I am currently working in the Alternative Energy industry after retiring from a 21-year career with the military. As part of my Vocational rehabilitation, the military allowed me to choose my future career. As a long time reader of SurvivalBlog and a Bible-believing Christian, I saw the importance of prepping. This includes living off grid.
Alternative energy seems to be emerging as a buyer beware market. You can see many manufacturers prey on fear claiming that their systems can run your fridge, furnace, freezer and well pump during any grid down event. This is simply an impossibility, a typical house needs 10 or more Kilowatts of power. This is impossible to provide with an 80W panel and a 50 amp/h battery with a 250 W inverter, which many of these boastful claims are built around. Not only will it not run your house, or anything else for more then a few minutes the shocking price demanded for these systems are well over $2,500.
When designing a system we always do a spreadsheet up of the total wattage of the household in question, and many times a typical household can expect to pay $14,000 plus for a system sufficient enough to be off grid.
It is obvious that companies and consumers are asking the wrong questions when thinking about alternative energy. The industry is looking to make money. The consumer is looking to get the best bang for their buck, so in the interest of the little guy who cannot fork over thousands of dollars I have a few suggestions. Without getting into the nitty gritty of system sizing, wire sizing, fuse sizing everything has be laid out in layman’s terms.
1.) How much do I have to spend? Let’s face it, if you only have $500 then you need to build a system around that costs $500.
2.) Build a system that in the future can be expanded upon. There is no point in buying a 6-amp charge controller as part of your upgradeable system when the biggest panel you can add to it is 80W. For the ease of numbers, an 8-amp charge controller will handle a 135 Watt panel.
3.) Change your lifestyle. Most people who are preppers already know that life will change dramatically. When the grid goes down, you will not be using your electric range your electric dryer, and definitely not your hair dryer or coffee maker.
Addressing the foregoing: First, a solar system has three components. Solar panel(s) + Charge controller + Batteries.
So for that $500 you could buy a 50 Watt panel, a 10-amp charge controller (ensure that the model is equipped with a low voltage disconnect.) and a 50 amp hour battery. With this system, you can add an inverter to enable you to charge batteries for cordless tools, run a laptop or radio. You can buy pre-packed distribution centers for 12 volt lighting with have 12-volt auto-jacks and 2.1 plug-ins to run lighting. A 3 Watt LED 12V light bulb has the same lumens as 60 Watt incandescent bulb. A system this size would give you 25 amp hours of continuous power. Roughly, a 50 Watt panel will charge a 50 Amp/h battery in a day of continuous sun light.
Not only could you light your cabin with 3Watt bulbs you can also add a couple of 12 V, 10W motion spotlights for security as well as have capacity for cordless tool batteries and laptop charging. Your heating choices would have to be kerosene, propane or wood as well as cooking and refrigeration. There are 12-volt refrigerators and freezers but you would need a substantially larger system to run them.
To expand on your $500 system you can substitute your 50W panel up to a 135 Watt panel keeping your 10-amp charge controller. You can upgrade your batteries from a 50 Amp/h battery to a 106 Amp/h or even a 165 amp/h battery.
Currently Fur Harvester Auction Trap line Store in North Bay, Ontario carries pre-packaged cabin systems for off-grid trappers cabins that are manufactured by Glenergy, these can be viewed at www.glenergy.ca All of these pre-packaged plug and play systems range from $300 to $1,160 Canadian Dollars.
To upgrade again, you would have to replace the 10-amp charge control to add additional panels. If you had 2 x 135 Watt panels which could be used in either a 12 or 24-volt system now. A 20 amp 12-volt charge controller and 2 x 6volt 530 Surrette batteries wired in series has just significantly increased total power output. You can still run all the lighting requirements, use a larger inverter and now you can add a 12-volt deep well pump, and give you more storage, this means if the sun does not shine for a week, you still have power stored.
Also when purchasing items, eBay is a valuable resource. Just ensure that when searching for a panel, most flexible solar panels that are 35 Watt or greater are only 6-volt so you will have to buy 2 and wire these in series these to make 12-volt.
When upgrading from here, you can purchase a smart controller and wire in a generator with an electric start. The generator would strictly run to charge batteries and not run any 120-volt appliances directly. This would be beneficial when you have a long period with no sun and over consumption, the generator would run long enough to top up the batteries. When the system has been set up correctly the generator would not run very often unless your kids are having a PS3 Tournament and leaving all of the lights on.
When buying your batteries only buy solar rated batteries as they are built for rapid charge and a longer discharge. Deep cycle RV batteries just are not built for this. Another consideration for batteries is trying to use a Lead Acid Gel battery when designing a portable system, liquid lead acid batteries will spill and vent, and lithium ion batteries are expensive and heat up when charging. Regardless of what type is used, ensure that if they are housed in any kind of container they are vented to the outside for larger systems and if it is a portable system make sure there is some sort of overpressure valve. Pelican cases have overpressure valves built in already.
When building your system, ensure everything is fused. Fuse your solar panel, fuse your battery, and fuse your loads. In the event of a solar flare or an EMP, you can have a second charge controller and spare fuses stored in a Faraday cage such as a military ammo can. In 30 minutes, you could have your system back up and running. In this case most charge controllers are plastic, one alternative is Morning Star controllers which are metal and encapsulated which makes them weather proof. The downside to these controllers are that if the solar is hooked up and the battery fuse blows or is disconnected the controller will get fried. Most other controllers do not have this problem. Saying that, I always recommend that the solar is disconnected before the battery is disconnected with any charge controller.
When I build custom systems, they have to be rugged. Currently I have twenty-one 10 Watt systems in Africa which are in use by missionaries. These systems charge cell phones and laptops, charge 9-volt lanterns and fans and provide 12 volt localized lighting. Each missionary kit was provided a 10 Watt security spot light as well. This shows that with even a system as small as a 10 Watt panel and a 9 amp/h battery can provide most of your requirements, plus these are portable and pretty much maintenance free as tool kits are in short supply as well as the ATC fuses. In a bleak future of a grid down world, there may be an abundance of abandoned vehicles and ATC fuses will be one of those items not scavenged, except for by of course you who is reading this article.
This leads to another plus in a grid-down world. In Africa, there are hardly an land lines, there are large areas with no electricity and yet everyone has a cell phone. Cell towers are mostly powered by solar. There have been a few businesses set up Ghana with systems I have built to charge cell phones. Any soldier who has been to Iraq or Afghanistan has seen the countless call offices where you can pay to use a cell phone. With a small system you can charge lanterns, cell phones, whether or not cell phones will work and even batteries, this can be a valuable source of barter.
Using ruggedized cases such as a Pelican case is one way of building a portable system that can be taken with you in the case you have to G.O.O.D., something that can be thrown into the back of a pick up. A system this size can be as small as a 20 Watt panel with a 21amp/hour battery. This size system again would be enough to charge tool batteries, laptops and run 12 volt lighting. Something as small a 3Watt 12-volt panel with 50 Watt hour batteries will light a tent, charge cell phones or other handheld devices and costs less than $85.
It is my belief solar will be a much better option then naphtha or kerosene lanterns because you will not need to carry spare fuel bottles. This is a definite plus if you are traveling, light or the cost or scarcity of these resources makes them unattainable.