Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cabin Life: Installing A First Solar Panel

The PanelWell, it’s finally happened, I have electricity.  Granted, it’s not much electricity, but it’s a start.  I don’t need enough to run appliances or a whole house, just enough so that my phone and computer don’t go dead, and hopefully a light or two to read by.

A few months ago I got an e-mail from a reader who said he had an old solar panel lying around and didn’t need or want it anymore.  It was mine, he said, if I just came and picked it up.

You never know who you’re meeting through an e-mail, so I was a little wary.  So, fighting the urge to tell everyone where I was going and with whom just in case I didn’t make it back, I drove the little ways to his camp.  I did bring my girlfriend with me, you know, for protection. 

He was nice enough to pick us up at the boat launch and give us a ride out to his camp.  It was a nice place, bigger than mine, but much better set up.  He had running water, internet, and a beautiful location right on the water.  We got the solar panel and hung out for a little while, then headed back to the car.

I’m sad to admit it, but that was almost three months ago.  For three months, I’ve had this solar panel sitting in the cool shade of my shed, doing nothing.  I even had the charge controller and a deep cycle battery, but was too busy (lazy) to get around to hooking the thing up.

So this week I pulled everything out to the yard and set I up just to see what would happen.  The charge controller showed a charge, and I was angry with myself for putting off what turned out to be a ten minute job.

I left the panel out all day in full sun and went to town to buy an inverter.  I picked up a nice one and did some other errands before getting back home in the evening.  I was excited and ripped open the package for the inverter and hooked it up.  It immediately started flashing and beeping, and not in a good way.  The charge was too low on the battery to power the inverter.

No big deal I thought, it’ll take a couple of days for the battery to get fully charged.  But, since everything else seemed to be working, I set the panel up in its full-time place on the south side of the porch.  I moved the battery onto the porch and drilled a couple of small holes for the wires to run through.  I then fed the wire through, and the positive wire was about eight inches too short.  Of course.

The next day I went to the hardware store (again) and picked up some wire.  The thing was now fully set up and actively charging.  But not fast enough.  I took the battery to work the next day and plugged it in to the trickle charger.

Now, the battery is fully charged, the panel is up and running and hopefully it will be enough juice to keep the battery charged.  It’s a big step up in the cabin life, and the prospect of having light this winter is very exciting.


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Having grown up in the southern Adirondacks, Justin has always been at home in the mountains of New York. After graduating from Paul Smiths College, he began his career in the environmental field working for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. After a brief five year detour to Florida, Justin returned to the Adirondacks to live off the grid in a small cabin with no running water or electricity.

Justin continues to work and play in the outdoors, and maintains a blog about living off grid, hiking, and being outside in the Adirondacks called Middle of the Trail.

2 Responses

  1. Brad says:

    Look around, 12 volt DC LED bulbs (E27 common Edison style screw in base bulbs) are pretty cheap and will run forever, plus you can run a 12v radio, etc, rather than draw everything off the inverter – which takes power in addition to the AC draw.

    Or Look at Goal Zeros Light a Life*, Luna or other styles for quick and easy (though not always so cheap) alternatives to running your own wiring. Imagine being able to run lights, radio all late afternoon and evening, read in any corner of the cabin (did you fix the bed yet?) at your convenience.

    *GZ LAL 240 lumens, 3 watts draw, 12v dc. 5 of those bulbs draw less than one DC auto marker lamp!

  2. Paul says:

    Why don’t you mount it on the roof so the building doesn’t shade it? I have one similar in size with two deep cycle batteries and a 3000 watt inverter at my cabin and if it is just lights, even with the AC, you should be pretty well set if the weather cooperates. Might want to consider adding a small (marine style) wind turbine then you would be all set for sure. You can get one for 3 or 400 bucks. Make sure you keep the batteries far away from your bunk just in case!

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