Solar panels look complicated. After all, the technology that goes into their creation is some of the most sophisticated in the world. But don’t let that intimidate you. Setting up a solar panel system and getting one step closer to energy independence is well within your reach.
Solar technology is finally accessible and affordable enough for residential and recreational applications, not just for commercial or industrial purposes. You can install solar panels to back up your home in a blackout, go off-grid, power your RV appliances, and more. It saves you from power outages and skyrocketing utility costs.
Follow this step-by-step guide to kick off your own personal solar revolution.
1. Calculate Your Power Load
If you haven’t already, you’ll need to calculate the total power you need from your solar panel system. The power load necessary for a home backup system will look much different from the energy consumption of a small van or camping trip.
Go through each device and appliance you want to run and check the instruction manual or product label to find the wattage required. You can calculate the watt-hours you’ll need by multiplying a device’s power rating with its runtime.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average American household consumes 10,632 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, for an average of about 886 kWh per month. If you want to know how you compare, you can look up your energy consumption on your most recent utility bill.
Your energy consumption indicates how much power you need to run your household. Keep in mind that if you’re looking for home backup during a blackout, you can most likely restrict your electricity usage to the essentials — such as some lighting and a freezer or fridge.
2. Choose Your Solar Panel Array
When choosing the suitable solar panel array for your home, there are a few things to know. First, you must determine the system size that will sufficiently meet your energy demands. The more electricity demand you have, the more panels you’ll require. However, this equation also depends on your solar panels’ production ratio.
No system will have a direct 1:1 production ratio. Instead, an array of 10kWh may produce more or less depending on the conversion efficiency, peak sunlight hours, etc. The production ratio is the estimated kWh of the array divided by the array’s total wattage. The average is between 1.3 and 1.6.
Here’s an example to illustrate using an EcoFlow 400W Portable Solar Panel to supply energy for the average household:
System size (annual wattage) / production wattage / panel (W) = Number of panels
Number of panels = 10,632 kWh / 1.3 / 400W = 20 panels
3. Select the Solar Panel Type
There are three primary types of solar panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin film. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Solar panels can have varying designs, too, including rigid, flexible, or portable. You’ll need to decide which types and designs suit your needs.
Monocrystalline, Polycrystalline, or Thin Film
- Monocrystalline consists of a single crystal of silicon. This type of photovoltaic panel has the highest efficiency ratings and the longest lifespan of the three solar technologies, but they are the most expensive. The EcoFlow 400W Portable Solar Panel is an example of monocrystalline technology with a conversion efficiency rating of up to 23%.
- Polycrystalline panels comprise numerous tiny crystals called “grains.” They cost less, partly because they’re simpler to make, but they also have lower efficiency ratings (13-16%) and tend to be less portable.
- Thin film solar panels feature thin layers of photovoltaic material on a sheet of glass, metal, or plastic. They are smaller, lightweight, and portable but less efficient. Their conversion efficiency rating tends to be around 7-18%.
Rigid, Flexible, and Portable
Whether your panel is rigid, flexible, or portable matters because it affects your installation, EcoFlow offers all three types of solar panels, which you can read about below.
- Rigid solar panels are ideal for permanent installations that don’t require the panels themselves to be portable. Rigid solar panels tend to be the most durable in any weather conditions. If you are roof mounting them at home or on an RV, they typically require you to drill holes for installation.
- Flexible solar panels can curve to almost 250°, making them ideal for small van and camper roofs with less surface area. They are lightweight, but the industrial adhesive used to “mount” them might not be enough to keep them affixed in severe weather conditions.
- Portable solar panels don’t require a permanent installation. Instead, portable solar panels feature foldable, lightweight designs that you can set up anywhere. The setup is simple, and you can move the panels throughout the day to ensure you capture the most available sunlight.
4. Select the Portable Power Station
Portable solar panel systems typically store their energy in a portable power station. Portable Power Stations contain everything you need to convert solar power into electricity and store it in a solar battery for later use.
If you’re not using a portable power station, the most common types of solar batteries are lead-acid or lithium phosphate.
Lead-acid batteries are more affordable but far less durable. Lithium-ion batteries are higher priced but lighter and longer lasting. Lithium-ion technology also has deeper cycles, meaning a longer lifespan and more efficient energy storage.
Whether you use a lead-acid or lithium battery, make sure it is compatible with your solar panels. Solar panels and power stations don’t have universal designs, so the connections on your solar panel array may not work with the portable power station you purchase. In most cases, buying your entire solar power system from the same manufacturer is best. That way, you sidestep any frustrating compatibility issues.
5. Purchase the Balance of System
Every piece of your solar system that isn’t your panels is part of the balance of system. These components allow you to create a solar panel system.
