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Issue 104 December 2004

January 2005

TOP 10
Building Products p. 34

Big City Solar
Living Green in NYC p. 14
Ultimate Beginner’s Guide
to Solar-Electric Systems p. 72

Cool Savings
Choose an Energy-Efficient Fridge p. 66

Solar Hot Tubbing An Easy Do-It-Yourself Project p. 28
$6.95 US $10.95 CAN

Stream Dreams
Measure Your Site’s Hydroelectric Potential p. 42
7 20336 78082 6

Display until February 1

and off-grid (stand-alone). The specific terms of net metering laws and regulations vary Array Mounting from state to state and utility to utility. Here are some brief descriptions of the common equipment used in grid-intertied and off-grid solar-electric systems. the numbers in red correspond to the components needed. In the diagrams. or utility- interactive (UI). So whether you are the rookie who wants to understand how solar-electric systems work. this article explains the guts and bolts of the three most common options in solar- electric systems: grid-intertied. except that some or all Disconnect of the electricity you use comes from the sun. even the best ideas aren’t embraced until they are explained in simple terms. or that better describes your spouse. In many states. Consult Rack 2 your local electricity provider or state regulatory agency for their guidelines. friend. even Photovoltaic Array turning the electric meter backwards. in some instances. or prospective customer. grid-intertied solar-electric systems generate solar electricity and route it to the electric utility grid. Solar-Electric Systems Scott Russell ©2004 Scott Russell Perhaps what the home-scale renewable energy (RE) world needs most are ways to introduce people to RE technologies and the gizmos that make it possible. After all. Systems vary—not all equipment is necessary for every system type. This amount can then be applied to other months when the system produces less or in months when electrical consumption is greater. Understanding the basic components of an RE system and how they function is not an overwhelming task. offsetting a home’s or business’s 1 electrical consumption and. 72 home power 104 / december 2004 & january 2005 . grid-intertied with battery backup. This arrangement is called net metering or net billing. the utility credits a homeowner’s account for excess solar electricity produced. Living with a grid-connected solar-electric system is no different 3 Array DC than living with grid power. Grid-Intertied Solar-Electric System Also known as on-grid. grid-tied.

photovoltaic (PV) panels PV panels are a solar-electric system’s You can use the rated output to help determine defining component.homepower. such as seasonal adjustability. arrays in urban or suburban areas are mounted on a home’s south-facing roof. Multiple modules combined a PV panel’s shimmering facade. Mounting racks may incorporate other features. west each day. Changing the tilt angle of pole. and refrigerators. roofs). semiconductor material work their magic. They on the maximum power they can produce can withstand severe 73 . 2 Array Mounting Rack AKA: mounts. Adjustable anchor your PV panels. PV what’s known as the photovoltaic effect. due to the array’s location. Adjusting the tilt angle increases the system’s concrete. Although rigid panels are the most common using light (photons) to generate electricity— form of solar electricity collector. and even peel- the electricity from your solar-electric panels and-stick laminates (for metal standing-seam to safely power your electric loads like lights. wafers of together are called an array. including under ideal sun and temperature conditions. solar simple 1 Solar-Electric Panels AKA: solar-electric modules. parts. inconvenient and sometimes dangerous. The tilt of roof- materials of your mounting device will vary considerably mounted arrays is rarely changed—adjusting the angle is depending on which mounting method you choose. racks Mounting racks provide a secure platform on which to during the summer and lower in the winter. extreme heat. or 3) at ground level. parallel to the roof’s slope. keeping them fixed in place and mounting racks enable you to set the angle of your PV oriented correctly. and annual energy production by a few percent.or ground-mounted arrays are another choice. Pole-mounted PV arrays pleasing. keeping them aimed more directly at three approaches: 1) on a rooftop. technology also has been integrated into Other components in your system enable roofing shingles and tiles. to automatically follow the sun across the sky from east to pole.or ground-mounted arrays This approach is sometimes considered most aesthetically can be done quickly and safely. Tracked PV arrays can increase the system’s daily energy output by 25 to 40 percent. and hail stones. The specific pieces. Behind electrical needs. PV modules are very durable and long- PV panels are assigned a rating in watts based lasting—most carry 25-year warranties. computers. In areas with a lot of space. cold. Panels can be mounted using one of panels seasonally. and may be required by local regulators or also can incorporate tracking devices that allow the array homeowner’s associations. The sun is higher in the sky To household loads 8 Kilowatt-Hour 10 Meter To/From Utility Grid Inverter 9 AC Breaker Panel www. where sunlight is used how many panels you’ll need to meet your to make direct current (DC) electricity. 2) atop a steel pole set in the sun. Usually.

