Living off-grid brings some unique challenges to your lifestyle. You need to be aware of your total power consumption, and the power consumption of your appliances. You also need to be aware of the amount of time you run each appliance, as a small consumer left on 24 hours a day can consume more than a power hungry devices used briefly.
In this article I'll show you how to untether from the grid, and avoid a smelly, noisy, fuel consuming generator except in extreme weather conditions. It can be pricey for a good system, but you'll have minimal ongoing expenses, unlike fuel and maintenance on a generator. The less power you consume, the less power you will need to generate, keeping the system costs down. It's important to start with conservation.
A photo-voltaic (PV) system consists of panels that convert sunlight into electricity, a charge controller to prevent the batteries from overcharging, a set of batteries to store the electricity for when the sun is not shining, and often, a inverter to turn the low voltage DC (battery voltage) into normal 120 volts AC house current.
Solar Panels (PV)
There are many ways to mount solar panels. Some of these methods may include fixed on your roof, fixed on the ground, fixed on pole mounts, or pole mounted tracking arrays. Mounting your panels on the roof makes sense from a security, stealth and convenience standpoint, and can lower roof temperatures in hot climates, but is inconvenient in snow country. Panel angle should be adjusted seasonally for best collection.
The size of a 200 watt panel is approximately 60" x 40" x 1.5", and weighs about 40 lbs, so keep that in mind when thinking about mounting methods and location.
The solar panels are wired to a charge controller. This unit makes sure that the batteries get fed the proper amount of electricity, at a rate they can handle, and will help ensure longer life from the batteries. The traditional method is to have a 12v solar panel, a 12v charge controller, and a 12v battery. The newer and more efficient method is a series string of panels running at a higher voltage (100v or less, but at least 20v higher than battery voltage), a special MPPT controller, and the 12v battery pack. The MPPT controller matches the best performance curve of the panels to the batteries, allowing up to a 30% increase in power, without needing more panels.
The typical battery in an off grid system is a flooded lead acid battery. This unit has vented caps, discharges hydrogen during charging, and needs to be vented, as well as rewatered fairly often. Another solution is the AGM battery. This unit does not need venting, and is sealed, eliminating watering. It also won't leak acid in the case of physical damage. It is more expensive, so there is a trade off. Deep cycle (do not get starting batteries) come in 6v and 12v. Consider two 6v in series to be a 12v, four in series for a 24v system, or eight in series for a 48v system. You can parallel multiple 12v batteries (or 6v pairs) to increase Amp Hour storage (two 100ah batteries in parallel = 200ah). Batteries in series add voltage, batteries in parallel add amp hours.
An inverter changes low voltage dc (Direct Current) into 120v ac (Alternating Current) for regular household appliances. Inverters can range from the cheap $60 750 watt Black and Decker from Walmart, to a $2500 Xantrex or Outback with integrated battery charger and transfer switch for connecting to the grid or a generator. Cheap inverters have to be connected directly to an appliance, while the larger, more expensive units can be connected directly to your existing breaker panel.
Fuses, Breakers, and Disconnects
For safety, and convenience, we install fused disconnects between the solar panels and the charge controller, between the charge controller and the batteries, and between the batteries and the inverter. This allows us to safely isolate the components for maintenance (or panel deployment), or automatic disconnect in case of a short or equipment malfunction.
Running a system without a battery monitor is like using a bank account without a check register. You have no idea how much energy you have until it runs out and you are in trouble. The simplest, and least effective is a volt meter. It will tell you the voltage of the battery pack, but that reading is highly affected by charging and discharging, making the reading basically useless. The best method is an amp hour meter on your battery pack, that indicates amp hours deposited, and amp hours withdrawn. These units commonly also include a amp and volt meter function. There are standalone units like the Bogart Trimetric, and integrated units like the Outback Flexnet DC. A standard multimeter ($15 at Radio Shack) is useful for detecting power, polarity, and continuity, but not as a system monitor.
Wire size is a function of amps being carried, and the distance they need to move. If you have 40 amps (480 watts) of PV on your roof, and it's 8' to the charge controller and batteries, then you should use 8 AWG wire between the PV panels and the charge controller (and from the charge controller to the batteries). The wires between your battery(s) and inverter should be short and large. A 2000 watt inverter, 6' from the battery bank, needs 1 AWG battery cables. The smaller the AWG, the larger the cable. If your cables are too small, they will generate heat, and possibly a fire, as well as dropping the voltage to less than useful levels. Use the calculator at the bottom of http://www.powerstream.com/Wire_Size.htm
, and use 3% voltage drop (or lower) as your target.
I know I said we wanted to avoid these things, but sometimes you can't. If you live in 100 degree weather, you are going to want an air conditioner, and that means a outlandishly large PV system, grid connection, or a generator. Many northern climates have a large number of sunless days. We like the Honda EU series generators. They are small, quiet, and scalable (can run one for small loads, and slave a second for heavy loads). Yamaha makes a similar series. Both can be modified to run on gasoline and/or propane. This is where you'll want the better inverter/charger/transfer units as mentioned in the inverter section, as there just one cable to connect to the generator, and switching/charging is automatic. A wired or wireless remote is available for remote start and shutdown, and the more expensive inverters can handle this procedure automatically based on battery needs.
