Thursday, December 15, 2016

Fy Nyth's Solar Electrical System


As you probably know if you've followed my blog for any length of time, I live off grid. And as I've mentioned before, I know that means different things to different people. To me, that means my house  has no physical hard line connection to anything from the outside. I do have a wireless internet connection. I do have a cell phone, albeit a old and cheep flip phone. I do have electrical power. Here's how I get that and all the things I use to do so. If you are trying to decide if you really want to go off grid or not, please read my "Realities of Solar Power" post as well. This post is not really discussing that, just how I set things up if you have made that choice to go off grid already. 

Here's a visual tour I did of all the components I discuss below if you would like to watch that first so you have an overview of the system and how everything fits together. I also list all the items in my house that use power.


First there is my solar panels. They are my main power source. I bought them as a kit that can be found here. The kit includes four 100 watt solar panels, anchoring clips, charge controller, cables, connectors, and a 1000 watt inverter for about $900. 


They are not on my roof. Primarily because I need to be able to clean snow off of them all winter and having to access the roof to do so seemed like it would be far to big of a hassle. Secondly because my roof is not parked where it get's much sun. Initially they were placed beside my house which was most convenient. But due to living on the north side of the hill you can see pictured above, that location did not get a lot of sun either. Now they've been moved up to their current location just above the tree line on the edge of an open hay field where they get about as much sun as is possible in this northern clime. 


A friend with a shop built these frames for me. Each frame holds two of the panels, so there are two frames total to hold four panels. It's just a basic 2x4 structure that has proved to be very sturdy. And by loosening that one bolt on the side that you can see above right at the peak of the legs, I can rotate the panels themselves. Allowing me to change the angle with the seasons as the sun moves. If I pull those two bolts, I have three separate pieces that will pack flat should I ever need to transport them. Two pairs of legs and one frame with the panels themselves. But with a good wide base and the weight of the wood it's self, they have been super stable. No issues at all with wind or anything else moving the frames. And I didn't have to sink a post into concrete in the ground. Which is good because I need to be mobile, and I don't own the ground I live on. 



In their current location, the panels produce as much as power as possible in this snowy area. At this time of year there are a lot of morning where I wake up to this picture below though and it is a huge benefit to be able to just hike up the hill and use my soft broom to dust all the snow off.



As I mentioned in my video, there is close to 100 feet of cable from the panels to my house. These two shots above and below show taking readings at the panels and then where the cable goes into the house. There does not seem to be any noticeable line drop.

I did have to order extra cables and connectors to move them that far which you can find  here and here.



Then there are the days where there is just no sun. Because it's snowing all day. Or raining. Or only a few hours of sun because it's winter and I live so far north. So I have a generator. Above, you can see the tiny house my generator lives in. It would not really need a house, but it does help reduce the noise, and more importantly, keeps snow from melting into it as it's running and then icing up when it cools down.


I wrote a whole post just about my generator which you can read here, or buy one here. This really is a great little generator costing only $180 and running as well or better, as I describe in the post dedicated to it, than the much more expensive Honda of the same size.



The power from the generator comes into the house through that red cord. The solar panel power comes in a black cord that you can't see pictured here since it hadn't been finished when this shot was taken, but is almost right beside the red one. That is the outside of the house before I stained it grey. 


All the power heads to the rest of my equipment inside under the couch. You can see the air spaces in the way the couch frame was built which allow air to circulate freely so no equipment overheats. All the power stuff is under the back part of the couch. There is other stuff storage under the L part of the couch, but it's sealed off from the power equipment so nothing can tumble onto something where it would short anything out or possibly block air flow and start a fire. 


Here you can see how I can prop it open if I want. It's also possible to lift that board and cushions the whole way off if you really need the space to get under there and work on something. 


After the power created by the sun or the generator makes it inside, it has to be safely stored in the batteries. Above you can see the charge controller for the generator. It looks like this exact model is no longer offered by V-Max tanks, but you can find their similar charge controller here though it is a little smaller, and cheeper at only $110, than the model I'd bought.

And below, on the right, is the charge controller for the solar panels. This came as part of the kit I purchased the panels in that I linked to above.


And on the left is the monitor that allows me to easily see how full my batteries are etc. You can find this monitor here. Its expensive, adding $230 to the cost of the system, but very worth having. Without it, I would never know the state of my batteries. And knowing that is important to maintaining their health. Which as I'll explain below, is pretty important. 


And then we get to the batteries themselves. This will probably be your single biggest expense in setting up a solar system. You can find the batteries here that I bought.


I have five, but as you can see in this photo, I didn't start with all five just because of the expense. I started with two. And then added two more about a month later. And the last one a month after that. You do want to keep all your batteries as close as possible to the same age. If you have even one old one, it can ruin your new batteries. And about $300 a piece, that's not something you want to ruin. 


Above, you can see the little plate that all the power runs through allowing my monitor to know what's going on. 



Here's where all the wiring comes into and back out of the back of that monitor.


All the batteries are wired in parallel, basically turning all 5 into one larger battery with more amp hours of storage. Above you can see all the negative wires bolted onto the terminal at one side of that battery bank. And below is all the positive wire on the terminal at the opposite side.