produces. Some battery- based charge controllers also include a low-voltage disconnect that prevents overdischarging. the controller interrupts the flow of essential component when electricity from the PV panels. To keep some or all of your electric the system’s overall efficiency. having a backup energy source is priceless. But for many homeowners needs (or “loads”) like lights. To maximize their life span. Incorporating batteries into the system intertied system. circuit breakers or simple 3 Array DC Disconnect AKA: PV disconnect 4 Charge Controller AKA: controller. when a blackout occurs. mum power point tracking (MPPT). regulator The DC disconnect is A charge controller’s primary function is to protect used to safely interrupt your battery bank from overcharging. It does this the flow of electricity by monitoring the battery bank—when the bank is from the PV array. and lowers will be in the dark. you’ll definitely want to The disconnect enclosure avoid overcharging or undercharging them. is more expensive. too. electrical loads. or who regularly experience utility outages or have critical computer running even when utility power outages occur. which optimizes It also may integrate either the PV array’s output. troubleshooting is required. a well pump. a refrigerator. Grid-Intertied Solar-Electric System with Battery Backup Without a battery bank or generator backup for your grid. It’s an fully charged. houses an electrical switch Most modern charge controllers incorporate maxi- rated for use in DC circuits. Batteries are expensive system maintenance or and pretty particular about how they like to be treated. if increasing the energy it needed. your household requires more components. with battery backup. which can permanently damage the battery bank. many homeowners choose to install a grid-intertied system 4 6 Charge 1 Photovoltaic Controller System Meter Array Array DC Disconnect 3 Battery Bank Array Mounting Rack 2 5 74 home power 104 / december 2004 & january 2005 .

it’s always better batteries used in solar-electric systems are specialized to know how much for the type of charging and discharging they’ll need fuel is in the tank. This breaker be a good choice allows the inverter to be to use in unheated quickly disconnected from spaces due to their the batteries for service. or have produced. Flooded lead- acid batteries are usually the least expensive. to endure. and freeze-resistant protects the inverter-to-battery qualities. and battery banks are typically sized to keep household how much electricity is electricity running for one to three cloudy days. wiring against electrical fires. the do. breaker mounted in a sheet- Gel-cell batteries can metal enclosure. in use. Operating your intertied systems also can include battery banks to solar-electric system provide emergency backup power during blackouts— without metering is perfect for keeping critical electric loads operating like running your car until grid power is restored. For off-grid systems. Grid. This disconnect is are typically kept at typically a large. To household loads 8 Inverter 10 7 To/From Utility Grid Main DC Disconnect 9 AC Breaker Panel Kilowatt-Hour Meter www. If your system is off-grid. DC-rated a full state of charge. but 7 require adding distilled water occasionally to replenish water lost during the normal charging Main DC Disconnect process. aspects of your solar-electric system’s performance you’ll need a battery bank—a group of batteries wired and status. together—to store energy so you can have electricity how much electricity your solar panels are producing at night or on cloudy days. solar simple 5 Battery Bank AKA: storage battery 6 System Meter AKA: battery monitor. Sealed absorbent glass mat AKA: battery/inverter disconnect (AGM) batteries are maintenance free In battery-based systems. amp-hour meter Your PV panels will produce electricity whenever System meters measure and display several different the sun shines on them. and designed for a disconnect between the grid-tied systems batteries and inverter is where the batteries 75 .homepower. without any gauges— although possible to Although similar to ordinary car batteries. tracking how full your battery bank is. Lead-acid batteries are the most common battery used in solar-electric systems.

