LAST UPDATED: 24 February 2023
[Bonus] Going Solar
Want energy independence on race day? Switch to solar power, with advice on getting started building your own DIY solar power system by Lowell Ladd.
It’s another bonus episode for you today, and as we were discussing reducing your race’s carbon footprint last week, this week’s episode falls quite neatly in the same area of sustainability and decarbonization.
Today, I’m joined by race director, race timer and solar power enthusiast Lowell Ladd, of 2L Race Services, to talk about how you can switch your race day headquarters over to solar power, so that your entire race day operation runs on sun juice instead of diesel.
We’re going to be looking at the stepping stones to building out a solar power setup, from getting started on a single solar generator to gradually building out a full-fledged mobile solar power station. And we’re going to be answering your questions on the feasibility, reliability and cost of such a setup when it comes to powering race day.
In this episode:
- The benefits of switching to solar power
- Energy consumption by hardware, and what a solar-powered system could support, depending on size
- The anatomy of a solar-powered setup: components, connectivity, outlets
- The cost of building your DIY solar-based system
- Panels: what to buy and how to scale up
- Li-based vs acid-based batteries: pros and cons
- Taking care of, maintaining and upgrading your setup
- Off-grid solar power resources: https://www.mobile-solarpower.com/
- DIY solar power forum: https://diysolarforum.com/
- Mobile Solar Power Made Easy (Book): https://www.amazon.com/Mobile-Solar-Power-Made-yourself/dp/1546567119/
Thanks to RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 26,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.
Lowell, welcome to the podcast!
Thanks for having me.
Well, thanks a lot for coming on. Where are you based?
I am based in Westchester, Pennsylvania.
Awesome. And you are the owner of 2L Race Services. I should say your full name is Lowell Ladd, so I guess the 2L comes from that - Lowell Ladd Race Services, which is pretty cool. And from what I understand, like many people listening in, you wear two hats. You're both a race director and a timer. So you direct races and your time races. Is that right?
That is correct. Yep. I started with race directing, and got into timing shortly thereafter.
And just out of curiosity, what got you to go into timing? Was it, like, a side income type thing? How exactly did that transition happen for you?
I decided to start my own marathon in 2011. The idea for that hatched when I was doing someone else's marathon in 2010 and I thought, "I'd like to put on a race." So I started my own marathon, hired a timer, started a half marathon that fall, hired a timer, and then decided that I'm ready to bring it in-house. So, the initial intent was just to time our own events. But once you purchase equipment, you realise that you might as well use it a bit more, and it just kind of had legs of its own. So now, I wear both hats - sometimes, at the same time, but usually separately.
Exactly. Yeah. I mean, I guess that's what happens with people. You get the equipment. You want to amortise it. You start timing other races. It's the natural thing to do. In terms of the races you direct for yourself and others, what's your portfolio looking like there?
So I initially started the Gettysburg North-South Marathon in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and that led to starting a half marathon in the same town in 2011. Over time, we've consolidated those two events into a single festival of races - marathon, half marathon, and 5K. That's currently the only event that I own and operate. But over the years, there have been some events that I have time for that have asked me to expand my role because I have a background in event management. So usually, it's a group that puts on a race and realises that they just want somebody else to deal with operations, dealing with municipalities, police, and whatever it is. They want somebody else to help manage some of that, so I sometimes take over pieces of it. And then, I've also put on soup to nuts events for conventions when they've come into the area.
And I have to ask - because we are coming out of the pandemic and it's a question I ask all my guests - how are things looking on your end, sort of, around this time? It's fall 2022. It must be a busy season by historical standards. How's it looking for you?
We've been very busy all year. We pivoted pretty well early on in the pandemic and we stayed very busy with track and field and high school cross-country timing competitions. We had our own events. I also know some race directors that were able to pull off their events in weird modified ways for a while pretty early on. But right now, it's full on. It's totally normal and we're crazy busy.
I'm very glad to hear that. The reason for today's podcast-- I reached out to you a week ago or so because I saw that post you published in our race directors hub group very proudly displaying the solar power setup you put together on your van - people want to check that out or people who may have checked that out already. It's your little white trailer - not a van, it's a trailer - with solar panels on top. Then you, have pictures of all the different bits and pieces you have on it. And I did realise that more people are probably doing this or are interested in this - the whole aspect of switching to solar power - because there were quite a few comments on that - lots of people studying, like, throwing technical jargon around. So I thought, "Why don't we do, like, a short episode for everyone who might be interested in knowing a little bit more about this?" So you can tell us a little bit more about what's the reason behind doing this and how it works, and maybe get people off to a head start, as it is - who want to build their own system.
