Solar Projects that You Could Do

A guest post by Michael C

[This is an entry in our non-fiction writing contest where you could win – First Prize a 10 Person Deluxe Family Survival Kit,  Second Prize an Herb Seed Bank or Third Prize a copy of Dirt Cheap Survival Retreat.  For complete rules and list of prizes see this post.]

Most folks have the “idea” that solar costs lots of big bucks. But the truth of the matter is – solar energy is an investment. Like big power company’s that buy a nuclear power plant. There is a big (one time) up front investment for the company that will usually pay off later.

You would do the same thing – invest in a pile of components that will become your personal utility. The cost of taking care of your utility is minimal – after the initial purchase. You don’t have any monthly bills – it is YOUR utility. Why is solar worth having? Because, it gives you power. The power comes from the sun and goes into your pocket – if you got it. Solar power is nice and quiet – use a night-light to go to the bathroom.

A few people can tell you how to build a solar energy system. But, going into wire sizes, battery sizes, panel sizes and everything else is sure to confuse you to the point of “puttin’ it off”. So, I am going to just describe systems that I made. I am going to describe 3 different sized systems – that you can copy – for your own use. You should copy – but, keep in mind that you can adapt your system to the materials you have. If you have a 100 Watt panel lying around – use it – instead of the 80W panel I used in my medium system.

Small system

small sys pan 300x225 Solar Projects that You Could DoA small system for me is just some thin-film panels, taped to a piece of stretch proof plastic sheet (from the post office plastic mailer) with wires soldered on. Most productive for recharging batteries or powering a small device. A common connector is style “M” which can be found at Radio Shack.

I added diodes (…N1001) to each solar panel (since they are all in parallel) to block all reverse current – I did not want any panel to “leak” power backwards. At this size of alternate energy system – most of your connections would be soldered. The cost for each thin-film sheet was about $17 (USD) and the wire was cheap speaker wire (24 gage).

The solar panels can be soldered together in parallel, series or both for the voltage/amperage needed. (The thin-film panels can be bought in various sizes too.) At about 12 volts you might consider a 12V solar panel to avoid all the soldering. Thin film panels work great in this case because they are very light weight and portable. You could have these in your BOB, GHB or with your GPS.

Medium System

med sys cart 300x231 Solar Projects that You Could DoThis alternate energy system is larger, uses regular components like a framed solar panel. This system is still portable – if you have an electric chain saw, you can roll into the woods and use it. I use a $30 (USD) hand truck from Harbor Freight to “mount” the parts.

The parts consist of 80W solar panel, Xantrex C30 charge controller, 2 – 6 Volt 225 Amp hour batteries, 2 – inverters (400 & 1200 Watt), desulphator and a 12V car outlet. The batteries are inside the wood box, the inverters, desulphator and outlet are on top.

The components for this system can be separated – the battery box is strapped to the hand truck and the solar panel is mounted on the handle with 2 U-clamps. Mounting the panel this way allows me to “swing” the panel up into the sun, I use a stick to keep it there. I used a short extension cord (cut in two) to connect the panel to the battery so I can “unplug” the panel.

Connections from battery to charge controller (and from solar panel to charge controller) are fused using common automotive blade style fuses. The inverters and power outlet have their own (blade style) fusing. The battery and solar panel are the biggest cost in this system. The cost for the panel was $400 (at the time) and the batteries were $150 each.

This system does have 120V AC output but, if you’ll notice – you’re not going to touch it, at all. All components that you handle are only 12 volts, the inverter will be connected to the battery with the cables that they give you.

This system has an 80 Watt solar panel so the output is 80 Watts per hour or 80 Whrs. In a 10 hour sunny day you would get 800 Whrs – enough for 5 – 24W CFL’s for over 6 hours. (This system is bigger then MD’ Creekmore’s system.)

Large System

large sys pan 300x225 Solar Projects that You Could DoThe large solar power setup is just like you see in magazines with solar panels on the roof, a wall full of components and kids playing in the yard. I have 3 – 90W and 6 – 80W (total 750W) solar panels on top and a Solar Boost 50 (charge control), Prosine 2 (2 kW inverter), Xantrex breaker box, Link 10 battery meter (fuel gage), 8 – Trojan L16 batteries (20 kW storage). All components except batteries and panels are mounted on 3/4″ plywood. This means that I have 3 major connections: solar panels, batteries and AC output from the board.

