If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve at least heard of solar panels. They’re those big, (sometimes ugly) blue panes people put on their roofs to get free electricity from the sun.
What most people don’t know, is just how complicated choosing not only the right type of panel is, but also the amount of panels you’ll need can be.
Lucky for you, that’s exactly what I’m going to be talking about in today’s article.
I want to start out by saying I am in no way an expert on solar panels. I’ve just done some research – actually, a lot of research – and discovered there are a lot of frustrating inconsistencies and tips out there.
I’m hoping to alleviate some of those frustrations by providing an easy to understand article for fellow solar panel newbs, so they have the best shot at getting the exact panel that meets their needs.
First thing you’ll need to figure out before even thinking about stepping foot into a store (or ordering a panel online) is which kind of panel you’ll need.
Yes, that’s right – there are different kinds of panels! In my research, I’ve found three main different kinds: the classic panel, a flexible panel and sticker panels.
The ‘classic’ panel is probably what you imagine when someone says ‘solar panel’: it’s usually a large rectangle shape, with blue squares and a white boarder that makes it somewhat look like a window. These usually have little mounts or ‘feet’ you need to attach the physical panel to your roof (or ground/wherever you want to put your panel) and are said to work ‘best’ if they’re mounted on a slight angle, instead of 100% flat.
The second kind, a flexible panel, is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a flexible solar panel. These flexi-panels are great, because you don’t need to mount them. Instead, you can lay them directly on your roof. What makes laying the panels directly on your roof so great? The fact you can walk on them! This is amazing if you’re (for example) building out a van or bus that has limited roof space. Instead of designating part of your roof to say, a deck/storage area, and the other half to the panels, you can lay these panels all over your roof, and still use part of it as a deck/storage area.
The last kind we’re going to be talking about, is a sticker panel, which is also exactly what it sounds like. These panels are best to stick on your most sun-facing windows – not a roof – and give the windows a slight tint, similar to limo tinting.
Because these panels go on your windows, you can have all the roof space you want for other things like a deck or storage, and don’t have to worry about walking over them.
Now that you know the difference between these three types of panels, you may be thinking you know the type you need. But don’t jump the gun! There’s a lot more to take into consideration than just whether or not you can walk on a panel.
One of the biggest things you need to figure out – and really, it should’ve been the first thing you figured out – is what your energy consumption is. If you don’t know this, I highly, highly recommend you find out. Either go look at your electric/hydro bill, do your best to keep track of your consumption over the course of a month or so, or use an online calculator.
I guarantee you’re using more power than you think you are. Most people tend to underestimate their consumption habits. And while I get it – we as humans are not so good at highlighting our flaws – that type of under-reporting will do nothing but hurt your chances of success in the long run.
This isn’t about shaming yourself, it’s about accurately getting a picture of how you’re already living. This way, you can accurately assess how you’ll be living your tiny home. And sure, you might be able to cut back in a few ways when you go tiny, but I personally would rather be over-prepared than under.
I’m the type of person to bring a small first aid kit with me wherever I go. Usually, I end up not needing it, and you could argue it’s just taking up space in my bag. However, the times when I have needed it? I was definitely happy it was there!
Okay, I feel like I’m getting slightly off topic. Below, I’m going to share the equation I learned to calculate the amount of solar you need.
I know, I know ‘ew, math!’ well unfortunately, math is important for some of these tiny living steps. It can seem too hard and complicated, but it’s 100% worth learning!
Also, there’s an added bonus of once you learn what it all means, it’ll be infinitely easier to fix any issues that come up. And, you only need to figure all of this out once.
This is the equation: Yearly kWh cost / ‘full sunlight hours’ = Total Watts Needed
kWh is the abbreviation for kilo Watt hours, which should be the unit of measure that’s used on your hydro/electric bill.
Because I’ve never had my own home, (if you missed the Intro post, I’m living at home, and this bus build will be my first moved out living space) I didn’t have any energy consumption to use for the equation.