Grid-tied inverters Most grid-tie inverters are designed to operate without batteries. simple 8 Inverter Inverters transform the DC electricity synchronize the electricity they produced by your PV modules into produce with the grid’s “utility- the alternating current (AC) electricity grade” AC electricity. Most off-grid inverters of charging a battery bank from are not weatherproof and should either the grid or a backup generator be mounted indoors. but battery-based models also are available. doesn’t necessarily imply doing without. adjustments to when and how they use electricity. without utility grid service. including the prohibitive cost of bringing utility lines to 4 Charge Controller System Meter 6 1 Photovoltaic Array Array DC Disconnect Battery Bank Array Mounting 3 Rack 2 5 76 home power 104 / december 2004 & january 2005 . These systems operate independently Those who choose to live off-grid often need to make from the grid to provide all of a household’s electricity. close to the during cloudy weather. so they That means no electric bills and no blackouts—at least none can live within the limitations of the system’s design. allowing the commonly used in most homes for system to feed solar-made electricity powering lights. Battery-based inverters for Most grid-intertie inverters can off-grid or grid-tie use often include be installed outdoors (ideally. can work anywhere. but rather is a People choose to live off-grid for a variety of reasons. shift to a more conscientious use of electricity. in a battery charger. off-grid solar-electric systems or the general reliability a solar-electric system provides. other gadgets. the appeal of an independent lifestyle. Off-Grid Solar-Electric Systems Although they are most common in remote locations remote homesites. battery bank. This caused by grid failures. which is capable the shade). and to the utility grid.

solar simple 9 AC Breaker Panel & Inverter AC Disconnect 10 Kilowatt- Hour Meter AKA: mains panel. whether that’s electric system will have AC electricity the grid or a solar-electric system. breaker box. These are usually located near the utility KWH meter. It contains a number of labeled circuit breakers that meter can simultaneously keep track of route electricity to the various rooms throughout a house. Additionally. which utility company enables the inverter to be disconnected often provides from either the grid or from electrical intertie-capable loads if servicing is necessary. Backup Generator To household loads 11 9 8 7 Inverter AC Breaker Panel Main DC Disconnect www. or on the exterior electric utility grid. utility meter The AC breaker panel is the point at which all of a home’s electrical Most homes with a grid-tied solar- wiring meets with the “provider” of the electricity. garage. utilities usually require an AC disconnect between the inverter and the grid that is for their use. 77 . This wall-mounted panel or box is both coming from and going to the usually installed in a utility room. an inverter’s electrical output solar-electric needs to be routed through an AC circuit system is pro- breaker. and also two directions—just the information you protect the building’s wiring against electrical fires. basement. and also meters at no safeguards the circuit’s electrical wiring. This breaker is usually mounted ducing. The inside the building’s mains panel. fuse box AKA: KWH meter. need to monitor how much electricity you’re using and Just like the electrical circuits in your home how much your or office. A bidirectional KWH of the building. These how much electricity flows in each of the breakers allow electricity to be disconnected for servicing.

task should be to examine a solar-electric gasoline. energy in your area. can result in a very large. but calendar in each Home Power issue to find out a well-designed solar-electric where you can learn more about RE systems system will require running them and meet the people who are using renewable only 50 to 200 hours a year. the articles. Ashland. All of the parts have a purpose. Now you’re ready to look at the system during the winter. petroleum simple 11 Backup Generator AKA: gas guzzler Solar-Electric Systems Demystified As you can see. like several cloudy weeks sense. But sizing a performs.russell@homepower. your eyes glazing over. and you’ll have a size the system moderately. Also. To spare your pocketbook. the anatomy of a photovoltaic system isn’t that complicated. Access Scott Russell • c/o Home Power magazine. many renewable energy fairs and stored in batteries. which is systems. the whole thing makes a bit more system to cover a worst-case scenario. generators the listings for your area in the Happenings tend to be loud and stinky. expensive system articles and schematics in Home Power without that will rarely get used to its capacity. Like most internal workshops feature tours of solar homes. These generators system in person. To solidify your understanding. depending on the design. or propane. your next Engine generators can be fueled with biodiesel. but include a backup generator to get clearer understanding of what is going on in through those occasional sunless 78 home power 104 / december 2004 & january 2005 . OR 97520 • scott. Check combustion engines. The National Tour of Solar produce AC electricity that a battery charger (either stand-alone Homes each fall is one way to see a variety of or incorporated into an inverter) converts to DC energy. PO Box 520. and once you Off-grid solar-electric systems can be sized to provide electricity understand the individual tasks that each part during cloudy periods when the sun doesn’t shine.

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