Solar Power for Dummies Like Me – Part 2

By Beverly Sandlin

Yesterday (Part 1 HERE) I told you what little I know. Today is show and tell…

Here is where I started out, the question:  What do I want to do in an emergency situation with no access to electricity from the grid? I’m assuming a bug-in situation and that I have air, water (stored and filtered from the creek) and stored food. I have light during the day, but I also want light at night. My next priority is communication – I want to know what is going on.

Light

I have a number of solar yard lights. I also have a crank lantern and crank lights on two of my emergency radios – I have 3 so one should work – plus lots of candles. And I have LED Christmas lights. Lots of different gadgets that cost me perhaps $150.

gadgets

This one I bought off of Amazon for $20 just in case we need to charge Bob’s cell phone (not a smart phone) and came to realize that it takes two days to charge 2 AA batteries.

2 day charger

The point being that you can spend a lot of money on little gadgets.

NOTE: This is a very small starter setup for solar power. The larger you get the more (far more) complex it gets. The end of the article has comments from two very knowledgeable men on solar power and setups. The ONLY thing I am trying to accomplish with this unit is lights and communication and to learn more about solar energy in an affordable fashion. Also, I think angle of your solar setup is dependent on where you are – in Minnesota, my electrician has his setup on a permanent 35 degree angle.

So, here is my 20 Watt $50 solar panel with controller and battery cables from Sportsmansguide.com (This is meant as a portable unit to charge deep cycle batteries when camping.), you can no doubt get them elsewhere –

solar panel

Here is the mount that I used to secure it so that it doesn’t flip and break in windy conditions (almost lost it once), obviously a little L that you can buy at any hardware store –

bracket

Here is the controller that comes with it –

 

controller

 

I bought a used deep cycle marine battery from an RV dealership for $25 and this battery box for under $20 from Sportsmansguide.com that kind of does it all (tells you the charge on the battery, has a 12 volt plug in, connects to the battery permanently, protects the battery in plastic and keeps the floor clean), but for this panel I needed to connect the battery cables like so –

battery and box

A little blue light comes on, on the solar panel, to tell you it is charging. For under $10 I bought this little 12v adapter that provides an extra plugin and a cell phone charger. Really unnecessary, but I already bought it so I’m using it.

usb

So then I plugged the inverter that John gave me into it – these run about $30 I think on Amazon.

converter

Then I plugged this setup into the 12v hole on the side of the battery box.

plug into box

This inverter has a lot of little niceties including two plugins. You can tap the pics to make them bigger.

inverter end

I plugged in my little LED light as you can see, and I have…

light

LIGHT! After I figured out that I have to turn the switch on. If I can do this, anyone can do this. Yes, this is solar for dummies like me. And you guys don’t have to snicker because I can just hear it!  :-D

So what can I do with this setup other than create light? I’m not sure yet as I do not understand batteries. I know that I can charge a cell phone or even a smart phone and run a radio – Communications! I can run my laptop computer and play a DVD or access information that is already on the computer – I’m assuming that without the grid there will be no WIFI, cable or land line (yes, my land line is tied to the cable somehow). I can probably run a small fan which would be a blessing on a 100 degree day. But I would probably go down into the basement where it is cool anyway.

So, at this point I have light and communications for less than $150 on a system that I can add onto at some point in time if that is my desire. I will also have the ability to help out my neighbors with their cell phones if desired.

The next question would be… Do I even need this to accomplish light and communications? Of course not! Solar yard lights and your car radio or any emergency radio with a solar panel will do the job.  I wanted to know how solar REALLY worked and to play with it. And if circumstances allow, I may invest in a larger solar panel, but for now I have a basic, very basic, working knowledge of solar power and a very basic solar setup.

Just with the $50 solar panel, your car battery (yesterday JFI explained that your car battery is not meant to go below 50% charge so just keep that in mind) and an inverter (or assuming you have a newer car with all those plugins on the dashboard and know how to use them you may not even need an inverter), you could keep the battery on your car charged for a long time and have radio, charge your cell, laptop, etc. even if you don’t have gasoline.

What would be the advantage of this kind of setup as opposed to all of the little gadgets? With an inexpensive inverter like this one, you can use anything with a plugin that doesn’t take a lot of electricity and use it (you may even have a 12V plugin for the inverter on your dash as my truck is 14 years old and has one). So you can use what you already have on hand and know how to use it without having purchased a lot of little gadgets that are stuck away in an emergency trunk somewhere.

I wish someone would have explained this to a dummy like me, BEFORE I went out and bought all of those gadgets that never get used.  Yes, the portable lantern was a good investment as I’ve used it to do chores when the lights are out. Yes, I have a backup radio and one in my BOB, but did I really need that little solar charger especially when Bob can’t find his little charger thingy for his phone because he only uses the electric one?

