Solar, getting serious Part 1 of ?

Originally I started writing this in November of 2019

A couple years back I purchased a Harbor Freight solar “system”, Harbor Freight branded sealed batteries, and few extra things to go along with the kit. By things I mean wire, crimp connectors, and LCD Digital Display Ammeter Voltmeter Multimeter Volt Watt Power Energy Meter off of Amazon and other odds and ends of electrical stuff. The thought was I could play around with solar and figure out what I can and can’t do with solar before I dove into the deep end and spent a lot of money on solar, only to stand back later and say: I don’t need that or I need that, after spending tons of money. This is/was a test bed.

I dug a hole 3 ft down (maybe more), added some re bar horizontally, and dumped a bunch of cement in to hold it all together. I knew this first post would be the beginning of what I envisioned to be part of larger ground array frame. I also dug a trench from the post back to the shed and terminated my wiring inside the shed. In the first pic you can kind of see an outline of the trench going back towards the propane tank. Every hole and trench I have dug has been by hand, in clay, with various sized rocks thrown in for fun. The post itself took me a month of Saturdays (4 days) to dig. The ground was so hard that summer and really hot, I could only work on it a couple of hours a day to keep from passing out.

With the trench dug, I dropped in some grey PVC ground rated electrical conduit, and pushed #8 wire through. A couple of things I found out shopping for wire, is it is cheaper to buy a spool of #8 wire than it is to buy say just 100′ cut at the store. When I priced things out, I want to say #8 wire is like 57 cents a foot if you have the store cut you a length. And I want to say I paid $150 for a spool of 500′  #8 black copper wire? I don’t remember how big of a spool it is off the top of my head. In my case I needed 200′ (100′ x 2 strands), so you can see the cost benefit of buying a spool vice having it cut to length in a store. The other epiphany was, you can get any color you want as long as it is black. Otherwise you have to order and the cost of shipping just added to your overhead. A roll of red electrical tape is much cheaper. As I pulled the pair of wires through the conduit, about every 3 ft. I wrapped the positive line in red electrical tape and liberally at each end. I get confused in my old age and having red staring me in my face helps remind me to NOT connect a positive wire to a negative lead.


Below are the Harbor Freight panels mounted on a frame made out of scrap lumber I had laying around. You can just barely see in the last image where the frame connects to the post? there is a fence gate hinge. This is there to allow you to adjust the angle of the frames between winter and summer by lengthening or shortening the legs. When I mounted the hinge on the post and frame, my intention was to adjust the angle in the summer and then again in the winter. I never did. For the hassle of moving the panels a few degrees I never saw any increase in energy absorption. So year 2, I just left them were they are, my batteries are always charged with the panels set at 39 degrees declination and due south facing.

There are some guys that have auto tracking and auto adjusting arrays on their solar farms, because they want to get every watt they can on any given day. You should do a YouTube search and see what some people have done to make their arrays auto track. Everything from commercially purchased trackers to kit bashed units that use bicycle parts to track the sun as it crosses the sky each day, then the trackers reset themselves overnight to be in position to capture the next mornings sun. Crazy stuff. Ingenious! My mother beat the imagination out of me years ago, so my brain is not that creative anymore. I try to stay practical.

Since I am not 24×7 at the cabin, those type of systems or trackers can be maintenance intensive. I went with what I think is the best solution for me in the immediate and I can play around with and not have to much money tied up into a racking system.

When someone says Harbor Freight we kind of think, well cheap. Am I right? I will say these panels have been outside for almost 8 seasons now? All kinds of weather, sun, snow, rain, ice storms, etc. they have been on that original scrap wood frame soaking up the sun happily and never once had an issue. There are a number of YouTube videos that have built large HF solar arrays and haven’t had an issue. The down side? In the kit you get 4 panels, 25 watts each for a total of 100 watts. Which really isn’t much if you think about it. Still I have received my monies worth out of them, I can charge what I need to without difficulty. Mostly just other batteries.


