Alternative Energy Sources For The Homestead Part One – Solar Power

Moving off the grid doesn’t mean that you have to give up every modern convenience you enjoy today. If you don’t want to. And you don’t need to rely on having gas for your generator.

Solar power has become a popular option for many people in cities and suburbs hoping to save money. But it can also be a great option for those who don’t want to be connected to a traditional source of power.

Those who truly want a life of self-sufficiency away from the power grid can enjoy it with solar power in many locations.

This is off-grid living

And while solar power can be a great option and prices have generally been going down, it is still pretty expensive for most families. Depending on the size of the system, it will cost between $15,000 and $20,000 before any state or federal tax credits or rebates.

If you want to live off-grid and save money, you can get started with do it yourself solar power. Is that really possible? You might be thinking solar power sounds pretty complicated. But with the right planning in place, you can create a DIY off-grid solar system that will give you the self-sufficient off-the-grid lifestyle you want.

However, if you want a smaller system for backup and emergency power or if your power needs are relatively small then you can set up a system for under $5,000, which is what I did.

You can even buy a portable system like the Genex Nature’s Generator or a Humless for portable power which is what I have. These portable solar systems are great for extended fishing, hunting, and camping trips and are also an option if you have a remote bug out location but can’t set up a larger system at the site because of the possibility of theft or vandalism.

Ready to begin? Here are seven steps to getting started with do it yourself solar power for your home, homestead, or survival retreat…

Your needs are unique

The first step is more of a warning. When it comes to the solar power that your house will need, there is no one size fits all solution that will work for every house. You can’t just go to Amazon and buy a solar power kit and expect that it will work for you before doing any other research.

The system that you will need will vary depending on your location, the size of your house and how much energy you will be using. So as you begin this process, make sure you know that you will need to customize your projeMDCreekmore.comct to your individual needs.

Power

The first part of that process is the calculation of how much power you will use. What does that mean? Think of every item that will be powered by solar power in your house. And know that any little change or anything you forgot can make a big difference.

You can utilize a load evaluation calculator to help you get started. There you will enter your appliance, quantity, watts and hours on per day. To make sure you have the right data an electricity usage monitor will be a valuable tool. You can find more general data on individual appliances here.

If you’ve had electricity in the past, you can refer to past bills to find the kilowatt-hours (kWh) used. I suggest going with the highest usage seasons depending on the climate in your area. That will be easier, but it’s not going to be an option for everyone.

Either way, just remember it is very important that your numbers are right.

Batteries

Once you know how much power you need, you can then figure out how many batteries are needed to store it. You don’t want to run out of battery capacity and be forced to use a backup generator. But you don’t need to waste your money on batteries you aren’t using that will just require maintenance.

To make this determination, there are a couple questions to ask. How many days worth of energy do you want to store in your battery bank?  Is it a day or two or more like four or five? Are you storing the batteries in a cold location? Generally, the colder the room the bigger battery bank you will need. Do you have a power source for days you go without sunshine? This will certainly be impacted by where you live. What voltage battery bank do you need? Your battery will be 12V, 24V or 48V and a large system usually requires a higher voltage.

You can use this battery bank calculator to get started.

One other consideration is cost and maintenance. The two batteries most commonly used for off-grid solar power are Lead Acid and Lithium. Lithium will be the most efficient, have the longest lifespan and will not require maintenance or venting. However, it will come at a cost. Lead Acid batteries, on the other hand, will cost less. But they may also require maintenance and have a shorter lifespan.

Sunshine

By knowing how many hours of sunshine you receive each day, you will be able to determine the number of solar panels you need.

Your sun hours will tell you how much sunshine you will be able to harvest. Now, all sun is not created equal. Sun will hit your panels at different angles and will be brighter at certain times of the day. Since you don’t want to be overly optimistic on this calculation, use the season that will give you the least amount of sunshine so you don’t run out of solar energy.

This calculator will help you find the average hours of sun in the city closest to you.

Once you’ve determined the number of sun hours your panels will receive, you will be able to calculate how many panels you need to purchase using this calculator.

Solar charge controller

Your solar charge controller will properly charge your batteries so they will enjoy a long life. Therefore, you will need to make sure you have chosen the right controller. You can do this by taking the wattage of your solar panels and dividing it by the battery bank’s voltage. This will give you a calculation of your needs.

