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Is Solar Power Expensive for Tiny Houses?

Last week I spoke about the costs of tiny houses and why I don’t find that figure to be much of a problem. Several individuals mentioned that the $20,000 cost was fine for just the house but what about the cost of adding power systems on top of it. A lot of people believe that solar power needs to be expensive but we have a different experience with this.

The first step is to determine how much power you need if you want to be off the grid. If you’re looking to run a refrigerator, an air conditioner, a washer and dryer, etc.; a small solar power system may not be the best solution for you. We decided to keep our lifestyle as simple as possible to be able to use a scaled down system. We run as much as we can on butane and propane so the only thing that really runs on the solar power are the lights and our computers, including Matt’s massive gaming laptop. And remember, both of us work from the tiny house so we need access to our computers most of the day.

Our solar panels. Photo by Laura M. LaVoie

Do you want to see how we did it? Read the rest below:

For our solar power system we worked with an online retailer called the AltE Store. They were delightful and helped us put together a system that worked well for us. We knew what we wanted in general but they asked questions to drill down to the specifics that we really needed.

As you can read on our blog, we have a Kyocera 490 watt system. This includes two 245 watt panels and a 45 amp Tristar MPPT charge controller. The whole system feeds two 110 amp hour AGM batteries. We are also using an 1800 watt inverter. As I mentioned, this system powers everything we need in our home including lights and laptops. We can also charge all of our smaller devices like phones and iPods.

Look at all that power! Photo by Laura M. LaVoie

So what did it cost? For the solar panels and all the accessories we were able to complete our power set up for under $2,000.

One additional accessory we have is a Coleman Stirling Engine Cooler. Most of the time we buy fresh foods and eat them quickly so they don’t need refrigeration, but we are also craft beer lovers and there is nothing worse than cold beer. The cooler is extremely efficient and we can hook it up directly to the batteries under the house without draining our power. Unfortunately, Coleman no longer makes this cooler but sometimes you can still find it for sale- deeply discounted- at truck stops.

That makes the total cost of our home around $22,000 for both the construction and the cost of our energy. Now we neither have a mortgage nor utility bills. All of this adds up to an ability to lower our expenses and do the things we love to do rather than work to afford our bills.

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Laura LaVoie

Contributor and Tiny House Owner at 120SquareFeet.com
Laura M. LaVoie is a professional writer living in the mountains of North Carolina in a 120 Square Foot house with her partner and their hairless cat, Piglet. Laura graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in Anthropology. She has been published in magazines and anthologies on the subjects of mythology and culture. She spent nearly 15 years in the temporary staffing industry before deciding to become a full time writer. Laura works closely with the Zulu Orphan Alliance volunteering her time and the skills she's learned building her own small house to build a shelter for orphans and other vulnerable children living near Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Laura also enjoys simple living, brewing and drinking craft beer, and popular culture.
{ 40 comments… add one }
  • PN January 22, 2013, 9:51 am

    Another consideration is to place an inverter/charger inline so the option to top off batteries with a generator is possible when weather isn’t “solar friendly”

    • Laura M. LaVoie February 3, 2014, 1:30 pm

      Yes – this is a great idea and something we did. We don’t have to run the generator often, but when we do it is good to know that the batteries are being charged.

  • Carolyn B January 22, 2013, 10:46 am

    Who knew solar could be that affordable? Great article, Laura L.

  • dave January 22, 2013, 12:20 pm

    “Nothing worse than cold beer?” Is this a typo? 😉

    • Laura M. LaVoie January 22, 2013, 12:35 pm

      Indeed! I hate when I don’t catch those. Typos may be worse than warm beer. 🙂

      • jacob C March 19, 2015, 9:43 pm

        No nothing is worse than cold beer!

        • Jacob C March 19, 2015, 9:44 pm

          Crap now I did it. “Warm beer”

      • Gius April 28, 2015, 11:42 pm

        When i read that in the article the twilight zone theme started playing in my head.

        Anyway, i have a question so i hope someone answers… What would your suggestion be to someone who wants a fridge/freezer, washer/dryer combo, a gaming computer, small air conditioner AND some indoor lighting- all off grid. What would they need to do?

        Would they be able to do it all with solar power in any circumstance? Would they be able to do it with solar power and something else? Would they have to stay on the grid?

