Solar Panel Frames August 2014
  The first weekend of August and the builders weren't able to come out. They still hadn't started on their KwaZulu Natal job yet but there was something about having to chase up their money on their Arcadia job. I didn't ask further and so we had the farm to ourselves for the weekend.

My objectives for the weekend were to run more borehole yield tests and get those solar panels secured up onto the pumphouse roof. The yield tests would require getting up onto the pumphouse roof every half hour and measuring the water level in the water tank so I could, with the few regular interruptions, hopefully get the frames completed.

  I planned to build the solar panel frames in the garage where there was a nice open flat floor to work on so first job was to get the generator and welder down from the pumphouse. I had decided to mount the panels side by side, keeping in mind that there would need to be about 700mm open space between the two panels so as not to cover the skylight. I cut the angle iron to size and welded the big frame together.

But it was just too big! The angle iron I bought was only 2mm thick as I didn't want to over-engineer the project - the solar panels really weren't that heavy and just needed to be secured to the roof to prevent the wind blowing them away. Of course, the other function of the frames was to allow us to angle the panels for optimal efficiency through our season changes.

So, that big frame turned out just too flimsy. Four quick 45 degree cuts later, another two pieces of angle iron cut to size and a bit more welding and I had one frame for each panel.

One frame for both panels - just not going to work

One frame per panel - much better

  Pumphouse Water
  The weather had warmed up considerably for the weekend - almost as if spring was just around the corner. But without getting too despondent, we just know there has to be at least one or two more cold fronts coming through for us this month.

On Sunday morning we were up early (normal now on the farm). It was great that we now had water in the pumphouse and although the basin area was still looking more like a workbench, we were able to wash (cold water only at the moment) and brush our teeth up there instead of outside at the water trailer.

After breakfast I got up onto the pumphouse roof and rested the top of the solar panels up on top of the wall at an angle. This allowed me to get power to the pump an hour earlier than when they were laying flat on the roof the day before. For interest I attempted to start the pump at 14h00 on Saturday and there was not enough power on the panels to run the pump. So four hours of solar power a day up at the pumphouse is all we'll get without rotating the panels to true north.

I checked voltages from the panels (68 volts open circuit, 57 volts with pump running - on a 36 volt panel system? Still got to figure all that out!) and let the first tank fill almost to the top. Then I opened the ball valve to the second tank and watched the water surge into tank number two through the balancing pipe. Water pressure through the 50mm pipe was amazing and within a few minutes both tanks had balanced to both half full. I then switched the ball valve off again so I could measure the borehole yield in tank number one through the morning.

Tank number one almost full
Balancing valve open. Tank number two filling fast

  I checked the tank level every half hour on Saturday and Sunday from 09h30 to 12h00.

The yield figures were quite consistent, but not consistent with my previous weekend testing. I'm not sure if the borehole yield characteristics are changing now that we're drawing water or if the panel angle or sun strength made the difference. Too many variables but I'm confident that when I automate the system I can set my timer to pump two hours a day and get an efficient yield.

Up on the roof again, head in tank checking water levels
Saturday Results
Tank Level
Borehole Level
0 l/hr
330 l/hr
330 l/hr
330 l/hr
330 l/hr
165 l/hr
165 l/hr
Sunday Results
Tank Level
Borehole Level
0 l/hr
330 l/hr
330 l/hr
330 l/hr
330 l/hr
165 l/hr
  I switched the controller off earlier on Sunday as I had already pumped for about half an hour from about 08h30 to fill that tank number one.

So after our four days of test pumping about three to four hours each day (anything over two hours giving less than optimum yield) we had filled one and a half 2500 liter tanks. Insignificant volumes when you're talking to the experts at the Pump Shop, but not bad considering we're only using solar energy to do it.

  Transferring Water to the Water Trailer
  During the day Martie took the water trailer around the farm to water the plants. There wasn't much in the tank after the builders used it for mixing mortar the previous weekend so it was an ideal opportunity to test our refilling system.

