Are you looking for a reliable solar system to use on your remote off grid cabin?
Whether you’re seeking a self-reliant lifestyle or the ability to have power during a blackout, an off grid solar power system is for you!
Below, we’ll include all the information you need to build your own in just a few steps!
1. What is an off grid solar system?
An off grid solar system is a stand-alone power system.
It produces enough energy through the usage of solar panels and battery storage without having to tap into the electric grid.
For the most part, off grid solar systems have been out of reach for the vast majority of people because inverters and batteries historically have cost a lot.
More recently, though, technologies have improved, and prices have dropped, which has made these systems more accessible to people.
2. What are the four basic components required for an off grid system?
Solar panel (PV panel): A solar panel converts sunlight into electricity.
Photovoltaic cells on the solar panel absorb the sun’s energy and convert it to DC (direct current) electricity.
Charge controller: The current from the solar panel feeds into the charge controller.
The controller dictates how much current goes into the battery.
The controller also prevents batteries from becoming over-charged and over-discharged.
Inverter: An inverter converts DC (direct current) power from the battery bank or solar panels to AC (alternating current) so you can run AC appliances, including TV, fan, fridge, water pumps, etc.
Battery: The battery stores energy generated from the solar panel during the day.
3. What are the steps to building an off grid solar system?
If you’re interested in creating your own off grid solar system, here are the steps to get you started.
Find out how much power you need
This is the first and most important step of creating your own power system.
When you plan a solar system, you must know how much power you need.
In the same way that you wouldn’t start out on a road trip without knowing how much gas you’d need for your car, you wouldn’t begin building an off grid solar system with just two panels and a battery.
The easiest way to find this out is to use a load calculator and enter what you will be powering with your solar system.
Make a detailed list of everything that will be powered by your system — every little thing makes a big difference!
Calculate the number of batteries required
Once you understand how much power you need, you can figure out how many batteries you’ll need to store it.
For instance, do you only need enough storage for a day or two?
Or maybe 3+ days?
Do you have another power source you’ll tap into if necessary?
What about a generator or a turbine?
Where will you store the batteries?
Will it be in a hot or cold location?
Keep in mind that batteries are rated for storage at around 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
If the room is colder, then you’ll need a larger battery bank (by over 50 percent for below freezing).
Make sure you answer these questions ahead of time as they impact the size and cost of your battery bank.
Furthermore, you’ll need to understand the voltage of the battery bank that you need.
Batteries tend to come in either 12V, 24V, or 48V.
The larger the system, the higher the voltage.
If you have a small system and want to be able to charge your cell phone and power 12V DC appliances in an RV, then a basic 12V battery bank makes sense.
However, if you need to power many devices over 2000 watts at a time, then you’ll want to consider 24V and 48V systems.
Calculate the number of solar panels needed for your location and time of year
The next piece of the puzzle is figuring out the number of solar panels you’ll need.
First, you found out how much energy you needed to make per day from the load calculator, and now you’ll need to tell it how much sunshine you’ll have available to harvest.
The available energy from the sun for a location is referred to as its “sun hours.”
The number of “sun hours” is how many hours the sun will shine on your panels as if it were shining on your solar panels at the angle where they get the most power.
For example, the sun doesn’t shine as brightly at 9 AM as it does at 12 PM.
So, the hour of the sun at 9 AM may be counted as a half “sun hour” whereas the hour from noon to 1 PM would be counted as a full “sun hour.”
Unless you live near the equator, you won’t have the same number of sun hours in the winter as you will in the summer.
To be safe, you’ll want to take the worst-case scenario for your area and use the season with the least amount of sunshine for this measurement.
This way, you won’t end up with a shortage of solar energy for part of the year.
Select a solar charge controller
By completing the first three steps, you’ve figured out how much power you need in your off grid system as well as how many batteries and solar panels are required.
Now, you need to move on to selecting a solar charge controller.
For a rough calculation of what size solar charge control you need, take the watts from the solar and divide it by the battery bank voltage.
Then, add another 25 percent for the safety factor.
When selecting the charge controller, there are two major types of technologies, PWM and MPPT.
If the voltage of the solar panel array matches the voltage of the battery bank, you can use a PWM charge controller.
If you have a 12V panel and a 12V battery bank, then you can use PWM.
If your solar panel voltage is different than your battery bank, then it can’t be wired in series to make it match.
You need to use an MPPT charge controller.
For example, if you have a 20V solar panel and a 12V battery bank, then you’ll need to use an MPPT charge controller.
Select an inverter
Once you have efficiently charged your batteries, you’ll need to make the power usable.
(Note: You can skip this step if you’re only running DC loads straight off your battery bank.)
For AC loads, you’ll need to convert the direct current from the batteries into the alternating current from your appliances.
It’s essential to know what type of AC power you need.
In North America, the standard is 120/240 split phase, 60Hz.
