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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?
- Off-Grid: Off-grid solar power systems create and distribute power to a home or business without being connected to the power grid. These systems are most common in homes and buildings that are not easily connected to grid power. They feature solar panels connected to a battery bank with supporting equipment to regulate and maintain charge.
- Grid-tied: Solar panels feed into a system that is connected to the grid. Not independently self-sufficient. Power generated by the panels is often back-fed to the grid and helps offset the cost of the owner’s power bill. Power to the home goes out if grid power goes out.
- Grid-tied with battery back-up: Similar to a grid-tied system but with a battery back-up system, which can help to power the home in the event of a grid power outage.
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 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 for what we wanted.
We contacted them directly and told them about our building situation and worked with them for more than a year to fine-tune a package that would fit our needs once we were ready to order.
Four years after our initial solar project, we expanded it pretty dramatically and did not use the same supplier. We had learned a lot in that time about system design, and product sourcing. You can read all about what we did and why here:
What are the specs of our off-grid system?
Our original system consisted of 6 solar panels bringing in 1140 watts. In 2020, we did a big project to build a new solar shed and expand our system by nearly triple. Here’s what we have now:
- 15 solar panels capable of producing 3,255 watts
- 1 Morningstar TriStar TS-M-2 charge controller, wired to the original six panels
- 2 Schneider Conext MPPT 60 150 charge controllers, wired to the nine new panels
- 1 MagnaSine MS4024 4000-watt inverter (the same inverter as before)
- 4 UB8D batteries (same as before, but we replaced the original batteries as part of our project)
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 solar
If you’re looking to get solar power for your home, workshop, outbuilding, etc. then definitely head over to this post to learn how to get started with solar power:
Also, be sure to subscribe at the bottom of this post to get access to the FREE PDF Guide “Beginner’s Guide to Solar Power”, which includes a variety of printable worksheets, scripts, and guides to help you start making sense of your future solar project.
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 kilowatt hours (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 hairdryer/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.
Interested in diving deeper into whole-home solar power? Read this post for how to get started: