Solar Power for Dummies Like Me – Part 1

By Beverly Sandlin

I’ve been wanting to learn about solar power because it can be extremely handy in an emergency situation and/or if you go off grid. I’ve watched a number of YouTube videos and read about solar power, but still just didn’t get it.

John from Iowa upgraded his solar system and sent me some small panels and an inverter and other stuff to play around with – Thank You John! Now mind you, I’m not mechanically inclined at all and a bit leery of electricity as it is magic to me. But with a bit of email advice from John,  I now have light!

So here is what a dummy like me THINKS she has learned about solar power so far…

The solar panel itself is worthless without a battery to charge.

The solar panels are pretty fragile for the most part and break easily if tipped over – that is why the mounting hardware is so important.

You have to keep them clear of snow and debris or the light is blocked.

The larger the panel, the faster and more/bigger batteries it will charge and keep charged – note that older panels may be big, but may not charge as much as newer panels.

Amorphous panels do a better job of collecting light in low light or cloudy conditions, but aren’t as efficient as the crystalline panels.

Once you get above 100 watts, you can usually find panels for around $1 a watt.

You need to connect the panel to the battery – usually with battery cables.

You probably need a controller of some kind to not overcharge the battery if you are just going to set it up and walk away from it.


“Charge Controller. You must remember that electricity runs both ways. That’s why you can put it back into the grid. The little solar panels I sent you have built in Diodes to prevent this from happening. A Charge Controller does also, but it also controls the rate the electricity goes to the battery when charging. Too much cooks the battery, and ruins it.”

Ten watts or less is usually considered a battery maintainer, but will not be able to recharge the battery if drained.

You SHOULD have a deep cycle marine battery to hook to the solar panel as these batteries are meant to be recharged many, many times. Now understand that I don’t really get this as a regular car battery is constantly being recharged by the alternator when you drive it. Plus the small solar panels used to maintain batteries are often used on car batteries when the car is in storage, etc. But remember that I don’t know much about this subject, but I may be ahead of you… Those deep cycle marine batteries start at $75 if you have an old one to turn in and the more they can put out the pricier they get. I bought a used one at an RV dealership for $25 that I am playing with to learn about solar.


Deep cycle and car batteries are different in the respect that car batteries are never meant to go below about a 50% charge for any length of time. That low of a discharge for a length of time, will destroy the car battery. Repeated deep discharges will kill a car battery fairly quick, as Sulphur usually forms on the plates as well as deterioration of the plates themselves. This is due to the fact that the lead plates actually change tier chemistry as the battery is discharged. The car battery has much thinner plates as you’ve likely noticed by the overall weight difference.

    A deep cycle battery, on the other hand, is made to go deeply discharged and recharged back up with little to no ill effects, repeated times. It has heavier plates and construction that allows this to be okay.”

There are lots and lots of 12 volt (battery powered) appliances out there. Think of truck stops and camping centers – coffee makers, little freezers and refrigerators, phone and laptop chargers. Amazon is a good place to start looking for 12 volt appliances.

BUT you don’t have to go with 12 volt appliances, you can buy an inverter sized correctly for the 110 appliances you want to connect. Here is a basic rundown that will give you an idea of what appliances take how many watts – these are all approximate numbers:

Large Household Appliances (refrigerator, washing machine, etc.)  2,500 Watts

Well Water Pump  2,400 Watts

Electric Circular Saw  1,600 Watts

Microwave Oven  1,400 Watts

Hair Dryer  1,300 Watts

1/3 HP Submersible Pump  1,000 Watts

1.7 Cu. Ft. Small Refrigerator 600 Watts

Flood Light  500 Watts

20 inch TV/DVD Combo  300 Watts

Xbox  200 Watts

Desktop Home Computer  150 Watts

DVD Player  60 Watts

Laptop Computer  50 Watts

Battery Charger for a Cell Phone  25 Watts

Under KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) that means that to run a SINGLE large appliance you will need at least $2,500 in panels alone – not counting mounting hardware, wiring, batteries ($100 to $150 apiece and Lord knows how many you would need!), installation, etc., etc.  So this is why people who are off grid and using solar panels to generate electricity have propane appliances and use their electricity judiciously. Practically no one can afford an American lifestyle from just solar energy and battery power at this point in time, and solar panels have come down a lot in the last 8 years.

So, I have been talking with an electrician about a startup solar array on my barn – 300 Watts expandable. Installed, about $1,500 – remember that I don’t understand electricity (it is magic to me) so I have to have someone install it. He is doing grid tied electric.

At this point in time my local electric company will install for FREE a new meter that will run backwards – I just paid my electric bill and they said my meter can be programmed to run with solar, so no money upfront. You might want to check this out with your electric company.

However, I want to do both grid tied AND off grid if needed – versatility makes sense to me as a preparedness person. The electrician hasn’t figured out how to do that yet… He is new to solar, but the only one in town even experimenting with it. Plus I would like to experiment with wind power and hydro power as I have a creek here. He has a creek and is thinking of hydro power too, so we’ll see what comes of this – nothing happens quickly in Spring Valley.

So, Part 2 coming tomorrow, what I actually have and why I have it from a preparedness mindset – show and tell.  :-)






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