Interested in solar power but not sure where to start? Solar panels are becoming increasingly available to the average homeowner. To integrate solar energy into your personal power grid, there are a number of easy and inexpensive projects you can undertake.
Perhaps the most accessible is creating a small backup power system, the type of contingency you might use to run lights and small appliances in the event of a power outage. The basic components are:
- a photovoltaic panel to collect the sun's energy and generate the electricity
- a storage battery
- a charge controller to keep the photovoltaic panel from overcharging the battery
- an inverter that converts the battery power into usable, 120-volt alternating-current (AC) power
Components may be purchased separately or bundled together as part of a complete kit. On sale from speciality online retailers and major home improvement chain stores, kits run the gamut in price from $300 to $6,000. If that seems expensive, consider that for the average household, a whole-home solar array usually costs between $20,000 and $30,000.
You can put together a small system to generate 800 watt hours for approximately $250. A setup of this size will power a 7-watt LED light for more than 100 hours or a 20-watt LCD television for 40 hours (or both the light ant TV for 30 hours). Under direct sunlight, the battery fully recharges in 16 hours.
A larger solar kit, one that generates about 2,200 watt hours, sells for just shy of $1,000. It will power a 7-watt LED light for 314 hours, a 20-watt LCD television for 110 hours, or a 50-watt refrigerator for 44 hours (or all three appliances for 29 hours). Charging takes about 7 hours in optimal conditions.
Most backup solar power systems use 12-volt lead-acid batteries. Always charge them in a well-ventilated area, using the same precautions you would with a car battery (i.e., protective eyewear and gloves are recommended).
Another inexpensive DIY solar project is a passive solar water heating system. You can assemble one from easy-to-find recycled components: a discarded electric water heater tank, an insulated plywood box (to house the tank), used window glass or clear plastic sheets, along with some pipe and insulation. Plans are not hard to come by, and the total price for the project typically does not exceed $100.
Passive solar water heaters are great for outdoor applications, such as outdoor showers. A salvaged water heater tank is set into an insulated plywood box. The box, in turn, is covered with recycled window glass or molded plastic, either of which focuses the sun's rays, warming the water in the tank. An incoming water hose goes into the bottom of the tank, while from the top of the tank, an outgoing hose draws off the sun-warmed water. And there you have it-for virtually pennies, a terrific way to rinse off after a dip in the pool!