Monday, March 12, 2018

Basics of Solar Panels: Installation

So you know how many solar panels you want, you know what size your battery bank is, and you know if your installation will be on a house or on an RV.

This article assumes that you have purchased the panels and are ready to install them.

  • I will cover the electrical installation and positioning of the panels, not the physical installation. I will cover the basics of installing it on a roof, or atop most RVs, but there are so many options that I cannot cover everything.
  • This is only meant as a basic guide. I do not know what your specific situation is, and I am not an electrician. Have things double checked, and don't burn your house down. 
  • This is not instruction for a “grid tie” system that will connect to the normal household power and to your municipal power. Those are much more complex, and much more difficult, and involve your breaker/fuse box. 
  • This is meant for a stand-alone system that does not connect to your normal household power, and instead only connects to a battery bank. If you want to do a grid tie system, you must do a lot of research that is beyond the scope of this article, and please seriously consider hiring a professional.


Installing on an RV:
  • Install the panel flat on the top of the RV. I do not recommend installing it at an angle to the roof of the RV, since it will catch air as you drive.
  • Don't install it next to any tall protruding objects on the roof, since those can block the sun from reaching the panels.
  • I recommend that you place the panel so that it has the shortest distance to your battery bank.
On a Household Roof:
  • Place it so that the sun will not be blocked by anything on the roof (chimney, swamp cooler, etc.) and so that it will get the sun for the longest period of time during the day. 
  • I recommend south facing as a rule, unless you have something that will block the sun from that direction, such a neighbor with tall home, or an inconveniently placed mountain.

On a Non-Mobile Ground Installation:
  • I recommend that you put the panel in at an angle to the ground, usually around 45 degrees in the US. There are all sorts of calculators online for the optimum angle, but for the majority of the continental US, it will not make a notable difference.
  • The exception to this is areas with severe wind, because it may rip the solar panel off of the roof if it is at an angle.

Once you have decided on a place to install the solar panels, purchase brackets.
  • If you are going to install them at an angle, I recommend brackets like these (be sure to purchase the right size for your panels) :
  • If you are going to install them flush with the surface that they are going on, I recommend these
  • You may also wish to purchase some roof sealant, to waterproof and weatherproof fittings. 
The brackets should include installation instructions for the specific model. Most of them require a drill, a hammer, a tape measure, a marking pencil, drill bits and driver bits. You will drill into the surface and attach the specific bracket.

Be very careful with this step. If any wire is frayed, damaged etc, you may need to replace it.
  • TURN ANYTHING OFF IF YOU ARE WORKING ON IT. This is dangerous, and don’t do this with live wires.
  • Red is positive, black is negative. Remember to use appropriately colored wires as you continue the run.
  • If you are installing multiple panels, connect the wires before they get to the charge controller. Match red wires with red, and black with black. DO NOT mix the red and the black wires.
  • If you have to run the wires along the inside (or outside) of the structure, make sure to use appropriate fasteners. I recommend using regular cable ties to keep things neat.
  • When connecting wires, make sure to use water proof crimp style connectors, such as this or this
  • The longer the wires have to go to get to the charge controller, the more power will be lost to something called voltage drop, which means the electricity will become heat instead of filling your battery bank. There are charts on how to calculate voltage drop online. If you properly size your wire, and keep your runs short, you should be fine.
In an RV Installation:
  1. Run the wires through a rubber grommet and seal it with silicone sealant.
  2. Make sure that the grommet is placed underneath one of the solar panels to minimize exposure to the weather.
In a Non-Mobile Installation:
  1. Be very sure of your placement for your hole before you cut it. 
  2. If you have concerns, get a roofing contractor to make the hole and install the grommet to ensure that you will not damage the roof.

Charge Controller
  1. Connect the wires to the charge controller that you have purchased for the battery bank. (We covered what a charge controller is in this article). Make sure to connect red to positive etc.
  2. The charge controller should have connectors coming out of it to go to the batteries. Make sure to follow the installation instructions for the charge controller.

Congratulations, you have installed solar panels!

Remember to practice, and don’t lick the wires.

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