a story about living small

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.

Visit the SolMan website for the technical specs of the unit.

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

 

21 Responses

  1. What a thorough writeup! Thanks Merete. I think I’m sold on the Sol Man :)

    May 9, 2012 at 6:45 pm

  2. Wonderful review Merete! Sounds like a great system! They do make tiny electric heaters that “only” use 400 watts. Dee Williams has one and loves it! I believe its called a NewAir AH400.

    May 9, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    • Thanks Logan, and thanks for the tip on the NewAir electric heater! Great to know about, especially for tiny houses in milder climates.

      May 10, 2012 at 4:26 am

  3. Great post as always Merete. I was hoping you were going to talk more about the SolMan. While I don’t think it will fit our needs and I think it is a bit out of our budget even, it is a great resource for a ton of other things. I think it could be very effective in lots of aspects of life if given a proper chance.

    And as far as harnessing the power of the sun? I am CONSTANTLY awestruck by solar power and what it is able to do. Mind-boggling, in my opinion.

    May 10, 2012 at 12:40 am

  4. Weston

    Living in a less remote area I would be constantly worried about theft protection. Do you ever take any anti-theft measures for such an expensive piece of equipment?

    May 10, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    • Hi Weston, yes this has been on our mind and we have taken many precautions to keep the unit safe. We’re also in the process of building a small shed for storing it when we are away.

      May 10, 2012 at 11:20 pm

  5. Rob Rheaume

    Very informative. Definitely going to use this option along with a Honda gas inverter for those times when you require that circular saw or other power tools.

    I am really looking forward to this movie. I think that once my family has seen the potential of downsizing and living large, we will begin our own Tiny House project.

    Question/sugestion: with strong winds and potential for tornadoes, a person could build an emergency shelter that would also act as a food cellar? Great place to keep food preserved longer. It’s an option I will look at considering the high winds we get in Alberta.

    As for shower and wash facilities. One of the things I am looking at doing is building an elevated sauna with wood stove/water heater & a gravity fed shower below the sauna.

    The concept of living in a tiny house on a small a acreage still allows you to build separate buildings that are Eco friendly and yet liveable spaces yearround. Examples: unheated garage or car port, outdoor sauna&shower, gazebo, storage sheds for gardening tools, storage sheds for Eco friendly outdoor equipment like mountain bikes, skis, kayaks & canoes. My concept is you can still have these things but on a more Eco friendly scale. A large deck wrapped around a tiny house is still a living space during the 3 seasons and the warm sunny days of winter.

    Anyhow, I am rambling but I thought I would bounce some ideas.

    Well done to the both of you. I like how you are demonstrating change by giving us substance and reason and hope for a better future without being a prisoner to this society which is going the wrong way?

    May 11, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    • Martha Clarvoe

      There is a solar heated shower bag that could create a hot shower without an electricity through your warm months. Google solar camp shower. My bag has lasted probably 10 years.
      Living in upstate New York we long for your sun, don’t take it for granted! :) Martha

      March 13, 2013 at 2:24 pm

  6. Hello Christopher and Merete;

    Thanks for the great write up and pic of the SolMan in use for the tiny home!

    A few comments towards this topic;

    - We have several folks now powering their tiny home with a SolMan,
    and it seems a good fit, with some initial power management
    expectations, especially once you understand to offload most
    heating and cooking to propane, instead of electric.

    - On the moving the unit – We get a couple 2x6x8ft boards, and
    make some simple ramps for getting the SolMan unit in and out of
    truck or vans. With a low deck vehicle, or a little elevation or curb
    on your load in, I can get a SolMan in and out of rig myself.

    - The NewAir AH400 heater is a great tip!
    You could use this heater with the SolMan. Most of the time, folks
    would use heater at night, so you are on battery power, but @ 400
    watts, you could run this for 5 or 6 hours, and be within the limit,
    as long as you have good sun the next day for a recharge.

    - A great tip for a replacement of the electric hog toaster oven:
    If you have a propane stove top or campstove, they make a real
    simple “camp toaster rack” that will fit on a burner, and makes
    great toast! I use this all the time in my off-grid trailer with no
    oven. See REI or a good sporting good store. Also available
    is a small stove top oven.

    - And if you want to continue with the solar lifestyle, the SunOven,
    ( which we sell also ) will bake outside in the sun very well, and
    will toast, and do great cast iron kettle meals like rice and beans,
    with no electric or gas needed!

    - We make a smaller unit, the SolMan Action Packer, that is a
    different design, with a simple battery box and components, and a
    separate folding solar panels stand. It has less battery, a smaller
    inverter, and less PV input, and is even easier to move, but for
    $2,495, it is more affordable, if your electric needs are a little less.

    - We do custom design, source, and build for any small and portable
    solar electric, as we are getting requests from other Tiny Home
    folks, and other off-grid and emergency backup situations.
    We could put a kit together with the key components pre-wired,
    and offer the “do-it-yourself” install to finish on your tiny home,
    especially if you wanted it built in and wired to your structure.

    - YES, if you need more electric sometimes than just a SolMan,
    but don’t want to run the beast all the time, then consider the
    hybrid power solution of a SolMan inter-tied with a gas generator.
    When you need the 2000 or 3000 watts, plug in those applications
    directly into liquid fuel generator and run them for the time you
    need. This will also put a fast charge to full on the SolMan
    batteries. Then you can shut of the beast, and be on battery power
    the rest of the day and night. This also gives you the reliable power
    365 days a year no matter what the weather, if you are not seeing
    the sun for a few days, and your batteries are down.
    If you are OK just running a generator a couple hours a day to
    supplement the solar, you can extend your power load and
    reliability significantly for your off-grid system, and not use much
    gas at all.

