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Choosing Solar Panels
Jan23

Choosing Solar Panels

The biggest part of a solar power system is the solar panels themselves. With dozens of different solar panels in warehouses across the US, how do you decide which ones to get? There are many ways to compare solar panels so let’s talk about what to look for. Many people make the assumption that a solar panel with higher wattage is always the better choice, but this isn’t necessarily true. If you are comparing solar panels that are same physical size and one of them is higher wattage, that means it is more efficient and will cost more money per watt. If you have a limited amount of space to install your solar panels, then the more efficient solar panel would be a good idea because you can fit more wattage in the space you have. But if you have plenty of room for solar panels, it may not be worth it to pay the higher price per watt for the more efficient panels. Lower efficiency does not necessarily mean lower quality.      Which brings us to the discussion of quality. Determining the quality of a solar panel is not an exact science but there are some things you can look for. Looking at the manufacturer is a good idea. Ask questions like how long they have been in business and whether they make things other than solar panels. What you are trying to judge is whether or not they will be around 20 years from now to honor their warranty. If they have been making solar panels for a long time, chances are they are good quality or warranty issues would have put them out of business. If are a major electronics brand, that make other things chances are they will stick around and honor their solar warranties because they will still want to sell their other products. Another way to determine solar panel quality is check what certifications it has. You can see our blog article “Solar Panel Certifications Demystified” for more details but all solar panels have to be certified to meet the UL 1703 standard but they can also take it up a notch and get certified to meet other IEC 61646 standards for durability and performance or get tested over time for the DNV GL PV Module Reliability Scorecard which is what financial companies look at when investing money into solar farms. Solar panel manufacturers can also get their factories certified to certain quality standards as well for added peace of mind.  Some people get hung up on different types of solar panels. They might insist on monocrystalline solar panels because they heard they are...

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Should You Add Batteries to Your Solar?
Jan14

Should You Add Batteries to Your Solar?

Fast food order takers ask “Do you want fries with that?” every time you order a burger and now solar installers are asking all their customers if they want batteries with their solar. Add-ons are all the rage so if you have solar or are planning to install solar soon, you need to decide if you should add those batteries.  One thing that might sway your battery decision is power outages. Many people don’t realize it, but a standard grid-tied solar power system will not provide any power if there is no utility power. The only exception to this is that SMA inverters can provide you with one power outlet that will operate small appliances when the sun is out. This is handy if the sun is out and you need to charge your cell phone, but if it’s cloudy or night time, you are out of luck.    So if you have a lot of power outages in your area, batteries might be a good idea. Even if you don’t have a lot of power outages, but having one would cause a serious problem because you require an oxygen concentrator or you like to keep a side of beef in your freezer, you might think about those batteries. What equipment you need depends on what solar equipment you have or are getting but the parts for a battery back-up system to run small things like an oxygen concentrator or freezer might only run a few thousand dollars. A Do-it-yourselfer with some electrical experience can install a simple system fairly easily. If you are thinking in terms of disaster preparedness and want to be able to run your air conditioning, electric hot water heater and swimming pool pump during the zombie apocalypse, the battery system will be far more expensive and complex. You can still install it yourself, but the parts might run into the tens of thousands of dollars depending on how extravagant you want to live during long term power outages. For some people, it is worth the peace of mind. Back-up power aside, there might be other reasons to say yes to the batteries. Changes in electric rates are a big reason why batteries are becoming more popular. Time of use rates are becoming mandatory for some electric customers and this may decrease their solar savings. Solar produces the most power around noon when the electricity is cheap and then electricity is more expensive at 8pm when the sun has gone down. A battery system can store the electricity generated during the “off-peak” cheap times so you can use it during the “peak” expensive time which will...

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Types of Solar Panels
Jan09

Types of Solar Panels

We all know installing solar panels will save you money, that part is simple. But when it comes time to purchase your equipment, you will need to decide what type of solar panels you want. There are three basic types of solar panels available for residential systems – monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin film.   The monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels are the more popular and these are considered “First Generation” solar panels. Both of these types are made with silicon PV cells but the difference is how they are made.  Example of Monocrystalline Solar Panel Monocrystalline PV cells are super-thin slices of a silicon crystal called an ingot. The ingots are grown in the PV factories and their natural shape is round so the slices are also round. In the old days, they made the monocrystalline solar panels with the fully rounded cells but this created a lot of “dead” space in the solar panel because the area around the round cells did not produce anything. To make better use of the space in a rectangular solar panel, they started cutting of the rounded edges of the monocrystalline PV cells but they don’t make them completely square because they don’t want to waste too much of the expensive crystal slice. When you look at a monocrystalline solar panel, you can see all the solar cells have rounded corners which means there are small rectangles of the backsheet showing through. When the backsheet is white, these rectangles are very obvious. If the blacksheet is black, then you will have to look very close to see them. These little rectangles between the solar cells are how you can easily identify a monocrystalline solar panel. Example of Poly Solar Panel Polycrystalline PV cells are made by melting fragments of silicon crystals together. Because they are made in molds, they can be any shape, so they are square to avoid any wasted space in the rectangle of the whole solar panel. The square shape of the solar cell is how you identify a polycrystalline solar panel from the monocrystalline where the cells have the rounded corners. Thin film solar panels are considered “Second Generation”. There are different types of thin film solar panels but the most popular are amorphous silicon which are made with silicon that is not in crystalline form allowing for flexibility, and the non-silicon Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) and Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) solar panels. Of these three types, the monocrystalline panels are the most efficient which means that you will get the most wattage per square foot with them. Polycrystalline modules come in as a close second on efficiency. When deciding...

