How to Set up Solar Panels off-Grid
Table of Contents
Solar panels and off-grid living are like peanut butter and jelly: they go well together.
While staying off-grid can lead to many benefits both for the environment and for yourself, there’s a right way of going about it and a wrong one.
Choosing to live off the grid but still relying on gas generators isn’t nearly as green and efficient as using solar power.
Join us in showing you how to set up solar panels off-grid and hooking that bad boy up to your system.
What Does It Mean to Be off the Grid?
The standard definition of living off-grid means not relying on public utilities, especially in the form of electricity. In other words, you don’t have any electrical wires or underground pipe systems connecting you to the municipal supply.
Off-grid users get their water from drilling a well and using a pump that doesn’t rely on power from the gird. Another way is to develop a nearby spring on the property.
But what about power?
Many who choose to live off-grid make use of gas, propane, or diesel generators to provide them with the power they need. This however isn't the healthiest way of going about a good off-grid lifestyle. The gas obtained from burning fossil fuels damages the environment as they are the top contributor to global warming.
Making use of this fuel will also increase your carbon footprint. This is due to the process of producing large chunks of carbon dioxide, trapping the heat in the atmosphere. Fossil fuel energy resources also decrease money in your bank account. These fuels aren’t renewable and will eventually run out. However, this is where solar energy comes in.
Off-grid Solar Power
Solar energy doesn’t rely on fossil fuels being burned so it won’t emit any harmful toxins into the atmosphere.
Solar energy comes from the sun, which is a natural resource that won’t disappear any time soon. That makes solar energy a renewable and green solution for those wanting to live off-grid.
Living off-grid with solar can mean installing solar panels on vans or RVs or setting up an off-grid cabin with solar generators. Depending on how many appliances you have and want to use in your RV, you can easily fit an array of portable solar panels on top of your RV.
However, these off-grid residents avoid mixing different wattage solar panels as it reduces the voltage and outputs current. This means that their RVs and whatever else is connected to their panel won’t extract the optimum performance.
Benefits of off-Grid living
With fossil fuels being a finite resource, it's only natural to assume that their prices will rise as more people demand them. And since so many homeowners make use of fossil fuels as their primary source of electricity, an increase in their electricity bills will also be evident.
Choosing to go off-grid and doing so in a solar power manner will save you money by decreasing your monthly electric bill. Yes, the initial cost of buying the solar equipment can be expensive, but the low monthly rates more than make up for it. Living off-grid and making use of solar power adds $0 to your electric bill.
The only fees you will need to be wary of are the initial price of the solar panels as well as maintenance should errors occur in the future. As much as you would want a professional to help set everything up, the process of connecting everything you need in your off-grid lifestyle to the solar panels isn’t complex.
If you have a set of tools and basic knowledge of how solar panels work such as how to charge multiple batteries with one solar panel, then you shouldn’t have a problem getting started.
However, if you don’t feel comfortable enough to set up the solar panels on your own, chances are that wherever you purchase your solar panel, a team will come out in the field and give you quotes.
Outage Free Lifestyle
Not being hooked up to the grid means that you won’t have to deal with power outages. These disturbances are inconvenient at first but are proven to be stressful in long term as your appliances can be damaged if they are abruptly shut off every few days.
Outages can last for a couple of hours, with some causing your power to shut up for multiple days. The cause of these outages can be terrible weather such as heavy storms and freezing winds, both of which damage the power lines outside. It also leads to overloading the cables and transformers, causing them to fail.
Since solar systems store energy and don’t depend on any power source that isn’t the sun, choosing to go off-grid with it will ensure that you never have outage problems. Yes, if you use fuel-powered generators and batteries while living off the grid, you won’t have any outage problems. But choosing to go solar while off-grid ensures that you are using an all-natural energy source and reduces your carbon footprint.
What good is choosing to live off the grid but still manage to damage the environment by using gas-powered generators? It’s not the way to go.
You want to go off-grid to help provide electricity so you can reduce your carbon footprint, minimizing the negative effect that fossil fuel consumption has on the environment.
Flexibility and Freedom
Once you choose to live off the grid, you are no longer tied to the grid and act independently from power companies. Yyou don’t need to live in an area with residential power that runs on power supplied from the grid.
If you want to live in an area that favors mountainous and forest views over residential areas with houses, living off the grid gives you that option. You take control of the energy that you are using, meaning you can accurately predict your daily energy consumption and costs.