Wow! The water pressure from the tanks on the roof through that 40mm flexi pipe was fantastic. Che's big borehole pump takes over half an hour to fill the tank to 800 liters. We dumped over 200 liters into the tank in around 2 to 3 minutes!

  Solar Panel Frame Progress
  We decided to stay over on Sunday night as well to finish off the solar panel frames.

By Sunday night all the heavy metal work (welding and grinding) was done and it was down to fitting it all together to make sure it works, and then painting.

On the right, the top frame to which the solar panel will be attached and the bottom frame which will attach to the roof. The front is hinged with a bolt and lock nut. The metal holding the back of the top frame up is temporary. I will make two support brackets with adjustment holes at home as drilling holes in steel is much
  easier on a drill press.

Then it was down to painting. We used Hammerite Dark Brown as a test. We planned to paint all our door frames that colour to match the bronze anodised aluminium window frames. We painted the tops of all the frames on Sunday night.

Monday morning we were up at first light and painted the bottoms of the frames. As soon as the sun was up we ran the borehole pump for two hours while we had breakfast and walked on the farm. Then we headed back home for work.

  Mounting Solar Panels
  The second weekend of August and still no builders. Leno needed to finish the roof on his garage at his house in the township on Saturday and said he was coming down with the flu on Sunday.

Saturday I spent finishing off the solar panel frames. There was no pumping of water because it was
Frames completed - far one on highest setting, near one set lower

Solar panel fitting perfectly on frame
totally overcast (and even a few drops of rain) and not enough power from the panels to get the pump running. We have to accept that there will be days that we have no solar energy. We disconnected and took down one of the solar panels and checked the fitting to the frame in the garage. It was perfect.

Martie cleaning solar panel

  The solar panel was very dirty from a week of wind and dust and then the light rain. Maybe if it rains properly it will wash them off nicely but I think we will have to keep an eye on that in future as I'm sure the efficiency of the panel is affected when it is dirty. Martie gave the one we took down a wipe with a damp cloth which seemed to do the job.

Below, the design sketch. The roof angle is 7 degress, so the frame needed to be 19 degrees to give the optimum mid-winter angle of 26 degrees to the sun. The back bracket allows angle adjustments for the varying angles of the sun through the year. The top setting would be for June and July, then every 150mm or so down we could set for the months listed in the sketch. The the bottom setting will be for November through to February as the lowest angle we can set is the roof pitch of 7 degrees. I'm not too confident that this will work 100% because the panels are facing north-east but the flexibility for adjustment is at least there.


  Fitting Frames and Panels onto the Roof
  Sunday's job was to get the solar panel frames fixed onto the roof, attach the solar panels to the frames and wire the system up again so we could pump water.
  Not wanting to schlepp the generator up to the pumphouse I got onto the roof with my little number 11 spanner and removed eight roof bolts so that they could be reinserted through the frames to hold the frames securely to the roof. Stupid. This half hour job with power tools took me the best part of the morning! Anyway, I layed the frames down into position and of course the mounting holes in the frame didn't line up too well with the old roof bolt holes. So I set the top holes correctly so that I could use the same roof holes, resealed the old bottom holes in the roof sheeting and made
Working up there hard on the back and knees
  new bottom holes for the bolts to secure the frame through the roof sheeting into the perlins.

I used two tap washers as spacers between the roof surface and the bottom of the frame to keep the frame off the roof to clear the roof bolts running down the same line in the middle of the frame.

Then I made a neat 16mm hole through the IBR sheeting (on one of the peaks to prevent any water leak problems) and ran some electrical conduit down into the pumphouse bathroom. I had fortunately planned for this while we were building the pumpouse and the conduit will run behind the rocks on the bigger bathroom rock feature wall and then through the wall to the control room.

I then reconnected all the wiring on the roof and pushed the main supply wire down the conduit and reconnected it to the controller. The system checked ok but there was a lot of cloud about and the pump would switch off whenever the sun went behind a cloud. We ran the pump while we had lunch and then I switched the controller off. The water tanks were almost full anyway.