Right. I have no professional training in this area. I dabbled in it for a little while. I took a big step this year and had a tonne of fun with it. I really enjoy playing solar and going green. I think a lot of other people liked the idea of it and they really just need a little bit of a nudge to get into it, either a little or maybe more depending on their interest in their background and what they're comfortable with. But a lot of it is just taking that first step and getting into it and having a try at it.
Yeah, I guess lots of people would actually be interested, I suspect. So you want to give us, like - just to begin with - a kind of overview of your project and, sort of, what exactly you did?
Right. I've been using batteries for years to backup various timing things from the very beginning. You gotta have a battery backup because you can't risk a critical piece of equipment going down on you, especially if you're in the track and field or cycling timing world of cameras. They don't have, normally, an internal battery, so you got to have a backup. This year, I looked at taking some battery options and, "Could we get some solar power?" So I started with some portable units. The ones that I started with were Jackery - they're made by the company "Jackery", which is pretty popular in the off-grid camping world where people want to either camp with a tent or camp with a light trailer, and they want to be able to power some things for days. They're not going to plug in. They might not be going to campsites that have power, so they want to get some energy from the sun and they buy a couple of panels and run off of that. So this spring, I really dove into that and embraced, kind of, the lightweight portable entry into the solar world. I bought one really small Jackery unit and that could only power a little bit of equipment. So I was using it at a track meet, and it was basically powering my cameras and the switch that connected them to my computer. So if I lost, the generator would still be going. Then, once that was working, I bought a bigger Jackery and I realised, "Okay, now I can power my clock on-site Aad I can make it through, say, a four-hour track meet. Then, I went and bought a bigger jackery and I realised I could go almost all day with this - especially if they're sun outside, I could run pretty much all day. Then, this summer, not quite sure what gave me the edge but I realised that I have a trailer, which not everybody does, but a fair number of event managers and timers have trailers. I've seen pictures of people that put solar panels on their trailers and I thought, "I've got some real estate up there. Why don't I get a system and let's get this thing wired up with a permanent installation of solar, so I can really do some bigger, more interesting things with it?"
So up until the summer, you weren't using solar panels?
I only use them very lightly at track and field competitions. So, it wasn't critical. I would have a Jackery unit that could be a standalone battery. I bought it with panels - small portable folding panels - and they could be set up on the ground to extend how long I could last running on that unit without having to use a generator. It was all portable.
Right. So Jackery, just so I understand, which was how you started out was just a battery basically - right? You would charge it overnight or before you went out to an event or something and then you would just have that power all of that equipment you mentioned.
Right. The Jackery has a battery that has an inverter and what the inverter does is it gives you outlets, so you can plug in things that need grid power, whether it's a laptop computer or a switch to connect your cameras to. The Jackery units usually have USB plugs so you can plug in an iPad or phone or MiFi hotspot to power those as well. Then, they have input plugs for panels which is totally optional. So those all-in-one units can usually be charged by grid power ahead of time. You can plug into your car or truck and charge it while you're driving to the site - although it is going to take a while to charge those large batteries up - or you can charge it off panels before, and you can plug in panels while you're using it to extend how long it can last.
And for people-- I'm thinking, most race directors - sort of, like, pure race directors here who are not very good experience with the timing side of things - may wonder why on-site power may be insufficient for the kinds of stuff you need to power? Is there a reason for that? Like, why you wouldn't just go around and just plug yourself in at the track venue that you were or around the start line somewhere?
Right. I've put on races and time in so many different locations that I don't really trust anyone to provide me with anything, whether it's grid power or internet. I'm always prepared to provide my own. So for years, I would always have a generator with me. If there's grid power, I will gladly use it because someone else is paying for it and it's quieter than a generator when I was using a generator. But now that I have the solar, I don't really have to rely on anyone else for anything. In the event management world, the biggest exception - and we can go more to this later, or maybe I'm jumping ahead - audiovisual tends to be the items that are going to draw a lot more electricity than you might be able to power with solar unless you have a huge setup. Things like heavy-duty sound, heavy-duty video displays, things like that are going to draw a lot of power.
