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Bristol dentist installs solar array at office to keep lights burning andl drills turningl

by Teresa Eubanks, Journal Editor

He started off with two solar panels, a battery backup and a charge controller to take his freezer off the grid and keep his food frozen by utilizing one of Florida’s greatest natural resources - the sun.

That was over a year ago. He did a lot of research, which included talking extensively with solar supply dealers as well as consulting friends he saw during his lunch breaks at M.J.’s Restaurant in Blountstown.  “They all had lots of philosophical ideas about the whole thing,” explained Dr. Laban Bontrager. “Everybody sort of got into it.”

He recently expanded his efforts to supply his own power by putting a solar panel grid outside his dental office on Pea Ridge Road in Bristol.

“Whatever power the solar panels produce, my building will use that energy first.  Any shortfall it gets from the grid,” he explains, pointing out that he doesn’t plan to break away from traditional utilities,  he’ll just use less.  Hopefully, if he collects enough solar energy, he can sell the extra back to the power company.

He’s Florida Public Utilities’ first Liberty County customer to supplement his power needs with solar energy.

TWO DIFFERENT SYSTEMS

His goal is to supplement, not replace his power supply. It’s just the beginning of the experiment but his goal is to eventually depend more on solar power and save money.  “If I’ve done my math right, I will have probably recovered my costs in about five years,” he said about the project.  “I won’t know until I start getting my power bills.”  The monthly utilities for the office run between $350 and $425 a month.

His two systems are a little different.  The one that keeps his freezer running is strictly a direct current system with a battery backup.  “A charge controller is hooked up to the solar panels, which maintain a full charge on the batteries that run the deep freeze,” he said.

The new system set up outside his office converts direct current to alternating current.  “It has two inverters that have to sync with the power company,” he said, adding, “It’s a much bigger unit.”

He designed the structure and framing himself, shopping around online to find parts, supplies and a little advice along the way. “I got a lot of my information from vendors that sell the stuff,” he said.

To ensure it would be stable, he covered the panels with glass. “I had to design and fabricate a system to anchor the panels to the ground,” he said.  He had local boat builder Josh Potter weld special brackets to link everything with steel posts that were cemented into the ground.  “I just looked at it, figured out how we wanted to do it and had it built.”

“There are 56 panels with four strings of 14 panels,” he said. “Each inverter will handle two strings of panels.”

Next to the manual transfer switch is a manual safety switch “that kills the whole system,” he said.

He is also able to monitor how well it is working.  “My inverters are connected to the internet. The manufacturer has a portal I can log into that tells me the output of each solar panel by serial number.  If one is malfunctioning, I can look on their grid and see exactly where it is,” he said.

“I’ve got the very latest technology in this.  In fact, the solar panels each have a power optimizer.  It’s a little electronic device about half the size of a modem that’s bolted to each panel.

While this wasn’t an inexpensive venture, he got lucky when he found the panels after a search on the internet.  “They actually came off a project in California.  They’re used but almost new,” he said, and added, “I got these things at a bargain.”

When everything was finally in place, he said, “I flipped the switch and it all worked just like it’s supposed to.”

WHY GROUND MOUNT?

Why not mount it on the roof, as is commonly done with many solar projects?  “I wanted a ground mount so I could maintain and work on it myself,” he said, acknowledging that he is not fond on climbing onto the top of his office.

“They put of lot of these things on roofs where they don’t have land,” he admits but is quick to point out, “Roof mounts have a lot of drawbacks.”

First, the roof needs to be structurally designed to support the extra weight.

Second, roof mounts involving making a lot of holes in the material which leaves a lot of areas to be sealed up.

Third, the roof may not be at the ideal angle to collect power from the sun.

For now, his ground mounted system is pointing due south, with a tilt of 26 degrees.  “It’s not the ideal angle for summer or winter, but it’s sort of a hybrid for year-round,” he said.  Generally, you want a steeper angle in winter, while a flatter angle is better in summer because the sun is higher.

The basic system he’s working with is often roof-mounted onto a cover for a parking garage, which he said, “Gives you shade for you car as well as generating power.”

STILL KEEPING HIS

BACK-UP GENERATOR

Despite the time, money and research he’s put into assembling the project, he said he still keeps a generator for power outages.

His sun-generated power can only be used while synced up with the utility company’s grid.  “If there’s no signal to sync with, it shuts down,” he said.

Even if he could keep his solar array generating power when Florida Public Utility is down, it would be dangerous.  “If a lineman is working on the line when their power’s off and I put mine on, he’s at risk,” he said.  That’s why he has the extra precaution of a manual safety switch to ensure all his sun-generated power is stopped, even though, “When the electricity goes off, these things are programmed to go down.”

Of course, his battery backup on the deep freeze keeps it going until the batteries give out.  That’s not an option for larger projects.  “The whole problem with solar is storing the energy. People living completely off the grid use battery backups and have to minimize their use after dark.”

But he’s happy just to see how much he can lower his utility bill as he keeps the lights on, his computers humming and the dental drills running at his practice.

Those helping with the project included:

Aluminum procurement – Bracewell Boats

Aluminum welding – Josh Potter

Structural materials procurement – Bracewell Fencing

Project Foreman – Rex Whitfield

Job site Operations Manager – Skeeter Eades

Philosophical Consultants – Lunch Crowd at M.J.’s Diner, with special thanks to the late Tommy Williams for his electrical advice

Designer, Architect and Chief Engineer – Laban Bontrager

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Date
November 16th, 2017

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Staff

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