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Get Powered Up! Certified Energy Manager Jeff Yago answers your alternative energy questions

Wondering about a great new energy-saving device
you found on the Internet? Then CLICK HERE!

Sorry. Jeff no longer answers questions online.
This will remain as a searchable
resource for all BHM website visitors.

Archive for the ‘Alternative energy’ Category


Getting started with energy efficiency

Thursday, March 5th, 2009


I am looking for sources, info, anything that will help concerning building an energy efficient retirement home, off the grid if possible, east of Dallas, Texas. Prefab companies, plans, books, anything to help me get started.

Thank you,

Johnny Bernstein


We have had numerous articles about solar system design, solar system types, how solar works, etc. Many can be read online. And the Backwoods Home Bookstore has two good books on solar systems including one I reviewed in the last issue.   Order the back issues on CD if you no longer have these issues.

Good luck,

Jeff Yago


Alternative energy for apartments

Sunday, November 30th, 2008


My wife, son and I live in an approximately 440 square foot studio apartment in Queens, New York. We have watched helplessly as our monthly utility bill has increased over the past 6-12 months from roughly $70 to over $120. I am certain that you have heard something to this effect from many people.

Are there any alternative energy sources that we can use to power our individual apartment and reduce our reliance on the local utility? I am envisioning a renewable energy source that can be stored inside the apartment and power, e.g., lamps, television, home computers, kitchen appliances, etc., but that doesn’t cost unprecedented sums of money. Is there something out there to your knowledge?

Thank you for your time and attention.

Mike J.

Forest Hills, New York


I know the area well. One of my clients is Rego Park, the shopping center in Queens, and we remotely monitor all the tenants monthly utility usage. There is only a limited amount of things you can do since you are renting and cannot alter the electrical systems and may have only a limited amount of exterior wall and no roof access.

As I have described in many past articles, if your refrigerator is over 5 years old, it is costing you more money to operate than a new model. If it is over 12 years old then it is really costing you money each month, and may represent 15 to 20% of your monthly bill. This is the first thing I would replace.

You can also replace all of your light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. If lighting quality is critical like a work light, replace with halogen having half the watts as the incandescent bulb being replaced. Do not replace only a few bulbs at a time, take a week end and replace them all, then wait a few weeks to see the impact on your bill. Many appliances like TV’s, stereos, cell phone chargers, and anything with a remote control will still be using electrical power 24 hours per day even if they are turned off.

Buy several multi-plug strips and use the switch to turn off all power to all your entertainment equipment when not in use. If you have an electric range, this is also a real energy hog, so limit its use by using a micro-wave oven more often. These also use lots of power, but they cook much faster so are only on a few minutes.

Finally, I am expecting electric rates to climb even higher next year and remember there are lots of city and state taxes added to your electric bill each month by New York which has some of the highest in the nation.

Time to move?

Good luck,

Jeff Yago


Wind Generator Heating System

Sunday, October 5th, 2008


Is it possible to have a supplemental electric home heating system hooked directly to a wind generator? Do these systems exist? I’m thinking a heat coil in your furnace duct or electric baseboard for example. If they exist are they practical? $50,000 for a 10 kw wind turbine system will pay a lot of gas bills.


Mike in Minnesota


Solar power and wind power are still very expensive, although utility-size mega-watt wind turbines are starting to produce power that is competitive in states with high electric rates and lots of wind. (assuming you have an extra 2 million dollars to buy one) .

This means it’s not practical to use solar electric or wind power just to heat water or space heating due to the very high loads these present and the high cost of the wind or solar systems required. However, when a residential-size wind turbine is really putting out the power and the battery is fully charged and there are no other loads operating, many wind charge controllers include an auxiliary diversion load relay that re-routes the wind power to electric heaters or an electric element in a the hot water heater. In other words, if you have no load for the solar or wind to consume, its better to divert this output then to just shut the system down.

Yes, you can still buy lots of gas for $50,000.00.

Good Luck,

Jeff Yago


Back-up power for off-grid

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

Dear Jeff,

Having recently bought some land in Missouri that is located out the the sticks and very much at the end of the power grid. I have pretty well deduced that I will need some back up power.

Recently I have discovered the website and a number of your articles. As one who is not totally familiar with alternative power like wind and solar, everything I read seems only to confuse me more.

With interest I have read about l-16 industrial batteries for a battery bank in some articles. In an article about adding a solar cell to a truck camper a RV/marine battery is recommended. Since RV/marine batteries are easy to find and will take to repeated charging wouldn’t they be logical choice for a battery bank vice the harder to find L-16?