And you still power those-- I mean, I would have imagined that those things like fixed big LED panels or speakers or PA systems would have to run off on-site power. You're saying you would still go out prepared to run those off the back of your own power supply?
You'd have to do the math on, "Do you have enough battery and solar power to panel those for as long as you need to?" A lot of it depends on how long is the event. If you're talking about a small 5K event with a short window of time, when you're not running things for very long, you might be able to do it off of solar. If you're talking about doing a 24-hour ultra marathon, which I timed several of those, you're going to go there-- if you're going to set up PA systems and LED boards and run them for 24 hours, it's going to be exceptionally difficult to have solar and batteries because if you're talking 24 hours, you're running overnight so you're going to have a period of time - even in the summer - when you're not generating any electricity off the sun and you just have to draw off your reserves in the batteries.
So the first step in your transition was to move away from the generator, which I'm guessing runs off of, like, gasoline or diesel or something like that. So you move away from that. And then, you buy yourself those Jackery's that you start scaling up, which are essentially-- I guess, I looked them up. They call them, sort of, solar generators. But as you say, the solar beat is sort of optional. It's basically electric generator. They're like a battery, as you say, with an inverter and some outlets where you can plug stuff in. Then, you decide to take the extra step and start installing first the lightweight panels and then, sort of, like, the fixed panels on the trailer. Most people, I guess, would be doing that on sustainability grounds - I guess that's one of the big selling points of solar power - and seeing where gas prices are these days cost as well, were any of those two factors a motivation for you in moving deeper into the solar energy?
The cost of gas going up as high as it has been a small piece of it. A part of it, too, is the hassle of having to get gasoline. When I have a solar setup, I do need to remember to charge my things, although I can pull out the panels on site and do some of that while I'm setting up for an event. But it is nice not to have to worry about, "Is the gas cans in the back of my truck filled up? If I need to get gas, if I'm going to--" Where I'm from, I can fill my own gas cans. If I cross the river in New Jersey, they have to fill up your gas cans and there are certain gas stations there where they won't fill up a generator or they won't fill up gas cans. So it gets complicated. Just being free of the gas is really nice. I don't know when it kicks in, but I believe that the state of California has actually banned portable generators - the sale of them. So people that have them already - no problem. I'm not sure when that goes into place. People, of course, can just cross into Arizona and buy them there. So it's a long way off from when gas-guzzling generators are going to be banned all over the place, but the process has begun and I like to be out ahead of things and trying some cutting-edge stuff. I have to say, when I first started this, when I'm just running off a Jackery by itself, people don't think anything of it. They don't really think about where you're getting your power from. They don't pay attention to what's plugged in where. If they see the panels out, then they're like, "Whoa, you're running this off solar. That's awesome." People say that all the time. When they see solar panels next to my canopy at an event, they're like, "That is awesome. You're running off solar panels. Hey, I don't hear a generator. No noise from that. That's awesome too." So it is fun to do awesome things outside of the dollars and cents piece of the equation.
So the people giving you the compliments and the wows and stuff-- are they, sort of, the participants or the people hiring you?
Both. That would be both - anybody that sees solar - because nobody's doing it. I mean, it has not been done at these types of events - somebody's pulling out solar power. So when they see that, they don't even realise that you can do that. A lot of people think, "Hey, I can put solar panels on my house and do it that way," but they don't really think about using solar power ports in a portable way.
Speaking of which, have you also done this on your house, seeing as you have the expertise and the--
I have not.
No, you haven't?
I have not. Now, I don't really want to get on my roof and try to mount panels on the roof of my house. If I did it for my house, which we probably will, that's a large undertaking. It's kind of all or nothing, so you're not really going to dabble in it and take small steps. The way I did it, I started very small and I took a lot of steps over time. If you're going to do your house, you're going to do an energy audit, you're going to look at what directions it's facing and how many you can put on there. You're going to really do the math on how long it takes to pay for itself, and then you're gonna make a decision to drop tens of thousands of dollars or not.
And did you have any experience in solar power systems or any of that stuff before you fitted your trailer?
None. I knew nothing about different types of panels. I didn't really very well understand the difference between AC and DC power, different gauge wires - all of that, I really did not know until I dove into this and started learning on the fly.
And how did you learn? Is there some kind of, like, online resources you looked up or a book or learn from someone else?
