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Solar: New Technology is Affordable, Easy & Efficient

By Jana Voelke Studelska
Published: June 1, 2007
Photo by Mike Raymond
Perched high in the steep, rugged hills overlooking a vast lake, Mike Raymond’s cabin looks rather normal on the woodland ridge – except for the four photovoltaic panels attached to the wall of his gabled garage.
“That’s the only way you’d know I’m living on solar,” Raymond said. “That and the shed with the back-up diesel generator.”
Raymond is not without creature comforts back in the bush. His cabin is stocked with a usual assortment of conveniences: coffeemaker, crock pot, TV, laptop computer, washer and dryer. His full-size refrigerator is powered by propane. The in-floor radiant heat and south-facing windows keep him toasty warm on the coldest days. Even his garage is heated to a comfortable 50 degrees during cold winters.

Dawning of a New Day
“When I tell someone I’m living off the grid, people talk about the old solar heating systems with water tanks and huge solar collectors. It’s nothing like that. This is completely photovoltaic. It’s simple, efficient, low-maintenance and affordable,” Raymond said.

As a realtor, Raymond meets people who’d like to build their own cabins. With land prices skyrocketing, many are willing to consider purchases farther back in the woods than ever before. But then there’s the cost of getting electricity to a remote site, which can run a person’s building costs right off the charts.
Today’s solar options make remote electricity feasible, which in turn can make remote cabin ownership possible.

Photo by
Easing Into It
Raymond’s move to solar took place slowly. Years ago, he tried living completely off the grid with kerosene lamps. Next, he purchased enough solar equipment to run lights and radio. When he built a new year-round cabin, he invested in a larger system, and since then he has upgraded.  
“Solar power is modular,” he explained. “When a family grows or the cabin becomes a full-time home, you add more solar modules. Or you can add as you can afford to purchase panels and batteries. I know people who are living in million dollar homes with all the luxuries, completely powered by solar energy.”

Conserving Energy & Your Dollars
There are, of course, considerations and modifications that make things easier. The first thing to do is to conserve energy any way you can. It’s cheaper to conserve energy than to produce it.
That means using compact fluorescent light bulbs rather than incandescent, using a gas refrigerator and being mindful of “ghost loads” – the small electrical loads that go unnoticed, such as a TV with a remote, an answering machine, cordless phones and electric clocks. (Problem solved: TVs and so forth attached to a power strip with an on/off button, an off-site voice mail system, phones on a power strip and battery-powered clocks.)
 “I watch how much power I use,” said Raymond, who lives alone. “On the third or fourth cloudy day in a row, I give some thought to what I do. For example, I wouldn’t use power tools, or I might wait to do laundry.”
His back-up generator kicks in automatically when the batteries are low, having been wired into the system’s power center. In winter, with the short days and low angle of the sun, Raymond’s generator sometimes runs a few hours each day. A local company delivers gas on a regular schedule, along with propane.
“Truthfully, I hardly give the system a thought,” said Raymond. It runs itself.”

Jana Voelke Studelska powers her laptop with old-fashioned electricity from the grid, but longs for a solar panel of her own.

Getting help
With a bit of determination and an Internet connection, you can design a simple solar system yourself. Small packages designed for RVs or sailboats can be purchased, as well, and will provide enough energy to keep a few lights running.
But a word of caution: Hiring a licensed solar system installer will save you the hassle and humiliation of saying, “Oh, if I had only known.” Some experienced solar installers don’t want to touch problem systems installed by DIYers or budget installers.
Many installers work with a specific equipment brand name or two, and each has different levels of design expertise and installation knowledge. Ask for references, and call them. You’ll not only get feedback on the installer, but also probably learn a bit about what the homeowners wish they had done differently.

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