If you are moving off the grid, one of the key conveniences you should consider is the installation of solar photovoltaics (PV) better known as solar panels. These allow you protection, convenience, and the ability to continue your regular day to day activities with less hardship.
What Are Solar Panels?
In simple terms, solar panels provide the opportunity to capture your daily sunlight and to convert it into the electricity you use around your homestead. This helps to provide small creature comforts to your off grid home. It is much simpler than using a kite and a brass key.
How Solar Panels Work
Current solar panels are made up of many silicon wafers. These wafers gather the sun's rays and create electricity.
The power originally created by solar panels is called direct current (DC) which gets stored in batteries. This DC power must go through an "Inverter" to change (invert) DC power to alternating current (AC). Whether you are on the grid or off the grid, your home operates on AC current.
Cost of Solar Panels
Solar panels, although still requiring an initial outlay of cash, have come down substantially in price over the past decade. In 2010, to purchase panels in the US, the cost was about $2.50 per watt. A mere 7 years later in early 2017 that cost had fallen to just $0.38 per watt.
Unfortunately, panel prices increased by about 20% in early 2018. This was about the time the US took steps to implement tariffs on imported solar panels. They have since resumed their downward pricing trend.
In summary, Swanson’s Law states that solar panel prices tend to decrease by 20% for every doubling of worldwide panel shipments. In the real world, this works out to about a 10% cost decrease each year.
Where to Install Solar Panels
Always install solar panels so they face in a southerly direction. This allows you to take full advantage of the sun and get maximum exposure. Solar panels can be mounted in a variety of different ways.
Different Ways to Install Solar Panels
You might not think there's much to consider regarding your install location yet there are many factors that come into play.
- Does your yard have clear access to the southern exposure to the sun?
- Are you limited by the space around your home?
- Do you have to be concerned about livestock being able to damage your panels?
- Are you in a location (such as where we live, in Canada's subarctic Northwest Territories) that has minimal sun in the winter?
- That same sun is extremely low in the sky in our winter months, so trees cause more blockage to solar.
- Do you want the ability to “track” the sun?
- How much snow do you get in the winter that could require regular cleaning?
There are many pros and cons to each installation method and I will try to address each in the following install methods.
Fixed Ground Mounting for Solar Panels
Ground mounting is as it sounds. It refers to mounting your panels on racks outside in your yard.
These are extremely handy because it makes it easy to install them. And this is a great choice when your yard is clear of trees or structures, which could block the southern exposure to the sun.
They are very easy to maintain. You can easily wipe them free of dust throughout the year and snow during your winter preparation and maintenance. There is of course the risk of damage from some daily "playground" activities or even vandalism or horseplay.
Fixed Roof Mounting 1
Fixed roof mounting has many of the advantages of fixed ground mounting. The disadvantages can be that they can be harder to get to for maintenance. Cleaning snow and dust off the solar panels is not as easy and requires more planning. Your panels will, however, face less physical risk due to vandalism and inadvertent damage from yard animals including children.
You can also face greater risk if in an area with high winds. Generally, these require the racking to be mounted on brackets and bolted down to the roof. If you go this route, ensure that you have waterproofed all entry points.
Fixed Roof Mounting 2
Similar in nature to the first noted fixed roof mounting, these are on your roof yet not bolted down. You can use different ballast (heavy material) to hold your racking in place. This reduces the potential to have rainwater enter your home through the bolt seams. You can use concrete blocks, sandbags, or whatever material you may have available.
Fixed Roof Mounting 3
Use this method for installing solar panels when your home has a metal roof. As you know, corrugated metal is a rigid material and has an up and down aspect. It is here that you can buy hardware to attach your panels directly to the roof. This reduces drilling through the roof and some hardware removes that requirement.
Take advantage of south-facing building walls as module mounting surfaces. Arrange module arrays parallel to the wall, tilted away from the wall, or configured as an overhanging canopy. They will already have a certain slope that allows natural run-off of rain (easy wash) as well as much of the snow you may have.
The disadvantage of wall-mounted solar panels is that they are generally stationary. This reduces the ability to adjust based on seasons and the height of the sun.
