Solar Energy Solar Panel Washington DC Solar
Written by Roger Perry

Practical Considerations for a Battery System

As long as I’ve been doing solar, people have been asking about batteries. The response has always been “yes, we can do them, but it will cost a lot”. That usually ended the conversation.

One question to ask is “why do you want batteries?” Do you lose power frequently? If not, a portable generator will keep your refrigerator, freezer, computers, tv and some lights going. Downsides are; noise, fumes, refueling, having to run extension cords to where needed and putting everything away when power comes back. Not too bad once in a while and it’s very cost effective. Just hope you aren’t out of town when power goes out. There is nothing automatic about this set-up.

If you lose power often and don’t want to do the portable generator dance every few months, you can get a permanently installed generator with automatic start. These are close to $5000 installed for the ones that will run most of your house when the power goes out (a larger one can be installed for a few thousand more that will run everything). This is what hospitals and critical buildings use. Power goes out, the generator starts automatically and powers the house with only a momentary loss of electricity.

Downsides? Noisy, they need maintenance and, if propane or diesel powered, they need the fuel tanks to be kept filled.

What if you lose power often, don’t want the noise, maintenance and fuel expense of a generator? What if you want a system that is environmentally friendly, will turn on automatically, is silent, will run pretty much nonstop without refueling? You should look into installing a battery back-up system connected with a solar system.

What are the downsides? Well, cost is one. While not as expensive as in years past, battery back-up systems are still costly. Compared to a permanently installed generator, battery backups tend to run few thousand more. Ask your accountant but you may be able to take the 30% solar tax credit on the additional cost of the batteries. This brings the price in line with a generator.

Another downside is you can’t run everything in your house. Things a battery cannot run for any length of time are air conditioners or heat pumps, electric water heaters, electric dryer or electric ranges. What they can run are gas or solar water heaters, gas or oil boilers, refrigerators, freezers, lights, tvs, computers, fans and pretty much everything else. Well pumps are on the edge depending on how efficient they are. While running a modern variable speed well pump is not an issue, older well pumps require a large startup current which can be too much for the battery to handle. We are about to install a “soft start” control to try and reduce a well pumps surge demand for one of our customers but the jury is still out.

We are now installing LG Chem lithium Ion batteries. LI batteries have a lot of advantages over the old lead acid batteries. The big advantage they have is they are not damaged by running them dead, whereas lead acid batteries do not like being discharged to less than 50% of charge, a Lithium Ion battery will give you it’s full rating. The one we use is rated for 10 Kilowatthour (KWH). A lead acid battery would need to be rated at 20 KHW to achieve the same capacity. Lithium batteries are also much lighter (not that the customer will have to move them) and can be charged much faster.

The big downsize of LI batteries is the upfront cost compared to LA but they will last much, much longer and they are maintenance free.

In a future blog I will discuss the two different ways to interface a solar system with the batteries, AC coupled and DC coupled and the pros and cons of each as well as what a 10 KWH battery will give you as far as run times for various appliances. I’ll also talk about how a battery system can be retrofitted to your existing solar system.