, natch.
After some research on devices supported by LineageOS, I managed to grab a cheap 2013 Nexus 7 off ebay. Bonus marks - the seller had already installed Lineage on it! I was happy to pay an extra 5 quid to save a few evenings doing it myself...

So this is now A Thing. The reader device is great - F-Droid and ttrss and wallabag all installed within minutes. I'm resisting putting the Medium app on, but it may be useful. I'm also trying to find alternative routes to hook together ttrss and wallabag with other services - so far, I'e set up IFTTT to tweet out things tagged with certain text, or to save to Evernote notebooks. Eventually I'll look at replacing these with FLOSS as well. And the battery on the Nexus seems to hold well, only dropping 3-4% over a few days of non-use.

The Separation of Functions

Most of all, I have become fascinated idea with this initial idea of defining a use case for tech in my life - reading RSS feeds and saved links, in this case. I feel like that defines the value clearly, and from there, I can work out if it is a function which is - or could be - powered by my current solar setup (ie. do I get enough sun light, and can I get power to the device?)

In other words, by tying and restricting certain functions to particular software AND hardware, I feel like solar power is "sponsoring" certain of my activities now. The ttrss/wallabag server is still mains-powered, yes, but Raspberry Pi's are pretty lightweight. This way of thinking extends out to other things hopefully - anything my phone is primarily responsible for, and then the afore-mentioned Kindle, and then even things like portable gaming (thanks to the new USB cable for the old Gameboy Advance).

This feels easier than just trying to power everything, indiscriminately, into some vague solar-powered bubble. It means I can take a more considered approach to power management (both on the devices themselves, but also for panels and batteries) and prioritise between functions as the batteries run out. The eggs have been divided up into more basket, now.

So this feels good. Coming soon - I've received a new USB-A to USB-C cable, and I'm writing this post on a laptop charged up on solar power for the first time. Bring it on!

Monday 29 April 2019

Fresh Hardware "Upgrades"

A brief post, as I'm a month in and not really finding the time or energy to blog at the moment.

The Sun has been tentative and diverse, swinging between June heat and April normality. I've not had much of a problem staying off the grid - mostly - but have been using the first month to get a few things in place. And, as you'll see below, a few things have meant I've not been as pure as you'd think...

Able cables

First up, I picked up some tiny cables cheap, as one of my older ones has worn at the connection point, and I only have one other short one. I like short ones, after last year's experiments proved themselves worthy.

I went for a pack of five 10cm ones sported as 'high speed charging' cables, but in practice I've been getting some iffy results - including charging apparently just stopping after a few minutes. Need to look into this - not sure if it's the cables or the power pack at the moment, hence my italics. Maybe they're overheating - I tried them on a very bright day. Hopefully I'll get a chance to do some tests soon though.

I thought I'd take no chances though, so have also picked up five 1-foot nylon braided cables as well. These seem pretty sturdy and clip in really firmly, so I'm pleased with these. And I figure a dozen short-length cables will keep me going for a while, even if I use some for battery-to-device instead of from the solar panels.

Packing it in

The very obvious downside of short cables, though, is that you have less room to maneuvre your power packs and devices. Which makes it more likely you'll put them in a precarious position. Which means they're more likely to slip, slide, fall off, and crash to the ground. AS HAPPENED.

'Big red', my 24000mAh pack took a bit of a fall. I knelt down to pick it up, and noticed the landing had popped the case open a bit, and further testing showed one of the charging lights not working. I'm hoping it's just the light, and plugged it into the mains to test the charging functionality - I think it is just the light, fortunately. But I had a go at popping the case open, so now I at least know what's inside. (Damn, must take a photo next time.)

I also figured, as I'm at full charge, that a new power pack would be economically a good decision at this point. I wanted something big, as I'm starting to eye up more devices and bigger panels. So I opted for the Rleron 25,000mAh pack - firstly because it has a (rather token) solar panel on it which looks cool, and secondly because it's red. Everything is going red, apparently. Why not?

So that's what's in the photo above. Red trim.

TBH, I've not had much success charging things up today, and not sure why. Maybe it was cloudier than I hoped - I still think charging circuits struggle with remaining plugged in but with intermittent shade. I need a morning at home to work some things out, but it's not looking likely - May is hectic.

Anyway, more soon...

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Springing back into action

*Blows dust from top of cardboard box*

*Gingerly opens large cardboard flaps*

*Takes blog out of box, sets it on the ground*

*Presses button, steps back, peers in.*

Hello blog. Can you hear me? You on? Great.

Date now is .. April 10th. It's sunny today! Yesterday was wet, and a few weeks ago it was the spring equinox. Before that, we had a balmy few days in February and people got proper spooked, I reckon. Since then, who knows? Hail, snow, storms, and sun. The shadows are getting shorter and the clocks have gone forwards. I'm reminiscing to the other side of the calendar. It's time to get this project running again.

So I decided to switch back off mains power a few days before April started. My USB batteries still had some mains charge in them though - I like to think of it all swirling around inside like soup, mixing with sun power as time goes on, like one juice drifting into another, yin into yang. Grid energy in increasingly homeopathic quantities.

Feels good to get the panels out again.

I'm starting back in slowly, no major changes. But in the back of my mind, I'm building up a list of things to do this year, from the tiny to the large. Here's my mental list currently:
  • Get more small USB leads (0.5ft or smaller) - I only have 2.
  • Get more power packs
  • Should I get more solar panels?
  • Should I make the jump and invest in some proper panels, like caravans have?

 In terms of what I want to aim for, there are some clear wins potentially:

  • Get some kind of permanent setup, rather than relying on putting panels out on a day-by-day basis. However, I think that might take a more permanent rig to be installed. Ideally this would go on the shed, but I want to replace the shed as it's falling apart.
  • Power more devices as a matter of course. I'm a heavy tech user really, but it would be great to extend the idea to cover not just my phone and watch, but also my headphones, and maybe my old Gameboy Advance SP - there are USB leads available. What else? I've recently upgraded my Macbook to one with a Thunderbolt port - could this run off solar, realistically?
  • What about passive solar tracking to get more efficiency? I saw a link on this last year, and this would be amazing to achieve.
  • Just learn more about solar panels and electricity generally, including where panels come from, recycling, and overall lifecycle costs.

So plenty of ideas, and a whole summer ahead...