solar panels
It has been a couple of months now since our panels have been up and running. I thought I’d catch you all up on our exciting progress.

Let me just say straight out that I’m still learning how to use this system and how everything works. I’m going to try to explain everything to you to the best of my knowledge, or as I understand it.

 

The Kit

We purchased a 1 kW Off-Grid System from Appalachian Energy Solutions (www.energysolutions.us). We went with them because they offered an affordable, pre-wired kit which we could install ourselves without having to hire a professional to do it. Plus, they happily answered a billion questions at all times of the day and night for several months before we finally took the plunge and invested in the system. Wonderful customer service. We upgraded a few things so that we have the option to add on to the system in the future, if we decide to do so.

 

The Panels

After a lot of studying and price comparing on monocrystalline vs. polycrystalline panels, we ended up going with four SolarWorld 270 watt Monocrystalline panels. They ended up being the best deal for our needs. These panels are designed and tested to withstand heavy accumulations of snow, ice, hail, and other extreme weather conditions. And they come with a 25 yr. warranty. Plus, we love that they’re made in America.

Although each of our panels is rated at 270 watts, it’s likely we’ll get closer to 1000 watts total as some energy is lost in transition from the panels to the house. We should generate about 1000 watts (1 kW) per hour of full sun (usually 4-6 hrs per day). It’s really not that much power compared to what the average US household uses, but we think it will be enough to supply our most basic needs.

We are fortunate that our roof doesn’t have a very steep pitch. My husband and I were able to install the panels ourselves without any trouble. First, my husband screwed a wooden frame to the roof to mount the panels on. He used pressure treated lumber, which we were later told was a bad idea as it can rot the roofing. We’ll have to replace the shingles soon anyways, so hopefully it won’t cause too much trouble until then.

Once the frames were installed, we screwed the solar panels in place. We opted to have two panels on either side of the house (2 on the east facing side, 2 on the west facing side), hoping we’ll get maximum exposure as the sun crosses directly overhead. I’m wondering if we’ll have to rig a way to tilt them in the wintertime when the sun is lower in the sky. We’ll probably have to do some experimenting there.

The panels each came with a positive and negative cord on the back. To connect the panels to each other, we simply had to snap pairs of positive and negative plugs together (positive to negative, negative to positive). There was a connector that all of these snapped into, which plugged them all into one line leading to the house.

Running The Wires

 

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We figured it would be a good idea to cover the wires coming off the roof, so my husband ran them through 2″ PVC conduit. We didn’t want to drill any holes through the roof, so the pipe runs over the gutter and down to the porch roof.

 

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Jerry rigged an elbow on the pipe so that it would bend to fit through a hole he drilled through the porch roof beams. Here you can see it feeding the wires through to the inside of the porch.

Connecting The Panels To The System

Solar Kit Outdoors
Here you can see where the pipe continues down and along the exterior of the house, sheltered by our back porch. The wires lead to a junction box (that rectangular grey box horizontal on the wall), which covers a hole leading to the interior of the house. Inside the junction box all of the wires from the panels to the other components are connected.

Above the junction box there is a Disconnect box and a Charger.

Midnite Solar Disconnect Box- Inside this box are breakers. If we ever want to disconnect the power coming from the panels, we just flip those breakers and the system shuts down.

PowerMax 40 amp DC Charger- This box is for us to plug our generator into if/when we need to charge our deep cycle batteries due to long periods of low sunlight.

Indoor solar kit
Here is what it looks like on the other side of the wall, in the house. That grey pipe coming through the wall on the left carries the wires from the junction box to connect to the E-panel on the wall. It’s all plug-and-play. This part of the kit came pre-wired and mounted to a board, so all my husband had to do was screw the board to the wall and plug the wires together. Not to say we weren’t terrified that we’d screw something up as we went along, but it wasn’t complicated.

Here we’ve got a Tripp-Lite 2400 watt 24 volt inverter, a Midnite Solar E-panel with DC breakers, and an Intronic 75 amp MPPT charge controller. Don’t ask me to explain what each one does. I’m still learning. At this point, all I know is that a green light is good, a yellow light needs to be watched, and a blinking yellow light means we either need to stop running appliances or recharge our batteries with a generator if the sun doesn’t come out soon.

