Solar systems grow as alternative to windmillsWritten by Gayle Smith
Glenrock – Not many ranchers can say they haven’t experienced a time when they drove through a pasture to check cows, only to find all of them huddled around the tank fighting over that last drop of water. With thirsty cattle mulling about, trying to find an alternative way to get them water either by hauling it, using a pump jack or moving the cattle takes valuable time.
As an alternative, many producers are looking into solar power as a water source for their livestock.
“These systems have been around 25 to 30 years now,” says Scott Blakeley, owner and certified pump installer of Pronghorn Pump and Repair, which is based in Glenrock. “They have improved these systems every year they have been out. Every element of the system has been improved and made more efficient.”
Blakeley says using a solar powered system for watering livestock can add up to less costs checking water. He points out one ranch, where he switched over the traditional windmill systems and pump jacks to solar-operated watering systems.
“There can be a tremendous savings in man-hours, and pickup and fuel expenses, by using a solar powered watering system. At this particular ranch, they had one man who did nothing for eight hours each day but check windmills. With this new system, he only has to check them once every three days,” he explains.
Blakeley says a big factor in how often the systems need to be checked is how many water sources are in the pasture.
“If it is your sole water source, it needs to be checked fairly frequently,” he says. “In the western states we tend to have a lot of sun, but if you live in an area where there is a lot of fog, you may have some trouble.”
“The solar pumping systems aren’t magic,” cautions Blakeley. “They just seem like they are. The only thing you hear when you walk up to a solar pumping system is the water running into the tank. The solar panel absorbs the sun’s energy, which is diverted through a controller to the solar pump. The pumps throughput is determined by the amount of power. There are a lot of variables involved. It is somewhat a complex calculation, but it always starts with the end result - how much water you need.”
When a producer is interested in a solar watering system Blakeley asks a series of questions to determine what type of system to install. Some important variables include the elevation of the pump location, how much water is needed and when, depth of well and location.
“Animals drink a different amount of water everyday, and a different amount each month,” he adds.
“The solar watering system can pump different amounts of water,” Blakeley says. “When I put in one of these systems I calculate how much water is needed and determine how much water the well can produce. I determine this by how many gallons or tank-fulls can be produced per day, not how many gallons it can pump per minute.”
“Every solar pumping system is job specific,” he adds. “The size of the pump and the size of the solar array is determined by the amount of water needed daily. It is helpful to physically test the water source to determine how much water it can potentially pump. We physically measure the water level while we pump it, so we know what the drawdown level is.”
Blakeley also encourages producers to have a storage system that will hold at least three to four days of water.
“Producers need to have extra storage for the days that are overcast and the panel may not be operating at its full potential,” he says.
Some producers also have a battery backup system to run the pump for some time.
“I think it is more efficient to have some additional water storage rather than a battery backup,” says Blakeley. “It is a key element in this system.”
Most of the storage systems are above-ground steel tanks that vary in size.
“If you are utilizing one of these systems during the winter, you may want to install an underground storage tank to keep the water from freezing,” he says.
“Some of the solar pumps can also be installed with a backup generator,” continues Blakeley. “We have some systems that operate on solar power during the day. Then, in late afternoon, there is an auto start switch on the generator that kicks on to power it through the night. In the early morning it shuts off and reverts back to solar power automatically.”
The solar-powered watering systems can also operate using a float or pressure system. The electronic float is built into the solar control to stop the motor when the water reaches a certain level. If a pipeline will be used, Blakeley says they have to calculate for the additional lift.
“We have one system where water is pumped a mile away to some other tanks,” he explains. “They can lift from different levels, depending upon how many cattle will use the water source at any given time.”
Blakeley says producers may have to consider changing their rotation based on how deep they can pump water from.
“Wells up to 300 feet are very viable. When they are deeper than 300 feet, it gives you a more limited supply,” he explains. “A solar array is about equivalent in price to a 120-foot-deep windmill.”
In addition, Blakeley says producers can also purchase mobile units they can utilize at multiple well sites.
“You can move these from well to well and use the same power source,” he explains. “They also come in different sizes, and you can buy smaller mobile units to supply a whole ranch.”
An advantage of using a solar-powered system is it is a standalone power system that can provide water in remote areas.
“It does not need electricity to operate,” says Blakely. “Because these systems are not connected to electricity, they also tend to not draw a lightening strike. On one of the premium solar panel systems they simulated a hailstone hitting the solar panel at 120 miles per hour. Overall, they hold up well to hail, but they don’t withstand bullet holes very well. It might be something to consider, if you plan to use it on public lands.”
Blakeley encourages producers to insure their systems, which can typically be done through a farm or ranch insurance policy.
“Solar watering systems can also really benefit the environment,” he adds. “There is less use of a pickup or ATV checking them, and there is less pollution. If you use a generator to power your water source, you will have less expense in buying a generator and servicing it.”