Dave & Joan’s Sugarhouse goes solar
In the summer of 2009 Dave was on Ebay and saw a solar panel. 150 watts for just over $400. He purchased it on the spot because we had been talking solar for a several years. One panel led to another and we got started on our Solar journey.
Our panels (array) had to be placed 240’ away from the sugarhouse to be in the sun. Mounted on a wooden frame for starters. Our first problem was 240’ of wire on a 24 volt system, which means considerable voltage loss, but we proceeded. We put in 2 utility poles and strung entrance wire to the sugarhouse (the same wire most homes use to bring in utility power).
Our next purchases were a cheap charge controller (very inefficient) and a cheap inverter rated at 2500 watts/240 volt. We bought 4x6v Trojan solar batteries for a battery bank. When everything was hooked up, we had more problems. It turns out the 240v inverter could not be split into 2- 120 volt legs. It was only able to run 240 things like a 240v motor or such.
Now to use the power we had to buy a transformer to convert the 240v to 120v. With all of these problems, we were still satisfied with what we had done and learned. We could run our sugarhouse lights and high pressure blower for about 5 hours during the daylight before needing to start the generator. The quiet was good. With the components we had, we were getting about 140-150 watts into the sugarhouse in full sun. In cold weather, we were experiencing a loss of about 50%. However we were also charging the batteries until we used the power and were able to charge while using power to slow the discharge rate of the battery bank.
Moving forward to 2010. We decided to add 4 more panels and get a better charge controller and inverter. We found out that different brands of panels don’t play well together so we started fresh and investigated our choices.
The original panels we bought were un branded, non UL and likely to be unavailable as we grew further so we decided to buy 4 Kyocera 185 watt, 23.6V panels, UL labeled. Kyocera is one of the top brands and should be around for a long time. We removed the old panels (to be used elsewhere in another small solar system of ours) and bought everything needed to connect these new panels.
We bought official racking to ground mount the panels, used the same wire, but now connected all 4 panels in series for higher voltage into the sugarhouse. In the sugarhouse we bought an Outback FX80 charge controller, rated at very high efficiency. We then bought 4 more batteries to make our battery bank 48V @ 240 Amp Hours. This controller can be used for any incoming voltage up to 150V and feed bank voltages of 12,24,36,48 or 60. From this we added a top of the line inverter to convert 48VDC to 120/240VAC. This combination gives us about 95% of the energy generated in the panels to use in the sugarhouse.
We can’t wait to see how much better the system operates this season. With the old system, when the battery voltage dropped to 60% state of charge, we had to shut off the solar and start the generator. The new system has the generator connected to special terminals in the inverter/charger. When the batteries get low we can just start the generator and everything is automatic. We have generator power AND the inverter/charger charges the battery bank. This could even be configured to start the generator at a certain battery voltage. Maybe we'll use that option at some point. The generator could run for an hour or two and we could then switch back to the battery bank for a few hours.
The charge controller we now have is the largest available to non-commercial uses, giving us lots of room to expand. The inverter can run 6000 watts continuous or 9000 watts starting power momentary.
Each year we hope to add more panels to this system until we have enough to run completely without the generator, except for long periods of rainy or totally overcast skies.
With the equipment and lights we run now while boiling, except for very brief uses at higher rates, the solar will still be charging the battery bank during daylight and the battery power will not be used at all until about an hour before sunset. We think the batteries may give enough power for another 4-5 hours before the generator needs to be started.
Ultimately when we are fully expanded in solar we will have a much bigger battery bank. Plans call for 24-2V high amp/hr batteries to store lots more energy. If we decide to go grid connected we will have a smaller battery bank for power outages, but through net metering we will send our excess power to the grid, running our meter backwards legally and when we need their power it will be available and will run the meter forward.
We expand. In the summer of 2012 we decided to add 8 more solar panels to match what we had. When we tried to order it was discovered that the panel had been discontinued. Then we contacted Kyocera (the panel manufacturer) to find a match that could be mated with some combination of new and old (because different panels do not play well together. We came up with a combination of 2 @ 185 watt existing in series with 2 @ 220 watt and to order 8 of the 220 watt panels. We also decided to contact a “certified solar installer” because we thought we might want to explore going grid tied at this time. The contractor told us we would get better efficiency if we went with a dual system, leave the 8 existing panels and their system components as the battery back-up portion with the original inverter set to sell excess power to the grid.
Next install a new set of panels with their own inverter and send it to the main breaker box in the sugarhouse. From there it can charge the batteries, through the original inverter, and all excess power is sold to the grid. We got a quote from the utility for running lines to the sugarhouse. We finally decided to go for what we envisioned as our final system. We hired the contractor to install the new and tie everything to the grid. Our grid power was to come 240’ from the road overhead to a pole just inside the woods. Then I had to run underground the remaining 190’ to a meter socket and 35 more feet underground into the sugarhouse. I installed the underground portion of wire, meter socket, main disconnect and tied it to the sugarhouse in a new 225 A breaker box protected with a 200 A main breaker (This was necessary because we were going to have power from both the grid and the solar, thus exceeding the rated capacity of a 200A panel box). Some final connections were made by the contractor and we were ready for our new solar.
We finally went with 22 new Kyocera panels @ 220 watts each for an expansion of 4840 watts. The system was installed and grid power was connected Nov 21, 2012. Our solar was turned on and we now have a total solar system of 6.32 KW. We expect to get a check from the grid on the anniversary of our connection date every year, until we build a new home near the sugarhouse. At that point we hope to end up with a net zero utility bill while running the sugarhouse and the home on our grid tied solar. At some time in the near future, we plan to start inviting school field trips and other groups to see the solar system and learn a little about what solar power can do.
2014, Another change
We were building a large reserve in KWH on our sugarhouse meter, but it seemed to be doing us little good. Being a commercial meter, we could never get paid for our excess production, thus the meter credit kept growing. Along with the credit, we were still billed $22.93 each month, the minimum line charge with taxes, our credit could not cover that charge. Then in May of 2014 we decided to remedy this. We elected to send the excess to our residential meter. In the process we were told that the credit we already had could not be used, it would be lost, they had no cash value. At the time we had a credit of 2650 KWH on the meter. However, to we proceeded to send the excess to our home.
Since then our first bill for the sugarhouse was zero due, it seems when the excess is sent to another account, the surplus can cover the line charge (this sounds fishy to me). It also showed a credit on the account, which can be used towards my residential bill as needed. I guess my biggest complaint at this time is the contractor who connected my solar system. He should have told us that we would be money ahead if we sent the excess production to our residential meter. I’m just glad we switched now rather than deciding to after a few more years passed and the utility company got even more than 2650 KWH totally free, while charging me a line charge of 22.93 each month to send them more free power.