This type of system is best bought as a kit – I bought the first 3 panels with inverter and added the other solar panels and charge controller later. You get almost all the pieces – including roof mounting hardware for the solar panels and the right size wires.

The trick with building this system is to put most of the stuff on a plywood board. I set the parts on plywood and arranged it to my liking. The breaker box should be located close to all the other stuff to minimize wire length. I had my panels mounted on the ground for good snow removal but, after thinking about theft (nice shiny blue panels) I mounted them on the roof. I use a snow rake and angle the panels steep (70 degree).

The best feature of this kit was the inverter. The inverter has an automatic transfer switch (the thing that goes click in a UPS when the power goes out) and 3 stage battery charger built-in. It is true sine wave (yes, had it hooked up to my scope meter). I added the breaker box because you just can’t get 300 amp DC rated fuses from the electric store.

large sys ply 300x225 Solar Projects that You Could DoI normally use cheap grid power for running everything but, when the power goes out – its solar time. If you have heard neighbors say something like “I have 100 amp service” then this inverter gives you 15 amp service. You can run up to 15 amps at 100% duty, it will surge to 30 amps (4 kW). This inverter is not grid tie but, UPS (uninterruptable Power Supply) tied. I have my fridge on this inverter in case of power outage.

Here is my little lead in on efficiency. My fridge (19 cf. Kenmore side by side) uses 1.12 kW a day, in 2 hours of sun – my panels will generate 1.5 kW – enough to cover my fridge power (and inverter overhead) use for a day. This fridge is 20% more efficient than every other fridge in its class (19-21 cubic foot). It cost $700 (USD) when I bought it. In the years that I have had it (about 8) it paid for itself in lower electric costs. It will always “pay you” to buy a new fridge.

Final Notes

Try to place the panels where they get sunlight, I should say “where they get the most sunlight”. If you have a tree that shades your panels at 2pm – move the panels so that the tree shades them at 6pm. I know that my roof space is limited but, I plan on getting the “best” light (10 am-3 pm) that I can. Losing energy in the winter because the tree shades at 2 pm is very costly (especially after all the money you paid for solar!)

SAFETY for the small system consists of not burning yourself with the soldering iron. The medium system has batteries that could weld your tools to the posts, wrap electrical tape around “good” tools used near the battery, have a tap for the post threads.

The batteries in my medium and large systems are flooded lead acid which means that I have to fill them with pure (distilled) water, I wear rubber gloves for this task and goggles. I also keep the family sized baking soda bucket nearby in case a mouse chews the corner (for water) – lot of solution (more than a gallon) in a 120 pound battery. Lead acid batteries generate hydrogen gas which is explosive, a vented battery box is recommended.

The medium system uses a (cheaper, easer to find) flooded lead acid battery, not the best type (AGM Absorbed Glass Mat or Gel Cell) for this application. Since it could tilt past 40 degrees (max fluid to cap angle) the solution can leak. I installed plastic inside the box to contain any fluid and am aware of this limitation in my system. The box is strapped to the hand truck for quick release to move into a truck bed.

The lead acid batteries that I used were bought before I found out about Edison batteries. Admittedly, the lead acid battery has more power per pound then the Edison (Alkaline based Nickel-Iron) battery but, have become the “throw away” part of every solar power system. Edison batteries will (have) last for a hundred years, don’t sulphate, don’t break down (lead plate flaking) and if they run dry – simply refill. In fact, replacing the alkaline solution would only take Berky water and wood ash (lye is alkaline) solution. Last but not least – no chance for explosion, does not generate hydrogen.

If you have read “31 Days to Survival” then you know that there is a chapter on alternate energy. I think that any of these systems will count for that day. Please share your comments and thoughts in the comments below.

Comments

  1. mike morrison says:

    I’m really interested in this technology but am intimidated by the amount of knowledge I don’t possess regarding electricity and electrical engineering. I’m worried that I would either hurt myself or burn something down..or something goes wrong and I don’t know how to address it before something really bad happened. The other concern is generating enough power to get off the grid completely. Running a few lights or a battery charger might prove useful in WROL, but running a fridge/freezer and A/C here in 100 degree, 10 months of summer south Texas is NECESSARY;) The systems I’ve looked at are over 20,000.00 and would take 15-20 years to pay for themselves. Is solar really a realistic alternative to off grid living?

    • Don’t worry about electrical engineering – there is nothing to engineer. The biggest job is putting the parts in there proper place – solar panels go on the ground or roof, batteries go on the floor (that is strong enough) and the rest of the parts go on the wall close to the panels and batteries. If you’re a good a carpenter then you’ll be able to hang panels.