This method is one that can greatly increase your solar panel efficiency. The use of a tracker can increase your solar input by 25% – 40% over fixed mounting. You can install trackers either on the ground or can be roof mounted.
Ground-mounted tracking hardware can easily add 15% – 20% to the cost of a project over fixed mounting hardware. Since rooftop installations require more engineering and labor to complete, the system cost difference can be even higher.
Top of Pole Mounts
Top of pole mounting is another fixed mounting method. Your panel cluster remains stationary even though the set up can look similar to a tracker. Top of pole mounts often allows for seasonal tilt adjustments. This can help to increase the input of solar, particularly during winter conditions.
Total Equipment Required (Including Optional)
We have already discussed these as the equipment that captures the sun’s rays to create energy. Our off grid home power system currently includes 9 250-watt panels.
Inverter for DC to AC
The inverter is the device you use to convert Direct Current to Alternating Current. The electricity generated by solar systems is DC in nature. Yet most of our household loads require AC power.
This unit does the inversion almost seamlessly and has close to 100% efficiency ratings. Note that if you operate direct current appliances, they can be fed directly from the solar system without an inverter.
If your off grid solar power system operates with a battery bank you will require a charge controller. This is the brains between your solar panels and your battery bank.
The charge controller determines how much current should get pushed into your batteries for the best performance. It is critical since it establishes how efficient your solar system runs. It also determines the operating life of the batteries since it prevents them from overcharging.
Although optional, I personally feel a battery bank is an essential part of your system. Unless you live in an area that has sun 24/7 and 365 days a year, you will need to store power.
If you are grid-tied, many communities require the hydro utility to buy back or "store" your excess power. And if you are not grid-tied, you will need a method to store this power yourself. This gives you a source of power at night time or when it is cloudy outside.
This again is not a mandatory add on, yet it sure is nice to have. A backup generator improves the reliability of your set up. Plus it gives you an alternate source of power.
If you have many days without sunshine, this can generate power in those gaps. Today these generators can be set up to start automatically. This is convenient when you have those extended periods without the sun. It can also help when you operate equipment or appliances that draw a very heavy load. Learn more about how to buy a generator for home use before making the purchase.
Whenever you hook a backup generator to your set up, you must also install a transfer switch. This helps you to switch between two sources of power. For example, if the solar system is backed up by a diesel generator, you can now choose the source of power. For greater convenience, these can be automatic or manual.
AC Load Center
An AC Load Center (electrical panel) holds all your switches, fuses, and circuit breakers. This is required to maintain the required AC voltage and current to corresponding loads.
DC Load Center
A DC Load Center is similar and also includes all appropriate switches, fuses, and circuit breakers. This helps maintain the required DC voltage and current to corresponding loads.
An automatic start is an electrical device that ties to your charge controller. It “communicates” with your battery bank and knows when it is low or has an increased load. In these situations, it will "autostart" your generator to give you extra comfort and peace of mind...
Where to Buy Solar Panels
Solar panels, due to their popularity, can be purchased just about anywhere. You can even buy them in local hardware stores like Lowes, Menards, Home Depot, Canadian Tire to name a few.
The decision of where to buy solar panels might depend more on your usage and the number of panels and power required.
Although the local hardware store is convenient, cost efficiency may be reduced. If you’re looking for a full system, you’re better off searching for a full system provider.
Typing “solar installations” into your web browser will yield thousands of potential sites. Check with the Better Business Bureau, personal contacts, local companies, etc. to get the best fit for your needs. You can even buy cross border with minimal duty these days. I would suggest you look at the 250 to the 400-watt range for a better cost per watt. These can easily be run in series and or parallel which is a topic for another article.
Solar Panels for Home Installation
If you’re new to powering your home with solar panels, spend some time researching your options, talking to other off grid homeowners, and asking experts lots of questions. Learn all you can before you invest your time, energy, and money into installing a solar power system.
If you are moving off the grid, one of the key conveniences you should consider is the installation of solar photovoltaics (PV) or better known as solar panels. These allow you protection, convenience, and the ability to continue your regular day to day activities with less hardship.
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