I’ve been wanting to learn about solar power because it can be extremely handy in a situation where you might need emergency power, 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. 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 need a charge controller of some kind to not overcharge the battery if you are just going to set it up and walk away from it.
NOTE FROM JOHN FROM IOWA:
“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.
NOTE FROM JOHN FROM IOWA:
“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.
Another note about charge controllers. They come in different sizes to match the power output from your solar array (cells). You are better off getting a controller with a higher range when you start then you can add more cells/panels without having to get a bigger controller too. I found this out the hard way by trying to pinch pennies by getting a smaller unit when I started.
Are you John G.
“The solar panel itself is worthless without a battery to charge.” I can think of one instance when that might not be true. If you want to just run your washer on the spin cycle to wring out the all the clothes you washed by hand it would be a huge time and effort savor. Since you would only be washing clothes when the suns out and you can hang them to dry then you don’t need a battery to store the power. Just enough solar panels and an inverter to run the washer. Also, since your only running it on the spin cycle even if you stored the power in a battery your KWH would be way less than running a washer for a whole cycle. That is our solution for hand washing clothes and not having to resort to using a wringer that crushes buttons and zippers.
Just need to purchase the line and clothespins to hang the wet laundry. Growing up I used to hate to have to hang the wet laundry and take it down and fold it when it was dry.
Bev, bless you for doing this research! I have also always known electricity to be magic, but you are breaking this down in a very understandable way. I’m with you so far, and look forward to the next installments.
Thanks Kate. I admit I don’t know much but I’m learning and sharing. :)
To extend the life of deep cycle batteries, every couple of months they should be “equalized”. This is a deliberate, controlled over charge that shakes deposits off the plates and stirs the electrolyte. Many charge controllers can be programmed to allow the batteries to achieve this level, prevent the charge level from going to high, and hold it for a set period of time. When this process is complete, you will need to add distilled water to your batteries unless you have absorbed glass mat or sealed gel cells.
DO NOT use deep cycle batteries. Yes, they are meant to sustain deep discharges and then a single recharging, but not CONSTANT deep discharging and recharging. In the end they are built to start your boat or RV when the season starts… and that’s it. They will overheat and BLOW UP when used in a solar application. Golf cart batteries are the better alternative. The lead plates are thicker and they are intended for heavy, constant loads followed by full or intermittent recharging. These are more expensive than deep cycle batteries but you won’t wake up to find pieces of your batteries and sulfuric acid all over your garage. I learned this the hard way.
Maybe we are thinking of different things when we say deep cycle batteries. Golf cart batteries are deep cycle, they are the smallest of the category. Just because a battery is deep cycle doesn’t mean you want to totally discharge it. They are designed for constant USE and constant recharging. The system should have some type of charge control monitoring the battery so that the charge is either cut or diverted before they become so overcharged that they explode. Batteries like Trojans, HuP or Rolls/Surrettes are exactly what you need for an alternative energy system. The key is sizing the solar array (power source) and the battery (power storage) to the expected performance (power usage). Here is a website that does an excellent job of explaining the differences between the types of deep cycle batteries. http://www.wholesalesolar.com/deep-cycle-battery-info.html
I started off small =45 watt kit from Harbor Freight Tool back in 2008 it still works fine..i have separate system 315 watts that charges batterys for the lights & a small 12 volt fan ,it’s enough for me @ present time, I have 20 watt panels in my van & camper to maintain those battery’s.
I can cook on propane if necessary. or a campfire. I never use the house dryer. I’m very frugal with power usage. heat with a wood stove-w/12 volt fan on it.