Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Thinking Alternative Energy

I've been thinking about solar energy lately. I'm giving serious consideration to putting a small photovoltaic panel on the roof of the house. I don't have any plans to power the whole household or sell power to the electric company. I just want to get a little experience with what I believe will be an increasingly important part of our lives as we move into the 21st century.

I started off thinking about collecting enough solar energy to do something simple like charging cell phones during a power outage. Then, I started thinking about what else could be powered in an emergency situation, and I started thinking about the house phones and heating system. (All the news about blackouts in Houston after the hurricane make such daydreams seem more practical.)

Our phone service now comes through the cable service and this requires a cable modem. It has a battery backup, but I'm not sure how long that would last. We mostly use portable phones, but these won't work without power. We still have one hard-wired phone that we almost never use but it comes in handy when the power goes out. Our heating system is gas-fired steam, but it has electric controls, so if we lose electricity, we freeze.

Okay, but I don't want to invest several hundred bucks just to sit around waiting for the power to go out, so I started wondering what I could power with my solar system on a regular basis. Since my steam boiler and cable modem are in the basement, I'd have to deliver my solar-derived electricity down there from the roof. My little home office is down there, too, so I started wondering how much power I would need to power my desktop computer. I figured if I could power that, I could satisfy my other emergency needs if we have a blackout.

Now, I needed a way to estimate how much power that might be. Thanks to high school hiking buddy Chris, I ordered a P3 International Kill A Watt Electricity Usage Monitor. This is a cool little device that costs less than 20 bucks that measures electricity use. It arrived today and I've just started checking various devices around the house to see how many watts they use.

Here are some examples:

Charging Cell Phone: 4 watts.
TV/Cable Box/VCR: When on, 100 watts. When off (!) 26 watts.
Old Clock Radio: 1 watt low volume, 2 watts loud. (Surprisingly low.)
Desktop Computer and Monitor (Old CRT type.): 130 watts. (I thought it would be higher.)

Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, I found a bunch of videos of homebrew solar systems. So far, it looks like I'll need a panel on the roof, a solar charge controller, a deep-cycle marine battery and a DC-to-AC power inverter. Now, I need to fine-tune the power ratings for the various components and start learning about prices and availability of these parts. Stay tuned.

I'd love to hear from readers who have dabbled in solar power!

1 comment:

wtgelfman said...

Good luck with your solar energy project! What happened to the days when you saw solar panels popping up on many roofs? Maybe with gas still hovering around $3.50 people will start thinking again about energy.-_ Sue G.