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Solar Power: Living Well, Using Less

By Edited Jun 23, 2015 0 0
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Saving energy is of interest to everyone, whether you are building a solar-powered home or not. We don't worry about the bill, because we can usually pay for it, and it's not a large enough issue that we have to face up to it. Irritating perhaps, but it's just a part of life.

When you decide to be independent of the power company consumption becomes more important since up-front costs are all centered around power needs.  Usually, when you start planning your system, you look at your power bill as a guide. The amount of power your home uses varies, but typically a house consumes between 350KWH/month to 1200KWH/month. 1200KW is 1.2 million watts, now that's a lot of power!

The more power you need, the more expensive solar power becomes. If you can cut energy requirements in half, your system is twice as affordable. Large power requirements means it costs more to store it, more to collect it, and more equipment increases installation costs and system complexity.

Electricity YES, Heat NO
Appliances like an electric stove, or electric space heater are not compatible with solar. A microwave is no problem because it doesn't stay on very long. Heating is not something you want to use electricity for. If you need heat source you want to use wood, coal, propane or natural gas. This applies to ranges, ovens, hot water heaters, furnaces, things like that. There are ways to use solar for home heating and hot water, but when it comes to appliances you want to avoid using electricity for heating.

If you are going to purchase a new appliance, be sure it is as energy-efficient as possible. There is a wide range of energy consumption, and if you choose carefully you can save a lot over the life of the appliance. This is especially important if you are going off-the-grid solar.

Saving Power
No one wants to live in a cold dark cave, even if you could save power. Somehow we need to get the lifestyle we want with less energy. To make the right choices it helps to understand where the power in a home is being used.

Let's suppose I leave a 100 watt light bulb on in a closet in the basement. How much power will it consume in one month? That would be 2,400 watts per day * 30 days = 72,000 watts or 72kwh/month. If a small home can use 350KWH that's ~23% of our monthly energy used by one light bulb! The reason it adds up is that it's on all the time. Never ending loads that run continuously need to be kept to a minimum.

Now let's look at a popular appliance that uses a lot of power, the common toaster. A two slot toaster typically uses 750 Watts. It takes 1.5 minutes to make toast. and we make 3 batches of toast per day. How much power do we use? 1.5 minutes is .025 of an hour. .01875 KWH per batch of toast. That's .05625 KWH/day or 1.6875 KWH/month. The toaster uses only 2% of the power used by the light bulb, even though it uses 7.5 times the power when it's making toast. You can see it's not how much power you need, but how long you need it that makes the difference.

So, the importance of reducing power is found by;  (wattage of the device) * (monthly hours it's on). Some devices like a refrigerator or freezer come on and turn off throughout the day, making it difficult to know how much power is actually being used. I purchased an inexpensive device called a "Kill-A-Watt" which you can use to watch something like a fridge for 24 hours and see how much power that it requires. A fridge and a freezer are both hard to predict without such a device. These are also important loads that are needed but which can use a lot of power.

Lighting
So as you consider methods on reducing power consumption, the first place we need to look is at lighting. Why? Because it runs for hours at a time.

The best choice for lighting is a personal one, but I'm going to look at things from a technical and not aesthetic point of view. The visual quality of light varies with every technology, and there are a lot of choices within each.

The different type bulbs now available are:

   1. Incandescent  These are still being made, but use a lot of power for the light they produce.
   2. Flourescent     Better, but waste power in the ballast, and are switching at too low a frequency.
   3. Compact Fluorescent - Better than old fluorescents because they use a high switching frequency and fluoresce better, releasing more light.   
   4. LED    The best light source available, and getting better.

Compact Fluorescent lights are what I use here, and they have improved a lot since I first started buying them many years ago. Small voltage variations cause light fluctuations in incandescent or fluorescent bulbs, but remain steady with Compact Fluorescents. Nice.

I'm currently working on replacing all my lights with LED types. They are incredibly efficient, and last a very long time. When you buy light bulbs look online. You'll find some real bargains.

Other Appliances
Stereos, radios and most audio equipment is very efficient (unless you have old tube gear) so sound is not a problem.

TVs are another important case for shopping around. I have a 42" LCD tv which is really nice, but I wish I had gotten an LED big screen instead. Look for energy star ratings when buying new, power use varies a lot. The TV is often on for long periods and power savings here are worth the effort.  So buy smart.

We have a freezer that we bought with great care, which had a very good energy star rating. It was amazing to me how much variation there is between freezers that look exactly the same. Our freezer has worked well and it saves us money on food and energy at the same time. There are freezers and fridges that are designed for maximum efficiency and solar power home use that are really great but very pricey. In some cases the money you save in buying a mainstream appliance will allow you to buy extra panels that will more than compensate for the extra power used. Sometimes the best technology is not the best deal.

Computers are a big issue here so we use laptops wherever possible. Tablet PCs are great for reducing power use, and when you set up your network try to buy low power components. If you can't live without your turbo-powered water cooled monster PC you might need to add more panels, it's up to you.

Once you start looking specifically to save energy, problems, ideas and solutions pop into your mind and influence your choices in a positive way. You don't have to give up on what you want, and you don't have to. In some cases you will end up with something better than you have now, how sweet is that?

Go Solar!

P3 International P4460 Kill A Watt EZ Electricity Usage Monitor
Amazon Price: $59.95 Too low to display Buy Now
(price as of Jun 23, 2015)
GE 13-Watt Energy SmartTM - 8 Pack - 60 watt replacement
Amazon Price: $14.99 $9.00 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 23, 2015)
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