How to Set Up Your 1st Solar Panel System
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In this tutorial, I’m going to show you exactly how to set up your first solar panel system, step by step.
These are the same steps I used to make my own solar power system.
To connect charge controller to battery:
- Option 1: Make your own battery cables (this is what I did)
- 10 gauge copper wire
- 12-10 ring terminal and butt splice connectors
- Littelfuse inline fuse holder
- 20A blade fuse
- Heat shrink tubing
- 10 gauge 8 ft battery to charge controller tray cables
- 20A ANL fuse
To connect inverter to battery:
To connect solar panel to charge controller:
Note: You can copy my solar panel setup as is or adjust the sizes of the various components and wiring products for your energy needs.
Only needed if making your own battery cables:
Step 1: Understand the Solar Wiring Diagram
Here’s the solar panel wiring diagram for this system:
Here are the main points to understand about it:
- A basic solar panel setup consists of 4 main components. These are a battery, solar panel, charge controller, and inverter.
- Don’t connect the solar panel directly to the battery. Doing so can damage the battery. You need to instead connect both to a charge controller that regulates the incoming solar energy to safely charge the battery. Most charge controllers require you to connect the battery first and then the solar panel (and reverse this order when doing disconnections). Consult your controller’s manual for the recommended installation order.
- Protect your system with a fuse between each connection. Place a fuse between the battery and charge controller, battery and inverter, and solar panel and charge controller (on the positive wires of each connection).
- Don’t overdischarge the battery. Some batteries, such as lead acid batteries, don’t have a built-in BMS to protect against overdischarge. Give yourself some cushion when sizing your battery, and monitor your battery’s voltage through the LED indicators on your charge controller.
Do you have the necessary skills, experience, and understanding?
Installing a solar panel system can be complicated, with numerous consequences of incorrect installation, including the power simply not working, leaks in your roof, or even an electrical fire. You need a clear understanding of both electrical systems and how to physically install a large, heavy structure either on your roof or on the ground.
Before you get too far down the path of installing a solar panel system yourself, be honest about whether you have the skill set required and the willingness and time to learn how. If you don’t, you should bring in a professional who can install the systems for you. After all, it’s typically more expensive to bring someone in to fix a project than to bring them in to do it right the first time.
Research the specific requirements for your type of system
Before taking the deep dive into DIY-ing, make sure you’ve done the necessary research and have the paperwork to back it up.
Depending on the kind of solar panel system you’re installing and where you live, there are different regulations, permits, and inspection requirements. In many areas, installing solar on a home that remains connected to the grid comes with stringent rules for both the plan and the installation, including coordination with your utility company.
DIY Budget Solar Tracker System, tracking vs no tracking.
If you’re installing an off-grid system, such as to an outbuilding, cabin, or RV, then the requirements are likely far less demanding, though you likely still need permits and inspections. Before you dive into detailed planning for your project, reach out to your local building department and find out exactly what requirements have to be fulfilled with your type of system.
Not all solar panels are created equal
When looking into the hardware itself, it can be tempting to save money with the cheapest panels available. However, the purchase price doesn’t always tell the whole story in terms of affordability. First and foremost, consider the durability of the panels. Does the company have a reputation for long-lasting systems, and do they have a warranty to back that reputation up? If you have to replace the system after 10 years when a slightly more expensive system would have lasted 25 years, you didn’t save any money.
The second consideration is the efficiency of the panels. The more efficient, the more power you’ll generate, and the more of your electrical costs you’ll offset. Those costs add up over the life of the system. A 10% lower installation price might be negated by the increased energy production associated with higher-quality panels.
Be aware of hidden costs
To make the most out of your investment, be sure you’re not ignoring that much needed repair to your roof or those dead tress hanging around your yard.
Don’t overlook the costs above and beyond the panels, rails, wires, and batteries that come with installing a solar panel system. For example, if you install a new solar panel system on the roof, you may need to reinforce the underlying structure. Before you begin, make sure that the roof shingles are relatively new, or plan on the expense of removing the system to install a new roof a few years down the road.
Another consideration is making sure that your system sits in as much sunlight during the day as possible. This may mean taking down some trees, which can cost thousands of dollars if you need to bring in a professional. Other extra costs might include upgrading your electric panel, keeping them snow-free in the winter, and dealing with potential damage.
