Solar Power Used To Supplement Electric Use
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Solar Power Used To Supplement Electric Use

Harness the sun to heat or cool by solar energy. Solar panels can reduce the cost of electricity.

While keeping their home primarily dependent on the power grid, some homeowners are looking to solar power to reduce some of the costs associated with running the household. Not everything powered by the sun's energy runs on electricity and looking beyond the most common interpretation of solar power, many are finding that the thermal energy provided by the sun can help reduce their energy costs.

Heating a swimming pool, for example can be an expensive proposition, with an electric pump moving the water from the pool through a chamber heated by electric, gas, oil or some other expensive commodity. Some have learned that using solar power greatly reduces their energy costs, regardless of the type of fuel required for the heat. The water still has to be pumped at least one way from or to the pool, but heating the water with solar power cuts off a large chunk of the bill.

Using large black plastic or rubberized containers, water is pumped out of the pool and into the bladder where it remains exposed to the sun until it reaches a designated temperature. At that time it can be returned, by gravity, back to the pool with the water heated by solar power. If the system is thought through before it is installed, the pumps can be designed to work on solar energy as well, providing a heated pool at no operational cost. See article on solar pool heaters:

Remote Access To Electricity Boosts Solar Energy Use

There are some locations to which electric power has not been extended, and in some applications, such as a small hunting or fishing cabins, the use of solar power provides electricity where it would otherwise be unavailable. In some of these areas it is not considered a good investment by the electric company to extend their power lines and the cabin's owner cannot afford to pay for the installation. Using solar power they can enjoy many of the comforts at home without the added cost of an electric bill.

Even campers can use portable devices as a source of solar power, with many of the newer solar cells being designed into flexible panels that can be rolled up and carried in backpacks on camping trips. They can be used to provide use of small appliances as well as for charging cell phones and listening to emergency radio broadcasts. Having the means of providing portable solar power is also widely accepted by the military for power during field operations.

Size Of Solar Panels Determines Amount Of Available Power

In order to take advantage of alternative energy freely available from the sun, the production of electricity requires the use of solar panels to convert the sun's rays into electricity. One of the major problems inherent to the original design, being rigid and unbending, has been overcome with the development of flexible solar panels. However, the efficiency rating has not been improved significantly enough to make their installation and use economically feasible.

On average, solar panels work at about 12 percent efficiency, although some of the more recently developed panels can work at 20-percent and a panel measuring about eight square feet can produce 150-watts of electric power. This translates into the need for a large array of solar panels to provide enough power to operate an average home. To determine the size of the array needed to operate a home, add all of the wattage requirements of all of the appliances in the home to determine energy need.

In most installations, the solar panels do not operate the appliances directly. The electricity produced is sent to a large array of batteries that stores the electricity for later use. The power from the batteries is sent through a converter to change it from the 12-volt direct current into 120-volt alternating current for household use. When the power is siphoned off the batteries a regulator sends the solar power to them to maintain their charge.

Panels With Tracking Capabilities Work Best

In most installations the solar panels are in a fixed position as installers attempt to keep the number of working parts to a minimum. However, as the sun moves across the sky, the amount of direct sunlight hitting the panels is negatively influenced. In order to keep the solar panels aimed at the sun, some installations fix them to a tracking mechanism to keep them aimed at the sun for the entire day.

Many municipalities and states have installed solar panels on many roadside devices for power, as opposed to having to pay for the installation of electric lines to remote parts of highways. There are even solar powered parking meters lining the streets in some cities, but sometimes the shade trees planted to enhance the area interfere with their operation.

Shade and nighttime are the foes of solar panels, as they require direct exposure to produce enough power to operate whatever it is that it powers. Even the slightest bit of shade that covers a portion of the solar panels can have an adverse effect on the electic output.

Solar Heating Providing Warmth For Over A Century

Those who have stood outside on a sunny day already have a basic understanding of solar heating and there are already many devices available to harness that power and use it in everyday life. The idea of maintaining warmth with solar heating has been around for over a century and is still widely used today. Think about a greenhouse and its construction of glass or plastic panels and how the sun, passing through the glass, heats the interior of the building.

While the concept and practical application is sound, there are very few people who would be willing to sacrifice their privacy for the sake of using solar heating by living in a glass house. As a result, there have been methods designed to take advantage of the sun's ability to heat water and air and move that heated air or water into a house where it can do the most good.

One of the simplest forms of capturing and using solar heating can be done with a little bit of lumber and some empty aluminum cans. When constructed it can use the sun's rays to pass warmer air into small buildings to help take the edge off the cold without increasing energy costs.

Building Small Forced-Air Solar Heater

To make a small device for solar heating you will need to build a box. Start with a small box, about two by three feet made with pieces of lumber, two-inches by four-inches. Cover the back of the box with a piece of plywood between one-quarter to one-half inch thick, essentially whatever you can find.

Next take your collection of empty cans and cut a small hole in the bottom. The top should already have a hole where the tab is located. Set them in the box, top to bottom making a continuous loop inside the box and use duct tape to hold them together. This series of cans is what gathers the warmer air for use in solar heating. Cut a hole in the bottom of the box into which a piece of plastic tubing can be inserted, about one-inch diameter.

