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Happy New Year! You have stumbled onto another episode of Get Your FILL, Financial Independence and Long Life where we explore ways to achieve those two goals. The music you’ve been listening to is from an original score by Carl Zukroff of the band The Blue Hotel. You’ll find a link to his info and website on GetYourFILLPodcast.com.
Today is part two of our conversation with Joe Yoder of Tiny Solar Vermont. In part one, which aired on December xx, Joe helped me to understand the difference between off-the-grid personal solar and a grid-tie system and to design an off-grid solar option for my house then continued onto talking about a life without debt. Today, we’ll be continuing along that track into the realm of long life with a quick detour into how solar energy will help you survive the zombie apocalypse. If you visit GetYourFILLPodcast.com, you’ll find links to all of the things that we talk about, a link to the video interview, Joe’s bio and anything else we thought might be interesting and relevant.
J: You know, on the upscale side of things you’ve heard of Bees Wraps?
J: Neat company from what I could tell. I ran into some of their products a few months back or last year, actually. Somebody gave me some of the products. I’m like: “Great, I like this, I’m gonna buy some of this.” And I went to their website, everything on the website was sold out. Everything.
And then at the Tiny House Festival event that you and I met at, Bees Wrap happened to be sitting…
C: They were right across from you.
J: Yeah, yeah, so I got to talking to her, I told her about this and she said… Yeah, she said we had just been featured on… It’s like some web show. It was kind of a high profile show, I don’t think it was Oprah. It would be like you’ve been featured on Oprah or something like that. So then there was an interview and some good exposure on some kind of high profile media outlet and they got floored. Absolutely got floored – they just, they got wiped out of inventory and they couldn’t recoup for a while, but they are now, I think, and they’re probably a better company for it.
C: Yeah, ’cause that can be the kiss of death for a small company. They get overwhelmed and people think… Oh no, there’s no product, there’s no customer service and they don’t wanna come back, especially if they haven’t – if they just saw it on TV if they haven’t had a chance to actually handle the product and understand what it actually is, and have a real introduction to it. Like you could have had it at the Tiny House Festival.
J: Relating to that in the early 80s. I was a manager for Domino’s Pizza for a couple of years out in Ohio. I’d moved from here back to Ohio for three years and I… That’s my original home… My brother was into management at Dominos, so it’s just… Something I did, to make a living for a few years and… That’s when I started my family.
We had these rushes at Dominos. Predictable. Every Friday the store I managed in Trotwood, Ohio is gonna get blown away. All four lines would light up for three hours and we could never handle all the business we were getting. And usually, Saturday too, sometimes Thursday.
And then if you had a special event, like the auto show in the mall across the street or Super Bowl Sunday, again, blown away more business than you can handle and somebody explained this to me and it was obvious, too, that when you… During those worst times when you can’t handle it, you’re just struggling, you don’t even have enough people to do it, and you… You can’t take all the phone calls fast enough… That’s your opportunity for growth, that’s when some new people are trying you and generally speaking you get some new customers in the door and if every time they try you, you’re getting blown away and you give bad service.
It has to be that way in a restaurant too – some big event brings in double the normal amount of people in the Julio’s Restaurant and if they can offer good service at that time maybe they’ll grow by 10% after that.
I think about that too in this business, if something throws a lot of business, my way, I’ve gotta do a decent job handling it otherwise, there’s no sense.
C: I’m only good when there’s no business – one customer at a time, please.
J: Right, but this pertains to my website and the concept of e-commerce. I’ve been slowly looking into that for the past year and my worst nightmare would be to set it all up for e-commerce and then I wake up in the morning and I have 10 new orders that I can’t handle in the right time frame, and they’ve already paid for ‘em.
That can’t happen, I can’t do that. I can scale up. I have a couple of people interested in internships, but I think they’d be more than happy to turn that into paid work. Yeah, but I can’t do that in two weeks, I can’t scale up in two weeks. So I’m thinking about taking one person up on the internship, just for education, this winter. The next time I build a new system, she said she’s interested in just coming in and watching how I do it. She really wants to learn how to do it and… And then maybe we can talk about an arrangement where if I start to scale-up with real business – come on in, let’s pay you a fair wage and this… So that will be a good thing to do.
