Home Solar Project Blogging: The Revenge of the Geeks

If you read my last installment of this saga we had been daunted by the physical challange of us amateur DIY guys actually figuring out how to get the damn solar panels onto our roof.

It turns out that the Real Men who carry solar panels up a ladder on their backs (something we wimpy nerds couldn't manage) may be strong, but they're also dumb:  The California Department of Public Health says unequivically: "Never climb ladders while carrying solar panels."

In other words, we are physically inadequate to do something that we shouldn't be doing.  OK, then.

So, George built a wooden frame to set a panel on, which fits over an aluminum ladder, attached to a a set of pulleys and ropes - and it was still difficult to lift a panel.  I envisioned the rope slipping out of my hands, and a $400+ solar panel crashing 14 feet to the ground. 

That was Rev. 1.0.  For the second attempt, George tried elimiating a bunch of sources of friction. Rather than just having the wood frame sliding directly on the aluminum ladder, how about if there were wheels?  You don't really want to "grease the skids" - lubrication on a ladder will definitely be a hazard if you ever want to ever climb up that ladder again… so that was right out.   Teflon tape on the wood - that's the ticket. Maybe another set of pulleys? For each pair of pullys, the apparent weight being lifted diminishes.

Whatever we tried, it still took a lot of effort and grip to hoist our test load (a 50 lb. bucket of sand) to the roof.

It'd be one thing if we were going to be doing this 5 or 6 times - even 10, OK, I'd suck it up - but this was going to have to be done more like 30 times within the span of an afternoon.  Even if I didn't screw up and drop any panels (not likely), breaking something on myself seemed a pretty predicable outcome.

Maybe it'd be less of an issue if instead of gripping a nylon rope, I could hold onto the handle on a wheel that the rope wound up on?  That'd be a lot easier.  I might even be able to mount a gear on the side of the wheel with a ratchet that would keep the wheel from backsliding.  Isn't there a name for something like that?  Yeah... a winch!

But for a winch to work, it needs to be bolted down solidly. And what could we affix it to that would be sufficiently heavy so that I could spin the thing around without it coming loose… and once again, causing an expensive solar panel to come crashing to the ground?

The answer is obvious in retrospect, but it took us a little while to think of it: you bolt the winch to the ladder.  The ladder is being held in place by the weight of the panel and the frame - it's not going anywhere.

But there's another problem, which is that we're running out of space around the ladder, and if the drum that the rope winds around isn't large enough, you're going to need to turn the handle about a hundred zillion times to get any real vertical movement up the ladder.  Which would be funny in a slapstick sort of way, but not very practical.

The real answer would be an electrical winch.  And we were able to pick one up at a local hardware store for a fraction of the price of a solar panel (not to mention an osteopath or chiropractor) and we've just finished testing it under load.  It bolts to the bottom of our ladder. There's a single pully that that the winch's wire is threaded through at the top of the ladder, and the wire comes down and clips to the wooden frame that the panel sits in.  It's actually far simpler and less Rube Goldbergesque than the multi-pulley manual solutions we'd been trying.  And simpler is good.  We like simpler. We just finished testing it under load - first a bucket of sand, and then an actual panel, and it works like a dream. Look ma, no sweat!

So now we're ready. We have everything we need to get panels on the roof… except good weather.  We're looking at a coastal storm system that's going to be flooding us with rain until Tuesday.   So, Tuesday is slated as the day of the Big Lift.  Our panels go onto the roof, get bolted to the rails - and with any luck, we get to plug 'em in and test 'em out.