Sometimes, I even jump in (with time I don’t have) to throw out an opinion (or more) about this solar issue, or that.
More than anything, though, I want to mention that in terms of “cost per watt” – solar power add-ons are one of the best deals going. Not only can you often wangle state and federal energy credits, the initial investment in paid back in future savings. And the price of electricity, even with cheap oil here lately, is going back up.
What I wanted to offer you is a kind of “process map” to a happy solar power system. Although I don’t mention it much, since 2005, UrbanSurvival and Peoplenomics have been almost entirely solar-powered. Meaning that while we don’t separately meter the office, we get about 3,000 watts of power every single day (at peak) from our twenty panels and stacked 110-220 grid-interactive system.
Why a “process map?”
Well, lots of people don’t understand that there is a recipe to everything we do in life. If you want success, the “process map” is oftentimes the key to success.
1. St5art by reading `Home Power” magazine. I’ve known Karen & Richard since….how long ago was 1998/1999? And a note to solar power products people: A Home Power “thumbs up” ranking is as good as gold for any product. They are tough, fair, intelligent folks when comes to solar power and it’s a pleasure to see that a quality magazine has hung on through lean times and fat based on quality content, high integrity, and an eye toward a sustainable future.
The reason that I look at solar as a “non-cash equivalent” is simple: It’s the kind of invest5ment that “keeps on giving.”
Solar panels degrade over time. But even by the time we’re in permanent underground housing, our panels will still be putting out 80-percent, or better and saving oodles of money.
2. The second thing is learn to work out a load sheet.
What’s a load sheet? Well, it’s worksheet on either paper (or Excel) where you calculate what your power needs are. This will drive 100% of everything else in your solar system design.
You can Google this and find a zillion different ways to skin this cat, but the core idea is this:
XX Watts to run something TIMES XX hours per day = WattHours of power.
Let’s do a simple one for a single piece of home equipment, say a big-screen TV and cable modem. Call it 500-watts of load.; How much energy will it consumer if left on 24-hours per day?
500 wants TIMES 24 Hours EQUALS 12,000 Watts
Then we divide that last number by 1000 (for convenience) and we come up with 12 Kilowatt-hours of simple 12 KWHrs.
We can see how much the Cyclops is costing by looking at a recent power bill: Let’s say you’re paying the local utility $0.21 per KWHr now. This means 0.21 TIMES 12 or $2.52 per day for power from the power company.
Now, let’s run that out to an annual number ($919.90) and you can quickly see how a solar power system that will run your television will save you a bit more than $900 per year on power bills.
3. Once you pencil in some ideas on what you want, get serious as a heart attack about measuring everything so you have real numbers to design with.
So break down, spend the $30-bucks and buy a plug in power monitor so you find out the real consumption of your appliances: P3 International P4460 Kill A Watt EZ Electricity Usage Monitor.
4. At some point, your load sheet will be complete and you know how much power you will need for one day’s worth of power. Next, you have to make a series of design decisions:
Do you want to just put in a power-bill reducing system, in which case that’s one kind of inverter technology?
If you just want power power bills, then you might find a couple of SMA Sunny Boy 5000 US Solar Inverter with Fused DC Disconnect inverters plus plans and some balance of system parts is the answer.
BUT the snag here is that this kind of system may not work because it is grid tied. When the grid goes down, and it’s night, where’s the power coming from?
This is where things get more complicated: You could opt for the more complicated (but more flexible) grid-interactive topology.
In this design, you have solar panels, but then you have a battery charge controller that shoves all your energy into a big battery bank of golf cart or fork list batteries. Once these are filled, the excess power is sold into the grid. But the batteries will keep the system up and charged overnight.
The problem is this is more expensive. More parts means more money.
Not only is the inverter technology a bit more expensive (we use an earlier version of the OutBack FX2524T Sine Wave Inverter 2500W 24VDC 120VAC 60Hz sealed w/turbo which run $1,800 a copy. But the “balance of system” costs include things like a monitor which for us was a Outback Power Systems MATE2 ($250) but also a pair of MMPT chargers which for us was the FlexMax 60-Amp Charge Controller OutBack Power (two of these at $578 each)
MMPT charge controllers basically learn (with a microprocessor) where your solar panels put out the most energy and then use a buck/boost system to get maximum power into your batteries.