      • Gius April 28, 2015, 11:44 pm

        What if they also wanted a range/oven with solar? ……And an astronomy/work computer?!

      • Laura M. LaVoie April 29, 2015, 10:22 am

        Hi Guis –

        Great questions. We specifically kept our system small so we could keep it affordable. The more energy you need, the more expensive it is. But it can be done. Here is a great example from Ryan Mitchell (of The Tiny Life) including all the power and all the costs.

        http://thetinylife.com/tiny-house-solar/

        Thanks!
        Laura

  • Casey Friday January 22, 2013, 1:44 pm

    Great post. I’m excited to get started on building the solar system for our tiny house. Our usage is similar to yours – two MacBook Pros, a couple small gadgets, lights, and a refrigerator. We’ll be using a propane water heater and range/oven, so our electricity usage should be relatively low.

    We both work from home like you, though, so it’ll be important to keep the power on all day! Thanks for the solar company referral!

  • dave January 22, 2013, 4:08 pm

    Sorry to double post, but many people in tiny/small houses manage to actually live without refrigerators. How? If you live in a cold climate, all the cold in the world is outside your door for half the year. Freeze water in soda bottles at night and put them in a 5 days cooler in the day. May seem extreme to some but we Americans are pretty spoiled with low electricity costs. During the summer switch your diet to a non-perishiable food (canned, dehydrated “survival or food storage” foods) and if you live in a low humidity environment a evaporative or zeer pot might work for you. This site is particularly informative and inspiring:

    http://www.omick.net/food_preservation/food_preservation.htm

    Compressor driven Engel and ARB Fridges and similar (like the authors Coleman stirling engine fridge, although I think Colemans don’t actually make those anymore)are by far the most energy efficient and work best with a solar set up.

    • Laura M. LaVoie January 30, 2013, 3:36 pm

      Dave – this is a really great question and I meant to answer it a while ago but I forgot. So, I’m here now.
      Yes, there are tiny house people, and non-tiny house people, who live without refrigeration. I have learned that a lot of things that we think need to be kept cool really don’t – like eggs and hard cheeses. You just need to eat them right away. Same with produce – tomatoes and peppers and root vegetables really don’t need to be kept in the refrigerator. When we did have a conventional refrigerator we found we would buy stuff just because it looked interesting or because we might want it later. Then, a couple weeks later, we would throw them out. Eating fresh foods fast cuts way down on wasted food.

  • Small House Bliss January 22, 2013, 4:28 pm

    It is nice that a small solar system can take care of much of your energy needs. But, if you are still buying butane and propane, then you haven’t entirely eliminated utility bills!
    – Mili

    • Laura M. LaVoie January 22, 2013, 4:34 pm

      That is true but I would say our cost for fuel is about $20 a month which is almost negligable in my opinion. In our large house in Atlanta our heating bill in the winter was $400 a month or more. I don’t consider the propane much of a cost for the tiny house.

    • Annie January 28, 2013, 6:43 pm

      Here in Kansas City, I live in a 725 sq ft house with utilities. Refrigerator, microwave, portable elect washer & dryer, laptop. I have a gas stove, but I’ve only used it twice in the last year. My light bill is only $27 mth. $65 in summer. Not enough to make me go solar yet.

  • DS January 22, 2013, 7:31 pm

    I have seen portable single and dual “burner” induction ranges. As I am to understand, they are extremely energy efficient (I have read that they use 90% less power then your regular stove top model / hot plate) and can be plugged into a normal wall socket, for the portable models of course.

    Also, when not in use can be stowed to free up more counter space, no possible fire hazard as there is no heat element, easy clean up, and keep rabid wolves at bay… I may have made the last one up.

    Is anyone using one of these?

    What is your experience with this?

    With a solar system these would further reduce your utility bill (propane, butane, etc. is not free) and, far more importantly!!!!, reduce your environmental footprint. All of those fuels pollute when burned and their extraction from the ground contributes to the overall poor health of the environment.

    I would love to know if these work well on a small solar system. This is the route I intend to take for my future tiny home.

    Cheers
    DS

    • Laura M. LaVoie January 24, 2013, 9:30 am

      We looked into this as an option and I think it would be a fine choice. Induction is better than traditional electric burners for solar power systems. The only drawback we found was that you can’t use all kinds of pots and pans on them which isn’t an issue for most people.