There are some good Facebook groups. There are some very good YouTube videos, and one of the YouTubers has a book out there called "Solar Power for Beginners" - his name is Will Prowse. I think he's out of Nevada or something like that, and he's really good. He's very down to earth in all his videos talking about how to do things, how to do it the right way, how to do it the safe way and not make mistakes, and also dumbing it down for true beginners because it's so new that the people that have learned a lot can teach a lot of people that know very little. A lot of people are intimidated by it, but I was willing to, like I said, start small, take some steps, and learn a lot along the way about what to do and what not to do.
Yeah, we should add some of those resources in the podcast notes for people if they're interested in following up with the book or maybe some of those groups. So it's very encouraging actually that someone like yourself-- I know you mentioned the other day that you had a history degree or something.
I have a Master's in History.
Masters. Okay, a Master's in History that can go on and deliver this on a DIY basis. I think that's quite impressive and it shows that, as you say, it's not actually that complicated if you want to, like, take the time and learn how to do this. So let's go a little bit into the details of what the systems look like. You mentioned the panels. Can you basically just walk us through how the system works end-to-end?
Sure. So if you talk about a permanent setup, basically, we're not talking about the Jackery which is all-in-one. So if you buy the components, you can buy a kit or you can buy everything truly piece by piece. I started with a kit. My kit came with three solar panels, which get mounted on the roof of your trailer. If you're talking about putting it on the roof, you have to be careful when you're poking holes in the roof and waterproof things because you do not want it penetrating and leaking into your trailer. So you put the panels on the roof. Then, you're running wires inside the trailer, and the wires are going to go into a charge controller, which basically takes that energy from the panels, and sends it on down the line in a way that's needed by-- usually, you're going to have batteries. It would be very unusual not to have batteries in the setup because, otherwise, as soon as you get some clouds, you don't have any energy and you're cut off. So my system came with one large battery and I added a couple more. The batteries are heavy - these are lithium-ion batteries. The charge controller can put energy into the batteries. When the sun's out, you're making energy and you're filling up those batteries. And then, the other piece of it that you're usually going to get is an inverter because laptop computers and all those things that have three plugs need to go into-- here in the US, it's going to be 110 to 120 Volts. And, across the pond, it's going to be 220 Volts. You need to change the energy so that you can actually use it because of the way that the panels are making it in the charge controller and the battery. The battery is a DC battery. So I was working with a 12-volt battery, and you need to change that up so you can actually use the energy.
And then at the end of it, what you do get is a bunch of plugs, I guess, or something that you can plug your devices in - right?
Right. It depends on what type of inverter you get. The one that I started with-- I actually had to wire that into a power strip. Then, that power strip has energy, which will work off of the solar energy if you're making it at the time and/or the battery. So if you don't have enough solar coming in, you'll pull off the battery and use that and deplete it. Then, as soon as you stop using it or if you're making enough energy off of the panels, you'll simultaneously power your devices and charge the batteries.
Just to sort of, like, pull everything together here, we started talking about the Jackery, and now we're talking about, sort of, like, a fixed installation power system with the panels, inverters, and all of that stuff. And I guess, in terms of numbers, in terms of sizes, we're measuring these things in kilowatts and kilowatt hours, and whatever. So you want to give us, like, a rough idea, both on the consumption side, what you would need and, basically, on the production side, what each of those systems capacities, sort of, come out as? So, like, how do you match the two?
Right. So my trailer, which now has essentially three different systems-- two of them come together, and then there's one that's completely by itself. So I have some redundancy there. I now have 14 panels on my roof and it's full - that's all I can squeeze up there. They're all permanently mounted. So I have 11 of the 100 Watt generating solar panels, and I have three that are 170 Watt. They're different manufacturers, so slightly different mounting mechanisms, but doesn't really matter. So I can generate, in theory, 1.6 kilowatts. I started out in watts. Once we get over 1000 watts, all of a sudden, I get to say I'm generating kilowatts, which is an exciting threshold to cross.
And just to sort of, like, match that to a surface area, do you have any idea, roughly, what kind of total surface area those panels take up?
That is a good question. The small ones, I think, are 40 inches by 20 inches and the larger ones are something like 50 by 25. I have a 16 by 8 trailer with a V-nose. So that size trailer can accommodate this many panels. I have an air conditioner up there, which kills some real estate. I can squeeze a few more panels in if I didn't have the air conditioner up there.