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What Do Batteries Do for Solar?
Nov20

What Do Batteries Do for Solar?

Everybody already knows what solar panels do. They turn sunlight into electricity. But what does it do to add batteries to the solar panel system? The short answer is that the batteries store the electricity that the solar panels generate. So let’s talk about what energy storage can do for you. If you are installing an off-grid solar system, storing the power is going to be important. Solar panels only generate electricity during daylight hours and in most cases you are going to want to use some of that energy at night. There are some exceptions like solar well pumps for irrigation or for filling a large holding tank. In these cases, it is okay for the pumps to stop working at night so the solar panels without batteries are going to be just fine. But if your off-grid system is running just about anything else, you will want to store the energy produced during the day so you can use it at night.  Of course, most of you are installing grid-tied solar which makes the batteries less necessary, but they still might be useful. For one thing, even on the sunniest day, most grid-tied solar will not produce any power when the utility company has a power outage. The one exception is an SMA inverter which can be set up with one outlet so you have a small amount of power but only when the sun is shining and it is barely enough to run a refrigerator. If you want things in your house like the lights, fans, computers, microwave and dishwasher to work when power is off, you will need to add batteries to your solar. How much battery you put in will depend on what you want to run but it will typically be $10,000 – $20,000 to run your smaller appliances but if you want your whole house to work when the power is out you are going to need to spend some big bucks. There are also some financial reasons to install the batteries but it depends on your electric rate and net metering rules. A classic example is the time-of-use (TOU) rates which are getting more popular in places like California. Being on a TOU rate means you will pay a high (peak) rate like $.30/kwh on weekdays between the hours of 4pm – 9pm and a low rate like $.15/kwh for the other hours of the day. Solar is going to generate the most power around noon when the electric rates are cheap so the batteries can store that power and you can use it at 8pm when it’s too dark to...

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AC Coupling Versus DC Coupling
Sep09

AC Coupling Versus DC Coupling

It is becoming more popular to install batteries with solar power systems on new installations and as retrofits. One of the questions to be answered when planning the battery installation is how will the battery system tie in with the solar. The answer will be either AC coupling or DC coupling. Solar panels produce DC power and inverters are used to convert this DC power to AC power. The terms AC coupling and DC coupling are used to describe where in the system the batteries are connected. An AC coupled system has the batteries tied into the AC output of a grid-tied solar inverter while a DC coupled system has the batteries tied in before the inverter where the DC power is flowing from the solar panels. Deciding which way to do your install, depends a lot on what other equipment you plan to use or what equipment is already in place if you are retrofitting. For example, if you are using microinverters, these microinverters are changing the DC power from the solar panel to AC power right at the solar panels themselves. Because the DC power from the solar panels is being converted immediately under each solar panel, it would be difficult to tap into so you would definitely go with the AC coupling option where you hook up your battery-based inverter to the AC output of the microinverter system. If you are working with a string inverter, then you have DC power coming from the solar array to the inverter and you can easily use it. There are few different ways to do DC coupling. One way would be to connect the output of the solar panels to a charge controller which charges the batteries and then you would have a battery-based inverter that changes that battery power to AC power. This is a very typical set-up for an off-grid system like the Outback SystemEdge Villa or Cabin Series packages. Another way to DC couple is to use an inverter like the SolarEdge StorEdge that will take the DC power from the solar panels and allocate it to the batteries or convert it to AC as needed. This gives the system a much higher efficiency than most other battery systems because every time the power is conditioned or converted, there is a small loss. If you run from solar panels to a charge controller to the batteries to the inverter. You will have a loss at the charge controller, a loss at the batteries and a loss at the inverter while the StorEdge system manages the power from the solar array in the most efficient way possible...

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Best Battery Types for Solar
Aug06

Best Battery Types for Solar

Installing batteries with solar is necessary on off-grid systems if you want power at night and also becoming more popular on grid-tied systems. Choosing what type of batteries to install can be a bit complicated so this article will cover the basics for you. The batteries that are most commonly used for solar are lead acid and lithium chemistries. No matter what, you will want to choose a “deep cycle” battery that is rated in amp hours (AH) and not a starting battery that is rated in cold-cranking amps (CCA). Car batteries are great for providing a lot of amps really fast to start a motor but they don’t do well with the long, slow draw of running the lights, TV and refrigerator in your home or off-grid cabin. If it is the zombie apocalypse and car batteries are all you can find, they will work but they aren’t the best choice for the application. Let’s start with lead acid batteries which can be broken down into the two basic types of flooded and sealed. Flooded batteries will be less expensive but they require maintenance and ventilation. When you purchase flooded batteries you are committing to adding distilled water to the batteries on a monthly basis. Without the added water, they can run dry which means they lose all charge and are likely to never hold a charge again. If you are not good at regular maintenance, buying these batteries can be a costly mistake. Even if you get the self-watering kit that does the work for you, you still need to maintain water in the reservoir and check to make sure the kit is correctly maintaining the water levels high enough. The ventilation requirements are also very important to consider because these batteries will vent hydrogen gas which is poisonous and flammable. Installing these batteries in your living space or anywhere there might be an open flame could have some nasty results. Sealed lead acid batteries are a little pricier but solve the unpleasant issues of the flooded batteries. You do not have to add water to them, they do not vent large amounts of poisonous, flammable gas and they can also be installed on their sides without worries about hazardous chemical leakage. The most available types of sealed batteries are gel and AGM. These are also often referred to as VRLA for Valve regulated lead acid batteries. Even within the categories of sealed and flooded lead acid batteries, there are different technologies being employed. For example, the Outback EnergyCell Non-Carbon batteries are a type of enhanced sealed lead acid batteries that have improved charging efficiency and a...

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