In a world where there are a limited quantity of carbon fuels left, many scientists and even individuals are looking to devise new ways of creating energy. Of course, many countries operate nuclear power stations which provide them with all the electricity they need with surprisingly little amounts of environmental effects. However, a nuclear power station is inherently dangerous. If something were to happen at the power plant it is possible to have a disastrous fall out which could affect thousands if not millions of people.
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As such, there has been a massive increase in interest in more passive, environmentally friendly approaches to creating energy. Wind and water power are two avenues which have been explored thoroughly within the last few years. Solar power is another potential solution to the energy crisis around the world. In fact, many companies and even individuals have invested in their own solar panels to generate electricity; assist the planet and save funds.
Of course, solar technology is not new. As long ago as the 7th century BC there are records showing a magnifying glass was used to create fire and to burn ants. The third century Before Christ refers to burning mirrors which lit the torches for religious ceremonies. There are even reports of the ancient Greeks using their bronze shields to focus the energy of the sun and set an enemy ship on fire. This has been attempted in more modern times and has been shown to be possible; providing the boat was no more than fifty feet away.
Just two thousand years ago, in the fourth century AD the Roman bathhouses harnessed the power of the sun to warm the rooms via large glass windows. Although the sun has always been used it is in relatively basic ways, until 1767 when a Swiss scientist known as Horace de Saussure devised a box to collect the heat from the sun and cook food. It is recognized as the world’s first solar collector.
It was not until 1839 that a French Scientist, known as Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect of the sun. He was experiment with electric generation through an electrolytic cell and realized electricity production increased when exposed to sunlight. The French mathematician August Mouchet continued this work and devised a solar powered engine; they were used for a variety of novel applications.
By the end of the 19th century the first solar cells had been created from selenium wafers and the first solar water heater had been created. Although there were steady developments throughout the first part of the twentieth century, it was not until 1954 that the silicon photovoltaic cell was developed; it was the first cell which could run everyday electrical equipment just from the power of the sun.
The technology has continued to develop with a massive increase in interest at the end of the twentieth century; including the creation of a solar powered aircraft!
Fast forward to the present day and you will find many houses with solar panels on their roofs and the ability to power their own electrical needs. Whilst these have been and will continue to be refined and improved, the basic principle remains the same. It is likely there is a big future for solar electricity and now may be the best time to purchase your own kit and install it to create your own electricity supply.
Parts Involved in a Solar System
Despite the fact that solar power is a massive step forward in terms of energy generation and the potential to save the planet; the number of parts involved in setting up your own system is surprisingly limited. Every install requires at least one solar panel; the more panels you have the greater the amount of electricity you can generate. Of course, the space you have available will restrict your project to some extent.
Initially solar panels were only ever placed onto the roof of buildings, in fact, many contractors would only offer favorable rate for an installation if your roof was south facing. The reason for this was simple; a south facing roof is in direct sunlight all day. However, many companies now accept that south west or even south east facing roofs can harness as much energy as a purely south facing roof.
The key part to any solar installation is the solar panel. This is the large sheet of lightly checkered shimmering, almost mirror like substance. The solar panel has no moving parts; this means there is nothing which can go wrong with them. They simply collect the energy from the sun and convert it to electricity. This is done by absorbing some of the photons which are present in the sun’s rays. The energy in the photon is captured by an electron inside the semiconductor material. This energy allows the electron to move and occupy a place in the current; generating electricity in the process.
There are two types of photovoltaic cells; those which are made of crystalline silicon and those which are made of thin-film. The thin-film type cell is undergoing extensive research and development and offers exciting potential for the future. On the other hand, the majority of installs at present are using the crystalline silicon type cells.
The solar panel or energy collector is only one part of the system. You will need to connect this to your appliance or to the electrics in your house and potentially to the main grid. There are two different types of system depending upon your intended use of your photovoltaic cell.