One other important point to note is that controllers come in two types of technologies: PVM and MPPT. If the voltage of the solar panel matches the voltage of the battery bank, you can use PVM. If they are different, you need to go with MPPT.

Inverter

An inverter is basically the “brains” of your solar panel system. It will direct current from the batteries into alternating current for your appliances.

To select the right inverter, you need to start by knowing what type of AC power you have. Once you do that, you need to know how many watts you will be powering (which you’ve already done). And then pay attention to your voltage battery bank as the inverter is designed for a specific voltage.

Tax Credits

Now that you’ve invested in your solar power system, there is some good news. A federal tax credit is available for solar power.

You can talk with your tax pro or find more details here, but this is a quick rundown. You can qualify for a credit equal to 30 percent of your total cost. This credit is currently available through the end of 2019. Then, the percentage will decrease each year and stop after 2021.

Because this is a credit, and not a deduction, you take the amount directly off your tax payment.

And yes, this credit is available for a DIY system.

By following these steps, you will be able to build the off-grid solar power system that is right for your specific needs. And you will finally be able to enjoy life where you would like without a reliance on the power grid.

It’s a great feeling.

M.D. Creekmore

I've been interested in self-reliance topics for over 25 years. I’m the author of four books that you can find here. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about prepping, homesteading, and self-reliance topics through first-hand experience and now I want to share what I’ve learned with you.

23 Responses

  1. ray says:

    I’m totally solar that I did myself 46 – 250 watt panels

    • ray,

      I’m totally solar that I did myself 46 – 250 watt panels

      That’s a rather impressive system. My entire home runs on only a 60 amp grid based service or the 16KW (maximum of 66 amps from the generator). Your system should be able to easily supply 45 amps and while most new homes have a 200 AMP service, with planning our 60 amp service provides all of our needs as the 45 I suspect does yours.

  2. Well, looks like this post fell on deaf ears, Over 9,000 views on it and one comment lol.

    • Anonamo Also says:

      MD,… Do not be discouraged… People have to have a knowledge base about a subject to ask questions. Sizing the system takes he most diligence in time, effort, meters..etc… and many people know there is not enough money for a 5-10 thou. system. .. So are interested, and considering how they can do this for applainces ( refrig/etc)and well pumps. we have some components but have to focus on other things for now. components are safe. will add to our stack as we can..and put it together when we get what our minimum amount is. Awaiting the next installment.

      • Anonamo Also,

        Yes, I think that you’re right. I can’t afford a full “power everything like the power company” system either but from the emails, I’ve got that seems to be what most are interested in.

    • Oren says:

      MD, not so…I’ve wanted this level of info for a while. Thank you.

  3. Barbara says:

    I’ve been reading your information for a while now but have never commented.
    This is an area my husband & I have considered but not taken the plunge yet.
    I like the clear step-by-step approach to tackling this project.
    We have been progressively building our homestead and self-reliance.
    We have a few small solar support systems but nothing to handle any big appliances.
    I once lived in a house that had hot water solar, and that was great except you had to remember to switch back to city power when it had been cloudy for 3 days, or you had a cold shower!
    Thanks for a clear article and encouragement to “get it done!”

  4. mom of three says:

    I think Solar, is great but not many people, think about it our neighbor has solar power panels on their roof , I’ll have to ask what they save. Our Solar power company, just opened up a large manufacturing plant not far from us so the Solar business is picking up.

  5. Babycatcher says:

    For many people, the setup and maintenance considerations are just too hard. Paying someone else to set it up is too expensive. There’s gonna be a whole lotta people doing without electricity when the grid comes crashing down.

  6. Solar power using photovoltaic panels is something with which I plan to experiment, probably yet this summer on a small scale to start with.

    You state:

    if you want a smaller system for backup and emergency power or if your power needs are relatively small then you can set up a system for under $5,000, which is what I did.

