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How Much Solar Power

When you first consider using solar panels to make your own electricity, there are so many questions before you have making the decision to either buy an expensive off the shelf system, or build your own. Commercial systems can cost several hundred or even thousands of dollars.  You may also have read that you can build a solar panel for about $200 - so what's going on here!
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Before you even consider solar power, even if its just supplementing your needs on the farm,  you need to think about how you will be using the power.  If you're in town there's more to consider, such as permits and how you hook the array into your house and whether it will be tied to the grid or not. On the farm or on your block in the countryside, it's a bit easier. You may simply need lighting for the night or maybe run a pump or even kick back with a little music wafting through the trees.  In any case, with an "off-grid" situation, you can be a little more flexible.  But whatever the location, how much power you need, how many arrays and how long will your power last are the questions you are asking.

Most DIY solar panels are based on a set of 36 (3 amp, 3x6inch cells). The size of a array like this is roughly 1 x 1.5 meters.  Your DIY array size will be up to you. However, with a single array like this you can normally expect to produce 18V at almost 60Watts in bright sunlight.

How much power is this?
Lets keep this simple, here's the potential for our 60Watt, 18V example array.  If you had a 60Watt panel and could get 7 hours of light a day, which is very optimistic, 7 days a week.  You would produce 2940Watt hours per week, again, all of this is being very optimistic.  
More realistically, you might get 4 to 5 hours of good sunlight, producing about 2100Watt hours (60Watts * 5 hours * 7 days).  You will of also of course have a few cloudy or rainy days, when power output is reduced(maybe half), but is still happening.

What can you run with that power?
1 x 10 watt compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) for about 2100 hours (or)
10 x 10 watt CFL(s) = 21 hours, about 4 hours per night for 5 days (or)
1 x 50 watt Laptop = 42 hours, about 6 hours a day for 7 days (or)
1 x 75 watt TV = 28 hours, about 5 hours a day for 7 days
(Remember this assumes you are discharging your batteries, which you should never do)

If you charge 2 x 6V, 225Amp/hour deep cycle batteries(in series) you will have 12Volts.  That means you would have have 2700 watts of power in the batteries at your disposal. Once connected to a 300Watt inverter you are ready to use your free "juice".  You would probably never want to discharge them below 40% and you may later want to add more batteries, but, you now have a reasonable supply of power.  

If you had no power on the farm before, now you would have lights, be able to run a pump and listen to some CD's.  To give yourself some leeway, you would probably build 2 arrays, making it a 120Watt system and add extra batteries.  So, now I think you can see the potential of what a small solar system can do and a DIY build can be quite inexpensive. While there are even small off the shelf systems, it's pretty likely you can build a pretty solid DIY solar system quite inexpensively.

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