Five things to know about solar before you purchase

Are you thinking about investing in a solar energy system?
There are many reasons to go solar. Maybe you want clean energy or to be self sufficient or perhaps you just want a solar back up system in case of outages. For us, living on an island in Nicaragua, deciding to go solar wasn’t a hard decision. When we arrived on Ometepe, the entire island was powered by a diesel generator, so it certainly wasn’t clean energy. That combined with frequent outages and exponential energy costs made our choice very easy. Whatever your reasons, there is a solution for you.

Once we made the decision to go solar then the hard part started- designing the system. There are just so many options out there on the market nowadays. Solar panels, batteries, charge controllers, inverters – where do you start? Here are some some things to consider before you run out and buy your solar energy system.

Primary, Hybrid or Back up System

Before you run out and start researching solar panels and batteries you need to decide how you plan on implementing your system. Are you looking to be 100% off grid? If so, then you will need to consider the total energy consumption for your space. At El Jardin de la Vida we are proud of the fact the we are 100% solar powered. It comes with a sacrifices though. We need to be very careful about our power consumption. We only use our blender during the day because it draws too much power and we understand that if we have a lot of cloudy days then maybe we don’t get smoothies. You learn to adapt, to be more conscious and less wasteful with your power. And that is not a bad thing.

Perhaps you want to reduce your energy costs or minimize your dependence on the utility companies. There are many hybrid grid tie systems available. These systems integrate with your traditional electrical system to supply energy from the sun when it is available. Here you still have the option of using traditional energy in the event there is not enough sun for your needs. An advantage to a grid tie system is that it allows you to sell energy back to the power company when you are generating more than you are using. This means not only can you feel better about using clean energy but you are also helping others to use cleaner energy as well. And you are making money. It’s a win win all around!

It’s possible neither of these options is what you are looking. Maybe all you want is a back up system in case of power outages. Solar can provide that as well. Cleaner and quieter than a generator, you can purchase a back up system that seamlessly kicks on when there is an outage.

Budget

Like any large purchase in your life it is important to decide on a budget. Costs of solar products vary widely and it is easy for the cost of your system to grow quickly. When writing your budget don’t forget to include the small items as well as the large components. The cost of cables, connectors, and breakers can easily drive you over budget if you don’t factor them in when planning.

Power Consumption

To ensure you have enough power for your needs you want to accurately figure out your power consumption. This number will determine how large your system needs to be- how many panels and batteries you will need. If you are looking to convert an existing system this number can be found on your power bill. Look for kilowatt hours consumed in a month and divide this number by 30. That will tell you approximately how many kilowatt hours you use per day. If you are designing a new system you can estimate your power consumption. It is helpful use a chart like the one you can find at wholesalarsolar.com to determine how much power you will consume.
Be honest with yourself. Don’t be tempted to underestimate your consumption or your system will not be handle your usage. It can cost more in the long run if you underestimate your usage and have to upgrade the system.

Sunlight hours and system placement

The number of hours of direct sunlight hitting your panels is a huge factor in determining the size and efficiency of your system. Go figure – it is a solar energy system. All other factors being equal, a system orientated with more hours of direct, south facing light will require less panels than the same system with less hours of direct light. So, it is important to consider the best place to install your panels to maximize their efficiency.

Maintenance

No system is going to be maintenance free. Solar just doesn’t work that way. However, there are products out there on the market that can reduce the amount of time you need to spend maintaining your system. If lot’s of maintenance isn’t your thing, it might be worth spending a little more on your batteries and your charge controller. Look into sealed lead acid or lithium batteries. While these types of batteries do cost more they require little to no maintenance and last longer. If you invest more in your charge controller you will have more advanced controls and reporting that will allow you to maximize your systems performance and in the long run spend less time maintaining your system.

If want to hear more about how Trevor designed our system check out the blog posts from back when we were in the States doing our bus conversion. That is the system we are using currently to power to our place. Having relocated the panels from the bus to the house has maximized the efficiency but our system is far from maintenance free. If you are looking for more information on how to make an informed buying decision check out our Introduction to Solar Energy Workshops. We also offer customized solar consulting services. For more information, contact at us at eljardinometepe@gmail.com

0/4 AWG battery Cables from Handicap lift
Panels on our roof
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