Solar Project Update 6-25-17

It’s been a while since I’ve updated you on the progress of our off-grid solar project. We originally set out with a goal to be able to run a few lights, electronics and hopefully keep our freezer and fridge from thawing during a blackout. We started with the Renogy 200 Watt complete system to get up and running quickly with the ability to expand later ( you can view that system here).

Fast forward, we’ve upgraded that with a new 80 amp MPPT controller, 2 more Renogy GEL batteries, and a 1500 watt inverter tied to eight 100 watt panels. The charge controller we purchased turned out to be quite ineffective and actually not even an actual MPPT as advertised; sometimes you really do get what you pay for.

MPPT 80

In addition to that, we have added a 2nd smaller system by adding 2 sealed AGM batteries to our original 30 amp Renogy charge controller and 500 watt Renogy inverter. Continue reading “Solar Project Update 6-25-17”

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Gear Review: Comparing 4 Popular Solar Panels

When you’re starting out to either build or expand your off-grid solar system, how do you know what panels to buy? You read customer reviews and Amazon ratings till you’re blue in the face, but the fact is many  of those reviews are from 1st time buyers who have nothing else to really compare the product to. I have experienced this very same dilemma over the past 10 months and decided to share my results with you.

4 mono panels

I started my system by buying a prepackaged 200 Watt system from Renogy. (Read the review here.) The system came with two 100 watt monocrystalline panels which seemed Continue reading “Gear Review: Comparing 4 Popular Solar Panels”

Saving $$$ with Solar

Just a little update on our off-grid solar project: the electric bill arrived yesterday and…drum roll please…last month was $205, this month is $122. Now, with changes in the weather from April to May this isn’t a true comparison, so when looking at our bill for the same period last year (yes, I keep all that) it was $193. That’s $6.01 per day last year vs. $3.84 a day this year: a 36% reduction or a savings of $71.00. This was a result of switching to LED lights, unplugging unused devices and running some items on solar power only. If you’ve been following the blog you know that for this period of time we were still only running 2 100ah batteries and 4 100 watt solar panels compared to the 3 100ah batteries and 8 100 watt panels that make up our current configuration. We have now added our chest freezer and coffee pot to the list of ‘solar power only’ items so next month should give us a much clearer picture of how much we can save and how quickly we can recover our costs. In case you are new to the site, we set out to create an off-grid solar back up for emergencies, the cost savings is just a bonus.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Happy prepping!

Off-Grid Solar Project Update 5-08-17

Our little solar project just got a little bit bigger, ok, a lot bigger. We’ve been a little slow getting this latest update in place as the Solar Controller we ordered from Amazon literally took 6 weeks to arrive (slow boat from China?).

 New Charge Controller

So here it is: 4 new solar panels for a total of 8, another 12v 100ah GEL battery for a total of 3 (yes we need more) and a new 80 amp solar charge controller.

 8 panels

3 batteries

Yesterday was bright and sunny and gave us a pretty good picture of how well the system was performing. The (8) 100 watt panels (4 monocrystalline, 4 polycrystalline) produced about 677 watts during peak sunlight for an efficiency of about 85%. We ran our modem, router, PC, fan, and several lights for a full 24 hours as well as the dehumidifier for about 3 hours without draining the batteries below 70%. Today we will see if the system can run our 15 cubic foot freezer for the day under partly cloudy conditions.

If you are prepping for a bug-in situation, off-grid solar might just be for you. I’ll be posting a review of the individual panels as I have purchased from 3 different companies so stay tuned!

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Happy prepping!

Gear Review: Renogy 200 Watt Complete Solar Kit

It seems prepping and Solar Power often go hand in hand, so despite my long held opposition to alternative energy, I began to do some research (I will post some links at the bottom of the article.) There are a large number of players in arena, but thanks to some extensive reviews and recommendations over at the TinHatRanch.com we decided to take our chances with a Renogy kit. Aside from the positive reviews, Renogy had (at least on Amazon) the only ‘complete kit’ that was actually a complete kit. Yes, several claimed to be complete, yet require at minimum a battery to actually function. The Renogy kit cam with 2 100 watt monocrystalline panels, 30 watt PWM charge controller, 500 watt inverter, 12v 100ah sealed GEL battery and all the cables and hardware needed to hook it all up. Being skeptical I ordered a few extra cables ‘just in case,’ but wound up not needing them. Here is a link to the unit as we purchased it: Renogy 200 Watts 12 Volt Complete Solar Panel kit Monocrystalline with Charge Controller +Mounts+ 100AH Gel Battery+ 500W Pure Sine Inverter

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The panels seem well constructed and as I stated are of the monocrystalline variety vs. the polycrystalline as they are promoted as being more efficient particularly in low light. I guess I just have to take their word for it on this one.

charge controler

The charge control is a very basic 30 amp unit with only light indicators for battery type, battery status, and charging status. A upgraded version would be preferable, but the unit does it’s job as intended.