As you can see in the pics, I have started to expand off the original solar panel array and built out the footprint to allow larger and more panels. For my future setup I am planning on a 10’x’10’ frame that will accommodate 8, 39″x64″, 300 watt panels. 2 sets of 4 panels running in a serial and parallel configuration at 48 volts (DC). On top of the wood frame, I haven’t decided which way I am going to go with it yet, I will have 12′ Uni strut rails running horizontally, or buy mounts that are specifically for solar panels . Uni strut is cheaper out of the gate and option 2 is not. But if option 2 will hold up to the test of time better, I may just pull the trigger and buy something that is purpose built. I dunno yet since I’m not that far into the build yet. When complete I will have a 2400 watts solar array. And by adding another post or 2 in either direction off the original post I can still expand out and add more panels.

The shed will hold the batteries and other solar “stuff”. I am buying parts and pieces as my wallet allows me to. And I am not saying I don’t have a plan. I reached out to AltE and have had a couple of phone calls explaining to them what I want, what I need, and how much I have to spend. They have worked with me by providing a purchase order of all the parts and pieces I need and in a format that shows I need this, before I need that, in a easily readable format for all this “other stuff” to function. Kind of cool! I told AltE that I will work down the list as I go and purchase from that PO. They are pretty helpful folks.

So I have been waiting?, why 48 volts? I know you are asking why? well the biggest reason is the way the house is wired. Since I didn’t build the house/cabin the previous owner wired the house for 220 v (AC) and split the legs across the circuits in the house, which caused some consternation with a past project. I had to get an electrician out to my place and figure out what turned out to be not my issue but the way the house is wired. Long of the short, White is hot and black is not. For those that know basic electricity this is not the way to wire. Still following?

The other reason why I am going with 48 v is I will not have a permanent physical electrical connection from the inverter to the house, I will continue to use the generator power cord which uses a 30 amp twist lock connector, L13? I think is the nomenclature for the socket. Because of the 240 v “requirement” that has caused me to move to the 48 v Magnum MS-PAE 4448 Inverter / Charger. It also allows me to use smaller gauge wire between the solar panels themselves and the inverter/charger.  Have you priced anything larger than #8 gauge wire? When you get to #0/1 gauge it is REAL expensive! I needed a 100 ft. run. Nope. I mean in the real sense you are going to pay for it in the wire, or in the hardware and if I have to move my array farther from the shed, I won’t really have to worry about buying more #0 gauge wire. #8 will still do fine out to I think 300 ft.? Don’t quote me on that, there are tons of websites that display charts of the loss potential of each gauge of wire over a given distance based on voltage and wattage, AC vs. DC. There are guys and gals much smarter than me that have dedicated multiple pages on multiple websites just to wires, and power loss, and on and on and on. Consult the oracle i.e. google and do a search. You will quickly drown in information.

What I need, until I permanently live in the structure is to have a way to “unplug” the house from the power source while I am vacant. Think of an RV, you plug in to the camp ground while stationary and unplug before you move down the road. This is all part of a master plan and until I build out other storage buildings and a garage. Until those projects are done it will have to be a semi-permanent power connection. There are also some physical limitations that I need to deal with also at this point in time, mostly I live on a mountain and level ground is at a premium which causes me to add into any building cost is getting a bulldozer to clear and level a spot for any future out buildings. $100 an hour is the average cost to have a guy sit on a CAT and push dirt and rocks around for me.


-9 months later, present day-

I might have mentioned previously it has been another year since I have posted, ANYTHING! crazy how time slips. Or we allow our brains to tune out and then get this epiphany of “oh! hell I am another year older” and? here we are.

I re-read my original post above from a year ago when I started to really research solar and set some expectations originally, but all plans change.

Boy did my original plans change. I want to mention the company I have been working with, AlteStore. Altestore has nailed the customer service down. My sales person has been very engaged throughout the my whole solar journey, even after the check cleared the bank. Altestore has been available to answer any question I have had.

