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Before You Go Off-Grid
by Allan Sindelar
Seasoned pro Allan Sindelar shares his approach to designing high-performance off-grid systems: what works, what doesn’t, and how to select a top-notch installer.
In a nutshell:
- An experienced off-grid installer can help make sure you get the system that meets your needs.
- The interview process is critical to getting an off-grid system that performs to your expectations.
- A professional installer will use site survey tools to find the best location for the PV array.
- A thorough load analysis takes the guesswork out of system sizing.
- Teaching the customer to understand and operate their system is crucial to post-installation satisfaction.
- Regular maintenance of off-grid systems is taught by the installer, and needs to become a habit.
Just a few years ago, most solar installers specialized in off-grid systems for homes beyond the utility lines. Now, most new solar companies only do grid-tied systems because the largest customer growth has been with residences and businesses with access to the electric grid.
But the two system types are very different, and the skills needed to design, install and support the two are likewise distinct. Off-grid knowledge is gained through lengthy experience, and many newer solar companies (and those serving only urban markets) simply don’t offer off-grid services. If you’re considering an off-grid renewable energy (RE) system, here’s what you need to know to successfully hire a pro.
Working with an off-grid installer is akin to entering a long-term relationship, and it does not end with the installation. Depending on your technical skills, you may need your installer to guide you through the system’s long-term care, and you may need to call on that installer when problems arise. You will want to feel confident that your installer will support you and your system for years to come.
A good designer-installer will generally start with an initial conversation, either in person or by telephone. Answers to these questions are important to the design process:
• Do you already have the property, or are you still in the process of looking for land or a home? (This helps your designer understand what information you’ll need.)
• Where is the property? (If it is far away, a good dealer will often suggest another installing dealer closer to you.)
• Is there an existing home or other building on the property, or are you planning to build a new home?
• What, if any, RE equipment is already in place? Can you provide digital photos of the existing photovoltaic (PV) system?
• If you are building a new home, are you doing the work yourself or are you working with a general contractor?
• Will this be your full-time residence or a vacation home?
• If you are building new, how far are you into the design or building process? (Your designer is best included in the RE design process from the beginning.)
• What are your motivations for wanting to be off-grid? Is it your only option due to your location? Are you concerned about utility outages or future rate hikes?
• How far away is utility power and what would it cost to bring it in and hook up to it?
• Do you have specific needs related to your lifestyle and life situation, such as young children or elder care, plans to work at home, livestock, etc.?
• What do you know about off-grid living?
• How will you heat your home?
• What are your water supply needs, and is any equipment in place now, such as a well?
• What budget range do you have in mind, and how will you finance your project?
SHOPPING FOR OFF-GRID PROPERTY
Here are a few issues to consider when searching for your off-grid paradise:
Most off-grid properties are remote, which likely means far from town services. As you consider a parcel, consider if its remote location will necessitate excessive driving.
If the property has reliable grid power at its edge or nearby, consider tapping in. Build your home as if you will be off-grid – that is, with the sensible energy efficiency of an off-grid home – then hook to the grid and install a grid-tied system to offset your utility electricity consumption. You will spend less, reduce your impact by letting the utility take the place of a backup generator, and have less maintenance and battery replacement expense.
If buying a home with an existing RE system, consider having the system professionally inspected, just as you would have the home inspected. An existing system may have served its former owners well, but may be totally inadequate for your needs, or antiquated and difficult to maintain. Few home inspectors are qualified to evaluate RE systems; use this opportunity to get to know an installer to see if they are right to upgrade the system.
If buying an existing on-grid home, it is probably best to leave it on-grid. Taking an existing home off the grid is a difficult and expensive task, as many prior decisions – about siting, appliances, water supply, and heat, to name a few – were likely made without consideration for future off-grid possibilities.
Besides providing a good initial profile of what you are seeking, and at what level of technical detail, your designer should address your questions. A seasoned off-grid installer often hears more “between the lines” than is verbalized. They can often sense (and answer) the questions you don’t yet know to ask, and may even nudge you to revisit the idea of grid connection if they feel you don’t have a realistic picture of the responsibilities involved in maintaining an off-grid system. Don’t be offended – you will save money and effort by discovering this early in the process. (Note: While there are no monthly electric bills, off-grid living is seldom cheaper than utility power, as amortized battery replacement costs often match utility charges.)
Depending on the property’s location, an installer may also assess your reasons for wanting to live off the grid, and how feasible that might be for you. If you have not yet settled on a property, they may advise you of some things to consider when looking for your site, such as a building site with unfettered solar access. (See “Shopping for Off-Grid Property” above).
Most installers do not charge for an initial consultation, which usually lasts about an hour. Think of it as a “mutual employment interview” – at its conclusion, you and your installer will have a pretty good sense of your compatibility, and will decide together whether to move on to the next steps in the design process.
