Off-grid Solar

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When I purchased the wood stove, I also scheduled a time for a cost estimate to power the cabin with solar. The company did not limit their business to just heating; they also sold solar equipment and designed solar systems for homeowners.

Solar System

In my case, I did not have power running to the property, which required an off-grid system, meaning a bank of batteries for energy storage. The company installed a 3,500-watt system. Electricity flows through the system as follows:

  • Photovoltaic solar panels collected photons (sunlight) generating a direct current (DC).
  • DC flowed to a charge controller connected to a bank of eight batteries.
  • An inverter connected to the batteries converted DC to alternating current (AC)
Stand-alone Solar Panels

Additionally, the system also provided an alternative method to charge the batteries. For instance, if the batteries needed a little boost, simply plug in a generator. At first, I used a portable generator but later installed a stationary Kohler 12kW automatic generator, which ran off propane. The generator would detect the percent of battery charge. If the battery charge level degraded to about 60%, the generator would start automatically and run for an hour charging the batteries.

The system uses a Magnum Energy Sine Inverter Charger. The LCD battery monitor reports the:

  • percentage of charge,
  • state of charge,
  • real-time amps,
  • and the minimum/maximum DC volts.

The battery monitor also provides settings to equalize the batteries, which I would do a couple of times a year.

Inverter Charger
Magnum Energy Sine Inverter Charger

Maintenance

The battery maintenance was simple. Each month I checked the water levels in the batteries and filled them with distilled water if needed. In the summer I would perform equalization. Equalization involves a controlled battery overcharge to de-sulfate the battery plates. As to the solar panels, I use a squeegee to clean off anything, such as bird droppings or snow in the winter.

Life Revolves Around the Sun

Using an off-grid solar system means you live by the sun. More daylight in the summer and less in the winter.

Summer

During the summer, we ran a table saw, shop vac, and charged tool batteries concurrently with no problem. My refrigerator runs all day, but I often use my computer or the microwave at night. In the morning, the battery charge would consistently drop to around 80%. Then, in the morning when photons started hitting the solar panels and exciting electrons, it would rise to 100% in a few hours.

Winter

Winter months created a somewhat different story primarily because of cloud cover with meandering winter storms. The battery charge percent would seriously drop with two or three days of cloud cover, which would start the automatic generator. Interestingly, even with light cloud cover, the system would still charge the batteries. It wasn’t much, maybe at the most 10%.

During good weather, the system behaved much as it did in the summer, but with less sunlight and longer nights, the battery charge would drop to around 65 to 70%, but it was not consistent. Sometimes the automatic generator would start up just before dawn.

Appliances

A major drain on batteries is home appliances. When I ran electrical lines I did install a dryer receptacle just in case someone in the future connected to the power grid, but the dryer I installed is a gas dryer. A clothes dryer is too much of a load on the system. Like everything else, you have to do a little planning. Before purchasing an appliance check its amperage.

The solar system continues to impress me. Each time my neighbors lose power due to a storm I have power and it is a good feeling not to have utility bills.

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