YEP! A solar system does not have to cost 1000s of dollars. Some of the basic systems are well under that, and we will show you how you can start out with one of these, complete with links to the products, reviews, and a tutorial on how to hook them up to start making power!
We will start out with some panels. Since we want a very small, manageable system, we will set up a 100 watt 12 volt system. This is a HQST Monocrystalline panel. HQST is a good balance between price and quality, and for a starter system, they are perfect. This one is $133 shipped to you’re door, and come with standard MC4 connectors (more on this later).
The next major component we will need is a charge controller, so that we don’t over charge the battery. A good option is an MPPT (multi power point tracking) system, as these days this does not cost much more and provides better charging. We could get away with a smaller one, but this is one area that can prevent you from adding on to the system later, so it is best to go for the best controller you can. This is optional, and in fact any 12v controller will work in this setup, so feel free to mix and match! See the review of this in the controller section of the site.
Now, for a way to store the power. You can read about batteries in the battery section of the site, but for now, we will go for 2 6 volt golf cart batteries. These are to heavy to be worth ordering on line. Honestly, the best place to get these is any auto parts store, or even wal mart or batteries plus sometimes has a special on 2 packs of these!
To get usable power out of the system, you will need an inverter. This is used for converting 12 volts DC into 120 volts AC, which will run standard household appliances. Depending on what you are going to be running, we have a couple options here. If it is lights, tools, etc then this one will work fine:
If you are going to be running a PC, or other sensitive electronics, you will want a pure sine inverter (see more on this in the inverter section of this site). One like this should work well in this case. It is a bit more expensive than some of the other ones, but if you read the inverter section, you will see why it is (usually) worth the extra few bucks.
Now all we need to do is hook it all together. We will need some 10 gauge cable (length depends on how far it is from you’re panels to you’re inverter), but a good place to start is something like this:
The next little piece is VERY highly recommended, and given the low cost of them, they are a must to prevent not only damage to you’re system, but fire! You will need 2 of these:
To connect to you’re panels, you will need 2 of these:
You never want to cut the wires on you’re panels and hook them in directly. While this will ‘work’, it can lead to all kinds of problems. The 10 gauge cable will crimp into these with standard pliers, and provides a good weather resistant connection.
With the panel(s) mounted (see the tutorial section on where / how to mount the panels), connect you’re cables with the MC4 connectors, and route them to the charge controller. The trick here is to make the wire run as SHORT as possible because every foot of cable can lose a little bit of energy. It adds up fast, so try to plan for this.
The charge controller will have a ‘PV INPUT + and -‘ and a ‘BATTERY + and -‘. The panels go into the PV, and take special care to not mix up the positive and negative. Positive (+) is usually red, while negative (-) is usually black. Most panels will have this labeled, but the BEST practice is to verify polarity at every step with a multi meter.
From the controller, you want to now hook up the battery. Again, make SURE the polarity is correct. This is a critical part of hooking up any system, and a mistake here can be costly and dangerous. At this point, the controller will come to life, and actually begin to read the batteries and charge them!
The 2 circuit breakers go in between the charge controller and BATTERY, and the charge controller and the PANEL(s). This way, any surge from either side will be dealt with by the breaker instead of popping you’re controller!
Now, from the batteries to the inverter. To make this connection, you will need a thicker set of cables. If you’re inverter came with them, use them. If not, read the owners manual of the inverter. It will tell you what size of cable to use. It is best to use AT LEAST the size they recommend, although you can always use thicker cable. If you don’t have one, a good inverter install kit is the best and cheapest way to go. For a 300 watt inverter, I recommend one like this:
Now, for the STATS. With this configuration, you will be able to run a small load for quite a while even with no sunlight. A 100 watt load will go for 6 to 8 hours on a full charge. A full charge will take a whole day (6 to 8 hours) of good solid sunlight to recharge. Always remember that a 100 watt panel will give you about 80 watts on average. You also have to account for losses in the inverter (The go power one is 95% efficient), and some small wire losses. That being said, if taken care of and minimal maintenance, this little system will run for years and years with no further investment!