Don’t be intimidated by the thought of incorporating solar energy into your cabin - just start small!
By Jim Cooper
Installing solar panels on your cabin's roof is one option for adding solar energy to your place.
The most common solar installation (often called PV or Photovoltaic) relies on a collection of solar panels and an inverter to convert the direct current (DC) electricity from the panels to alternating current (AC) that is required by the lights, appliances and other electrical devices in your cabin.
A system large enough to completely power a cabin is still a sizeable investment, especially if you have air conditioning or electric heat. However, if you aren’t ready to spring for a whole-house system, there are still several ways to start small and grow your system as technology advances and prices continue to fall.
Starting small with a traditional system requires planning. Locate rooftop systems where you’ll have room to add panels later. Install an oversized inverter or plan to add a smaller second inverter as your system grows. Pole-mounted solar arrays allow you to increase your system size by adding another pole rather than just increasing a few panels at a time.
Technology offers another option for growing your own PV system. A rapidly growing alternative, micro-inverters are small devices attached directly to each panel. By converting DC to AC right at the panel, they eliminate the need for a separate inverter. Instead of adding strings of panels and oversizing or upgrading your inverter, you can grow your system one panel at a time.
If your system will be affected by shade or snow build-up, micro-inverters offer an additional advantage in that the energy output of each panel is unaffected by the other panels. In a traditional solar array, output is determined by the least productive panel in the string. Even partial shading of a single panel in a string can cut output of the entire string by more than half.
Micro-inverters have been around for more than 20 years, but recent improvements in technology are giving them greater appeal. While they are still more expensive than traditional panel-inverter systems, they offer more flexibility for expanding your system and usually bring a faster payback. Pre-packaged systems within the abilities of a tech-savvy DIYer are starting to appear in the major building supply chains.
If you think a PV system might be right for you, the best first step is to consult with an expert. Tell them your goals and let them explain alternatives. They can also help you understand costs and the various tax incentives and rebates that can reduce your upfront costs substantially.
Author Jim Cooper is a former home builder and general contractor and author of
Log Homes Made Easy and the
Log Home Project Planner.