      If you can solder then the small project will not hurt you – no large voltage, no amperage. The medium system is also safe. Building a large system is harder (because the parts are bigger) but simple to just run wires between components.

      Is it realistic? If you simply compare it to the Grid then, no but, if you compare it to “nothing” that you will have if the grid goes down then it is worth it. What is it worth to you to have AC at all times? The better question is could you buy better (more efficient) cooling appliances to reduce to cost of solar.

      • mike morrison says:

        Thanks for the reply!!! I appreciate it very much.

        So A/C is really not an option? I’ve seen fridge/freezer units that will run off of 12v systems but those units (which look great btw) are over 1200.00…not saying the security of knowing that your food is secure isn’t a cool thing, but people die here from the heat every year. It’s brutal. Do you know of other A/C units that would work on these smaller systems? Again, thanks so much for your advice!

        • No way no how !!
          AC is not in the picture for a small system, in fact the larger system depicted here would be too small for any practical use of AC.
          All I can say… If the grid goes down get used to sweating !

        • Mike, you just mentioned the answer – get a newer more efficient frig, freezer and AC unit. That fridge cost of $1200 will offset 3000-4000 dollars in solar cost. Check out SunDanser and Sun Frost for freezers. The less electric you use the smaller the system for solar.

          Also, putting in the system yourself will save some money. Check out this ad for solar panels: http://www.solarpanelblowout.com

        • Have you looked a heat pump? A heat pump is like an air conditioner but “dumps” the heat into the ground, which is always cooler than the air.

  2. I like the idea of solar I also like wind power maybe in combination of the 2. I just wish that some company would sell systems that non phd could understand with no upsells or pressure. I would like to see it when you can buy a system that will run a modern house period.3 bedroom 2 baths with garage and enough to run hotwater and refridgeraters and a deep freeze in the garage.And how long will it live in years.

    • axelsteve,
      That system is available now for something like $50K. The problem has to do with the basic efficiency of the panels. Bright sunlight contains about 1KW per square meter (approximately 1 square yard or 16 square feet), but most available panels are only 10-15% efficient, meaning that a 1 square meter panel will only generate between 100 and 150 watts. Assuming that you need about 7KW to run an average home, that would mean you would need under the best circumstances with a 15% efficient panel, about 46 to 49 of them. Since 49 is a perfect square we can use that as an example for an array of 7 panels wide by 7 panels high, or a square of panels about 23 feet on a side. This would provide 7000 watts during the day in bright sunlight. To make up for the overcast days, and for available power at night, you would probably at least double the number of panels, and then provide the charge controllers, batteries, and inverters to convert, store, and deliver the power you need. This means about 100 panels at perhaps $75/each ($7500), charge controllers for that many panels ($500-$1000), 7KW of inverter(s) ($2000-$3000), and enough battery capacity to store all of this energy which could easily hit $3000-$5000. I’m guessing at the component prices, but I think I’m in the ballpark, and you can see where a system like this could easily run $20K+ counting all of the assembly and mounting and tracking hardware. If you’re not doing it yourself, you would then add in labor and profit and could be well north of $35K. There is a lot of research going on in this arena, and if we can get the panels above 50% efficiency, then things would get a bit less expensive, but for now, the big problem is simply the immutable laws of physics.
      We will never get a 100% efficient panel (physics again) but if we could, the above system would only require 14-16 one square meter panels. If we chose 16 (4×4) then the array would be only 13 feet on a side and no second array would be required.

      • I am not worried about physics I am worried about the marketing.I am thinking about the consumer end of it.If I want to convert to solar or start to solar from the begining I do not want to listen to some A personality comisioned salesman to upsell on wire gauge and other crap jargon.Just what would it cost have a system to live in the modern world and how long will the projected lifespan be on said unit . Thank you though Ohio prepper.

    • 93bottlesofbeeronthewall says:

      I have a hybrid wind/solar system in N. Mich. , the Air-X wind generator is near useless. Average wind speed, per an NOAA map, is 11mph here. The Air-X says 7 mph is minimum to generate any power. Placed about 30′ high (but only 6 ft over the peak of the roof), it takes more like a 30mph wind to get any measurable power.

      No doubt the placement isn’t optimal, so I won’t bash the company, but wish I’d have spent the money on another solar panel. I wouldn’t recommend wind unless you live on the coast or the prairie, or maybe in the mtns.