The components may include:
- Charge controller, which measures and maintains a steady voltage flow into and out of batteries to keep them from overcharging
- Inverter for turning DC into AC
- Mounting system
- 12-10 ring terminal
- 20A blade fuse and relays
- Battery bank
- Battery charger
Some newer solar panel systems — such as EcoFlow Solar Generators and Portable Power Stations — eliminate the need to purchase all the components of the balance of system separately. For more robust and permanent off-grid solar panel systems, the EcoFlow Power Kits contain the charge controller and inverter in the same power hub, saving space and hassle.
Once you have your solar panels, portable power station, and balance of system (if required), you’re ready for installation.
6. Gather the Necessary Tools and Components
Besides the solar panel system, you’ll need the following tools for a successful setup:
- Wire stripper
- Wire crimper
- Battery-operated drill
7. Understand How Solar Panels, Charge Controller, Battery, and Inverter Work Together
Before you start mounting and wiring, it’s best to grasp how the parts work together.
Any solar panel system has four components: inverter, battery, solar panel, and charge controller. The solar panel harnesses solar power from sunlight. The DC power generated by the solar panels is stored in the solar batter, but first, it needs to pass through the charge controller, which prevents the panels from overloading the battery with more power than it can store. The charge controller ensures long battery life and safety.
The inverter connects to the battery and charge controller. Its function is to convert direct current (DC) into alternating current (AC), commonly known as household electricity which most appliances use.
If you’re building your solar panel system from scratch, you should protect each connection with a fuse. Place a fuse between the solar panel and charge controller, the controller and the battery, and the battery and inverter. Place each fuse on the positive wires of each connection.
With some systems, like the EcoFlow DELTA solar generators, you can eliminate this complicated process since the solar generators come with built-in charge controllers and inverters.
8. Mount the Solar Panels
Several ways to install solar panels exist, but people generally choose ground, roof, or pole mounts.
In a ground mount, you will install your solar panels along an angled metal construction to pick up the most rays as the sun arcs across the sky. The setup doesn’t need leveling like roof-mounted panels, and unlike roof mounting, you can adjust your ground mounting so that it’s always facing the sun. Ground mounting is excellent for large systems. It’s easier to access and more economical. However, this setup also requires extensive land availability if you use fixed mounts.
For this reason, most homeowners opt for roof mounting, with the solar panels installed on the roof and angled toward true south for the most sun exposure. The advantage here is a “set it and forget it” mentality. You’ll be generating power without thinking about it, and it only takes up space on your roof — not your yard. The disadvantage is that you have to drill holes. Also, they’re hard to clean since they’re on the roof, but in most cases, the rain will help take care of that.
Pole mounting means installing skyward-facing, 90-degree tilted panels on the sides of poles. You can also do a top-of-pole mount, which means the panels just off the top of the pole rather than hang off the side, or you can do multi-pole ground mounts, which is ideal if you have a bank of panels to set up rather than 1-4.
If you’re using multiple solar panels, now is the time to connect them all. Depending on whether you want to increase voltage or current value, you can opt for a series or a parallel connection.
9. Set up the Inverter (Maybe Optional)
With your panels mounted, it’s time to connect them to your inverter.
Bolt the ANL fuse to the positive battery cable, and then plug the inverter’s 12V plug into the 12V socket on the NOCO GC018 cable. The point here is to create connections between the battery and the inverter. Connect the positive cables from the inverter and the battery to the positive terminal on the battery. Then do the same with the negative cables.
If your inverter has an LED indicator, it should be blinking or solidly green at this point.
Now the charge controller. Find the battery terminals on the plug side of your charge controller and insert the negative battery cable, ensuring the end is stripped. Connect it to the battery, and a second green light should come on, indicating the charge controller is online.
You can skip this step if you’re purchasing a solar generator like the EcoFlow DELTA Pro, which has a built-in inverter and charge controller.
10. Connect the Solar Panels to the Battery
With everything mounted and wired, it’s time to connect the solar panels to the charge controller or power station. The precise setup will depend on whether your PPS has a built-in charge controller.
You need to manually connect your solar panels if you don’t have a built-in charge controller. The PV panels have the same positive and negative ports as your inverter, battery, and charge controller. Do the same as before and connect the MC4 inline fuse to the positive solar panel cable. Then connect that cable to the charge controller adapter and repeat the same for the negative side. Plug those into your charge controller.
Bingo! A third green LED indicator should light up.
Once you’ve connected everything, it’s a good idea to do a test run to verify that the solar panels are working. The last situation you want is to need to install the system with a storm on the horizon.
To get off the grid, you almost have to build your own. But as you can see from this guide, installing a solar panel system yourself is more than possible. Whether you buy a plug-and-play solar panel system from a reputable manufacturer like EcoFlow — or elect to DIY.
So long as you’re working with quality, compatible components, you can be up and running with solar power in no time.