E-commerce is something that – I have a son that’s doing pretty good in management in the resort industry in Colorado. He and I talk business strategy a lot. And he helped me see this too. That you can set limitations on your eCommerce. I could have a website that says, “Here this is for sale, but I have one in stock” and as soon as somebody buys that, the next person will see zero in stock, please check back later. And I don’t even wanna do that, until I’m really ready to go. And I have to answer some of the questions about shipping these systems and a different pricing structure for buying the system without a battery. Shipping batteries is kind of ridiculous. In most cases – and I see other companies doing this – they typically, if they sell a small portable solar system, will sell it without the battery and leave it up to you to go get your own battery.
Yeah, they’re heavy, very expensive to ship and some of them get into hazmat requirement. That would be the next big step for me, is to step up to e-commerce – carefully.
C: So I was gonna ask you, I was gonna flip back to solar again, and now I’m having a mental block about what… But I think you’ve answered that, as far as I like the idea of having dedicated plugs, I think that it makes a lot of sense. And at this point in my renovation, it would be pretty easy to do that, I think, because I can take a whole potentially – I’ll have to talk to my electrician – take a block instead of putting it into the regular panel to put it into it will be like a supplement, a different panel. Is that how it would work?
J: Yeah, if you have an electrician helping you, he would do a good job wiring it. It’d be coming from your inverter and the… To that, so that it can be a panel, circuit panel if you want. Here’s something just a concept to put into your head about that ’cause I was actually just a talking to my son yesterday, he’s looking at buying a house, in the town where he lives in Colorado, He’s getting married next year.
J: Yeah, it’s really gonna be great but it’ll be the first place he’s had in Colorado, with actual sunshine. And so we’re talking about that naturally and the idea of having a battery-based off grid solar when you have the grid, there’s some lifestyle issues to be taken into consideration. Battery-based solar requires some maintenance depending on your choices, but if you have flooded lead-acid batteries you need to check the water every now and add some distilled water.
I don’t mind doing that, I, I still like flooded lead-acid. I think it’s the best bang for the buck.
Most of my compadres in the industry are pushing lithium-ion batteries now for solar but for a small economical solar, that lithium-ion – really expensive, a little more complicated.
They don’t have good recycling yet, they don’t have a good end use. Of course, the counter argument to that is that they last longer. They’re also saying that by the time these lithium-ions actually die, they’ll be a developed recycling program, but I heard that about nuclear power plants too.
C: And that hasn’t worked out.
J: No, that hasn’t worked out too good. So I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a little bit of a lifestyle component to having a battery-based solar system, a little more so than just grid tie.
You have to kinda keep an eye on your batteries. You can get maintenance-free batteries like gel or sealed. You pay a little more for a performance. You get a little less bang for your buck, a little more expensive, but they are easier to maintain. But the thing is, when you have a battery-based system, you’re better off using it on a regular basis for something and you’ll save money doing that anyway. So maybe have, if somebody – like my son is talking about having… It’s a duplex, he would own half the house, so maybe put some easy low-hanging-fruit stuff on your battery-based system. Like the porch light, hall lights, things that you don’t use, you don’t leave them on all night, you use them intermittently – maybe set up chargers for your power tools and other things. I’m real big into battery-powered things ’cause you can easily charge them on solar. You can choose when you charge them.
Set all them up to feed off the solar.
So, you’re leading a lifestyle where you’re sort of in touch with your battery-based solar system and you save a little money in the process, and then when you really need it, the grid goes down, which it does from time-to-time, it’s a smooth transition. You’re already familiar with the other one. You know the perimeters, how much you can demand, from those batteries overnight and that’s better than having a system you don’t wanna think about.
I actually know somebody like this who – the guy had some money to throw around so he built a pretty state-of-the-art solar system. It was both grid-tie and battery back-up. This is in a cabin in Vermont. A nice big expensive bank of batteries in the basement, because he wanted the whole deal. He had the money, he wanted grid-tie and he wanted battery back up, so he didn’t have to worry about it.
