Homeowners have an increasingly large number of options for utilizing solar energy to provide power, lighting, and/or lower utility bills. Comprehensive solutions are becoming more and more popular due to improvements in the technology, government financial credits, and the ability to “sell” power back to the utility company.
Additionally, a new class of plug and play products has emerged which require little if any installation for uses like garden lighting, shed lighting, or even cell phone charging.
Comprehensive systems span grid-tied, hybrid, and off-grid installations. All of these systems involve mounting of solar panels in the sunniest location possible, typically on a roof or other structure facing in a southerly direction. Often these systems involve an inverter, which converts the native 12v dc current from the panels to 120v ac to power traditional household needs, though for some of the simpler off-grid installations, homeowners may choose to eliminate the inverter, and go with a pure 12v DC setup. Installation for most comprehensive systems will involve your roof and your residential wiring. For that reason it is a good idea to either thoroughly educate yourself in this area, or involve a professional installer or electrician.
The following summarizes a number of the options available today.
Grid-Tied Solar Systems
This is the easiest, and most popular, way to get starting in PV power. These systems simply tie into your existing home power system and the utility grid. If your array generates more energy than you use, the energy is sold back to the power grid and creates a credit for you. The advantages of these systems are the relative simplicity and lower initial cost. A system like this typically requires a few panels, some wiring boxes and disconnects, and an inverter. The inverter converts the electricity from your panels to power that your home and the grid can use.
One of the disadvantages of this system is that there is no storage. If you experience frequent blackouts and need backup power, this system won’t work because it does not store the solar power. This system is also not feasible for remote cabins and cottages that don’t have a nearby power grid.
This system also requires a interconnection agreement with the local utility. This outlines just how the connection to the grid should be made and what the inspection schedule is. It is generally advisable to get your power company involved early on for a grid-tied system. Since there are often incentives and rebates in place from the state and the utility, its well worth the call.
Hybrid Solar-Generator Systems
For off-grid and back-up power applications, most folks turn to a hybrid system. The hybrid system usually consists of a PV array, a charge controller, a battery bank, an inverter, and sometimes a tertiary power source such as a wind turbine or a gas generator. These systems are fairly complex and require a high level of expertise to design and install. With the popularity of off-grid living, however, there are more and more packaged systems for people to choose from. These systems will provide power if the grid shuts down and can still sell power back to a grid if desired.
The biggest disadvantage of these systems is the cost and complexity. The battery bank requires regular maintenance and must be replaced long before the panels are done generating. They are also fairly expensive. These costs, however, are often a better alternative to the cost and hassle of bringing in grid power to remote locations.
Off-Grid Solar Dependent Systems
For cheap power in remote locations, often these systems are the only choice. They generally consist of a small battery bank, a charge controller, and a solar array. People with these systems choose to use all DC appliances so as to avoid the cost and inefficiency of inverters. These systems have the advantage of lower initial cost. The batteries are still an issue for maintenance cost. And there is no backup power if weather doesn’t allow the panels to charge the batteries.
Plug and Play Kits
If you need a small power source for your cottage, RV, or to take with you into the wilderness, there are great options out there. There are solar power kits that include the panel, the electronics, instructions, and all the wiring you need to get started. For example, a kit could power a little stereo, light, and charging your phone down at the boathouse or out in the barn. Or they can keep your RV battery charged as you travel around the country. You’ll need a screwdriver, the ability to follow instructions, and a sunny place for the panel. Many of the kits start at less than $100 and for $500 you can get a nice little system and expand it later.
Lighting the exterior of your home used to be tricky because you had to find a way to get power to the lights. But with the advancement in renewable power technology, these has gotten a lot easier. Solar garden lights, security lights, and area lights now come completely integrated with panel, battery, electronic eye, and lights. Installation is usually as easy as hanging a picture and the prices start at less than $50. So whether you are trying to put some accent lights in your garden, shed some light in your tool shed, or trying to brighten those dark steps, lights powered by the sun are a great alternative.
Home and Garden Decor
For your outdoor spaces, solar fountains lend a soothing touch to any setting. All they require is a little water and a sunny spot and they can surround you with pleasant sounds or keep your pond aerated. Solar lamp post lights lend a nice touch to any entry area and tell your arriving guests you have good taste and care about the planet.