    To which I will add the following: Anyone who has been on this forum for a while knows that while I primarily use grid power I do keep a large supply of propane on hand to run my whole house generator; however, that generator is used to power certain primary things and when we are powering the house with it, there are some things we don’t use. Since the generator was sized to run the entire house (ass it just did on May 16, 2018 @ 00:49:28 for a bit more than 4 hours), we could just do “life as normal”; but, that means using more fuel, and if we can shed load, the system will simply run longer. We “need” power to run the well pump, the sump pump under certain conditions, to keep the refrigerators and freezer running as well as charging betteries and powering some lighting.
    While on generator power we do not use the electric clothes dryer or the electric heater in the bathroom and we turn off the gas furnace, relying on several non-electric ventless propane heaters and the firewood backup. The heaters are more efficient and use no electricity.
    In summer we hangout our clothes to dry and in winter during a power fail, we use clothes drying racks in the house. We have both Coleman and Aladdin mantle lamps along with numerous LED lanterns and LED flashlights for emergencies; but, when the generator is running or not, we have switched most lighting to LED. An 800 lumen LED bulb uses only about 8 watts, and emits the equivalent light output of a 60 watt incandescent that needs 60 watts or a 13 watt CFL, saving both heat and power in both cases. I run a lot of equipment like computers, our LED flat screen TVs & monitors, and my ham radio station equipment on UPS units. I also plug lamps with LED bulbs into these units, and generally don’t even notice a power outage except for the beeping noise from the UPS units.
    My point here, is that with care, shedding electric load today is relatively easy and inexpensive. LED bulbs that fit a standard Edison socket lamp and run on 120 VAC are easily obtained and can save a ton of power usage. Use of an alternative means of heating like wood or small scale propane like a buddy heater can also take the load and expense from your system and extend its life when in the dark.

    You further state:

    You can utilize a load evaluation calculator to help you get started. There you will enter your appliance, quantity, watts and hours on per day. To make sure you have the right data an electricity usage monitor will be a valuable tool.

    I agree and recommend the KillAWatt like this one on Amazon:
    P3 P4400 Kill A Watt Electricity Usage Monitor
    I have two of them and have characterized the power usage of all of my electrical appliances. At $20-25 each, I think they are well worth the investment, since, they take the guesswork out of planning any alternative electric power system and allow you to properly size the system. A generator (fueled or solar) that is too small will quite literally “leave you in the dark” and one that is too large, will waste money on acquisition and maintenance.
    Whatever your future plans, they need to be “plans” that are well thought out.

  7. Zulu 3-6 says:

    Living in an apartment limits my options. I can’t set up a large solar system. I do have three portable solar systems for use. One in my BOB, one in my Ham radio bag, and one in my filing cabinet drawer where I keep batteries and other power sources. I can use those three small systems to keep rechargeable batteries and power packs going, They, in turn, keep my flashlights, lanterns, and radios running. Kindles too!

    In a SHTF situation, I probably won’t have a reefer or electric stove. I’ve accepted that and have a propane fired camp stove and a rocket stove for cooking (I can fire up the rocket stove on my balcony if I have to use it).

    Last year’s hurricanes here in Florida did not affect me greatly. I lost power for 21-hours one time and I slept through a lot of that. The biggest inconvenience was lack of AC. Just an inconvenience. I grew up in a house without AC, served in several tropical and desert locations in the military without AC, and I lived in a house here in Florida without AC for several summers. As long as I have water, I’ll live. I have a couple of battery powered fans to get me through the worst. Winter is not much of an issue here. I have plenty of warm clothing and blankets to get through the occasional cold snaps.

  8. Thor1 says:

    The Kodiak solar generator is the way to go for most people. A lithium ion battery with a 10 year shelf life or 2000 recharges which ever comes first. It can run an 18 cubic foot refrigerator for 33 hours at 20%. Recharge time is 1 1/2 to 2 hours with 600 watts of panels and you an add batteries for additional power. I currently have 400w of panels but in the last power outage, I watched TV, had light and ran a small fan to keep cool. The advantage of solar is noise. There is very little. I have a gas generator in case there is no sun, another battery charged system called a power source and a solar/hand crank SW radio with flashlight. Also rechargeable flashlights, and AAA and AA rechargeable batteries. I will never be in the dark for long. Some of my defense systems like lasers and night vision also use AA or AAA batteries.

  9. Fixit says:

    Having been occur if since 1995 i a way laugh when I hear people complain about the cost of solar. Panels were $4 a watt back then for used panels . For the record the panels i installed in 1995 were 5 years old used panels . These panels still work just fine.

  10. Brenda says:

    Thanks for the info. I will be rereading it a lot. Our goal for this year is to set up solar panels on our detached garage. We want it to power the office, pool pump, garage and camper. My office occupies half of the garage which is primarily used Jan thru April. The office and pool are seasonal and the pool is on a timer. When tax season is winding down we start getting the pool ready. The camper is set up permanently and will be used as a pool house and a art studio for DH.