The Direct System
The solar panel can be connected directly to what is referred to as the load. This is the appliance they are supposed to be running. Whenever there is sufficient energy generated by sunlight the appliance in question will work. This may be useful if you need to run and air conditioning pump on a hot day or even ventilation. Of course, when the sun is not shining no electricity is generated and your appliance will not work.
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Off the Grid Systems
These are designed to create enough electricity to power an entire house. You will need more than one solar panel. The solar panels are connected to each other and the electricity generated is transferred to a bank of batteries; this is a second vital component. The bank of batteries is then connected to all the electrics in the house and power is available at all times of the day or night; providing there is juice in the batteries.
This type of system not only requires a battery bank, it will need an inverter. This is a device which can convert the DC power generated by the solar cells into AC power which is usable by all your appliances. As well as the inverter you will need to have a charge controller. Every battery can only handle so much energy. If you attempt to store too much electricity in one battery it will overload and can potentially explode. The charge controller prevents the battery from accepting any more electricity once it is fully charged.
Alongside this you will need a decent quantity of cabling to connect everything up and several safety features, such as a surge protector and a range of trip switches. These will help to protect you from any issues. It is also possible to get a monitor which will sound an audible alarm if there is any issue with the system.
Battery Backed-Up Grid
In effect this system is almost identical to the off grid system. You will need an array of solar panels, a battery bank, an inverter and the safety features. However, this type of system is also hooked into the main grid. This is an exceptionally dangerous part of the process and must be completed by a qualified electrician. It is common for the electricity board to send someone to make
these connections. The advantage of this type of system is that you will always have power regardless of whether the sun is shining or not. Whilst a battery back-up can support most functions, if there is a specific item which must have power then this system can ensure it does. It is also a comfort to know that you will always have power available!
No Battery Grid
This has become one of the most popular home style systems on the market. The photovoltaic cells generate electricity and send it through cables to all the appliances in the home or business. Every appliance will work as normal; although you will
still need the inverter mentioned earlier. Excess or unused electricity is sent to the main grids; which must be connected to your system. The electricity unused by your home is effectively sold to the grid; in return you can purchase electricity from the grid and the two charges should off-set each other.
The system involves the solar panels, an inverter, an array of cables and the usual safety features including trip switches and surge protectors.
This type of system is designed to reduce your energy bills whilst providing you with the same access to electricity as a conventional electrical install. However, the downside of this system, or any which does not have a battery bank, is that there is no power available in your house if the main grid fails.
Installing & Setting Up Your System
Now that you are aware of the different types of system and how few components are required you may be more interested in establishing your own system. Inverters, battery banks and cabling are not incredibly expensive. The main cost of a system is the solar panels. These are not generally cheap, but the more you have the more electricity you can generate which will help to reduce your dependence on the large energy companies, reduce your environmental impact and even ultimately lower your cost of living. Installing a solar system may even be a necessity if you live off grid already; understanding what is involved is the first step towards powering your own home.
To complete a successful install and set-up your home electricity you will need to consider the following issues:
Type of System
The first question you should ask yourself is which system most suits your needs. If you are planning to run your whole house then you will not want to have a direct system. The decision between off-grid, battery grid and no battery grid will be influenced by your location. If you are not near a current electrical system then the cost of connecting to the grid can be prohibitive; the off-grid system may be the right one for you.
If you are able to connect to the grid then this can provide a useful back up and allow you to have power all the time whilst reducing your energy bills and still having power available if the grid fails. The real question when choosing a grid system is whether you wish to have the ability to survive without the grid or not. It is also worth noting that a grid system is generally cheaper to install as there are less parts required and easier to maintain.
Buying the Equipment
There are many government backed schemes which will offer to supply you with your solar panels for free provided you commit to a contract with them. This can help to off-set the cost of purchasing the panels, but will restrict your savings and is only an option if you intend to have a battery less grid system. You will also need to choose a supplier and installer with caution as many of them will charge high rates for the solar panels; this can even off-set any savings you may get by using a government grant.