So now we come down to those: In our case it was 200 amp-hour golf cart batteries – 16 of the buggers – and that will eat another divot in your wallet.
The good news is that when you are done with a true grid-interactive system (and you include gobs of high-speed transient voltage suppressors (TVSs) you have a system that may be able to withstand a modest EMP event, will work with or without the grid, and will keep the fridge and freezer running overnight.
5. Discount the system for realistic efficiencies. For batteries only plan on getting 85-90% of the power put into them back out again. It will likely be higher…And don’t plan on discharging your batteries past 40% of capacity remaining, because if you discharge more, it will start costing an increase in cycle life.
Same thing with charge controllers: 90% efficiency there and on the inverter side, 90% efficiency is realistic.
6. Buy and Install: You awill likely not able to make the installation yourself. I’ve worked on electronics more than 50-years and while the wiring is “simple” on the surface, there are still more “balance of system” components (like 4-ought  wire which is big as your thumb and a beast to work with, as well as digging trenches so the right-sized wire brings power from the panel location to the power center (which is what you call the heap of money with all the non-panel stuff). And disconnects and UL/NEMA boxes and details like that plus federal, state, and local codes…
Before buying, find the installer. Tell them what you are thinking, have them check the load sheet for things you leave out, and if they charge $100 or more power hour, take a pill. They also may give you the same pricing or a bit more on system components, but I’ve found an honest tradesman who stands behind his work is never to be quibbled-with when comes to a few cents here and there.
Local power companies all vary in their interpretation of disconnects required, signing of the switches (my custom decals were a $50 project, but look bitchin’), and you’ll end up with a co-gen agreement. You installer will be the one responsible for system sign-off. Then read all the equipment books. Ask a million questions and only use distilled water in your batteries.
Batteries should be liquid types, not some fancy sealed or glass mats. This is low-income house for lots of amp-hours. I love Concorde AGM’s, but only use ‘em on the airplane. The Interstate golf carts at my low income amp-hour storage choice.
Beware: Power companies hate small solar under their breath. They talk a good game, but there are some that will try to charge a net-metering fee which is like imposing a monthly fee on responsible energy participation. If your utility does that, they’re a buncha crooks, as I see it. They just don’t like competition and they’ve done the “deal with the devil” that is why America is in a world of trouble morally at this point in history. If they can screw you out of savings on owning your own power reserve, they will do it…and those are people who you don’t want to do business with.
Ibid: lawmakers who support connection charges are lousy pricks (and prickettes) who don’t deserve another term. And since they are closer to home, you have a chance of rooting out that kind of corruption. Net metering ain’t that expensive, especially when these folks have the dough to put in “smart meters” right? Net metering is just a software setup option – a one time cost no matter what the cash-weasels whine. On their end, once computer code is written for net metering, they have no ongoing expense there, either.
Got a sleazy power company? You have choices:
Simply make a (larger, more expensive) 100% solar system and then have the electrician put in a manual switch…then there’s no net metering discussion. Screw the bastards. If you’re on your own power toughsky shitsky. When you’re on their power, set up your disconnects so you can’t feed them. (Put some money aside for a lawyer; crooks tend to argue even when the answers are honest.)
What you’re after is a quality system – and once done, you will have a very meaningful power system.;
The cost of solar panels is extremely low and places like www.sunelec.com have sales on every so often.
But that’s the really short version of how to put in a system. There are a billion fine point, and many additional ones are in the Peoplenomics library on how to build a robust home power system. Simply search for the word “robust” on the Master Index page to find it.
But in the meantime, I believe heart of hearts that an investment in solar power is one of the finest ways to increase personal resilience. We will never have to worry about having the freezer go out, and we will always be able to point a satellite up for news, turn on a shortwave or ham rig and reach out.
How do you put a price on that? Simply: You don’t. But if you have a good location for solar, and you can have it not terribly obvious from the street should times turn bad, then you will be ahead of 99% of the people when disaster strikes.
And when things like the Texas and Vancouver Island earthquakes of yesterday come rolling by, you’ll be comfortable knowing that you have all the parts on hand to repower, rebuild, and repurpose.
Like the commercial says, “Priceless!”
Write when you break-even
(the partially solar-powered) George email@example.com