Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Our Tiny House Solar Power Setup Part 1: Basics

This is part one of the eagerly awaited solar power setup posts.

I've finally organized my thoughts enough and decided to break the two posts out as follows: this post will contain a raw list of all our system components and a series of the exact resources I used to understand how solar power works, what the components do, and the general rules of assembly. The second post will have a video explaining our setup and additional videos that are very focused on the assembly/install of specific parts. BUT FIRST!

Aside from the basic electricity and circuitry lessons I learned in middle and high school, I had next to no knowledge of electrical systems. In 2008, I received my second round of lessons, which was more like a crash course since I had suddenly learned that the house I had bought needed to be completely gutted. I turned to reference books in the library and youtube videos to understand how to re-wire that house. What's my point? I am not a Master Electrician or trained electrical professional of any kind. I simply did several hours of research and sought out a reputable company that would walk me through the process. I want to share our efforts and how our system is put together simply to provide a stepping stone resource for anyone considering solar power. It can be done, and you can do it. What I do not want, however, is to become the "Ask Jane" of the DIY solar power world. I urge you to read through every scrap of material I provide in these posts, review all the videos, and IF at that point you still have a question, you should probably contact a professional. I am giving you my entire knowledge base- if it isn't in these materials, then I don't know the answer either. 

First let's begin with videos. I know I prefer some overview videos before I get into detailed reading, but that's just how my brain works. Feel free to review these materials any way you'd like!

This guy was one of my favorites, he does several videos in series taking you through the basics of solar power, so check out his channel.

Small Off-Grid Cabin Setup
This guy does a decent job of keeping it simple, but he has a pretty small system, so I gleaned more concepts than actual ideas on what components I would need.

Solar And Wind Setup
I like this guys laid back drawl, he does leave a lot out, but I did find this helpful in better understanding the DC Disconnect (also referred to as an e-panel) connections. In fact many of these videos are overviews that make assumptions about your knowledge or leave little bits out here and there. I can't promise my video will be any better than them, and I am thankful they posted at all, because they helped me along the way!

DIY Solar Panel System: Components and Cost & Savings
This guy does a pretty great job of reviewing his system, this video was one of the first I came across. It can be overwhelming at first, but as you learn more and more you can revisit these sources. He also provides links to all his parts, cost break down and so on. 

Charge Controller and E-Panel
In case you weren't overwhelmed by the videos yet.....haha. But seriously, I included this video because I did, once again, glean a few important pieces. The charge controller and the e-panel is where most of the complicated connections live. As you can see, the size of the system- or how much power you need- can drastically affect the number, size, and type of components you need. There is no cookie cutter version.

Now here are the main reading resources that helped me achieve this installation. 

Renewable Resources....Resources
I chose the AltE Store as my professional help. They were recommended by a fellow tiny houser and I liked that they were local- a Massachusettes based company. All in all, I would give them 4 out of 5 stars. There were a few components that needed to be sent back/exchanged/added, and I had a small part go missing and that was a challenge to resolve, but in the end, I did. I found the customer service to vary from department to department, but my main contact, my Sales rep, Greg, was great. I called him countless times to go over information, ask tons of questions, review and confirm concepts, and so on. Every time he was helpful, patient, enthusiastic, and encouraging. He could have just as easily filled my ears with solar electrical jargon and tried to get me to pay someone to install the system, but I like that this company is willing to talk you through it.

This link brings you directly to their learning center. This is a treasure trove of knowledge. Watch the webinars, read the articles! From here I learned basic schematics of a system, what types of batteries work best in different situations, how exactly the sun turns into power within a panel, figured out our power load needs using the load calculators, and much more. 

Back Woods Home
This was one of the earlier articles I found that resonated and made sense after the first read. It's a nice overview without getting too deep into any one aspect. I felt he touches upon just enough to let you know the basics, but also that there is a heck of lot more information you should probably get comfortable with before you start building anything. 

This site is pretty great. They provide a lot of in depth information, but in an organized way. They are trying to provide one of the most valuable assets for free- KNOWLEDGE. I appreciate what this group is trying to do- give everyone the opportunity to learn, understand, and perhaps even adopt solar power as their main source of energy. The more of us that switch, the better off our planet will be. 
I have the link opening up to information about the guage of wire needed between the panels and the charge controller. It is completely dependent on the amount of power that will be moving through the lines, and the distance it must travel. 

Solar Panel Tilt
This is a very clean cut and informative (I think) piece on the much debated best angle for solar panels.


Our solar power system is rated for 4079 watt hours per day. This number came from us defining what power needs we would require each day and entering that into a load calculator. To review a chart of our power needs check out my previous post. 

Our number and size of panels is dependent upon how much sun we get where we live (prime sun hours at our latitude is 2.9) and how much power we need. 

Our battery bank is dependent upon how much power we need and how long we would like to be able to have power if there was no sun. We designed our system to store and give us enough power for 1.5 days without any sun. Many people choose up to three days, but this plays a big role in the cost. The longer you want to draw power without sun, the more batteries you need. Batteries are fast becoming the most expensive component. 

We plan to monitor our battery levels closely and in a streak of cloudy weather, we will simply scale back our usage. Since we heat and cook with propane, and neither of those units requires electricity, we are comfortable with the thought of simply having no power for a day or two. Life actually does go on without it. ;)

Here is a raw list of our parts. Most of the links go back to the AltE Store, but in some cases the parts were no longer listed, so I linked elsewhere. Review the links, because many of them have a lot of great additional information about the part:

2     4 Foot copper rods, for grounding

Miscellaneous lengths of 6 AWG (guage) copper grounding wire.
Miscellaneous lengths of 4 AWG and 6 AWG covered wire.

My hope is that the real gung-ho readers will devour this information, and by the time my second post with our video comes out, you will at least have a loose grip on the different components I am naming off and pointing out. I hope this has been helpful!

Thanks for Reading!


  1. Wow! We have been wanting to dive into solar, but its all so overwhelming. Thanks so much for this wonderful compilation!!!

    1. Hi! I'm glad our video was helpful! Our system cost was about $6300. Not including the wood purchased to make the racking for the panels.

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  2. Do you know what your total cost was for your system? Thanks!

  3. Thanks for a wonderful start----so helpful. I'd also love to know your cost.

  4. Nice, i like it! here you can find how to choose the right batterie for your solar power system https://www.patriotdirect.org/choosing-the-right-batteries/ and here are the components of an electrical solar power system https://www.patriotdirect.org/the-components-of-an-electrical-solar-power-system/

  5. It’s funny how this is considered as one of the basics, since the procedures are quite complex. Haha! Anyway, the videos and links your shared are pretty informative and accurate. I’m sure this post will be very useful for your readers who are in the same projects as you are. Thanks for sharing!

    Rachael Massey @ Auto Control Systems

  6. Hi, Jess and Dan! It’s great how you two go on and try new things together. Looking at all the wires and different contraptions, it might be enough to make somebody's head hurt. But lo and behold, aside from finishing what you started, you are also able to write a blog post about it! Seems like you two are quite in sync, you have a knack in building things. Until next time!

    Johnie Schueller @ Terratek

    1. Thanks, Johnie! We've had quite the adventure in life so far...we look forward to what we will learn and experience next!

  7. what are you running with this system? you mentioned air cond. -- but what other appliances, etc.? did you do a load study first? i've been on the altEstore site working with their load calculator and it is helpful :) are you all ac, or do you utilize dc lights/appliances, etc. is your heat electric? thanks for gathering all this info in one spot!

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