Solar Power for an Apartment Dweller?
May 5, 2016 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Could anyone suggest a resource (a person or a website) or give me a clue about where to get advice about installing a solar cell or two? This is in Nashville, TN; local resources would be awesome! But 'net based stuff works, too. Google searches and YouTube videos have me confuddled about what might work/how to install something for my apartment - most of the information is for homeowners; the 'portable' solar power systems are aimed at preppers/folks who are concerned about power outages.

For various reasons, I like renting. But I'd also like to access some of the benefits homeowners can access, such as solar power and the possible reduction of my electric bill. I have a wonderful south-facing balcony that gets a ton of sun.

I don't want to install batteries - the intent would be to hook the power up to my electrical outlet to cut my electricity usage/electric bill. I'm not concerned about power outages.

I've watched some videos about volts and amps and watts and the need for an inverter and that on-grid solar power can be plugged into a normal outlet. My worry with this is that the apartment was built in 1970 - how can I make sure the solar power doesn't overload the circuitry and cause a fire?

The system would be small - likely one panel that can be folded up. I don't want to spend a ton of money on the project, either.

(A past AskMeFi: Solar for rented apartments? asked a similar question, but it's been six years, so I'm hoping that technology has advanced a bit, making solar more feasible for apartment dwellers. Maybe?)
posted by LOLAttorney2009 to Technology (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure how small "small" is, but I came across Legion Solar on Kickstarter yesterday and it looks to be close to what you're looking for. I'd be a backer if there was an easy off-grid option.
posted by jeffch at 10:41 AM on May 5, 2016

Please do not connect solar to the apartment's existing wiring. You would be in code violation, as well as potentially fatal to any electrician working on the building.

If you want, get the CD of back issues of "Home Power" magazine, and read up the "Guerilla Solar" articles, you can create an independent circuit for some electronics to do it that way.
posted by nickggully at 10:50 AM on May 5, 2016 [7 favorites]

This is way, way not worth your trouble. We installed a 4.1kW array (19 high-efficiency panels, pretty much our whole roof, discounting the part we devoted to solar hot water heating panels) and still didn't come close to breaking even on the monthly bills. And we have a fairly energy-efficient house.

I'm not trying to discourage you from trying to like, see about charging your cellphone with a panel (which you won't be able to do, fyi) as a hobby, but you shouldn't consider this a realistic energy-saving endeavour.
posted by odinsdream at 10:51 AM on May 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't want to install batteries - the intent would be to hook the power up to my electrical outlet to cut my electricity usage/electric bill. I'm not concerned about power outages.

Have you spoken with your landlord about this? I just recently installed solar panels for my home (as a homeowner) and the process was a lot more involved than the one you're describing - specifically it required a lot of permitting from both the state agency and the utility company, a complete switch of my meter to allow backfeeding of electricity back into the grid (and also one that would run backwards), and a contractual approval from the utility company to allow them to credit me for the backfeeding.

At no point was the situation as simple as "put up some panels and plug this into the outlet", which sounds like a recipe for setting up a dangerous electrical situation in your home that your landlord is unlikely to be willing to accept.
posted by Karaage at 10:54 AM on May 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

Are you certain your apartment will allow this? Many leases specifically prohibit solar panels.

the intent would be to hook the power up to my electrical outlet to cut my electricity usage/electric bill.

It is technically possible to feed A/C into an outlet (called backfeeding). You might find a few guides that advise doing so. Please do not do this unless you are advised it is up to code in your area. It is dangerous, even with solar.

There's also the matter of getting the electricity from the balcony inside - a semi-permanent cable is likely a fire/electrical code violation.

Basically you need a significant rewiring of your apartment's electrical system to do this and I strongly suspect the costs of doing so are higher than the gains you'll get from having a single panel will outweigh the benefits.
posted by Candleman at 10:54 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't want to install batteries - the intent would be to hook the power up to my electrical outlet to cut my electricity usage/electric bill. I'm not concerned about power outages.

I don't think you should install solar panels while renting.

Solar panels still typically take 6-10 years to break even (even with all the tax breaks). If you move during that time, you will have to uninstall and reinstall, so that's additional cost and time to break even.

In addition, you need to do pretty major electrical work to install solar. The electric company needs to approve it so there's not too much power coming into the grid. You need to install an emergency shut off in case you need to work on the electric in the house and can't find the specific breaker. You can't have exposed permanent wires. Etc.
posted by ethidda at 11:08 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

What you want is called net-metering. I can't see any way that it would be feasible in a normal rental apartment situation because it requires installing significant electrical equipment - you can't just plug a solar panel with inverter into an outlet.

Perhaps there is a community owned solar park or other similar project nearby that you could buy into. Or perhaps you could invest some money in a company that owns solar electric generation facilities.
posted by ssg at 11:21 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh gosh. I work in energy. To me, this sounds like someone asking, "I'd really like to lose some belly weight. I watched a few videos about liposuction and found a website in India that will sell me the necessary supplies. What else do you recommend?"


