As many of you know, we’ve been living without electricity in our tiny house for the past year. This has been an incredible experience, and one that has brought clarity to our needs and our wants surrounding electricity. While waiting for the time and money to be available to research, purchase, and install a small-scale solar electric (photovoltaic) system for our homestead, we’ve created strategies to meet our needs for keeping food cold (renting out freezer space at a friend’s home), using the computer (trading house-sitting at another friend’s house), and running power tools (a Honda EU2000i generator). But all along, our intention has been to have our home powered by solar, and now that plan is turning into reality!
How did we select a solar electric system for our home?
We started this process with very little prior knowledge of photovoltaic systems. So the first step was educating ourselves. I bought Brian a subscription to Home Power magazine last year for his birthday, we checked related books out of the library (books with titles like “Photovoltaics for Dummies”), and talked to people who had installed their own systems. We knew that we’d have to start small and add on over time, because a large system was simply not in our budget.
The following considerations helped us select a solar electric system:
1) Cost – This was the most important limiting factor in our purchase. We knew we wanted to invest in quality components so we could expand the system as we are able, but right now our budget is limited to $5,000.
2) Needs vs. Wants – We’ve been living very simply for the past year, and will continue to do so, but there are some electric needs that truly feel like needs, and some that feel like extra luxuries that we’re okay doing without (or have found that we prefer to do without). The needs are:
- A chest freezer, both for food preservation, and for freezing ice jugs to put in the coolers that act as our refrigerator.
- A computer and internet. As both Brian and I are self-employed, we rely heavily on a computer for business and communication. Besides, I really love writing this blog!
- Charging hand tools, camera, phone, etc.
3) Technical Support – We thought about hiring a professional to install a system for us, but again, cost was an issue. Since Brian is such a handy sort of guy, we knew he could figure it out, as long as he had resources to ask questions as they arose.
A sealed, vented box in our mudroom, ready for the batteries.
Purchasing a System
We decided to purchase our system through Backwoods Solar. What we love about Backwoods Solar is that the company is staffed by people who actually use the systems they sell, and when you purchase a system through them, you get phone consultations and technical support as part of the price. We know that there are DIY ways to have gone about this process less expensively, but the fact of the matter is that we did not feel comfortable piecing it together all alone. After coming up with our approximate electrical needs (check out this great resource page), Backwoods Solar helped us come up with a system that included:
- Three 290 Watt Solar Panels
- Eight Trojan 6V batteries
- A high quality inverter that will allow us to expand as needed
The system that we purchased will allow us to power a chest freezer, a computer, a few lights, and will allow for a few extra luxuries, such as occasionally using a sewing machine, food processor, or blender. Our generator can be used as a back-up.
Lots of work getting the house ready for the installation! Brian is building a box in our mudroom that is sealed and vented to the outdoors, which will hold the batteries. I expect that the entire installation process will take a few months’ work, and I’ll be sure to share the process here!