Most of us, at one point or another, dream of owning a cabin in the backwoods. Be it a hunting camp, a vacation spot, or a place to live for all or part of the year, and such a lifestyle is appealing to just about anyone who enjoys the outdoors.
🔌 Powering Your Cabin
Despite our desire to get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, like it or not, most of us have come to rely on the convenience of modern electrical appliances and lighting. One of the drawbacks to living off the grid, getting electric power to a standalone backwoods cabin, has been a nearly impossible task.
Having utilities run from existing grid systems is an extremely expensive proposition. In fact, many utility companies will not run power to extremely remote areas, regardless of cost.
So how do you go about getting power to your dream hideaway?
Generators are an option, but they can be noisy. They also require a fuel source of some type, and that fuel source has to be constantly monitored in order to assure it doesn’t run out.
Today, there is another option. Solar power technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years as companies introduce new solar equipment to a market hungry for more environmentally friendly options for powering homes and businesses.
Solar-powered systems can be tailored to fit the individual needs of any sized cabin. With a minimum of maintenance, these systems will last for years and don’t require the daily upkeep necessary with most generators. Solar power is quiet, reliable in areas with even average sunlight, and environmentally friendly.
There are three main components to a solar-powered electrical system. The photovoltaic (PV) modules that collect the solar energy, the battery bank for the storage of that energy, and the inverter that converts the DC power stored in the batteries to AC power usable in modern appliances. The ensuing sections take a closer look at each of these components.
☀️ The Photovoltaic Modules (PV)
This is the feature that comes to mind when most people think about solar energy. Photovoltaic Modules collect energy from the sun by absorbing some of the sun’s photons and converting those photons into electricity through the use of a semiconductor material inside the PV cell.
These PV cells can be mounted in an array, with the size of the array depending on the power needs required by the system. Obviously, the larger the PV array, the more energy it can convert in a given time period.
These arrays are mounted to face the sun, typically south in the United States. Many PV systems are adjustable so that the panel position can be tweaked to follow the sun’s movement throughout the seasons, thus ensuring the maximum amount of the sun’s energy is absorbed, regardless of the time of year.
PV arrays can be mounted either on roof or ground mounts. Roof mounting systems work best in areas where trees or other structures might shade ground-mounted units. While roof-mounted systems lift the PV arrays above the shade, they do require a bit more work on initial installation.
Most roof-mounted systems also need to be removed in the event that the roof material itself needs to be replaced. Ground-mounted systems are easier to install, particularly for homeowners building their own systems.
When installing ground-mounted PV arrays, pay attention to tree location and potential growth rates. While the shade from a particular tree or grove of trees might not cause a problem at the time of installation, take potential growth rates into account when locating the array.
When choosing solar panels for your project, important factors to consider are size, weight (if the units are to be roof-mounted), and voltage output per panel. The higher the voltage produced per hour, the more costly a panel will be, but the fewer panels needed to provide adequate energy conversion often offsets the cost factor.
Most PV manufacturers offer warranties on their products. Quality arrays are often warrantied against defects for up to 25 years. Avoid panels with a substantially shorter warranty period.
While the PV panels produce electrical energy any time the sun is shining, there are times when that electricity will be needed while the sun isn’t available. To store that energy for use at night or on rainy days, a battery storage system is necessary.
The traditional choice in storage batteries has always been deep-cycle, lead-acid batteries. The most popular choice among lead-acid batteries has long been deep-cycle flooded lead-acid batteries. This style contains an electrolyte containing a liquid that fully encapsulates the lead plates inside the battery.
As this type of battery charges and discharges, some of this liquid is lost through evaporation. In order to maintain the battery at its fullest capacity and increase its useful lifetime, proper maintenance is a must.
Regular battery maintenance is key. By keeping water levels filled, batteries clean, and charge levels above 50 percent, a bank of high-quality deep cycle batteries can last as long as eight years. Lack of maintenance can reduce that lifespan by half.
Since the batteries make up a significant portion of the cost of off-grid solar energy, extending the life of your bank just makes sense financially.
