Solar charging system cost vs. payback is a constant topic for some folks. I really do not understand why but that does not matter – there are many things I do not understand. I am providing my system information and cost to give the folks that are curious about this another data point and possibly help them decide on a course of action regarding their charging system design.
For background; I spend nearly all my time boondocking (dry camping in the forest or desert), I am full-time employed (software engineer) working via the Internet, and I live quite comfortably. I run lights, microwave, refrigerator (absorption), watch television with receiver and surround sound, keep my computer running all day, keep my phone and tablets charged, run my furnace, and so forth.
My solar charging system (photovoltaic panels, charge controller, remote meter, and wiring) cost me about $1,300.00. Mine was an entirely DIY project – I did all the research, design, fabrication, and installation. This solar charging system provides all the power I require and, except for a couple very rare occurrences, I don’t use my generator (yes, I run it occasionally to keep it alive). You can read all about the details here.
I installed the system about two and a half years ago. In that time I have spent no money on generator fuel, generator OR solar maintenance/repair. Ok.. ok… I have ran the generator a couple times for power. Once when I was caught at low elevation on a super hot summer day in Montana. Once in Arizona this past winter when we had several very overcast and cold days. So, I’ve probably ran the generator 6-8 hours.
If I didn’t have solar, I can guess that I would have used the generator at least three hours per day (totally a guess – it would likely be more than that). Since the rate of charging a lead-acid battery slows as it approaches 90% state of charge, the generator spends a lot of time running while doing very little charging. If we used the standard .5 gallon fuel per hour guesstimate, and guess that I was boondocking 850 of those 912 days, I would have used about 1300 gallons of diesel in the 2550 hours of operation. This is something around $3900 assuming $3/gallon and I believe this is a low estimate.
I’m not even sure how many generator oil changes and repairs would have been required in that period of time. Several, I suspect. So, I figure I have saved approximately $2,600 to date – and my solar system is still working without a hint of problems/failure. That is $3900 (fuel) – $1300 (solar cost) = $2,600.00 saved. The solar payoff or payback or time to pay themselves has come and gone – a long time ago!
The money saved on fuel is great. However; the best part, in my humble opinion, is that all of this power has been created silently. I know some hate that concept. In my humble opinion, it is a truly wonderful thing . Being able to sit in a beautiful forest while my batteries are being charged AND simultaneously be able to hear the wind whispering thru the trees is fabulous. In my humble opinion, my quality of life is much better having listened to the wind in the trees, the birds singing, even the water flowing in the creek for those 2550 hours instead of listing to my rather quiet generator running.
Walking into a solar installer and having a system installed can be fairly expensive but that cost is due to labor. A DIY solar charging system certainly takes time and has a learning curve but there is nothing complicated or difficult about it. If you decide to make it complicated by adding electrically powered tilting panels or a self-tracking array – please don’t confuse that decision with how inexpensive and easy a system can be.
For those that must have a radio blasting, tv making noise, partner rambling in the background, etc. to feel “comfortable” or “at home”; solar is probably not for you (but it may be for those who are camping nearby!!). The silence is deafening.
For those that enjoy being able to hear nature – the breeze, the birds, the pine cones falling; solar is AWESOME and easily worth the cost.
For those that argue that their little Honda (or Yamaha or whatever) generator is very quiet. Yes, it is quiet when compared to other combustion engine powered generators. Compared to solar – that little Honda is loud and stinky. Sorry, that’s just the truth. I’ve camped 500′ from people running a Honda and I can hear it. I guarantee they cannot hear my solar panels.
In my opinion, for use such as mine, the payback of my solar charging system, in hard dollars, is very real. It has paid for itself over and over again in a pretty short period of time. In terms of quality of life, the payback was immediate – the first week of operation. Yeah, I think the payback is quick and real.
Worried about solar charging when it is cloudy – read this.
Worried that it is too complicated and you’ll never understand it all – read this.