      Our butane burners are free standing units with carrying cases and we usually only keep one on the counter all the time. We can put them away if we don’t need or want them out.

    • Annie January 28, 2013, 6:50 pm

      Annie in Kansas City — I don’t use the gas stove. I have 3 portable induction cookplates, and I often use my microwave. I use my Delonghi smaller toaster oven when I broil, but usually I just poach the salmon). Only takes 90 seconds to boil water for coffee, ice tea, etc. And they have “keep warm” and other settings. You can even do popcorn on them. I just store them in the drawer & take out one when I need one. They are wonderful. Still, my light bill is only $27 mth.

      • Annie January 28, 2013, 6:59 pm

        P.S. One thing — I usually cook all my food for the week on Sunday mornings, bag it individually and freeze everything. Then I just throw whatever I want to eat the next day in the refrig. By the time I get home, it’s thawed — just pop into the microwave 1-2 mtes. I have lots of the small bowls with screw-on lids – LOVE them/never leak. I’ll make a pot of ham & beans & dumplings, cold-boiled spicy shrimp, beef stew. Salmon & shrimp cook so quickly – I like it the best. I’m a celiac, so I’ll eat 3/4 green vegetables & 1/4 fish.

      • Annie January 28, 2013, 7:08 pm

        $10 is the customer service charge on my $27 lite bill, so it says I actually am paying $16 for lights. I have a 14 cu. ft. energy star crosstop refrig. I just use clear bulb night lights in the 2 bdrms & bathroom & kitchen. Wall scounce in living room. It gets 106 degrees here with 100% humidity – gotta have a/c if you have asthma. Smiles, Annie

  • Kat January 22, 2013, 8:03 pm

    You can also build your own panels relatively easily if you’re handy and willing to learn a bit about electricity. You need to purchase the cells (to build the panel) from China, which isn’t the most environmentally friendly thing in the world (all that shipping), but the cells in a commercial panel are most likely also from China, so it’s no worse than it would have been otherwise.

  • LaMar Alexander LaMar January 28, 2013, 1:59 pm

    Glad to see someone talking about alternative power Laura!

    I have been off grid using solar and wind power for over 15 years. My system is 480 watts solar and 400 watts wind turbine power with 6 deep cycle batts.

    I run two online businesses so I am on my computer all the time and my system will run my DC water pump, lights, flat screen tv, laptop, an apartment size refrigerator and lots of gadgets.

    I would suggest people first focus on reducing your power needs and heating and cooling are the first that must be evaluated.

    You are not going to run electric heaters or air conditioners off a small solar system.

    Propane or wood heat and natural passive cooling and small dc fans are what most off-gridders use.

    Cooking appliances can be propane and they even make propane friges but smaller apartment size fridges run just fine off solar.

    The edgestar fridge only uses abot 7 amps and has a seperate freezer compartment.

    I have lots of videos of my complete solar and wind power system for anyone interested:

    http://www.youtube.com/solarcabin

    LaMar

    • jerryd January 29, 2013, 8:48 am

      While if not planned for solar AC, heating isn’t easy but if you go in with an open mind it can be done.

      I’m going to use 1kw of PV on my next tiny house of 128sq’ here in central Fla and plan to have it power my AC mostly because it tracks AC demand so well.

      By having a small and/or well insulated place and keep the temp at 75-80f with a 6kbtu AC the cycling time on is very low the 5+kwhrs/day the 1kw array will make allows for it to run continously for 6hrs/day and still have 2kwhrs for other needs.

      So yes AC can be done with PV fairly inexpensively.

      Lower prices can be had at sunelec even under $1/wt on certain products. Golf cart batteries I’ve found best value run about $80/kwhr plus core charges.

      So you can get a 1kw system for $1k panels, $400 5kwhrs of batteries, $129 for a 3kw peak Chinese inverter that also runs my power tools plus a MPPT for those who need them means costs are low enough even going to a 2-3x’s larger system and still get AC in a larger say 300sq’ well insulated small home.

      For heating likely be an electric blanket and 2 300wt heaters but I live in Fla.

      As long as you go eff, you can have most anything with PV. I’ll be doing my cooking with 12vdc electric pans.

