Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Getting Started with Solar Power

Our first solar panel in 2001.
The first summer we depended on propane for cooking and battery powered camp lights for illumination (we didn’t yet trust our propane lights). We had to take our computers to town for recharging. Having some electricity at the cabin would be nice, so we consulted with our good friend John and his dad Ed, the electrical genius of the family. Since we are off-the-grid, their recommendation was solar power.

Our electrical closet with two batteries.
By fall we had a solar panel with two batteries for storage. An inverter changed the DC current of the batteries to household AC. John built an outdoor cabinet for the batteries and inverter, and linked it to an inside meter and cutoff switch. Lights and outlets were placed in the bedrooms, dining area, kitchen and over the sofa.

Now we had to learn how to manage our electrical system. In the winter the sun rides low and due to our position in Hole in the Wall, we get as little as four hours of direct sunlight. Winter also has many cloudy days when no power is generated. We quickly learned it is important not to drain the batteries below 12.0 volts. Otherwise, it is impossible to get them to recharge properly.

Propane chandelier and fluorescent light.
To stretch our electrical budget, we use low wattage compact fluorescent light bulbs. We limit usage and augment lighting with our propane chandelier (now we love it). Rechargeable battery powered reading lights also help. We use rechargeable devices rather than disposable batteries whenever possible to help the environment.

Our computers are real electricity hogs. We only charge them and other electronic devices during sunny periods. We also purchased emergency power packs to charge during peak sun hours. They are used for extra computer power on cloudy days or during the evening.

Gemini with her solar panel on top.
One panel and two batteries didn’t provide much electricity our first winter. We added two more storage batteries. Then, we added a second solar power system on Wayne’s writer’s retreat boat called the Gemini. A toggle switch allows us to divert the electrical power from the boat to the cabin.

With careful usage, we have sufficient electricity for limited lights, our satellite radio and careful recharging. The solar system is a great improvement and addition to our propane powered system. Now, if we could just keep that pesky snow off the panels! Good thing we don’t get much of it. -- Margy

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We welcome your comments and questions. - Wayne and Margy