Homemade energy from the heat and the sun

David Minns (left) shows his hot water collector to Dr. Robert Vogl. Photo by Dr. Sonia Vogl

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

In early November, Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) Board member Bob Croteau taught a class in building your own solar hot air collector at the home of IREA members Steve and Caron Wenzel. Nearly a dozen people participated in the daylong event. Judging by the photos of class members engrossed in their tasks, the event was successful.

“The class went great. What a fine group of people, and not afraid to dig in and do something,” said Croteau, who plans to teach another similar class this winter. Anyone who wishes to host a workshop should contact the IREA at sonia@essex1.com.

After this successful event, we gladly accepted the invitation of David Minns, IREA member, to see his homemade hot water collector and answer some of his questions about renewable energy.

“Eventually, I want to be entirely energy independent,” he said. He is closer to his goal than many. His electrical bill is amazingly small. With his house on a breezy hill, he has only a room air conditioner in his bedroom. Last year, he grew wheat to use the stalks as a fuel.

“If I ever retire,” stated Minns, “I’d like to do this fulltime. He is close now. Not only did he build a hot water collector for domestic water use, he also built a 1,000-gallon tank to hold water heated by an 80-percent-efficient Tarms Danish boiler to heat his home.

Minns’ solar hot water collector is on the south side of his house. Although he was apologetic about its construction (“I’d do it better next time,” he said), we were impressed. It looked professionally done. The 4-foot-by-8-foot box with black-painted copper pipes and plates covered by Plexiglas provides for all of his domestic hot water needs.

Pipes, switches and backup devices are evident throughout his basement workshop. Minns can quote battery sizes, life and many other features of his systems. Cutoff temperatures for blowers and pipes are set with precision and attention to his heating needs. When he is away from home, the blower for the wood furnace is set at 55 degrees and the gas furnace at 50 degrees to prevent water pipes from freezing.

Last year, he purchased a pellet stove that came with pellets. Since they were not dry enough to provide sufficient heat, he fashioned frames in which he now dries them in shallow layers. He plans to heat his home with them this winter.

His Jetta burns vegetable oil, which has been filtered at least four times. A purchased kit helped him reach this goal. The engine runs on standard diesel fuel until it is warm enough for the vegetable oil to flow and burn.

A former electrician, he did much of the work on his house. After it was framed in, he did all of the finish work and electrical wiring.

He is interested in several roof-mounted wind generators and possibly PV panels, and, as many others who are considering moving into renewable energy, continues to seek information to help him make the best choice.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Dec. 1-7, 2010 issue

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