Easy, Affordable Way to Get Started With Solar Power (with Video)

Reader Contribution by Alyssa Craft
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Summer is here and sunny days are plentiful which has only been feeding our itch to get our solar on! We’ve been delaying our solar installation for a few reasons I’ll explain later, but we’ve finally taken the plunge and we’re finally reaping the benefits of renewable energy.

Why Did We Wait So Long to Get Started with Solar?

Just shy of one year ago, we arrived on our off grid property which we chose for many reasons including the huge solar potential! However, there were some roadblocks to diving straight into capturing the sun straight away. Some of these roadblocks included:

• We were heading into winter, so solar potential was less
• We had a limited budget with many other expenses taking precedence

• We simply had no idea how much power we would need on a day-to-day basis

• We had no idea what our future power needs would be, so sizing would be guessing

• Running power tools, most of our power needs would be on-demand

• Solar panels aren’t much good without a proper battery bank, which a big expense

• A large outlay for solar wouldn’t yield a big return on investment for years to come

• We’ve never built a solar setup and sounded intimidating, confusing and frustrating

• Solar has come a long way but many components still can’t be easily upgraded

• Security is challenging as we’re just getting started and theft would be heartbreaking

All that said, solar just wasn’t a huge priority. Until recently, we have been relying on a single RV battery and our generator for our power. This system was working well as we chose the happiest balance between efficiency and output on our Honda generator so fuel costs have been a modest $50-100/month which you can read about in our monthly expense reports.

A year down the road, we had a much better idea of our power needs and with summer upon us, our itch to stop burning fuel, cut the noise and start collecting sun was begging to be scratched! So we decided to take another look at solar to see if we could get to make sense or not.

Really? Solar Still Wasn’t a Good Fit?

Starting our search again for solar quickly turned to disappointment. Once again, we found that many of the same issues we had identified earlier still couldn’t be ignored like the inability to upgrade components like inverters and charge controllers from starter setups to larger systems. Despite understanding our immediate power needs, we still couldn’t be certain of the future system we’d want so buying components was still a gamble.

 As it is today, you simply have to replace many solar components  if you start with a budget system or pick wrong out of the gate.

One issue we did address was the upfront cost of a battery bank. We happened upon a small bank of eight second-hand L16 batteries on Craigslist for $750, which represents a 78% savings over buying new. For anyone who knows batteries this will make them cringe! Buying second hand batteries is not advisable unless you accept that you might be throwing money into the wind.

For us, it was worth the risk as we knew when we were ready for solar, we still wouldn’t be in a position to spend $8,000 to $10,000 on a battery bank. Just having a battery bank at all would be helpful to store any of the power we could collect. If we could get a couple years out of these batteries we’d be happy. Time will tell!

Discovering a Solution We Had Previously Overlooked

Not content to give up just yet, we stumbled on a social media post from a solar company whose products we had been researching. They were to be attending an RV convention a few hours away and we were way overdue for a drive through the mountains. We made last minute plans to attend the very next day.

There we ran into Stefan from Go Power! by Carmanah Technologies. He was super friendly and willing to give us a hand. We threw at him our scenario and our frustrations. He validated many of our concerns and agreed that going full solar right now might be unwise.

Go Power! presently works in the 12v mobile solar space with products for RVs and mobile work solutions. They don’t really offer anything big enough to meet our future needs yet, but Stefan shared with us a product we really hadn’t considered: portable solar power!

Because we had so little experience with our power needs, we really hadn’t considered portable solar as the systems at first glance seemed far too small. Not to mention the cost per watt was higher than most other setups once you penciled things out.

After doing some quick numbers, sort of quantifying our actual power needs presently, it looked something like this:

• Charge 2 MacBook Pros daily
• Charge 2 iPhones daily

• Charge 4 Nikon camera batteries daily

• Charge portable Walkie Talkies periodically

• Keep RV battery charged up (runs our pump, fans, lights, heater fan)

• Run 2000 watt inverter which powers our internet and router

• Keep our L16 battery bank topped off (no plans to draw off it, just don’t want it to discharge)

When it came right down to it, the numbers were in favor of a portable system. Going this route would solve nearly every problem we had!

How is Portable Solar Power Working for Us?

Our attitude changed from trying to go with a once-and-for-all solar setup to offsetting our generator use. We chose a 120-watt, 12-volt, portable kit from Go Power! which has a built-in charge controller, is easy to setup and connects easily to our RV battery via a 12-foot cord. It’s sturdy, the wire size is generous and it yields about 7.4 amps of current in full-sun, giving us a little over 1,000 watts of juice throughout the day.

We’ve had our solar kit setup for about 7 weeks now and in that time we’ve had just five situations that required our generator including some power tools and pumping water 70 feet to up gravity-fed cistern. Otherwise, we’ve been generator-free for nearly two months now!

We no longer have to worry that we made the wrong decision or overspent on a system that won’t fit us in the future. Surely, we’ll always find a use for this portable 120 watt array. It’s easy to stow so we don’t have to fret over theft.

It’s meeting our needs today and for the near future and easily fits into our budget at just over $500. Being a ready-to-use system means we didn’t have to become backyard engineers to get everything right. It was hooked up in 5 minutes and has worked perfectly since!

Our estimated savings is around $90-100 per month with fuel prices increasing and wear on our generator. In just a few months, we’ll have recouped our investment. Meanwhile, our generator has been getting a much-needed break and we’re happy to finally reap the benefits of all this wonderful sun!

If you’ve been thinking about solar for boondocking, off grid tiny house or other projects give portable solar another look. You just may find it’s a perfect fit for you too!

Alyssa Craft moved to Idaho after purchasing 5 acres of land where she will build an off grid homestead from scratch with as little money as possible. She is blogging about the journey from start to finish in hopes of inspiring others that wish to take a similar path. Follow her many DIY projects, including building with reclaimed materials, building a wood-fired hot tub and milling lumber with an Alaskan chainsaw mill. Follow Alyssa on her blog Pure Living for Life, Facebook,Instagram, and YouTube. View Alyssa’s other MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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