IT DIDN’T START OUT TO BE A HOBBY by Phil Phares

My Wind charger Hobby It never really started out as a hobby. I was just plain tired of doing chores by lantern light. In the early thirties, in order to get to school on time, you had to milk the cows, harness the horses, and do other chores by lantern light. At about this time, a few 6-volt wind chargers were being used to charge batteries for radios. A few farms had 32-volt light systems consisting of sixteen large glass batteries along with a 32-volt engine-driven generator. This entire system cost quite a bit, so that was out for my family. During my junior year in high school, I took a shop class and that made school interesting for me. But in my senior year, it was a different story. After taking second year shop for six weeks, the superintendent decided that I needed European History more than shop. Well that blew me out of the top of the class as I could only pull down a D as compared to an A+ in shop. Can you imagine studying history when your mind was on shop?

 

There was a shop manual called Popular Mechanics that I always read from cover to cover, and in that magazine it described how to rewind a Dodge generator for 32-volts. At that time, Dodge had a big automobile that had the starter and generator as one unit. It started the car, but after it was running, it served as a generator. This starter-generator was pretty easy to find in a junkyard, so I began collecting them. I started taking all the wire out of one then got wire and supplies from a company and started re-winding it according to the manual. It took a long time as I did a lot of it at night under a poor light. When completed, I tested it by driving it from the belt pulley on our F-20 tractor. It worked fine, but if you ran it too fast, the brushes would start to arc. At that time, you could buy a 32-volt wind charger but that was too costly for me, so I decided to make my own. I had hardly any tools except for a hacksaw and a brace and steel bits. I found six-inch channel iron and made a gearbox using two gears from a Model T engine. Then I decided to make the propeller. I knew I needed a way to regulate the speeds. I found out by trying it out on the tractor that with too high revolutions the brushes arced and wore out in a short time. So I fashioned a propeller where the blades would shift to hold the speed down. The next step was to get a tower or something to mount it on. I decided on black steel pipe. Money was hard to come by, but by trapping, gardening, and working for neighbors, I got enough money to send to Sears for eighty feet of pipe–forty feet of three-inch pipe and forty feet of two and one half-inch pipe.

 

Half way between the house and barn was an abandoned, water well. I got a twenty-foot length of pipe, lowered it into the well, and left about five feet above ground. Then I mounted the generator and propeller to the pipe. I attached six No. 9 guy-wires below the reach of the propeller. Using a block and tackle, I began the slow process of pulling the pipe out of the well. I had to keep the guy-wires loose as I raised the pipe. When I got twenty feet pulled up, I set it to one side then lowered another twenty feet into the well screwing the one in the well to the one I had just raised. I attached six more guy wires and started pulling the pipe up. This was a very slow process (all of this was done by me with no help). Finally I had forty feet out so I put down another twenty feet, attached six more guy-wires and pulled it out, getting it up to sixty feet high. I decided to try it out at that height, so I tightened all the guy-wires.

 

The next part was to make steps so I could climb the pipe. I found that angle irons from the bull wheel of a binder were just right. I used U-bolts to clamp them to the pipe for steps. As I moved upward, I would take another step, fastening myself to the pipe with a windmill chain. I did this until finally I got to the top, but boy sixty feet up was pretty scary. I decided to stop there and try it out. Everything was working fine except there was a large grove of trees nearby and it blocked the wind in about half of the directions. So I decided to go up another twenty feet which would make the tower eighty feet high with a better wind supply. Well I finally got it up and tightened and decided to climb up it. I could go up to sixty feet with no trouble but another twenty feet was almost more than I wanted to climb. I knew that I would have to get to the top to check the oil level and brushes once in a while so I finally made it to the top.

 

Everything worked fine until one day I climbed to the top to check, and found that the brushes were down to where they should be replaced. So I decided to take just the generator down. I fashioned a gin pole and lowered it to the ground. After replacing the new brushes, I pulled it back up and tied the rope so it would stay close to where I wanted it. But after I got to the top, I found out that I did not have enough slack in the rope in order to get it into the gearbox. So I decided to unfasten the generator from the rope. However after I unfastened it, I found out I didn’t have the strength to hoist it into place. I thought for a while that I had only one choice– which was to drop the generator. But looking down and seeing all those guy-wires that it would probably hit, somehow I suddenly found enough strength and with one big attempt, I got it into the case and bolted down.