My recommendation is to leave solar to the professionals for your personal safety, and for the safety of your neighbors. However! There's lots of other WAY MORE EFFECTIVE means to save money on your electric bill without changing your behavior. Here are the top four most cost-effective ways I'm aware of:

1) Lighting - Are all of your lightbulbs LED? These are so cost-effective, especially now that LEDs are cheap. If you're worried about saving money on your electric bill, you shouldn't even wait until your old bulbs burn out - just replace your current bulbs with LEDs and the math will work itself out.
2) Stopping vampire drain - when you leave appliances (TVs, phone chargers, etc) plugged in all day, they still drain power, even when not in use. You can purchase power strips that stop the vampire drain by automatically cutting power when not in use.
3) Appliances - are all of your appliances EnergySTAR certified, particularly your fridge?
4) (If you use AC) Insulation and air leaks that allow your cooled air to escape - You probably won't be installing insulation as a renter, but you can install draft-reducing elements around windows and door frames, and hang heavy curtains over all windows when you're running your AC.

And of course, changing your behavior also goes a long way.
posted by samthemander at 12:06 PM on May 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

Everyone above is correct, but there are some small portable panel and battery pack combinations that seem worth buying now.

I recently spent $260 on I've had it long enough to confirm that it works well. The battery pack was able to charge from empty to full about once per (sunny) day in the winter, and ran my laptop for around 5 hours on a charge. There may be cheaper/better options out there by now.

The price point works because you're getting:

* The equivilant of a UPS for backup power, for around the price of a UPS. (In my case, my house has its own modest PV system, so this is a backup for that. It was useful to be able to charge my laptop from empty when the house's battery bank got so low in January that the laptop wouldn't charge on it.)
* A battery pack that can be used/charged independant of the solar panel too. I've successfully flown internationally with the battery pack; it meets TSA regs.
* A solar panel that can be ganged with more panels you buy later, when they get even cheaper to grow this to a less modest system. (Bear in mind that the 17 watt panel is around half of the value of this bundle).
* A solar panel that's small enough to easily mount on a balcony (I used two metal strips, some screws and twist ties to lash on the panel).
* A solar panel that is portable and robust enough to toss on a car or slide into a backpack and take camping. Where it'll probably run several mobile phones all day. I expect to see my extended family gathered around it at the beach this summer.
posted by joeyh at 12:18 PM on May 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

Cripes, don't plug solar panels into your power outlet! That's a recipe for disaster. They're power outlets, not inlets. Don't do this. Don't go messing with your wiring as a renter either, your landlord would not be pleased. Hanging a panel out a window is also not a practical solution in terms of generating enough power to make a meaningful difference to your energy bill. Feel free to play with solar as a hobby (just keep it separate from your mains power!) but if you are actually trying to save money on utilities, samthemander's suggestions above offer the best bang for your buck.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:20 PM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Joeyh's suggestions are also good ones! There are lots of options out there for mobile solar nowadays, and many of them are quite practical if you need to be able to generate and store small amounts of electricity on the go. I've used things like that in the past for fieldwork. They're not practical for saving money; if you think about it, the package he talks about above is basically a crappy (in that it's bulky and slow) laptop charger that costs $260. The advantage is that it generates its own power, not that it's inexpensive. Very useful for some things, but not for saving money.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:25 PM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

May I suggest a different approach?
I assume your utility provider is Nashville Electric Service. NES has partnered with the TVA to offer customers power from renewable sources. For a few bucks extra per month on your bill you can support renewable power and be part of pushing the utility to shift more of their generating capacity over to renewables. Look into Green Power Switch.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:34 PM on May 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

This really sounds sort of like "I would like to feel good about my lifestyle without doing anything to inconvenience myself. So, instead of moving or cutting back on energy usage, I am going to keep doing what I am doing, but add home grown electricity to the mix." Spending a bunch of money on the ability to generate your own electricity is not likely to save you money. If savings is the goal, there are much better ways to do that. If green living is the goal, there are much better ways to do that too.

You might be better off reading up on passive solar and seeing if you can apply those principles to your current living situation. I used to read about off grid living and home grown power. The very first step everyone has to take to move in that direction is an electricity diet. How much fat can you cut from the electricity budget?
posted by Michele in California at 12:54 PM on May 5, 2016

I installed a small solar system at my house. Two small panels, a charge controller, two batteries, fuse. And an inverter. It is completely isolated from the house electrical, and let's me run some 120v gadgets off solar. Something like this is about the best you can do on a small scale. Handling voltage in an enclosed space is potentially disastrous so do not go there unless you have some experience. Net metering takes a trained contractor so is unlikely to happen in your scenario. See if you can get on a green power plan with your utility and support sustainable systems with your monthly bill.
posted by diode at 6:26 AM on May 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Late to the party, but here's a person who powers a home office, in an apartment, using a couple of solar panels, some batteries, and some DC cabling/plugs. Detailed how to from Low Tech magazine.
posted by notyou at 7:02 AM on May 17, 2016

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