Off Grid Solar: A Beginner’s Complete Guide
Getting started generating free solar power is really not as hard as it seems. Here, I’ve distilled down everything I’ve learned about off grid solar energy over the last 5 years, in to this easy to follow but comprehensive guide.
Going off grid with solar power doesn’t have to be hard. While there is a lot of terminology to wade through, in this guide I’ll cut through the jargon and simplify the process of building an solar system. And, I’ll save you money at the same time.
Step 3 — Ordering the Right Solar System Components
- The number and size of your solar cells
- The type and size of your charge controller (MPPT vs PWM, etc)
- Your battery bank capacity, while considering battery type
- Choosing the overall voltage of each leg, as well as which loads should be AC vs DC
- The rating of your inverter, if any
Step 4 — Building Your Solar Battery House or Compartment
Once you have the components ordered, you would be ready to build your battery house, which may be a room in your existing home, part of the garage, or a separate shed. Batteries take up a fair amount of room, they need to be protected from kids or critters that might hurt themselves by touching the contacts or might accidentally damage the battery and release the acids inside.
Additionally, most types of batteries need some amount of temperature control, and don’t do well with freezing weather. However, if you go with less expensive unsealed batteries, you will have to build in some ventilation in to your battery house in order to prevent buildup of explosive hydrogen gas, which these types of batteries release in small amounts when charging.
In order to reduce costs, most solar setups have their main power electronics — the charge controller(s) and inverter(s) — as well as safety shutoffs, fuses, and breakers in the battery room as well.
We talk about this in part 3 of this series.
Step 5 — Installing Solar Panels
Finally, it’s time to build the panel support and install the solar array. Solar panels are far more efficient when they directly face the Sun, and they last longer when they are rigid and well cooled. A proper solar support structure can be built in many ways, depending on the materials you have on hand, and the skills you posses. I recommend, at the least, building a south facing A-frame type structure out of wood, or metal, with the ability to manually adjust the tilt of your panels during the summer and winter, which can increase your power output by up to 40% with almost no addition cost.
You could also go all out, and build your own one-axis or two-axis tracking system. Check out the panel installation guide below for more ideas on how to make this work.
Step 6 — Wiring Up for Off Grid Solar
With the panels up, now comes time for wiring of the system. This step doesn’t need to be complex. Going off grid, with a boondocking RV, country cabin, or permaculture homestead, means that your electrical system can be much simpler than gird tie systems.
Going off grid means you have the option to install an all DC system, which can be quite simple and efficient. But even whole home replacement AC systems are possible for the DIYer.
However, if you intend to use your solar system and connect it to a home that is already connected to grid power, you are likely to be legally required to hire a licensed electrician to wire in your system, and you will need additional hardware from your utilities company to make your own energy system work with line power.
We talk about wiring your system in part 3 of this series.
How Many kW of Solar Panels Do I Need?
In order to accurately determine how big of a solar system you need, the first thing you need to do is determine how much energy you are using. Energy is measured in kilowatt hours (kWh), and by the end of this section you should be able to determine exactly how many kWh you use in a day.
How to Measure Your Power Usage
The best and most accurate way to determine your power usage is to measure it yourself. I recommend that you purchased this inexpensive “kill-a-watt” power measuring device for your plug in appliances.
Solar Power System Connection #solar panel, batter, inverter connection
Using the kill-a-watt is simple just plug it into the wall, and your appliance into it. It can provide you with a wide variety of measurements, but the one we really need is watts, or kilowatts.
The simplest way to measure energy is to just set the kill-a-watt to measure kilowatt hours. This measurement takes time to get an accurate reading. Ideally, you would leave it attached for 24 hours, and then you would know how much energy it uses during a full day.
You could also just measure the energy usage for one hour. Then just multiply that number by the number of hours you will use that item during the day.
A third, less accurate but faster option, you is to just measure the watts that the device is using, which shows up instantaneously. No need to wait. But then you have to multiply the watts by the number of hours you would use it per day. But, this doesn’t take into account any fluctuations in power usage that happen naturally happen in most appliances except entirely passive devices such as lights and heaters.
Calculating Your Daily Usage
Now, add up all of the energy measurements that you took all of the devices that you plan to use in a given day. This is your daily energy usage.