 

The wind charger served us in more ways than one. I didn’t have a watch and some days when I would be farming a half-mile away, my mother would either turn it on or shut it down about 15 minutes before dinner.

 

After I decided to move back to the home place, I lowered the pipe down the well and starting making an eighty-foot, three-legged tower. I used the same pipe and was able to buy used angle iron. By this time, there were several 32-volt wind chargers around the country. I was lucky enough to find an almost new one that had blown down, breaking the gear case, so I got the whole thing for twenty-five dollars. I had the broken housing welded and had a bigger outfit. I bought sixteen, glass batteries and now had a good system.

 

By this time there was talk about getting electrical power through the R.E.A (Rural Electrification Administration). When our farmstead got REA, as I call it, I still used lots of the 32-volt system for welding etc. Finally I took the rig down and just used the tower for a TV antenna.

 

After World War II was over and there was an energy shortage, they began talking wind chargers again. In fact several companies started making wind chargers so you could even sell back electricity to the power companies. Government programs made it possible to get grants for energy-saving devices. A decision was made to do a wind survey to catalogue wind speeds over Nebraska. Even though I had REA, I still experimented with the wind. People at the REA knew I was interested in wind power, and a technician asked if I was interested in taking care of one of the 20 wind stations to record wind speeds. Since I wasn’t using my eighty-foot tower, I said that I would like to do that. The day that I got the recorder was a beautiful December day but the temperature was predicted to be at zero the next day. The recorder would go up to the very top of the tower. I was frantic because I didn’t know exactly how I was going to fasten it. Time was running out, as I wasn’t about to try to take it up if the temperature was zero. I decided to use two Vise Grip pliers to fasten it to the tower. Sure enough it worked and I strung the wire down and got it into the bomb shelter.

 

By the way, the government was urging people to build bomb shelters, so I converted an old ice- house (a cellar that wasn’t used any more) by putting new cement on the walls. The roof was made of steel, topped with concrete. Also I should let people know what an icehouse was. Years ago, during the winter when there was a cold snap and the ice would get 12 to 18 inches thick on the lakes and ponds, we would cut big slabs and place them in the icehouse and cover them with straw. In the summer, we would uncover the ice and use it in our icebox.

 

Now I will get back to the wind recorder. One of the REA technicians came out and set it up. It was a tape recorder that ran off electricity and had its own back-up power pack. The technician would come out each month and remove the tape and put in a new one. It was very interesting to me because you could count the blinking of a light and a chart would tell the wind speed. Once a month I would get a sheet showing the wind speeds all over Nebraska.

 

I felt real proud because my station was the only one in Nebraska that was on the whole time. After two years, the Department of Energy recalled all of them, but I don’t know why they did. I had to retrieve the device from the top of the tower. If I had it to do over again, I think I would have told them if they wanted it, they could go after it. Some of the northern towns in Nebraska had the highest average wind speed. As it turned out, Columbus, Nebraska, and the one I had showed the slowest wind speed. I know that being in the Frenchman River Valley was part of the reason for the slow speed.

 

Now there are rumors they want to conduct this survey all over again.

 

I began searching for some good angle iron to make a bigger and heavier tower. The Palisade elevator had huge oil tanks for storage of grain and as they put them up, they used heavy angle iron to help support them. A tornado damaged them and so they tore the tanks down. As they cut them up to dispose of them, they kept the straight angle irons. They sold it dirt cheap compared to other iron. About every time I sold a load of corn, I would pick out iron. I kept track of how many feet I had and when I thought I had enough, I started building a tower. This time the tower was four-sided and was bolted with three-quarter-inch bolts. I made one side with it lying on the ground and I would mark it to keep track of where each piece went. Then I would start the next side.

 

I worked off and on all fall and part of the winter. When one of my sons came home for Christmas, I thought we would try putting it together. But it was too cold and I was getting the markings mixed up. Later I got it together by myself. I hinged two sides at the bottom and then started raising the top off the ground. I bought a twenty-ton jack and jacked it up as far as that would go, blocked it up, then would start over again with the jack. It seemed to take forever to get the top end high enough that a tractor hooked to it could start raising it. After the top end was about fifteen feet off of the ground, I decided to try raising it. It went just high enough to let the props fall out and then the tractor started to spin its wheels. So I locked the wheels, left the tractor in gear and went to get another tractor. My neighbor (who was a school teacher) came over when he got home and drove one tractor and I drove the other one. With two tractors, we finally pulled the tower up.

