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Frequently Asked Questions
Photovoltaics or PV for short can be thought of as a direct current (DC) generator powered by the sun. When light photons of sufficient energy strike a solar cell, they knock electrons free in the silicon crystal structure forcing them through an external circuit (battery, inverter or direct DC load), and then returning them to the other side of the solar cell to start the process all over again. The voltage output from a single crystalline solar cell is about 0.5V with an amperage output that is directly proportional to the cell’s surface area (approximately 7A for a 6 inch square multi-crystalline solar cell). Typically 30-36 cells are wired in series (+ to -) in each solar module. This produces a solar module with a 12V nominal output (~17V at peak power) that can then be wired in series and/or parallel with other solar modules to form a complete solar array.
Solar is universal and will work virtually anywhere, however some locations are better than others. Irradiance is a measure of the sun’s power available at the surface of the earth and it peaks at about 1000 watts per square meter. With typical crystalline solar cell efficiencies around 14-16%, that means we can expect to generate about 140-160W per square meter of solar cells placed in full sun. Insolation is a measure of the available energy from the sun and is expressed in terms of “full sun hours” (i.e. 4 full sun hours = 4 hours of sunlight at an irradiance level of 1000 watts per square meter). Obviously different parts of the world receive more sunlight than others, so they will have more “full sun hours” per day.
Unfortunately there is no per square foot “average” since the cost of a system actually depends on your daily energy usage and how many full sun hours you receive per day; and if you have other sources of electricity. To accurately size a system to meet your needs, you need to know how much energy you use per day. If your home is connected to the utility grid, simply look at your monthly electric bill. Contact us today for a quote firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are many components that make up a complete solar system, but the 4 main items on a stand-alone system are: solar modules, charge controller(s), battery(s) and inverter(s). The solar modules are physically mounted on a mount structure and the DC power they produce is wired through a charge controller before it goes on to the battery bank where it is stored. For more detailed information on solar modules, turn to page 20. The two main functions of a charge controller are to prevent the battery from being overcharged and eliminate any reverse current flow from the batteries back to the solar modules at night. The battery bank stores the energy produced by the solar array during the day for use at anytime of the day or night. Batteries come in many sizes and grades, which you can see starting on page 49. The inverter takes the DC energy stored in the battery bank and inverts it to 120 or 240 VAC to run your AC appliances.
Maybe. Many older homes were not designed or built with energy efficiency in mind. When you purchase and install a renewable energy system for your home, you become your own power company, so every kWh of energy you use means more equipment (and hence more money) is required to meet your energy needs. Any appliance that operates at 240 VAC (such as electric water heaters, cookstoves, furnaces and air conditioners) are expensive loads to run on solar. You should consider using alternatives such as LP or natural gas for water/space heating or cooking, evaporative cooling instead of compressor based AC units and passive solar design in your new home construction if possible. Refrigeration and lighting are typically the largest 120 VAC energy consumers in a home (after electric heating loads) and these two areas should be looked at very carefully in terms of getting the most energy efficient units available. Great strides have been made in the past 5 years towards improving the efficiency of electric refrigerators/freezers. Compact fluorescent lights use a quarter to a third of the power of an incandescent light for the same lumen output and they last ten times longer. These fluorescent lights are now readily available at your local hardware or discount store. The rule of thumb in the renewable energy industry is that for every dollar you spend replacing your inefficient appliances, you will save three dollars in the cost of a renewable energy system to run them. So you can see that energy conservation is crucial and can really pay off when considering a renewable energy system.
No. Photovoltaics converts the sun’s energy into DC electricity at a relatively low efficiency level (14-16%), so trying to operate a high power electric heating element from PV would be very inefficient and expensive. Solar thermal (or passive solar) is the direct heating of air or water from the heat of the sun and is much more efficient for heating applications than photovoltaics.
If your site is in the northern hemisphere you need to aim your solar modules to true south (the reverse is true for locations in the southern hemisphere) to maximize your daily energy output. For many locations there is quite a difference between magnetic south and true south, so please consult the declination map before you setup your mount structure. The solar modules should be tilted up from horizontal to get a better angle at the sun and help keep the modules clean by shedding rain or snow. For best year round power output with the least amount of maintenance, you should set the solar array facing true south at a tilt angle equal to your latitude with respect to the horizontal position. If you plan to adjust your solar array tilt angle seasonally, a good rule of thumb is:
- latitude minus 15° in the summer
- latitude in the spring/fall
- latitude plus 15° in the winter
Most mount structures are available with a seasonal adjustment of the tilt angle from horizontal to 65°.