It’s important to realize I your energy usage fluctuate throughout the year. You may use lights much longer in the winter when it’s darker, yet the refrigerators will run less. I recommend you take a power measurement both in the winter and the summer, or at least attempt to adjust number of hours used by each device to account for the differences.
Knowing how your power usage varies session ally is extremely important for off grid solar, because solar power production also changes throughout the year. So, it is easy to over or under size your system if you only use a yearly average to plan for your system.
Determining How Much Energy Solar Panels Produce
As you might have guessed, the amount of power that your solar panel produces depends on how much sun they gets. That means during the shorter days of winter you will get less power. Also, cloudy days will give you much less power than sunny days.
Again, the best way to know how much power your solar panels will produce is to measure it. Buy one solar panel and measure how much energy you can produce throughout the year. Not every year is the same, so you will need to oversize your system just a little bit in order to account for usually dark or cloudy years.
However, you may just want to get a rough estimate of how much solar power your panels were produce. Luckily the US government has produced solar power availability data for the entire United States.
The map above shows on average how much power your solar panels will produce per day. The number depends on the color of your area it ranges from about two to eight. This number can be multiplied by the power rating of your solar panels to determine how much power they would produce. So if you live in an area labeled as three on the map and you bought a 1 kW Solar panel array then you would get 3 kWh of energy produced per day on average.
This assumes that you have full access to the sun so long as it is up. If location of your solar panels is partially shaded, especially during mid day, then you will get less power than the map shows.
Also, most of the average power is produced during the summer in most regions because of the longer days and more direct sun exposure. To get a more accurate analysis, go to the NREL website and download detailed maps that show your area in both summer and winter months. This way you can calculate how much power you can produce in the darkest and lightest times of the year.
Choosing the Right Size Off Grid Solar System
You will need to size your solar system so that it can produce enough power to cover your winter and summer needs, which often means most of the year you will be producing more power than you can use.
Where to Put Your Solar Panels
While the go to place to put solar panels on the roof, roofs are very frequently not the best place to put your solar panels. There are three reasons why I don’t recommend putting solar panels on the roof: roof direction, shading, and access.
Make Sure Your Solar Panels Are Accessible
Lastly, solar panels need to be clean and cool to work a maximum efficiency, and have a nice long life. Dust, dirt, and snow will naturally accumulate on solar panels, which need to be cleaned off periodically. Snow accumulation on your solar panels will reduce their life. Placing your panels closer to the ground where they are easier to access can go along way towards making routine solar panel maintenance actually get done in a timely manner.
Make Sure You Solar Panels Are As Cool As Possible
While solar panels are black, they do not like being excessively hot. Over heated panels produce less power, and they wear out much work quickly. A proper solar panel set up should have at least 6 inches behind the panels where air can flow freely and cool down the panels. Roofs are not great because they tend to be excessively hot already, and while you can buy solar panel mounting racks that do allow for ventilation on the roof, putting them down where it’s cooler may save you a lot of extra money in the long run.
In terms of overall cost of the system, it is best to put the solar panels as close as you can to your home, while keeping them in full sun.
How many solar panels does it take to run a house off grid?
An average size off grid solar system in the US is 5 kW, which means you would need 20 solar panels at 250 W each, or 50 smaller 100 W panels. Whether this would run your house depends on how much sun you get and how much power you use.
What is needed for an off grid solar system
- Solar panels (mono or poly)
- Charge controller (MPPT or PWM)
- Battery bank (lithium, lead acid, or other)
- Inverter (pure sine wave)
- Fuses disconnects
- Copper wire
- Misc connectors
Daniel Mark Schwartz
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Solar Panel System: How to Build a Cheap One
A cheap solar panel system will forever be the best solution to expensive electric bills. Solar cells are getting cheaper each year.
While you could pay up to 10,000 for an off-the-shelf installation and could cover the system’s price in just over 10 years, it’s still better and more educational to make one yourself.
Let’s face it: we’re still living the post-traumatic stress of what happened in 2008, and we’re still living uncertain times when every cent we take from the bank is thoroughly analyzed before we actually sign a contract. The lack of financial stability has caused astute savings among those who learned how to save what they have, including energy.
We’re living in a war right now. The battle for energy efficiency has never been fought with more advanced weaponry, and the winners are all those who pay less for more month after month after month…
The first line of defense against paying more for electricity than you did last year is building your own solar panel system. Yes, you may have heard of Solyndra collapsing and may have even thought, at least once in your lifetime, how it would be like having your own solar panels mounted in your backyard or on your home’s rooftop.