 

I then made a gearbox, which didn’t work well so I kept looking for a right-angle gearbox. My neighbor’s landlord had put in a new well, pipe and all. The old pump head was in perfect condition so I bought the outfit. It turned out to be a lot like a deep well irrigation system except the pump head would be seventy-five feet off of the ground. This wind charger would have a four-bladed propeller with two stationary blades and two that changed the pitch. It would not matter how strong the wind was blowing. I used the electricity that it generated to mainly run heaters. Later, it started making a peculiar noise and I found the generator bearing was wearing out.

 

At that same time we settled the family estate and I wound up with buildings and some land. The old barn was no good anymore so I tore it down and used some of the 2 x 6’s to make another propeller. I took six, 2 x 6 by 12-foot boards and glued them together, carving out a blade that even had a curved part. Then I covered them with aluminum. I made three blades this way. Next I took the rear wheel from a Dodge 1 ½- ton truck, bearings and all. I welded three truck rear wheel hubs and bearings to the Dodge truck wheel. This made the hubs for my blades

 

. About that time with the energy crunch, the Department of Energy sponsored a deal where all of these new companies making wind-driven machines were generating electricity at Rocky Flats in Denver. I made a special trip to see them. I was afraid that the wind wouldn’t be blowing when I was there. The wind was blowing but they were all shut down.

 

I was so mad that I went to the airport the next day and found a young pilot who needed flying time and we flew over the wind chargers. I was pleased though since I got to see one of the machines that was made in California and I had literature from that company. It was down and I think the reason was that they needed to install new bearings that held the blade. I knew I had it over them as the bearings from the truck would last forever. It looked like the California machine just had sleeve bearings. At that time, the machine cost about $15,000. If I had applied for a grant a year earlier, I think I could have received a grant, especially since I had such a heavy tower.

 

When I got my wind charger built I bought a 220-volt, 8000-watt capacity generator and the instruction manual stated that you ought to have at least a twenty-horsepower-engine to run it. Well, my rig just toyed with it, so you can imagine the power from a prop that was about twenty-five feet in diameter.

 

When I built the tower I never thought that I might move. The man that bought most of the land also decided he would like to have the bins and the house, so we decided to move and build a house about seventy-five yards from the wind charger. I ran the wind charger at different time, but the neighbors said the noise didn’t bother them. It sounded a lot like a helicopter when the blades shifted to regulate the speed. One thing I didn’t take into consideration was the weight of the one and seven-sixteenth -inch shaft that comes down from the gearbox, and one time it came apart by shearing two bolts. I just got that fixed when we had one of those horrible winds and it broke a half-inch bolt that held a guide roller. That let the whole thing seesaw back and forth until it cut the hydraulic lines that shut it down, and now there was no way to shut off the machine.

 

I put a large bar through the universal joint to make sure it wouldn’t turn. Then after one of those gales again, I saw that the machine was about to go into gear. I started making preparations to take it down, and I wasn’t even going to try to salvage any of it except the hydraulic part. I climbed several times to the top to get braces and rollers so as to free the seventy-five feet of pipe and propeller. One of our sons was coming and I wanted to hold off until he got here, but the wind could cause it to go a different way than I wanted it to. I had a cable going to the top, next to the propeller, fastened to a tractor to keep it from leaving the tower. The day before he was to come home, I became worried what might happen if the wind came from a different direction, so I oiled the pin holding the cable to the tractor and saw that it would come out. I went back to the house and told my wife that I was going to pull the pin. I did, and it came crashing to the ground. Most of it is ready for the scrap-iron pile.

 

What beats all is that in all these years I have climbed up and down towers and never got hurt. Yet while I was trying to pull one of the shafts out of the pipe, it came loose and I fell backwards on my rump and suffered a compaction fracture of a vertebra in my back.

 

This story covers a period from the early 1930’s to the present time. I hated to give up my hobby, but I am crowding 85 years, so I think it is about time to quit.