Setting up solar power off the grid is a scary thought for many people. The first question is usually what happens when the sun does not shine?
Let’s dive into the basics of solar power and get an understanding of how it works
Going "off-the-grid" does not mean that you must abandon society, and cut yourself off from all services, all technology and all people. Far from it.
There are many different forms of living off the grid. It may mean that you gradually start to supply your own sources of energy, water and septic systems so you are not reliant on public and government utilities to provide them.
Some people may choose somewhere in between where they supplement the city systems with their own energy or water.
Some may choose to supply their own power, but retain access to city water.
Others choose to be off the grid completely. All options work- it just depends on your skill level and desire.
Most people will cite one of these reasons for wanting to generate and use solar energy:
In the event of a simple power outage, you will have your own system ready to switch on. Is it possible that one day the grid goes down for an hour? A day? A week? How long would you last without power?
The satisfaction of knowing you've "got it all sorted"- should their be some sort of event that cuts of city power is incredibly intoxicating.
Some people wish to off-set their electricity bills and not rely solely on the grid. Others generate a surplus of energy and can sell their energy back to the grid.
Some people wish to help the environment by using a renewable source of energy and help eliminate their carbon footprint.
Others love the technology and figuring out amps, voltage and wattage and wiring it altogether. There is a lot to learn and it can become a super addictive hobby.
Solar panels also called as "PVs" (Photovoltaics) are devices that are utilized to convert light energy into electricity. Since the sun is a massive source of light, solar panels collect the light energy and convert it into DC power.
Then, a solar inverter is used to transform the DC power into AC power which powers home appliances.
Solar panels are used in many applications such as water pumping systems, remote homes, telecommunications, cabins, traffic warning lights, and more. Here is one of the most popular solar power starter sets.
Its light, its portable, its less than $150. It delivers 100W and you can take it camping, hiking or power small appliances at home to start getting used to generating your own energy.
The hybrid solar system is a modernized system that combines both solar and battery storage. This means that it is able to generate power just like the common on-grid solar does but integrates the use of batteries as an energy storage to power devices for later use.
It is a highly-useful backup resource to supply power during electricity shortage or blackout.
Off-grid systems generate their own power without relying on the municipal grid at all. Your system also needs to be able to generate and store power during the winter and across several rainy days or overcast days.
There are many different ways to configure the system depending on your needs.
How much energy does your household use per day now?
If you are currently living with traditional grid power, it is likely you never think about how much energy a light bulb or your air conditioner uses.
You likely never think about whether you should use the vacuum cleaner at the same time as the washing machine at the same time as your son is using the power tools and your daughter is in the shower.
Once you switch to solar power off the grid, it is essential that you are aware of how much energy you are using at all times simultaneously and across a whole day. If you use too much energy at the one time, your inverter will shut down.
In this video, Jaime estimates that when they were living on grid, they used 60kwh per day. Now they use 4-6Kwh, perhaps up to 10kwH day in the heat of summer with the air conditioner.
Check it out- it has some useful insights:
There will be a time of year when there is minimal sunlight so you must carefully plan what battery capacity is needed to meet your household's requirements.
It is important to monitor how much energy you are consuming during the day so you do not run out.
Also be careful to not overload the system- even when the sun is shining.
Solar (PV) Panels Solar cells convert sunlight to electricity through a photovoltaic effect, capturing sunlight's photon, and absorbing the radiation to generate power and transmit them to the batteries.
Battery Bank. The batteries will store the energy collected from the sun and will disperse energy when you need it including at night time and on cloudy days.
Charge Controller This helps the batteries to produce the most efficient performance and that they are not overcharged.
DC-AC Load Center This is a panel board with corresponding fuses, switches, and circuit breakers to ensure the appropriate voltage and current is maintained.
DC-AC Inverter This converts DC into AC to power your household appliances.
Backup Generator This is not essential but is a useful back-up if your battery banks run out of power.
First, you need to determine the appliances you are going to use and for what length of time, you will use them. Calculate the daily load you will be needing.
To calculate accurately, you can do simple math by following the guidelines below:
1. Identify the appliances you want to operate and list down the hours you will be likely to run them.
They may be more than you think-TVs, computers, dishwashers, washing machines, hair straighteners, phone chargers, fridge, internet router, electric razros etc etc
2. Your appliances should have the specs on the back. Look for it and see the power rating.
3. Calculate the watt-hours by adding the power rating and the run time (number of hours). For example, you want to run a 12W fluorescent lamp for about 4 hours from your off-grid solar panel, the calculation is equal to:
Power rating: 12W
Run time: 4hrs
Watt Hour = 48Whrs
4. Repeat this process for all your appliances and sum them up together.
Light = 12W x 4hrs = 48Whrs
TV = 90W x 2 hrs = 180Whrs
Fan = 45W x 3 = 135Whrs
Total Watt Hours: 363Whrs
A tool like the Kill a Watt electric monitor will also measure this and start to get you clued in to your energy usage and how you can save a ton of money off your electric bill.
