Posts Tagged ‘step by step’

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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.

grid-no-battery

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.

grid-with-battery

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.

wind-solar-grid-battery

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.

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.

permit-checklist

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.

Determine your solar energy goals.

solar-goal

You’ll need to decide what you want your solar power system to accomplish.  There can be 4 primary objectives. (at least in my head)

  1. Emergency Backup Power – [can be tied into the grid or stand-alone]  Having emergency backup power in the event of a natural disaster, or otherwise, is a good idea.  It can prevent the food from spoiling in your refrigerator – freezer, power emergency radios / cellphones and make life a whole lot more tolerable in general.  This can be tied into the power company or be separate, providing energy only to your home.  This option will require an investment in batteries and will cost more that a standard grid-tied system which doesn’t supply backup power.  This type of system can also be used for option number two.  When the batteries are charged, power produced from the solar panels can flow to household devices saving money on utility bills.  (or sent to the utility co.)  This type of system can become very complex.
  2. Reducing Your Utility Bills – [grid-tied]  Home utility bills are a pain in the wallet and will only continue to rise in the future.  You can reduce a portion or all of your bill by supplying energy for household devices when the sun is shining.  Any power not used is routed to the utility company any can be used after the sun goes down.  This setup is cheaper than option one due to the lack of batteries.  It is also scale-able  meaning that you can start with a small system and add components later to increase power production.
  3. Making Money (Long Term) – [grid-tied]  Although setting up a solar power system can be expensive upfront, they will pay for themselves & even make you money over time.  I can’t think of too many things sweeter than having the power company writing ME checks every month.  With this option you’ll want to have a larger setup and produce more power than you use.
  4. Living Completely Off-Grid – If the place you want to power is way out in the boondocks, you may not have any other choice but to look at alternative energy sources for electricity.  (if you’re into using electricity powered devices, that is)  This type of setup would likely contain a hybrid system containing things like DC powered appliances, large solar arrays and potentially a wind generator.

If you are not sure about how solar powering a home works, here is a short video explaining the basics…

Deciding which one, or combination you are interested in will determine the components and some of the setup required.  In the next post I’ll explore options that may or may not be available to you regarding installation (law) and ways to save money on your purchases.