Learning to Use Solar in Winter

I mentioned a few weeks ago that we’re wintering our cattle in a field with the poorest soil on the farm. The cattle have been doing well, and I’m pleased to see how we’ve been able to get all that rich manure deposited on this land. It promises great things for future soil and plant growth. But, one aspect of this project has been stretching me: getting our solar-powered water pump to work.

I’ve been running solar powered water pumps for about five years now. But this is the first time I’ve had to use the pumps through the winter. Most years we are sending water downhill from the pond, so we can siphon water and allow gravity to do all the work. This winter, however, the cattle are in a field a few feet higher in elevation than their water source. This means we need to push the water uphill.

Dealing with short days, low-angle sunlight, significant cloud cover, and occasional snow-covered panels, we keep discovering new failure points in our solar array and battery storage. We discharged our batteries too many times, so last week I had to replace all the storage batteries. Then this week I realized that the solar panels are failing due to tiny cracks developing in the silicon, so it looks like those need to be replaced. Apparently, during the growing season there is enough sunlight that, even with weak batteries and under-performing panels, we were able to keep pumping with a crippled system. But the winter months are less merciful.

Winter is the great test of all aspects of the farm. Winter probes for weaknesses, insinuating its cold fingers into each gap, looking for purchase. Water lines freeze. Fuel gels. Ice locks fittings. Snow buries fences. And the cold and wind make every job harder.

Sweeping snow off the panels.

Beyond the immediate annoyances, I don’t mind dealing with the acute difficulties of the cold. I’ll admit that I enjoy the winter struggles. Each season brings its own challenges, and there are satisfactions to be found in learning to work through them. But among the four seasons, winter is hardest here, and it brings us closest to a recognition of our smallness. I like the idea of living in a world where the seasons bring me up short and remind me that I’m not running the show.

6 thoughts on “Learning to Use Solar in Winter”

  1. Hi Dave! Happy New Year!
    Do you think a wood windmill would be able to power the water pumps?
    I’m seeing images of “William & the windmill” in my head. ;-D

    1. Hi Laura,
      Our town has some laws making electrical windmills difficult to permit, so I haven’t considered wind generation. Water pumping windmills are allowed, but they have some unique challenges. Windmills are ideally suited for pumping up to elevated storage tanks, so in those cases there is no need for the pump itself to pressurize lines. And the storage provides some buffer for times when the wind isn’t blowing. That arrangement has a bunch of drawbacks for what we’re trying to do. It would be really interesting to build an on-farm water tower, but that quickly gets into some complexity, especially when trying to ensure that none of the aboveground water tower piping freezes when the thermometer is at -20 degrees and the wind is gusting at 50 mph.

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