Sizing the system - Math Alert!
I'll try keep this simple.
A 200 watt panel, optimally aligned (solar south, at an angle similar to latitude with seasonal adjustments), might gather 600 watt hours daily in NY (3 full sun hours * 200w), or 1200 watt hours in CA (6 full sun hours * 200w). 1200 watt hours is enough energy to run a 100 watt light bulb for 12 hours. See the pattern? Fortunately, we have better options than a 100 watt light bulb. In our home, we have installed 14 watt CFL's (Compact Fluorescent Lights). These put out a similiar amount of light as a 80 watt incandescent light bulb.
Here are some basic formulas:
Volts * Amps = Watts
Watts * Hours = Watt Hours
Watt Hours / Volts = Amp Hours
Amp * Hours = Amp Hours
A 200 watt panel that produces 12v (nominal, it actually produces 15-20v) might produce 200 w / 12 a = 16.7 amps. In 3 full sun hours (NY), it might produce 600 watt hours (3h * 16.7a = 50 amp hours. 50 amp hours * 12v = 600 watt hours).
A battery rated at 100ah has about 50ah usable (50% discharge) otherwise it's life could be severely degraded. Typically batteries are rated at the C/20 rate, so a 100ah battery might deliver 5 amps for 20 hours. Taking into effect the 50% discharge, you are looking at 5 amps for 10 hours. If you pull the amp hours out faster, you have fewer usable ah. If you pull it out slower, you have more usable ah.
More on “Loads” and “Run Times”
A 700 watt (cooking watts) microwave might pull 1000 watts. If used for 15 minutes, it consumes 250 watt hours. A 30 watt laptop computer used for 4 hours would consume 120 watt hours. Consider our 14 watt CFL lights. If 6 are left on for 4 hours,
6 * 14w = 84w
84w * 4h = 336 watt hours.
336 watt hours / 12v = 28 ah.
A Kill-A-Watt meter is a useful meter for monitoring the amps, watts, and watt hour consumption of 120vac devices, and can be found for around $20 at Radio Shack, Amazon.com and other places. There are similar devices for measuring 12vdc loads.
Putting it all together
So, you have mounted the panels on the roof or on a yard mount. You'll want to connect them in parallel (unless using the MPPT controller, (It's panel and controller specific, so check the data sheets for both), keeping array voltage below 100v is usually best) connecting positive to positive (red), negative to negative (black), and bring the wires inside to the charge controller (remember, series adds voltage, parallel adds amps). Don't forget your fused disconnect between the panels and the charge controller.
Next connect the charge controller to the batteries. Again, it's positive to positive (red), negative to negative (black), with a fused disconnect in between.
Next connect the batteries to the inverter. Again, it's positive to positive, negative to negative, with a fused disconnect in between.
If you are using a 24v or 48v battery pack, wire four or eight 6v batteries in series, respectively. You will need special controllers and inverters for the higher voltages, but your battery cables will be much smaller in large systems. This is the type of installation where a MPPT controller like the Outback FM 60/80 really shines.
What's it going to cost?
A basic low end system might consist of a 200 watt panel ($550), a 20 amp charge controller ($100), Two Walmart type 27 marine deep cycle 12v batteries ($160), and a Walmart 750 watt inverter ($60). With miscellaneous wire, fuses and connectors, you are looking at just under $1000 for an autonomous, gridless, no power bill, power system. You would be able to power a couple of lights, a radio, and a small rv water pump, ideal for a rain water collection system.
A slightly larger setup might consist of 400 watts of PV ($1100), a 40 amp charge controller ($150), 200 ah of Deep Cycle (two Trojan T-105 6v's) battery storage ($300), and a 2000 watt inverter/charger ($1700). With miscellaneous wire, fuses and connectors, you are looking at just over $3000. This would allow some use of a LCD/LED TV or Laptop computer, and a microwave.
Appropriate Energy Use
To reduce power consumption, propane appliances like the kitchen stove and refrigerator, water heater, clothes dryer, and furnace are common. However, this is just shifting you to the propane “grid” (although propane can be stored indefinitely). More appropriate energy use might include wood fired heat and cooking, wood/solar heated hot water, using indoor/outdoor clothes lines instead of a mechanical dryer, rainwater harvesting and a cistern instead of a deep well, and composting toilets instead of flush toilets.
We have lived off grid for over 6 years with systems similar to the above. We use worm bins to compost our food scraps, raised beds for gardening and produce much of our food. We heat entirely with wood, cut from our own woods, and use a propane tankless water heater. We would be happy to consult with you on your project, and help you become independent from the grid.
for additional resources on generator propane conversions, rainwater harvesting, solar water heating, methane digesters, and more.