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The inverter is a basic 500 watt unit, nothing fancy, but a larger unit than is contained in most solar kits in this price range. At 500 watts it will run most small electronics and can easily run more than the 2 panels can generate.

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The battery is the biggest surprise here as none of the other kits actually came with a battery, none. This 12v 100ah sealed GEL battery is a little beast weighing in at nearly 70 pounds with a claimed 10 year lifespan. Oddly, the stats claim a maximum recommended charging of 20 amps in a system that is expandable up to 30 amps, but so far so good.

Set up

Surprisingly the kit actually came with all the cables, z-brackets, and fuses necessary to get the unit up and running in just a couple of hours. My only complaint is that the tray cables are not color coded for simplification nor are the cables on the back of the solar panels. Yes, this was easily overcome with some red electrical tape, but details can make a difference. The kit came with instruction manuals for each unit instead of one manual for the kit. However, their help line was extremely good.

Overall I am very pleased with the kit as an easy way to get started with solar. If you are well versed in solar, then you would be better off purchasing individual parts to better customize the system to your needs. However, this is a great way to get started without breaking the bank.

Update: we have added 2 more panels, another 100 watt battery and upgraded the fuses to meet those needs. Now 8 weeks into the project, I would still recommend this kit to anyone taking their first journey into solar energy.

Hope you found this helpful.

Here are 7 great videos on the subject from the TinHatRanch.

Solar Part 1

Solar Part 2

Solar Part 3

Solar Part 4

Solar Part 5

Solar Part 6

Solar Part 7

Is Off Grid Solar Right For You?

Have you been considering adding an off grid solar system to your preps? Well before you jump in and start buying a bunch of gear, ask yourself why solar? What is the need you hope to fill?

Are you looking for back up power during an outage?

Looking to be environmentally friendly?

Looking to reduce your energy costs?

Looking to be more self sustaining?

Looking to go completely off the grid?

Looking for a quiet option to that noisy gas generator?

We all have different reasons for considering solar, some which may be fairly simple and easy to accomplish while others may prove to be much more costly. You can get started with a small off grid system for under $1000, but a full grid tied or off grid system can cost $20,000 or more. Only you can decide if solar is a good option for you, but hopefully we can provide some insight to help you decide.

Let me start with a little disclaimer: I have never been a big fan of ‘alternative energy’ because often the cost outweighs the benefit. A $100 million solar project at Fort Hood is estimated to save the military $168 million over 3 decades, so over 20 years to recoup the costs while supplying only 50% of the needed energy – not great. There’s a reason that eBay has hundreds of used solar products for sale! That being said, I do think with the recent improvements in efficiency that solar is a viable option in some scenarios.

Grid Tied vs. Off Grid

A grid tied system is a solar system that is tied to your electrical panel and supplements the power coming to your house from your local power company. It supplements your power instead of replacing it. When the sun is shining you may be able to run your home completely on what you are producing (depending on the size of your system and how much energy you use), while using energy from the grid at night or on overcast days. Note: in some areas your electric utility may actually pay you for excess energy you produce that feeds back into the grid. The downside of grid tied, aside from the initial cost, is that unless you also have a storage bank of batteries which most do not, then your system is useless during a power outage.

Off grid solar is just what the name implies – generating and using energy independent of the grid. Off Grid systems range widely in size and cost, depending on the size and capability. For example: we started with a small Renogy 200 watt 12V ‘complete system’ for just under $800. The same company sells a 4500 watt 48V system for just under $6000. as I said; cost varies widely. Note: most small off grid systems are 12V due to their simplicity and low cost.

So back to our original question: what is the need you hope to fill?

