When we realized, we were headed off grid we started to research our options for electrical energy. We knew a friend of a friend who sold and installed solar systems. We received a quote and was in a bit of a sticker shock. The cost to start our system was over our budget, so we decided to research our options and do it ourselves. We had a general idea what we wanted to run off the solar power; lights, fans, and possible T.V. with DVD player.
We spent the first winter using battery operated lights and fans. We soon found out that we were replacing batteries on a by-weekly basis. This turned out not to be too efficient and we also didn’t like the cost of replacing the batteries as well.
So, we started to watch the sales and finally we found a system we could afford. The solar system consists of the quintestial harbor freight kit. The basic kit includes three 15 watt panels, two CFL light bulbs, a bus that you can connect eight harbor freight kits to, and a 12-volt charge controller (which we discarded). We bought an extra 15-watt panel, a 30-amp charge controller, and two deep cell marine batteries. We didn’t want to skimp on the charge controller because this nifty little object helps control the charge going to the batteries and helps to protect them from overcharging. We also bought a 1000-watt inverter to help run the T.V. The original cost to set this up was about $850.00 plus or minus.
We bought the system in the winter and had to store everything until we could finally break ground. Once spring arrived we started to build our frame to hold our solar array. We used two six by six pressure treated posts, a couple of 2×4’s and a few 1×2’s and a metal pipe down the center to pivot the array if we needed to adjust for the season. We didn’t want to place the panels on the roof of the cabin because of snow removal issues. We decided to build the chasse about 20 feet from the cabin and low enough that we can broom off any snow that would build up on the panels. The following weeks we purchased the electrical conduit, junction boxes and about 100 ft. worth of 14 gage low voltage wire.
Then we spent a weekend in the summer digging trenches to bury the conduit and wire to the house. On the house and the solar array , we attached exterior junction boxes to protect our wire connections. We then built a battery box out of wood to keep our batteries protected from the weather, and we then connected the system.
To our amazement almost everything works! Not the DVD player. The minute we tried to play a movie, our inverter started to beep. We didn’t have enough power to run the player. We soon learned the value of the “beeps”. Once the inverter alarm beeps, that is a signal that we have drained the power. We have suddenly become very selective as to what we watch on T.V. and when. If we have a full sunny day that usually means about an hour and half of T.V. time that night. My husband has also learned that the inverter is still drawing power when it is hooked to the batteries. Therefore, we have gotten in the habit of un hooking the inverter when we are finished. My husband is an unhappy person when he has to go outside in below zero temperatures to unhook the inverter. He is currently considering installing an inside switch to help prevent the late night battery run.
What have we learned from this experience?
The harbor freight system is an excellent start if you are not sure about setting up a system on your own, or paying someone to set one up for you before you even realize your electrical needs. The kit comes with instructions, if you read them.
The cost setting up our system was under $1000.00 and we are still able to upgrade when we have extra cash flow. Our next purchase is an additional 340-watt panel that will upgrade our solar system to 400-watts. The additional wattage will allow us to run the DVD player and possible stereo system.
We toiled with the idea of wiring the inside of the cabin, yet our system is a low voltage system. At this point we don’t have anything that runs on a constant flow of 110-watts. The inverter helps to change the 12 volts to 120 so that we can watch T.V., but we wouldn’t be able to rely on that set up for long lengths of time.
Our youngest son has also started researching wind power. The winter days are much shorter up in the cold north, but wind is plentiful. We have considered a 400-watt wind turbine and tower. His goal, longer T.V. time!
As for our lighting, we will be switching out the CFL light bulbs for longer lasting Edison style LED light bulbs. They may cost a little more, but they use about half the energy of the RV CFL light bulbs we are using now.
If we look at what we used to pay in regards to our electric bill when we lived on grid, and what we used to pay for batteries, our system has paid for itself with in the first year. It is a new feeling to look at your lighting and say to yourself, “I did that!”
We have also realized that when we build the main house that the solar system will be a totally different set up. We plan on wiring the house for a normal electrical plan. I do eventually want a washer that you don’t have to attach to a bicycle to run. Now we know what to expect. We also realize as we build the house, we will be contacting the friend of a friend and say, “Ok…it’s time to install the system!” Yet now we are better informed and will understand what we need and when.