The Dangerous Side of Solar

One of our biggest fears when we purchased our solar kit was that we might damage the system somehow.

I’m afraid we’ve done just that.

Several days ago, my husband was reading the output on our inverter and noticed that it wasn’t working as efficiently as it should be. We contacted the distributor we purchased it from, and he said the issue was likely due to the fact that we had the box mounted sideways. It wasn’t a terrible problem, but he said he could look at it and make sure it was functioning 100%. So, my husband took it back for them to test. After running some diagnostics, they said it looked fine and suggested that he mount the box upright instead of on its side when he got it back home.

Indoor solar kit

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This entire wall unit needs to be rotated clockwise so that the inverter sits vertically instead of horizontally.

The next day Jerry went to work hooking it back up. We turned the mounting panel so that the inverter was upright as it should be. We screwed everything back into place (which isn’t easy because it’s really heavy). Jerry checked all of the breakers to make sure they were off, then connected the wires back together. Everything seemed to be fine until he got to the battery hookup.

He leaned forward to connect the system to the batteries, but as soon as the cable touched the battery terminal- sparks flew in the air, there was a bright flash of light and a loud POP! My husband let out a loud yell and stumbled back stunned by what had just happened. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt, but he couldn’t see well for several minutes.

Turns out, one of the breakers was on. The way it had been labeled had confused him- in the “on” position, the breaker read “off”. He also had crossed a wire when connecting the unit back together. Not to mention, it was full daylight and the panels were getting a charge. It probably would have been better to do this at night when there was no juice running through it.

But that didn’t matter now. What mattered was that he was okay.

Now we had another problem.

good battery terminal
This is what the battery terminal is supposed to look like.

IMG_7016
This is what the battery terminal looks like now.

It had completely blown apart.

Was the system fried??

We took the inverter, E-panel, and charge controller back to the distributor… again. I swear we’re probably their worst customers ever. They took a few days to test everything out, and let us know that it all seems to be working properly.

repaired battery terminal
Jerry was able to find a clamp to put over the battery terminal so that we could still connect the cables.

After getting the kit back, we once again held our breath and hooked everything back up.

And it worked! The fans started turning, the lights blinked and flashed, and the machine hummed to life.

That is… for about 2 days. And then all of a sudden it crashed.

Dead as a doorknob.

The batteries still have full charge, so it must be one of the components. Likely the charge controller.

So, our charge controller is off being tested. Fortunately it’s under warranty, so I think since nothing looked damaged the last time they looked at it it’ll still be covered.

All of this makes me glad we waited to disconnect from the grid until we knew for sure that we could get by without it. We would be in trouble right now otherwise.

Do I regret getting solar? No way. We’re still glad we made the investment. We just have to get over the learning curve.

Our friends tease us. They say they’ll just sit back and watch us make all of the mistakes before they buy their own solar kit. So far we’re doing a darned good job of demonstrating what not to do. That’s why I share this here, though. So that all of you interested in going off-grid with solar can learn from us as well.

Wish us luck.

 

Kendra
About Kendra 1117 Articles
A city girl learning to homestead on an acre of land in the country. Wife and homeschooling mother of four. Enjoying life, and everything that has to do with self sufficient living.

29 Comments

  1. Glad your husband is ok, I found out recently you can use car batteries for a very crude welder, so it makes sense to me the power on the line would melt the terminal, it could have been terrifyingly worse. There are ‘pens’ you can get that will tell you if there is power on the wire, you tap it against the wire and if it beeps there’s power, I know Klein makes them along with most electrical tools.
    Keep safe
    C

  2. FYI, a simple 600A battery switch, (West Marine), would have solved that problem. This way, the charge source and batteries can be isolated for maintenance. Just my .02!

    • A battery switch wouldn’t have solved this problem. It would have slightly delayed it. But since the wires had been crossed when reconnecting it back together, then the same thing would have happened once the switch was thrown. I have an issue with the title of this, as it isn’t a dangerous side of solar, it is the dangers of people working on any type of electrical incorrectly. I’m curious on how a bad charge controller would allow the batteries to fully charge, but not output electricity. Sounds like there is a different component that is the problem to me.

