Solar Panel Installation
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Learn what you need to consider to install your own solar panel system, whether solely for supplemental power or as a grid-tie system.
The recent stock market collapse and subsequent Congressional bailout have brought a collective groan to pocketbooks across America and financial markets around the world. Afraid for their savings and jobs, and worried for the future of their homes and college funds, this may not seem like the time for homeowners to invest in expensive improvements.
The $700B corporate welfare package was passed through Congress, much as previous legislation overreached the bounds of government on the pretext of crisis. Stuffed with pork and served with theater, this move will haunt the world economy for years to come.
There is a silver lining to the dark storm cloud rising, however: the alternative energy tax credit cap has been quadrupled to $8000, bringing the effective cost of PV installations down by 1/3-1/2. The credit applies to 30% of the total installed cost of new residential systems.
For California residents, this can be added to the $2.50 credit to make solar a truly affordable alternative to the grid. Other states have different rebate programs. Depending on where you live and how much tax you typically pay, the cost of a grid-tie solar system might be offset up to 50%.
Contact a representative at Real Goods Solar for more information on solar installation and tax rebate credit incentives available where you live.
In the previous post, we covered some of the main reasons why we chose the Unisolar 64 Watt solar panel for supplemental power in our alternative energy bus. We made the purchase at the Real Goods store in Hopland, California, but because our roof had no metal to fix the mounting brackets to, installation was pretty much up to us.
Erik at Real Goods helped us develop a plan, drew a diagram showing the proper way to hook up the wiring between the junction box of the solar panel, the regulator, and batteries, and wished us well. We had his card in the event of emergency; fortunately, we never needed it.
The first issue we confronted was the fiberglass roof. Since Mahayana was not new when we met her, we lacked electrical diagrams of the wiring scheme, although we could make some educated guesses. We decided that the region on either side of the visible wire bundle ought to be safe for drilling, and this turned out to be correct.
Along with the Unisolar Thin Film Panel, we chose the Uni-Rac RV mounting bracket set, which brought the total bill to just under $500. The bracket set is simple enough, but to avoid undue stress to the fiberglass, we mounted a T-plate to the roof beneath each bracket and attached the mounts to those.
This works well, but at high speeds there is some vibration noise, which makes us wish that we had insulated the T-plate with felt “washers,” such as battery terminal pads. Live and learn!
Each T-plate was mounted with a pair of fittings to the roof. The holes were drilled with a 5/8″ bit and secured with 1/2″ X 2 1/2″ mechanical bolts.
Since our solar panel is bus-mounted, we didn’t need to worry about connecting the panel to a ground, but those working on residential installations will need to ground the frame of the panel.
We drilled an additional hole through the roof in order to accommodate the positive and negative wires which passthe charge from the panel to the batteries, making a total of nine breaches in our ceiling. Preserving the integrity of the roof being a priority, we were glad to see that we made only as many as were needed. We were quite happy as well to see that the holes were confined to a relatively small area, approximately two feet across and three back. This means that there is room for at least one more panel like this if- and when- we expand our solar collection potential.
After making sure we had all of the wire, connections, splices and fuses we needed- all of which are included in the Global Solar Energy Extra Connectivity Kit– we proceeded to connect the SunSaver controller first to the deep-cycle marine batteries, and then to the panel. We made sure to splice the included fuse module to the positive wires on either side of the controller for overload protection.
It’s been a little more than two weeks since we added the Unisolar Thinfilm Panel to our alternative energy houseboat, and the results have exceeded expectations. The little green light, signifying charge, goes on with the first glint of dawn and stays fiercely bright, in shade and beneath cloudy skies, until the last flash of sunset disappears from the horizon.
We are proud to announce that the production of this site is now completely solar powered, as our two computers currently run off of our recently installed Unisolar Thin Film solar panel, which soaks up light like a sponge and allows the two of us to write and design to our hearts content, without using fossil fuels or depending on grid power.
Frankly, we’re pretty excited about it. Our hardy road-boat, Mahayana (which means “The Big Vehicle,” a type of Buddhism), has sailed the highways for over two years under the faint scent of French fries from the biodiesel she drinks with glee. Adding a solar panel to our array of alternative energy was a logical next step, but we found suppliers and information to be shockingly scarce…which is part of what motivated the construction of this site.
As the great Bobby Weir still sometimes sings, “it’s all too clear we’re on our own.” Switching to alternative energy made us amateur electricians for a few days, with an emphasis on amateur. Neither of us had a lot of experience in drilling and wiring, but there was no choice but to learn the basics. Installing a solar panel on the bus brought this home, and fortunately we had the time and patience to carry it off without mishap.
The first task, of course, was choosing the right panel. We went with the Unisolar model for several reasons. First, unlike its vulnerable mono-and-polycrystalline counterparts, the ThinFilm technology is considered “unbreakable.” Of course, you shouldn’t take a sledgehammer to any solar panel, but the manufacturer asserts that it can sustain normal impact without damage.
There will surely be many unplanned tests of this claim as we travel, so we’ll let you know what parking stupidities the Unisolar has survived, or-perish the thought-failed to. Physical damage to the panel is definitely a risk in the wooded regions we travel, so we wanted the most durable design available.
The second reason we chose the Unisolar 64 has to do with how it collects light. The amorphous solar panel design is much more efficient in partial shading than panels composed of serial cells, which can fail to perform if even a portion of the panel is in shadow. In fact, the charge indicator light shows that the Unisolar is passing current to the regulator, even in complete shading on an overcast day.
The downside to the Thin Film style of collector is that the surface is not as efficient as other types of panels per square inch, which means that our 64 watt panel has the physical dimensions (about 54″ X 30″) one normally associates with grid-tie panels of 100 watts or more. The ES series is versatile and is perfect for auxiliary power on boats, RVs, and remote work trucks as well as residential grid-tie and even massive megawatt arrays.
For us, the slightly larger surface is no disadvantage at all, as Mahayana has ample roof space and room for two more such panels should we ever need them.
In the next post, we’ll describe the DIY installation process, what we learned, a few helpful tips for those of you considering going solar, and links to all the equipment you’ll need for personal energy independence, with a little help from nature.
It feels wonderful. Thank you, old Sol!
Get the Unisolar Thin Film and other solar panels from Real Goods.