Setting Everything up
Now that we’ve covered the basics, we start getting ready to set everything up.
What You Need
Before we breakdown everything you need to know when setting up solar panels off the grid for your solar system, you need to ensure that you have the following:
- A solar panel
- Charge controller
The solar panel harnesses the sun’s energy and converts it into electrical energy. The solar panel is hooked up to the charge controller and charges the battery, preventing it from overcharging and discharging.
The batteries for solar panels are used to store the energy generated from the solar panel during the day.
Finally, we have the inverter, converting the direct current from the battery into usable alternating current.
Figuring out Solar Needs
Knowing what exactly you will use your off-grid solar panel for will help you understand what wattages you should be looking out for when on the market.
You do this by calculating your daily energy consumption. This is done by multiplying the watts of an appliance by the estimated time that you spend using it.
The watt of an appliance is normally located on the back label but you can also use a watt meter to get the wattage. There are plenty of online calculators to help with the math, but let’s look at a practical example and how you would calculate it.
If you have a set of 2 LED light bulbs that have a total wattage of 6W and you are using it for 6 hours, you would multiply the 6W by the 6 hours and end up with 12 watt-hours. You do this for all your appliances and sum up the watt-hours, giving you the total amount of watt-hours, you use in a day.
The Solar Panel
When it comes to choosing the perfect off-grid solar panel for your system, you have three options. A monocrystalline, a polycrystalline, or a thin-film solar panel. The former is the most efficient as they make use of a single source of silicon. However, the most efficient tend to be the most expensive.
Monocrystalline panels have a clean aesthetic that’ll be sure to match your off-grid setup no matter what. Most have a dark uniform color and the size of the panel itself is smaller than polycrystalline as they are more efficient meaning they cover a smaller area.
Polycrystalline is a blend of various silicon sources, making it less efficient and cheaper. These are recommended if you have a tight budget but still want to live a good off-grid life. They are different shades due to the various crystal structure, and in terms of performance, they perform 10% less than polycrystalline solar panels in high temperatures.
Thin-film costs less than both contenders as it’s the least efficient. This however is mostly used for commercial applications to place on the roof of an RV. They are diffused onto a substrate and the panel has a flimsier look compared to the other two.
Sizing the Solar Panel
Once you’ve decided what type of solar panel you want, begin sizing the solar panel.
This depends on parameters like the calculated watt-hours of your appliances, peak sun hours in your area, and system efficiency.
Peak Sun Hours
We already calculated the total watt-hours so let’s look at the peak sun hours, which is arguably the most important factor when it comes to purchasing a solar panel. Peak sun hours are the number of hours per day where the average solar irradiance of sunlight is 1,000W per meter squared.
You would normally consult a diagram that allows you to read the peak sun hours on a global scale and determine the sun hours in your location. There are plenty of global solar atlases available online and they all perform the same function.
Lastly is system efficiency. When you purchase a solar panel, it’s impossible to expect that you will get the rated power level. There are certain losses associated with the decrease in power.
Soiling loss is the loss due to the dust deposition found on the solar panel, shading loss is loss due to obstacles interfering with the light shining on the panels, and then wiring loss is loss caused by incorrect or deteriorating wires on the solar panel.
In the worst-case scenario, you can expect around 70% of efficiency loss if your solar panel is affected by all of these losses. To calculate the solar panel rating, you take your daily energy consumption value and divide it by the peak sun hours multiplied by the system efficiency.
You want to ensure that you purchase the nearest rated solar panel that’s close to the amount of your calculation. Make sure that the solar panel’s voltage is the same as the overall system voltage as we used those values.
Batteries are categorized by their application and construction, and the chemistry. The former refers to automotive and deep-cycle batteries, whereas the latter describes the chemicals within the battery such as lead-acid, Lithium-Ion, and Nickled cadmium.
Lead-acid batteries are more affordable, but the cost comes with regular maintenance and doesn’t have as long of a lifespan compared to lithium-ion.
The lithium-ion is a premium battery with a longer lifespan and higher efficiency, but the cost is that it’s more expensive. Lithium batteries are charged the same was as regular batteries, they just do it faster.
The sizing of the battery is dependent on the daily energy consumption, the system voltage, and the depth of discharge.
