A technical overview of the equipment used in a solar electric system.
To select a solar electric system for your home or RV, you should know what the major parts are called, what each one is for, and how they work together. Here is a quick overview explaining the whole process. Individual parts are explained and described in detail in the catalog pages.
Sun shining on solar panels produces direct current electricity, or DC, the only kind of power stored in batteries. Often this is 12 volt DC, the standard used in cars and RVs. Larger systems may be designed for 24 volt DC, or sometimes 48 volt DC. This just means combining the same solar panels in pairs for 24 volt, or groups of four to get 48 volt. Windmills and micro-hydro generators in this catalog also produce DC for charging batteries.
This DC power is stored in deep cycle lead-acid batteries, which give back the electricity as needed, even when no power is being produced. Like a bank account, power put into batteries over a period of time can be taken out more quickly if a lot is needed. Like a bank account you cannot take out more than you put in, or the account will be depleted. Moreover, lead-acid batteries need to be frequently 100% fully charged to remain in good condition. They should never be drawn completely down to empty. Because of these needs, to get the most years from your batteries requires some supervision by the owner.
The inverter is a major component that converts the 12, 24, or 48 volt DC current from the battery into 120 volt AC current, the same as utility power for standard household lights, outlets, and appliances. Most solar homes use primarily 120 volt AC produced by the inverter. A few DC circuits are usually added where using DC can save a lot of energy. Sometimes a small solar electric RV, boat, or cabin may have no inverter, and use only DC wiring and appliances.
If there are a number of consecutive days without sunshine,
the owner, being aware of the weather, checks his batteries. If the charge level
is low, an engine driven generator may be started to recharge the batteries in order
to keep the whole system working. A battery charger plugs into 120 volt AC from
the generator producing low voltage DC to charge the battery. The generator is shut
down after the batteries have been recharged. This process is automated in some
power systems. Battery chargers in Recreational Vehicles are called converters).
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