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Starting with Solar Energy - A Case Study
My most dearly held frugal living notion is to live completely off the electrical utility grid. Since I live in a sunny state, my thoughts turn to the possibilities of solar power, in both passive and active solar options. I am also open to wind, water and bio-diesel powered options, among others, but solar seems the simplest and most appealing.
Historically, solar power panels have been heavy and expensive - not exactly DIY projects for laymen. Things change and now there are flexible, light and much less expensive solar options on the market, panels that are as easy to use as the familiar solar calculators from childhood.
My plan is to start off slowly with solar and build up in terms of expense and complexity -
1. I started with a small electronics solar unit charger by Solar ReStore. With an entry level cost of $30, the unit charges my phone and other handhelds after a charge time of six hours of free sunlight. This solar panel also powers an included LED light for 20 hours of use time per charge - it's worth the price for this bright, off-grid, portable light alone. :)
2. I am constructing a series of solar ovens for cooking, with an accompanying hay box. My first solar oven is a pizza box covered with aluminum foil. I am experimenting with adding three more pizza box panels to increase sunshine I can direct to the food in the center. If you can afford a pizza (or ask your neighbor for their pizza boxes), you can create a solar oven for practically free (get aluminum foil at a dollar store and cover all the inside surfaces). An added Hay Box is a good way to keep your one-pot meal cooking after the sun goes down, using the radiated heat (from your solar oven) in a simple cardboard box insulated with whatever is on hand (hay, leaves, blankets, newspaper, packing peanuts, etc).
3. Once I feel comfortable cooking one pot meals and baked goods in solar ovens, I will set up a passive solar shower. I'll set up a strong outdoor hook in an area of direct sun, and hang a black plastic solar bag (filled with water) from that. They cost under $30 and come with a simple gravity-fed tube and shower spigot. I can use it outside or bring it inside my home's indoor shower stall. I could add as many bags as I want for a longer shower or even to fill a tub. I can set one up to wash dishes, even. Eventually I might upgrade to a larger, more luxurious solar shower system (something around $200 and bag-free), but this is reportedly a great way to begin unhooking from expensive electric water heaters for good.
4. The next item on my list is a portable solar unit that can take on larger electronics like a laptop, stereo or flat-panel television. The folding panels by Sherpa cost between $300-500 and can be carried in the wilderness outside of an internal-frame backpack. A heavy duty battery is a part of the kit. Some solar kits at this level can power many wall-unit AC appliances (like your household lighting or an Xbox) and even jump start cars. These panels can also be aligned serially to meet higher power needs.
5. To run high-draw electric items like a coffeepot, washing machine, dryer, toaster, vacuum cleaner, microwave oven, space heater and air conditioner, I'll need those large, heavy solar panels affixed to the roof or on the ground. I expect to save up for an outlay of two or three thousand dollars for three panels, some deep cycle marine batteries, and professional installation.
Solar panel technology improves each year, so the price might come down. And the power output might go up! In the meantime, I have a lot of research on solar energy to conduct.
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