North Hill man builds solar power system for potential outages | Local News

James Catalano worked 30 years for a cable company, but you won’t catch him paying a cable bill.

Sure, the 79-year-old North Hill resident has a flat screen TV in his living room like most everyone else. But he wired an exterior antenna so that he receives 30 over-the-air digital broadcast channels, all for free.

Nor are you likely to see him changing a light bulb. Every fixture in his first-floor apartment at 228 E. Euclid Ave. uses LED lights that, according to energy.gov, last 25 times longer and use 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs.

Oh, and one other thing — if ever a storm should impact New Castle like one did earlier this month in Texas, leaving 3 million people without power, you won’t find Catalano sitting in the dark.

Catalano built his own back-up power system at the rear of his house, with two 100-watt solar cells on the back porch connected to four batteries and a 3000-watt inverter in a small shed that a previous tenant used to store a motorcycle.

“Just for the heck of it,” he said of his motivation for creating the system. “Just to show people that it could be done.” And, if a Texas-sized challenge should ever come to town, to prove “you can survive.”

Artisan Electric, a Seattle-based solar contractor, notes on its website that a single 100-watt solar panel “can power up several small devices which include cell phones, lamps, fans on ceilings, router of Wi-Fi, laptops and other smaller devices.”

Catalano, though, has two of the cells and uses a special wiring harness to hook them up in parallel. Together, they feed electricity to four storage batteries that provide him with 300 amp hours of power. The inverter will then draw power from the batteries to send electricity back to the house in the form of standard 110 volt current.

“I’ve got 300 amp hours, so it depends on how many amps I’m pulling,” Catalano said. “I can run 100 amps for three hours, I can run 50 amps for six hours. A standard refrigerator, which mine is, draws about 6.8 amps. I could run that for a week.

“Everything in the house takes very little electricity. The furnace and the stove are gas, and all the lights are LED. In the meantime, that solar panel is still charging the batteries. When you get to a break-even point, you’re going to run out.”

Catalano’s system is not intended to enable him to live off the grid indefinitely.

“If the electric would go off, that’s what this is about,” he said.

Should that happen, he can throw a breaker to disconnect from his Penn Power supply and start drawing from the solar backup.

And he’s willing to share.

“My second-floor neighbor is a woman, she works online,” he said. “She knows that if the electric would go down, I could run a drag cord up to her apartment and she could run her computer.

“That’s why I have all those outlets out there; anybody in the building I could run electric to.”

Catalano said he has less than $400 in his entire system, and that all the components are available on the open market, so almost anyone could do what he’s done.

“You need to know a little bit about electricity,” he said. “I’ve done this for 30 years. But you also have to know what you’re buying. You don’t just buy regular batteries, because I’m going for storage, not capacity.”

He recalls looking at one battery that had 1,000 cold-cranking amps, but no rating for amp hours. He ended up calling the manufacturer and learned that the battery had a plate that made it a bad fit for his purposes.

“This one here is more money,” he said, “because it’s for storage. So you’ve got to know what you’re buying when it comes to batteries.”

You’ve also got to know, he added, not to believe the talk that solar power is only for more southerly locations.

“People think that western Pennsylvania, you don’t get enough sunshine for solar,” he said. “That’s not true. It’s daylight now (on an overcast afternoon); there’s no sunshine. I’m putting out 13.6 volts right now from the solar panels, and they’re not even in sunlight.”

d_irwin@ncnewsonline.com