Fasten the box to the outside of a building or garage and cover the front with clear Plexiglas or glass. Run the hose from the hole in the box in another hole drilled in the outdoor building. One the sun comes up and strikes the glass, the air inside the cans will be heated and begin moving through the hose and into the building, pushed by the solar heating of the air.

Solar Heat Can Provide Warmth Economically

Anyone who has ever used a magnifying glass in the sun to set a piece of paper on fire has a basic understanding of solar heat and how it can be used to provide warmth, sometimes excessively in a confined area. While most people consider using the sun as an alternative source for electricity, the fact is that solar heat was used over 100 years ago to heat water to provide heat in homes. The thermal heat available from the sun can easily be felt on a hot summer day and when harnessed can provide energy for numerous uses.

For a better understanding of how solar heat can be useful, consider having left a garden hose lying out in the yard during the summer, even for only an hour or so. When the water is turned on, the first water out of the hose that was left in it when it was left out is going to be considerably warmer. This same concept can be used to provide solar heat for a variety of applications such as heating water in a swimming pool, providing hot water for household use and to provide heat for the home.

The biggest opponent to using solar heat is the pipes used for transferring the heated water from any collection container to the house or pool. Holding the water in a special bladder or container can allow the sun to heat it before being moved to where it is required.

Thicker Water Stays Warmer Longer

Most devices constructed to provide solar heat do not count on the water alone to move the heat from the course to where it is needed. For example, to provide heated water to a home, the water collector has to be in the sunlight. As the water is moved from outside, the heat dissipates and can lose a lot of the thermal advantage simply by entering the building. Many applications call for using a substance such as salt in the water, which has shown to allow the water to hold the heat longer as it travels through the pipes.

In colder climates, this type of heat can be sporadic as the water has to be outside in order to be hit by the sun and in the evenings or during cloudy days, the water can freeze putting an end to the source of the solar heat. Water treated with salt or other materials can slow down the rate at which it freezes, but some of the components may still be subjected to damage from the cold weather.

Solar Energy Proving To Be Clean And Abundant

When most people hear the term solar energy they instantly think about how the sun is converted to electricity. They seem to forget about the thermal energy produced by the sun that helps provide warm air and water for a variety of energy resources. With high oil prices, along with a dwindling supply and the environmental impact that fossil fuels can have on the environment, many individuals and companies are switching to solar energy to provide a clean source of power.

To provide electricity, solar energy captures the sun's rays using photovoltaic cells that converts the energy into electricity. Although, the electricity produced is only 12-volt direct current, it can be converted to the type 120-volt alternating current required by most household electrical appliances by using a power converter. Additionally, there have been many more appliances that operate on 120-vot direct current. Most of them were designed for portable use by being plugged into a vehicles 12-volt outlet, but they do work with solar energy.

The biggest draw back in converting to solar energy in homes or businesses is the initial cost. Since the current crop of solar cells, the grouping of photovoltaic cells that convert the energy into electricity only operates at about 15-percent efficiency, so many of them are required that it is costly to install enough of them to provide the power needs.

Return On Investment Provides Free Electricity

Despite the current high initial cost, once a facility has been converted to solar energy they can use far less power from the utility grid. The more power that is converted from the sun the less electricity is required, putting a significant dent in the electric bills. It is estimated that the initial cost of converting an average home to solar energy will be recouped in about 15 to 18 years.

During that time, electric bills will be much lower ad once the cost has been recovered, the payoff can be tremendous. With most of the components needed to operate a home on solar energy having a warranted life of 20 years, the investment is considered worthwhile. However, not all appliances, such as electric heaters and those that use a large amount of power for operation, may still require more than the sun for their use.

Many homes that have switched to solar energy remain connected to the power grid for the times that the sun is not shining strong enough to power the solar cells as well as to have sufficient electric to power some of the more energy-hungry devices in the home. As an added benefit, the homeowner may also be repaid for the electricity generated, if they produce more than they need. In many areas of the country, a solar electric generated system can be tied into the electricity grid any power not needed by the owner is added to the power flowing through the grid. The electric provider will then pay the homeowner for the amount of power fed into the grid, helping to offset the expense of the system.

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Comments (3)

I see homes with solar power sometimes... it still hasn't taken off a lot here.. but I see it sometimes. It's amazing how you can harness the sun to generate electricity in the panels.

very interesting article. I would love to do this at some stage in a house I am going to stay in for many years. I was listening to a radio program the other day and they were saying how it could be achieved by getting the panels for free but letting the panel company have the money you make over your own fuel costs, seems worth looking into.

Very good article on solar power, Raymond. I installed it on my hunting cabin several years ago to power a few lights, a shortwave radio transceiver (my only contact with the world) and a small refrigerator. I have a fireplace for heat and a wood stove for cooking. Before I installed solar I used a propane powered generator but hauling those propane cylinders 25 miles from the nearest road was a real hassle even with my ATV.