Practical Solar Beyond The Grid

SubDrive SolarPAK solar powered well water pump from Franklin Electric
SubDrive SolarPAK solar powered well water pump from Franklin Electric

Ask the average consumer the role solar power plays in their lives and they’ll likely mention multi-megawatt light-up-a-city grid-scale solar farms, or rooftop photovoltaic panels, or — more likely — the little solar powered moon lights they’ve placed along their front walkway. But solar power can be found in any number of practical applications.

Perhaps you’ve got a house out in the country and you need some way of pumping your well water. You may be far enough from the main utility line that bringing in power would be too expensive, or you’ve got power but you want a backup in case of failures. This is where the solar powered well water pump from Franklin Electric comes in handy. The SubDrive SolarPAK includes a submersible pump and motor, a flow switch, and a solar-powered controller.

How much water do you need to pump and what size array of photovoltaic panels will you need to do it? Franklin Electric provides software to help you answer those questions, the Solar Selector, that allows you to input location information and water requirements to determine which SolarPAK fits your application. The software also provides recommendations for solar panel array configurations based on user-entered panel characteristics. Highlighting the versatility of the system, Jeff Frank, Product Manager at Franklin Electric, notes that the system is “not only ideal for applications looking for renewable energy options, but also for remote areas where other power sources simply aren’t available and conditions are often harsh.”

Solar-powered attic vent from Attic Breeze
Solar-powered attic vent from Attic Breeze

Homes in urban areas can also benefit from small-scale solar applications. In warmer months, proper attic ventilation removes excess heat build-up, reducing the load on air conditioning systems, while in cooler months it reduces humidity, slowing the growth of mold and mildew and reducing the risk of rot. In both cases, a variety of options are possible.

Passive vents that rely on convection are the simplest and cheapest, but may not provide adequate air flow. Wind-driven vents only work when the wind blows but fail on still, hot days when there’s no breeze. Electric vents, powered off the household current, require expensive wiring and add to a home’s electric bill. Solar-powered vents, such as those from Attic Breeze are easy to install, cost nothing to run, and drive heat and moisture out of the attic during daylight hours when ventilation is needed most.

Solar street lights from Solar Street Lights USA
Solar street lights from Solar Street Lights USA

We may think that solar energy is only practical during the day. Not so. Solar Street Lights USA produces — you guessed it — solar street lights that draw power from the sun during the day, store it in deep cycle batteries mounted on the pole, and then deliver it to high-efficiency lights at night. The same technology can be applied to mobile construction signs and billboards.

Want to take solar power with you? Try a solar backpack from Voltaic Systems. The portable and practical packs are ideal for wilderness photographers, surveyors, hikers, or anyone who’s going to be out of touch with civilization longer than their device’s typical battery life and who doesn’t want to lug around a 50 pound generator. The packs feature rugged removable solar panels and include built-in batteries, providing virtually continuous power.

A solar backpack from Voltaic Systems
A solar backpack from Voltaic Systems

Sharon Brind, Voltaic Systems’ Global Sales Manager, explains, “All of our products have a solar panel which charges up a battery, and you can then charge devices off the battery. It’s a two-part process that gives you the ability to save energy for use when you actually need it.”

Of course solar power isn’t limited to electricity.

The sun’s rays can be used for something as simple as heating a building’s water supply. An example is the new Rincon Green building on Harrison Street in San Francisco, right beside the Bay Bridge. The building boasts an array of 57 solar thermal collectors on the roof, providing hot water to the building’s 300 units.

This type of development is finding wider acceptance in modern building design, particularly those engineered to meet LEED specifications for maximum energy efficiency and minimum environmental impact. Gary Gerber, founder and President of Sun Light & Power notes, “Developers are keen to learn about solar, more so than before, because the green building code has become so much more stringent and solar hot water earns such a high amount of points for energy efficiency. In short, solar energy can make meeting green building codes simple and fast – and generate energy savings for three plus decades.”

Solar thermal heaters also fill a niche on a smaller scale for individual homes, heating water for pools. Of course, this is just the beginning. There’s also solar powered desalination units. Solar ovens. Solar boats. Solar planes. Solar lawn mowers. And, yes, solar powered moon lights to line your front walkway.

Our world is bathed in an endless supply of clean, free solar energy and there are so many ways to use it. All we need is a little imagination.

Jules Smith is the principal of LightningStrike Studios, a professional communications firm specializing in renewable energy and information technology.