When it comes to upgrades for a tiny home, adding solar power is one of the most common. You can put enough panels up to completely be off the grid capable, or just a few to supplement your power usage. Depending on where you intend to have your tiny home will determine how many panels you can have and where you can install them.
Solar power may not be for everyone. If your tiny home is somewhere where you can tie into the grid that may be your choice. I would still recommend that whether you choose to build or buy your tiny home, that you design it so that at some point you could install solar. Although the initial cost of installing solar may seem like a lot, and it may be cost prohibitive up front, the long term benefits of solar are worth it.
How Much Power Do You Need
One of the first questions you will need to ask if you are going to install solar power is, how much power do you need? Is your goal to be totally off grid and provide all your own power? Do you just want to lessen your carbon footprint and use renewable energy as much as possible? What other power sources will you have available?
Due to their size, tiny homes can easily be 100% dependent on solar energy for their needs. With a simple setup, and making sure to use efficient appliances and alternative fuel sources for large draw items like stoves, a tiny home can generate and store enough power for their needs with a reasonably sized array and battery bank.
To calculate how much energy you need you can find the statistics for each of your appliances and add the watts required for each up to determine how big of a system you will need. If you don’t know exactly what appliances you will be using yet, or don’t want to spend the time hunting down the numbers, Wholesale Solar has a nice chart that will give you a rough idea of what the power usage of various items are.
Total up all of the items that you will have and that will tell you how big of a system you will need. On average a 2kwh system is enough to power an energy efficient fridge and other basic lighting and charging needs.
Wholesale Solar also has an energy calculator that you can use. Just plug in the numbers and it will tell you how big of a system you will need.
DIY Or Professional Install
Solar power can be fairly complex. Trying to size and match inverters, charge controllers, panels, batteries, wires and the other things necessary may seem overwhelming to some. There is lots of information available to you if you want to do the install yourself. Home Power has a great in depth article on solar. If you are not comfortable with doing the install there are companies and contractors that could help you make the install.
Tiny homes and solar are so popular now that many places are building complete kits that will meet your solar power needs for your tiny home. They have taken the guesswork completely out and provide matching components for a complete system. All you have to do is follow the simple instructions to hook up your solar power system.
Some of these options are:
- WholeSale Solar. Wholesale Solar provides packages but also provides custom built options as well.
- Go Green Solar has a single kit that is geared towards tiny homes. It provides everything needed to get a tiny home off grid and with enough power to meet your basic needs.
- Yeti Goal Zero is small all in one unit with the controller, battery and inverter all wrapped into one package. It is great for basic use but would not have enough power to constantly run a refrigerator or other high draw appliance.
- SolSolutions provides an expandable, portable solution. Their panels are built on a frame with wheels making it easy to move. It can also be used track the sun with this setup allowing for a better charging period each day.
Where Will Your Panels Be Located?
When most people think of solar power they think of the roof mounted solar arrays. This is because when you see them on residential homes they are mounted on the roof. When it comes to tiny homes, unless you don’t need much energy, mounting them on the roof usually isn’t the best option.
If you mount the solar panels to your roof you are limited to how many panels you can fit. Also, you would always need to be conscious of which direction you parked your tiny home on wheels to provide direct sunlight to the panels. This would also mean you always would need to be parked in direct sunlight and would be unable to use the shade of a tree to help control the temperature in your tiny home.
Also, in the case of a tiny home on wheels, if you mount them on the roof you would have to be cautious to not exceed the 13’ 6” height limitation to be towed.
To have a solar array big enough to power all of your tiny home needs you are going to need an array of between 4-8 panels. They are roughly 3’ x 5’. These would not fit on the roof of most tiny homes.
The alternative is to ground mount your array. This can be done either on racks or a pole, or in the case of the SolSolutions product on its own built in rack. The advantage of this is that you can put your solar array in the best location to capture the sun’s rays and your home wherever you like. You can use a Solar Path Finder, a simple chart like this one provided by Solar Direct or this map by Wholesale Solar to determine the amount of power to expect from your system.
Summer VS Winter Solar Power
One of the best ways to see how your energy production will vary through the seasons is to use the PVWatts Calulator available from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). They have some great resources but the calculator is probably the most important when it comes to sizing your system. It will let you know what type of energy production can be expected at your specific location.
Below is a snapshot of my area.
I used a 2kWh system like what a tiny home would use for this calculation. You will notice that in December I will get less than half of what I would get in July. If you intend to go totally off grid you would need to check and make sure that even at its lowest point your system will allow you to produce enough energy to meet your needs. If you are using a grid tie system this is not as critical because you could always buy power from the grid if your system doesn’t produce enough power for your needs.
Another alternative is to make a hybrid system and include a generator. In the event that you have too many cloudy days, or days that do not produce enough power to recharge the batteries in your system, you could run a generator to charge your batteries. Most decent sized generators develop enough power to quickly and efficiently charge batteries. This would allow you to have a moderately sized solar array and battery bank, yet ensure that you always had enough power for your needs.
Ways To Get More From Your Panels
One way to get more from your panels is as we discussed earlier, if you use a solar path finder you can find the optimal location on your property and the best angle to obtain the best exposure for your panels.
Another alternative is to make sure the rack or pole you mount your panels to allows you to adjust the angle and position of your panels. You could then adjust the panels seasonally to maintain the best angle, thus gaining the greatest amount of power out of them as possible.
More Panels Or More Batteries?
There is always a debate of whether you should add more panels or more batteries to your system. It used to be that the panels themselves were the most expensive part of a solar system. That is not always the case anymore. The batteries are very costly.
You can add more panels that will allow you to charge a smaller battery bank quicker and more regularly. This would allow you to keep your system charged even through multiple days of poor weather.
The alternative is to add more batteries. Although it would take longer to charge them with less panels. The stored amount of energy could carry you through more days of poor weather until there was enough light to sufficiently recharge the system.
Having a generator, at least a small one, is a must for anyone wanting to use solar. A generator provides you the ability to run your refrigerator and necessary appliances in the event that your solar array cannot keep up for some reason. Either failure or poor weather. They can be purchased for a reasonable amount and the investment is well worth it if it can keep your food from spoiling, or keep you from dying of heat during the hot summer months.
Once you determine what your energy needs are, and whether you want to be totally self sufficient or not, you can use the tools in this article to find the right solar power system for your tiny home needs. Solar power for a tiny home is a great option as it allows you to live independent of utility hook ups. Even though there is a significant cost involved in installing a solar power system, the long term benefits outweigh the costs.