Well I’m on my way to Africa. Right now I´m in Lisbon, Portugal where I have a 7 hour layover before my flight to Bissau. I thought I´d tell you about my hopes for the second half of this trip and also tell the story of my effort to get into the solar electric product manufacturing business.
This story really began during my time as manager and lead installer for Rainshadow Solar. In addition to being the solar electric installation contractor for San Juan County, Rainshadow is a wholesale distributor of DC rated circuit breakers to the solar electric industry. That is a part of the business that the owner, John Mottl, started in the mid-90´s when Trace Engineering in Arlington, WA was making the first high power inverters for off-grid home power systems and there was a need for specialty DC breakers in the newly emerging solar electric industry. John went to the manufacturer and set up Rainshadow as the wholesale distributor of Heinemann (later Airpax, now Sensata) circuit breakers to the solar industry.
While I was at Rainshadow I spent a lot of time with these breakers. We would recieve purchase orders and ship breakers all over the country. The problem is, however, there are limited options for breaker boxes or enclosures in which to install these breakers. Trace (now Xantrex) had the DC 250 disconnect box, then Outback came along and started selling their PSDC and PS2DC boxes, which were a marked improvement over the old Trace box. Then a few years ago Robin Gudgell, the guy who had designed all of the above mentioned enclosures, started Midnite Solar and is now selling a variety of circuit breaker enclosures for different battery based electric system needs.
In about 2003 I started to use the breakers off the shelf at Rainshadow to build custom small integrated power centers for my low power off-grid customers. It was a fun design challenge as much as anything and I would drill, cut and nibble holes in steel or plastic boxes to mount PV array combiner breakers, array disconnects, controller, load and small inverter breakers. A few of those boxes got inspected by state inspectors, they never liked the fact that my boxes were not UL listed but they also never made me replace them once they understood the situation and that the individual breakers and boxes were all UL listed. It is up to the individual inspector how they want to interpret the National Electric Code, and UL listing is optional.
So in the fall of 2007 ,when I realized that I was going to need to start my own company I decided to pursue my ideas for pre-wired powercenters. In addition to the DC breakers I see the need for a product that includes fully pre-wired electronics such as PV charge controllers and inverters in a low-power ‘plug and play’ power center.
I started building prototypes:
This is the first pre-wired AC/DC powercenter that I built. I called it the ‘Desert Island’ box because it would be a good thing to use if you were to be stranded on deserted island and happened to have a CD player and a few disks to listen to. It also has no means of AC charger input, because on a desert island you would not have gas for the generator. This one is in service at an off-grid home on Shaw Island.
Here is a bent aluminum panel with a panel mount BZ Products MPPT 250 charge controller and a Magnum MM600 inverter/charger. I called this one the ‘Outer Island’ powercenter, because its still off-grid, but you’ll need gas for the generator. This one is still in my shop.
This is a Desert Island box I built for my friend Mason Huffine who took it to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
In December I came up with a new name for my pre-wired power centers. I wanted to use something different than ‘power center’ to describe my boxes because that term is too generic and does not really explain the role of these boxes as the central interconnection point of a complete system. Thus the “SolarNexus” was born. The word NEXUS means “a connection point, or center, of a system”. I think this a great name for my products because it describes them well. They are not ‘systems’ on their own, but they are a central connection point, or nexus, of a system that includes charging sources (PV, wind, microhydro, AC generators or grid), battery storage and loads.
I have also started referring to Midnite Solar E-Panels and Outback Flexware pre-wired AC/DC panels as “nexus” (nexuses?) also. Who knows, maybe we can coin a new term to describe that element of an off-grid system.
Here is the latest version of the SolarNexus. I had this one fabricated by a shop in Bellingham that has CNC laser cutting equipment and nice sheet metal tools so it is the most clean and professional looking prototype yet. Still on the list for future improvements before production will be a pictoral diagram label to explain what all the breakers are doing and molded plastic covers to provide weatherproofing and protection from the elements, and eventually hopefully UL or ETL listing.
I’m going to start out trying to sell these to emerging markets in the developing world. Thats where there are still millions of people without access to electricity, and UL listing is not a requirement for entry into the market. My prototype pictured above is currently packed into a box and on its way to Mason’s office at Solar Aid Tanzania. After my two weeks in Guinea-Bissau I’m headed to meet up with Mason to check out the solar electric scene in East Africa. My hope is that I’ll be able to show off the SolarNexus to development groups, missionary types, governmental people and others to try to determine what the market looks like for this kind of product and gather as much information as possible on what features are desired so the next version can be even better. If all goes as I hope I’ll come home with some orders or at least good leads to be able to start ramping up production of the Nexus in my home shop. Wish me luck and I’d appreciate any comments or suggestions anyone has.