And you said that, in theory, you're generating around 1.6?
Yes. 1600 watts.
So that's the power, right? We should say watt is power and watt hours is energy.
Yeah, that's the theoretical power. Now you're never gonna get 100%. Part of it is the angle of the sun. The sun, from where I am, is never directly overhead. So you're not getting, like, an ideal. You look at people always put them on their houses at an angle and then you can do much better. I wasn't going to angle them on my trailer because it's parked in different locations and the mechanics of making adjustable angled panels for my trailer were way above what I felt comfortable tackling. So I could live with some degree of, like, I'm not getting 1.6. I might be getting, on a good day, 1.1 or 1.2, maybe.
Oh, that much lower than, sort of, like, optimal.
60% to 70%, yeah. And in the winter, it'll be worse. Obviously, the higher the sun, the better you do.
Okay, so you're getting a maximum capacity of 1.6 kilowatts, which typically will give you between 50% to 70%, depending on the weather, cloud cover, and all of that stuff. And then, in terms of your energy capacity, basically, the batteries and how much total energy they can store - what's that?
So I have four large 12-volt batteries, which are 200 Amp Hours. Don't need to get worried about amps and all that stuff in this discussion. I don't really watch it, but roughly, it's 10 kilowatts of storage. So I can store about 10,000 watts of energy in those batteries.
Okay. And now, in terms of how adequate that is for your needs, can you match that to, let's say, a typical event that people might be able to understand-- basically, you go out and you time a 5K or a 10K, how do the two, sort of, like, sides match up?
If I'm wearing just my basic timing hat, whether it's fully automatic timing with cameras, or chip timing, or both - I've got a couple of computers, I might have some cameras, I've got a monitor in the trailer, I have a switch, I've got a clock plugged in - all those, I can run all day. That's no problem at all. I mean, you'd have to look at each individual piece and what they're pulling. Your laptop might pull 100 Watts. Your monitor might pull 100 Watts. The switch is pulling less than that. So all these individual items might be 20-100 Watts. There's very little that's going to pull more. If I have an inflatable arch, for example, the blower on that is 240 watts. So, I can run that blower for 40 hours off of the batteries - that's if I'm not even pulling any solar. So I can go all day when I'm just timing. As I said before, the bigger pieces are if you start plugging in, say, 2,000-watt speakers. We have three 2,000-watt speakers that we use at events when we're managing. I don't know when or if we ever actually use 2,000 Watts, but if you have three of those plugged in, you're not going to make it too long. So if you need to do an all-day marathon and you're running three of those, then what I have is not going to be enough.
What would you do in that case? You would fire up the generator or--?
Yeah, fire up the generator. So we have a 9,500-watt beast of a generator that we lug around and we almost never use, but occasionally we do have to fire it up.
Okay. Now the other angle is cost. I'm sure people would love to get some idea of how much all of this costs. Can you give us sort of, like, a few ballpark numbers starting from the entry point Jackery setup all the way to something closer to what you have today?
Yeah, the Jackery systems, as far as just storage - if you don't get any panels - they're on sale now for a substantial discount with Amazon Prime Day or something like that-- but their normal pricing, I believe, is about $1 per watt. So if you get 1,000 Watt Jackery unit, it usually costs about $1,000. The 240 - the one I started with - is usually on sale for $200. The 1,500 Watt one that they sell is somewhere around $1,500 or $1,600. And then, if you buy panels to generate solar energy into that, the panels cost a couple hundreds of dollars per panel and the panels are, like, 100 Watt foldable panels that can stow away easily. They're softer. They're not the hard, basically, Plexiglas ones that get mounted on the roof in a permanent instal.
So have you gone through the calculation of, over a period of time, what that money might save you in terms of gas costs or anything like that? I'm thinking cost only. Is this kind of thing worth it to save money?
Right now, probably not. I have not crunched the numbers. I have chalked some of this up as a hobby, so that gives me some leeway to spend money that isn't in a purely economic standpoint. I also can't really put value on whether anybody cares that we're a green timing company and management company. I don't know if anybody's gonna hire us just because of that. But a bigger piece is just that it's been a really enjoyable hobby. So I'm willing to waive some of the pure dollars and cents decisions because of that piece of it.