📋 How many batteries does the basic solar system use?
It is recommended to sit down with an experienced solar provider or consultant and figuring your individual daily power needs. Once you know how much power you will use in an average day, you can determine how much storage you need.
I recommend multiplying your expected daily use times five for a total storage capacity that will last up to five days, in the event of an extended low light condition, such as heavy cloud cover.
I also recommend that new solar customers look into a revolutionary battery technology that has entered the market in the past few years. Instead of lead and acid, the new Aqueous Hybrid Ion (AHI) batteries employ simple saltwater in a system that stores as much energy as traditional lead-acid style batteries in a unit that is completely environmentally friendly.
This new technology does away with the explosion risks, disposal concerns, and corrosive acids that are drawbacks in traditional battery technology. Added benefits of the new battery systems include longer lifespans and deeper discharge rates than their lead-acid counterparts.
A third battery option comes in the form of Lithium-Ion technology. Companies like Tesla are adapting both new and existing Lithium-Ion battery technology into new energy storage units.
Their Powerwall Home Battery system incorporates the same storage ability as a large bank of lead-acid batteries into a much smaller and sleeker unit that can hang on a garage wall. These Lithium-Ion batteries are less sensitive to temperature extremes than old-style batteries and require much less maintenance to keep up peak performance.
The third key component in an off-grid solar power system is the inverter. Since batteries store power as direct current (DC) and modern electrical systems and appliances are designed to use power in the form of alternating current (AC), an inverter is installed between the battery bank and power outlets. This inverter converts the current into usable electricity.
Inverters also protect appliances from possible power surges from batteries or lightning strikes by buffering the energy output. Choose the size of your inverter based on your projected power usage needs.
Many inverters also allow additional power input from AC power sources such as generators in order to provide additional charging sources for batteries should the solar panels function at less than maximum output due to low light conditions.
💡 Full System Options
While solar energy can certainly provide all of the power needed in an off-grid living situation, many users prefer to incorporate solar as one aspect in a full power system. Large energy consumption requirements like home heating, hot water, and cooking needs can be handled with either gas or wood-fired burners and stoves.
Passive solar water heaters and storage units can handle the hot water needs of a family without using electricity. Solar ovens can handle a large portion of cooking needs with no added electricity.
Often natural gas or diesel generators are incorporated into the electrical system to provide backup power during long periods of low light or to power high-energy use needs like larger appliances.
If a generator is wired permanently into the electrical system, it is a good idea to consult a professional electrician for installation in order to prevent damage to either the inverter or generator.
One option that is gaining popularity among solar energy users is ready to use, self-contained modular systems from companies like SolarPod. Their Standalone units contain everything needed to power an off-grid cabin. Upon arrival, the user simply unpacks the unit, completes the assembly, and then points the unit toward the sun. These units also contain batteries for storage of the produced electricity and an inverter to convert the electricity into usable current.
Another company offering ready to use systems is Harvest Energy Solutions. In addition, to ready to use systems, Harvest Energy also sells energy-efficient cabins and can customize a solar-powered cabin to fit your needs, then deliver and install the cabin on your property.
Besides the ease of installation, these self-contained units are adjustable to allow maximum sun exposure throughout the year, regardless of the season. They are also portable in the event that the owner wants to move them to another cabin or location. Certain Solarpod Standalone models also allow for expansion in the event that your power needs increase over time.
Costs for off-grid solar systems can range from $500 for small systems designed simply to charge a laptop or cell phone and provide light, all the way to $20,000 and up for whole-house systems designed to produce enough power for an average family home. Most areas have solar energy consultants that can help you decide on the system that best fits your needs.
Thanks to significant advances in technology, along with massive factory expansion in countries like Asia, solar energy today can be produced for less than one dollar per watt. That is a 60 percent drop in just the past five years. Panels today are producing the same amount of power from a much smaller unit, making it more convenient to install rooftop units. Couple that with the new battery storage technology advancements, and it is a good time to invest in solar power.
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