Posts Tagged ‘solar power’

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Even if you are a do it yourself solar guru, at sometime you’ll come across something that you’d like another opinion on.  I’ve compiled a list of the 10 best solar energy forums that I could find online.  As of today, all of the sites are very active and are comprised of many solar experts who are eager to assist members with answers to complex questions.  I am a member of almost all of them so if you come by Megahertz38, that’s me! 🙂  The list is in no particular order and they are all worth a visit and you never know, one of them could save your project!

Solar Panel Talk – Very useful site with a focus on whole home solar installations.  Many knowledgeable, veteran solar industry members.  There are typically a couple hundred people on the site at any given time.  Conversations here are usually pretty technical in nature.

Northern Arizona Wind & Sun – Another active forum with a primary focus on home solar setups.  Also contains a section related to wind turbines.

Green Forum – This website has a portion about renewable energy but also topics about green building, education and jobs. Currently, there are over 3000 users.

Simply Solar – This is a pretty new forum that was created out of a Yahoo solar DIY group.  Several members and the guy who runs it are experienced solar do it yourselfers.

EcoRenovator – Headings at this site include things like renovations, solar and wind energy.    Has over five thousand members.  And 200 very active ones.

Homesteading Today – Contains over 4 million posts and almost 40,000 members.  Sections range from alternative energy to gardening.

Green Building Adviser – Complete source for building, designing and remodeling green homes.  The link takes you to the questions and answers portion of the site.

Greener People – Not a super technical forum but has energy, building and green products topics.

Online Conversion – This is a great resource for anything related to converting units of energy.  If you have a math or conversion problem, this is definitely the place for answers.

Field Lines | Other Power – Hyro, solar and wind are just three of the major discussion topics on this extensive board.

So there’s my 10 best solar forums / discussion boards list.  Did I miss a really good one?  Please let me know!

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How the Solar Power System is Setup

OK, so you’ve buttoned up your house and it is as energy efficient as is practical and are now familiar with some of the hardware.  The next step is to decide what configuration you’ll choose for setting it all up.  There’s almost an infinite number of ways to accomplish your objective.  For the purpose of brevity, I’m going to go into just three potential solar power system setups…simple on-grid without battery backup, on grid with battery backup, and hybrid wind & solar on grid.  (I didn’t include off-grid because it is basically the same as on-grid w/ battery, just not connected to the utility company.)  I’ve included some simple wiring diagrams and videos for reference.  Later I will include a post with useful links for finding additional information and DIY solar power kits that are easy to install.

Please keep in mind that each of these can be done in different ways, and with different equipment than I show below but, they should give you enough information to get your gears turning.

Simple On Grid System:  This is the type of setup that you would use if you want to power your homes appliances and potentially sell power back to the utility company (if you make more energy than you use).  You can either save or make money with this type configuration.  Also know that there will be no batteries involved and the system will NOT provide emergency backup power regardless of it’s size!  It is technically possible to do but against regulation / law / code pretty much everywhere in the US.  I think this is do to safety concerns with ‘islanding‘ but, don’t quote me on that.  Anyway, this is a simpler and cheaper setup compared to the others.  You can also scale it up easily over time by adding more solar panels.

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Below is a video discussing some specifics regarding a simple grid tied inverter.  He explains about running straight through to the utility and skipping the battery bank.

On Grid with Battery Backup:  This system can do what the one above does in addition to providing power during a power outage.  It differs in the fact that partial shade on your panels can keep all of your panels from producing power if wired in a series.  It’s more expensive but much more versatile.

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The two videos below demonstrate good grid tied solar power systems with battery backup.  If you open the second video in a new window, below it (click more on description) he lists links to all of the individual parts.

Wind Turbine & Solar Grid Tied with Battery Backup:  This type of system can provide power when the sun isn’t shining.  It can also make electricity when there is no wind.  It costs more but is very reliable and will pay for itself over time.

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Next, will be useful resources for each of these steps and links to do it yourself solar electric power kits.

