Steve Maxwell answers: My personal interest in solar energy goes a long way back. Right out of high school, back in 1982, I enrolled in a college program called “Energy Conversion Technology”. It taught us 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. That said, solar energy technology is improving all the time. And in the case of solar, the controls systems that are available are much more sophisticated and useful than even 10 years ago. Things are really amazing these days.
The first thing to understand is that there are two main types of “solar” energy when it comes to household applications. There’s one approach that creates and stores electricity – this is called photovoltaics – and there’s another type of system 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 questions you need to answer for yourself are:
“Do I want to create electricity only? Am I also interested in space heating in my country home?”
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, and here’s the process in a nutshell:
- determine the type of energy you want (electricity, heat or both)
- determine how much energy you need
- research the hardware required from specialty suppliers and Amazon.
These days there are some really good suppliers of alternative energy technology out there. Surprisingly, even Amazon offers some very good hardware, especially when it comes to photovoltaics. Here’s a list of my favourites specialty suppliers of solar 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 . . . 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 NAFTA! I use a company called Near North Customs Brokers (https://www.nearnorthcustoms.com) when I bring things in from outside Canada. 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 be a business.
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 course for building three different kinds of solar projects. Click here to learn more and download 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.