About this blog

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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Solar panel update

Since finishing the new terrace, the solar panel project has been top of my list of priorities. I've already had one panel connected up and working, complete with pipework, pump and automatic controller, and since then I've more-or-less made a second panel, and made a start on the third, so it felt like I was fairly near the end of the job. I hoped to get it finished by the end of February.

Unsurprisingly, that didn't happen. Feeling somewhat despondent, I sat down and wrote a list of all the tasks that needed doing before I could say the job was finished. The list ended up looking like this:

There seem to be quite a lot of jobs still to do. I managed to cross a few off by the time I took this photo.

That didn't improve my state of mind greatly; it was considerably daunting. Still, at least it was now obvious why I hadn't finished it all in the expected timescale. I started tackling items on the list and felt quite productive on some days, but on other days I got hardly anything done. I started to sense a reluctance in myself. This came into sharp focus when another, really quite unpleasant, job presented itself, and I jumped to do it. Hmm, this isn't just laziness... I'm clearly avoiding the solar panel project.

What's my problem, then? I think that as the day of reckoning comes into sight - not just a test to see if it works, but a Tada! Finished! moment - I'm getting anxious about messing it all up. This kind of thing is probably stating the bleeding obvious to many people, but I'm not very good at being in touch with my emotions, so I have to resort to detective work to figure out what's going on in my head.

I realised that I've also been making things more difficult than they need to be in the name of efficiency. It really doesn't matter if I have to clean creosote off the paint brush several times. It doesn't matter if I have to make up several batches of mortar, even if that means wasting a bit. This was compounded by the way I wrote the list, with a couple of sets of jobs marked x3, lumping them all together into one. If I take away the restriction of doing certain jobs for all three panels at once, then I can focus on one panel at a time, which is less overwhelming. It also means I can get the first one up on the bank, out of the way, so I have more space to work on the next one.

Having given myself a good talking to this morning (with help from a sympathetic husband), I tackled one of the scarier jobs. I'd decided to make brick bases to stand the panels on, which required a bit of bricklaying. The only bricklaying I'd done before was the arch over the fireplace (not actually mortared in at the time I wrote that post - I did it more recently), which I wasn't very pleased with, so I doubted my ability to do the job successfully. The bases I had planned were pretty small, just four bricks each, two on two, but I think that might be even more difficult than a good long stretch in which each brick supports the ones on either side.

There were several other factors that added to the difficulty. I wanted a peg to stick up out of the centre of each base so that I could drill a hole in each leg of the panels and fit them on. (One job that I've crossed off the list was investigate tent pegs. I did, and found some old bent pegs that I'd failed to throw out, and they seem suitable.) To fit nicely, the peg would need to be vertical, the bricks would have to be horizontal, and the distance between the pegs needed to be fairly precise. It's no wonder I was wary of this job.

I'd done some measuring out, and cleared some turf to make space for the bases on the bank, so I had my bricks placed in position:

The floorboards were for measuring the slope of the bank. Fixing down the conservatory roof properly is below solar panels on the to-do list.

Having dithered about over whether to get ready mixed mortar or sand, cement and lime separately, I'd bought the latter after bumping into a friend in town who said he could use the rest of it (it's much cheaper to buy the components separately, but isn't available in small quantities). I double checked the measurements again, lined up various tools (spirit level, set square, tape measure), and mixed some mortar. I added far too much lime by mistake, so added some more of the other two, then found I had too much stuff to mix in my little bucket, so turned some of it out onto a school bus sign that was sitting around, before adding water and mixing. I was finally ready to start fixing my bricks in place.

It certainly wasn't easy, especially as I needed to be so precise with the positioning, but I think I did a reasonable job.

One brick base mortared in, complete with tent peg.

Two of the bases went onto the concrete wall-top at the edge of the conservatory. I'd deliberately shortened the conservatory roof to allow for this and I'm glad I did, as it's a bit tight for space here. However, most of the tent pegs were a bit long for use here. Where the bricks were on the ground I could bury one end of the peg into the earth (if I moved the stones out of the way) but not here. Luckily, I had two shorter pegs that I could use, so I did.

Commenting on the tight space there reminds me that I haven't told you about determining the position of the panels, which was a job in itself. I won't go into great detail, but I used the equation from this web page entered into a spreadsheet with solar radiation data from the same source, plus some zeros for times of day when the panels would be in shade. I then tweaked the figures for north-south orientation (or more relevantly, south vs. east) and tilt of panel until I found the maximum radiation captured. The results were 15° east of south and 53° from horizontal, which is our latitude. It was quite nice to see that come out of the calculations; it gave me some confidence that they were correct.

It's all very well knowing what tilt I'm aiming for, but implementing that on a sloping bank is another question entirely. I've mentioned a couple of features of my plan to meet this challenge - horizontal brick bases and floorboard measurement of the slope of the bank - but I'll come back to the rest of that in another post. Orienting the panels 15° east of south should have been fairly straightforward. All I needed was a compass, or so I thought. It turned out that some feature of this bit of hillside interfered with the compass. I could get a plausible reading for north-south at about four feet above ground level, but as I lowered the compass, the needle turned round until it was pointing more than 90° in a different direction. I dread to think what's buried there. (Actually, I was more than tempted to dig... but resisted.) Eventually, I decided that the fence was running pretty much north-south, so worked from that.

So far, I have three and a half brick bases mortared in place. I finished my batch of mortar after fixing the first layer of bricks of the fourth base. That's OK, though, because I'm concentrating on one panel at the moment, and setting the front two feet in place first before propping it up to determine where the back two bases need to go. Hopefully, when I check again tomorrow, the bases will be firm, still horizontal, and the pegs will still be vertical and the correct distance apart.


  1. OK... I'm finally getting around to reading these posts - see, I felt overwhelmed just be reading about it, let alone the idea of actually DOING it! Seriously, I totally relate to your anxiety about finishing projects because I suffer from the exact same thing (hello, responsive webpage re-design!) Reading this is certainly reminding me of the myriad of outdoor projects that I need to get working on...

    Anyhow, I'm really impressed that you resisted digging up whatever was moving the compass needle! It could have been buried treasure! Or not.

    1. I have managed to focus on this project only by determinedly ignoring the myriad other projects I have to do, both indoor and outdoor. I can totally relate to you putting off reading these posts - it is rather a lot all at once.

      My neighbour thinks there's a lot of old machinery buried in the hillside, which could be fascinating... or could be a lot of unidentifiable rusting iron. Given that it'll be nearly 200 years old, quite possibly both.

    2. Well... I tend to do will with projects right up until I hit the proverbial "point of no return" at which time the knot in my stomach becomes extreme and I start to suffer from panic syndrome big-time! The thing is, it doesn't really matter how difficult or easy it will be to finish, it's more like some crazy part of me becomes convinced that this will be the thing that proves once and for all that I am hopelessly and completely inadequate. Logically, I know it's insanity, but knowing that doesn't really seem to help. I usually have to just grit my teeth and push through it.

      And 200 year old machinery sounds fascinating! Although, I'm sure there are some distinct disadvantages to digging up the whole hillside... like, say, never getting your solar panel project completed! Of course, if it was me, I'd be knee deep in excavations right now... which would be a really convenient way to avoid the anxiety of having to actually finish the project! :-)


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