A load analysis is the next essential step in the off-grid design process, providing the hard data necessary to build a system that will efficiently meet your energy demands.
You must provide your designer with a comprehensive list of everything you expect to power in your off-grid home—that means every light, appliance, and mechanical component, big and small. The expected power consumption of these loads and hours of use are summed and averaged to estimate daily energy consumption. This becomes the basis for the system size and design.
Most PV system installers or dealers use spreadsheets or fill in-the-blank forms to walk clients through the process. Besides paper calculations, consider purchasing an inexpensive watt meter that measures power use and energy consumption.
For system designers, a load analysis serves four purposes:
• Lists and quantifies loads so the system can be sized to meet the home’s needs.
• Helps identify ways to achieve end results more efficiently to use less energy. The process is a vehicle for your designer to educate you about off-grid living, including lifestyle changes for greater energy efficiency. It often includes replacing inefficient appliances. For example, if you like a big-screen TV for watching sports, consider a second smaller, more efficient one for most shows, saving the large screen for full batteries and Superbowls.
• Helps identify overlooked or inappropriate loads, potential problems, and special cases; and suggest alternatives that use less electrical energy. Examples include hot tubs, which, in off-grid situations, usually are heated with wood or gas, not electricity.
• Creates a record of how much energy use was expected in case changes are called for. Consumption can be reevaluated, and loads reduced or the system expanded accordingly.
THE DYNAMICS OF OFF-GRID DESIGN & INSTALLATION
Most off-grid installations and substantial system upgrades are arranged and completed directly with homeowners. But some projects require that the installer work through a general contractor, who is responsible for planning and executing the entire building project, including hiring, coordinating, and scheduling subcontractors.
Typically, each subcontractor completes one aspect of the job with little coordination with other subcontractors—and little understanding of specific off-grid efficiency needs. The result often is that each system—heating, appliances, AC wiring, etc.—works well but the home wastes a fair amount of electricity.
If you’ve hired a general contractor to coordinate your building project, insist that your RE installer remain involved from the onset of the design process, and encourage collaboration among the various subcontractors—especially those involved with the electrical, lighting, water pumping, and heating.
Key systems, such as lighting and heating, should be designed as a team of contractor, subcontractors, and PV system designer. The PV designer reviews nearly all of the design decisions and appliance selections for compatibility with the finite energy available. He or she will also make sure the array will be installed in a location to maintain its solar access.
For the client, a fifth benefit arises that is the most important of all—a valuable self-education process. Most of us who live with utility power take energy availability for granted. We use it as needed and pay the bill each month, and we have had little reason to assess our energy use. Doing a load analysis can be an eye-opening activity, since some folks are quantifying their energy use for the first time and may need to reevaluate whether their energy habits are compatible with offgrid living. Additionally, even if the client decides to stay on the grid, they are now armed with information on how to reduce monthly energy bills, which with minimal or no investment can save on future energy bills and reduce the home’s environmental footprint.
Load analysis is a rigorous and time-consuming process, but necessary. By establishing clear expectations of your solar electricity demands, you are far more likely to be satisfied with the final product and can better understand your system’s limitations.
Good wind and hydro sites are rare—for most folks, their off-grid resource defaults to the Sun. (To simplify the discussion, that’s what we’ll focus on, although some off-grid folks will implement hybrid systems to meet their energy needs.) Off-grid PV systems can cost as little as $3,000 or more than $100,000. Big or small, the design and education processes are generally the same.
Most clients initiate the budget conversation by asking for ballpark figures. They’ll ask what they think is a seemingly straightforward question, like “How much would it cost to power a 2,000-square-foot home?” What they don’t realize is that the size of the home is nearly irrelevant to the question being asked. Two homes of the same size can have electrical needs that differ by a factor of five or more, since a home’s energy use is largely dependent on how the occupants use it.
An off-grid system’s cost can vary greatly depending on the loads, lifestyle, and budget of the customer, and what renewable resources are available. A typical modern, full-featured, code-compliant off-grid solar-electric system for a customer who has properly reduced loads has at least a 1 to 1.5 kW PV array and a battery with three days of storage capacity. A system that size can cost between $15,000 and $25,000, including all components, design, labor, and support. It usually excludes appliances and a backup generator, carpentry, excavation, and concrete work, as these are usually best done by you or by another tradesperson at lower cost. Generally, wiring only includes connection to the home’s breaker panel—PV installers usually don’t install conventional household wiring.
