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Off-Grid Basics

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Off-Grid and Battery Backup Solar

New Farm Solar drone view of a solar off-grid home in Arkansas

Did you know that New Farm Solar is one of Arkansas’ leading off-grid solar installers? Since 2014, New Farm Solar has delivered quality solar systems— grid-tied, hybrid, and off-grid— to Arkansas homes, farms, and businesses. Patrick Villines, owner of New Farm Solar, began his career in 2006, working under Jimis Damet of Rocky Grove Sun Company, one of three NABCEP-certified solar professionals in Arkansas at the time. Their installations were mainly off-grid systems for many years. You can read more about our company’s origin story on our about page here. This unique background and set of experiences have led Patrick to be a source of knowledge on the design and installation of off-grid systems.

A growing number of people are interested in having at least a battery backup system for use during power outages. Many people do want total off-grid capability with their solar array. It could be that they live where access to the power grid isn’t available or limited, or they just want peace of mind and satisfaction in being self-sufficient from the utility company.

Though off-grid solar setups are more expensive due to more working parts, they appeal to those seeking a simpler way of life, rural customers, preppers, and others who just don’t want to rely on the grid for power.

Arkansas off-grid ground-mounted solar array designed and installed by New Farm Solar

The basics of off-grid and hybrid solar systems

Off-grid solar systems are more involved than grid-tied systems in terms of design considerations and installation. Rather than connecting your panels and inverter to work in conjunction with the utility company’s power, off-grid systems are set up to draw in electricity and store that electricity in batteries to run the home when the sun isn’t shining. The batteries are a component that needs to be in place for an off-grid setup, and they can quickly double or triple the cost of your system. What is known as a hybrid solar system is a combination of grid-tied and off-grid. With a hybrid system, you are connected to the grid when the grid is available, and you save money by generating your own electricity for the most part, but you also have the capability to run your home strictly from your solar array and batteries in emergency situations when the electric grid is down. The batteries and off-grid components only kick in when power isn’t available from the grid.

An off-grid or hybrid system might be for you if you live in a very rural or remote area or you experience relatively frequent power outages. Some might argue that a backup generator is a better option, as it is less cost prohibitive. Backup generators are indeed the cheaper option, however, solar backup may make more sense if you do not have a gas line in place. When generators rely on fuel, that fuel will eventually run out. You are then faced with depending on the supply and current prices of that resource and the challenge of storing fuel. Off-grid or hybrid solar systems belong completely to the homeowner; they don’t have to worry about the maintenance challenges and fuel and oil needs of a generator. Additionally, solar energy isn’t noisy and doesn’t put off emissions. We will go more into detail on generators versus solar battery backup in a future blog, so stay tuned.

The initial investment in off-grid solar is not cheap, but in the long run, it could save you thousands of dollars. The cost of public utilities continues to increase. Solar is an investment that will pay for itself! Hybrid battery backup systems are a popular option because they’re not as expensive as fully off-grid systems and they give homeowners the ability to have power when the electricity goes out. Not only that but often hybrid systems save homeowners thousands of dollars over the course of a year by off-setting their usage.

Fully off-grid setups aren’t for everyone, but if you want the self-reliance of off-grid, you’ll need to consider the energy consumption of your home and size your battery and your modules to meet those needs. Water heaters, heating and cooling systems, along with large appliances like dryers are the biggest energy consumers. Consider energy-efficient appliances and how you can reduce your home’s energy needs. When we consult with you about your site, we will ask all of these questions and factor all of it into the solar design for your home.

New Farm Solar designs all of our systems to be buildable, meaning that you can add on in the future should you need to. We size our systems very specifically to meet the energy consumption needs of each site. We also prioritize installing products that are easily field serviceable, so if something does need to be worked on we can help resolve the issue quickly.

What do you need for an off-grid system?

batteries and solar inverters for an off-grid solar system  installed by New Farm Solar

To set your home up with off-grid power, you’ll need a properly sized array, an inverter, a charge controller, and the right size battery bank. We consider each appliance in your home and the last 12 months of usage for your home when sizing the system. The charge controller is needed for hybrid and off-grid solar as it regulates the current going into the batteries so they are optimally charged. Without a charge controller, the system would be much harder on the batteries and wear them down quicker, decreasing the life of the batteries drastically. Battery banks can overcharge and over-discharge without something to regulate the flow of voltage in and out of the battery. If batteries are charged too “high” they can off-gas hydrogen and oxygen, which is not safe. If batteries go too “low” (discharge), this will shorten the life of the battery. Charging too often can also shorten the life of the battery. Thus, charge controllers are an essential part of an off-grid or hybrid solar system.

These charge controllers control the amount of DC coming in from the modules to the battery, therefore the order of operation goes like this: the panels produce electrical current → it flows to the charge controller → then to the battery bank → inverter takes in DC power and conditions it → and finally the AC current is sent to the home.

New Farm Solar primarily uses Outback Power inverters for off-grid and hybrid systems, because we believe it is the best and strongest for these types of systems. Outback inverters can be serviced on-site and operated and monitored remotely through OpticsRE.

There are a couple of options when considering the battery bank for your off-grid or hybrid system. Lithium batteries are more expensive but they have a longer life expectancy of 20+ years. We like the LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate) batteries manufactured by Iron Edison. They have a built-in protective battery management system and digital read-out that shows the voltages of each cell as well as the state of charge. They are maintenance-free and long-lived, as mentioned. We recommend a battery bank of 4 batteries as a good-sized backup. You must keep your batteries housed in temperatures not below 40 degrees, so this is important to keep in mind with system design at your unique location.

While lithium batteries are the better choice for a longer-lasting investment, there is another option that we offer– PLC (pure lead-carbon) batteries made by NorthStar Battery that are lower in cost. These batteries are more affordable and do well for a backup system. For backup applications only, they have a 17+ year life expectancy. However, if you want to go fully off-grid, we still recommend lithium batteries for a long-lasting, dependable energy storage solution.

While this short overview just scratches the surface of how off-grid solar works and considerations on why you might want to go off-grid or have battery backup, our team possesses expertise in these types of systems. We’re happy to talk with you about your site and design if you are considering off-grid or battery backup solar!

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