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Designing Your Home Solar Power System: Off-Grid, Grid-Tied, or Hybrid?

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Signing on for solar power system, but don’t know whether to grid-tie or go off-grid? Looking to find the best low-emission and energy-efficient solution? We’ll help you decide, and show you just how many options are out there for your solar systems ideas.

The discussion isn’t a strictly grid-tie versus off-grid, but a vast spectrum with various shades of gray. This article will give you everything you need to know to decide on the best solar setup for you.

There are two principal setups involved in a solar system for your home, with the third option being a composite of features from these. The essential components for all systems, regardless of type are panels (of course, right?), proper wiring, AC/DC inverter, and a charge controller.

Some of these components may be combined in different systems.

Off the Grid

Off-Grid Solar is what most people think of when they start shopping solar panels. There is a mystique to being completely off the main power grid and a sense of pride in making your own electricity, but of course it comes at a cost.

Off grid systems are generally more expensive than their grid-tie counterparts. Since electricity is often needed during the night and on cloudy days, they require more infrastructure. Essentially, you need to add a battery bank. You’re done, off grid, but are you really done? There are a lot of batteries to choose from.

Battery banks can get very large when you start thinking about your system running several days without direct sunlight. For that reason it’s almost a necessity to have a backup of some type, be it hydraulic or wind supplements to your solar network, or more often a simple generator.

Generators can be wired to kick on automatically, or you can manually operate them when you know your batteries are running a bit low.

Tied to the Grid

Grid-Tie Solar means using the local power grid as your battery backup. This is by far the easiest and cheapest way to get started with solar, and the best fit for most people and most circumstances. The setup is totally basic except for the installation of an AC/DC converter and an interrupt switch.

Any energy generated that is not being used by you is sent directly back to the power grid, and your meter will run backwards. When the sun goes down, your system goes back on grid power, bringing back some of the energy that you sent out earlier.

On cloudy days, the grid power can give you the extra boost needed so you can essentially have care-free energy like anyone else on the grid. But when the solar panels are hard at work, you’re getting that energy for free. It’s like having an unlimited battery bank without buying any batteries.

The biggest downside with grid-tied solar is that if the power goes out, then you are stuck with whatever your system can make during the day, and it’s lights out at night. Hybrid systems account for this little hiccup and fix the problem.

The Best of Both Worlds

Hybrid Solar Systems give you the best of both worlds, allowing you power when the grid goes down but still getting the cost-saving benefits while the local power lines are working.

Hybrid solar is sort of a combination. A battery bank and optional back-up generator are included, but you are still tied to the grid. Depending on the setup you can pull from the batteries at night and only invoke grid power when your batteries drain past a certain point, or turn on the generator to charge them as needed when the neighborhood goes dark.

Because of the limitless versatility, it’s a good idea to spend a little of your savings on electronics to automate some or all of this process.

It’s an important note that smaller generators can be harder to configure with automatic-on switches, so you might need to operate them manually, but you save a lot of money up front with a smaller generator.

Build as You Go

Another way to think of hybrid systems is building your solar network progressively. Start with an inexpensive system and a couple panels. Add panels until you are making enough power to run your house. Then go hybrid while building up funds for a true off-grid setup with a large battery bank and a powerful diesel generator.

Building your solar system in this fashion lets you start small and upgrade piece by piece until you have the perfect system for you. While you might spend a bit more on shipping in the long run, spreading out the cost makes the whole system more budget friendly, and you can get the best of all worlds.

Grid power is cheaper than running a generator, so it’s nice to have that option available in case a week-long winter storm interrupts your plans.

What Type of Solar System Should You Get?

It all comes down to you, your needs, and your budget. Even if you want to be totally off the grid eventually, starting with a grid tie system is the easiest and cheapest way to start utilizing solar power now.

If you want to dive right in, then layout your power needs and get the battery bank, generator, and panel array necessary to fulfill those needs. You can probably negotiate a discount by buying everything from a single solar distributor.

You might also find while building a hybrid setup that you have no need to go fully off-grid to get everything that you want, and in the process of building and upgrading over time, you can strike the perfect balance for yourself and your family.

Further reading: More articles about renewable energy

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