off grid solar

What is an off grid solar system? What does it mean to go “off the grid” with solar?

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People say all the time that they want to get off the grid. Beyond just meaning getting away from it all for a while, getting off the grid has a specific technical meaning with regards to your relationship to your utility and how you get your power. So, what exactly does it mean to go off the grid? If you’re going off-grid, there are tons of options to consider when it comes to batteries, inverters, panels, mounting systems, and solar charge controllers. Each product is different and you can customize your kit in a countless number of ways, which is why it is vital to know exactly what you’re looking for and why. Generally, an off grid solar system has the following parts:

  1. Solar panels 
  2. Solar inverters
  3. Wiring/cables
  4. Mounting equipment 
  5. Charge controller
  6. Batteries 
  7. Safety equipment (safety disconnects, grounding equipment, surge protection)

Off the grid meaning explained: what is “the grid”?

The term “off the grid” refers to living autonomously without reliance on a utility for power. Off-grid living is often ideal for rural locations where there is a lack of reliable grid access. Off-grid homes will require alternative power options like solar energy.

To fully explain the grid in depth, first we need to talk about what utilities are and what they do. A utility provides a commodity or service that is vital to the general public. Utilities are in charge of bringing you power, water, or natural gas. Traditionally, utilities are expected to achieve three goals: production or generation, transmission, and distribution. The grid achieves the transmission and distribution goals, and it’s the infrastructure that allows power to come from the point of generation into your house. When there’s a blackout, it’s usually the grid that has been interrupted. When people consider going solar, they are usually interested in achieving as much independence from the grid as possible in order to lower their energy costs and achieve control over their own energy usage.

What kind of power do I get on the grid?

Power from all sources comes across the grid. How your power is generated is decided by the mix of power sources your utility has decided to use. Some states have Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) or renewable energy standard (RES). These are regulations which dictate that some percentage of the power being produced in the state must come from renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal. Twenty-nine states plus Washington D.C. have an RPS, and 8 more have set some renewable energy goal.

When something is “off the grid,” what does that mean?

When a building is off the grid, it means it has no connection or relationship with a utility. This means that all of the power you are using is from a source that you are generating yourself. For example, if your house was powered exclusively by a tiny private coal-fired power plant or a tiny nuclear reactor that only you were receiving power from, you would be ‘off grid’. This is because you would not be receiving any power from outside sources. Instead, you are generating everything that you’d need by yourself.

Does going solar mean I’m off the grid?

While going solar means that you’re producing power, you’ll most likely still be on the grid. The majority of residential solar power systems in the United States are connected to the grid. This allows you to draw power from the grid when your system is not producing power, like at night. In most states when you have a solar panel system, you use the power you produce first and only draw on the grid when you need to. When you produce more power than you need, it is fed into the grid and the utility then takes over to move it where it is needed. When this type of a policy is in place to define the relationship between a solar energy system owner and the utility it is called net metering. In this case, the utility acts as an unlimited battery backup source. As more and more people go solar, people are rethinking not only how you relate to your utility but also what is the job of a utility.

Off-grid solar explained: what’s the incentive?

People want to get off the grid for all sorts of reasons. As utilities and regulators try to figure out what their responsibilities will be in a future where more power is created by distributed sources, we’re seeing an increasing number of utilities adding fees for connecting to a solar installation to their customers’ monthly bill. Some people going solar might consider taking their house or property off the grid to avoid those fees, but the equipment needed to take your house off the grid can account for up to 25 percent of the total final cost of your system. Others may want to get off the grid to avoid possible blackouts or brownouts if steady electricity is not something you can expect with your utility. Another argument for leaving the grid is to support the free market by avoiding the monopoly of the utility.

What does it take to go off the grid when you go solar?

Getting off the grid and having constant electricity can be an expensive proposition. In order to get off the electric grid and provide your own power using solar, you’ll need to buy a specially designed off-grid solar kit like Grape Solar’s GS-400 Off-Grid Kit or Renogy’s 400 Watt kit. Your system will also need a component that stores the extra energy that you don’t use when production is high, (like when the sun is out) so that you can use it when your system is not producing power (like at night) you can still have access to electricity. In order to have a place to store your power, you’ll need to add some batteries to your system. For most American homes you’ll need several batteries in order to store the power that you need.

If you’re thinking about going off the grid using solar, the EnergySage Marketplace can help you get started.

Going off grid safely

Producing energy completely independent of the grid poses many safety risks that need to be accounted for before you make the decision to go off grid. Any time you’re working with electrical systems, risks like lightning strikes, malfunctioning equipment, or electrocution are present. For these reasons, safety disconnects, grounding equipment, and surge protections should all be on your radar when buying components for any off grid system. All of these pieces will prevent harm to you or the wiring of your system. When in doubt, talk to a licensed electrician or solar installer to learn more about the safety requirements for going off grid with solar panels.

Best off grid solar systems in 2021

Separating yourself from the grid can be a costly and complicated process, which is why we’ve provided some product descriptions of products you will need to generate your own power off grid:

Renogy 400 Watt 12 Volt Solar Starter Kit

The Renogy off-grid solar system has a 25 year performance warranty accompanied by a 10 year materials warranty. You can efficiently produce off-grid solar on your boat, RV, cabin, shed, or trailer using the market-leading 21% monocrystalline panels. The package comes equipped with a charge controller, adaptor kit, brackets, and connectors. Additionally, the 30A PWM Wanderer Li charge controller has built in protections against things like overcharging and overloading, to name a few, for a longer functional life.

View this product on Renogy.

Unbound Solar 11.7kW system

If you need to produce a lot of off-grid solar electricity for a house and possibly even charge batteries at the same time, this solar kit may be right for you. The Unbound Solar Kit produces 52.6 kWh of energy in the summer and 26.3 kWh in the winter, and the 36 panel system includes a SolarEdge inverter which optimizes each panel individually. This type of inverter makes monitoring performance and troubleshooting an easy process, which is especially helpful when you’re generating energy from so many panels. 

View this product on Unbound Solar

WindyNation 400W kit

This off-grid kit is easily installed on smaller structures like RVs and boats, making it a good option for on-the-go solar energy production. Surprisingly given its physical size, it’s inverter has a 1500W capacity so you can run several appliances simultaneously. This system can also work well for a tiny cabin because it is easily expandable, but it is recommended to upgrade your solar charge controller with it if you choose to do so. This kit also uses polycrystalline solar panels, which in comparison to their monocrystalline counterparts are not as efficient. 

View this product on Amazon.


7 thoughts on “What is an off grid solar system? What does it mean to go “off the grid” with solar?

  1. Fred Kesler

    Luke, I was sort of expecting an article on how to take my home off-grid. The product you suggested above is meant to take an RV or small cabin off-grid.
    suggestions?

    Reply
  2. Sam Maggio

    that is only 3.3 kw a day. that is low and achieveable with solar, inverter, and 4 golf cart batteries. i have been off grid for 14 years and i use about what you use.

    Reply
  3. Don Colombel

    I am paying average $500.00 a month for power and around $100.00 a month for water. I have to get smarter about these expenses fast. The power usage is around 100 kw per month. What combination of equipment would you hook up to? We live on a farm out in the open spaces. Power panel, solar and windmill is what I’m looking at.

    Reply
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