  3. As an electrical contractor i see many “do it yourself” jobs that are outright dangerous. As an adult i practice safety first. If anything can happen it will. The one factor that is most unpredictable is children. Because they have no sense of the danger they also have no understanding about the physics of electricity. such a simple thing as being barefoot on a cement floor can kill you. You can make only one fatal mistake. I have been around electrical and electronics from 1961 and can learn something new every day. My first suggestion would be to get a copy of the national electrical code. It is dry reading and somewhat hard to understand but it is designed for one purpose to keep people safe and second to prevent fires. Do it yourself books are never complete to keep you safe. My second piece of advice is dont hurry and dont take shortcuts. With home power generating it is possible during a power outage to kill a lineman who is not expecting live wires. disconnecting from the grid is imperative and a lockout that is locked and controlled by one designated person. The keys held by one person prevents mistakes. Even licensed I cannot give instruction on specific jobs over the net. General safety warnings will be the only items I will mention. Their can be no way I can give advice on problems I cannot see and all the factors that could be involved. Descriptions could leave out critical and unsafe conditions. I know it is costly but get a local contractor. How much is a life worth? first and foremost be safe.
    Grampa

  4. We did the same things you guys are doing. We learned by actually doing it. It can be intimidating at first. We made mistakes along the way and some of those can be costly mistakes. But we did it and we learned a lot.

    And yes a combiner box really is handy for the solar panels to terminate into before going into the charge controller. We bought ours from midnight solar. They even sell some that are pre-wired. They are not as expensive as the other components in the system.

    Blessings!

    -zac

  5. omg great he is not hurt!
    OK kendra, I/We are in S.E. Michigan and have been off grid 5 years. I have installed everything my self [retired .mil-union carpenter]and my lovely bride is also doing DoTERRA I LOVE THAT STUFF!!!

    so much to say about this…lol and i know its not funny but have to keep a sense of humor, right?

    please contact me through my email if you or jerry need to ask any questions i can do my best rooster3430atinboxdotcom

    about this situation…is there a “combiner box” for your solar panels? if you have more than 3-4 panels there needs to be! [this keeps the load down per “line in”] this combiner box has “fast acting” fuses[usually 1 fuse per 3 panels] that can be opened before any work is done to the system. and always always double check any and all switches & fuses and remember ANYTIME there is work with DC Voltage there is no jewelry, rings, necklace, wristwatch ANYWHERE near DC [imagine if his ringed finger was near that terminal]

    the best advice i ever got was double check your work then sit down have a coffee, smoke, juice, whatever but no distractions before connecting anything to your system because voltage don’t kill but AMPS do. my solar is putting out around 18-24 AMPS with 120v at mid day more than enough to make a widow. I have no problem talking about my system.

    • Drew,

      Thank you so much for your advice and offer for help. I appreciate it very much! We don’t have a combiner box yet, but we’ll get one when we connect the panels to our main house breaker. Here’s a look at our entire setup, if you haven’t seen it already: newlifeonahomestead.com/2014/09/solar-panels/

      I’ll keep your email in my back pocket, in case any questions arise. Thanks again!

  6. I put a switch in line with my solar cells. I turn them off from the circuit FIRST before I do any work. I have an LED that turns off to show there is no current in my system.

  7. Hi Glad your OK, fully charged batteries hold a lot of energy, and we don’t realize how dangerous they are. They just sit there. I just bought a small solar system with a 2000 watt inverter and the owners manual indicates the inverter should be mounted horizontally on a vertical surface, or flat, but not vertical. Does you owners manual indicate how the invertor should be mounted?

    • Chuck and all, The Inverter also has a heat sink and fan and the heat sink fins needs to be placed in the position as designed more maximum efficiency. Just my take. Good Luck. I also am all off the grid via Solar 1200 Watts of panels. Full sunshine right now, the Bat Bank reads 14.1 Charged. :)) I just did the monthly battery check for water levels. Use distilled water. Nice to see these kinds of articles. Always looking to learn something and share. I have not had a Utility Bill in 2 years. ROI- 4-5 years with Solar.

  8. I’m glad he’s ok. My husband will not touch anything to do with electric. He used to install car stereo system until he got shocked by a bad wiring job. We hope to someday go off grid as well.

  9. As I look at your picture it looks as if you have the charge controller hooked up between your batteries and your inverter. The charge controller has nothing to do with the inverter. If the batteries are full then the inverter should work. There should be a direct link between your batteries and your inverter. It would be wise, however, to have a quick disconnect in the line.

  10. It’s a little scary, all us do it yourselfers dabbling in solar power… we sometimes fail to respect the dangers of electricity. We had a guy Install a solar setup for us who was not a licensed electrician but sold solar systems as a sideline. He accidentally attached a wire wrong and ended up running power directly to ground. ..charged the ground around the house, and a dog ended up getting electrocuted. I shudder to think what would have happened if a child had made that connection. We need to really be careful.

  11. Thanks for sharing your experience. I am glad your husband is ok! I hope whatever the problem is, it will be an easy fix. Have a great day!

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