I want to add right out of the gate one of the untold or unsaid things about solar that no one talks about openly is the hidden cost(s). What I am referring to is the cost of all the conduit, the conduit fittings, splice connectors, electrical tape, specialized tools, wire, conduit glue, and on, and on and on. I don’t have a lot of tools, but I have enough tools that I have collected over the last 30-40 years that made me think I was OK with what I had to get started. And they did. As I moved further into my install, I needed hole saws, extended drill bits, spade bits, a new multi-meter (my old one just up and died) the list goes on. I never really tracked what I spent on all the must haves and medicinal items I purchased other than a mental tally, but it has been north of $500 and south of $1000.

Maybe those unknown costs are rolled up into a professional install, and I am sure it is. But not knowing out of the gate it is part of the learning curve. A couple of other issues I ran into is what I thought would work installation wise didn’t and I ran into rework (more about that later), and the fact that the closest hardware/big box store is a minimum of a 3 hour round trip to a find a fitting or whatever I needed at that time. What I tried to do was plan as much as I could, hit up the stores, and Amazon, pre-order and have the parts sent to the closest store or delivered to my home. I am only at the house on weekends and I really only have Saturdays to do what I can in the hours of that sunlight provides. I am going to throw out that Covid was bad timing (is there really a good time for a pandemic?) and I had to deal with items just being out of stock or unavailable. I shopped one Lowes, three Home Depots, and Amazon to get what I could to complete the project overall. It was a big time and gas burner. Who would of thought that HD or Lowes or Amazon would have empty shelves? It just reminded me of what my grandmother talked about in her experiences growing up during the depression.

Skill wise this was really not a hard project. I would caution; do your research, read, watch videos, and read some more. This is not for novices. There is no hotline to call if you get sideways and with the mix and match of equipment & hardware you could deal with multiple vendors and they may contradict each other when it comes to solving a major roadblock. What I am saying is, just because you have a Walmart toolbox with Harbor Freight tools, little to no skills with electricity your going to fail. Failing is good, how else are you going to learn? Check your ego and ask yourself are you really ready to do this? I spent a better part of 12 weekends just digging a trench (by hand), laying conduit, pulling wire, and all the miscellaneous other tasks involved when it comes to prepping for a solar install. That 12 weekend quote does not include the time spent building the rack to hold the solar panels themselves, planning, or researching. It’s journey and not a turn key. Get a Harbor Freight solar kit if you want a turn key. But do not expect to run your house off a system like that, or really much of anything other than the DC lights that are included with the kit.

Another thing I will mention is it is a big investment up front, dollar wise. It is not like calling the electric company, scheduling a date for them to drive over and flip a breaker and whala! you have power. Your payback of your solar will vary, generally you want a 3-5 year payback with your solar system. That includes any incentives the Fed’s or your state offers. For me, it will be closer to a 10 year payback. But I’m not there 24×7 either.

First contact with the enemy – Plans change

I tossed aside the idea of installing everything in the shed I have on site. It would have been much easier, however I looked at the overall security of doing a shed install. Its a shed, not hard to break into and for the most part pretty susceptible to the fluctuations of weather. Hot – cold – well you get it, physical security, and the logistics of getting power to the house from the shed were also factors. I thought I would do the generator cable thing I described above but after rethinking I went for installing it in the house. Which in hindsight came with its own challenges, most importantly was space.

I do not have a lot of wall space and in the those places I do have wall space, it wasn’t practical, or it was to far from the breaker box. I settled on the bathroom, which again had its own issues. In my defense, I did measure and re-measure where I wanted to install the equipment before I started any tear outs. So I tore out all the walls and refinished with 3/4″ plywood (not OSB). 3/4″ is the minimum needed to hang the battery bank at 250 lbs onto a wall and not have it all come crashing down in the middle of the night. Once I started mounting the batteries, the charge controller, and inverter it became clear quickly that I didn’t have? space. So I went to plan “C” which is the final product.


Looking at all my pics I decided to break the post up into smaller posts. This ends part 1.





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