Connecting the batteries in series means the voltage will increase, whereas parallel connections will make the capacity of the battery increase. The higher the overall voltage of the system, the less power loss will occur, and the higher the performance will be.
Finally, the battery’s depth of discharge, or DOD, is the percentage of the battery's capacity that can be drained safely without damaging or harming the battery. 50% is normally considered to be good practice as a measurement of DOD.
The battery capacity is equaled to the daily power consumption measured in watt-hours divided by the systems voltage multiplied by the DOD percentage. You should be left with a value measured in amp-hours per volts, for example, a battery being sized as 120AH/12V.
It’s best to purchase a battery that’s voltage closely relates to your calculations since these calculations are based on your values.
Installation of the Solar Panel
Setting up the solar panel itself isn’t too complicated. Most 200-watt solar panels have drill mounts or stands that need to be screwed or drilled in. Plus, many solar panels you purchase will come with a setup manual to get you started on everything.
Once the stands are down, you can begin looking at selecting the perfect charge controller. However, if you have a bigger system or battery, you can opt for two charge controllers and one solar panel system.
Charge controllers are placed between a solar panel and a battery bank. Its main function of it is to ensure that the battery is being charged properly and isn’t the subject of overcharging. The two charge controllers available on the market are an MPPT and a PWM.
The efficiency of an MPPT is nearly 30% higher than that of a PWM as it uses costly electronic components that are of better quality than the PWM’s components. PWM’s are best for smaller and the more budget solar panel systems that don’t require arrays of solar panels. MPPT on the other hand is geared more towards those with a larger system, and when the solar array’s voltage is significantly higher than the battery’s voltage.
For example, if you are wanting to connect a 72-cell solar panel to a 12V battery, using an MMPT will be beneficial.
Sizing the Charge Controller
The size of the charge controller depends on parameters such as the wattage of the solar panel, the overall system voltage, the upper voltage limit, or the maximum amount of voltage the controller can handle from the solar panel.
Each charge controller should be matched with the voltage of the system. The standard charge controller voltage configuration is 12, 24, and 48.
We then calculate the current rating which is calculated by taking the solar panel wattage dividing it by the system voltage and then multiplying that value by the safety factor. You will then be left with a value measured in ampere by voltage, such as 30A/12V.
Solar inverters are one of the most important aspects of setting up an off-grid solar panel. It converts direct current coming from the solar panel and battery into usable ac power to charge pr power your appliances.
There are 2 types of inverters. The first is a modified sine wave, and the latter is a pure sine wave inverter. A modified sine wave inverter is less efficient, whilst the pure sine wave inverter is the exact opposite of both factors. A pure sine wave inverter’s output voltage waveform also has a much lower harmonic distortion.
The modified sine wave inverter typically results in interference when powering certain devices, so if we were to recommend one, the pure sine wave is the best bang for your buck.
Inverters are rated using continuous watts and surge watts. The former is the total amount of watts the invert can support indefinitely, whereas surge watts is how many watts it can support over a short period.
Continuous watts are calculated by adding up the power rating of all the appliances running simultaneously.
The final inverter rating should support both measurements and be in the form of wattage per wattage. For example, if your continuous watts add up to 163 and your surge watts equal 283, then your inverter rating will be 200W/300W as this is the closest measurement to those values.
For the correct solar panel sizing, you want to make sure that your solar panel, battery, charge controller, and inverter are around the same voltage.
Once you have all the components you need and your solar panel is set up and ready to go, you begin mounting the components. If you are wanting to use your off-grid solar panel in your home, these components can be installed onto a piece of plywood stuck to the wall in your garage.
Simply mark all the components on the plywood before drilling any holes, and once everything is in place and spaced out, you can begin drilling. Now that everything is set up on the plywood, you can begin wiring the components.
The inverter will have input ports for the solar panel, the battery, and the DC load, and there are plenty of instructions available online to help with the wiring.
Other components that usually come included with the solar panel and will help with the setup process includes wires, MC4 connectors and spanner, fuses, breakers, and much more. With all these steps followed, you will be well on your way to living an off-grid lifestyle with your off-grid solar panel.
Setting up solar panels off the grid isn’t too complicated and many solar panels will include instruction manuals to get you started on your off-grid journey.
Once you ensure that you have all the components and the right solar panel for you, your off-grid solar system will be perfect.
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