The alternative is to source the equipment yourself. There are many suppliers of photovoltaic0panels on the internet. You should purchase the best ones you can afford; installing them and connecting them up is actually a simple process for any keen DIY’er. Fortunately choosing the solar cells is relatively straight forward. The majority of solar cells are made in the same way using the same materials; there is no significant difference between those offered by different suppliers. This means you can choose the cells which are cheapest, or the firm which is offering the best deal on purchasing them.
Your solar cell supplier should also be able to supply you with a good quality inverter and batteries, as well as the charge protector. However, these are easy to pick up in a variety of places and may be cheaper elsewhere.
Before you can buy the equipment you will have to decide either the amount of panels you can afford; you can always expand the system later; or the amount you will need.
It is therefore important to consider the following:
Solar panels will attract the most sunlight and therefore create more electricity when they are positioned facing due south. This is because the photo sensitive cells will dramatically reduce in productivity as soon as they are placed in shade. This is not to say it is not possible to generate electricity in a shady spot, but, if this is your only or preferred choice you may need to consider extra panels to gain the power you need.
Traditionally these panels have been mounted on the roof of a building, however, there is an increase in the amount of people and businesses who are choosing to mount them on the ground. You will need to ensure this is permissible with your local planning regulations and your neighbors!
Choosing the best spot to locate your panels will enable you to calculate how many panels you can fit in a spot and how much electricity you are likely to be able to generate. Of course, it is incredibly difficult to predict an exact amount of electricity as the sunshine is not a constant; you cannot tell which days will be cloudy or wet and windy.
Another important factor to consider which should influence your decision; is which type of system is best for your current situation. There are significant financial implications involved in purchasing a system; an average 3KW system will cost approximately $5,000 and you will need to factor in an inverter, battery bank and charge controller. An entire system can be installed for $10,000; whilst this is substantial cheaper than it has been this is still a serious financial commitment. Should you have the funds available then you will be freeing yourself from electricity bills for the foreseeable future. However, you will not recoup the money for several years.
Are finance options available but, depending upon the reason for your impending solar install this may not be the best option. The alternative is to wait or build your system slowly with a long term goal of solar energy and the ability to survive off the grid.
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If you are keen on undertaking and completing your own projects you will be pleased to know that it is possible to install a personal solar power system yourself. However, it is also worth obtaining some quotes from professionals. You may be surprised at the cost and will certainly find the system is installed without any hassle. Having said that not all professional firms have experience with installing off-grid systems; if this is your chosen option you should confirm they have the knowledge and experience to do the job properly.
Tips to Ensure a Successful Install
There is a distinct advantage to installing your own system which is even better than any financial savings you may make. This is that you will have designed the system and will know how it fits together and what to look at if any part may need to be replaced. This can be invaluable information if there is an issue with the system and it is not possible to contact assistance or to get anyone to help for a period of time. In fact, this concern relates directly to the reason why many people are considering either off-grid systems or battery back-up ones. The increase in natural disasters has increased the number of power outages; having your own system will allow you to navigate these pitfalls with little disruption.
The following tips will help you to complete your install successfully:
One of the most important factors in any project is planning before you start. Successful projects always need to be planned and to have a contingency plan. There are several key elements you should consider when devising your plan:
- The average house can survive on a 3KW system which will take approximately twenty one square meters of space; either on your roof or a ground mounted install. Before purchasing any panels you should measure the space you have available. Ideally you should have a larger space than this and have the potential to expand your system in the future.
- Fastenings are vital. Your choice of fastenings will depend upon where you are intending to locate the panels and what your natural weather cycle is like. If you live in an area which is prone to cyclones or tornadoes you will need to ensure your fixing kit is likely to withstand a cyclone or tornado; you do not want your installation ripped apart right before you are most likely to need it.
- There are different types of panels; although many of them now offer similar rates of power production, the panels you choose and even the inverter will affect the power generation and efficiency of the system. Whilst installing on a budget may attract you to the cheaper panels; you may find it more beneficial to choose fewer panels but have the higher quality ones. You can always add panels to your system.