Even if you decide to not live off the grid, this tool will save you far more off your electric bill than the $18 this tool costs.
Start your solar power off the grid journey by checking in with this meter and seeing if you can start to reduce your energy usage simply by being more aware. Just plug it in and you will quickly see where you are wasting a ton of energy (and cash!)
Also work how much energy you will need at one time. This will determine which inverter you need.
Do you need the washing machine, computers power tools, air conditioning all on at the same time or are you prepared to spread them out over the day?
The inverter’s job is to convert DC power from batteries to AC power for the appliances. 1000W inverter means you can run 1000W at the same time.
Eg if your fridge uses 80W/hour, coffee pot 800W/hour, LED bulbs 28W/hour, this is approx 900W. You know that you would not want to switch on your washing machine right then until you turned one of these off (or bought a higher capacity inverter).
Renogy is a very good brand in this space. You can pick up the Renogy 1000W inverter for less than $200
Budget is a major factor in choosing battery requirements.
Plus how much sunshine you get where you live.
If you live in a place that has guaranteed sunshine for 4-9 hours per day most of the year, you can get away with less battery storage.
However if you know that you cannot rely on the weather, you need to have enough battery storage for 3-4 days at least. Solar power will still be generated on cloudy days just not as much as sunny days.
Typically, the bigger your solar system, the higher voltage battery banks you will need to keep. If you generate 1000W energy per day but your batteries are full at 500W, then you are just wasting the extra 500W as it has nowhere to go and get stored.
It’s best to go to your local store to pick up batteries as they are expensive to ship and can be hazardous. Here is a good battery place that is throughout the USA.
It is best to use golf cart batteries rather than car batteries, as they last longer and are quicker to charge up.
Also it is best not to let the batteries run to below 50% of their storage capacity as it lessens their lifespan.
You know from your homework earlier how many KwHours you need to run your household per day.
Consider the location and the time of year when calculating the number. Observe how many hours the sun shines in your area throughout the day so that you will not have a power shortage especially in the winter.
If you are looking to buy a reliable solar panel, then check out these products:
Smaller and good starter model:
This item is affordable yet delivers high energy conversion at the lowest standby current. It comes with a 20W solar panel, a2m extension cables, and a 3A 12V/24V solar charge controller that protects the battery from overcharging and over discharging. as well as 2m extension cables. It is also water-proof and can provide more than 20 years of service.
It's a budget-friendly product that is suitable for hobbyists and students, allowing you to carry it for outdoor and camping activities.
It can power up one or two of your gadgets at a time.
It can withstand snow loads and high winds.
If you want a solar panel to run your DC devices such as fan, LED light, and even a linear actuator for a chicken coop.
Another one in our top picks is the Renogy 100W 12V Monocrystalline Solar Panel.
Renogy are one of the best- you can call them and they can help you out with your requirements. This is more robust for a decent size household.
This company has many products in the off grid living space. This is a popular product great for powering a home or even take it on a camping trip to power your site.
Whether you want to charge your 12V battery or opt to wire up multiple panels in series for 24V/48V battery, the Renogy does its impressive work.
It's weather-resistant, compatible for both on-grid and off-grid inverters and is highly-efficient, providing an ideal output of 500W a day depending on the availability of sunlight.
A big factor of course is where you live and how many sun hours you get per day and across the seasons.
If you have the 1000W inverter, this is 1kwH per day.
If sun shines 4 hours a day, and you have 4 x 300W panels, then you will generate 1200W a day.
If you live somewhere where you get 8-9 hrs a day, even better.
If you live in Nevada you might only need one panel and be able to generate 300W x 9hrs=2700W
Its always a good idea to have an extra panel or two to stock up for cloudy days or unexpected weather.
Close to the batteries (the longer energy has to move through a cable, the more energy is wasted along the way.)
Sun elevation changes throughout the year. Know the elevation of the sun so you can place your panels at the optimal angle to catch the full sun.
Though many consider it boring to talk about safety, when dealing with electricity, it is vital to ensure your system is safe and fit for purpose.
Unless you are an electrician or have skills in that area, be sure to fully understand what you are doing or have a solar company do most of the installation for you.
If you choose to do it yourself, be sure to have a qualified electrician give it the final check over to make sure you, your family and any visitors, neighbors or passers by are safe.
An electrician might be aware of things you had not thought of:
What if your batteries get wet?
What if there is a lightning storm?
What if there is a sudden surge of electricity- will it damage all your appliances? will it cause a fire?
What if there is a short circuit?
Always take electricity seriously.
Remember humans have lived without electricity for nearly their entire existence. It is a relatively recent phenomenon which we now take for granted. Most of us waste a lot of energy without realizing it.
Using solar power can make you more appreciative of energy. First assess what you use currently. Then see if you can reduce this usage.
Perhaps start small and power your hairdryer or the chicken coop and understand the basics.
Later you can add solar panels, inverters and battery storage to your home. Even though there is an upfront investment, it will pay for itself over time.
And if the technicalities are too much to get to grips with, you can have a professional company come out and do the install for you.