Q: Where can I learn more about making solar energy a reality in a country home I’m planning to build? I need facts about the costs of various parts of the system, different suppliers and technologies, plus some sense of maintenance costs. What’s the best way to design a solar energy system like this?
A: Online courses and self-directed study are the best ways to learn about solar energy systems for your new home. In fact, I’d argue that your much better off becoming your own expert in these things rather than trusting an outside technician to figure out and install your system. There’s nothing like personal responsibility to empower you to troubleshoot your system after it’s running. My personal interest in off-grid energy systems started with self-directed study, then more. Right out of high school, in 1982, I enrolled in a college program called “Energy Conversion Technology”. It taught me all about alternatives to fossil fuel and conventional electricity production, and I’ve been following the development of this technology ever since.
Interest in solar energy has been high and rising for decades, and the world of alternative energy systems has come a very long way since 1982. That said, actually creating a residential solar system is more complicated than installing a conventional electricity and heating system in your home. It’s also more costly than most people realize to build a system that puts out substantial amounts of power and heat. There’s a lot of wishful thinking out there about “free” energy from the sun, but this kind of free does take some money first. That said, solar energy technology is improving all the time. And in the case of solar, the control systems are now much more sophisticated and useful than even 10 years ago. Things are really amazing these days when it comes to off-grid energy.
The first thing I teach students taking my solar energy courses is that there are two main types of “solar” energy systems when it comes to household applications. There’s one approach that creates and stores electricity – this is called photovoltaics – and another type that harvests heat energy from the sun for space heating and domestic hot water production. This is called solar thermal. With this in mind, the first question you need to answer for yourself is:
“Do you want to create electricity only? Or are you only in space heating?”
If you’re like most people, your answer is probably “both”. If you’re going to invest in solar, why wouldn’t you want both electric power and heat that’s independent of the grid?
I’ve designed a number of photovoltaic and solar heating systems for homeowners over the years, and here’s the process in a nutshell. You need to start by answering three questions:
Step#1: Determine what type of energy you want (electricity, heat or both).
Step#2: Identify how much energy you need to satisfy your needs.
Step#3: What specific types of off-grid energy hardware provides the biggest financial pay-off?
These days there are some really good suppliers of alternative energy equipment out there. Surprisingly, even Amazon offers good hardware, especially when it comes to photovoltaics. Here’s a list of my favourites specialty suppliers of off-grid energy hardware for both US and Canada:
Missouri Wind and Solar: https://mwands.com
This is an excellent US outfit that manufacturers a lot of its own stuff as well as sells other brands. The man behind the company is Jeff Harmon and he specializes in excellent video education on all aspects of alternative energy systems. Jeff ships worldwide.
Northern Arizona Wind & Sun: https://www.solar-electric.com
This American company also specializes in technical support and advice for people building their own energy systems. They’ve earned a 4.9/5 star Google rating for customer service. You’ll like them.
Solar Electric Supply https://www.solarelectricsupply.com
This California-based company offers residential and commercial systems. They also offer some of the most complete packages I’ve seen in the alternative energy world. If you want someone to recommend an entire package in one go, these people can do it.
Solar Direct Canada http://solardirectcanada.com
Ray Jarvis is the man behind this Ontario, Canada company and he’s been in business since 1990. If you’re Canadian, buying from a Canadian supplier like this can save you cross-border duty charges which can be substantial for photovoltaic panels. There’s a lot of tariff nonsense with these products and Ray can help you find panels that are as local as possible to your place.
One more thing if you’re a Canadian shopping south of the border with a US supplier. . . you should have your own customs broker. Regular couriers and shipping companies will clear customs for you, but they’ll also soak you for all kinds of extra fees and border handling. So much for that old NAFTA trade deal! I’m glad it’s done. For bringing things into Canada from outside the country I use a company called Near North Customs Brokers (https://www.nearnorthcustoms.com). They do a great job and don’t charge much for their services. Anyone can create an account with them. You don’t need to own a business.
Getting Started With Solar: Three Projects to Build
Want to make solar energy part of your life? I get quite a few questions from people wanting to learn the basics of solar energy, and since I found myself delivering the same information over and over, I create a three-part online video course for building three different kinds of solar projects. Plans, instructions and specific material recommendations are all part of what I teach. Click here to learn more and download the course now. I’ve kept the cost low and as with all my courses, GETTING STARTED WITH SOLAR comes with a money-back guarantee. If you’re not thrilled with what you see, just let me know. I’ll refund your money and you get to keep the course forever. Got questions? Email me at [email protected]