From scratch: solar electricity?

cfmuehlingMarch 21, 2006

Hi all!

I'm very excited to tell you we are going to put in solar electricity. We had a fire and are rebuilding/remodeling, and my very conservative husband skeptically gave the OK. Since he's also the General Contractor who will be doing the installation (we think), that's important.

Anyway. I'm reading, reading, reading, and am unfortunately becoming more and more confused. I'm hoping if I give you some of the details, someone might have some direction or recommendations for me?

We have a 1974, energy wasting, chemically poisoning, inefficient Ranch, 2600 SF, with electric heat, water (well), air, everything. Power outage? We fire up that ol' gasoline wasting generator that creates enough noise pollution to deafen even the most hardened rock concert attendee.

However, we do have 8-14 hours a day of unobstructed, unmitigating, HOT, southern Maryland sun, and an extremely low-pitched roof. It's just begging for solar panels! :) There are only two of us, but my husband hates to be hot, so air conditioning is a must.

I am reading about PV panels that mount on the roof, then I see there are some that stick (?) on?

Then I see that they work best when ... cool? How does one achieve that, while taking advantage of the sun?

Is there a way to "stage" installation in case we have to do this piece by piece? Perhaps the converter (inverter?), and meters, then, batteries, the panels, etc?

Do we need special water heating equipment if we're going solar for the entire house?

I've already done as much as I can with regular conservation.

Lightbulbs, caulking, cool water for laundry and dishes, and only running the dishwasher when we don't have any more silverware.

I stuck bricks in the toilet tanks.

I have motion sensing, timer lights outside, and motion sensing lights in all the rooms (where my husband tends to leave lights on.) The latter dropped my BG&E bill dramatically!

We use an evil, hated wood-burning stove, where I get wood off Freecycle or out of the paper.

I compost and am working on a gray water system for my gardens.

So with all that in mind, is there a place where I can read about the steps to installing a system? Are there PV panels more recommended than others? Inverters, batteries, etc? I could build you a computer out of a bucket of bolts, but the electrical terminology boggles my mind. So I'm hoping for someone to simply say, "Haven't you read 'Planning a Solar Electric System for Total Idiots'?"

Oh - and I'm in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. So far, every company who installs systems wants $1000 up front to come out and tell me what to do. Frankly, I don't blame them, but with a contracting husband, I can't even call a plumber because he can do it... But this is NOT his area of expertise, so I need to learn as much as I can so we can do it ourselves.

Thanks so much for letting me ramble and for your recommendations. Questions, too, if I haven't provided enough real information!



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You can certainly do solar hot water heating if you're correct about your sun . . even here in central New York state; right now it pretty much can pay off quickly.

If you're gonna consider doing PV . . make a game plan. Get RID of anything with electric heating elements in it . . stove, water heater, hair dryer ( ugh ! ) etc . . they are incredible consumers of electrical power.

Are you gonna connect to the grid, or not? That's one you NEED to determine right up front. The dilemna is, that if you DO grid tie; you have a place to "put" your extra when you've got it; and a place to draw from when you haven't. That is of course; if you have net metering in your state . . many do. If you DON'T, then you've gotta put in a bigger system so that you have the power you need ALL the time. This is a big question you need to answer early !

You need to get an idea of what your needs WILL be; in your new place, as you live there. Your motion sensors are a neat idea; however: know that they consume "phantom" power 24 / 7. So does your TV with a remote . . your phone on the wall . . etc . . EVERY wall wart in your place. It all adds up when you're on a "tight" energy budget. And, when you are trying to produce your own power; it will be tight. That does NOT mean you can't have all the modern inconveniences; just that you need to choose and use them wisely.

Get an idea of your electric usage in previous place . . how many kWh per month you used. This will be helpful in determining your energy "budget"; which in turn determines what size system you may need.

PV on the roof . . . mixed bag. Snow may not be a concern where you are; but consider it. Also; on a roof; the angle of the panels is fixed. Best output says tilt them through the year for best angle. Pole mounting may be an option to consider.

If you DO grid tie; there are lots of flaming hoops to jump through with your local, friendly, helpful, environmentally minded utility. You MUST follow thier requirements . . for lots of reasons . . . safety of you / your house / the utility workers.

You need to take a thought out approach to the whole thing; it's not easy to "piecemeal" the thing. That is in part; why folks charge big bucks in some instances . . to truly figure out what you need; and the right stuff to put together. There are lots of good brands of batteries, panels, inverters, etc out there. Putting them together wrong or poorly matched; WILL result in poor performance.

I'm a DIY myself; built my own place pretty much ONLY with my own two hands. I wouldn't consider doing a PV system without good, professional help. I did the bull and go-fer work . . to be involved and knowledgable; but the design / sizing / matching of equipment etc was all done by pro's.

Here in NY at least; there are some pretty good incentives . . rebates, tax credits etc. However; here they are ONLY available by using a licensed installer. Had I done the same system myself ( even if I had been able to design / choose / size / deal with utility ); it would have cost me another $12k.

I applaud your efforts and intent; but this is one thing that is tough to just put together . . you need a real plan here or you will likely be dissapointed . .

I've had a system in place now for 1 1/2 years . . very happy . . works great . . . supply most of my electricity in a calendar year. VERY pleased with it . . .

If you have more specific questions, or would like some further info / pix of my setup; email me via member page with a REAL email address and I can send some stuff along . .