Panels secured and wired
Pumphouse now with solar panels mounted

  Oh, and all that extra effort making the back supports adjustable for the angles of direct sun for each season - fancy little wing nuts and all - all for nought! If I want that feature on the frames I will have to redesign my simple rear support system to a more sophisticated one. You will notice in the top picture that (being August) I initially set the panels one level down from the top. Just before lunch when the panels were mounted and the sun had moved across to the west, I stood back and noticed that the little protruding ends of the rear support bars cast a lovely little shadow over the solar panel surface!

From my tests the previous week I know that if any of the cells on any of the panels are blocked off from sunlight (the panels are connected in series to get the required higher voltage and wattage), the panels just stop producing power. I discovered this when I put my hand on one of the panels to feel the surface temperature and I heard the water immediately stop running into the tank.

So for now the rear supports will remain set to their top positions and the panels will remain at 26 degrees. Come to think of it, probably better at the higher angle if we're going to pump water early to mid morning. I'll look at the situation again as the sun moves more overhead around November.

  Afternoon Walk to the Dam
  After lunch we decided to take a break from work and take the dogs for a walk to the dam.

  We visited Johan and Marcelle's lookout area that they were building to watch animals and birds visiting the dam in the summer.

They had cleared an area between a group of black wattle trees on the east side of the dam and set up a small table. This project had obviously provided them with some good firewood and they were laying the smaller branches around the "hide" for cover and also to keep those pesky cows out.

An interesting feature of the slope down into the dam is the slate type rock which breaks
  away in layers very easily. Black wattle trees don't have a very deep root systems and there they have difficulty penetrating through the slate. So with a few years of soil erosion and softening of the soil when it rains and then a bit of wind, the trees just fall over.

There are two big trees there that have fallen over - but there are still roots in the ground and the trees just sprout new branches upwards.

  We had some refreshments, gave the dogs some water and spent a while looking at the little things of nature around the slope of the hill. A flock of beautifully coloured little white fronted bee eaters were flittering and calling in the trees along the cliff slope.

One of the many white fronted bee eaters in the trees nearby
Could this be the start of spring?

Charlie on the dam wall road
And through a gap in the Houtpoort trees, our little pumphouse

Then it was time to head back to work. When we got back we loaded the generator onto the bakkie and took it up to the pumphouse and I made a start on that job I had been putting off for a while - sanding and painting the pumphouse roof beams. I sanded the two beams in the control room and painted until it was too dark to see any more.

The dam from the lookout hide - just waiting for some good rains to fill it up

  Pumphouse Progress
  We intended to stay over Friday night on the third weekend of August but the bakkie let us down again with it's front wheel bearing problem. The weather on Saturday morning was totally overcast and we left for the farm early in the car, first stop to drop off some money with Leno for diesel so that the builders could get out there for work. But on the way to the township it started raining and we decided to call off the builders for the weekend. There was lots of indoor stuff on the farm that we could do without them.

First job was to finish painting the roof beams of the control room with wood sealer. Then I ran some old sandpaper over the walls to remove any plaster bumps, mixed up some Polyfilla and we filled in any gaps around the windows, on the window sills and on the walls in preparation for painting.

I also sealed the first aluminium window outside surround with silicone sealer (used up a whole tube on one small window) and removed all the white protective tape from the frame. We're so used to seeing all our window frames white - it may take a bit of getting used to seeing them their final bronze colour.

  And we also hung the inside bamboo window coverings in the bathroom. Looks very cool and will protect the woodwork from the sun coming in from the windows.

We were also able to test the borehole pump performance in overcast conditions. It was on and off - when the sky darkened, the pump stopped but when it was bright we could pump water, although at a slightly reduced rate. We were able to fill the storage tanks to capacity and then ran the pump outlet directly into the trailer tank for about an hour.


  Pumphouse Control Room Painting
  Sunday morning after sanding down the Polyfilla and clearing out all the dust, we were ready to paint the control room.

Paint technology has come such a long way since I last painted anything. All the textures and colours to choose from, whew. So we were using the control room for a bit of experimentation.

Martie started on the little plaster ceiling below the water tank ledge and I started on the walls. We used a Dulux "brilliant white" matt acrylic pva for the ceiling and I was trying out a Cedar Paint Nature's Coat, light textured "dark wood" colour on the walls.

