We Didn’t Know Our Own Strength!

By , April 10, 2014

We’ve been on the “homestead” almost eight years now. I’ve noticed that this has been long enough that we’ve forgotten a lot of what we’ve done over the years. Sometimes this comes as an unpleasant surprise. Other times, it’s pleasant, sometimes even a relief.

Almost every home in our neighborhood uses solar panels. A couple years ago, many families performed a simple power “upgrade” that increases the amount of electricity harvested from the sun.

solar panels dug out of the snow

The solar array in snow (Photo: Mark Zeiger.)

I’m not an electrician, and freely admit my fear of electricity (see Off the Grid Electricity: The “Power” of Self Reliance). This prevents me from easily discussing volts, amps, and the like with any level of confidence or competence. Therefore, I’ll try to explain it in terms that even I can understand . . . .

Just like a string of batteries, a solar array may be configured for specific voltage output. Linking the solar panels to each other in proper sequence can boost power production; the panels work together to create 24 or 48 volt output rather than 12 volt. The higher voltage delivers more power to the battery bank over greater distances through smaller gauge wire. Less power loss during transmission means more power to the batteries, boosting the potential usable power from my array.

I first considered the possibility after a neighbor described the work he’d been doing to upgrade solar systems around the bay. When we originally installed our solar panels I read about the possibility of wiring them for higher output, but I didn’t understand that doing this did not require a 48 volt system for the house. We could configure our solar array controller to step the incoming 48 volts to 12 volts for use, but I didn’t realize this. As I remembered it, I went ahead and wired for 12 volts when installing the array.

After discussing it with my electrician neighbor, I decided to boost our array. I dug out the paperwork on the panels, and made a startling discovery: I found notes, in my handwriting, describing how I had configured the panels for 48 volts when they were originally installed! I have no memory of it, but it appears that I discussed it with a tech person from the company that supplied the panels, and followed his/her recommendation.

I felt a bit deflated; I’d psyched myself up for the adjustment, and looked forward to the increased output. On the other hand, a fairly big job had already been done, and we had benefitted from the boosted power from the very beginning!

This may seem obvious to you. I don’t feel too bad, though, because, as Michelle pointed out, most of our neighbors have had panels for far longer than we have, but were just then rewiring their arrays for higher output. And, as it turned out, we had ours configured in the better way all along.

I often talk about how our off the grid life is largely stumbling along, making mistakes and poor decisions. I’m encouraged to remember that, occasionally, we err on the correct side.

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