Off the grid: 10 ways to use solar energy for your home | TheUnion.com

Off the grid: 10 ways to use solar energy for your home

Sandy Philpott
Special to The Union

When I was 10 years old my mother uprooted us from Orange County and move to Nevada City. We lived out on the San Juan Ridge at Ananda, and back in the day some of the early housing had no electricity or hot running water.

My first solar shower and outhouse experience was a shock to the system after growing up with all the modern conveniences in Southern California. But I soon got the hang of using kerosene lanterns and making fires in the big old wood stove and over time I actually learned to enjoy the ruggedness of it all. OK, perhaps not the outhouse!

I moved away from Nevada City for high school and college but soon found myself missing the beauty of the foothills and the Yuba River — it always felt like home. I eventually made my way back, got married and soon after we decided to buy our first home. Due to the economy at the time, we discovered that buying raw land and building a home was actually less expensive compared to equivalent homes on the market.

We found a beautiful piece of land, but the only catch was: no utilities. The nearest power pole was almost a mile away and it would have cost a pretty penny to have PG&E bring power out to us. So, with my pioneering spirit and my husband's background in the solar industry, we figured, why not? We can live off-grid and make it work. We built a modest home with all the modern conveniences, including an indoor bathroom (no more outhouses thank you very much), washer/dryer, Energy Star appliances and of course, an outdoor shower for scrubbing the doggies.

Here are 10 ways you can put the sun to work for you every day. How many ways do you use solar power? Some of your answers may surprise you!

Solar System – The system itself is fairly straightforward. First, solar panels are needed to collect sunlight and convert it to electricity. These can be mounted on your roof, the roof of a shed or other outbuilding, or even on a ground mount. The solar panels convert sunlight into DC power (direct current), which is then sent to an inverter that converts the DC into AC (alternating current). It is AC that powers the appliances in your home. In our case, because we are completely off-grid, we have an additional component in the form of a large battery bank. During the day, surplus energy is used to charge the battery bank which stores the energy for use during hours of darkness. In our system, the inverter is responsible for both charging the batteries and powering the house.

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Solar Attic Fan – By harnessing the power of the sun, Solar Star Attic Fans cost nothing to operate and are virtually maintenance-free. They also require no electrical wiring, making them easy to install and maintain. Attic fans can make a considerable difference in the temperature of your home during the summer by helping to keep the attic cooler.

Solar Hot Water – If you have to replace that old hot water heater, you might consider the possibility of solar energy heating your water instead of using just gas or electricity. It might cost a bit more up front but depending on your usage, the savings, in the long run, can be well worth it.

Solatube Skylights – Solatube Daylighting Systems are engineered to efficiently capture the sun's rays and pipe them into your home. The result is brighter, more colorful rooms that cost nothing to light. When we built our home we knew we wanted to use the light of the sun as much as possible, so we installed three Solatubes. We have one each in the entry, the kitchen, and the bathroom. One of the great advantages of Solatubes over conventional skylights is that Solatubes transmit more light and none of the heat. Solatube just came out with a solar-electric nightlight, which mounts right inside the Solatube. It harnesses the sun's energy during the day to power a soft-glow at night so you don't have to turn on the lights. We have two of these and can easily navigate at night without turning on lights or using AC nightlights.

Outdoor solar lighting – Solar lighting essentially circumvents the need for grid electricity at night, saving individuals and cities thousands of dollars. We use a pair of motion-sensor LED lights that are solar powered and they work very well.

Solar energy for cooking – A great alternative to cooking inside on a hot summer day, or when you don't want to stand over a hot BBQ grill. You can make your own solar oven or find one online for under $100. It's great for camping as well…imagine coming back from a hike to find dinner cooked by the sun while you were away outdoors.

Portable charging stations – Your cell phones, laptops, camera or flashlights can all be charged with solar. Many solar chargers can be attached to the outside of your purse or pack so they gather the sun's rays while you're out and about. We use a backpack version for trips to the coast or hiking in the mountains.

Solar powered outdoor fan – for greenhouses or barns. These fans are inexpensive and the solar panel runs the fan directly from the sun. Outdoor solar fans are a great way to circulate airflow on hot days.

Solar powered electric fencing – Electric fencing can be critical for anyone who has livestock and wants to keep the livestock in and the predators out. Lions and tigers and bears oh my! Using solar for electric fencing makes it possible to go where you wish, without power cords or other cumbersome electricity sources.

Solar energy for water pumping – Solar powered well pumps can save a lot of energy and therefore, money! Smaller solar pump setups allow you to pump water for livestock right at the source. No need for long waterlines just set up a trough with a float switch. You can also power recirculation pumps for fountains and waterfalls, they'll even turn on and off automatically with the sun.

How many of these items do you use? It's amazing how harnessing the power of the sun can really impact our daily lives in positive ways. So step outside and don't just enjoy the sunshine – harness some of it!

Sandy Philpott lives off-grid on an organic farm with her husband Jeffrey. During the day, find Sandy at Byers Solar, where she is a solar project administrator, or watch for her at the at Nevada County Fair with the Byers Solar team.