The first time the power seriously went out, the battery system didn’t work and I would chalk it up to just not paying attention to it. He wasn’t using it for anything on a regular basis so he wasn’t in touch with it, he didn’t notice that some connection wasn’t right or batteries had gone down. So if you have a battery-based system, it’s good to have something that you’re using and it can transition to your primary if you need it to do that… Or you can always just… It’s fun to me to always find more and more things you can put on the battery system, ’cause you save more money, it’s a no-brainer.
Stop me if I’m using too much time, but there’s one more story about that. Okay, electric cars. To me that’s the holy grail of a battery-based system is if you can charge your electric car on it, you’re good. That’s a biggie… they use a lot of power. And when the zombie apocalypse starts, who’s gonna be cooler than the guy that’s still driving his electric car when everybody else is – they’re looking for an ox cart or something to get around in.
C: You’re ready for the Zombie Apocalypse.
J: Absolutely. You have gun plates.
C: You’re just gonna have to outfit it so that you’re not able to be attacked by the zombies, other than that you’re good.
J: That’s right, we’ll arm it with crossbows… So I had a customer approached me that it’s been about two years now. He bought a Nissan Leaf and he lived in Woodbury and he had a pretty unreliable power. The further you go in the country around here, the more unreliable your power is. Some people have, it’s not unusual to lose your power all night or all day.
So he, he wanted to be able to charge his Leaf. And so we did the research together and I came up with his particular Nissan Leaf required about 1300 watts to charge. So he needed, If you wanna keep it simple, he needed at least 1300 watts of solar panel to be able to charge it at least during the day while the sun’s shining. That’s a heavy draw on batteries at night, so we weren’t even going there, we figured he could use leftover power for lights and radios and stuff at night.
We designed and built a system that was about 1500 and some watts. It was kind of a long-term project, and I designed it and sold him the parts and then he worked with me to build it, so he learned how to do it. It was great and we were plugging in his car. It wasn’t working.
It was just blinking ‘fault’ or something. We knew there was enough power in there – the sun was shining like crazy- and so little by little, we had to learn. And this is an active issue for me too ’cause I’ve had an electric car for seven years, and I’ve never been able to charge it off my solar system.
And it seemed like it just didn’t like the power coming off that inverter, and so we finally narrowed down to the grounding. His car needed to think it was grounded. It didn’t need to actually being grounded, it need to think it was. And so we ran ground wires into off the outlet in the ground that didn’t work. Ran it from there to the nearest circuit breaker, that didn’t work. Ran it from there to his inverter, it worked then. Oh, so that was a glorious moment when you could finally charge his car off the sun.
C: That does seem like the ideal, right? Not to have to use fuel in your car at all.
J: There’s a few caveats to not to get people overly excited because the batteries are getting bigger and bigger because customers are demanding that. So part of the longer range in the newer cars is achieved through efficiency and better technology, but I gotta say a large part of it is achieved through just a bigger battery and that’s sort of a mixed thing ’cause it’s bigger battery is good, it gets you further but it takes more electricity to charge it.
So now my customer – I can use his name, he wouldn’t mind, Paolo – he went out last year, he upgraded his car, he bought a newer model of Nissan Leaf, brand new, and his range went from 90 some miles to 100 maybe 130-150. He’s pretty happy with that. He can commute farther and drive farther.
But the new charging rate is about 1500 watts, so we enlarged his system a little bit it, we put another panel in there, a fifth panel, had to tweak the wiring a little bit, check the size, new charge controler, long story short, had to buy a few new things. He was okay with his current battery bank, so we got the power up to where it works and everything sounds groovy right, but the new car or the old car would take maybe 15 hours to go from zero to 100%.
Which, by the way, you don’t ever do it like that, you don’t let your car go all the way to zero before you charge it. So realistically, an eight-hour day would be pretty substantial for the old car. The new car takes 30 hours to go from zero to 100% because it has a bigger battery, so he’s… It’s not very realistic. He can’t charge his car for three days just to go to work, he does work still, and he has his kids, he’s picking his kids up at school and stuff. It’s still nice for him to know that he can charge it there and he does on a sunny day if he’s around, he’ll plug it in a sunny day and get eight hours of charge and top it off a little bit and in a real zombie apocalypse he’s probably not gonna worry about going to work. Maybe he could charge for three days and then make a run somewhere.
Yeah, make a run somewhere like for ammo or whatever like garden seed, something.