    May 14, 2012 at 7:42 pm

  7. Kristine

    I have been keeping tabs on your build and I’m really impressed with what you have done and are doing. But I wonder why you are just running 120 AC in your home for your lighting and power needs.

    For the past 12 years I’ve called a 32 foot 5th wheel home and really don’t understand why most people wire their tiny homes for just 120 volts AC. With what’s out there for low voltage lighting and LED lighting there is no reason to use 120 volt AC for lighting if you are living off grid or on grid for that matter. If you are off grid you are wasting power going from 12 volt DC to 120 volt AC most of your lighting needs.

    Yes it may have been “easier” only having to wire one power panel. But really it’s not any harder working with two voltage systems. And if you are on grid and have the power go out you will still have your 12 volt lighting if you have a battery backup in your lighting system like most RVs do.

    Where I live our power goes out at least twice a year. So having standby power is needed. I have two charging systems for when the power is out for a few days.

    Great job with what you have done!
    Kriss

    May 24, 2012 at 7:26 pm

    • Hi Kriss!

      Thanks for your interest! It sounds like your home is nice and cozy as well. I think you are absolutely correct. 12v has many advantages for on off-grid system. The main reason I chose not to, was because I wasn’t sure if down the road I might want or need to plug into the grid. I also wanted to be able to plug in anything with a normal ac plug. Maybe if I did it again I might do it differently. but so far it has worked pretty well. The Solman makes it real easy toj ust plug in the house and go, so I have no complaints at the moment.

      May 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm

  8. Hello,

    Great writeup on the solar generator. I’m wondering how much you paid for the unit. I notice that you are sponsored by sol-man, but you don’t mention that in your post. If you didn’t pay the full price for the unit, do you really think you would have?

    Sorry I hate to be that guy, but the least you could do is mention your sponsorship in the piece… especially when it is getting re-blogged around the Tiny House community.

    Looking forward to the movie.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    • Hey Petey, thanks for writing. Yes, SolMan is indeed a sponsor (as indicated by their logo on the sidebar of the blog) and while we can’t say exactly how much we paid for the unit, I can tell you that it was still a stretch for us. We’ll be paying it off for the rest of the year and, Yes, we would have paid full price for it and fully think that the unit is worth its price tag, if you don’t have the expertise to build a similar system on your own, or the desire to figure it out! (As I mentioned in previous comments, it’s certainly possible to rig a solar system for less money, but for us, the true value of the unit came from having a professional do all of the work and the research. All we had to do was plug and play.)

      Also, I think it’s important to be clear that the blog post above is not an advertisement. It’s an honest account of the reasons why we chose to use the unit in our house, what exactly we use the unit for, what we can’t use the unit for, and how it integrates with our current set-up. Just as we’ve done and will continue to do for our other utilities. This is all info that we learned on the fly while researching our options and feel that it’s useful to share with others. If any drawbacks to the unit come up, we’ll be sure to let you all know about them. So far, there haven’t been any.

      Also, we checked out your blog and are looking forward to following your own tiny house build! Good luck with everything.

      June 6, 2012 at 7:09 pm

  9. Josh A

    Thanks for everything you’ve posted! I’m curious if you considered a roof mounted solar system. We’re looking forward to the film.

    August 2, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    • Thanks Josh! We considered all kinds of solar set-ups, but decided against a roof-mounted system because: a) we were a little wary of driving our little house on the highway with fragile glass panels mounted on the roof, b) we wanted the option of parking the house under a tree or in the shade if we ever move to another plot of land with more vegetation, c) they’re easier to access on the ground if anything goes wrong. Even if we had built our own permanent installation instead of going with the portable SolMan, we prob would have gone with a system mounted on the ground rather than on our roof.

      August 6, 2012 at 10:41 pm

  10. Looks like a very neat set up. How will you go about your power in winter? Do you have a diesel generator?

    September 24, 2012 at 8:36 am

    • Thanks for commenting, Tiny Houe in Australia! We’ll be using the solar setup throughout the winter months. Though we’re at high altitude, the valley that we are located in doesn’t actually get much snow and it’s consistently sunny during the winter, even though it is very windy and very cold. We’ve been assured that the batteries and all of the parts can stand below-freezing temperatures, so we think that we should be fine. The house is heated with a propane stove and we are well-insulated!

      September 24, 2012 at 3:00 pm

  11. Jeff Simpson

    Merete,

    This is inspirational. Thank you for sharing!

    A thought – my entire 1800+ square foot house in Scottsdale is lit for less than 50 watts when all my LED lights are on… though, to be fair, my shack is only 85% solar and not portable. :)

    Examples of decent LED lights?

    http://www.target.com/p/room-essentials-led-clip-lamp-white/-/A-11841162#?lnk=sc_qi_detaillink

    This little 3-watt spot light lights up my entire large bedroom. (I aim it at the ceiling.) Six of these could make your place blaze with light with two for outdoors.

    You might easily could cut your lighting power draw by 75%.

    I also purchased a 2.5 watt LED 3 bulb package at Costco for $16.50. These fit in a normal socket and will last for years – no mercury and excellent light.

    Keep up the good work!

    Jef

    February 6, 2013 at 3:55 am

  12. Katherine

    Thank you for this!! We have recently bought land there and this has been very helpful!

    June 28, 2013 at 12:00 am

  13. Thanks for this kind help and information about these tiny house.Its seems quite interesting also in their surrounding areas.

    September 16, 2013 at 11:08 pm

  14. well…nice!

    April 1, 2014 at 1:27 pm

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