DIY Green Building Retrofit For ML256 Shop

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In Experimentation
Born On:
16:32, 19 May 2009 (CDT)
Last Updated:
23:16, 04 April 2010 (CDT)


The this project is for the design, building and implementation of a green building retrofit for the ML256 shop. Collaboration with Facilities Commitee.

Systems & Goals

The goal of this project is to retrofit the ML256 shop with elements of green building. To achieve this, the following systems will be installed:

  • Implement a shop scrap, salvage and recycling program - Set up bins, pickup and people who can manage these functions.
  • Improve the efficiency of the shop - Perform an energy audit. Install energy efficient lighting and appliances, improve the building's insulation, make use of natural light to save electricity, implement a waste recycling program. Set up a computer to monitor the shop's power consumption/production, give power alerts and allow for remote data monitoring (over an IP).
  • Install DIY off-grid solar and wind power with energy storage - Size so system can support shop power requirements.
  • Solar Passive Design - Install greenhouses on the south & west walls of the shop to absorb and capture solar energy to heat the shop at night.
  • Rainwater Sink - Collect, filter and purify rainwater from roof to use in a shop sink. Graywater will be processed in an artificial wetland and used to water a garden.
  • Natural Building - Turn the outer walls into 'Living Walls' to provide cooling by transpiration and insulation by plant mass. Build a small hangout shed using natural building methods.

Current Work

  • Shop Consumption Assessment & Efficiency Improvement
    • Measure the shop's power consumption and determine where improvements could be made (Energy Audit).
      • Light power consumption test
        • Compare - M-bal, F40T12 vs E-bal, F40T8
        • Compare - M-bal, F96T12 vs E-bal F96T12 vs E-bal F96T8
    • Insulate and seal shop.
    • Installation or making of efficient lighting (CFLs and LED lights; factory-made and DIY) and appliances.
  • DIY Energy & Power
    • DIY Power System - 24V DC electrical power storage and distribution.
    • DIY Solar Panels - Construction of solar panels from broken or wholesale Si cells and manufacture of 'wet' cells.
    • DIY Ethanol - It may be possible to make our own fuel from the leftovers of the garden after harvest season. Info from Alcohol Can Be A Gas.

System Considerations

  • Shop energy requirements
  • Energy quantity collectible from local area
  • Energy storable
  • Space for solar and wind equipment
  • Local building codes
  • Removable
  • Safety
  • Durability
  • System capacity
  • System manufacturability
  • Cost

To Dos

So to see how far we can go with a DIY system and to explore the above considerations, the following needs to be done:

  • Partially Complete - Evaluate shop power consumption - Need electrical and gas bills for shop.
  • Evaluate the local wind and solar energy collectible (insolation and wind profile on property, solar and wind system configurations).
  • Evaluate energy storage methods - Determine how much do needs to be stored and how it can be done.
  • Space - Determine where we can build within the limits of the property (vertically and laterally), building codes, our shop's insurance policy and our neighbors.
  • Make an initial design of the system based on data from the last 3 steps.
  • Start Refining The Design w/ the following considerations:
    • Codes & regulations - Research codes and regulations relating to grid-tied power systems that use energy storage.
    • Removability - ML256 shop is rented, so installed systems must not be permanent.
    • Safety - System failures will not cause harm or damage to anything or anyone.
    • Durability - System requires minimal maintenance, can withstand damage and will not fail prematurely.
    • System capacity - Can a DIY system produce enough for our shop?
    • System manufacturability - Can we build a DIY system that meets our standards? Or will we need to buy parts and specialized skills?
    • Cost - Are we over budget?
  • Start building small test articles to test if the design meets expectations.
  • Reevaluate and retest the design until the system works.

Only then, do we go big with the system...

Project Progress


  • We decided to start simple with an off-the-grid PV/wind system that would feed into power storage and a separate 120V AC wiring system for the ML256 shop. This would allow us to avoid restrictions from regulation, give us time to experiment and room to scale up the system. Any shop equipment that will be continuously on, and if possible, the shop lights would be connected to the system.
  • Our first step in this project would be to build a small PV/wind power system that would be used to evaluate how much energy we can harvest locally at the ML 256 shop and to gain experience with building a small PV/wind power system.
  • Will first power server room of ML256 shop with PV/wind system. The server room is 120V AC with consumption from 250-500 Watts.
  • AC power system will be used to allow people to simply plug in their hardware. We will be using a DC/AC power inverter to clean it up. Harbor Freight has regulators, charge controllers and inverters for sale for $180.00.
  • Someone mentioned that titanium dioxide power on a substrate makes a solar panel. Maybe something we can play with later...


  • Had a talk with a friend who is a general building contractor. He mentioned that as we are planning to install wiring in the shop, we will need to have a government inspector come by and certify our system. As he is knowledgeable in building codes and certifications, he said he can help our project meet the requirements to be certified. Also, he mentioned that natural building methods may not be allowed within city limits due to building codes.