Just sayin’, if you own a car, a solar panel and an inverter, these may be all you need to get you through an emergency situation. And if all hell breaks loose there will probably be no shortage of boat owners that will trade their deep cycle marine batteries for some beans.

Now, you guys who know everything can just tear me apart on this one OR you could be sweethearts and give me a bit more information on what else I can plug into a battery…

 

Note: I am such a DUMMY that I do not understand most of what KB is saying, but I will make some adjustments. I do not keep the inverter plugged into the battery unless I need it and am in attendance. I am using a factory direct system and battery box, so I am assuming it is safe. Yup the angle on the solar panel is not ideal but it only gets 3 hrs. of direct light a day and that is why I opted for an amorphous panel. This particular panel is meant to be portable (very lightweight) for use with camper/RV deep cycle batteries.

PLEASE share your knowledge and I will put it on this page or you can help out with your own series on solar by sending it to me at bcfossillady (at) gmail (dot) com!

Comment from KB:

“Hi there. It’s my 1st comment on your blog after a while lurking. I decided to share my toughs on your solar installation as I feels responsible for people doing things in a wrong way. I’m trained and certified electrician with more than 10 years of experience. And I’m afraid your installation is far too simple and even more a bit dangerous. Let’s start analyzing it from it’s power source.

1. First power source – panels. They should have been mounted in a way that sun rays got to the panel ad 90 degrees. So your panel should be moved few time a day to maintain its facing the sun. If angle is different than 90 degrees than efficiency falls from 20W. It might be producing in your case just a small portion of energy you expect.

2. Solar panel controller is very simple. It do it’s job, but gives you no feedback about panel efficiency, battery condition or energy harvested. So… you should finally have some kind power meter connected. Even simplest Car battery charge indicator will help you to know is you are actually charging or discharging your battery (drowning more than panel harvest).

3. Connections of solar charger (panel controller is only a simple car battery charger in that case) should be fused. At least connection with battery. And those connections should be made permanent. Remove clips, connect wires though a fuse in a way it just like your car wires are usually connect (bolt and nut).

4. Your battery is a powerful current source. Is might produce as much as 640A of current. If you short it’s terminals you will melt the wire. This might lead to fire. Moreover over charging or discharging battery over its nominal current might lead to explosion, as battery will release highly explosive Hydrogen. Use fuses. They are cheap. They saves lives.

5. Drowning power from your car battery. Do not connect resistances in series until you make sure you checked that it’s safe. Ins case you show on photo, you have connected lower current device (car USB charger with another car terminal) before high current device (12V->110V power converter). Just don’t! This will work for a while. Usually as long as you are nearby. But it will overheat! And catch fire just when you leave it unattended for a longer time. This is as dangerous as unfused battery and may lead to battery terminals getting short circuited and creating even more mess and damage.

This is very important so I will elaborate again on this. If your USB charger got short circuited it will short circuit your car battery, solar charger and panel. You do not have a single fuse. Everything will burn to ground. Think what will happen if it catch on fire near or in your home.

6. You are using way too thin wires. Thin wires (leads to fires… I hope I covered that, so move on) not only leads to fire, but are inefficient and waist energy. Voltage drops are expected and you will loose your precious electricity to make wires hotter, so your battery discharge quicker. This is not what you want.

7. Your 12V->110V converter should have a fuse for connected devices. It might have internal one. If not connect one after it, before any device. It should have over heat, over current and low battery protections.

8. Your battery box might be fused. Check it and never replace a fuse with nail, coin or higher rated fuse.

9. Your power converter is for for resistance load only. Do not try to use it for any electric motor, or motor will be damaged. To power pumps, power tools or refrigerator you need power inverter with clear sinusoidal AC wave output. On the other hand any switching (non-linear) power supply for 110V will work with that converter and this cover major of small house hold appilances.”

John from Iowa:

“Additional thinking about my knowledge of Bev’s current setup has prompted me to elaborate further about some of the components.
The battery box is fused by a circuit breaker and also has a ribbon gauge to show the current battery condition/status.
The convertor/inverter is also fused and has a built in fan to also keep it cool and not overheat. It is a low wattage unit and true that though it is a modified Sine wave. It is no where big enough to run any large motor and risk ruining it by not being a Pure Sine Wave unit.
The low wattage of the cells, the inverter, and only one battery would not really mandate heavier wiring, especially since there is the proper fusing present.
This was intended to be a starter setup for trying out the principles of it all, with my help of donated equipment and pointing out some supply sources for others. As Bev has pointed out, she is thinking about expanding to higher ambitions and that will require more advanced thinking, doing, and materials, but lets not put the cart before the horse with what’s currently being done in the learning process.”

 

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