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Where do you start when you want to get solar power for your home? The costs of going solar are always going down, and with the increasing demands of climate change, maybe now seems like a good idea to install solar power.
But where do you actually start? Do you have to be rich to afford solar? What options are there?
Let’s walk through the process and learn how you can get started, even with a relatively small budget.
- 1. Figure out what kind of solar power system you actually want.
- 2. Calculate your potential electrical loads.
- 3. Manage your wattage.
- 4. Make an energy plan.
- 5. Start designing your home solar power system.
- If you want to DIY:
- 6. How to shop for system components.
- Some companies we have enjoyed working with include:
- But if you want to go off the grid…
- If you want to explore the world of living on solar power, check out these posts:
- And be sure to subscribe for access to the FREE PDF "Beginner's Guide to Going Solar"
Getting Started With Solar Power for Your Home
1. Figure out what kind of solar power system you actually want.
There are three basic types of systems that you’re going to be looking at if you want to go solar:
- Grid-tied with battery backup
Let’s break that down a bit:
- 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.
Note: This diagram is super basic and doesn’t include things like a generator for off-grid use or battery backup for a grid-tied home. The goal was to make it as streamlined and understandable as possible if you’re just getting started.
Our System Type
We have an off-grid solar system, meaning that our home is NOT connected to the power grid in any way. We have 15 solar panels that produce around 3.26 kilowatts of power, which feed a 500 amp-hour battery bank, which then supplies our home with power day and night. You can learn more about that system HERE.
Why did we choose to go off the grid? Cost and proximity. We opted to buy land and build a house from scratch, and the building site happens to be about a half-mile from the road and nearest grid connection. The local power company quoted around $24,000 just to run the power line! That doesn’t even account for the monthly bill. So we decided to install our own off-grid power system for a fraction of that amount.
Not everyone CAN go off-grid. For example, if you want solar for a home that is already connected to the grid, you may come across local laws and ordinances that prohibit removing your home from it. You may also want the flexibility of being grid-tied and not worrying about making sure you have enough charge during the cloudy winter months.
Unbound Solar has a fairly easy side-by-side comparison of the three system types if you’re confused about what to choose.
2. Calculate your potential electrical loads.
If you’re planning an off-grid home or want to be able to run your home on battery backup, take a careful look at anything you might be running on your solar power system.
These might be regularly used items, like refrigerators, lights, or cistern/well pumps. There may also be occasional items, like small kitchen appliances or stereos.
Don’t forget about small phantom loads. They might not seem like much, but if they run continuously, they add up to a lot of power use! There are well-known phantom loads, such as TVs and other devices that run off of remotes. But there are other less obvious loads that are code-required in newer homes, including hardwired/interconnected smoke detectors and arc fault breakers.
Some items will have surge wattage, meaning that they have an initial surge of power needed to start something like a motor. This is common in air conditioners, refrigerators, and many power tools. This surge load needs to be factored into your calculations. The free guide at the end of the post has tools to help you figure this out.
These items vary wildly from house to house and family to family. The exact wattages and loads will depend on the specific items you have and how you typically use them.
You can find some good charts detailing energy use for a variety of household items here and here.
Or better yet, you can start finding the actual power usage of your different appliances and devices using a tool like this one.
Add up all of the loads you will potentially have. For good measure, add another 10-20% to your total. This will help you account for anything you might have missed, surge wattages, and future additional power needs you might have.
3. Manage your wattage.
If you’re planning to go off-grid, this next step will be of supreme importance. It’s less so if you’re planning to stay connected to the grid, but it’s always worth considering how to reduce your consumption.
Look at all of the items you added up and then separate them into four categories:
There will always be some loads you need to keep. For example, if the only internet service available in your area is one particular satellite provider and they require a very specific powered dish, then you need to keep that load in order to have service.
But more often, you can get creative to find ways to reduce different loads. Two of the most obvious examples are swapping old appliances for newer high-efficiency ones, or using all LED lighting instead of incandescent or even CFL bulbs.
Sometimes, it makes more sense to shift a load from one power source to another. One example from our off-grid home is switching from an electric refrigerator to a propane unit. Using propane gives us a more reliable way to make sure we can keep our foods safely chilled even during times of extended cloudiness. We lived out of coolers for the first six months we lived off-grid, but that was pretty miserable and got old after a while. Since our original solar system was so small, a propane fridge was the perfect fit for us. We also use propane for our stove and our on-demand tankless water heater, further reducing our electrical needs.
Of course, sometimes you can simply eliminate a load. When we moved off-grid, we opted to not have any kind of clothes dryer. Instead, we use the clothesline outdoors or drying racks indoors. Getting rid of our clothes dryer saves us 4000+ watts and makes it easier to have a less costly small solar system.
4. Make an energy plan.
Look at the loads you’ve listed and make specific plans for how to keep, reduce, shift, or eliminate them. There is a helpful set of worksheets to help you do this in the free guide at the end of this post.
Once you’ve figured out how you can manage your power needs, you’ll have a better idea of just how much solar power you’ll need. And the lower you can get your power consumption, the lower your solar budget can be! If you’re working with a limited budget, lowering your electrical draw is hugely important.
You might come across many different posts online that say you need X watts per square foot of your home, but this is just a baseline. Knowing your particular needs will go a long way in helping you design the best possible system for your unique home.
