My current little house has been running on solar power for 13 years, but when it came time to set up a system for my new, littler house, I was starting from square one. My book, The Big Tiny, explained my solar knowledge…my lack of solar knowledge:
“Over time, I’ve gotten comfortable with my limited understanding of what is actually happening, [but] here are the bare bones: no electricity is generated at night, less electricity is generated in the long dark winter, and if I try to run something big (a refrigerator, a vacuum, a compound miter saw) everything will shut down.”
Like I said, I have no idea how the thing works. So when I recently tried to figure out how to create an off-grid system for Jolene, my new tiny house, I needed help. I figured I’d need about the same amount of juice as my current little house: enough oomph to power a few lights, my laptop, cell phone and a battery charger for my flashlight. I wasn’t planning on running extravagant things like a coffee maker or TV, so I assumed a 240-watt system would work… right? In search of a more confident answer, I contacted Wholesale Solar in Mt. Shasta, California.
Solar Experts to the Rescue!
Wholesale Solar focuses on the consumer market, so they were easier to bounce questions off of than companies who sell to installers and contractors. They help regular folks use solar systems to reduce their environmental impact and get off the grid. Their Tiny House Packages were four times larger than my current system, a logical decision since most tiny house folks use at least enough juice to power a refrigerator. But they also offer smaller RV/Marine packages that include panels to generate the electricity, a controller that keeps the battery from over-filling, an inverter that changes the DC battery power to AC power (what a normal house uses). and all the cable to connect it together. The cost was reasonable, and when I had an electrician friend check the components, I was told the quality was great.
I contacted them to ask a few questions that other tiny house folks might have as well:
- The solar panels have a bracket system for mounting them on a roof, but can I attach them to a remote stand near the house, but not on top of it? Answer: YES. My current system has the panels mounted on a stand a few feet away from the house. This lets me park the house at one angle, and set the panels up a few feet away at another angle, facing south to the sun to get every scrap of sunlight in the dark, rainy Pacific Northwest.
- My electrician friend is going to help me install the system. Can I get a wiring diagram so she knows what’s-what? Answer: YES. Thomas from Wholesale Solar emailed it to me and even laughed at my electrical jokes, like ”Ohm, my God, that’s exactly watt I need.”
- If the thing doesn’t work and I’m walking around with a headlamp strapped to my head at night, can I call for help when the sun comes up? Answer: YES! My current system doesn’t have the same sort of technical support. With Wholesale Solar, I feel comfortable calling and stumbling through a question (“Should I worry if the doo-hicky on the thingy-bob is flashing a tiny red light?”), knowing they’ll handhold me as best they can until the problem is solved. That hardly ever happens with the big solar electric companies.
In the end, I bought a 200- watt system for Jolene at half the price I paid for the system in my current tiny house. When I asked Wholesale about the price difference, they explained that solar electric systems have gotten cheaper over the last decade, and they want people to find the solar system that works for them — meaning it needs to have high quality AND be affordable!
Tiny House Solar Set Up Tips
You can figure out how much your system will cost once you know how much energy you need… a question most of us have never had to answer, and an especially tough one when you’re moving into a tiny house for the first time.
Wholesale Solar has a great energy calculator that will help walk you through the process of figuring out how much energy your lights, appliances and machines will use, including sample data for tons of common items. If you already have appliances and machines picked out, you can usually look up the specifics online too.
One important lesson I learned when playing with the calculator was that just because a house is tiny does not mean it has a tiny energy load! As an experiment, I researched the energy demand of a bunch of appliances from high-end, modern tiny homes, and plugged that information into the Wholesale Solar calculator. I found out that a tricked out tiny house, with an electric refrigerator, microwave, hot water heater and such would require a 10-kilowatt system, which would need around 50 solar panels and cost an arm and a leg.
That eye-opener reinforced what I’ve been telling folks for a long time: in a tiny house, minimizing your demand is the best way to take advantage of a solar electric system. And one of the best ways to do that is to run as many gadgets as possible on other fuel types. For example, many RV or Marine refrigerators run on propane, there are stoves that use alcohol or propane, and winter heaters can keep you snug as a bug using wood, propane or diesel. Being cold isn’t the only option – you can be creative instead.
The tiny house packages offered through Wholesale Solar focus on systems that generate less than 2-kW, but create enough electricity to run an energy-efficient refrigerator and possibly even a washing machine. They got me the gear for Jolene, and now my job is to install it with my electrician-friend. I’m going to use a single gel cell battery purchased from a local store, and install the system in a small hutch located on the tongue of the trailer.
Here are a few things other to consider if you’re interested in a tiny house solar system like mine:
- Minimize your system. I can’t stress this enough. It’s easier on your wallet, and better for the environment if you take a good look at the difference between what you want versus what you need.
- Plan space for the panels near your house. The further away they sit, the bigger and more expensive the cable you’ll need to connect them to your house.
- Try to create a redundant system, so you can run your tiny house off an extension cord as well as your DC solar system. I have an AC plug that sits next to the DC panel plug on the outside of my house.
- Batteries are temperature sensitive, so you’ll need to install them in a place that doesn’t freeze. In my tiny house, I have the battery parked under the closet.
- A closed gel cell battery is best because it won’t off-gas sulfuric acid… that’s right, batteries breathe.
- The inverter and controller need to be connected to an adequate breaker system. Work with an electrician and follow Wholesale Solar’s wiring diagram.
- If you think you’ll be in a place that can supply electricity via an extension cord from “the big house,” consider installing a grid-tied system on the big house. You can spend the same amount of money and get a great system that will crank away on the energy demands of the big house day after day.
Make Solar Work For You!
Solar is a great way to go, and I’m psyched to set my new system up and get Jolene buzzing. Cheers to Wholesale Solar for making that happen without sending me into sticker-shock or making me feel like a doofus just because I’m not an electrical engineer. Aside from their great calculator, Wholesale Solar offers helpful resources for getting started and for Tiny House Off Grid Systems. They also have some educational videos that are well worth watching to learn how you can make solar panels work for you:
The Four Main Type of Solar Systems
Solar Panel Mounting Options
Different Types of Solar Panels
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