Using Grid-Tied PV Panels as a Starter System – Part 1, by St. Funogas

I enjoyed JWR’s recent article titled A Retreat Locale Selection Criteria Update. The updated information for 2022 is especially relevant. Who could have guessed we’d be at the point we’ve arrived at so quickly in the past two and a half years? The covid scamdemic and the blowback from the Russian sanctions alone are enough to make anyone realize we’re rapidly approaching Niagara Falls in our little inflatable kayak. Hopefully, the article will inspire some of the fence sitters to hop over to the get-out-of-Dodge side and make their wish come true instead of holding on so dearly to the conveniences (like money) that keep them in the cities and suburbs.

I would like to make one small addition to the advice on solar panel systems. Off-grid is the ultimate goal, no question about it, by my advice is to start with a simple grid-tied system and then as you get more experience, more confidence, get your electric usage down as low as possible, and understand the basics of solar power and batteries, then convert what you have over to an off-grid system. Grid-tied won’t help you in TEOTWAWKI-ville so the end goal must be an off-grid system, but beginning with the simplicity and lower initial startup costs of grid-tied will get you well on your way.

Why do I recommend taking this route? I consider myself a pretty handy guy who’s frugal enough and capable enough to handle most building projects, fix-it situations, and homestead emergencies. I’m a direct descendant of MacGyver on my mother’s side and I love challenges, problem-solving tasks, and repurposing things. But when I was trying to put together an off-grid solar-power system while building my homestead, the amount of information was so overwhelming, with so many variables, and I had so many other things on my plate at the time, that I had to go with a grid-tied system if I was ever going to have solar power. All the variables with setting up an off-grid system are a killer.

So the number one reason I’d recommend starting out with grid-tied system is that it’s so simple and relatively inexpensive for any DIYer to set up compared to an off-grid system. The amount of information, variables, and the cost for off-grid are so overwhelming I think most people would end up procrastinating it far too long, or even more likely, never get around to it. Contrary to many comments I’ve read on SB, those who survive The Day will regret not having their own solar-power setup. They’ll see how the neighbor’s is performing, how much labor it’s saving them, and how close to today’s “normal” many of their daily activities will be compared to others who are blasted back to 1834 without electricity.

Grid-tied Training Wheels

Think of a grid-tied system as training wheels to prepare you for an off-grid setup. Like many readers, I learned to ride a bike using the crash-and-burn method. A friend ran alongside while holding the bike up and once up to speed, she gave me a final push and let go. Twelve scraped knees and elbows later I finally mastered it.

While the crash-and-burn method works great on a bike, it’s not the best idea while learning to drive a car or setting up your own off-grid solar system. For that reason, my recommendation is to start out with a no-brainer, simple grid-tied setup. There’s not much to mess up so the crash-and-burn probabilities are very low. It’s also much cheaper up front and very simple to install. If you can hook up an electric water heater, you can DIY your own grid-tied solar panels. It’s that easy. There’s no overwhelming amount of information to understand and only two components: the solar panels and a box small enough it could fit inside your medicine cabinet called an inverter.

Quantifying Your Electricity Production and Usage

Once you have your grid-tied system up and running you can begin monitoring your electricity usage as well as start recording how much your solar panels can actually produce each month and annually. This important information will be the basis for setting up your eventual off-grid solar-power system.

Since the ultimate goal is to switch over to an off-grid system at some point before the SHTF, your next step is to start eliminating any of your electric items which are not really necessary. Unless you want to spend an outrageous amount of money, you cannot maintain your current level of electricity consumption with an off-grid system. If you’re trying to keep your solar-power system as small and inexpensive as possible and still provide all the electricity you need, it’s important to first get your electric usage as low as possible.

When your grid-tied electricity usage is finally as minimal as it can be, now you have a more realistic idea of how to size your off-grid system without having to guestimate.

How to Measure Usage

While usage can be mathematically calculated in some instances, other items must be measured. Usage is measured in kilowatt hours (kWh), which represents using 1,000 watts of electricity for one hour.

Kill-a-Watt Meter — There’s a nifty tool called a Kill-a-Watt meter with cheaper generic versions available as well. It’s about the size of a deck of cards and after plugging it into an outlet, whichever appliance you want to measure the usage for is plugged into it. It measures total kWh usage and keeps a running total for however long you have the appliance plugged into it. I generally do a 30-day long test. A Kill-a-Watt meter is essential for figuring out the electrical usage of things like refrigerators, freezers, and home plumbing water-pressure tanks which are plugged in continuously but only run for brief periods each hour.

Calculating Electricity Usage – For appliances that run continuously while in use, a Kill-a-Watt meter can be used but usage can also be calculated to find out the total kWh used.

As an example, a 100-watt television on for 5 hours a day will consume a total of 500 watts. Dividing that by 1,000 to convert to kWh lets us know the television will use one half of a kWh during that five hours.

Start Cutting Back

Once you have an idea of where your big uses are and which electrical things you don’t really need, you can start reducing your electricity usage. While things like electric can openers, blenders, toasters, etc. use a lot of watts, they’re using electricity for so few hours per year their total electrical usage is pretty minimal. Nonetheless, even phasing out some of these will help lower your overall monthly usage. The whole goal of reducing usage is to prepare for the day when you switch to an off-grid system and will need to conserve the energy coming from your bank of batteries (which look something like car batteries) as much as possible.

Knowing what your real energy hogs are, namely things like water heaters, space heaters, and air conditioners, will help you get a better understanding of what you’ll need to eliminate if you’re interested in having a TEOTWAWKI-worthy off-grid system. It’s not practical to use battery-stored energy for those three things so alternatives will have to be looked at. For example, electric fans use only a fraction of the electricity air conditioners use and are good enough to get the job done. There are also various water-heater options that use little or no electricity. The yellow energy efficiency sticker on my 30-gallon water heater says it averages 91 kWh per week for a family of four. By thinking out of the box I use 1.3 kWh per week. I’ll share the secret on how I do that in an upcoming article.

Those who think they’ll provide all of their post-SHTF hot-water needs by heating it on top of a woodstove will quickly discover they should’ve gone with the very inexpensive Plan B. When I mentioned my TEOTWAWKI water needs will be supplied exactly as they are today without a noticeable difference, that includes hot water as well. I’ll be showering as I do now while preppers who failed to prepare for plumbing needs will be sponge bathing, wishing for the good old days when warm rain from a nozzle washed the grime off after a long hard day of physical labor. I’ll no doubt be able to barter a hot shower for all kinds of things.

The average American family uses close to 1,000 kWh per month. By using the steps outlined above, calculating my usage, determining which items are absolute necessities, cutting back wherever possible, and thinking outside the box, I’ve managed to reduce my usage to an average of 100 kWh per month. I can cut that in half again once I’m off grid and I think most people who are shooting for an off-grid solar-power system can also get into the 100’s range or lower. After cutting back as much as possible and discovering what our “new normal” is, now we can design a much more realistic and efficient off-grid solar power system based on our actual usage, not approximations.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)