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Solar pumps becoming popular among cattlemen

Staff writer

Ed Vinduska has two solar-powered water systems on 480 acres of grass nine miles northeast of Marion. One runs a well that used to be operated by a windmill, which needed a lot of maintenance and wasn’t useful when the wind didn’t blow, he said. It is close to a pond, which can get low with murky water in the summertime.

Vinduska’s cows prefer the well water.

“The cattle walk right past the pond to drink from the tank,” he said.

The grass is 20 miles from Vinduska’s home southeast of Tampa. He said the solar-powered systems are mostly trouble-free and are in operation during the grazing season from mid-April through mid-October or so. Floats in the tanks stop the pump when they get full of water.

“The brighter the sun, the faster the pump runs,” he said. “Even on a cloudy day, the pump will run some but not as fast.”

The system includes a 240-volt outlet that can be used to hook up a generator during a prolonged cloudy spell, if necessary.

Solar-powered water well systems have been around for a while, but their use in agriculture has multiplied since 2008, when the federal and state governments began providing subsidies to farmers and ranchers who install them.

Joel Thomas of Flaming’s Plumbing, Heating, and Air Conditioning has installed a dozen solar-powered well systems in the past six years.

He said government pays 80 percent if farmers use its cost share program. It comes with many regulations, he said, but it is a top-notch system that improves the value of the land.

The first solar-powered system Thomas installed was in a well in the middle of a section of grass south of Florence owned by his father.

“We started with an empty well casing and went from there,” he said.

A submersible solar-powered pump was installed in the bottom of the well. The cylindrical pump is “very high-tech,” Thomas said. It is electronically driven and can run on a range of 38 to 280 volts of electricity. A power-cutoff safety feature is built into the pipe six inches above the pump. It prevents the pump from burning up if the well runs dry or water level is low.

Thomas said a regular submersible pump is 24 inches long and about 3½ inches wide, whereas a solar-powered pump is almost four feet long and 2½ inches wide. The solar-powered pump will fit older wells with smaller casings.

The energy to pump the water comes from solar panels mounted above ground. Solar panels come in various sizes. The deeper the well, the more solar cells are needed. The cells collect the sun’s rays and convert them into electricity. Wiring moves the electricity from the cells to the pump, and the pump does the work of moving the water up through a pipe to the water tank.

Thomas said he drills a hole in the pipe about 10 feet below the surface, so the water will drain down when the pump is turned off and not in use during cold winter months.

He said in some systems, the pipe comes through the bottom of the tank, and the constant flow of water pushes out the ice that forms in the tank, making it usable year-round.

Jason Backhus of Tampa installs solar-powered systems almost every week. He was scheduled to install at least two this week.

He has installed at least four systems for Steve Schild of Burdick in his large feedlot, but most of the installations are in pastures.

The system is practical where electricity is not readily available, such as in the middle of a pasture, or wherever a reliable supply of water is needed.

Last modified April 9, 2015

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