We have enjoyed our solar electric (photovoltaic) system for over a year now; long enough to have seen how it performs on a daily basis, and to note what demands we can place upon the system.
The system we installed in November of 2014 is an off-grid system with a battery bank for storage. We designed the system with, and purchased it from Backwoods Solar, an Idaho company that specializes in off-grid systems. Taking into account our budget and intended use, we decided to purchase three 290 watt solar panels, eight Trojan 6V batteries, and a high quality inverter that will allow us to expand our system as needed.
My husband Brian and my father-in-law started the installation, and my father, a mechanic and electric whiz, came out to help with the final wiring. You can read more about our experience installing our solar electric system here.
The system we purchased was intended to meet all of our needs most of the time. We knew from the start that there might be times that we would need to supplement with our generator (a Honda EU2000i). And that has proved to be the case on a few occasions.
What we’ve noticed is that there are two situations that have led to inadequate power: The first is when it is very hot and overcast (for instance, late June in the Midwest). Because our chest freezer is the biggest load on our PV system, and because the freezer is located in an un-insulated shed on the north side of our house, it demands a lot of power on hot days. If it is cloudy for days at a time, the freezer continues to draw power, and the panels cannot charge the batteries fast enough to keep up.
The second situation is on overcast days in December. Short day length and cloudy weather, again over the course of a few days to a week, are a bad combination for a PV system. Because the weather is generally quite cold, we are able to turn the chest freezer off at night, and back on during the day. Our food remains frozen, and we save battery power. On a couple of occasions, we have used our generator to charge our battery bank.
The remaining 95% of the time, our solar electric system is more than adequate for our needs. Most of the time our battery levels barely dip below 90% and we create ways to take advantage of all of the “extra” electricity! We use our waffle iron, toast bread, make smoothies, operate power tools, and run a fan to keep cool!
Living with Solar Electricity
As for life in a solar-powered home, it is wonderful. I love that we are meeting our family’s electricity needs with power from the sun, and have no monthly electricity bills. After living without any electricity for a year and a half, flipping a switch on power felt like an incredible luxury! We are able to store food in our chest freezer, work from home on our computer, and operate small appliances such as a blender, food processor, and sewing machine.
That said, there are some comforts that we do without. We do not have a washing machine or clothes dryer. We do not have a dishwasher. We do not have a refrigerator. Living with solar electricity requires a constant attentiveness to our electric consumption: We use lights sparingly, turn off our computer when it’s not needed, and always unplug appliances. We cook on a two burner propane stove, and do not have an oven.
It is heartening to me that friends and family members are investigating solar electricity for their home. Grid-tied solar electricity is a great alternative for those with higher electricity needs or who are already connected to the grid. Off-grid systems have the added investment of a battery bank for storage, but they offer the advantages of energy independence, and the opportunity to create electricity in remote locations.
Solar electricity is not perfect – there is still an industrial manufacturing chain of materials and process that has its own set of environmental and social impacts – but it is one of the more accessible green energy options that truly has the potential to shift power generation away from corporations, and into the hands of people and communities. It’s an opportunity to elevate your homestead’s capacity to produce.
For more information about living off the grid, solar electricity, and starting a homestead from scratch on raw land, check out my eBook, Creating Your Off-Grid Homestead, available for instant download!
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Debbie rangel says
We live off grid with solar but we have a refrigerator that runs on propane and a range and oven that runs also on propane with a battery starter. it is great
Teri Page says
What is the brand of the range that you’re using, Debbie? We have one that has an electric starter right now, and it does draw a lot of power!
D B Electric says
By increasing the DC voltage and inverters from 12 volt to 48 volts you can lower the amperage drain from the batteries for the same wattage being operated. If your inverter is 12 volt DC 3000 watts than that is a 250 amp load on the batteries. The same wattage load at 48 volt DC would be 62.5 amp load on the batteries. Much more efficient. When considering off grid electrical power quality off the shelf products that are upgradeable to wattage loads and that are designed to be mixed and matched with other vendors products is the key to adjusting the electrical power needed for daily consumption. Battery banking string voltage sets is the key for storage and sizing for days or weeks before any battery charging is required. Mixing different forms of alternative energy together like solar and wind and make them operate and play nicely together can give unlimited AC electrical power and makes a microgrid. The bottom line is alternative electrical power works and is safe, reliable and efficient and is an investment that pays for itself with free electrical power.
Teri Page says
Thanks for sharing your experience!
Simply Sunshine says
I absolutely love your homestead and the fact you are willing to have us all watch your every move as you go along your way. lol I am dreaming of our own little homestead here in Florida, but the thought of going without an air conditioner is not going to happen!! It gets way to hot and humid for me to breathe at night, so I know I will have to have one at least then. If we lived in the northern states it probably wouldn’t be that much of an issue for us, but here there is no way we could do without one in the hottest part of the summer. With that being said could you run a small one off of solar? I love the thought of going off the grid but that’s where I worry that it may not be something we could do full time. We can have a well and our laws say e have to install a septic tank to live anywhere in our area so we could be somewhat off the systems but the heat here is almost unbareable in the heat of the day threw the summer months. Thank you so much for sharing the good the bad and the ugly of homesteading and know you are giving us all hope that someday real soon (hopefully) we all can live our dreams off living with nature.