Okay. Make sense. I mean, yeah, if it's your hobby, you're gonna split the budget into the hobby side of things as well. Now, these systems, basically, what I would have thought-- they are, I guess, in their evolution. The technology is a little bit like any other electronic equipment, which means that they must become obsolete fairly soon in the sense that you go out, you buy a panel today, and maybe a couple of years from now, there is a much better panel that's maybe half the price kind of thing. I'm thinking TVs-- these things come and go and they become cheaper over time. Is that the case with this kind of setup?
I believe that the panel cost comes down in large part because more people get into it. And so there are greater economies of scale. There's more competition. There are more companies making panels and components than there used to be. So the competition and the amount that's made is pushing the panels down, but it's not the same trajectory as computing power for laptops or monitors that get cheaper and bigger and better at such a rapid pace. I don't think they've changed that much. I follow some solar groups and Facebook, and people talk about getting their hands on 20-year-old panels, and they still work.
Okay, which is actually an interesting point for my next question, which would be the lifespan you'd get out of a system like this. If you go out and you buy these components brand new today, how long can you expect them to last for you?
The warranty on the panels - at least, some of them - is 25 years and the batteries are 10 or 11 years. So the panels should outlast the batteries. I don't know if there's a degradation in terms of efficiency, so I don't know if 100 panels are going to draw less over time. I suspect that there's not going to be a significant degradation. The batteries will degrade to some degree for sure over time. I don't think that they go from working 100% down to nothing when you hit the 10 or 11 year mark. There's going to be some degradation there, but I think that the expectation is normally you can get 25 years out of panels and 10 years out of a lithium-ion battery if you use it correctly.
Which is what, exactly?
So with panels, you really can't do anything wrong other than having, like, a hailstorm or tree branch falls and then breaks it. You just use them and they work. With batteries-- and this isn't just lithium batteries - it comes into play with lead acid batteries as well. Batteries don't like certain behaviours. They don't like to be run down to completely drained often. That shortens their lifespan. They also don't like to be charged when it's below freezing - something about the chemistry in the batteries and crystallisation going on in there - so you have to be careful to guard against going below the threshold. Lithium batteries are popular because you could run them a lot lower without damaging them. Lead acid batteries are cheaper, and they're heavier, but they'll also be damaged more easily if you run them below about 50%. So it might seem like, "Hey, I can buy a lot more lead. I don't care about the weight. I'm gonna buy the lead acid batteries because they're cheaper." You don't realise that you can't use as much percentage of what you get out of that in terms of storage capacity.
Well, you must get some freezing weather in Pennsylvania all the time. What do you do with charging batteries in that kind of weather?
So, with a portable system, you just bring them inside, plug them inside, or you just use them when the sun's out and it's above freezing, hopefully. With my trailer and the permanent installation, I had to take some preventative steps. My initial plan was to put a kill switch in there which would basically cut the power from the panels to the batteries when it gets cold. So I would go out there and just turn the switch, and now the panels are no longer sending energy to the batteries, and that will protect them. And then, I just have to switch it back on when it gets warmer. In all my poking around the internet and seeing what other people are doing and also seeing what you can buy out there-- you can buy self-heating batteries and they cost a lot more money. These are not small batteries you put in your laptops but these are, like, the large 50-pound lithium-ion batteries. You can buy self-heating ones which is going to add hundreds of dollars to the cost of each battery. What I saw that some people have done is you can buy a cheap heating pad that will run off of the battery. And if you can buy a cheap thermostat and wire that in, you can set it so, when the temperature gets down cold enough, that all of a sudden the battery will power this heating pad and you basically made your own self-heating batteries except you can have one-- for example, the thermostat costed me, like, $10. The heating pad was, like, $15 on Amazon and, then, a little bit of wires The cost of that which could heat two batteries is so much less than buying two batteries that each cost $200 or $300 more to have the self-heating element. I also insulated the cabinets that the batteries are in to try to trap some of that heat. So you couldn't use it in the Arctic Circle to setup I'm sure the batteries no matter what you do there, but where I am, it rarely gets way, way, way below freezing. I should have protection, but I won't really know until it gets down to those temperatures, and I go out there and check and make sure my batteries aren't freezing and getting damaged.
So the problem with the batteries is they only struggle when they charge in cold weather. But, when they discharge, there are no issues if you have, let's say, your Jackery in freezing weather?
