Powering our Tiny House, Off the Grid: The SolMan Portable Solar Generator
Perhaps one my favorite things about our tiny house (other than falling asleep to the sound of rain on a steel roof) is that it is entirely off grid.
Christopher and I are both environmentalists of sorts, having spent chunks of our lives studying, researching, and telling stories about humans’ interactions with our natural resources and waste. Part of this tiny house experiment has always been about learning to lessen our own impact.
And there’s also the practical side of things: 40 miles from a major town, our tiny house doesn’t have access to a “grid” of any kind. No gas lines. No power lines. No water lines or sewage system. We’ve had to figure out our own solutions for each of these utilities.
Park County, Colorado gets an average of 246 sunny days each year, so solar power was an obvious choice for our electric needs. Throughout the building stage, Christopher looked into rigging up a system of his own design, but when we heard about the SolMan portable solar generator, we decided it was be worth it to purchase a professional, pre-made solar unit than to build our own.
Our reasons for choosing the SolMan solar generator to power our home include:
- Portability: The unit is self-contained and on wheels, designed to be easily moved from one location to the next. This means that we can move it along with our house, should we ever choose a new spot on the land, or to move it to a new location. We’d just unscrew the two solar “wings” and lift the unit into the bed of a pick-up (which, we should warn you, requires the muscles of at least 6 grown men), and we’d be on our way! The unit’s portability also means that we can use it for other purposes—like powering our video equipment on a remote shoot. And—most importantly—that we can change the positioning of the unit to track the sun throughout the day to get maximum light exposure.
- Ease of use: When it came down to designing and rigging a solar system from scratch, we decided we’d rather leave it to the professionals. Not that we couldn’t have figured it out if we wanted to, but there’s no way we could have designed anything as cohesive and high-quality as the SolMan. We literally unpacked the unit the day it arrived, flipped the inverter to “On” and it immediately started charging. To power our house, which is wired to AC, we simply rolled the SolMan over to the outlet and…plugged it in. Tada! We had power. Seriously, it was as easy as that, which after a year of building a house and realizing that nothing is as simple as it seems, was quite refreshing.
- AC/DC Flexibility: Christopher wired the house himself for AC, so that we’d have the option of plugging the house into the grid if we ever move it to an urban area. The SolMan can easily be used as either AC or DC.
- Durability & Quality: The SolMan came equipped with 3,135 watt Kyocera panels, 3 gel cell deep-cycle batteries, and a Blue Sky Solar Boost charge controller. While I don’t actually understand what any of that means (which is exactly why we chose not to design the solar installation ourselves), what we do understand is that the unit is made from top-of-the-line materials. It can withstand temperatures of -70 F (important for us up in the mountains) and is weather resistant, so that we don’t have to worry about leaving it outside during Colorado thunderstorms or blizzards.
What exactly does the SolMan power?
Because of the long, cold winters in the Colorado mountains, we opted for a propane heater in our tiny house. The cooking stove is alcohol-burning (we chose not to purchase one with an oven, but propane and alcohol-fueled models with ovens for baking exist and are easy to come by). Until we decide to drill a well, there is no running water on the land. For the time being we are hauling our own water and heating it on the stove (if we do decide to install a water heater, propane-fueled models are available). So, our electricity needs are actually pretty low.
Our consistent electricity needs:
- Lights: total of 265 watts
- Small (21″ x 20″ x 18″) high-efficiency electric fridge: 83 watts
- Charging two iPhones: 7 watts each
- Charging two MacBook Pro laptops: Merete’s 13″ laptop is 65 watts; Christopher’s 17″ laptop is 85 watts
- Small stereo hooked up to an iPhone or iPod: 50 watts
As you can see, the 1500 watt Classic SolMan system provides more than enough electricity for all of these needs (should we be running them all at once), and the 300 amp hours of battery—since it’s recommended that we only drain the batteries about halfway but no less than 60%, that leaves us with 150-200 usable amp hours—will keep us going overnight.
It also provides plenty of extra watts for our Every-So-Often electricity needs:
- Hooking up power tools for small building or repair projects: About 300 watts for a circular saw, for example.
- Charging camera batteries or other electronics: About 60 watts to charge our Canon 7D, for example.
What doesn’t the SolMan power?
The SolMan is not well suited for any electric needs that involve heating things—including toaster ovens, hot plates, electric tea pots, electric-powered heaters or water heaters. According to the SolMan website, all of these activities would require a “solar system with a large battery bank, larger inverter, and 2000 to 3000 watts of PV panels on the roof, to make a reliable system that could handle a toaster oven, electric heater or water heater.” Again, because our house is heated with propane and our cooking stove is fueled with alcohol, this is not a problem for us. If we do install a water heater it will likely be propane-fueled, and we’re fine to grill our toast and heat our tea on the stovetop.
So far, our experience with the SolMan has been extremely positive. At a little over 9,000 feet in elevation, the sun up here is bright and strong, and even stormy days quickly charge the unit’s batteries.
On one recent cloudy day, we arrived at the tiny house and uncovered the unit (we keep it wrapped in a tarp and chained up for security purposes—we’re still working out a better storage system when we’re away) around 5pm and the unit quickly charged to capacity before nightfall, serving all of our electric needs for the rest of the evening. Indeed, our only issue with the unit has been figuring out a way to keep it safe while we’re out of town. We’re eventually planning to build a small, simple shed that we can roll the unit into when we are gone for long periods of time.
In conclusion, I’d like to stop for just a moment to express my utter amazement that we, as human beings, can harness the energy of the sun.
Is anyone else out there as awed by this as I am? Seeing the SolMan work up close still feels a bit like watching a scene from Star Trek or Spaceship Earth. Huge gratitude to the folks at Sol-Solutions, and other solar companies far and wide, for doing this work to develop easy solutions for zero-emissions, renewable power. Huzzah!
~ Merete Mueller, 5.8.12