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Getting Familiar with Equipment

Before going any further you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the different solar products and what they do.  Depending on how you are going to setup your solar power system, individual components may be combined into another pieces of hardware or may not be used at all.  It is however essential to know what all these things are and whether you’ll need them.

DC Power – (Direct Current) This is the type of current produced by solar panels and wind turbines.  It is also the type of current stored and discharged from batteries.  DC cannot power traditional home appliances by itself.  Solar power systems are usually 12 or 24 volts.  The blowhard Thomas Edison is mostly credited for DC power and erroneously, electricity in general.

AC Power – (Alternating Current) This is current powering your home today and is commonly referred to as 110v.  If you are going to feed power back to the utility company, this is what they will want.  The genius Nikola Tesla is the true inventor of modern electricity, Edison be damned.

Solar Power Panels – (also known as PV Panels or Photovoltaics) These are essential to any solar project.  They are what converts the suns rays into electric power.  They can be made out of different materials and have differing amounts of efficiency in converting sunlight into electricity.  They also will vary widely in size and cost.  Here is a site that gives a brief run down of the major types of solar panels.

Power Inverter – This is a device that converts DC power created by your solar panels and changes it to AC current to supply energy for your home or the power grid.  A power invert usually has standard AC outlets that you can plug things into & it can be connected to your homes circuit breaker for power distribution through the house.  It can be a stand alone device in your system or some modern panels come with micro-inverters integrated into them.  The integrated kind could only be used in a grid-tied setup that doesn’t need to charge batteries.  (panels would ultimately be producing AC power & batteries need DC)

Grid Tie Inverter w/ Battery Backup – A special type of inverter that is needed in a hybrid solar power setup where you are able to feed excess energy to the power grid and have emergency battery backup power when the grid is down.  You should check with the utility company to see if they will allow this type of connection to their infrastructure.  It may also need to be installed by a certified electrician and meet certain specifications.

Charge Controller – (also known as Solar Regulators) This is what moderates the energy to and from your batteries to ensure that they are not under or over charged.  The input to the charge controller comes from the solar panels.  The output is usually connected to the storage batteries and inverter.  The charge controller may also be included inside another component of the system depending on your setup.  The stand alone controllers are relatively inexpensive but play an important role.

Solar Power Storage Batteries – These are needed if your system is to provide backup / emergency power or if you’re living off grid.  For residential solar power storage, deep cycle (or deep cell) lead acid batteries are typically used due to their properties.  You can use marine, golf cart, car batteries, etc.  There are many technical things to consider when buying this expensive component.  I’ll provide some links for more battery information at the end of this guide.

Inline Fuses – These cheap little guys sacrifice themselves in the event of short circuit or over voltage.  They protect the devices connected to them from electrical damage by breaking the circuit.  They are usually found between panels and charge controllers.  The inverter will also be fused.

Battery Tender / Trickle Charger –  These are plugged into an AC power outlet and fed to your batteries.  They ensure that the batteries remain fully charged regardless of the amount of energy your panels are producing.  The chargers can also provide diagnostic data and the charge within the batteries.  They help extend the life of your batteries and are pretty inexpensive.

Desulfater / Desulfation Device –  Product that is connected to the batteries to drastically extend their life by doing some wiz-bang stuff with the batteries internal chemistry.  Some chargers have these integrated or can be separate units.

Wiring – Insulated conductors used to transport electricity. (hehe)  The size / type of wiring between solar power components should be considered carefully.  Choosing the wrong gauge can waste energy & even be very dangerous.

OK, those are most of the components used in setting up a DIY solar power system.  Next I’ll explore where these things fit into your particular system.

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Power Estimations

After researching the regulations and finding what types of incentives are available, it’s time to find out how much energy you currently use.  Dig into your file cabinet…ugh, I mean download your online utility statements for the last year.  (preferably the last whole calendar year, Jan – Dec. if you intend to deeply analyze things)  Add up how many kWh’s (killowatt hours) you used for the year & divide by 12.  That will give you the average kWh’s used per month.  According to the US Energy Information Administration the average US household uses 940 kWh per month. (fyi – 1 KWH = 1000 watts for 1 hour)  Your 12 month average will be a factor in what watt size solar panels you should get, and how many.  If you’re going with a backup solar power system, these numbers will also play a role in buying batteries and inverter size.

