Feature, V1I5

Power Problems

Stoltzfus Structures installed solar panel to harness the sun’s energy.
Stoltzfus Structures installed solar panel to harness the sun’s energy.

Whether it’s for small-scale power tools or major automated equipment, power is a part of the manufacturing process—and occasionally one of the manufacturing headaches. Shed builders face a range of energy challenges, ranging from finding power at remote locations to protecting equipment in the shop from surges, as well as the constant battle against energy costs.

Fortunately, today’s new technology can help even the smallest manufacturer, so long as they know which questions to ask.

Solar Considerations

It’s not unusual anymore to find a shed hooked up for solar panels—but what about a shed manufacturer?

In 2010, Stoltzfus Structures in Atglen, Pennsylvania, installed a 375-kilowatt photovoltaic system to power its offices and manufacturing facility.

“We actually produce about 5 percent more power than we use in a year’s time,” explains Jonathan Zook, partner and general manager of Stoltzfus.

The system is hooked to the local power grid, so that in the summer when days are longer, the shed builder is able to sell excess solar power back to its electric utility, while in the winter the company purchases any needed power back from the utility.

Over a year’s time, the balance is in Stoltzfus’ favor. Zook explains that the decision to go solar was made because it simply made sense financially.

“It’s of course attractive that it helps us be self-sustaining, and it’s always good to use less energy from exterior sources,” Zook says. “And our customers love knowing they’re buying a product from a company that is conscious of the footprint they’re leaving.”

But Zook emphasizes that before other shed builders go solar, it’s important to make sure that the investment makes sense financially. For Stoltzfus Structures, the decision to go solar was based on a proposed five- to seven-year return on investment.

Zook advises other builders to look for federal or state incentives, but not to rely completely on those programs. In his company’s case, the incentives presented an unexpected challenge.

Solar inverters convert PV power into usable electricity.
Solar inverters convert PV power into
usable electricity.

He explains, “The government tells the electric companies every year they have to buy a certain amount of renewable energy credits (RECs) and…if there’s a shortage of those, the price of the RECs is higher, and if there’s a surplus, that drives the markets down. One thing we didn’t expect was how many people actually signed on to do solar. We were on the early side of it, but a year or two later, more people than expected went to solar and that drove the price of the RECs down.”

While the payback from the RECs wasn’t as good as initially expected, Zook says it was still a worthwhile investment overall.

Zook offers an additional piece of advice to other shed builders considering solar. “We had put our inverters [which convert PV power into usable electric] inside of our shop. They draw air, so they tend to draw in the dust in the air. It would have been better if we’d built right away a totally sealed off room so it’s not pulling in dust from manufacturing,” he says.

The investment into solar power isn’t for everyone—but if you’re intrigued by the idea, there are ways to start small.

For example, SolSolutions Inc. offers portable solar-powered generators. For those builders working on remote sites, creative options such as this can run everything from your compressor to your saws.

“Our equipment is totally plug and play, ready to go, so the only ‘training’ needed is that you have to pay more attention to how much electric you use compared to traditional grid power use or using a gas generator,” explains Chaz Peling, CEO of SolSolutions LLC. “This is mainly just knowing how much watts or amps your tools use, and looking at the meters to look at load outputs, battery levels and making sure you are getting solar charging in. Once you get that, these systems are easy to run.”

True, systems like these need sun to run.

“If there is shade on the PV panels, electric output is significantly reduced,” Peling says. “However, our solar generators are setup to move, and can easily can be placed in the best sun position and then can track the sun throughout the day, for extended run times and 30 percent more daily power than if you just left it facing south.”

If solar is good enough for your customer— and SolSolutions is one of many companies selling solar setups for permanent sheds—why not try your hand at moving off the grid in a sustainable way?

Remote Power Needs

SolSolutions Inc. offers portable solar-powered generators.
SolSolutions Inc. offers portable solar-powered

Of course, not all shed builders move off grid by choice. Some builders, like Owen Christensen, are driven from reliable electric power simply because their niche is remote locations. This Duluth, Minnesota based shed and cabin builder has been offering a range of shed styles to remote northern locations since 1974.

“Northern Minnesota where I live is full of lakes, and a lot of the newer developing properties are usually in a more remote location—in the woods or on an island, with no road access,” Christensen explains.

Nevertheless, he adds, “People need to get the work done. A lot of these properties are owned by people from the city, and they rely on somebody from the North Country to take care of their stuff for them.”

For Christensen, this sometimes means barging or otherwise boating over equipment, trailers and lumber to a remote site, and then plugging in with a gas-powered compressor and one or two generators; in his case, Honda 2,000 watt units. His outbuildings are all built onsite, but Christensen notes that there’s no way to get this job done without the convenience of modern power tools and the electricity needed to power them.

“We can’t really build with handsaws and hand nailing—we need to use pneumatic tools. We want to minimize our time onsite as much as possible,” he says.

For any shed builder relying on a generator, onsite or in the shop, it’s important to select a unit that best meets your needs.

Owen Christensen does many onsite builds.
Owen Christensen does many onsite builds.

Generac, a manufacturer of portable generators, offers some insight into selecting the right unit for your construction needs.

In order to determine the total wattage requirements for a generator, the company advises first determining which devices you’ll need to power at the same time; gather and add up the running watts listed for each of those devices; note the starting watt requirements for each piece of equipment; and add the starting watts for the device with the highest starting watt to the total running watts. This quick calculation will help ensure you have enough power to meet all your needs.

In-the-Shop Surges

Moving from the field to the shop doesn’t mean there are no more power challenges. Shops running lots of high-powered equipment, or in areas where outages are more common, might consider investing in power protection devices.

According to an article from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, “Electrical Surge-Protection Devices for Industrial Facilities,” power surges can be caused by both external factors—such as lightning, poor quality grids, and utility maintenance— as well as internal problems caused by the operation of circuit breakers or fuses, electric motors, and some generators. And when the power returns, your problems may not be over.

“When the power comes back, it comes back like a freight train in the form of high voltage and then it settles down into whatever voltage level you’re using within their distribution,” says Jeff Dome, president of Power Gleaner Inc. “What happens quite often is that the pieces of equipment that people have in place get damaged because of over-voltage.”

Dome adds that the problems of over-voltage aren’t as clear cut as they sound. In some cases, a burst of high-voltage can instantly destroy a piece of equipment— and that’s what most people expect as a result of a power surge. But according to Dome, “In a lot of occasions it’s a slow death, so the [surge] has taken considerable life away from that piece of equipment. People don’t always understand that, but that happens very often.”

The IEEE article agrees that power surges can cause failure, permanent degradation or temporary malfunction of electronic devices and systems.

Surge protection devices (SPDs) such as the Power Gleaner system are installed at the main circuit breaker, or potentially integrated within electrical equipment. Dome advises manufacturers considering installing a SPD ask their supplier about the level of voltage from which their device can protect.

“By not aggressively reacting to the voltage at a low level, surge protection will never protect equipment,” Dome says. “To address the over-voltage on a level below 180 volts level would create harmonic issues and additional problems. The other voltage levels would operate with similar clamping ratios.”

The Right Tools for the Job

Whether building onsite or at a fixed address, the last thing a shed builder should have to worry about is not getting the power needed to complete a job on time. If power has been on your mind, it might just be time to consider moving from an unreliable power source to a more high-tech option.


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