But that’s charging your car at 120 volt, typical household voltage. That’s commonly known amongst us electric car people as the slow charge, it’s the home charge, which is not to be ignored because that’s the one anybody can do in any house, but the way most people with electric cars do most of their charges is the next step up the 240 volt plan, which is most of the commercial charging stations. And you can get one like that put in your house. If you’re trying to do it totally off solar though, if you wanna go 240 volt, now you’re getting big.
You better have a roof full of panels and that’s getting too big for Tiny Solar Vermont. I don’t wanna go that big.
C: Pass that off.
J: Yeah, I’ll send that off to Big Solar Vermont.
C: How about the tax benefits that you typically see with a commercial solar?
J: I don’t go there much for the federal tax is the main one that’s been available since the Bush administration. I don’t go there much with my folks and I maybe could more but the typical system that I sell is the one that’s ready-to-make, the most expensive one is $707.
C: It’s not even worth it.
J: And it’s a percentage of that, it’s up to 30% of the system.
C: I think it’s down now, it’s starting to decrease. It might only be 25 or 22% now.
J: Yeah, it’s gonna go away.
But I did run into something that one of my customers showed me. I just found out about this last year. In Vermont, if you buy a solar system for home use, if you fill out this form, S-3E, it’s just a one-page state form, then you can avoid paying sales tax on the system.
That could be nice. That was essentially a way for me to lower the price by 30 bucks on one of my systems or even more if I helped someone build a bigger system. There’s a little bit of a definition who qualifies for it. I don’t think you can just get parts for somebody else or something like that, there, it’s gotta be your own home, off-grid solar system. Well, it can be on-grid too, there’s a provision for that. So I’ve been doing that lately. I feel a little guilty ’cause I’m not contributing to the Vermont economy with sales tax like I used to before. Not too guilty, though.
C: They should be able to hobble along without you.
J: Yeah, so there is that. And that’s the only direct financial benefit I see Vermont doing.
Vermont is pretty green in a lot of ways and we have a lot nice, well-meaning legislation but they don’t really put their money where their mouth is too much in the legislature. Sorry to say that but…
C: You’re not alone in that.
J: Yeah, but they allow a lot of green stuff to happen. They don’t regulate oppressively say, like Arizona or Florida. Those states and some others have laws that actively suppress solar.
C: Interesting, ’cause there’s so much sun.
J: Oh I know, yeah, it’s crazy.
C: I guess we know who lobbied for that legislation.
J: Yeah, absolutely, the power companies. Florida has some sort of a law where it’s illegal to be off-grid.
Yeah, it’s been a couple of years since I haven’t been keeping up with every detail of it. Presumably there’s people fighting against it, but yeah, the power company is coming in and just getting the legislature to make people – if they want power, to be on the grid.
And there are people who would do that even in Vermont if they could. There’s some people who believe that you shouldn’t have the right to be off-grid. And I stand opposed to that way of thinking.
C: I would say. Why shouldn’t we be able to be off grid? That’s ridiculous.
J: Yeah, if they’re worried about safety – well, I’m all about safety you know, but it’s a… I know it’s a…I don’t think that’s the motivation behind it. It’s more like a…
C: Well, it’s not endangering them, if you have solar, how is it hurting them?
J: It’s kind of a threat to power, I think. It’s like if you can have your own baby at home, if you can make your own power, if you can, anything you can do on your own takes power away from other people who would tell you how to do it or regulate it or make money off of your doing it right.
C: Yeah, and I’m all for that. Alright, Joe, any parting words, anything I should have asked you that I didn’t ask?
J: Let’s see, I made a few notes… no, we covered a lot. I would say to anybody who’s young enough to do it, just get out of debt and stay out of debt because the most miserable people, I know that are around my age or older are people that they’re just screwed financially, to start with. They go into retirement with not even able to retire and in many cases, you know that and then if, if you’re living off for credit card, you’re never really gonna be able to do things you wanna do.
I know that’s easier said than done. Some people just get in situations they can’t help, I know that. I also know people who just will use credit cards to buy Christmas gifts every year. There’s a lot of stuff that can be avoided later in life and problems.