Absolutely, right. You can use them much colder-- I don't know what the threshold is. There's a point at which I believe even they can be damaged if it's cold enough, I think. But a lot of the lithium-ion batteries are popular in, like, the ice fishing world and I don't do ice fishing. I've only come across it because in my research about what people buy and why. People talk about, "I've got this in my ice fishing cabinet, and the temperature is crazy cold, and the batteries are still crushing it."
And in order to get the kind of life out of those components that you mentioned earlier - which is, like, in the decades for some of them - is there any kind of special maintenance you need to do on the panels or on the batteries or anything apart from charging them and using them as per the manufacturer's instructions?
Right. So if you get good equipment, my understanding is that the solar charge controller - which takes the energy from the panels and sends it over to the batteries - what that actually does is it changes the voltage and it's actually, like, storing the battery, so to speak. It's not just getting it full and leaving it alone. It actually allows the battery to deplete and then recharges it. So it goes through four different cycles of what it's doing with the battery, and the purpose of that is to basically manage the battery. So you don't need to do anything. That's all taken care of by the charge controller. And the good batteries have battery management systems - BMS - on them, which helped make sure that they don't get too much and they shut off if they get too little and things like that. So it's all automated.
Okay, that's great. For someone who might be interested in either selling some of their older components or someone who might be interested in, sort of, like, dipping their toes into this a little bit more slowly and buying secondhand components, is there a market for that kind of stuff where you might be able to buy them secondhand?
I think very little. I think so many people want to get into the solar world that the people that would be willing to buy anything used will snatch it up as soon as it appears. I mean, there's a market. People will buy it, but there's not a lot floating around. And the solar world is not a mature marketplace. There haven't been people selling it for a long time. There are not many people that have had 20-year-old panels that they've had enough with. And if there are, people are usually still using them because "Why are you going to get rid of it? At this point, it's free energy."
Exactly. Yeah. So are you happy overall with your system - the build-out, how it performs looking ahead - using it so far?
Yeah, I'm thrilled. I mean, it's got some cool displays when you can see, like, how much energy are you making now and how much are you using. And when you see that you're powering all your devices and you're still bringing in energy, like, that's a great feeling. I do a portable setup sometimes. I just take all my portable stuff, bring it in my trailer, and I plug it all in. So I charge it up off of the mothership, which is my trailer, which has all the permanent panels and the big batteries and all that.
And do you have any plans for going bigger than this or, sort of, have you reached the end of the road in terms of your own needs for power?
I wouldn't say I've reached the end of it. There are a couple of projects that I would like to do. Some of my staff members who are scattered around with equipment still have and use generators, and I don't really like that. So I would like to pledge to be 100% solar for all of our timing operations. So if we're not using PA systems and the LED board that we have, if we're just using regular timing equipment which doesn't draw like crazy, I would like to have that be 100% solar powered in the next year or two. And that would entail me either getting them Jackery's, or the next step would be for me to actually build, like, a knockoff Jackery - like my own power station - that I could plug in and charge and everything.
Well, that's gonna be interesting. Have you thought, perhaps, of - besides the cost calculation - doing a kind of carbon footprint equivalent calculation for how much CO2 You're not releasing into the atmosphere by going solar with this?
I have not. I probably should. I wouldn't know how to do that, but perhaps I could figure out how to do it, or I need to bring in somebody that can help me figure out how to do that because it would be nice to do.
Yeah, it would be quite interesting.
I remember going back to the college that I went to - I'm out almost 25 years now, but I went back at some point, I think, probably just to time a cross-country meet there or something. I went into one of the student union buildings and they're very green now - they weren't back when I was there because nobody was using solar back then, but since they've gotten heavily into the solar world-- and they're truly carbon neutral and they actually have a display in the student union that shows how much extra energy they're making from their solar farm there that they're putting back on the grid. So they're drawing nothing. And then, they show how much they're putting back out there for other people to use is green energy, and that resonated with me when I saw that some years ago. I thought that's pretty cool to do that on that scale.
I mean, it would also be interesting because-- we did a couple of episodes and I'm continuing to learn about sustainability, how it works, and how events get certified for being green and all of that, and my understanding is that if a race were to calculate its carbon footprint, the ancillary footprint of a timer or of another vendor they hire is not part of that calculation because, otherwise, it gets crazy, right? I mean, you try to calculate just the footprint of the immediate stuff that you do as a race. But, I think it would be great for people to start factoring in the fact that they can have a more sustainable timing service, a more sustainable shirt provider, and a more sustainable across all the different vendors they work with, and that's a great step forward.
