Solar power systems are becoming simpler (or more complicated if you prefer) and cheaper as the years pass. There are, of course, large-scale, grid-tied home systems that are a popular way to get tax write-offs and participate in the green energy movement. These types require professional electricians, folks that know building codes, and all that jazz.

The large systems with lots of panels, gadgetry, shut-off switches, and up-front expense are great for drastically reducing electric bills and becoming a little more power conscious. However, in most instances, they are totally grid-reliant, feeding into the local power system and not projects for the DIY homeowner to tackle.

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On the other hand, for those who are curious, confident, and crazy enough to try it, setting up a simple solar system can be a fun and educational project. It can also provide lights and maybe a charging station for a tool shed, garage, or playhouse. With just a few hundred dollars, it’s possible to build a solar power system.

The Basic Components

Off-grid solar systems are built of four basic components: the panels, the batteries, the charge controller, and the inverter. Each of these has a simple function that makes sense even to beginners.

  • The panels harness the sunlight, converting it into energy to send to the batteries. The number of panels relates to the speed at which this energy can be absorbed, not how much energy can be used at all times.
  • The batteries store that energy so that it can also be utilized when the sun isn’t shining. Batteries are generally the most expensive component to solar set-ups, and they will determine how much energy is available when the weather is bad or at night.
  • The charge controller optimizes the amount of energy the solar panels transfer, giving the battery as much as possible when necessary and protecting the battery from overcharging when it has filled. This maximizes the life of the battery.
  • The inverter takes the power that comes from the battery via the solar panels and converts it into power that works with our electronic items. Most stuff in the US—laptops, lamps, chargers, fans, blenders, etc.—is designed to run off AC power. Batteries use DC power.

Note: There are actually rigs available now that combine the charge controller and inverter to make setting up DIY solar power even simpler.

The Order in Which Things Happen

When setting up a solar power system, these components have to be arranged in a specific order so that they can all perform their function correctly.

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  • The solar panel(s) feed into the charge controller.
  • The charge controller, then, feeds into the battery.
  • The battery sends the power to the inverter.
  • The inverter makes the power accessible via 120-volt AC receptacles, USB ports, etc.

The Solar Generator

In all honesty, understanding these components and what each one does is a huge step in setting up a simple system. The other intricacies, connecting wires between each and wiring receptacles (if necessary, many inverters have outlets already), are too idiosyncratic for a general guide. They will require an owner’s manual and, likely, a few YouTube videos like the ones included in this article. The skills necessary for a simple, self-contained system are attainable in a couple/few hours online.

If at this point your eyes are already crossed and the prospect of going further seems impossibly far out-of-reach, it is totally possible to buy solar generators, which can charge via solar panels or even plug-in at home, for considerably more investment and a lot less self-empowerment. In this case, the components are already wired together in a neat package, and the only thing left to do is mount the solar panels and connect them.

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Ready-to-roll solar generators can be found on Amazon or at home improvement stores, a la Lowes and Home Depot. For top-quality solar generators, Goal Zero Yeti systems, which range from powering a couple of things while camping to running multiple appliances at home, seem to be the consensus favorite.

solar system

Tony Webster/Flickr

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The trick before doing any of this, however, is sizing the system so that it provides the amount of power you need. In this regard, it’s best cost-wise and performance-wise to start with low-energy things, stuff that has its own rechargeable batteries like phones, tablets, USB flashlights, laptops, etc. These items can be charged on very limited systems whereas trying to power a TV or blow-dryer will require significantly more power, thus investment.

Here are some other fun “solar” projects with no electricity or wiring involved:

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