Off-grid solar owners show off system

DIY solar homeowners Linda Jones and Dan Pratt welcome neighbors to their solar open house.

Solar homeowners Linda Jones and Dan Pratt hosted an open house at their off-grid, solar-powered home in Gilmer County, West Virginia this past Saturday. Half a dozen attendees learned about their combination AC/DC electrical system powered by a 1.1-kilowatt solar array.

Jones moved to West Virginia in the 1970s and built a small cabin by hand. After living outside the Mountain State for about 15 years, Jones and Pratt decided to move back to her Gilmer County property in the 1990s.

Pratt had experience in plumbing, HVAC, and electrical work so the couple began making improvements and additions to their home. But when they approached the local utility company about connecting to the electric grid, Jones says they were quoted “an astronomical sum” to run electric poles and lines to the remote site. They decided to go solar instead.

The couple installed a small solar array in 1999. They paired with with eight deep-cycle lead-acid batteries to store the power created by the panels. In 2011, they tripled the output of their solar array by adding more panels. They were pleased to find that the cost of solar panels had decreased drastically in that 12-year period, reflecting a general solar industry trend of increasing affordability.

Jones and Pratt’s hybrid electrical system uses both direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC) electricity. They power lights, fans, and a stereo with DC wiring. AC wiring is used in conjunction with an inverter to power their television, computer, well pump, and appliances such as a vacuum and power tools. They use natural gas for cooking and refrigeration.

Jones and Pratt also rely on a natural gas generator as a backup power source in winter months. They sometimes fall back on the generator to charge their batteries from November to March, when solar production is at a minimum Jones said. The couple has access to free natural gas on their property. This allows them to create a hybrid off-grid electrical system along with solar panels and battery storage.

Jones and Pratt advise prospective off-grid solar homeowners that even well-maintained lead-acid batteries will need to be replaced every eight or so years. In the nearly two decades since originally installing their solar system, they have replaced their batteries twice. But, says Jones, battery maintenance and replacement is the only ongoing expense and upkeep measure required of a solar PV system. Their original solar panels are still working fine after almost 20 years in operation. “We got a pretty top-of-the-line inverter,” Jones said. “It’s a vital part of the system, so we decided not to skimp on that.”

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