Yeah. Maybe you'll have people knocking on your door trying to learn the secrets of doing all this.
Well, it's funny because I went to help with an event about a month ago - there was a race that they were the chip timer. Because it was a US championship, they were required to have FET backup for close finishes and record keeping. They didn't have an FET system, so I went out there and I provided just FET backup, but I brought my trailer with me. Last year when I timed this for them, I just brought my truck and did not have the trailer. So when I got out there and I had the trailer, the timer there saw my setup, came in, and said, like, "Whoa, this is awesome. Can you outfit my van?" My timing man was like, "Can I hire you to do this?" And I just kind of laughed and said, "Yeah, I'll give you some tips on how to do it." But whether that pans out or not, I doubt it. I think people see that and they're like, "Wow, that's awesome. I like the idea of--." How many people will take the plunge? Hard to say, but when people see it - whether they're other timers or people at events that we're timing for - they see it and they said, "That's awesome. I really like that."
So are you up for people reaching out seeking advice with this stuff, sort of, like, on a peer-to-peer basis?
Yeah, pay it forward. I mean, I'm happy to do it.
That's awesome. How can people reach you?
They can shoot me messages through Facebook. They can email me if they want. I don't know if we can put that on the notes on there. Obviously, I can't spend all day every day talking solar. I love geeking out about it. There's more I want to learn. I have not found, like, a mentor myself yet, but there are certainly more layers to what I can learn. And if I can help other people get started on the journey, I'm happy to do it.
Awesome. So looking back, is there anything that stuck out to you as, like, a particularly valuable lesson you learn through this? I mean, like, just the struggle on the technical side of things-- is there anything that people should know about when they get into this?
Start small and build. If you're going to have a vision of the whole thing, like, if I had said from the very beginning, "I'm going to cover every inch of my roof with solar panels and I'm gonna have this massive battery bank, suddenly, to rival a Tesla Powerwall," if I had done that, I probably would have been in trouble because I learned things as I went along. For example, the first system I bought was a 12-volt system. And when I put in my second system, I put in a 24-volt system. There are various reasons for that and I won't go into it today, but that was one of the lessons that I learned. So my trailer now has one 12-volt system in one 24-volt system. And obviously, I can use both of those simultaneously, separately, for the same type of usage. So there are little things like that.
And am I correct in thinking that, all of these components, sort of, you can scale up in a modular kind of way that, some things that used to be on their own, you get two of those or three of those and, like, they almost scale linearly at some point?
Yeah. I mean, that's what I did. I started with three panels on the roof and I hooked that up to one battery and one charge controller. I looked at what I could power, and I was like, "Wow, if I had more, I could power these things too or I could go from powering everything for six hours up to 12 or 24. And so I got another system and I added more panels and more batteries. One thing you have to be careful of is that you're not supposed to use batteries that are from different manufacturers, which I've done, I've broken that rule, but you're also not supposed to use batteries of different ages. So if you buy a battery and then you wait five years and buy another one, and you wire those together, you can have some issues with the system not operating properly.
Okay. Okay. Lots of tricks of the trade there, I guess.
And there are lots of tips I haven't learned yet because I've only been in this, this year. And once I get more years into it and I see what breaks or wears down or doesn't operate the way that I expect it to over time, I'm sure I'll learn a lot more.
Well, keep us posted in the group where people will follow this, I'm sure, with how the setup is going because, as you say, you haven't really had it for a long while. So you probably haven't seen everything there is to see in terms of what life can throw at you, and we all know that races and timers and stuff get thrown quite a few curveballs. So who knows what happens down the line?
Until then I want to thank you very, very much for all this advice. I hope it was helpful to people listening in. So thank you very much for your time.
Thanks for having me, Panos.
Thank you very much to everyone listening in. And we'll see you all on our next podcast!
I hope you enjoyed this bonus episode on going solar with my guest 2L Race Services’, Lowell Ladd.
You can find more resources on anything and everything related to race directing on our website RaceDirectorsHQ.com. You can also share your thoughts about solar-powered setups or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.
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Until our next episode, take care and keep putting on amazing races.