Why'd I Do It?
So what got me started with solar power systems? I have been intrigued by solar cells for years, but the cost is high enough that I never really considered doing anything significant. But a winter storm changed all that!
December 2007 we had a nasty ice storm. I was without power for two days - and I was one of the lucky ones! Some were out for nearly two weeks, even in the metro area. Prior to the outage I had assumed the number one thing I would miss was the heat. I was wrong!
What I missed most was LIGHT. Yeah, being cold was a drag. But what really killed my mood was the darkness.
I had a couple of small railroad-style lanterns, which are more decorative than anything else. Just not very bright when they are the only source of light! Not to mention the hazard of having lanterns filled with flammable oil inside the house. I worried about the cats knocking one over, and about a buildup of carbon monoxide...
At that time I had a 12AH AGM battery, a 12V fluorescent lantern (with half-dead D cell batteries), and a 220W mod-sine inverter. Just turning on the lantern was enough light to boost my mood a bit, but I didn't want to risk running down the batteries in case I *needed* them for something. I found some clip-leads and connected the lantern to the AGM battery. Hey, brighter light and it would - in theory - last quite a bit longer. But I had no idea *how* long, since I wasn't sure if the battery had been charged and I had no idea how much power the lantern took. Best of all was when I plugged a floor lamp with CFL bulb into the inverter powered from the AGM. Oh! It was like the sun had come up! I felt my spirits lift instantly! But again, how much power did I really have in that battery? And how quickly would the CFL drain it?
It was then I realized the blindingly obvious - I was woefully unprepared for an event like this! And I vowed to change that.
Most people I talked with suggested the typical approach - just buy a generator and run it. But I didn't want to have a generator running out back all night, and certainly didn't care to store enough fuel to run a typical big-box-store generator for any length of time. And what about when I was gone, I still have to go to work. Things like the fridge would go unpowered for many hours.
This is when the idea of a solar system really gained traction. I could put together a system that would run the fridge if needed, and normally just run the ham bench and some other things. That original idea has morphed a few times since, but the fundamental reason behind it is simply to ensure I have some basic "comforts" if/when the next big storm comes along!
As a bonus, I realized I now have a fun new hobby to tinker with!
Preparing for the Next Time
Ah, the Boy Scout motto - Be Prepared! I'm trying hard to keep that permanently in mind now.
I now have a variety of battery-powered lights (mostly LED) as well as a reserve of batteries for them. During the ice storm, it was almost impossible to get batteries.
I purchased a Honda EU2000i generator. It's relatively small compared to what most people buy for an outage, and quite a bit more expensive. But I have my reasons. It is enough to run my critical loads, and being an inverter-style generator it can also idle down to save fuel. A 5 gallon can of gas could last me almost a week if needed. It is also very quiet in operation, so I won't be annoying the neighbors!
I also run the generator with a load for about an hour each month. Far too often people get the generator, then forget all about it. When it is needed, it won't run!
The various solar systems offer me a nice redundancy. The large system should be able to keep the fridge going without any extra input unless ice/snow have obscured the panels or the weather is heavily overcast for days. The 12V system can keep radios and lights going even if the big inverter were to die for some reason. It also means I have a "spare panel" in case something happens to one of the others in the main array. And if things really got desperate the Harbor Freight panels will at least offer a trickle of power!
The generator can run the furnace, so I have heat. I'm not so worried about summertime outages, but surprisingly the generator will also run my portable AC unit. So I can even have a little cooling if needed. Worst-case, I can also run the furnace off the solar system inverter - although it pulls so much power that I can't run it very long. Really worst case, I have a 1500W electric space heater if for some reason the natural gas supply is cut off! It has several settings, and could be run off the generator or battery bank.