Every day the news seems to feature a catastrophe somewhere, be it a natural disaster, war, civil unrest, terror attack, financial collapse, or worse. It is estimated that some three to five million Americans are making some form of preparation for emergency situations. Since most homeowners prefer to be able to stay in their homes in the event of disaster, ensuring that the basics- food, water, and power- are accessible is a high priority when making emergency plans.
We frequently speak to homeowners who are interested in installing Solar Panels as part of their disaster plan, and there are some common initial questions that come up during these discussions. We’d like to address those here.
1) How many panels would it take to run my home?
- Your power consumption (easily found on your utility bills) is the best indicator of the size system we should install to meet your current needs. However, we advise taking steps to reduce your power consumption in conjunction with installing Solar Panels whenever possible. Depending on your site, we can calculate several different system sizes, from bare-bones, to “whole house” systems for your consideration.
2) I want to go completely Off Grid. What does that involve?
- All Solar Energy Systems produce a flow of electricity when the sun is shining on the panels. Where this current goes is the key difference between grid-tied and off grid Solar.
Since Solar Panels only produce power during daylight hours, without a way to store this produced current, a home completely reliant on Solar Energy (ie: Off Grid- not tied to the local utility) would be without power whenever the sun wasn’t shining. To solve this problem, off grid Solar Systems utilize a battery bank to store the energy produced by the panels. The home then draws on this battery bank for it’s electric needs. These batteries are similar to the battery in your car, and the size of the system and how it is used determines how many batteries will be required and how often they will need to be replaced. The batteries must be stored out of the weather, but cannot be inside your home, so a storage area is also a requirement.
It is generally not cost-effective to size Off Grid Solar Systems to provide adequate power for long-term electric heating, air-conditioning, cooking, or hot water. For this reason, it is wise to consider ways to cut electric consumption in conjunction with installing Off-Grid Solar Energy Systems for emergency preparedness. Switching to alternative energy sources such as gas, wood, or geothermal for heating, hot water, and/or cooking cuts a home’s power demands significantly, thus reducing the size and cost of the Solar Energy System required to meet it. Installing a gas powered backup generator along with an Off Grid Solar System can be good “insurance” for your power supply as well.
Because every situation is unique, we will work with you to prioritize and design the system that best meets your critical power needs in a way that makes sense for your circumstances.
3) What about a Solar Generator or DIY kit?
- You have probably seen various configurations of DIY Off Grid Solar Energy kits for sale and wondered how effective they would be as part of your disaster plan. We do not recommend these products. Here’s why.
A) There is no such thing as ONE SIZE FITS ALL when it comes to Solar Energy Systems. These pre-packaged Solar kits typically are overpriced for what they are, and they’re frequently designed and marketed to capitalize on the average consumer’s ignorance of how Solar and electricity actually work, and to play up their fear of disaster.
A good-quality, average sized Solar Panel (approximately 3ftx5ft) produces around 300 Watts of electricity at maximum production. That’s only enough power for three individual 100w light bulbs, and again, without batteries to store and distribute the power, the panel provides power ONLY while the sun is shining. Two of these large panels can produce enough current to run a dorm-sized refrigerator; and this small output system, consisting of multiple large panels and associated components, is not readily portable. To be truly useful as a backup power source, a Solar Energy System would need to consist of many fixed panels, and many large batteries to store the produced power- in other words, the small pre-packaged systems sold as “Solar Generators” just don’t work as reliable long term backup power.
B) Electrical work is dangerous, period. Solar Panels produce power whenever the sun is shining on them- they don’t have an on/off switch. Wiring in and safely installing high voltage electrical components like Solar Panels, inverters, and batteries carries a degree of risk even for trained and experienced professionals. Add in rooftops, (which most average homeowners are inexperienced working on), batteries (which carry their own handling risks), the inevitable challenges of tying into an existing electrical service; dealing with utility companies and building inspectors (most localities require Solar Systems to be installed to Code); identifying hazards; troubleshooting when there’s a problem; the risk of fire, power surges and electrocution, and you can see why we urge extreme caution for those who have limited experience working with electricity.
C) Return on Investment. When properly sized, designed, and installed, a good quality Solar Energy System should produce power for thirty years or more. Currently, there is a 30% Federal Tax Credit for Solar Energy Systems. Depending on usage and system size, most homeowners realize payback on their Solar Systems between years 7-9 of ownership. That makes a properly sized and installed Off Grid Solar System an excellent investment financially in addition to its value for emergency preparedness. What value will your DIY or pre-packaged Solar kit have when the grid goes down and you discover, too late, that it can only run a few lightbulbs, and/or it doesn’t work at all?
- It would be a lot easier to answer this question with a round number, we know. But the truth is, every family is different, as is every site. Perhaps you know that you can heat your home, and cook with wood in a disaster, so you don’t need electricity for your whole house. Maybe you have plenty of land for a ground mount system and you don’t need two days’ worth of reserve power. But someone else might have a family member with a critical medical need, like an electric oxygen pump & medications that need refrigeration, (necessitating a greater storage capacity), while their home’s best spot for Solar Panels in on the roof of their detached garage. These two scenarios would result in completely different systems with different installation requirements. We believe in honest pricing- not selling anyone more or less than they need or misrepresenting our products and services. If you would like ballpark pricing for your project, give us a call at 804-368-0589. We’ll do our best to give you some idea what an off grid solar system to meet your needs would cost. For specific pricing, we will schedule a site evaluation. This meeting takes about an hour and is offered without obligation.
We hope that this post answers some of your questions about Off Grid Solar Power. If you have questions you’d like to see answered in a future post, or ideas for topics you’d like to read about on the ODI blog, please feel free to submit them via the contact form on the right side of the page, or just give us a call. We appreciate your input!