There is no reason why you cannot test your system before you install it properly. Whilst the panels are relatively heavy you can simply prop them up in your garden on a nice day and connect them up to either your battery bank or directly to your appliance. This can be especially useful if you are new to this type of install and wish to ensure you have understood all the parts of the system properly. This is also a good opportunity to test the equipment and confirm you have everything you need to install the entire system in one go. This can be a particularly useful exercise if you realize you have missed or forgotten one important part.
Solar energy is still a rapidly growing and improving industry. Things which are the best possible today may not be the same tomorrow. It is important to stay abreast of the changes in technology as this will affect the prices of the current available solar panels or may even be worth waiting for if they offer significant advantages. Knowing the latest research and techniques should also make it easier for you to install your system.
You may notice a nearby house has solar panels; this does not mean that you will automatically have the right to put solar panels on your property. It is essential to check with your local planning department and, if necessary, submit an application. You may also find that erecting them is acceptable but that there are restrictions on the quantity or some other small clause. Knowing what the planning regulations are will ensure you do not fall foul of them and have to remove your install at a later date.
You will almost certainly have considered the amount of space you will need to keep free for the solar panels. However, you may not have considered where the ancillary parts will go. The inverter and batteries, as well as the charge controller all need to be inside and relatively easy to access. You will also need to connect into your wiring. This may be as simple as running cables into the power supply of your fuse box, or may necessitate some new wiring. Whichever path you need to take you will have to consider where the new wires are going; will they be fitted into the walls, out of sight? Knowing the space required and where you locate these items will make your installation process much easier.
If you are intending to install your system yourself but will be connecting to the grid you will need to gain approval from the utility company. Even if you can achieve solar power without touching the utility meter you may find yourself in trouble as you do not have permission to interact with the utility. To ensure your install is successful it is advisable to contact the utility company first and find out what their requirements are. You can then ensure you comply with them; this will ensure your new system is a success and has the potential to supply you with free power for the foreseeable future.
You are likely to find a dedicated section on their website which will allow you to access the information regarding their requirements and even complete a form to get the paperwork side of the installation finished as early as possible.
Installing your own solar energy system is more than just possible; it is actually fairly easy to do! All you need to do is a little preparation and have some patience whilst you design the system and ensure you have complied with all the relevant legalities.
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Electric Usage, reduction and Effective Solar Energy
There are several reasons why you might wish to power your home via solar power; the most obvious of which is the long term cost savings. Although solar panels have become cheaper in price it will still take on average three to five years to repay the cost of purchasing and installing the panels. This means that for solar energy at home to be financially worthwhile you need be intending on staying in your current home for at least the next five years. The benefits are then obvious; your energy is free! You will no longer have to concern yourself with electricity bills or power outages; as long as the sun is shining and your system is working properly you will have power!
The second most common reason for installing solar energy stems from a genuine concern for the environment. It is often the case that the general public is informed of an issue but is unable to do much about it; regardless of how they feel or what useful suggestions they may have. Thankfully, solar energy is different. You can install it and make a small difference to the environment; encouraging family and friends to do the same. In fact if you encourage enough people to do this then you can make a significant difference to the environment!
However, a fundamental part of changing your energy system should be looking at your current consumption and assessing how you might be able to reduce it. The less demand you have for electricity the smaller your system will need to be, or, you can make more money by selling the excess electricity to the grid.
This leads to the obvious question of how do you assess your current electricity usage? The most obvious way to do this is to physically monitor what you are turning on and how long it is on for. Combining this with the wattage rating of the appliance will give you an idea of how much electricity has been consumed by every task. This is a very time consuming method but it will provide you with the amount of electricity you are using, your maximum draw during a given period and what things are actually consuming your electricity. You may be surprised!
There is also a technological alternative. You can install a home monitoring system which will establish how much current is going through a specific cable without needing to splice into the cable. This device acts as a data gateway and talks to the sensors which are added to a multitude of appliances. The data is then displayed on screen where you can see how your electricity is being used.