And, for a moment, you were thrilled. It would certainly be nice being energy independent, let alone having an electric car that you could power with those solar cells to give you free rides for the rest of your life. And so on.
There’s a problem: how to you recover the costs within a couple of months?
Well, there’s a solution to that: build your own DIY solar panel system. Here’s how:
Get cheap solar cells from eBay
There are a lot of solar cell types that you can choose from. There are the Chinese ones, with good results, the best price, but not guaranteeing much, there are the Japanese ones with good performance, good price and the guarantee of Japanese work, and there are the American ones, with the best performance, the highest price and again, guarantees over guarantees. Choose wisely with regard to your budget. For example, a rule of thumb in 2012 would be that the cells shouldn’t sell for more than 450.3 per watt. Buy a couple of cells you think would fit your solar panel system’s budget and preferences, and move on to step #2.
So you got your cells in the mail. Let’s say you received solar cells totaling 194 watts for 105shipping (an actual example from ebay) that you carefully unpack, taking care not to break them, as they’re very thin. Now find yourself some tools like a soldering iron, solder, solder paste or flux (for removing the grease off the wires), a saw, some wooden board and protective glasses, a multimeter to measure voltage and amperage. And, of couse, a pencil and a ruler.
Plan your solar panel system carefully
Place the square solar cells onto the wooden board and draw separating lines (carefully). You’re halfway through, after all.
After you planned the physical arrangement of the solar cells on the board, now start soldering the wires to the solar cells and then to each other.
First, link the cells in series. Respect this basic rule, just like if you were soldering batteries: the positive lead is to be soldered to the negative lead of the next cell. Do this for as many cells as needed to reach a voltage of 12 or 24 volts. Do not exceed that as you would enter the area of dangerous voltages. You want to generate serious power here, not fool around and you don’t want to electrocute yourself to death (take care!). The power remains the same, after all. You just need a minimum of 12 volts to kick-start a 12V inverter for generating 110/220V AC or charge your 12V battery packs. Linking the cell in series will increase the voltage.
Then, stick the cells to the board, carefully. It would be better if you made them a frame where they can be inserted individually, so you can replace defective ones, just in case.
Before you’ll have stuck all the cells in the right place, make sure you drill holes for the wires, individually. Make connection buses along the positive and the negative lead and then connect those buses (thicker wires) in parallel (plus to plus, minus to minus) to have a parallel connection and increase the amperage.
You made your first functional solar panel system, and now you can take it outside to see what it’s generating. You first have to measure the voltage, and then the short-circuit amperage. Just make sure your ammeter bears the solar cells’ nominal power (108W at 12V means 9 amps).
You can now power anything that runs on DC current, charge your car battery and so on. If you succeeded doing these 5 steps, then you can order some more solar cells until you reach the power you want for your system. Remember, the more power you want, the larger the inverter you’ll need to get.
Now the hardest part of building the solar panel system, which requires increased care and seriousness in the quality of the work done, is connecting the panel to a pack of batteries and then to an inverter. You can use a computer UPS (Uninterruptible Power Source), but you’ll need more power to power your home. However, the batteries don’t have to be new, and they can be the lead-acid type, but it’s advisable that you should buy specially crafted ones for power storage and deep cycle use, since car batteries can only cope with high loads for a short time, and if they’re accidentally discharged below a certain threshold, you lose them for good.
Of course, there are lots of secrets you’ll find out only through practice, but the overall idea is that such a system is cheap and for 200 watts of power you’ll need solar cells worth about 200 and batteries worth about 400 to 500. If you get an inverter from ebay, or even better, buy a used UPS (handle with care), you’ll not go over 500 for the whole system. If you want to really power your entire home, you’ll need about 450,000 to become truly energy independent (as in not paying a dime to electric utilities). How does that sound?
Next you could try building a wind turbine that would supplement your power needs at night, when the Sun is over Europe (or vice-versa).
I know it sounds tough, and I know you’ll have a hard time getting started, just like with all the things you do for the first time, but after you start you’ll see it’s not such a big deal. And you don’t have to pay 10,000 for a solar panel system that’s only going to do the same thing as your own hand-built one.