In Europe, much of Africa, and some of South America, it is 230V, single 50Hz.
In some other islands around the world, it’s a mix of both.
Some inverters are configurable between voltages and/or frequencies.
Although, many are fixed.
For this reason, check the specs carefully of the inverter that you are interested in to make sure it matches your needs.
Understanding all these factors is important.
Even if you have the North American standard, you must still figure out if you have any appliances that use 240V, or if they are all 120V.
There are some inverters that can wire the ac output to use either 120V or 240V.
There are also inverters that are stackable where one outputs 120V, but when wired together (stacked), they can create 240V.
There are others that aren’t able to be stacked and can only output 120V.
To determine which is the right inverter for you, be sure to read the specs!
Finally, you’ll also need to figure out how many watts total your inverter will need to power.
In step one, you used the load calculator to figure out both the constant watts and surge requirements of your loads.
Remember, an inverter is designed for a specific voltage battery bank (12, 24, or 48 volt), so you’ll need to know what voltage battery bank you are going to have before you settle on the inverter.
This is something to keep in mind if you think you may be growing your system in the future.
If you plan to have a higher voltage battery bank in the future, then you’ll need a higher voltage inverter because a lower one won’t work.
So, plan to go ahead with the higher voltage to begin with or plan to change it out!
Balance the system
This final step is much more complicated than “balance the system,” but there are a lot of other components that are ultimately included in this.
Here’s what you’ll need to factor into this final phase:
- Figure out the fuses and breakers for overcurrent protection
- Work out what breaker boxes will be used
- Understand how you are going to mount the solar panels
- Find out what size wire you’re going to need
And there you have it!
Once you’ve completed these six steps, you’ll be able to build your own off grid solar system.
4. What’s the difference between an on grid system and an off grid system?
If you’re new to this way of life, you may wonder what’s so different about off grid living versus on grid living.
We’ll sum it up for you below.
On grid systems are generally considered the norm.
They’re the most widely used systems, and they don’t require battery storage.
Your panels are hooked up to the existing grid infrastructure and the power they generate feeds directly into the grid.
Your electricity is supplied in the same manner it would be if you did not have solar panels, but you get a discount or rebate on your utility bill for the power you provide back to the grid.
There’s never any interruption in the power on-grid homes experience precisely because you are tied into the grid.
The disadvantage of this is the fact that on-grid homes do not function during a blackout.
They don’t have batteries that store up power from their panels, and when the grid is out they aren’t able to tap into that either.
Off grid solar systems utilize batteries to store energy that solar panels produce.
These systems are sized and designed to fit a variety of needs throughout the year (especially in the winter as there are fewer daylight hours).
If you live in a remote area without reliable and affordable access to the grid, then this is typically a great option for you.
5. What are the pros of solar?
Why do people want an off grid solar system?
What’s so appealing about this lifestyle?
Here are some of the advantages.
No more bills: If your monthly utility bills are just too high, then you may be ready to go off grid.
Once you’re relying solely on solar, you’ll say goodbye to your monthly energy bills.
Reliant access: Do you want to make sure you’ll always have access to power?
An off grid solar system gives you that reliably (most of the time, see below).
Even during an energy blackout, you’ll stay connected, unlike those connected to the grid.
Go green: If you’re looking to reduce your carbon footprint and save the environment, an off grid solar system is a great solution.
This route relies on renewable energy and offers more sustainable ways to live and travel.
6. What are the cons of solar?
What are the drawbacks of going off grid?
If it’s so great, wouldn’t everyone do it?
Here are some of the disadvantages.
High start-up cost: While batteries are increasing in efficiency and dropping in cost, going off grid is still expensive.
To do it, you need to install a large solar system that won’t rely on any external grid power to keep the lights on.
This is generally a high start-up cost that most people can’t afford.
Gas-powered generator required: People generally don’t want to deal with the inconvenience of losing power at any point.
In the case of emergencies or system failure, most people will decide to purchase a backup generator for their homes.
This is yet another (likely necessary) expense that can deter people from getting started.
7. How do I know if going off grid is right for me?
There are both advantages and disadvantages to going with an off grid solar system.
If you’re wondering if it may be worth it to you, read through the following list of criteria.
While these are in no way a requirement, they could help you determine if you would thrive in an off grid environment.
I live in a tiny home, cabin, RV, boat, or an isolated area
I want to be energy independent
I want to stop paying money for utilities
I live in an area without reliable, steady access to power from the grid
I want to live sustainably and lower my carbon footprint
I don’t mind investing upfront to make any of the above come true
And there you have it!
This article explains the beginning of what you need to build a successful off grid solar system.
These systems are particularly relevant today as more people are living in tiny homes or out of vans on the go as they travel.
While it may initially sound like a doomsday scenario, off grid living is incredibly freeing, and you can imagine it however you’d like!
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.