This meant I had to ask my mom what our usage was. She informed me that our highest (5-person household) usage was 18 kWh. This was our consumption for one month, not a year!
This was our highest consumption at one point for the month of July – which was back when all 4 kids were home during summer vacation, we had the AC going all day, were cooking pretty much daily, and doing the 5-ish loads of laundry (in our double-load washer) every week we had to do so we didn’t run out of clothes.
So for me, I had to do some additional math, to figure out what that number was for 1 whole year.
18 kWh x 12 (months in a year) = 216 kWh
Now that I had our total consumption for a year, I could do the above equation:
216 kWh / 1166 (full sunlight hours in Ontario) = 0.1852 TWN
Then, to get the total cost of the solar you need: Total Watts Needed x ‘Average’ Solar Panel Cost (in your area), which for me, is $2.78.
0.1852 x 2.78 = 0.5148
According to this, my entire solar panel set up should only cost me 51 cents. Even with a USD to CAD conversion rate, I knew that couldn’t be correct.
So, I went back over my math to try and determine where the heck I went wrong.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to figure it out. I had done the equations exactly as the article instructed, used a calculator, and even asked some of my more math-savy friends if my numbers matched up.
I even tried some different online solar panel calculators, to no avail – one of them even told me I needed -2 panels!
I’m still to this day (22.06.28) trying to figure out where I went wrong, however, I wanted to share my experience in this article, as a sort of example of just how confusing some of these calculations can get.
I know I’ll figure it out some time, and I’ll definitely update this article to include the correct way of doing things when that day comes – but for now, I’m going to continue to focus on things I do understand.
Which, for the purposes of this article, include taking a more in-depth look at the pros and cons of the different types of solar panels.
The Classic Panel
- Usually the cheapest of the three
- Most widely available for public purchase
- Least likely to break (due to sturdy bracket mounting)
- Only panel that you can change the angle after installed
- Need to put holes in your roof (for the aforementioned brackets)
- Needs it’s own dedicated space
- Heaviest of the three
- Rigid, big and bulky
- Raises total height of your roof (this is especially important if mounting on a vehicle, in which case you need to take into account total height for law compliance, as well as flexibility to drive under bridges)
- The most difficult to take down and remount (in the event you move)
The Flexible Panel
- Can walk on/store things on top
- Easiest to clean
- Conforms to a variety of roof shapes
- Less roof holes
- More aesthetically pleasing than the Classic panel
- Lighter weight
- Has raised dots to help gather sunlight
- Has the least variation of sizes available (at least in Ontario)
- Cannot change angle once mounted
- Their lighter weight means they could possibly fly away in strong winds (even with proper installation)
- More prone to scratching
The Sticker Panel
- Doesn’t take up roof space
- No roof holes
- Easiest to install
- Most lightweight of the three
- Shortest lifespan
- Not widely available for public purchase
- Most expensive of the three
- Usually need more panels (since these go on windows, and windows tend to be smaller in size than a roof)
- Easiest type to damage (due to their thinness)
- Tints your window, allowing less sunlight into your home
- Prevents the windows they’re on from being usable (can’t open)
Obviously, this isn’t a complete list of the pros and cons of each type of panel. If I were to do that, this article would be way too long. So instead, I’ve listed what I feel are the most important points for each type of panel.
I also haven’t mentioned some things that all three types have in common, such as: installing any kind of solar panel will lower your carbon footprint, they will also help lower (or completely eliminate) your electric/hydro bill, all three pull in roughly the same amount of sun, their effectiveness is greatly affected by the type of weather you have, all three have a pretty high up front cost and many places won’t even allow you to add them to your home at all.
I know the world of solar panels can be confusing, and even scary when you’re just starting out. However, familiarizing yourself with the pros and cons of each type, and doing your own research should help alleviate your concerns.
All in all, getting free power from the sun is amazing, and I highly encourage you to continue your solar panel research as it’s, in my opinion, the best option for powering your tiny.
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