Going Solar; First Steps; Baby Steps…

I put up a post a few days ago about my desire to have at least some ability to power my house through solar energy. My initial discussion with a vendor in my area was somewhat frustrating as they are trained to sell systems designed to lower utility bills, but that don’t include battery backup that would allow me to function if the grid is down. I’ve been doing some research into alternate vendors and am also exploring the option of putting my own system together. I like the latter idea, as it would hopefully give me intimate knowledge of the system and the ability to repair it myself should I need to in the future. More on this later…

Realizing that my ultimate goal may take quite a bit of time to achieve, I’ve gone ahead and taken the first baby steps into the world of solar power so that I have at least some small amount of self-sufficiency should the grid go down. I picked up a small solar charger that works great on cell phones, iPods, iPads, and the like. The Opteka BP-SC4000 is an ultra thin solar powered high capacity (4000mAh) backup battery and charger that works on just about any small electronic device you can think of. Because the product contains a battery it doesn’t need to be in the sun while recharging a device. You can leave the Opteka out in the sun, where it will fully charge it’s internal battery, and use it any time in the future when you need to. The charger comes with ten different connectors that fit everything from the newest devices from Apple to my old Motorola phone from six years ago. It’s really a great little product that charges up quickly in the sun and recharges my iPhone super fast. So far I’m very happy with it.

UPDATE:  Since updating the software on my iPhone 4 in June of 2012 to the latest operating system my Opteka no longer works with my phone.  I get a message saying “charging is not supported with this device”.  Not sure why Apple would do that as they don’t sell their own solar charger so it’s not an issue of competition.  Anyway, this device is still good for charging other small consumer electronic devices but I need a new solution for my phone, which is the most important in my opinion.

I’ve also decided to move away from the large amounts of batteries I have stored in favor of a combination of rechargeable batteries and solar rechargers. Right now I have a ton of batteries on hand. Over the last couple of years I would grab an extra pack of batteries whenever they were on sale or if I just happened to be at Home Depot and had a little extra cash on me. Well, things have really added up but it probably wasn’t the smartest way to PREP. Just in going through all of my supplies, as I described in my last post on Spring Cleaning, I saw that I have something like 25 packs of AA batteries (with 36 batteries in each pack), and a couple of cases of D cell batteries as well. With kids toys and lots of electronics around we go through them pretty quickly which I guess is even more reason to go with the rechargeable NiMH’s. My single use batteries are still valuable to fill in the gaps between charging my new ones, for times when the weather is so bad that using a solar charger is not practical, or as barter items should it come to that.

While I’ll have traditional “wall outlet” powered chargers for general use I also need to pick up a couple of nice solar chargers. It looks like a decent charger can be had for around $30 while those with larger more powerful panels that provide a faster charge can cost up to about $150. This may sound like a lot but when you consider that I have over $300 invested in standard AA batteries alone I think it’s the smart way to go.

Another option would be to wait until I have the solar system for my house configured which would eliminate the need for a separate solar system for battery charging but that’s likely to be a while. Plus, it’s always good to have backups and a portable system would be useful to have around. More on this soon, stand by.


6 Responses to Going Solar; First Steps; Baby Steps…

  1. Funny, I’m in the same boat with trying to use up the remaining disposable batteries and moving to the NiMH rechargables. Been trying to standardize on AA batteries for most everything, but still have some electronics that require D’s, AAA’s, and 9-volts. Don’t own any of the solar battery smart chargers, but the cheap outdoor solar garden/path lights can be used to put a bulk charge on AA NiMH batteries – then move them to the smart charger for the final charging phases. The solar lights come with a rechargable AA NiCad too, won’t last as long as the NiMH’s, but still usable.

    For the home solar system, have you thought about getting over the learning curve by starting with a small system first? Something like this maybe:

    I started with a small system like this with 4 Trojan T-104 batteries years ago and it worked great for running a radio, lights, and a couple fans at our cottage. You’d still be better off than 95% of the population if the power goes out. I’d be very cautious about dropping big bucks into a multi-kilowatt system as your first exposure to alternative power. But if you decide to, might figure out your current average kWh usage per day from your electric bill, then cut back your electric usage as much as possible for one month to get an idea how large of a system you’ll need. That was a real eye-opener for us. Good luck.

  2. I went a bit further with my first solar baby steps. I’m still not sure whether it was worth the expense but I enjoy fiddling with the set-up anyway.

  3. I recently bought a Chicago Electric 45 watt system mentioned above at a Harbor Freight store on grand opening day. They had it on sale for $150. Pretty good setup in my limited knowledge. Couple of draw backs: the panel supports are not meant to be moved. Pretty stable once assembled but fall apart if you try to pick them up. Also the system comes with 2 lights that plug into 2 special sockets on the regulator. I was not able to find anything else that I could plug into those sockets- i’m guessing they are specifically dedicated for those lights. As you said- baby steps. Next step is to get some more deep cycle batteries

  4. About the rechargeables:

    They are good for a finite number of cycles, so be careful about using them during normal times.

    Most rechargeables don’t last as long as alkaline disposables. LI-Ion is an exception.

    re HF solar panels: Check online–I have read complaints.

  5. Thanks for the great advice everyone. I’m about to throw a new idea that I was discussing with Thoreau the other day at you and look forward to your comments!

  6. My husband and I have lived with a small affordable solar system for 13 years now. We put it together ourselves and it is amazing how quickly you learn how to do once you are depending on it. I run my business on the computers so it is big enough for that. Good luck on it!