We decided to paint all north and south walls with a darker colour and all east west walls with a lighter colour. All painting was with brushes.

We first used the roller and painted all the plaster surfaces with a plaster primer. Weird stuff that's water thin with a slight white colour that dries clear within minutes. It seals the plaster off nicely so that all our expensive paint doesn't soak away into the plaster and also provides a good bonding surface for the paint.

The ceiling paint brushed on

nicely but the textured paint was another story. It was thick and had like a sandy stuff in it! It was more like smearing than painting and the "dark wood" colour went on bright mustard! Very interesting to watch it darken to a sand colour as it dried. And only one coat required (I just hate second coats - it's like doing the whole job twice).

We had some paint mixed to Plascon's "Ocean Salt" colour at Hyperpaint in Booysens for the lighter walls but when dried it was nothing like the sample we supplied them. We'll have to change that colour for the second coat there.

  Early Spring
  Looking at the calendar, spring shouldn't be here yet. But the weather had warmed up beautifully - we were working in t-shirts all weekend. And that winter dryness in the air was all gone.

Our two little tortoises had come out of hibernation a month early. We had to do some frantic research on what to do with them now. Just got to water and feed them and keep them awake until summer gets here proper. I hope we don't get any more cold spells.

Saturday was overcast all day and Sunday we had summertime thundershower clouds forming in the south in the afternoon. We even had a total of 7mm of rain over the weekend.

  Below, across the Rensburg tarred road through our front fence: the field that was burnt only last month now getting a distinctive green colour. With the bit of rain dampening away the black burned grass, the green should really get going now.

  House Retainer Wall - Nearly Nearly There . . .
  The builders were back with us for the fourth weekend of August. That house retainer wall needed to be finished off.

They spent Saturday first finishing off the last few courses on the bottom section outside the workshops and then got to lay a few courses up on the top corner at the kitchen and lounge areas and went home early.

  . . . and House Retainer Wall Complete
  Sunday morning Leno made an early start and we finished off the retainer wall. I had to work with him a lot on the lounge veranda section where we planned some steps to get out of the structure and a veranda braai area which will all tie into the wall. Those features are not too clear on the photographs below - they will probably only take shape as we tie the beams from the veranda support columns to the house upstairs floor slab.
Retainer wall from the top corner . . .
. . . and from the bottom

Veranda area from inside . . .
. . . and from the outside

  Cleaning Up and Levelling Off
  As we had a five man team for Sunday, two helpers were relegated to filling in the foundation trenches on both sides of the retaining wall and generally cleaning up around the wall area.

They also distributed any extra sand and levelled out the space between the wall and the garage block. Our intentions are to plant some grass there this summer and lay two rows of cement block pavers down along the garage wall.

  Pumphouse Rock Walls
  I'm sure you've had those days when all your rocks just fall perfectly into place. Sunday was one of those days for me. While the builders were laying bricks and there was mixed mortar at hand, I took the opportunity to steal a few buckets of it to take up to the pumphouse and made good progress on the rock walls. The wall above the fireplace is now almost finished and I made a good start on the other feature wall near the entrance door.
Fireplace rock wall 
nearly finished
New rock feature wall started

  I always check out road kill on our little Rensburg road. The road is a shortcut from the old Durban road into town and those that know of it (mainly drivers of minibus taxis and delivery vans) don't have much respect for speed limits - or anything else by the way litter is strewn from their vehicles! These drivers are also obviously not very "nature aware" and any wildlife happening to be on the road unfortunately just doesn't stand a chance!
  We went out to the farm on Monday afternoon to supervise the loading of scaffolding for Leno's trip to KwaZulu Natal (yes, he's finally going to finish off that building job down there - so no building on our farm for another three weeks) and we came across this little mongoose dead in the road. He had a milk bottle top ring tight around his body! Only thing I can think of is that he was going through refuse when he was a baby and somehow climbed through the ring and got it stuck just behind his front
  legs. As he grew, it just got tighter and tighter until there was no way he would ever get it off. He obviously adapted to his handicap into adulthood and I'm not sure it led in any way to his demise (some inconsiderate speedster was responsible for that!). But it's just another example of what we're doing to our environment with all our modern plastic rubbish!