If your original goal is just to save some money on your utility bill (from Step 1), then precise usage calculations are not really absolutely necessary.  But, if you are looking to live mostly off grid or make a profit selling energy back, then you should try to calculate and estimate as much as you can prior to purchasing anything.  Either way, there are free tools online to simplify the research.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory offers PVWatts which calculates hour-by-hour performance simulations that provide estimated monthly and annual energy production in kilowatts based on your location.  It’s pretty cool and not nearly as complicated as it sounds.  Just plug in some numbers (or hypothetical’s) and it will spit out useful information.  If you want to get all kinds of nerdy with it, download the Homer Energy hybrid modeling simulation software.  The program is a fully functional 2 week demo, or you can use the previous version free for six months.  Below I’ve included a PV (photo voltaic) solar map for the US which shows how many kWh of energy are typically available for your location.  Additional solar maps, for your visual stimulation, can be found here.  A very helpful resource in doing your solar site survey in a more traditional way can be read at Build it Solar. (recommended)  If you need to make conversions (Watts, Kilowatts, Amps, Volts, etc.) the users at this forum OnlineConversions.com seem to know everything!

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Anyway, keeping your goal in mind, determine how much energy you use & how much you want to produce as it will be a primary factor in what solar hardware you buy.

On a related topic, prior to installing a home solar power system you should make your home as energy efficient as possible.  There are allot of simple things you can do like The Over 100 Ways to Save on Your Energy Bill.  A free and simple energy savings estimator is also available online.  If you are really serious about conserving energy and money, you should consider getting a home energy audit.  The money would be better spent on energy efficiency in the home, than using expensive solar equipment to support the exaggerated need.  (Example:  Rather than getting up to close the front door all the way in the dead of winter…just turning up the heat until you don’t notice the cold draft.)  I’ve included a video below that shows some of what’s involved in an energy audit.

Rules, Codes and Regulations

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So you’ve decided what you’d like to accomplish.  Before you get ahead of yourself, you’ll want to get in contact with any, and every, entity that could have a say in what you can do with your ‘personal’ property.  Installing a solar power system will require some construction and installation.  There will be solar panels either on your roof or in your yard.  If you intend to have a grid-tied (net metering) system, the utility company will need to be contacted to determine their rules and safety requirements.  Local building codes will need to be consulted.  Your neighborhood association, city zoning and county laws should be investigated.  You may even want to discuss your intended project with your immediate neighbors.  Not only can they create hassles for you during construction (i.e. “There was this truck blocking my drive for 5 minutes.” or “They are making quite a racket over there & I want something done about it!”, etc, etc.), what if the neighbor decides to plant trees that will block the sunlight to your panels?  Basically, confer with everybody, down to the area dog catcher, to alleviate potential headaches later.  Here is a link to a checklist needed by the City of Berkeley,  CA, in order to be issued a permit to install a solar power system.  It should give you an idea of what your local authority my require.

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Although there are laws, codes, regulations, stipulations and opinions that can be a real drag but depending on where you live, some governing rules can actually be of assistance completing a DIY solar power system project.  The State of California, in general,  is a good example where laws are favorable & residence are encouraged toward green energy through legislation.

A good place to get started learning solar law and policy in your state is DSIRE. (some local info may be available there too)  I would recommend searching the Internet and using the phone book to learn about the rules applicable to your specific location.

Of course all of the rules about setting it up will be unique to your particular locale.  The same thing is also true regarding incentives, rebates and tax credits.  At the time of this posting, the Federal Government offers many incentives to encourage residential solar power.  In addition to DSIRE also look at energy.gov and energystar.gov for substantial savings relating to all aspects of installing a solar power system.  You should also ask your local government if they offer any incentives or rebates.

The next step will be things to consider about the physical setup of your system.  Things like estimating your solar power requirements, available solar energy (sunlight) in your area and home energy conservation.