Why Solar Power?

Reader Contribution by Cynthia Brownell
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The solar panels set up on our homemade array

When you find out that you will be building a home miles away from the closest telephone pole, solar becomes your only option. We knew a friend of a friend who sold and installed solar systems so we received a quote, and it was a bit of a sticker shock. The cost to start our system was over our budget, so we decided to research our options and do it ourselves. We had a general idea what we wanted to run off the solar power: lights, fans, and possibly a TV with DVD player.

The first winter, we survived using battery-operated lights and fans. We soon found out that we were replacing batteries on a biweekly basis; this system was not efficient.

Finally, we saved enough money and started piecing together our solar system. The first phase was to purchase the basic solar harbor freight kit. The kit includes three 15 watt panels, two CFL light bulbs, a bus bar that you can connect eight harbor freight kits to, and a 12-volt charge controller (which we discarded). We bought an extra 15-watt panel, a 30-amp charge controller, and two deep cell marine batteries. We didn’t want to skimp on the charge controller, because this nifty little object helps control the charge going to the batteries and helps to protect them from overcharging. We also bought a 1000-watt inverter to help run the TV. The original cost to set this up was about 850 dollars, plus give or take.

To build our solar array chasse, we used two 6×6 pressure-treated posts, a couple of 2×4’s and a few 1×2’s, and a metal pipe down the center to pivot the array if we needed to adjust for the season. We didn’t want to place the panels on the roof of the cabin because of snow removal issues. We decided to build the chasse about 20 feet from the cabin and low enough that we can broom off any snow that would build up on the panels. The following weeks, we purchased the electrical conduit, junction boxes, and about 100 feet of 14-gauge, low-voltage wire.

We buried our conduit and added junction boxes and fuses to protect the system from any power surges. We also built a vented battery box and placed it in our utility room.

To our amazement, almost everything works! Not the DVD player, though. The minute we tried to play a movie, our inverter started to beep; we didn’t have enough power to run the player. We soon learned the value of the “beeps.” Once the inverter alarm beeps, that is a signal that we have drained the power. We have suddenly become very selective as to what we watch on TV and when. If we have a full, sunny day, that usually means about an hour and half of TV time that night. My husband has also learned that the inverter is still drawing power when it is hooked to the batteries. Therefore, we have gotten in the habit of unhooking the inverter when we are finished.

What have we learned from this experience?

The harbor freight system is an excellent start if you are not sure about setting up a system on your own or paying someone to set one up for you before you know the extent of your electrical needs. The kit comes with instructions, if you read them. You aren’t piece-mealing this or that and hoping it works.

The cost setting up our system was under 1000 dollars, and we are still able to upgrade when we have extra cash flow, which we are currently looking to do. Now that we know what we need and how everything works, upgrading doesn’t seem too intimidating.

We toyed with the idea of wiring the inside of the cabin, yet our system is a low voltage system. At this point, we don’t have anything that runs on a constant flow of 110 watts. The inverter helps to change the 12 volts to 120 so that we can watch TV, but we wouldn’t be able to rely on that setup for long lengths of time.

Our youngest son has also started researching wind power. The winter days are much shorter up in the cold north, but wind is plentiful. We have considered a 400-watt wind turbine and tower. His goal? Longer TV time!

If we look at what we used to pay in regards to our electric bill and how much we spent on batteries the first winter, our system has paid for itself. It is a new feeling to look at your lighting and say to yourself, “I helped create that!”

Our son’s iPad charging for the first time using our solar panels

Battery box set up for our electrical system

Cynthia Brownell

Cynthia Brownell has lived in Alaska and the Adirondack Mountains in upstate NY. She currently lives with her husband and youngest son on a small patch of woods within a few miles of the Tug Hill Plateau. She’s an artist and teacher by day and an avid reader by night. Her greatest joys in life are her family — specifically, her husband and three children — and quiet, peaceful days on their homestead. 

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