How does electricity work?
August 24, 2012 12:15 AM   Subscribe

I need a primer on how (electrical) power works.

I need to make a decision in regards to solar power (and corresponding offers to do it) without knowing anything about power at all. I need a book (or a website!) that walks me through the basics of electricity, wiring, and I have no idea what else. Things I’ll need to have passing familiarity with: loads, generators, reliability, stabilizers … ?? …

I have a solid math background, if that helps, but don’t remember any of my college physics. I understand that I won’t be knowledgeable enough to get into the nitty gritty details, but I’d like to at least have a grasp of the vocabulary. What should I be reading? Where should I start?
posted by asnowballschance to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The American Electricians' Handbook contains everything you need to know about wiring your home.
posted by three blind mice at 12:21 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

How Stuff Works' electricity article can get you started. It's heavily linked to connected ideas like circuit breakers, power grids, capacitors, and batteries.
posted by cgc373 at 1:26 AM on August 24, 2012

Solar is a specialty, and won't be covered by most books on typical residential or commercial wiring. I think you might need at least 2 sources - one to give you a basic understanding of what terms like amps, volts and watts mean and the relationships between them (can be covered in a basic way within the space of a web page or so), and another to address issues specific to solar power installations.
posted by jon1270 at 1:28 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Home Power Magazine could be your friend. It's written for people who want to get power outside the traditional sources. It has directories of known installers all round the world.

If you're really in the country your profile says you are, your main concerns will be climate-proofing the system. Heat, humidity, dust and bugs will find any weak point, and wreck the system in a couple of years if it's not properly designed.

(memail me if you want a chat about this; I do big solar and wind, and would be happy to go over the basics)
posted by scruss at 6:35 AM on August 24, 2012

I don't know if this will address your particular issue, but you can now get small-scale (500W-ish) plug-and-play solar kits. You connect the panels (usually in groups of two to four, depending on voltage) to a standalone anti-islanding grid tie inverter, and then that just plugs into a normal outlet. No electrician, breaker box work, or annoying banks of batteries required anymore!

As for how to connect the panels themselves, connecting in series adds the voltages, and in parallel adds the amps; and you can mix and match those more or less arbitrarily (as long as you get the polarities correct - Unlike AC, polarity matters when working with DC) to minimize your wire size (higher volts and lower amps) and match your inverter's input rating.

I installed just such a system earlier this year - As close to zero-skill as you could ask for. I personally targeted a 48V peak, because in the US, NFPA has a whole bunch of rules that kick in over 50V.

Now, whether or not you can actually make your meter spin backward depends on a lot of local conditions and regulations; but you can slow it down by a good bit by supplying enough power on-site for always/usually-on things like refrigerators and ACs.
posted by pla at 7:18 AM on August 24, 2012

Response by poster: I'm actually in Sierra Leone now, where we're dependent on generator power (and so not concerned with making meters run backwards so much as saving $ on fuel). Thanks for the resources, everyone!
posted by asnowballschance at 4:30 AM on August 25, 2012

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