I want to talk about the Solar Lifestyle and what that means. Elsewhere, I have given links to the Home Power Magazine Archive. That is a treasure trove of information and each issue is a time capsule of where the state of things was at that time.
Early on, solar panels were small and expensive. I have paid up to $11/watt for solar panels and I was not exactly a pioneer. Early adopters would have a single panel of maybe 30 watts and whatever batteries they could scrounge. Battery scrounging was easier back in the day, with a choice of Edison Batteries from the railroad or a forklift, NiCads from military surplus or L16s from department store floor scrubbers. They quickly found that an old car battery was not a good choice.
Systems were 12 volts, borrowing car tail light bulbs for lights and car radios for entertainment. If you wanted to get fancy you could use light fixtures from RV or marine sources. Primitive? Yes, but if you’ve ever lived with light from kerosene lamps, then you’d think it was great.
Inverters? What inverters? The first ones were square wave and didn’t get along well with some appliances, but even those were rare. The solar power was mostly used for light. You’d cook with propane and your fridge, if you had one, used propane too.
As systems grew, low voltage appliances were added. You could get a 12v coffee pot or popcorn popper at a truck stop. Specialty houses developed super efficient refrigerators with DC motors. John still sells the fridges because there are still a lot of low power systems out in the boondocks. People found that keeping up with the loads was a struggle for the solar panel. Maybe they’d eventually add more as the budget permitted, but most also maintained a backup generator, often a homemade DC rig using a gas engine and a car alternator. This was necessary, not only to keep up with the load, but because batteries need equalizing and that takes a lot of power.
Inverters evolved, rising in power and dropping in price. John’s recent email blast had an inverter at 1/3 the cost of a similar one I bought 30 years ago, wholesale, and the money was a lot stronger back then. They keep getting better and adding features. I just saw a brochure for the Midnite Solar MNB17-5 and I WANT ONE!
So, what is the state of the solar lifestyle, today? It is a wide range. Some folks are in pretty much the same place early USA users were 30 years ago. I know a guy who brings solar power to remote South American villages and John gives a lot of stuff to folks in Haiti, where just having a light and a way to charge a phone, a modern necessity, are luxuries.
I know a fellow who is a little more advanced than that, having to fire up his generator to run the water pump to fill his tanks. His stove and fridge are gas. Beyond that, he has CF lights all over the house and a big screen TV. If he has a big party and everybody falls asleep with everything turned on, he may have to run the generator to get the batteries back to speed. His batteries, by the way, were scrounged from a phone company for $5 each and have been in service with him for years.
Another fellow has a grid tie system. In his large modern, all-electric home, he is oblivious to any lifestyle changes. If he needs more than he makes, the grid supplies it, but as a rule, the solar power covers his needs. If the grid goes down, he’ll be in the dark like his neighbors.
In my area, we can’t have grid tie. One fellow uses a hybrid system that runs on solar, when he has it, and switches to grid when the batteries get low at night. That is an automatic feature of many modern inverters. A bigger battery stack would probably allow him to go full time off-grid. A lifestyle change would, too, but his house uses a lot of power for HVAC and there are always computers and home entertainment devices running. There have been a few lifestyle changes to maximize the use of the solar power. Big power users like the clothes dryer and the oven, for baking, are used during the day. When he had a single 5kw inverter, care had to be taken to not run the A/C, oven and clothes dryer all at the same time. Under pressure from his wife, he called Sun Electronics and bought a second 5kw inverter (I think he uses the Radian series) to run in parallel and now there are no restrictions on using stuff at the same time. If a hurricane takes out the grid and spares his array, he can conserve power and get along fine on solar alone.
On my system, at Phase 3, I am gradually getting to where I want to be, adding loads. I KNOW my wife is not going to deal with lifestyle changes, so I am working toward 100% off grid with operation being completely normal, except for the size of the power bill. In Phase 2, I had a crappy inverter with nowhere near the capacity it claimed, so I had to be very careful. I bought a 12kw inverter, a real one, that was going to solve all of my problems, but then lightning took it out. I am now running a 5500 watt inverter I built. I am still learning what it can do, wondering if it will handle the A/C load when I bring it on.
Battery life was a problem with Phase 2 in cloudy weather, but I have added batteries and incorporated other sources from my 2 electric farm trucks and my electric boat. That, along with an extra 5kw of solar and the batteries have been fine, even when we go for days without sunshine.
My goal is to have no restrictions on my use of solar power. Current loads are all the lights, computer, satellite, TV/DVD, 2 refrigerators, a freezer chest, 2 coffee pots, microwave and dishwasher. If the grid goes down, the clothes dryer and the stove won’t work, but I can get by without them. If I have any problems with the A/C then I’ll just have to build or buy a bigger inverter, won’t I? Another option would be a second inverter just for HVAC. Out at the Solar Shed, I run all manner of power tools, including a 2hp air compressor and a welder. It doesn’t sound like I have too many limitations, does it?
So, you see, today the solar lifestyle is only limited by your budget and covers pretty much the entire evolution of home solar power. Solar is now the cheapest form of power generation. It is only the up-front cost of going solar that holds us back, and John is doing his best to make that cost ever-lower. Looking at some of his kits, I am wondering if maybe you could borrow money to buy the kit and pay it back with payments similar to what you’d make on your power bill. Better yet, save up and then give the power company the boot.
(Update: I did get the upstairs central a/c connected and it did not work. There was too much surge load at startup with this 30 year old machine. I installed a soft starter on the a/c compressor and now the
18,000 BTU compressor works without so much of a blink, even with other heavy loads running. Trademarked names for these gadgets include Smart Start and Sure Start. They are not cheap, but cheaper than a bigger inverter!)
By: Neal Collier