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> Learning Center > Photovoltaics: Getting Started

Photovoltaics: Getting Started

By: E. Taylor – PVPower Contributor – November 3, 2009

Article Highlights:

  • Before purchasing a system, consider how you are planning to use it.  Do you want to be completely or partially solar powered?
  • Do you have enough space?
  • What kind of panels do you plan to use?
  • Systems can be expensive and are able to be expanded on to so don’t feel pressured to spend all your money at once.

When considering the use of any photovoltaic (or solar power) application, there are a number of factors to be taken into account.  The specific desired use, the overall size of the system, power output, and personal budget all need to be considered.

How are you planning to use your solar-power system?

There are a number of possibilities available that can take advantage of photovoltaic energy.  Determining, specifically, what one will be planning to power, to what degree, and for how long.  A small system would be capable of powering small sections of a building or lowering overall power costs, while a large system could be set up to power a building completely off-grid.  Making this determination is essential in deciding on how much power output a system will require.

How much room is available on which to install solar panels?

After the desired power output has been determined, it is time to calculate how much space is available for the placement of photovoltaic paneling, as this may become a limiting factor where total output is concerned.  For a residence, where a measure of aesthetics is usually desired, panels are often only placed on a roof.  It is possible, however, to set up photovoltaic arrays on poles or small towers. 

What kind of panels should be used?

Once the total available square footage is calculated, a specific type of photovoltaic panel can be chosen.  Currently, there are three variations of silicone paneling commonly available.  Amorphous panels are the cheapest of the three, but provide the lowest power output.  Polycrystalline cells are the next step up in efficiency, and are more expensive.  Finally, monocrystalline cells are generally the most expensive, but boast an increase in output.  However, these do come with on potential problem.  Since monocrystalline cells are cut from semi-cylindrical pieces of material, they can't be packed together squarely to form a solid surface, in essence wasting an amount of surface area.  The best bet, when making a decision, is to calculate how much space each material would require to meet power needs.  There is also a range of efficiency between manufacturers of the same panel material, so it is always wise to compare brand-to-brand and product-to-product as well. 

What else is there to consider?

As always, it is important to consider a personal budget before coming to a final decision.  If a desired power output cannot be afforded, consider upgrading later.  Expandable solar kits are commonly available; so more paneling can be added later.  Installing a smaller system now will make upgrades easier to afford later!

There are several pieces of equipment needed beyond solar panels.  Solar kits are available that include everything necessary to get a system up and running.  This includes wiring, a grid-tie inverter (used to convert the solar panels' DC current into the AC current used in our homes,) and mounting hardware, among others. 

As is always the case with complex electrical installation, care should be taken to ensure safety at all levels.  Therefore, it is probably best, in most cases, to hire a professional electrician.

Click Here to Read Two Different Ways Solar Energy Can Power Your Home

Click Here to Read Installing a Photovoltaic System

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