 Our goal was to have back up power separate from our noisy gas generator and be able to run a few small lights and devices on a daily basis to reduce our energy costs. To size your system correctly you have to understand the energy needs you are trying to replace. We used a Kill-O-Watt meter to test various appliances and gadgets around the house; a simple device that measures usage in watts, volts, amps and even kWatt hours and can estimate how much each device is costing you to run. Here’s a chart of common devices and their usage: https://www.wholesalesolar.com/solar-information/how-to-save-energy/power-table

We decided to start small and expand if we liked the results, where you start will depend on your budget and level of commitment. As stated before, we purchased a small 2 panel 200 watt 12v system for just under $800. We chose this system for it’s simplicity, cost and the fact that it came with everything we needed to get started on a small scale. 2 panels, 30 amp charge controller, battery, 500 watt inverter and all the cables, fuses and connectors. The setup was easy, even for beginners like us, and we were creating our own electricity within a couple of hours. This is the system we purchased.

Set up

Simple layout, simple setup, but limited capability.  We were now able to run our PC, laptop, modem, router and several LED lights independent of the grid, but larger appliances were out of the question as the 500 watt inverter just didn’t have the capability to run the microwave or other similar appliances and would leave us dependent on our gas generator to run those items. We decided to expand the system by adding 2 more 100 watt panels (now a total of 4) to increase production and  1500 watt inverter to handle some appliances. So far so good. Note: if you are wanting to run sensitive electronics such as a laptop be sure to purchase a ‘pure sine wave inverter’ as it mimics the power coming from the grid. I should note that there are many different panels available in varying voltages all with one primary difference – monocrystalline and polycrystalline. Monocrystalline panels claim to be slightly more efficient and produce with less sunlight while polycrystalline are slightly less expensive. We currently have a mix of both and have found little difference.

Limitations: production and storage. Production is limited primarily to the number and type of panels you have and how many panels your charge controller can handle. Storage is limited by the type and number of batteries you have. Oh, but don’t forget about sunlight! A system functioning nicely on sunny days can become useless after a couple of overcast days and not all hours of sunlight give maximum production. See chart for more info: Sun hours available.

The system unexpectedly proved it’s worth one stormy March afternoon: Read that story here.

We have added a 2nd battery to our little system to increase run times, to do this in a 12 volt system you must run the batteries in parallel (positive to positive = negative to negative) to increase the amp hours while keeping the voltage the same. Batteries should be of the same amperage and approximate age for best results.

BatteryWiring

2nd battery

Note: your charge controller and inverter must be connected to the same battery terminals as seen in the picture.

Warning: this can become addictive!

In hindsight we should have started with a larger system, or built one from individual components, but again, this was a learning experience for us. We are replacing the original charge controller with a 60 amp unit giving us the ability to run ten 100 watt panels generating up to 1000 watts while staying at 12 volts. Aside from adding more batteries for storage, our little system is maxed out. You can go larger, but that would require going to a 24 or even 48 volt system.

We spent countless hours of research before starting this project and still made some mistakes along the way. One resource we found to be particularly helpful was a series of YouTube videos from the Tin Hat Ranch. You will find the links below.

Hope you found this helpful!

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst!

Happy Prepping

Solar Part 1

Solar Part 2

Solar Part 3

Solar Part 4

Solar Part 5

Solar Part 6

Solar Part 7

When Prepping Pays Off

Storms ripped through our area yesterday leaving thousands in the dark, but not all of us. I have to say I’m very proud of my wife as she executed the plan flawlessly. I was stuck at work 35 miles away when the storm took it’s toll, but she was ready. On my journey home I passed countless downed trees and darkened homes. I admit I was a bit surprised at how few homes I passed showed even a flicker of candlelight – most people were ill prepared for even such a common disruption of power. As I pulled in the driveway my wife met me at the porch with a flashlight, (she rocks) so I didn’t stumble in the darkness. Once inside I had to smile; she had our little LED lanterns strategically placed around the home, a few candles flickering in the main room, and a movie all lined up for me on the PC. Unlike our neighbors, our solar backup along with other preps, made this event a non-event. We were able to enjoy a meal, watch a movie, and go about our normal routine, (mostly anyway) as though nothing had happened. Although she’s always supportive I sometimes got the feeling she was a bit skeptical about my new solar experiment, but no more. We not only survived the storm, but while others sat in the dark, we were unscathed and even learned a lesson or two.

With our society so ill prepared for even common disruptions to normal life, can you imagine how they would react to a real SHTF situation?

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Happy prepping!