The Evolution of Our Solar Arrays

By Cam Mather

Just as we have tried to evolve as human beings as we age, the solar panels that power our home have gone through an evolutionary process in the years that we’ve lived here. When someone asks me, “What’s the biggest mistake you made when you moved to your off-grid house?” I usually reply, “How much time have you got?” The short answer to this question is that I wish I’d invested in more solar panels as soon as we moved in.

Now hindsight is always 20/20 and I forget that solar panels were a lot more expensive back in 1998. Even so, I wish I’d taken money out of my retirement savings plan and put up more PV. It simply would have made our lives so much easier. But of course, at the time there wasn’t a “Renewable Energy Handbook” to refer to, so we had to make it up as we went along.

When we bought this place there were eight 60-Watt solar panels sitting on the ground held up by two supports, sort of like a pup tent. In the summer, when the sun is much higher in the sky, I knew that I was missing some potential energy and so I convinced my neighbor Ken to help me make a tracker. Ken, the maestro of all things steel and concrete came up with a great design. He even found me a perfect 12-foot pipe to put into the ground. I wanted about 4 feet of the pipe to be above ground. Ken suggested that we could just cut 4 feet off the pipe. I prefer to over-engineer things so I just dug the hole 8 feet deep. That’s the beauty of sand. And when a huge wind storms blows through, I’m happy to know that my solar tracker stand is dug in nice and deep.

Once the post was cemented in to the ground, Ken fabricated the tracker. He let me do some of the welding, mostly on the parts that ended up below ground. The tracker is great because it allows us to angle the panels to capture as much light as possible. But pretty soon I knew we needed more PV. Our then-teenaged daughters were still living at home back then and they enjoyed watching a bit of TV and having long showers. So Ken developed a steel rack that we could bolt to the existing tracker and we added four 75-Watt panels. As I recall we paid about $10/watt for these panels so they were about $750 each. This upgrade cost us about $3,000. I like to remind people of this, especially when someone tells me how “jealous” they are of us not having a monthly electricity bill.

At that time we were using a propane fridge (as many off grid homes do) but I didn’t like the expense of the propane or the carbon it produced or the fact that it was vented inside. So we added another 4 panels to the remaining spaces on the frame. It was tough to look at those empty spaces on the rack, but they weren’t empty for very long.

After discovering what a difference the additional PV made, I decided I wanted even more. At this point in my life I look at solar panels as being “hard assets” and I feel that they are a better investment than stocks or mutual funds. We got a deal on four-165 Watt panels and I went back to Ken to ask for his help building and installing another tracker. He had a new design in mind for the second tracker which incorporated a car jack so that I could easily change the angle of the panels as the sun got higher or lower over the course of the year.

So the next tracker went in the ground with 4 panels, and room for 4 more. Once again, I hated looking at those empty spots and so it wasn’t long before more money left my retirement fund and went into more solar panels to fill up the tracker. This time around Ken stayed long enough to help me mount and affix the panels (which is a two person job) and then he left me to wire them into the combiner box myself.

Our first tracker is about 1,000 Watts altogether, and our second tracker is about 1,400 Watts, so now we have close to 2,400 Watts, or almost two and half kilowatts of PV at our place.

For various reasons (the recession and the excess inventory of PV when it hit) you can buy PV panels now for about $2.50/watt, as opposed to the $10/watt we were paying when we first started buying them. But I don’t regret a penny of my investment. As an early adopter I helped convince PV manufacturers to invest and their investment has driven the price low enough that no one can tell me they’re too expensive anymore.

By adding more solar panels and generating more electricity we have been able to shift most of our propane loads like hot water and cooking to electric, so we are using less and less propane every year. We’d like to pull the plug on propane altogether. Right now it’s a convenient back up for when we experience extended periods without sun and wind.

If I won a lottery tomorrow, more solar trackers would sprout up on my property like toadstools! We don’t need more panels, since our system works exceptionally well right now but if I had money to spare I’d add a few more anyway. If you’ve been thinking about adding PV to your home, the time has never been better. The price and availability have never been better. And the planet has never needed you more than it does right now to get those solar panels on your roof.

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4 Responses to “The Evolution of Our Solar Arrays”

  • Thanks so much for your comments! The best advice that we can give you is to read “The Renewable Energy Handbook” by William Kemp. It’s the book that we WISH we had when we first bought this place and had such a steep learning curve ahead of us! I think you’ll find by reading our blog and visiting our website http://www.aztext.com that living off-grid is very doable and very rewarding! ~Michelle ~

  • Diego:

    I’ve been reading your blog for sometime now and I can’t get enough. I just purchased 37 acres of land, in Kitchener, Ontario, the only problem is it will cost me around $60 000 to bring in hydro. After doing some research about my off grid options I discovered your blog, and it has been an inspiration to me ever since. Your posts are both informative and seriously funny, thanks for all the work you put into them. Hopefully in a couple years I will have a solar powered house heated with wood, and small scale traditional farm. Thanks again for your site and do you have any advice for an off the grid virgin, besides reading your book?

  • Cam, have you looked into home heliostat possibilities. I have looked at several web pages describing such home projects, but not a lot of hard information. As an alternate to PV, what is the next best investment?

    Love your articles and you have a lovely family!

    P.S. Growing season is coming up fast, what are your words of wisdom for us Mid Eastern US food gardeners. (Historic Chestertown, MD 2160)

  • CJ:

    I love the picture with everyone outside with their electronic gadgets. Must have been a real hoot to grow up in your household.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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