The most obvious way to reduce your dependency on the main grid is to reduce the amount you use. There are several easy, logical steps which can be achieved by almost anyone. These include turning lights off when not in a room and not leaving equipment on stand-by. However, there are a myriad of other possibilities which can be extremely effective. These include switching bulbs to LED’s which last longer and are better for the environment. Establishing an effective reduction technique can save you hundreds of pounds a year; as well as making you more aware of your electricity usage and which systems are most suited to your needs.
An alternative way of assessing your electricity needs is to look at all the things you current use on a daily basis and how much electricity they use. If you monitor the ways you use electricity then you are likely to notice if everything you currently use is really essential to living comfortably. You will quickly pull aside a variety of items which you do not need to enjoy life; it can be surprising at how positive an effect this kind of approach can be.
One of the biggest electricity consumers is your heating system. There is no doubt that using electricity to heat your home can be expensive. However, it is possible to reduce this bill even in the coldest winters. There are two different approaches. The first is to simply use the heating system for a little less each day; half an hour less heat can make a difference to your consumption. The alternative is to simply lower your temperature dial. It has been suggested that a one degree reduction can save hundreds of pounds per year of the average electricity bill. However, on approach which is often overlooked is to simply change the way you heat your home. It is possible to add a gas fire or even a wood burner which will dramatically reduce your electricity bill and your reliance on the grid. Combining this will reduce your need for electricity and will keep you warmer than simply using electrical means.
The same principle can be applied to all your appliances; particularly washing machines. By turning the settings down slightly you will consume much less electricity. It may seem ridiculous trying to reduce your electrical consumption if you are looking at going off grid and producing your own. However, the better you understand which items consume the most the easier you will find it to produce enough electricity to cover all your needs.
A solar energy system can be exceptionally efficient; providing you use the latest, most expensive solar panels. However, this may not be an option for you or you may not feel it is the most viable solution. There are other factors to consider including the intended use of the electrical system. The efficiency of any solar panel is calculated by working out how much of the percentage of the solar energy which hits the panel actually converts to electricity. Generally more expensive panels work better; but this may not always be true and may not fit with your plans. The location of your panels will, to some extent, alleviate the need for the most efficient panels. If yours are positioned facing south at the right elevation they will produce more than enough energy for your needs.
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The technology involved in solar energy has improved rapidly in the last few years. It is now common to see houses with one whole side of their roof covered in solar panels. This is a testimony to the ability of the latest solar panels to provide enough energy for all of a modern household. With the massive increase in electronic gadgets there is now a much larger demand for electricity in the average house than there has ever been before.
When solar energy systems were first introduced to the public it was believed that they were only for the wealthy as they were incredibly expensive; even with the subsidies provided by many governments. However, as with all new technology, it is now much cheaper to purchase either the original equipment or even the latest version. The result has been the possibility of creating your own solar energy system and removing your home from the grid. This will provide an enormous sense of financial freedom and release you from any uncertainty regarding electricity prices in the future.
Perhaps more significantly is how easily you can design and build your own solar energy system. Whether you wish to power your home or simply have a back-up for any unforeseen issues and power outages. Understanding the basic principles and parts of any system means that you will be able to either purchase the necessary parts or talk confidently with a sub-contractor who is providing the service for you.
There is currently enough solar energy hitting the Earth every day to provide electricity to all of the billions of people living on earth. Of course, this does not mean that everyone will have electricity as there are still costs involved in the production of it. These costs are passed on to the potential consumer when you purchase the system or when you agree to install a system and sign up to a contract which will allow the electricity company to keep your business for at least two years.
It is important not to underestimate the feeling of satisfaction you will get when you connect your own home up to your own system and are officially no longer part of the grid. This is an achievable aim by anyone; even if you do not currently have the funds available. Simply apply patience and a disciplined approach and you will be able to buy your installation one piece at a time. The knowledge you have gained will ensure you are capable of fitting the system no matter where in the world you are located. This tutorial should have provided you with all the information you need to establish a plan and get started with producing your own electricity at home. Installing and operating your own energy system will reduce your financial commitments and enable you to spend more time enjoying life; safe in the knowledge that you are making a difference in the world.