Teri Page says
If you have enough solar panels, you can power quite a bit, and probably a small air conditioning unit. Although I don’t know if that would be adequate for your needs! I’ve lived in Georgia during one summer, and it was almost impossible to sleep without air conditioning! Another possibility would be to have grid-tied solar, so you can purchase extra electricity when you needed it. Thank you for reading along!
We have used a solar-based electric system since 2001. It’s grown over time and this last summer we replaced our 6V batteries. Most of them have served us for over ten years. We are in British Columbia so we get less sun in the winter. For two month its between four and five hours on sunny days, and those can be limited. We augment with wind during storms (we are in a protected spot) and use a generator to boost our batteries when needed. We have a split system, each having eight 6V batteries that we run as a 12 volt system. One bank takes us through the day and the other at night. When we got to bed, everything is shut down to save power. We use propane for cooking, our refrigerator and some lights. The electricity runs limited lights, recharges our handheld devices, and a small TV for videos in the evening. We also use DC lights, especially during the winter that we run off rechargeable automobile booster packs. We have several of those that we recharge during the day and use at night. We don’t run any electric appliances (large or small) but don’t miss them.- Margy
Teri Page says
Thanks for sharing information about your system, Margy. We used to live in Oregon, where sunlight in winter is also very limited. Wind or micro-hydro would have been a great complement to solar there. Here, wind would be ideal, and perhaps we will add it in the future.
I’m in southern indiana so our climates are very much the same, we actually have a system very close to yours, also from backwoods, they are truly amazing. Our chest freezer is DC and uses very little electricity, also we were able to find a washer at home Depot that only uses 200 kwh, and that’s only while it spins, and i usually save my laundry for those beautiful sunny days,it saves so much time, not to have to go to laundry mat. We are looking to add more batteries as I hate to see the batteries at 100% at 1 pm, I find myself thinking that we are wasting so much sun…. solar power has completely changed our lives, I inform everyone that will listen..
Teri Page says
That’s great that you were able to get the appliances you need. We don’t have running water, so a washing machine is not in the cards, yet. I’d love to figure it out some day. Thanks for sharing your experiences, as it’s useful for me!
We have had a solar system going on 4 years and love it. Like you, I take advantage of the surplus power on sunny days. I think installing your system to double as a porch cover is genius!
Anna T says
Teri, thanks for sharing your experience of off-grid electricity. I’m stashing this information away in the anticipation of our possible/hopeful future move to a small cabin. However, I really don’t see how we could do without a washing machine or refrigerator! Anything else (air conditioning, oven, vacuum, etc) I could do without. But how do you do without a washer and fridge? How much more power would you need to operate those two?
Teri Page says
We end up going to the laundromat once every week or 10 days and doing multiple loads and line drying at home. As for the fridge, we have food stored in coolers and we add frozen ice jugs to keep everything cool. It’s not the most convenient set up, but it works for now. I am not sure how much power we’d need to operate those appliances. It would be pretty easy to figure out – usually the appliances tell you – but I just haven’t done the calculations.
I had to go with a 12/24 volt chest refrigerator and same for the freezer. Right now they both are on a 24v system, with 2 180 watt solar panels. They seem to keep the batteries up enough for both. I just added the freezer 2 weeks ago. This summer I hope to have 4 280w panels up & half of the house completed to live in.
Hi Anna. We too are off grid. The laundromat just becomes part of your to do list and it is truly not that bad. Even for a family of 6! You just rearrange your daily chores to NOT include your laundry and just make it a designated day. Refrigeration is easily done with alternatives..and it becomes normal.
Ed Brown says
Am I right to guess you are running the freezer unit on 120VAC? The inversion losses for that alone could be huge. Look for a 12,24, or 36 Volt freezer unit and build a better insulated freezer yourself (Home Power used to have an advertiser that sold such). I got a 12 Volt freezer unit from a used tree cooler that transported and cooled bare root trees in the field. The more you can do with DC direct from the battery or panels, the more efficient your use and the less you loose to heat. You could run a DC circuit in your cabin for lighting (LEDs!) and certain appliances that run on DC. I recently passed up a Mr Coffee 12 Volt drip coffee maker at a thrift store, and I have seen 12 Volt blenders and waffle irons. Some RV refrigerators could be run on 12VDC and that might help your refrigeration issue. Remember, any time you transform, invert, regulate or otherwise manipulate power, there are losses, sometimes approaching 50%. Go direct wherever you can. Home Power!
I have a question about the freezer. I know it would probably be a chore to do this, but could you put your freezer down in your root cellar and get a small solar system to run just that one item?
It seems that space would be cool enough to keep the freezer from working overtime and Harbor Freight has a Solar Panel system for $139. Having asked this though, I know nothing about electric capacity and what it takes to generate enough electric for large appliances. I’m just curious!
Teri Page says
It is an interesting idea, and certainly one that might make sense in the summer. But I don’t think such a small solar panel would work. We actually have one from Harbor Freight, and it was sufficient to charge phones, laptop, etc., but not to run the chest freezer.