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COVER STORY: Sugar beet farmer uses solar power to make life a little easier

FISHER, Minn. -- With all there is in the papers these days about solar power and wind power, there is surprisingly little said about someone using one of these technologies in their own unique way. But that's exactly what farmer Scott Knutson of...

FISHER, Minn. -- With all there is in the papers these days about solar power and wind power, there is surprisingly little said about someone using one of these technologies in their own unique way. But that's exactly what farmer Scott Knutson of Fisher, Minn., has done. He's put solar power to work on his farm to help with the heavy lifting.

"I've always been kind of interested in solar and different energy sources," he says.

Like many farmers, invention is not so much an act of divine inspiration as it is coming up with a tool to fill a need or make life on the farm a little easier. Knutson has designed and built several innovative tools for farmers, including a sugar beet yield monitor and a patented direct injection monitor, both of which he sells through his company, KB Manufacturing.

But this project is a little different because it employs bolt-on components to deliver a useful, self-maintaining piece of equipment for his own use. What's more, his idea is practical, effective and it didn't cost an arm and a leg.

The need

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Around this time last year, Knutson was prepping the soil and planting his sugar beets. His spray rig was set up for direct injection, so he was loading the 15-gallon kegs onto the sprayer.

But with each full keg weighing more than 200 pounds and a sprayer that holds four kegs, loading up can be a serious bit of work. Knutson went through more than 45 kegs of just Roundup last summer.

"When you load and unload so many kegs, when you do that, you think of lifts or different ways to get that product onto the sprayer quickly without hurting yourself in the process, or finding somebody else to come over and help you do it."

Though not an older fellow -- Knutson doesn't say exactly how old he is -- he admits that he's not getting any younger either.

"About 15 or even 10 years ago, I'd have thought, 'No problem,'" he says with a grin. "Today, it's like, 'You know what, I think I'll go find somebody else to help me to lift it on there.'"

But he'd often roll up into an empty yard, finding himself alone to tackle the task of unloading and reloading the sprayer alone.

"I think with farmers nowadays, with technology and everything taking over, there are probably less people around on a farm to help you do some of these things," he says.

Even using his forklift seemed to make more work of the job. He'd have to load the kegs onto a pallet, then lift them up to the sprayer and push them off the pallet onto the sprayer.

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There had to be a better way, he thought, so he decided to design a simpler piece of equipment, one that could handle the lifting without the need for pre-loading pallets.

Rolling stock

He started by welding up a simple rolling cart with a lifting crane that can get the kegs out of the truck bed and up onto the sprayer. The boom can reach all the way into the front portion of a pickup bed while the forward wheels slide under the truck.

Below the boom's tip hangs a chain and steel grapple, designed specifically for lifting kegs. Two metal hooks are hung the same distance apart as the handles on the keg so they will hold on by themselves while Knutson runs the controls.

A handle at the rear is welded to the vertical post, allowing Knutson to push or pull the cart from the truck to the sprayer and back on its set of five wheels.

Knutson gets a lot of catalogs for wheels, bearings, hardware and electronics in the mail. Some of his best ideas come from browsing through them, he says.

"You look at something and you think, 'Hey, I could use that for something else,'" he says.

Four of the tires and wheels are made for riding lawn mowers. The two forward wheels are stationary, the central rear wheel casters, allowing steering. Two outrigger wheels are in place on either side, each about an inch off the ground, to prevent the rig from tipping.

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"I put bigger tires on the front of it, and I also put larger tires on the back, in case you get into really soft dirt," he says.

The boom height is adjustable to allow reaching up into semi-trailers.

Lifting power

The basic structure was solid and usable, but when it came time to do the actual lifting and dropping of the load, Knutson began to have second thoughts about his original design, which called for a hydraulic jack.

"It was to the point where you were jacking it up and you were getting maybe a half-inch at a time on it, so it would take 150 jack points to get it up to where you could load the keg onto a sprayer," he says.