C: Exactly and we’re coming up to the holiday so make somebody a gift that’s cool. Yeah, something from the heart. Make them a cake or apple pie or a little floral arrangement and that would mean a lot more to them anyway than some crap that you get at the store.
J: You can even do a certificate. I suggested this to my son, he was really broke last year for while he was out of work and he wanted to give a gift to my wife, maybe for Christmas or birthday, and I said, “You know, every time the power gets interrupted in her car, her radio goes back to the stupid thing where it’s blinking all these colors so you can choose the best color and you just can’t use the clock or anything, and it’s terrible to figure out and every… And this happens every daylight savings time,” then I said, “But if you gave her a certificate for you to be on call to go fix her clock and her radio any time she needs it, she would love that.” Absolutely, that’s a real gift.
C: I put that on my Christmas list this year. I would like my brother-in-law, who’s a carpenter to help build my deck this summer. That would be the best gift you could give me, save me a ton of money. And it would just cost you time.
We’ll see if they choose that one, I hope so.
J: There’s a lot of stuff like that.
C: It does require a little more thought and you have to know the person a little bit and know what they would like, but it’s so much more meaningful gift, and so much more well-received. And it doesn’t cost you any cash.
J: Yeah and I see people too, who use their house as an ATM machine and that’s just so sad. One guy I know, he’s 47 or 48, he’s already done two second mortgages on his house and I know they went on a vacation to Italy on that. It’s gonna come up sooner than you think, and you’ll have no equity and then things can happen, like the great recession where your house, you’re under water, suddenly.
C: Well, at least here in Boston area, it seems like we’re at the top of the housing market, so we are expecting a correction. I’m expecting a correction. I don’t know if people who are cashing in their homes are expecting the correction, but I’m a real estate agenet and we look at the market and it is going to correct. There is way too much supply. That’s gonna have an impact on your home price, I promise, so don’t do it.
J: You remember the sad stories and when the housing bubble crashed before. I knew a few around here, but I know other parts of the country, it’s worse. Oh my God, people are just, it’s pitiful, ruin their lines.
C: Well, just an hour from Boston, in Worcester, there were homes that lost two-thirds of their value, so if it was $180,000 condo, it’s now worth $60,000 and they couldn’t sell them at that price. You couldn’t give them away and people said: oh, we didn’t see it coming. Well, how did you not see coming? When I can walk into the bank and they say, stated income, stated asset, you know those were the days.
How much do you make? Oh, I said to the guy. How much do I have to make to get this loan? And he said $60,000, I said. Oh that’s great. I make $65,000. I’m made like $25,000 at the time.
They just said it was all on the honor system. Like, you cannot give people mortgages on the honor system. I’m sorry.
J: It’s a little different now, though. I think the banks are scared now. They don’t do that kind of stuff, in fact, now it’s hard for young people to buy a home because the banks are so careful.
C: Yeah, it’s loosened up a little bit, but it is still, you know, it’s still tough definitely. Yeah, that it’s a nice message that it is possible to get out of debt and that it’s great when you get to be a certain age when you… And you don’t wanna… like you’re able to do the solar instead of being a Walmart greeter or whatever, kind of thing that would give you some kind of benefits and reliable income. That’s what it’s all about, right, that’s…
J: Oh, yeah. And if you’ve got your health and you go into your 60’s or so… And you could live 30 more years and be active and do things. It’s but… But not if you have a heavy burden of debt or if you don’t take care of yourself, too – once you lose your health, everything is pretty much gone anyway.
C: Yeah, that’s when I do my planning, my financial planning. My aunt lived to be 105 and she was still living independently at that time, so I’m like, “Okay I have to be able to live for at least, I gotta be able to support myself at least 50 more years.
J: That’s a good way to look at it.
C: I have to have a reliable income stream for 50 years.
J: I have an aunt in Ohio, a great aunt actually. She grew up before social security existed and she never liked the idea of social security, she thought it was charity, which is just the mindset of a lot of people, back then… So she took on a career, I think, after her husband died, of wallpapering houses and completely supported herself until she died. She didn’t live to be hundred but she was probably well into her 80s anyway, it’s… She never took a dime from anybody, never took any social security.
C: Loving what you do, that goes to your mental attitude, and that I think helps to prolong your life, when you’re happy when you’re passionate about something when you’re focusing on something other than: oh, my knees hurt, whatever.