7/18/09 I bought/salvaged the following to build my first test panel (12 Volts):

  • 1/2" plywood - salvaged
  • 1/8" glass pane
  • Tubes of silicone sealant
  • 1" aluminum C-channel
  • Glass cutter
  • various screws, washers & nuts

For just under $30, I bought a couple broken cells from the following:

When it is complete, I will integrate it with a battery, load, charge controller, voltage regulator and power inverter system to assess how much solar energy I can harvest and the best position for a solar panel.


  • I did some research on charge controllers and other ways that DIY solar panels are set up. So far, the spec sheet for the charge controller I am planning to purchase for this project has a maximum voltage of 25V input and a normal input range of 15-22V. The DIY solar panel project linked above cites that PV panels should produce 18V under full sun. I have decided to design the panel to output 18V. This would mean simply lining up panels in series to achieve the desired voltage.


  • Had a shop meeting to test out panels and get some experience working with them. We practiced a little with soldering a few cells and measured how much power they generate. So far, we've determined 0.5 V/cell and current depends on the size and shape of the cell. We brainstormed a couple ideas on what direction to take on for the project. One member mentioned that we could dtao a power assessment simply by hooking up a single solar cell to measurement equipment. I like the idea. We could build full 18V panel in the shop to be mounted later, and then build and operate a small power assessment system in the meanwhile. Once we get the data on what is best for us, we can mount the 18V panels appropriately.
  • Talked later with Ratmandu, he mentioned that an Arduino Microcontroller would be the best option for us to implement a microcontoller-based measurement system for our small power assessment system. It could interface with a computer that could store and broadcast data over the internet on how much solar energy is being gathered.

Lessons Learned:

  • Solar cells are really fragile.
  • Soldering well takes practice and experience.

7/27/09 - 8/6/09 - Hindu_Steve and the TVA solar policy, Tom and the electrical work, some research into panel sizing, placement, wiring and material sourcing. (tbc)

8/7/09 - 8/8/09 - Talk with Preauxphoto and Tom on various DIY charge controllers, DC/AC converters and associated inefficiencies, AC vs. DC efficiencies, tilting panels and rules of thumb for mounting and sizing solar panels. Project is now going to focus on basic DC system for server room peripherals. Will start with a small 18V panel (single series string) connected to a DIY charge controller, car battery and DC load and mounted to a photovore tilting panel. This will be the small-scale evaluation system.

9/09 - Talked with Strages on making a 'wet' solar cell for cheap. Will post details later.

10/09 - Based on research on existing off-grid solar homes, a 24V system would be more efficient as wire losses would be less and cheaper smaller gauge wire could be used. Also, learned that efficiency and knowing your power consumption are the first things to work on before you develop your power system. Currently diverting efforts towards these two.

Shop Efficiency

I am currently focusing on improving the shop's lighting and heating efficiency as a first step. So far, I've thought of the following:

  • Light/LED Pipe - Have a reflective/fiber optic tube that feeds off natural light sources and is lined with LEDs. Depending on the light demanded and how much natural light is coming through the system, the LEDs adjust their brightness to provide sufficient light.
  • Electroluminescent Paint - Make a sandwich of conductive paint with electroluminescent paint as the 'meat'. Apply a voltage to the upper layer and you have paint that glows. So far, I've been told that Rustoleum paint is somewhat conductive. The reverse could be paint that creates a voltage when exposed to light, hence forming a paint-on solar panel.
  • Insulation Improvement - Basic weatherstripping and re-insulation where appropriate.
  • Server Heater - Since we have so much electronic gear in the shop, we can use it to heat the shop. We could have a thermostat to trigger the server to run processor-intensive applications to heat up the shop. To gain some benefit for the processing, we could have the servers run distributed computing applications such as SETI@home or Folding@home. It is possible we could charge other parties to use our server for distributed computing.
  • Evaporative Cooler - Install a cooling system that uses evaporative cooling, or hack an air conditioner with a water supply that will pour water on its cooling coils when it runs. Here in humid Alabama, we have to test how feasible this idea is.

Project Progress

8/09-10/09 - Have been installing energy-efficient lighting in the shop. Have replaced magnetic ballast and T12 fluorescent light sets with electronic ballasts and T8 fluorescent light sets. This cuts power consumption in half. Will slowly phase out remaining magnetic ballast and T12 tube sets as they burn out with electronic ballast and T8 tube sets. 12/10 - Have started building a simple LED light from an old LED lamp. Runs off a 12VDC power supply.

Potential Project Collaboration

DIY Power System:

Energy Efficiency

Rainwater Sink & Natural Building:


DIY Solar:

Generators & Wind Turbines:


General Stuff:

High-Efficiency Lights (DIY):