You do not need to be a Star Trek fan to enjoy the benefits of alternative energy and to take advantage of the technological advances that make backup and off-grid solutions possible. In the past decade, these systems became quite affordable and widespread in building and design. Solar energy in particular gained many followers as it became increasingly prevalent in simple applications such as garden lights, Christmas lights, gadget chargers, emergency radios, and camping equipment. Let’s discuss how you can energize your home – the green way.
Having access to these easy-to-use solar versions of everyday items opened up the door for more interest from the general public as people became familiar and comfortable with the idea of attainable, economical and, most importantly, no-fuss solar energy. Alternative energy is a particularly good solution for small homes; after all, the smaller your home, the less energy you will use. Still, there are many options you can choose from, and you should carefully consider all of them in order to determine the best selection for your home.
If you simply want to get your toes wet in using alternative energy beyond the odd solar light, creating a backup system is an excellent way to go. You will continue to draw all your energy from your local supplier, but you will also have a small backup battery than can provide you with light and electricity for your low-use appliances. Most likely, you will not be able to run anything with a heating element or a motor, as these appliances are major energy vampires. An exception to this rule is a small crock pot, which uses only about 80 watts.
Unless you live in a high-wind area or right next to a lively steam of water, solar will be the most efficient solution for generating electricity. Surprisingly, today’s solar panels work quite well even in low-light regions and weather conditions. Therefore, a solar backup system will be able to get you through a winter storm without a problem.
If you install a 250 Watt solar panel and connect it to one 12-volt sealed Absorbent Glass Mat (AGM) 200 Amp Hour battery, it will be more than plenty for a series of lights, TVs, charging laptops and gadgets, computers, and any small appliance that does not produce heat or has a motor. It will, however, not heat your house, warm up your hot water, or run your oven. That is what your wood stove is for. This basic setup is sufficient to partially cover you during the odd blackout. Of course, you might also wish to use the electricity you generate in between emergencies. You can easily do this by connecting your system to a few garden or porch lights and a sensor that turns them on automatically at sundown. This will make sure you are using some of your energy, but not depleting it to the point that you will be out when the blackout hits.
Full solar systems
If you like what a backup system can do for you, it will not be long before you start planning your full solar system. The first thing you will need to do is decide whether you wish to create a completely off-grid set-up, or one that supplies you with most of the energy you need while being tied-in to your local electric company. The advantages of the first option include complete independence from any utility company and access to a reliable source of energy that costs nothing beyond the original infrastructure and periodic updates. There are positive outcomes in selecting the second option as well. Due to access to dual forms of energy, you can create your system in such a way that it covers all your electricity needs. If you run out, you can draw from your electric provider, and if you produce too much, you can sell it back, in which case, your utility company pays you for the extra electricity.
This all sounds fantastic in theory, but on many occasions, your lifestyle, your climate, your latitude, or the specific location of your home will pre-determine the option you will need to select. For instance, living on a farm off the beaten path or on an island with no major settlements, it might be considerably less expensive to set up a fully off-grid solar or a combination of various alternative energy systems than to pay for the costs of laying electric cables. If you are already connected to your local electric provider or you live north of the 50th latitude, you will probably end up having to create a dual system as well. The same applies to snowbirds and world-travelers. You will not wish to waste the energy you produce, and a great way to use it is to sell your surplus to your local utility company when you are away from your home. Once you know which version of full solar system will work for you the best, you can proceed to chart out your electric needs and average usage.
For the most basic solar setup you will need a solar panel, a controller, an inverter, and a battery. If you plan to run more than just a few wires, you also need an electric panel. In this simple setup both your solar panel and your battery are 12-volt. The solar panel will produce the electricity that flows towards the battery through the controller. This small piece of equipment will serve two main functions. First, it will prevent the electricity to flow back to your solar panel when it is dark outside, and second, it will regulate the amount of electricity propelled towards your battery. In short, it will prevent your battery from overcharging. The inverter will make sure the electricity that reaches your appliances is Alternating Current (AC) and not in Direct Current (DC). If you do not use an electric panel, the inverter will also serve as your plug-in point to the system. Some versions come with electric outlets and built-in USB ports for your convenience.
The battery will store the unused electricity so that you can draw on it as needed and overnight. It is important to know that a battery loses most, if not all, of its charge in cold weather, so it needs to stay in a warm environment for the best results. Moreover, you will not be able to use the entire charge of your battery, rather calculate on using fifty percent to be on the safe side. Besides, the battery will last longer if you do not completely discharge it during each use. If you choose to use an electric panel, you would install it as you do with tied-in electricity, but your incoming line is the one coming from the inverter. Using an electric box is a must for larger systems and for those who plan to extend their alternative energy setups in increments. Additionally, installing a panel allows you to create circuits in your house with the usual plug-ins along the way. This basic solar system can be set up, and it will work quite well, but in real-life applications, solar systems usually include more elements. As for tied-in solar systems, you would also need to add breakers to both your incoming lines and a meter to your main grid line.
Probably the second most popular form of alternative energy comes from harvesting the power of wind. In fact, using wind energy has been around for hundreds of years. Lately, wind farming has been receiving quite a bit of criticism and bad reputation due to being responsible for killing large numbers of birds as well as for aesthetic and noise pollution. Usually, these concerns pertain to those enormous windmills you see in agricultural fields alongside the highway where wind-farming has become a major source of energy and income for a segment of the population.
You will not need anything that big for your small home. In fact, depending on the overall size of your home and your needs, you can probably get away with a medium size marine wind turbine. It is very important to select a model that fits your needs, budget, environment, lifestyle, and expectations. For instance, having a sealed wind turbine is a great option for most people because you do need to worry about greasing the rotating parts, unless you live in a cold climate location and the lubricant used in the system is designed for warm weather. In this case, all you would achieve is one neatly frozen wind turbine you cannot use until breakup.
Another point to consider is the maximum speed of wind your system can handle. If you live in a place where consistently high winds occur, or there are chances of high-speed gusts, you need to make sure your system can handle these occurrences without a hitch. Wind turbines, or generators, can be divided into two basic categories: horizontal and vertical. The former are the ones that spin similar to a Ferris wheel and the latter are the ones that rotate like a merry go ‘round.
Lately, there has been a highly efficient crossover type of wind generator on the market that can easily power complete home systems and produce enough energy to sell back to the local electric company. These types of units start around $10,000 for the smallest turbine. They are less noisy than their predecessors and are supposed to be less hazardous for birds as well.
Tidal, hydropower, geothermal
Other forms of alternative energy include tidal, hydropower, and geothermal systems. They are all efficient options but have a major limitation: your house has to be at the right place. Unless you sit on a major volcano or live in Iceland, geothermal energy will not be an effective way for powering your home. Likewise, if you do not have a stream behind your house that is available for your sole use, hydropower is not a good option. Lastly, tidal energy is more a community enterprise than an individual investment as it needs a lot of expensive infrastructure. Furthermore, the community has to be in a high-tidal zone where the difference between low tide and high tide is substantial enough for effectively producing electricity.
All in all, there are many different options for making use of alternative energy sources, and small homes are in the best possible situation to capitalize on these opportunities. If you have the right setup at the right location, you might even be able to use alternative energy for heating your house – and is that not the nicest music to the wood-chopper’s ears? For best results, you will wish to combine different kinds of energy sources so that if there is a problem, you are still covered. One of these options is being tied-in to the grid, although it does not have to be. For instance, a solar-wind combination system can work very well even during the cold and dark winter months, and there are some hydropower setups that can complement a solar system nicely even in icy conditions.