Batteries Hooked Up

battery box
From the wall setup wires continue down to a box where our four deep cycle batteries are housed. Batteries are required to store the electricity generated by the panels. While the sun is out and the panels are getting a charge, any energy we aren’t immediately using gets stored in the battery bank. On cloudy days when the panels aren’t getting a charge, we will run our home off the batteries.

If we’re careful, we should have enough energy stored to last us for 2 days. Once the batteries have been drained about half-way we’ll need to hook up our generator to recharge the batteries. We have to be careful not to drain the batteries below 50% of their charge, or it will drastically reduce their lifespan. The charge controller tells us how much energy we’re generating, and how much juice is in the batteries. It will warn us if we’re getting low and need to recharge so that we don’t completely drain our battery bank. That would be bad.

 

batteries
These batteries put off gases which need to be vented outdoors, so Jerry built this sealed box to house them in which has a pipe going through the wall back outside. Here you can see the four batteries inside the box. These are 420 ah L-16 deep cycle batteries.

We wired it according to the manufacturer’s directions, but there are many theories on which is the best way to wire the battery bank. Different wiring patterns can effect the life-span of the batteries.

Batteries aren’t cheap. I hope we don’t mess this up.

We have to keep an eye on the water level in the batteries, and top them off with distilled water as needed (maybe once a month). If we take good care of them, they should last for several years.

It’s important that the box is sealed up well. We considered keeping the battery setup outdoors, but the batteries need to be protected from extreme heat and cold, so we decided it was best for us to keep them in the house. We made the box big enough to add a few more batteries in the future, if we need to.

Up and Running!

It took a couple of days to get everything mounted and wired. We were extra cautious at every step, and made many phone calls to the distributor to double-check things before we moved forward. All of this was very new to us. We had no experience whatsoever with solar panels, and very limited electrical knowledge. We were scared to death that we’d fry something.

The day finally came when everything was mounted and installed. Jerry and I stood in awe of all of the boxes, wires, and gadgets. The next step was to flip the breaker switches to turn it all on.

We were scared to death.

We looked at each other nervously. Were we ready? What if something was wired wrong?

Jerry made one last call to our contact at Appalachian Energy Solutions. (The poor guy, he was so patient and good with us.) Jerry took photos of everything and sent them to the guy to make sure everything looked okay.

We got a thumbs-up.

And Jerry flipped the switch.

The control board came alive. Lights began blinking, numbers flashed across the screen, and a fan began a steady hum. What did it all mean? I had no idea. It was a very exciting and scary moment.

We went to bed that night praying the house didn’t burn down.

The next morning after my husband had gone off to work, one of the kids noticed a funny smell. What is that mommy? It smelled like burning electrical wires, and it was coming from the E-panel box. The smell got very strong, we had to open windows to get some fresh air coming into the house.

I immediately called Jerry to tell him what was going on. Shut it down, he said. He told me how to go out to the disconnect box, and instructed me on which breakers to flip in which order.

I kept the system off for the rest of the day.

A couple of phone calls later, we decided to try again. Maybe it was just that the system was new and needed to be broken in? The next day, while my husband was home, we started it back up again and let it run for several hours. This time there was no more smell.

It has been about 2 months now that the system has been running continuously, and we haven’t had any more complications.

Not Quite Off-Grid Yet

Right now, our system is running independently from the rest of our home’s electric system. We’re still on the grid, but we’re running a few things off of the panels via an extension cord. Once we tie the kit into our home there’s no going back, we’ll have to disconnect from the power company. You can’t use solar and utility electricity at the same time with an off-grid system. (They do make grid-tied solar kits, which can be used alongside your existing electricity, but you can’t use batteries to store any extra energy you generate.) We want to make sure we have everything necessary in place before we take that last step. We still need to get our wood cook stove hooked up (those stove pipes cost a fortune!) and we’re still working on a source of hot, running water before we’re ready.

Currently our chest freezer and chest fridge are running solely off of the solar panels. I’ll do a separate post on the chest fridge, but we found a very simple and inexpensive way to convert a standard chest freezer into a highly energy efficient fridge. Our upright fridge/freezer pulls way too many watts to run off of the solar panels, but the chest fridge and freezer only require a fraction of the energy the upright uses, so they’ve been running beautifully.

 

That’s pretty much where we’re at so far. I’m sure there will be lots more to share in the coming months! Stay tuned…

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