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Curious about solar? Wondering how you can make more sustainable choices or maybe even go off the grid? This comprehensive quick-start guide will help you get started.
How does solar power work?
Solar panels harness energy from sunlight and a series of devices create usable energy for all kinds of electronics.
Our OFF GRID system works like this:
- Solar energy is harnessed by photovoltaic, or PV, panels.
- These panels send the energy to our battery bank (monitored by a device called a “charge controller”).
- The energy from the batteries is sent to an “inverter” which changes the DC (direct current) power from the batteries into useable AC (alternating current).
- The inverter sends power to our breaker box, which sends power to all outlets and fixtures just like in a “normal” house.
“Do you have power when the sun goes down?”
Yes. The battery bank supplies enough power to last through the night and beyond.
“What about cloudy days?”
There is still solar energy reaching our eyes on cloudy days, so the panels “see” it but don’t operate at maximum efficiency. The battery bank can make up the deficit during extended cloudy periods.
“What if your batteries run low and it’s cloudy for a long time?”
“How do I know how much power I need?”
It really depends on lots of factors, including your usage, climate, and so on. Check out this post to learn more about determining your solar energy needs.
What are the differences between grid-tied and off-grid systems?
These systems have solar panels that connect through your home to your local energy grid. Your power bill goes through “net metering” where your utility company offsets your power bill based on the amount of energy your panels “sell back” to the grid.
You typically don’t have all of the extra components that an off-grid system needs to have. For example, there’s no battery bank to supply power through the night since the grid provides the energy you need to cover the gaps.
This type of system can be cheaper to install since you don’t have the cost of a battery bank, but those savings can sometimes be eaten up by the fact that professionals are typically required to install them.
If you live in close proximity to the grid or are already connected, this is usually the best way to get started with solar. Check your local codes and state requirements to find more information about net metering rules in your area.
This type of system is completely separate from the energy grid. It creates all of its power via the panels and then stores energy in a battery bank. Properly sized, a battery bank should provide enough energy for several days of limited sun.
Off-grid systems can be more expensive because of the cost of the battery bank. However, if you’re building a home from scratch you might find that some building sites are prohibitively expensive to run grid power to. In this case, solar can be MUCH cheaper. This was the case for us, as you’ll see below.
How did we decide to go solar?
Way back before we started building our homestead, and well before we purchased land, we began looking for properties with a decent amount of acreage that would allow us to do what we wanted to do. For us, this meant building a cordwood house, growing our own food, and developing a more self-sufficient lifestyle.
We didn’t set out to go “off the grid” specifically, but when the property we fell in love with had no connections to grid water and power, we knew that going off-grid was a real possibility.
Fast forward to 2015 when we purchased our land. We had a representative from our local power co-op come take a look to confirm our suspicions, and he told us that it would likely cost at LEAST $20K just to run a line to our house.
That was all we needed to know! We knew from our research that we could supply all of our power needs ourselves for roughly a THIRD of that amount.
Where did we purchase our solar system?
When we first started prepping to go off-grid we checked out the offerings from all of the major solar companies and the names most often thrown around by seasoned off-gridders.
In our search we found a great company called Mr. Solar. We started looking through their package offerings and quickly realized that of the many companies we’d evaluated NO ONE could beat their prices.
What are the specs of our off grid system?
- 6 190-watt solar panels (capable of producing over 1200 watts in max sun)
- 4 batteries equaling 500 amp hours at 24 volts
- Morningstar TS-M-2 charge controller
- 4000 watt MagnaSine inverter
It took us over a year to build our house to the point that ordering solar components even made sense, so what did we do to prepare over that time?
Easy ways to get started with small scale solar
If you’re not ready to spring for a whole house solar system, there are many ways you can use small solar all around your home!
Small solar light kits for sheds and outbuildings
Before we built our house, we bought a small pre-fab shed from a local supplier to house our building tools. We realized that we needed some lights and maybe a USB charging outlet for our devices to use while working, so we found this nifty, inexpensive LED solar light kit on Amazon. The charger isn’t the quickest for our devices, but the power supplied from our little panel has always been more than enough for our needs, and the lights are plenty bright. There are many different kinds on Amazon, so check them out!
Solar Christmas lights
We actually got these lights to see how they’d work out and really like them! There’s something nice about having outdoor lights that charge from the sun all day and then turn on all by themselves without us needing to flip a switch or run out into the cold to plug them into the outdoor outlet. There are loads of other styles and colors too, so there’s a little something for everyone!
Small panel kits for RV camping/boondocking
If you’re an RVer who does a lot of camping and boondocking and you want to get away from campsites with power hookups, a small, portable system is a great option. Mr. Solar has a HUGE variety of these small systems to peruse HERE. If you’re unsure of what you need, I can honestly say that they are a delightful and helpful bunch to talk to on the phone. Call and ask about your needs.
You can also get small kits on Amazon like this one:
Tips to Prepare for Using Off-Grid Power
If going off of the electrical grid is something you are interested in doing and you currently live with grid-supplied power, there are a few things you should do before making the leap.
1. Evaluate your current power usage from your electric bill.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, “In 2015, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 10,812 kilowatthours (kWh), an average of 901 kWh per month.”
Now look at your usage as defined on your previous electrical bills to see how it compares. Ours was pretty much in line with this statistic. We lived in a regular stud-framed home built in 1966, used electric for most things (including air conditioning) and had natural gas supplied for the stove and the furnace.
If you were going to supply ALL of those same power needs from a solar system, you would need a HUGE array costing thousands upon thousands of dollars. This isn’t practical or possible for most people, so what’s your next step?
2. Evaluate what you will actually use and need in an off-grid property.
While it may not be practical for many of us to take up an Amish lifestyle, there are many things you can do to minimize your power consumption. Ask yourself:
- What appliances, components, or home health aids (ex: CPAP machines) are essential for me?
- Are there any appliances I can live without (ex: clothes dryer, microwave, air conditioning)?
- Can I purchase non-powered equivalents of electric items I use everyday (ex: wood stove, small kitchen appliances)?
- Could I use propane or wood heat to cook and heat my home and water?
- Are there ways to change my daily routine to use less power (ex: turning off lights, line drying clothes, styling hair with no-heat methods, etc.)?
- Could I swap out household items for more efficient versions (ex: LED bulbs, computers with better battery life, etc.)
3. Track your usage with a tool like the Kill-a-Watt
I first saw this little gadget at Think Geek YEARS AND YEARS AGO and thought it was cool, but never considered getting my own until we were looking to go off grid. I wanted to see what OUR actual usage was from items like our TV, computer, and hair dryer/flat iron.
It’s been a pretty powerful lesson for us to see what our habits actually consume, and it’s become a bit of a game to see how much we can lower our usage by simply changing our habits.
As an example in vanity, I compared my typical methods of drying and styling my hair and found that I consume an average of .23 kWh to dry my hair on low with a diffuser versus roughly .15 kWh to flat iron my hair straight after letting it air dry overnight. Finding ways to style my hair without using heat both consumes less energy AND is healthier for my hair.
Even if you aren’t looking to go off-grid, it’s important to monitor your energy use and conserve as you are able. You can get a Kill-a-Watt on Amazon and start checking your energy needs in two days with Prime shipping. (Yes, even us off-gridders spring for Prime!) Try an Amazon Prime 30-Day free trial here