Good luck . . .


    Bookmark   March 21, 2006 at 7:30PM
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There is a guy, Mike Tidwell, in Takoma Park who gone grid tie solar,he has open houses 4 times a year and has a video out.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   March 23, 2006 at 11:22AM
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Bob, that's excellent information. I also felt it's better to go with a pro, because of the unknown elements. My husband, although a GC, doesn't do any work in this area.
We do plan to hook to the grid and BG&E here in the Washington/Baltimore area claims to support this. We'll see. Snow isn't much of an issue, and the angle of our roof seems to be optimal, no only for maximum exposure for flat panels, but for snow to slide off. Much like the roof itself.

Rad_win, thanks for Mr. Tidwell's name. I work in TP several days a week.

I'll keep you posted, if you like. I'm excited about it.


    Bookmark   March 23, 2006 at 5:13PM
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Your observation that solar panels like cool is the first worm in the can. When the temperature is higher than "spec" the panels produce less power, and you have to take that into account in your design. You also have to take knock-downs for inverter losses, wire resistance losses, battery losses etc. Also, if the temperature gets very cold your panels will produce more power than their rating, so your system has to be sized to handle the "extra" power without frying something. This is just 1 issue of many that most people would never think of. That is why I second the recommendation to have a professional design and spec the bill of materials for the system. You can do some of the grunt work to help install.

For heat, you should install a solar hot water system. Heating water with solar electricity is grossly inefficient (expensive). Your requirement for "real" air conditioning means you should have a grid-tie. Very few people run AC with solar panels because the compressors use so much power.

You've probably seen the link to Home Power, but here it is again.

Here is a link that might be useful: Home Power

    Bookmark   April 8, 2006 at 12:41AM
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Jason, this makes perfect sense. I had wondered why one wouldn't just run a water heater off electricity, vs. having a separate system. I'm wondering, since our well pump is electric, if that componant could be worked into a solar water heating package.

As far as the heat issue, it surely gets hot where I live. Egg-cooking hot.

We do plan to tie into the grid, since everything (as I mentioned) is electric. If we can produce enough to sell back, all the better. If not, we can draw what we need.

I am convincing my husband more and more, that we need someone to come out and work out specs and a design plan for us. I think the trick will be to find someone willing to stage it with us. Or perhaps people usually plan for future upgrades and it won't be such a crazy request.

Thanks for the link. I continue to read! :)

    Bookmark   April 8, 2006 at 3:39PM
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I'll chime in again to hit a few points . . .

Abandon your electric everything if you can . . some things need to be that way . . . some don't. Every dollar spent conserving now; saves $20 in system capacity. Do you solar water heating . . and for back-up / supplementing; do anything BUT electric. If you have any signifigant power outage; you'll watch you batteries run down QUICKLY trying to do ANY electic heating; water or anything else. Use your electric to run the gas / propane / oil furnace / heater etc., but NOT to BE the source of heat. 'Can your electric range, too. You'll be FAR better off . . .

Your roof angle . . you've mentioned several times as ideal for panels . . . you also said it was a nice, low pitch. Ideal angle for fixed mount is . . your latitude which is around 38 deg for Maryland. Your ideal angle at the peak of winter ( solstice again ) is your latitude; minus 23 degrees or ~ 15 deg. While no-one truly tracks / sets the exact angle on a daily basis; your roof will not be the "right" pitch to get the right angle at ANY time of the year. If you were to use the year-round average angle for you latitude . . you'd need a roof pitch of about 15/12 . . yup . . gambrel / barn style pitch . .

I'm in central New York state; and have mounts which I can tilt at about half a dozen angles via some fixed holes in the mounts. My angle varies from about 32 deg in the winter; to about 62 deg in the summer; and a few places along the way. It sometimes makes sense to "optimize" the angle more for the winter; with shorter days it's more critical to get what you can. In the summer; the much longer days can make up for less than optimal angles.

Good luck with your endeavor; but do yourself a favor and enlist the aid of those who are truly knowledgable about these systems as a whole . . . like many other things; you are far better off the "plan" for it now . . and implement at a later date if needed . .


    Bookmark   April 8, 2006 at 7:55PM
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Homepower magazine has back issues on CD. Buy any group and read the issues. Buy the current issue and read it. This is probably the best magazine in the world that explains PV and other systems. Questions can be asked of the staff, and they usually respond.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 4:04AM
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I'm also doing research for a similar system. I know I won't be able to pay for everything I want at once, so I want to install a 'starter' system and then build it from there. I thought this article from Austin Energy was very easy to read.

Here is a link that might be useful: Austin Energy: Intro to Photovoltaic Systems

    Bookmark   June 20, 2006 at 12:06AM
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Oh, and I just found this article that has a worksheet to help you estimate the overall size of the system you'll need and how much it could cost.

It's written 'for the people' - very easy to understand!
Good luck w/ your system!

Here is a link that might be useful: Austin Energy: Estimating PV Size and Cost

    Bookmark   June 20, 2006 at 12:31AM
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Well, as you can read in my most recent post, we have had a solar contractor (did you know there are about 3 in Maryland?) design a system and we're installing on the 12th.
All the suggested reading here helped me greatly in asking somewhat educated questions and I actually presented items they had to research. I appreciate all the information.

I'll let you know how it goes. :)


    Bookmark   September 9, 2006 at 11:44AM
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