    We bought a solar water heater for the pool this year and it helped us to be able to get in the pool a couple of weeks earlier. The only thing we are worried about using the solar on is the air compressor. It is a large one. Our heat source is ventless propane units. We have a wood heater for the garage and will be putting one in the house as a backup. We have been adding extra insulation to every bit of remodeling that we do. We have not used the AC yet this year! Yay!

    We will add solar to the house hopefully next year.

    • Brenda ,

      Our goal for this year is to set up solar panels on our detached garage.

      I’m just starting to play with them and just picked up the 4-panel, 100 watt kit from Harbor Freight. The reviews have so far been rather good for that inexpensive starter kit.

      We want it to power the office, pool pump, garage and camper.

      It depends of course on what you want to power and for how long; but, all of this is possible.

      We bought a solar water heater for the pool this year and it helped us to be able to get in the pool a couple of weeks earlier.

      We made one a while back from a couple of black garden hoses and just laying in the yard out in the sun, the water can easily get scalding hot. Heating a pool or preheating domestic hot water is perhaps one of the easiest and least expensive jobs to tackle with solar.

      The only thing we are worried about using the solar on is the air compressor. It is a large one.

      The solar will probably not run the compressor; but, with a large enough battery bank and inverter, this might be possible for short periods of time. You need to look a the motor and check the startup current requirement, sometimes called LRA or Locked Rotor Amps and make sure the inverter can provide at least this much power, which can easily be 4-5 times more than when running.

      Our heat source is ventless propane units. We have a wood heater for the garage and will be putting one in the house as a backup. We have been adding extra insulation to every bit of remodeling that we do. We have not used the AC yet this year! Yay!

      We have a propane furnace along with several ventless propane heaters and wood fired backup. We have finally replaced all of our windows with new energy efficient ones and had the entire house insulated with foam. For air conditioning (cooling) we are using a small portable unit; but, with the new insulation, it keeps us nice and cool when running only a few hours per day.
      In any case, it sounds like you have a plan in place, and that’s where you need to start.

      • Brenda says:

        OP,
        We have replaced all of our windows too. We have spent the past year remodeling the house, adding insulation. When we moved in 7 years ago we bought CFL bulbs for everything. Only one bulb has blown and that was because the lamp was knocked over. We are looking to switch over to LED in the new light fixtures. Everything we have been doing is with the plan of being here for the rest of our lives and being as self-sufficient as possible.

        • Brenda ,

          We have replaced all of our windows too. We have spent the past year remodeling the house, adding insulation.

          We’ve been remodeling, adding windows and insulation, and upgrading plumbing and wiring as time and money allows it; but, we are now very nearly done after only 32 years, LOL.

          When we moved in 7 years ago we bought CFL bulbs for everything. Only one bulb has blown and that was because the lamp was knocked over. We are looking to switch over to LED in the new light fixtures.

          We changed out some for CFL also and have replaced most with LED; but, we still use some incandescent bulbs.
          LED bulbs are great and efficient; but, they can generate some radio hash (RF noise) so if you have a NOAA weather radio for alerting to upcoming bad weather, be aware that the noise from LED bulbs can make those radios less efficient or perhaps not work at all.
          For some applications we use the incandescent where we actually want the heat they generate, such as in the chicken coop and our basement in winter. That little bit of heat can help warm the hens and keep pipes from freezing.

          Everything we have been doing is with the plan of being here for the rest of our lives and being as self-sufficient as possible.

          It’s the same here. When we are doing our yearly visits to doctors or other annual places, they always ask about the address to verify it, and are sometimes taken back when we tell them our last trip from this address will be in body bags. We have no mortgage, have done enough upgrades to keep our expenses low and like where we live and what we do, so that body bag comment is just the facts.

  11. GA Red says:

    Thank you for the article. I finally got to read it. Electricity is primarily the DH’s area, but he calls me the CFO and says I’m the one that will make the financial decision to go solar when it’s time. He also keeps telling me that the panels/systems don’t have an efficiency that is to his liking, YET. I know they have improved greatly over the years. He has identified a “kit” that he likes, but it is no longer available on Amazon and the CFO doesn’t have enough to cover the price that it was listed at yet. 🙂 We will get there sooner rather than later though.