Solar Electricity Systems: Understanding Basic Configuration

As more homeowners embrace alternative energy sources like solar electricity systems, they find themselves in the position of learning basic concepts and vocabulary even if they hire a contractor to select the components and perform the installation. A good place to begin a basic understanding of home solar power is simply to know the difference between the three major types of systems in use.

On-Grid Solar System

On a day-to-day basis, an on-grid solar system operates transparently. The solar panels generate electricity used by the house in combination with power from the electric utility's grid. By law in the United States, the utility must buy any excess electricity produced via a system called net metering. The specific provisions of net metering regulations vary by state and utility. In some instances the meter will literally run backwards, in other the home accrues energy "credits" that are used to defray expenses during high consumption months. In either scenario, clean, free energy from the sun is used to lower the home’s electric bill.

The system components include a photovoltaic array wired to an array DC disconnect which feeds power through an inverter to the AC breaker panel and out to the house. A smart meter reads both power used and power generated for billing and payment purposes

On-Grid Solar System with Battery Backup

Batteries incorporated into the system guarantee a constant supply of electricity to the home even when blackouts occur. The basic concept and operation are the same, but with additional components. In this configuration, the photovoltaic array is still wired to the array DC disconnect, but now a charge controller, battery bank, system meter, and main DC disconnect are inserted between the array DC disconnect and the inverter. The connections coming out of the inverter remain the same.

Off-Grid Solar System

These systems operate with complete independence from the utility company's grid. The home draws its total electrical power from the sun, with no electric bills. In configuration, an off-grid system is identical to an on-grid battery backup system, but generally a back-up generator is also wired into the inverter for those times when the system doesn't produce enough power for the home's needs. The inverter connects to the AC breaker panel with no connection to the electric utility grid present.

Understanding the differences in the three types of home solar power systems will allow you to decide which will best fit the needs of your home. Numerous sources are available online to learn more about what functions are performed by the individual system components. It's not necessary to become an expert in solar technology to incorporate clean, renewable energy into your home, but a basic understanding of terminology and elements will help you to spend your money more wisely.

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