      • Thanks for that info, 93- it reaffirms my procrastination about installing wind power here in MN. There are some power company turbines not far from me that seem to never be spinning, so I’m wondering if there’s ever going to be a ROI for the power investment there.

      • The wind turbine has to be up high. I have a 400 but, it is still intermitent – solar panels are the steady Eddies of the renewable market.

  3. In the southwest , between Solar and Wind for power , you should be in good shape .

  4. Thank you Michael – you’ve put a lot of work into that and I’ll be saving it to show my BIL. I can feel a trip to town coming on soon with quite a shopping list!

  5. Matt in Oklahoma says:

    Good Stuff!!!

  6. Kate in GA says:

    Thank you Michael! I really like the one on the hand truck.

  7. I’ve long thought about putting in a wind power system- just simply don’t have the winter sunlight to run solar and seldom enough summer sun (especially this summer!). But the wind does blow most days.
    Still, my major question for either system is the amount of power. You mention taking an electric chainsaw into the bush and run off the portable gen… you’re using a converter, right? I can’t see 80W running a 1500W chainsaw- and that’s just start-up power. When it runs into the wood, seems that it’d be needing more.
    My gas gennie is 3500W and barely runs my circular saw and charge a drill battery at the same time. (But it does work well for the camper, which is the main reason for having it.)
    So I guess my question about this is, how many panels would one need to run a fridge, freezer (neither runs continuously, for sure, or at the same time), and a few light bulbs and furnace motor?
    Looking at the lights, 75W bulbs don’t draw 75W, just emit that much, but draw about 1KW in 30 hours. The furnace blower is 1/10HP 110V drawing… umm, I dunno, but not much.
    (You can see I know less than nothing about electricity. :X [I’ll take a .357 every time])
    Really, I’d be more than surprised if I even started the ‘puter in a grid down situation, or be less than concerned with it, so that stuff isn’t on my list of needs. But the furnace blower (wood stove) and fridge and well pump (but that’s 220 and a whole new ball game).
    Afraid I’m going to stick with Coleman dual fuel and kerosene when ‘it’ happens.
    I need’a get edimicated.

    • JSW,
      A light bulb of whatever wattage outputs light in lumens, with the watt measurement being specific to the type of lighting. Actually, a 75W bulb does indeed draw 75 watts and will use 1 KWH in about 13.5 hours. It emits light energy at about 1180 lumens. A 20 watt Compact Florescent will use 1 KWH in about 50 hours and emits about 1200 lumens. A 12.5 watt LED light will use 1 KWH in about 80 hours and emits about 1000 lumens.
      Here we can see that light output in Lumens and power input in watts is only related from the perspective of which lighting technology is in use. LED lights are still not as easy to get or as inexpensive as CFL or incandescent, but the technology is being developed quickly, and will eventually allow all of us to use less power without giving up the light we want and need.

    • 93bottlesofbeeronthewall says:

      I used this formula to size my system, and it seems pretty close.

      X 4 X .75 = watt hours you’ll get in a day

      “4” is the number of hours of full sun, when you consider some clouds and the lesser watts in the morning/evening, it’s a good average.

      .75 is for the 25% loss of the wire and inverter. Think most sites say 20%, but I have the panels on the roof of a 2-story house with the batts in the basement.

      So, figure the 700w for the large system of the author, you get 2100 watt hours per average day. That’s 2.1 kwh, or about 63 kwh per month. Now go look at your electric bill from last month – but sit down first.

      • 93bottlesofbeeronthewall says:

        hmm – formula didn’t make it. Trying again:

        “total wattage of solar panels” X 4 X .75 = watt hours you’ll get in a day

      • 93bottlesofbeeronthewall,
        Sit down is a good recommendation – LOL. My average use is about 2200 KWH per month and some neighbors who I helped with an energy audit with a much newer, smaller, more energy efficient house and foot print still use about 1500 per month.

      • LOL at that ‘sit down’, 93! I have to say, though, that Lake States Power sends out an info sheet of useage every month, rating neighbor to neighbor, and I’m always the one with least useage. (So why, I asked them, since I use so little power, does my bill get higher every month? No answer.)
        But you lsot me at X in that formula! :\ << is DUHMM at math. Last month I used 305 KWH, according to my bill. But that seems higher than average. Still, have been using the stove fan quite a bit in the mornings and evenings.
        So what I'm seeing is I'll have to install quite a system to get my power needs. But gosh, that system Ohio Prepper's talking about… I'll stick with kerosene and tallow. Gosh- $20K to $75K to light a lightbulb? I don't think so.