5. Start designing your home solar power system.
Solar power is much more than just slapping some solar panels on the roof. The panels are just one component of a functional system; you’ll have:
- Solar panels
- Inverter (to change DC power from the panels and/or batteries into AC power for your home)
- Battery bank (if off-grid or grid-tied with a battery back-up)
- Charge controller (to control the charge going to the battery bank from the solar panels)
- Special meter from your utility, if grid-tied
- Mounting/racking hardware
If you’re looking to go with a grid-tied system (with or without battery backup) you’re most likely looking at hiring it out. This type of job typically requires a certified installer, permits, and cooperation with your electric utility. It doesn’t mean that you can’t DIY it, but you need to triple-check your requirements before you start any project.
The good news here is that your local solar companies will be well-equipped to help you. Coming to them with the information you compiled in steps 1-4 will make it that much easier for them to build the best system possible for your home.
You can find solar companies in your area by doing a quick internet search for “solar installers in [your area]”. You will likely have to sift through some advertised results that may or may not be companies that are truly familiar with your location. Look for results that show companies actually operating in your area code. If possible, search those companies on the Better Business Bureau website, and look for other reviews too. Ask friends, family, and in neighborhood groups on social media for referrals if you can.
But if you’re planning to go off the grid, your options are a bit more open. The potential is greater for this to be a DIY job, especially if you’re confident in your electrical skills.
If you want to DIY:
I strongly suggest you get as educated as possible about solar power. Whether you’re on or off the grid, knowing the best practices of your installation and ongoing maintenance is critical.
My husband took classes through Heatspring and sat the exam to become a NABCEP Certified Solar Installer specifically for our latest solar project; partly to satisfy the inspector, but also to really increase his solar knowledge. This is something that really helped us design a better system AND gives us greater self-sufficiency in the long run.
We specifically pursued the 58-Hour NABCEP Advnaced PV Certification + Exam Prep course, but you don’t have to go so intense if you don’t need or want to. There are many great FREE SOLAR CLASSES as well!
6. How to shop for system components.
Once you know how much power you’ll need and whether you’ll be on or off the grid, you’ll have an idea of what components to shop for and in what sizes.
For example, if you’re off-grid, you’ll need the following major items:
- solar panels
- charge controller
- battery bank
- mounting/racking hardware
If you’re going grid-tied, it looks more like:
- solar panels
- inverter (sometimes on the panels as “microinverters”)
- special meter from your utility company
- mounting/racking hardware
Grid-tied installers will likely have a set list of brands they install, which makes it a bit less complicated for you. We off-grid folks have a bit more shopping to do in this regard.
And neither of these lists take into account the numerous small items you’ll need, from conduit and connectors to breakers and rapid shutdown devices. These small, specific items vary widely; it’s worth talking to solar professionals to get the best idea of what you’ll need and why.
You can find links to helpful resources, as well as a script you can use when you call solar companies, inside the free PDF guide that accompanies this post. Get access to it (and a wealth of other free guides in our Resource Library) by signing up below.
Some companies we have enjoyed working with include:
Backwoods Solar: https://backwoodssolar.com/
altE Store: https://www.altestore.com/store/
Wholesale Solar (now called Unbound Solar): https://unboundsolar.com/
Northern Arizona Wind & Sun: https://www.solar-electric.com/
Midnite Solar: http://www.midnitesolar.com/
We have worked with all of these companies directly in the course of our solar projects, and all were very helpful. Even in the cases where we didn’t buy anything, all of them were happy to take a look at what we had and answer our questions genuinely.
If you’re looking at going grid-tied, I recommend starting with a basic internet search for “solar installers in [YOUR AREA]”. Ask around for recommendations. If you don’t know anyone in your area with solar, it might be worth looking in social media groups for your community and asking there.
But if you want to go off the grid…
You have more research to do!
I’ll be adding more posts on this over time. But for now, I highly recommend downloading the free guide for this post, printing the worksheets, and getting to work figuring out exactly what type of off-grid system you want to design.
Because beyond the general devices you’ll need, you’ll find many different options and sub-options for what to choose.
- Do you want a flooded lead acid battery bank, sealed lead acid AGM batteries, or a lithium battery pack?
- Will you want to pole, roof, or ground mount your solar array?
- Will your solar equipment be housed in your dwelling, or will you build a separate shed to house it all?
- What sizes of panels and components will work optimally to let you live the life you want?
And if you’re on a tight budget, what is the amount of solar you can comfortably start with? And how will you be able to expand it over time?
If you want to explore the world of living on solar power, check out these posts:
- How We Run Air Conditioning With Off-Grid Solar Power
- Getting Started With Solar Power
- What We Run (and don’t run) on Our Small 1.14 kW Off-Grid Solar System
- Off The Grid Solar Power In The Winter: Does It Work?
- Off The Grid Solar Power: How Much Do You Need?
- How We Built Our Cordwood Solar Shed
And be sure to subscribe for access to the FREE PDF “Beginner’s Guide to Going Solar”
(as well as all of our other free guides in the Members-Only Resource Library)
Learn more about our original cordwood homestead project here. And be sure to join us on Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram for more homesteading goodies that don’t necessarily make it to the blog. Thanks for reading!