I have noticed too that with wind power most often suggested is a dc wind generator that requires upwards of 6 or 7 knots of wind to operate. In searching around I have found a source for a AC wind generator that begins operation in the sub 7knot range. AC generators have to best of my knowledge a big advantage over DC generators and that is in size of the cable between the transmission line from the tower to the battery bank. An ac generator can use a standard ac power cord and suffers no loss in current between the tower and batteries.

I have to admit that my understanding of the way a ac generator works is taken from the following website: On the opening page there is a photo of a customer using 9 ac wind generators on his farm in Wisconsin. Although wind power as such is confusing to me I believe that this ac system must be quite good or the farmer who had added to it and bought these generators would not be doing so if they weren’t efficient.

Perhaps you can give some insight into battery banks and DC versus AC generators in a future story. Also the battery bank issue of l-16 versus marine batteries is very confusing to a novice seeking information like myself.

Any information you can provide along these lines would be greatly appreciated.

Thank You

Keith McElroy


Lots of questions! Actually you are talking about “L-16” batteries, not “I-16”. When I suggest using an RV/Marine battery, you will find that it is for a small 12-volt DC system that does not have a large load that would fully discharge it each day. These batteries are much heavier duty than a typical car battery, and most have re-combiner caps and do not need to add water. However, they will NOT hold up to a daily deep charge/discharge cycling like a solar powered home or cabin. For these larger loads and system sizes, the lowest cost battery designed for a heavy charge/discharge cycling each day is a 6-volt golf cart battery ( T-105 size). These are less than $100, and can be found at most big box stores during the summer months. They are about the same size as a car battery, but because they are 6-volt, the plates are very thick and very heavy.

For a 12-volt system you will need two 6-volt batteries wired in series, and for larger systems you will need 4, 8, or 12. When you start getting above 8 batteries of any size, its better to switch to a larger amp-hr battery and stay less than 16, as this can cause problems with un-even charging and dis-charging when you have multiple strings of parallel batteries.

I think you are caught up in the AC or DC debate as a marketing ploy. There is no engineering difference in the amount of wind it takes to turn a wind turbine based on AC or DC output voltage. Wind energy is a “cubic” function of the area of the blades, and below around 7 MPH I think you will find most small-scale generators will not provide any real power, although the blades might turn. There are now both AC and DC wind turbines and each has its advantages, but only in wiring and additional equipment that will be required.

A 24 or 48 volt DC output wind turbine is very easy to add to an existing solar-power system, and some models have built-in charge controllers and can be hooked directly to the batteries. Yes, this will require a larger wire size since the voltage is lower, but the ease of wiring is its real advantage. Also, unless you are talking about some huge wind machine on a 150-foot tower, the difference in wire costs would most likely be less than 50 cents per foot for the larger wire caused by using a lower voltage DC model. An AC wind turbine can use a smaller wire size since the voltage is higher, and these are usually designed for grid-connect systems without batteries. There are a few other issues, but you cannot say an AC unit works better than a DC unit having the same size and blade design, and the reverse is also true.

Good luck!

Jeff Yago


Alternative Energy Education

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008


I’ve been reading Backwoods Home for a while now, and I really dig the information and ideas you guys have for alternative energy. I’ve seen solar energy put to use in war machines over the last few years, and when I’m out of the Army, I’d like to help put alternative energy to some GOOD use.

Where and how does one go about getting himself into the alternative energy industry? What college degree should one pursue? What schools (preferably in Colorado / online) have useful programs?

I’ve got a lot of college cash waiting to be put to good use. I’d sure like to spend it on something besides operating MIL-SPEC spacecraft and fighting wars for non-Libertarian candidates. I’ve done both for my entire adult life, and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Thanks for your time,

Mike Felix


You are really in luck. Colorado is almost the center of solar research in the US, and has a very strong educational program in solar power. The Solar Energy Research Institute is world known and is located right in Golden Calorado. The state also has a very strong non-profit solar educational group with extensive information and resources you can access here:

Good luck and thanks for your service,

Jeff Yago


Solar installer certification

Saturday, July 12th, 2008

Hey Jeff,

I’d like to become a certified PV solar installer. What would you recommend to someone like me who dosen’t have any experience (yet)?


Jeff Hall


Thanks for the question as I am asked this many times in person. The problem with getting into solar is the many different things you need to learn. For example, you need a good understanding of the sun and its movement through the sky, verses solar system mounting arrangements and shading effects. Estimating system loads requires a good understanding of the specific electric loads in a home or business verses their operating hours. Mounting solar modules requires an understanding of wind loads, structural requirements, and sealing roof penetrations. Sizing electrical wiring requires a very strong understanding of basic electricity and power wiring, and the differences between DC and AC wiring. Finally, to avoid burning down houses or electrocuting the occupants, you should really know the national electric code and how to apply it.

Unfortunately, many electricians have this knowledge and installation skills, but have no interest in getting involved with solar projects. I have met electricians who have never installed a battery bank or wired any DC power equipment in their entire lifetime as an electrician, nor have any desire to start. They also usually work only on utility grid connected power panels and do not usually work on wiring systems with capacity limitations.

However, if you install a grid-tie solar power system and intend to legally sell power back to the utility, you will need a licensed electrician to make the final wiring connections into the main house panel, who will certify in writing that the system meets all codes, and warrants the solar hardware installed meets the IEEE dis-connect requirements. In other words, the best path to being a solar installer is first becoming a licensed electrician, then taking the extra courses to become a NABCEP certified solar installer. The NABCEP certification is not easy, and it requires training in all of the subjects I mentioned above.

There are even a few trade schools and 2-year colleges now offering these programs. Being a NAPCEP certified installer is the highest rating I know of for anyone in this business and is your best way to open doors if you are just getting into this business. However, since full certification requires that you have already installed three complete solar systems, you will need to team up and assist someone already in the busiess as a way to gain this experience after completing the “book learning”.

Here is a link to the NAPCEP web site – check it out for more information:

Good luck!

Jeff Yago


Alternative energy in new home construction

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

My wife and I are starting on our new home March 1, 2008 and are desiring to utilize as much in the way of Alternative/Renewable energy as is practically possible. My question is; where would you recommend non expert/informed parties start in efforts to educate and inform for such a purpose? We are old-time Mother Earth News subscribers and are taking advantage of our local library but are hoping to find a source(s) that give pro/cons of particular approaches, systems etc… . Any and all help is greatly appreciated!

Oscar Ratmaker


Years ago there were very few solar and energy saving devices sold for the homeowner and home builder, and your selection was based on what was available, and you usually had to modify other wiring to allow inter-connection. Today there are many more energy saving and solar products to choose from, and some can be in conflict with each other if you are not aware of the many options. For example, some home automation systems are installed to save energy, but some of these systems do not work well with alternative energy power systems. Some of the newer backup generators are designed for constant connection to a standard utility grid and are almost impossible to inter-connect with many solar inverters and their automatic generator start controls for battery re-charging. The selection of your home’s appliances can sometimes save more in energy than what you can achieve with a solar system trying to power lower efficiency appliances. If you really are interested in a home design that is state-of-the-art energy efficient, all of the building systems and their design will be critical. This includes, appliance selection, lighting selection, HVAC system type and efficiency, well pump selection, well expansion tank selection, alternative energy system selection, gray water recycling, window selection, wall and ceiling insulation, roof color and type, home orientation on lot, shading from nearby trees or hills, size of piping and number of elbows, room and window orientation to solar path, window shading and over-hangs, heat recovery air ventilation, geo-thermal, and many many more things to consider.

If you want to do this right, first select an architect to work with you, and make sure they have experience in low energy type residential design. Ask for references and examples of recent projects. Next, you need to involve a solar energy consultant if you are planning to include any type of active, passive, or photovoltaic solar system. I suggest that the solar consultant work for you and not the architect, but this person needs to work with the architect, make suggestions on any architecture details or space allocation that may be required to incorporate an alternative system, and be involved with the selection of all lighting and appliances. I have worked with hundreds of architects and have found that many think they know more than they really do regarding solar systems, and will usually try to obtain free design advice from a local solar dealer with a promise that the architect will specify their brand of solar hardware. If the solar consultant is hired by or working for the architect, then it is much harder for the solar consultant to know what the homeowner wants and how best to achieve these energy goals.

If you try to go it alone, you will find that many of the Internet based solar retailers are there to sell products, not offer design advice, and many will have no idea what you need. A really good solar dealer will ask for a design fee up front to provide this initial design assistance to you and your architect, but this fee is usually credited towards the cost of a system if you purchase one later from them. This is because it takes many hours of design effort to select the best solar products and appliances for your specific project, and if there is no guarantee that you will actually make a purchase from them, most really good dealers will not provide this service for free. Remember, you get what you pay for and a really good solar dealer will select the products that are best for your specific needs, not what he happens to have in stock.

I assure you that you will save far more in installed system costs later than you will ever spend for initial design assistance. I receive many calls from homeowners who tried to order a solar system on their own, only to find out the individual components they ordered will not connect to the other products they purchased, were the wrong voltage, or had the wrong cable connectors. There are many solar “dealers” across the US and in most major cities, but only a few have achieved the highest rating of NABCEP certified. This certification not only requires extensive knowledge of all types of solar energy systems and their design, but also the dealer must install a certain number of systems each year that have been inspected and approved by local building inspectors. They must also take additional classes each re-certification cycle to maintain this solar installer certification. This is a national certification and there may only be a few NABCEP certified solar installers in your state so check their web site –>

Good Luck!

Jeff Yago



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