If the budget exceeds your out-of-pocket expectations, your installer may be able to advise you of financing resources that others have used successfully (see “How to Finance Your Renewable Energy Home” in HP103). Federal tax credits of
30% for residential solar and 30% for efficiency upgrades apply equally to grid-tied and off-grid systems. While some incentives apply only to homes with utility power, many states offer incentives and tax credits, and few distinguish between the two system types (see www.dsireusa.org). A good installer will explain available incentives and guide you through the application process, as well as pull permits and secure inspections.
Beware of Bargains
Factors that affect a PV system’s overall cost include the amount of power produced daily, inverter capacity and waveform quality, and battery bank size and quality, the inclusion of details like surge arrestors and battery vent fans. PV hardware follows some pretty traditional rules: You get what you pay for—and quality is usually worth the extra cost.
Use the questions in this article as a guide to understand the issues involved in creating a good system. Then interview several installers in your area. Who has the most off-grid experience? Who has the most satisfied customers, and can provide references?
Initially, don’t ask what the system will cost. A good designer can only answer, “it depends” until a full load analysis and interview is done. Inexperienced or unscrupulous installers will respond with a low initial figure, knowing that the goal at this early stage is to “get the job.”
Use your research to select a good designer/installer; then work with him or her to develop your particular system according to your loads, lifestyle, and budget. If the installer you have selected and chosen to trust tells you that your system will cost more than you can afford, work to reduce your loads or forego certain luxuries. Shopping for a cheaper system is usually a false economy and may prove disastrous.
Site Visit & System Design
Once your installer has a general idea of your loads, lifestyle, and budget, a site visit is next. Survey tools are used to determine one or more possible sites for your RE system. The installer will also measure conduit and wire runs, select a location for equipment and batteries, look for potential pitfalls to avoid, locate your water well, plan for a backup generator, and formulate a general plan for the installation.
Next, the installer will design the power system. Most will already have a good idea of what components will be used in your system—the bulk of the design process involves performing sizing calculations, resolving specific issues, and working through the various design subtleties. Your designer will let you know if your budget isn’t adequate to cover the system you’ll need to meet your loads. Once such issues are resolved, your installer will prepare a proposal for you. It will likely include component descriptions, an estimate of expected performance, inclusions and exclusions, estimated price, and terms of payment. Knowing your desired budget range will help your installer keep the proposal in line with what you can afford.
Because of the legwork involved and the custom nature of off-grid system design, most installers won’t provide “free estimates”—after all, you are purchasing their knowledge and experience, as much as the equipment. You may expect the design process to make up 2 to 5% of the overall system cost—that’s $400 to $1,000 on a $20,000 system. Some will credit part or all of this fee if you buy the system.
Many experienced installers will refuse to install equipment purchased elsewhere, such as from an Internet retailer. Why? The installer would lose control over design and equipment specifics, yet still be responsible for the system’s care. Plus, warranty issues might have no clear resolution: Was a component failure the result of a defect, poor system design, or an incorrect installation practice? Also, the profit on hardware will have been given to a third party who has little incentive to support the end user.
Installation & Commissioning
A good installer will stay in touch as the installation days approach. Questions will arise, changes may be necessary, and the starting date may move up or back. Your installer may encourage you to be present and available during installation, to deal with questions that you can best answer. You may be asked to help out from time to time, if only for simple tasks. If you lend a hand it becomes “your” system with your time invested, and as you watch it come together it becomes less forbidding and mysterious.
Once installation is complete, the system is methodically powered up. Next come programming the inverter, charge controller, and system monitor, and the myriad details to complete the job. Your installer should include a high quality shunt-based system monitor, preferably located in a commonly used location in your home, rather than out with the power equipment. If this is your first off-grid experience, your installer may initially teach you just the basic use of your monitor so that you can live within your energy budget. In a month or so, once the system is more familiar, a good installer will return to present additional maintenance guidance. You should expect a full owner’s manual with all component manuals, design records and notes, maintenance procedures, warranties, and copies of any inspection reports or permits, but this may not be ready until after the system is operational.
Expect some support as you become familiar with your system’s capacities and limitations. You will likely have questions and may encounter problems—this is normal, and you’ll need your installer’s assistance. Better installers warrant their work and support manufacturers’ warranties as well.
A system that’s done well will give you the tools to live well, with minimal dependence on fossil fuels. You will have gained an appreciation of how to use electricity wisely, and how to match your living habits with the natural rhythms of weather and season—a wonderful way to live.
Allan Sindelar installed his first off-grid PV system in 1988, founded Positive Energy Inc. in 1997, and has lived off-grid since 1999. He is a licensed commercial electrician and a NABCEP-certified PV installer. Positive Energy has offices in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Taos. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Starting Smart: Calculating Your Energy Appetite” by Scott Russell, Home Power 102
“Toast, Pancakes, and Waffles: Planning Wisely for Off-Grid Living” by Allan Sindelar, Green Fire Times, February, March 2010
About the author
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