Whenever someone tells me that they’re “living off the grid”, there is usually a hint of attitude connected with their proclamation, a kind of I know something you don’t smugness. In spite of this, I do admit to a bit of envy. In my book, using renewable power sources [especially solar electric] and not being connected up to the utility grid, is a true symbol of self-reliance and sustainability.
The American Flag is reflected in our new the solar panels
Many off-gridders see this as a constitutional right, while they simultaneously give the middle finger to government and utility companies, which seems uniquely American to me. Since I live in a utility metered world, I figured I’ll never have an opportunity to experience this same feeling myself, but I was wrong.
The Do It Yourself (DIY) spirit in America is going strong, so today, on the day we celebrate our country’s independence, I will get a taste of what this freedom might feel like. Mind you, I’ve never been much of a DIYer myself. Oh, on occasion I’ll build something for the house or yard, but I’m not normally a tinkerer in the classic sense. I don’t look for kits of things to build, mostly because it takes up too much time and too many brain cells.
Isn’t IKEA enough, really?!
That being said, opportunities are ever increasing for us to use clean and renewable solar energy right in our own backyards; and I mean for something other than the ubiquitous solar yard, path and garden lights. Our backyard at naturehouse is about a half acre that includes a greenhouse, a teahouse, and a stone waterfall feature. All of these things require electricity in order to power a small pump, fan and lighting. Last year I considered installing a pole-mounted solar panel [or two] to use DC* power for these gadgets. I had asked a local solar contractor to quote the job, but the price tag was just too much. Then, last week, I stopped by Costco to pick up something for a BBQ and there I found my answer in a big box from Coleman – a company brand I’ve trusted my entire life for outdoor products.
I shouldn’t be surprised as I’ve known this next generation of DIY solar applications was coming and would be distributed via a more mainstream channel. Indeed, companies such as Grape Solar have been selling solar system kits at Costco, Home Depot and Lowe’s for a year in some parts of the country. [See GreenTech Media article “Semi-DIY Solar Systems at Costco or Amazon; Is this a trend or an emergency room visit waiting to happen?”] http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/semi-diy-solar-systems-at-costco-amazon/
Very soon we’ll be able to purchase any number of solar products, including a full-size home solar array kit, at a local big box store like Sears or WalMart. Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Westinghouse Solar, has been telling us this for more than three years now. Westinghouse Solar’s new products will include the world’s first fully integrated AC solar panel. The new 235 watt panels feature an integrated frame as well as other enhancements that increase reliability and ease of installation for solar rooftop installations. They are expected to begin shipping this summer.
Barry himself says, “Panel prices have declined to the point at which direct and indirect labor expenses are now the largest single component of system costs. With integrated racking, wiring and grounding, Westinghouse Solar Power Systems eliminate 80% of the field assembly components and save 50% of the labor compared to ordinary solar power systems, thereby providing greater margin opportunity to rooftop system installers.”
Huh, this thinking must be why solar system kits are all the rage for solar companies these days. Several of my solar contractor buddies tell me they don’t like this situation because it actually creates waste and costs them more in the end … but industry giants like First Solar, SunEdison, and SolarWorld are all selling solar system kits to anybody who wants them and many electricians, HVAC, roofers, developers, and construction companies are eating ‘em up. It is apparent that soon we’ll be able to pick up a relatively inexpensive, modular, plug-n-play solar system for our home, church or office on a weekend shopping trip.
Ultimately, residential solar will be a treated more as a commodity, like a major appliance, with costs on par with a residential heating system.
In the meantime, I’ve done a little homework and found that most smaller or portable solar products on the market are mostly the cheaply-made, plastic, snap-in variety. There just hasn’t been much available except for briefcase configuration solar products made for RVs, boats, camping/picnics, mostly trickle charge models costing hundreds of dollars for little power. What we require at naturehouse is a generator-size electrical power system that is under $300 (US) and that is what I found.
Called a “Backup Power” solar generator, this Coleman product is promoted as “a solar kit providing solar power anywhere, anytime, as long as the sun shines” – 55 watts an hour power (max) all for $199. Although this system didn’t come with a storage battery, I just couldn’t pass it up. [I’d seen this same kit advertised for close to $400 on a number of websites.] This was something I could use/test immediately without wasting my time or risking big money.
Coleman 55 Watt Solar 12V Power Generator Kit
This Coleman solar kit is actually a product of Sunforce Products Inc. a leading manufacturer and master distributor of renewable energy products headquartered in Montreal West, QC, Canada. I can’t help but believe that Sunforce is a Chinese company doing business with a North American HQ and offices throughout Europe and Asia, but that’s okay with me. I’ve noticed almost everything Coleman makes is from China. Whatz new?! If you want to check out the product description yourself on the Sunforce website visit http://www.sunforceproducts.com/product_details.php?PRODUCT_ID=179
So, what did I get for my money?
The Numbers: Item#: 58050 UPC#: 787769580508
This 55 Watt Solar 12V Power Generator Kit contains three 18w panels generating 55watts of electrical power per hour.
- Always be prepared for power failures – a kit for natural disasters
- Reduce your electricity consumption
- Works with 12Volt and 110Volt Appliances
- 55 Watts of clean and Renewable Energy
- No Tools required – Maintenance Free
- Portable and easy set up
- Weatherproof – made of shatterproof tempered glass
- Great for Remote and Back Up Power
- 3 x 18 Watt Solar Panels
- Metal frame for Mounting Solar Panels
- 3 in 1 wire connectors all 3 Solar Panels can be connected in an easy fashion
- 12V DC Plug, Alligator Battery Clamps and LED Voltage Tester
- 12V Socket for powering 12V Products
- 200 Watt Power Inverter
- 7 Amp Solar Charge Controller
You’ll notice that there aren’t any solar cells evident in these panels. That’s because these are made using an amorphous solar cell which is so named because of their composition at the microscopic scale. Amorphous means “without shape”. When the term is applied to solar cells it means that the silicon material that makes up the cell is not highly structured or crystallized. Amorphous solar cells are usually created by applying doped silicon material to the back of a plate of glass. When produced as a solar panel it will appear to have several thin parallel lines running across its surface. These thin lines are actually breaks in the N and P layers of the silicon substrate and they create the boundaries of individual cells in the panel. The down side is that this type of solar cell is about half as efficient as is one created using crystalline silicon.
Not to worry, we only need these panels in late Spring thru mid-Fall and they should provide enough power to meet our backyard needs and then some. Using the Sunforce 200 Inverter (included) we’ll be able to plug in alternating current (AC) items like a radio, microphone, and even yard tools like hedge clippers. Once we figure out the full utility, I think we’ll ask how ourselves how we ever lived without it! Not only that, but we’ll add this backup power generator to our NET emergency/survival toolbox. If I can get this solar kit built quickly enough, I can use it to power a beer cooler this afternoon for our holiday BBQ.
I’ll be sure to report back on this backyard stand-alone power solution after I’ve had some time to use & test. Just in time for the first real stretch of hot sunny weather in the Willamette Valley in a year.
Ahhhh, life is good.
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