J: Yeah, oh yeah, I know, I’ve worked at the state hospital for 8-years as a Psychiatric Technician.
And there were a lot of long-term employees there because it’s a good state work, good benefits, and I knew several people in those eight years who retired after – usually at 30-35 years and then came right back and worked as a temp doing the same work and it’s kind of stressful work, and it can be dangerous at times. We had pretty high acuity patients. And I’m just shaking my head. Like, why in the hell would you wanna do this?
And you don’t get as much respect as a temp and don’t get the same benefits, you’re a little less pay and typically they would say, “Well I just need to stay busy.” But I think in some cases it was more like: you’re too far in debt, you have too much debt, ’cause nobody in their right mind wants to do this in retirement you got. I took an early retirement with the state at 55 and it was already still starting to feel little dangers to me.
Sometimes we had to wrestle with people. They got violent and you go, or you have a mandatory double shift, have to be held over, sometimes work an extra eight hours.
C: Right, ’cause you can’t… It’s not safe to go home for whatever reason, or whatever.
J: Maybe I could have kept doing it for another ten years. So I was able to get my medical and dental for life, that math retirement, and then a small pension, and then now I have Social Security and were out of debt anyway. Or like you said, a WalMart greeter or something, like that.
C: Well, sometimes I think it’s not even that they might need the money, some people I think it’s just they don’t have any hobbies they don’t have anything that they care about that they’re passionate about, so they just have to get out and see people so they’re not depressed all day, you know?
J: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s understandable. I guess I can’t relate to it, and I have a list this long all the time of things I wanna do, when I’m talking to you, I’m gonna design a system for a guy at a hunting camp and you come up with a price quote for him and just the beginning is all kind of stuff to exactly…
C: I know that’s my life, I’m like, “Oh gosh, what do I do in the course of a day? Just don’t even give me started. And it’s all a labor of love.
J: I see some things for you to do right there, some roofing.
C: Why not start right here, I can sheetrock my ceiling. Not quite ready for that yet, unfortunately, but very close, very close, and hopefully before the winter gets too much more advanced.
J: Did you build your own house?
C: No, I took it – basically was two beach cabins that got cobbled together about 70 years ago and they were stuck together, and cobbled together and gutted them out. And I’m turning it back into a two-family house.
J: Bet you got a great deal on it. I’m not asking how much.
C: I did. It’s right across the street from the beach and it’s gonna be two tiny homes, side by side probably like a 500 square foot house and a 700 square foot house, side by side. And I’m gonna put them on Airbnb and when somebody’s living in my part of the house, I’m just gonna go do a little couch surfing.
J: It’ll pay for itself.
C: Yeah exactly. Awesome, thank you so much, Joe, it was great talking to you.
J: Thanks for inviting me, it was fun.
C: And I’m definitely gonna be in touch with you about my solar system and I think I have to do it fairly soon. So what would I just send you, would I send you a picture of the house or some idea, so you could help me design it?
J: Yeah, one thing that speeds it up is if you send me an idea of what you want, what power load you have, what you like to use it can be a rough approximation maybe list the devices and how much power the use can be an estimate of how long they would typically be on in one day.
Day or night in a 24-hour period, okay, so if I had something like that to go on, I could…
I’d be more than happy to just design a perspective system for you and just send it to you. Some primates.
And if you had any idea how much sun you have per day, that helps too. Okay, what your chance of sun is but you may not really know it in the situation. And if we went a little further with this and your interest and I could run down there and take a look too, and something that he knows is that be awesome that would be awesome, yeah, yeah, ’cause I have a pretty big and pretty flat roof. So I’ll send you some pictures and you do you like a… Yeah, you wanna send an email and tell me anything you want to about power needs, or situation and we just get a dialog going and we can give you some ideas when you be looking at…
Alright, great, excellent, thank you so much.
J: Thank you.
Thanks so much, Joe, for joining us today and thank you listeners, for tuning in, I hope you’ll join us again next week which is the sunrise series format we’ll be talking about, among other things, charitable giving and how good that can feel and then join us on January 5th for Joe Yoder, Part II. In the meantime, have a wonderful week.
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