Solar energy is clean and free, which means using it to power your home is a wonderful concept. So can you ditch your utility company and rely entirely on the sun’s rays? Well, probably not quite yet for a typical home – but solar power is more practical and affordable than ever before, thanks to advances in solar technology and manufacturing.
There are several different ways to integrate solar power into your home, so we’ve put together a primer to help you get started. Here in Part I, we’ll look at features and advantages of the three most common types of home solar energy systems.
Residential solar systems can be integrated into a local power grid, they may be totally independent or “off-grid”, or they may be a combination of both. Deciding which system is best for a particular home depends on the intended use, and how much power a home needs compared with how much energy a particular solar setup can reasonably produce.
Grid Integrated or “Grid-Tied” Solar Energy Systems
Solar arrays (groups of interconnected solar panels) that are integrated into a home’s local power grid connection are the simplest type of system, since they simply channel electricity from the panels to the existing electrical infrastructure of the home. They’re a great option for many houses, since they reduce the amount of electricity drawn from power plants and can actually generate a profit when surplus power flows back into the local grid system (in the process known as “net metering”).
The only major equipment needed for a grid-integrated solar energy setup is the array of solar panels and an inverter to change DC power from the panels into AC power, so installation is fairly straightforward. Homeowners simply continue to use household electricity as normal, while enjoying the benefit of lower utility bills.
Independent or “Off-Grid” Solar Energy Systems
For an application like a remote vacation cabin, or for a home prone to blackouts that needs a backup power source, a completely independent solar energy setup may be the answer. Such a system is more complex and expensive however, since household appliances can’t simply plug directly into a solar panel. And covering all of a home’s electricity requirements usually requires both a substantial solar array and some serious energy conservation, so independent systems aren’t a practical standalone solution for most homeowners.
In addition to solar panels and an inverter to convert the “raw” electricity from the solar panels into usable current, an off-grid system needs a way to store the electricity in a usable way (typically an array of regulated battery packs). These components will be covered in more detail in Part II of our Home Solar Power Guide.
Hybrid or Combination Solar Energy Systems
Combination systems are the priciest and most complex, but they offer best of both worlds. A home can continue to use grid power whenever needed, as well as sell electricity back to the system if the solar panels produce excess power. But a hybrid system can function on its own as well, providing a reliable source of electricity for essential appliances in the event of a blackout.
Hybrid systems require all the components of an independent “off-the-grid” system, as well as additional equipment to allow homeowners to transition between grid power and solar without rewiring the entire home if the lights go out.
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In Part II of our Home Solar Power Guide, we’ll examine some of the specific features and technologies in a home solar energy system.
(images 1 & 3 courtesy of SunRun)