    • For the chainsaw – the saw runs off the inverter (1200W) and the inverter is connected to the battery. The 80W solar panel charges the battery – left in the sun all day. You get about 1 hour run time for every 10 hours (800Whrs) in the sun.

      Your 75W equaled CFL’s only take about 18 watts. To figure the wattage of some appliance – check the power rating tag.

  8. Nice article. Would be nice to see a more detailed how-to on the small syatem. That would be a greaqt do-it-yourself project.

  9. SrvivlSally says:

    I like your small setup because it is one that anyone can do when they know how to solder and you did a good job in explaining how to set up all of the sytems. I really appreciate knowing how many Kilowatts you get out of a charge and the length of time that it, generally, takes. You took the guess work out of that one. Thank you, Michael C.

  10. SaratogaPrepper says:

    I have been looking into a small project like the one you have shown. My only problem is here in the Great NorthEast sunshine is a rare commodity. Is someone would invent something that generated power from rain I’d be all set.

    Great article nonetheless. Thanks.

    • SaratogaPrepper,
      They have. It’s called a hydroelectric dam – LOL.

      • SaratogaPrepper says:

        Actually I have worked for the power company here in Upstate NY for almost 30 years. Part of that time was spent as an operator at a hydro and am fairly knowledgable in that field. Unfortunately I have no moving water source on my property.

    • Water turbine on a downspout?

  11. blindshooter says:

    I’m dreaming on a system large enough to run lights and maybe a chest freezer converted to fridge. I understand the controller for the freezer is about 60 bucks and it uses very little power. Still 120v AC but the starting amperage is really low. My biggest problem here at the new place is trees blocking the sun during the sweet spot especially in winter and they are on the neighbors land. If I get serious enough about doing it I’ll see if they will let me cut them, the last hurricane ragged them up anyway.

    The summers here are humid, hot and long. I could live without AC but refrigeration would make life so much better. The power costs in my area are already a lot higher than most areas due to some bad decisions the co op made thirty years ago so I have great incentive to cut back on power use now and every time I buy any device I really look at how efficient it is and how it might work on a solar system if need be.

    Thanks Michael C for a great post!

  12. michael c,
    Great article and I think pictures can truly be worth 1000 words. As many of the comments stated, people think that they need an engineering degree to build such a system, and while that may have been true 20 years ago, most of the components you used are what engineers call COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) units that can simply be connected with wires and appropriate fuses. Hopefully your simple systems will show folks that solar is within their grasp, and although it is probably cost prohibitive for most of us to go completely off grid with solar, keeping low energy lighting, cell phones, radios, and computers running as well as some simple appliances is well within the budget of many of us, and within the technical skill level of hopefully all of us.

  13. Unfortunatly no one makes mini nuke kits to run a home. I would like the idea of a solar setup to provide lights for a cabin with wood or propane heat with a propane fridge.that would be do able for small scale off grid living.I think right now solar would not replace nuke and hydro power though.I have yet to see a subdivison that is solar operated. It would be cool to see one though.

  14. Bill in NC says:

    Converting a chest freezer to a fridge is the most efficient way to get refrigeration – 0.1 to 0.2 kWh/day.

    Unfortunately, the disadvantages of nickel-iron cells include their rapid rate of self-discharge compared to lead-acid and their low charge/discharge efficiency.

    They may last 50+ years but you’ll need around 1/3 more panels to compensate for the above.

    The above didn’t matter for their traditional use – as emergency backup (kept on float on cheap grid power) in a battery that didn’t have to be replaced every 5 years (e.g. lead-acid)

    Nickel-cadmium batteries also can take a lot of abuse (i.e. deep discharge without killing their lifespan) so if you’re willing to spend $$$ on batteries upfront they might be the better choice versus nickel-iron.

    • Actually, thats why Nickel-iron batteries are perfect for this job, every day they get “discharged” (no long term storage need) by daily use. They would also be charged daily by the panels so the charge would be kept up.
      There efficiency is as good as lead acid (80%) on taking charge. Nickel-Cadmium have problems with memory and “spiking” (internal shorts)

      But, if I really wanted to spend money – I would buy a bunch of ultra-capacitors and leave batteries behind.