Finally, when power leaves the batteries to do something like turn on my lights, it flows through this inverter above and into the rest of the house. The inverter turns the DC power stored in the batteries into AC power which is what a standard wall outlet uses. This was also part of the kit with the solar panels.

So all total, my costs for my solar system are approximately as follows.

Solar panels, inverter, charge controller, mounting clips, and some cable - $900
Misc. lumber, screws, bolts for the panel frames and generator box - $300
Extra solar cable and connectors - $70
Generator - $180
Generator charge controller - $110
Batteries - $1500
Monitor - $230

Total = $3290 for parts. Labor I've not counted since it was all provided by me and one good friend. As I mentioned in the video tour, a quote I got from a local solar installer for a similar system ran about $17,000. 

And that's how I get electricity! If you have any questions, please ask away. 







19 comments:

  1. What is the expected lifetime of the system? I'm curious how the costs look over a long term as you replace the various parts.

    Thanks so much for the post! I love seeing the details of tiny house & off grid living.

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    1. The battery bank should be good for about ten years is what I hear. I'm hoping there will be better, longer lasting, and more compact options for batteries by the time I need to replace these. The solar panels, I'm told 20ish years, but again, at some point I'm hoping better versions will be developed. The generator is probably the only thing I'll have to replace more often as small generators that run for long hours do not last forever. And you are welcome!

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  2. Thanks for the great info! If I ever get brave enough to quit my job and moves to the woods this, and your entire blog, has given me great information and inspiration.
    Love the simple tilting frames. I will have to do similar as I am over 50° north latitude. Winters are pretty dark here haha. I have been looking into batteries and found these! http://aquionenergy.com/company/battery-manufacturers/ I think I would like to build a little power shed with generator a couple of these and inverter all nicely contained.
    Hope all is well! Happy holidays!

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    1. I have heard of one other tiny houser using those salt water batteries and they look like a very interesting option. I am hoping there are lots of improvements in all these technologies by the time I need to replace anything in my system.

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  3. Please list the names of the items you used for the entire system. I would like to build one myself. Thank you.

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    1. If you read through this post you will find the names, prices, and links to every part I used.

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  4. Nice setup :) A few pointers: You are measuring the current wich is allways the same throughout a circuit, you need to measure the voltage at the panels and at the batteries to get a value on how much your line drop is, if you then take that difference in volts times the amps you get how many watts you lose. Your adjustable panel frame looks nice but watch out for that tiny shadowing you get when in a close to vertical position, that shadow affects more than you tink.
    It looks like your solar charge controller is a PWM if you change to an MPPT controller and connect your panels in series to up the voltage you'll get more effect out of your panels and less loss in your lines. Happy charging :)

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    1. Thanks for the info! I'm hoping to just not change anything for right now since it's working for me, but will keep that all in mind as I have to upgrade items.

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  5. Thank you so much for sharing this. Very inspiring and lots of useful information. Merry xmas!
    /Daniel

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  6. Hi, Nice little system. We did ours in much the same way only a little larger. The batteries should have some space between them so they don't overheat when charging. From what I've read, an inch is good.

    RonB. Off-grid on the British Columbia Coast

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    1. Thanks for the tip! You live in a beautiful area too!

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  7. I enjoy your tips very much and find them very useful most of the time.

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  8. thanks for sharing this information..i find it very interesting..

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  9. This is the best description I have ever seen!! Did you take a solar tax credit?

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    .

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    1. Hello. I also live off grid in a Fifth wheel trailer on our own land with my wife and three large dogs. We have been living this way for five years. We had to move my Mother-in-law here two years ago. We put her in her own fifth wheel close to us so we are able to take care of her. I weld so I was able to build racks out of steel and have 1600 watts of solar and use 9 batteries. Our system is 12 volts like yours with generator back up. We live in the high desert of NE Utah by Starvation Res. The land has lots of trees so we cannot use wind because there is not enough to set off the cost. We run our house and a full size freezer and a swamp cooler and have plenty of power. I did the Mothers place with a 24 volt system and will convert mine to 24 volt if my inverter ever goes out. It works so much better and is more trouble free. A few things that may help is using Rain-X on your panels during the winter makes the snow slide off almost all the time once the sun hits it. I also wonder if it would be a good idea to get a 30 gallon tank for the van so you could fill it and pump it into the house so you don't have to pack all that water. I also haul water but haul 1000gal. at a time. I only have to do it every 5 weeks. I tell every one that my solar was payed for the first day because they wanted $12,500 just to hook up power and we have it running across the land. I love what you have done with your beautiful house. Stay happy!

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    2. It sounds like you've got your system worked out!

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  11. Hi Ariel,
    I just found your channel and blog and subscribed. Thank you for your solar write up. It is very informative. I am looking forward to reading the rest of your blog and watching your videos. I am building a small 32'x 14' off grid cabin in New Hampshire, so your experiences are very helpful. I am in year 3 of a 6 year plan! Currently I have one 250 watt solar panel and a deep cycle battery to run my LED lights and water pump. My blog is http://sonomashanty.blogspot.com/ and I am TinyNHHouse on YouTube. All the best! - Dave

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