Designing a Stand-Alone PV System


Inside this Article

Ackerman-Leist Pole-Mounted Array
The Ackerman-Leist pole-mounted array stands at the garden’s edge, an integrated part of the family’s homestead.
A Watt-Hour Meter
A watt-hour meter gives precise figures on consumption for appliances already owned. Without that information, the values in the “Loads” table must be estimated.
Battery Bank
Contained in this simple battery box, three parallel strings of four 225 Ah Trojan T-105 batteries make a 24 V, 675 Ah battery bank.
Back of Pole-Mounted Array
This pole-mounted array offers unimpeded solar access at the site from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m.
Outback Power Controller
Step-down MPPT controllers can help decrease wiring costs by allowing PV array voltage to be higher than the battery bank voltage.
Xantrex Inverter
Select an inverter to handle the maximum loads that will be on at once in the home. Choosing the next larger size will help ensure your system can meet the demands of future loads.
Ackerman-Leist Pole-Mounted Array
A Watt-Hour Meter
Battery Bank
Back of Pole-Mounted Array
Outback Power Controller
Xantrex Inverter

Living off the grid is a romantic ambition for some, a practical necessity for others. But whatever your motivation for off-grid living, cutting the electrical umbilical cord from the utility shouldn’t be taken lightly. Before you pull out the calculator, size up the realities and challenges of living off the grid. Then, once you’re convinced it’s the way for you, use this guide to design a successful stand-alone system.

Design Considerations

Designing a stand-alone PV system differs substantially from designing a batteryless grid-direct system. Instead of meeting the home’s annual demand, a stand-alone system must be able to meet energy requirements every day of the year. The PV system must be able to keep the battery bank charged—or include a generator for backup—because once the last amp-hour is drawn, the lights go out (see “Backup Generators” sidebar).

Efficiency first! This long-standing mantra for PV system design still holds true and is especially important for off-grid systems. Using energy efficiently should always be a prerequisite to energy design and production. Every $1 spent on energy efficiency is estimated to save between $3 and $5 on PV system costs. As a system designer, it’s virtually impossible to mandate wise energy use by the end user, but we can specify efficient appliances, such as Energy Star refrigerators and clothes washers, and strategies, such as shifting loads to non-electric sources during times of low solar insolation. For more on efficiency and load-shifting, see “Toast, Pancakes & Waffles: Planning Wisely for Off-Grid Living” in HP133.

Energy Consumption and the Solar Resource. Carefully comparing the home’s daily and seasonal energy usage with the daily and seasonal availability of the sun will help prevent energy production shortages. This important step involves a careful analysis of the home’s changing seasonal load profile and the corresponding solar resource throughout the year. Paramount to this analysis is the presence or absence of a backup charging source, such as a generator. If a backup charging source is not incorporated, the designer should choose as the design target the time of year when energy consumption is expected to be highest and the solar resource at its lowest—usually during the depths of winter.

Without a backup generator, a PV system must produce every watt-hour required, at all times of the year. This is often a tall task during the winter months and typically results in a costly system that is oversized for the rest of the year. For this reason, stand-alone systems without a backup charging source are often limited to smaller, nonresidence applications, such as seasonal cabins.

For systems with a backup charging source, more design flexibility means designers can use average consumption numbers and peak sun-hour values. For example, they can choose to size the system at a time of year when energy consumption is not at its highest or lowest, but in the middle—say, a typical day in the fall or spring. In addition, they might use the specific location’s average solar resource. Using the average for both consumption and sun-hours will strike a good balance between an affordable array size and generator run time. If minimal generator run time is desired, the array and battery bank may need to be upsized based on more conservative consumption and sun-hour values.


Comments (5)

Marty Rosenzweig's picture

Very straight forward article but am I missing something here? Where is the "array sizing" adjusted for the C/10 optimum charge rate for those batteries? 3 X 225 Ahr /10 = 67.5A. necessary for the battery charging (plus accommodation for the load amps).
Even at C/15 that's 45A. I speak from experience since I designed an identical system for my house in Mexico. After about a year, the battery inertia (don't know what else to call the increased internal battery resistance) made bringing up to full charge those three strings more and more difficult and I experienced somewhat premature battery failure in less than 4 years. Even the addition of 300 W.more panels were not satisfactory. I've settled on 2 strings (450 Ahr.) with the 1200 watt array and two days of autonomy. We'll see how long the new batteries last under these conditions.
It would be beneficial to hear how the Vermont design is currently holding up and to track the battery life in the future.

Justine Sanchez's picture

Hi Marty,
Thanks for your comments! Joe has already covered the key aspects to battery longevity. I would also just like to add a few additional thoughts...while we can dial in the charge rate of an battery charger utilizing a generator (or the grid if avail) to charge batteries, from my experience an array is usually sized to simply replace lost energy from the battery bank on a daily basis. If we oversized the array to meet a specific charge rate (including during the winter months), we likely would have a significant portion of our array producing excess energy the rest of the year...and in an off-grid setting no place to utilize that excess other than a dump load. Historically it is the job of a backup generator to get those batteries topped off when the array (sized for estimated daily energy consumption) cannot.

A few other notes...Not sure what the rest of your system is comprised of but an MPPT charge controller will help wring some extra amps out of those modules, especially during cool sunny days. Also keeping the parallel battery strings to a minimum (one is ideal) will help keep battery bank charge/discharge imbalances from reducing battery longevity. And of course making sure the batteries are regularly maintained (watered, tops cleaned, connections checked for corrosion or loose hardware, etc.) will also increase battery life.

Home Power Magazine

Joe Schwartz's picture

Hey, Marty. We'll check in with Khanti and see if we can get some information on the performance of his system/batteries to date. Few thoughts related to battery charging:

First, historically, most off-grid PV systems were not designed to meet a battery manufacturer's optimal charge rate. The cost of modules was simple too high for most people to afford/achieve a c/10 charge rate for example. With the falling cost of modules higher charge rates in the range of c/10 are becoming more common.

Designing a system to meet a battery manufacturer's optimal charge rate is significantly less important to battery longevity than the following:

1. System's should be designed to replace all of the energy used on a (sunny) daily basis including system efficiency losses.

2. The battery bank should be fully recharged as often as possible, at least once a week and more frequently is always better. It should be completely recharged every sunny day.

3. Systems should be sized to limit the average daily depth of battery discharge to around 20% and again, less is always better. For example, my off-grid system is designed for a daily depth of discharge of 10%.

4. Off-grid system owners need to avoid the common scenario of falling into a pattern of cycling their batteries between say 80-60% capacity on a daily basis and rarely recharging them fully. Run the engine generator when necessary to avoid this scenario.

5. Flooded batteries should be equalized regularly per the manufacturer's recommendations.


Geoffrey Kaila_3's picture

Hi Khanti,

I refer to your article designing a stand alone PV system in HP 136. I have two observations; 1. Cound't you have used a higher voltage than 48V on the PV side to maximize the MPPT benefit. 2. When I use the PWM sizing method I get the same # of modules. I thought the MPPT method would reduce the # of modules. Please clarify. Thank you and best regards,

Geoffrey kaila

Art Drayton's picture

Nice article - particularly like the emphasis at the start of energy efficiency first! Cheers - Aussie Art

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