  15. Where do you buy the thin film solar panels? I’ve never found a source for them.

  16. Old Hillbilly says:

    Thanks to Michael C. for a great article. I have researched solar systems for over a year now, eventually deciding that rather than a large stand along system, I would invest in a 20KW Detroit Diesel generator capable of running of diesel, WVO, or basically any vegetable oil as my primary SHTF power source for pumping water, heat, freezers, hot water, etc. and then use a smaller solar system for a few lights, some smaller appliances, etc. This week I ran across a coupon in American Rifleman magazine for the Harbor Freight 45w Solar “kit”, norally $229.95 on sale for $179.95 but with the coupon $149.95. Granted, it is made in China and other panels available probably cost less per watt to operate but this kit is simple to assemble, available, and lends itself to being added on to in the future. The panels are efficient and seem to last well from what I read, plus previous problems with the included charge controller have now been fixed. The kit includes three 15 watt panels, a charge controller, two led light fixtures, cabeling, and mounting base. The main point I wanted to make here is that sometimes various solar companies online tend to get so heavy into mathematics and technical electrical engineering terms that they tend to lose me. However, while searching on YouTube I found a very interesting “channel” discussing the Harbor Freight system in conjunction with small wind turbines. If you watch all his solar videos you will be taken step by step through the basic system all the way up to his final setup that power his entire home….extremely intersting. On top of that, you will see that this guy is into serious prepping and appears to be a straight up fellow. Just go to YouTube and do a search for “econewpower” or if you seach for Harbor Freight 45w solar you will find this and plenty of others. Finally, there is also a discussion forum dedicated to this little kit that contains a wealth of information as well as a gathering of very knowledgable people that build, modify, and improve these little kits using simply tools and terms even I can understand. They are most willing to offer assistance and answer even the most basic questions. You find this website here http://solarpanelkitatharborfreight.ning.com/

    Just thought I would pass this along. Now all I need to do is get busy assembling the 3 kits I bought yesterday along with the two 400w inverters that were half price with a coupon also! Good luck…and don’t forget, when SHTF, even a small solar setup will be no power at all!

    • Old Hillbilly says:

      That last sentence should say “when SHTF, even a small solar setup will BEAT no power at all”! Sorry.

  17. Another way to do a small-medium system is to put a standard 20-80 watt solar panel in the window of a car, connected to a charge controller, and use it to charge the vehicle batteries via the cigarette lighter. Then you can run/charge 12v apps, charge cell phones, video games, laptops, etc. off the 2nd cigarette lighter, and use a 400-1000 watt inverter to run larger apps like power tools directly off the battery. It helps to have a diesel vehicle with two batteries for more extensive storage and power, but a standard vehicle will also work. This total system would cost between $100-200 and be easily portable in your vehicle or even in a backpack or personal trailer (you’d have to find stalled/wrecked/trashed cars with good batteries along the way).

    • You don’t need a diesel to have 2 batteries, just add another to your car with cables. Of course, having solar in your pack gives you options.

  18. art alvarez says:

    mr morrison i live in south texas as well. i think a solar system will work perfect. im installing one soon. i have the panels ready to mount. i just need to think about a grid-tied option.
    great post!

    • mike morrison says:

      Howdy Art!

      Will your system run your a/c and appliances? That’s my issue…for me, it’s got to replace what I’ve got now. Solar is so ineffecient right now that you’re paying for 100% of the materials/technology but only getting about a 20% return..at least that’s what I’ve been reading everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have it replace my electric bill!!! But, right now, it won’t without spending a year’s salary–and even then, it’s not a sure bet.

  19. art alvarez says:

    hi mike
    running your a/c and appliances will drive the cost of a stand alone system tremendously. It can be done, but cost is always the bottom line.
    in a grid tied system, the power produced by the panels goes back to the grid. the power can be used by you or sent back to the grid. for example.
    i have 4 ea. 175 watt panels. = 700 watts x 5 hrs of sun = 3,500 watts.
    (these figures are in standar test conditions)
    what this means is that in a 5 hr day of full sun and optimal conditions the system will produce 3,500 watts. if no one home during this time the power goes back to the grid (maybe your neighbor will use it) in other words you are selling it back to the power co. ( this subject requires a little more attention)
    if you are home the power produced is there for you.
    this is a basic idea of how a grid tied system works. the panels and the inverter are the main components. there are other important issues such as code compliance,permits and all your local and state laws etc. there is also a tax credit on renewable energy systems. i hope this gives you an idea of this option in your quest for a renewable energy system. remember there is also plenty on wind in so. tx.
    sun + wind = a lot of watts
    see you amigo