Again, he says it was more work than should be necessary. He needed winching power.

"I've seen these winches on four-wheelers," he says. "They use them to pull them out of a spot. So I thought, well, utilizing that with just a regular cart, we should be able to move chemical kegs around."

So he bought an electric winch, rated for 1,850 pounds, just in case he needs to move some of his tractor weights, Knutson says. It cost about $100.

"You talk about efficient," he says. "This draws about six amps. The headlights on the tractor will draw four amps."

He mounted a single car battery to the base, ran the leads up to the winch, mounted just above the handle on the vertical post, and installed a hand-held control switch on a short cable.

Now he can lift his kegs and get them safely over and up onto the sprayer. All that was left for Knutson to do was see that the battery could last out the day.

Quick trickle

Knutson needed a reliable, steady charging capability for the lift battery.

"I wanted this thing independent so nobody has to remember to charge it, especially when there are three or four people coming in to use it," he says.

He remembered something he'd seen at a campground.

"I thought solar because of campers you see at RV campgrounds with panels sitting up there, just recharging some batteries," he says.

He wanted a solar panel, a battery charge indicator and a battery charge controller. So he went back to his catalogs. One of them, sent out by Digi-Key Corp., carried what he needed.

He got all three items for less than $150.

The panel size is labeled in terms of power delivery, not dimensions.

"They call it a 15-watt panel, so this charger would be able to maintain four of those batteries in a day," Knutson says. "So it's got a lot of power capability to bring in energy."

He could have gone with a smaller 5-watt or 6-watt panel, but he wanted some sturdiness. The larger panel, rated to withstand 1.5-inch hail at 60 mph, could be left out in the yard.

The recharge time also is shorter, thanks to the larger panel's higher wattage capacity.

"It's probably a heavy trickle charger," he says.

The unit delvers 1.25 amps of current to the battery. This is more than enough to keep up with the relatively light load on the winch.

"This draws, when it's full, an 1,850-pound winch, so it's not even near capacity," Knutson says. "It's only lifting a 210-pound keg. But when it's at draw (lifting 1,850 pounds), it'll draw six amps."

Ever-ready

The result is that, since he loads only eight or 10 kegs a day, Knutson's solar-powered charger can keep the battery ready to use all day.

"You would have to do 25 lifts for it to go completely out," he says.

So his lift is ready all day long, just sitting outside. If it's overcast, enough sun still is coming through to charge the battery.

"This will charge, even sitting in the incandescent light in the shop," he says, so he can keep it charging it overnight if needed. It even charges during the day in the shop with the doors open and the lights off.

And the charge controller makes sure the battery is properly maintained. Batteries need to be run down and charged back up again to stay healthy.

"If the battery sits full for a while, the charger will bring it down a little bit and then charge it back up," Knutson says. "It drains it through a little bit of a load."

For the finishing touch, aside from a John Deere green paint job, he added a simple throw switch to cut off power to and from the battery. This helps discourage Knutson's little ones from playing with the lift, which is not a toy -- at least not for kids.

"This is the first year with the solar panel on," he says. "I thought it'd be kind of neat to throw that on there with the battery."

"This will charge, even sitting in the incandescent light in the shop," he says, so he can keep it charging it overnight if needed. It even charges during the day in the shop with the doors open and the lights off.

And the charge controller makes sure the battery is properly maintained. Batteries need to be run down and charged back up again to stay healthy.

"If the battery sits full for a while, the charger will bring it down a little bit and then charge it back up," Knutson says. "It drains it through a little bit of a load."

For the finishing touch, aside from a John Deere green paint job, he added a simple throw switch to cut off power to and from the battery. This helps discourage Knutson's little ones from playing with the lift, which is not a toy -- at least not for kids.

"This is the first year with the solar panel on," he says. "I thought it'd be kind of neat to throw that on there with the battery."

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