On a more positive note, our ant lion colonies are doing great. Wherever there is some loose sand,
they dig their circular pit traps to catch ants and any other small insects unlucky enough to fall into them. Some of the pits are now 3 to 4cm in diameter and the scary looking creatures lurking in there must be quite large. Soon some will pupate and emerge as lacewings fluttering around our back yard looking for mates, some during the day and some at night, depending on the species.

  Pumphouse Electrics
  We stayed over on Monday night so it gave me a chance to get on with the electrical installation in the pumphouse. I pulled all the wires through the conduit (I'm using really old fashioned single live, neutral and earth wires for the lighting and control room plug points) and installed the circuit breakers and solar pump timer in the little distribution board.
DB board and plug point
DB board detail
Light switch

  As we have more solar power than we can use up at the pumphouse, we're going to have a 220v system in place so we may as well use slightly cheaper 220v lighting. Just have to be carefull to keep the low voltage DC and high voltage AC stuff separate. I'll install a separate little wall mounted control box to handle all the low voltage stuff.

  Pumphouse Workbench and More Electrics
  We made a late start on Saturday morning of our last weekend of August and first job was to make up the wood frame for the pumphouse workbench. I sanded down and nailed together some of our left-over perlins from the garage block roofing and we drilled four rawl bolts into the walls. Then we lined everything up and used some 8mm threaded rod with big washers and nuts to fix the frame to the walls in the control room (see picture below under "Pumphouse Floor Tiling").

I also decided that all the electrics and electronics would need to be in one place in the control room
  and that the best place would be near the DB board. So I rerouted the power and depth sensor alarm wires over onto the roof, made another hole in the IBR sheeting and pushed another conduit tube down the rock feature wall and through the wall to the control room.

Then we pulled all the remaining wires through the trunking for the control room and bathroom lighting. These little finishing just chew away the time - nothing much visible compared to spending a few hours laying bricks!

You have to look hard, but there are more wires connected in there.
Marks on the wall are for the pump controller and new control box

   Another conduit to run between
   the rock wall and the brickwork

  Final Levelling
  Sunday morning while I worked on the pumphouse electrical, Martie dampened down and got going on the final levelling of our "lawn area". Quite a bit of builders rubble also had to be taken out of the sand that they used to fill there.

We filled the tank on the water trailer to 800 liters and I ran the borehole pump for an hour and a half to almost fill the main tanks again. My rough calculations make that a yield of nearly 600 liters an hour from that borehole with the controller low voltage light on!

  Control Box

Henry and Ria from RDA Aluminium (they made all our aluminium windows for the garage block) kindly put together a little control box frame from me. Thanks guys.

Now I really don't know if I did myself any favours by getting them to make this very smart looking little box frame for me. The extrusion they used was from a window frame and was a little on the wide side. But I could live with that - everything I needed to get into there would still fit comfortably. It's just that every hole I had to make through the sides to get my wires through needed to be made twice - once through the outer and once through the inner panels. And I only had a little drilling machine and hand files to work with!

Lots of drilling, filing and fitting before I had enough holes for all the wires in that box. Now just need to make a front panel from plywood and mount the switches, fuse boxes and the meters onto it.

  Pumphouse Floor Tiling
  The rest of Sunday afternoon and evening we spent tiling the floor in the pumphouse. The idea was to get the control room done so that I could make the support legs for the workbench the correct height as I needed to build a
  shelf below the workbench for the battery and inverter.

But the tiling pattern needed to flow from the bathroom entrance passage. So we started with the first row along the bathroom feature rock wall and then carried on to finish off the first two rows of the entrance. Then we did the control room doorway and then the first three rows under the workbench in the control room.

And although that wall colour in the control room is growing on us, it is now clear it will need to be changed as it just doesn't go well with our terracotta tiles.

    Pumphouse bathroom entrance
Control room and workbench frame