      And a 12 fridge made from Norcold 12v/120vac ones that the cabinets rusted out a little so bought them for under $25 at fleaa, yard sales. I was going to build my own fridge box but a large Igloo cooler fell into my hands so I’ll build it into the kitchen.

      I’ll go 12v LED lights. In fact almost every load I have will be 12vdc except the AC and power tools. TV, laptop, etc were easy to convert as many have exterior power supplies or just run on 12vdc anyway as many do now.

      For fans I use 4” computer fans which blow well at low power levels. I just have a few so each person has their own.

      My biggest problem is a good low cost 12vdc outlet/plug to use.

      But by reducing loads even AC is possible cost effectively with PV.

      • LaMar Alexander LaMar January 29, 2013, 8:58 am

        well I wish you luck with that experiment but unless you are running a super small low power AC unit you will find yourself running out of power after a short time.

        Consider using window shading, passive roof turbine vents , solar vent fans and DC area fans. Takes much less power and circulating the air is what will cool the house.

        LaMar

        • jerryd January 29, 2013, 9:08 pm

          Thanks for the wish Lamar but don’t think I’ll need it as I already have data on the unit as I use it in my present home.

          Facts are AC doesn’t run all the time so even with it using a fair amount of power, if underloaded like mine is, a standard 6k btu window AC, it doesn’t run much of a total day.

          It takes about 400wtts to run, more to start and runs about 25% of the time from noon to 7pm in the summer is it’s worst case. Plus sun time then is high too.

          As to the math I’ll have 3-5kwhrs/day for the AC, let’s say 4kwhrs, from the 1kw PV array gives me 10 running hrs and say it’s really hot running 50% of the time for 8 hrs and 25% for 4 hrs only comes to 5 running hrs of the 10 budgeted so even if I’m off there is a good margin for error.

          Or buy some more panels ;^P Either way I’ll run my AC on PV as no other choice.

  • Lisa January 28, 2013, 4:12 pm

    Questions:
    1) If all you can just run is lights and cpu’s on your solar system, is it possible to add another solar unit, like an add-on, to the house to handle other functions like washers and dryers?
    2) What about Hot-water-on-demand systems; can you run one of these on a solar set up?

    • jerryd January 29, 2013, 9:16 pm

      Hi lisa,

      Yes you can mostly if you do it right. Though the dryer isn’t likely though it and the hot water can be done with solar thermal storage/heat fairly easily if handy .

      Personally I dislike dryers and just hang my clothes up to dry.

      You could do electrical on demand hot water if you don’t need it much.

      Much of this needs to be thought out as a system before desiging a tiny home so it all fits, etc

    • Laura M. LaVoie January 30, 2013, 3:41 pm

      Lisa – these are great questions. You can certainly run more things by adding more solar but this is where it starts to get expensive. We couldn’t run major appliances efficiently even with another $2000 set up.
      Also, anything that converts electrical energy into heat is automatically an energy hog just because of the science. So a dryer is going to take up a lot of the solar energy and deplete the batteries pretty quickly.
      You can certainly run a hot water on demand system with solar but again it creates heat so it will hog a bit of the energy.

  • DS January 30, 2013, 12:47 am

    Does anyone have an effective online resource to ‘math’ out a solar and wind system to include storage? By ‘math’ I mean science, not expense.

    I would love to have a resource that can, reasonably accurately, determine my generation and storage needs based on my unique hydro consumption (plus a little fudge factor… and round up for mom!).

    With the intended plan of being regularly mobile AND off the grid, with no fossil fuels, I need to ‘art and science’ the utilities out correctly with smart design to meet my needs. I can figure out the plumbing easily enough (lots of fluid dynamics courses in college!) but the hydro side of this is new territory.

    As well, any suggestions for insulation products (soy based spray foam is where I am looking) that can up the R-value, and electrical heat sources for our cold Canadian climate (again no fossil fuels please!), would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks for this conversation everyone!

    Cheers
    DS

  • Holly January 30, 2013, 3:12 pm

    i wonder if the solar system will get damage in the rain,snow,tornado,and earthquake? and if there will still be power in these weathers.

    • Laura M. LaVoie January 30, 2013, 3:46 pm

      Holly – great questions. I can say with absolutely certainty that a solar power system exactly like what we have will be okay in snow and rain. We had a lot of rain this past summer and while our batteries were depleted quicker we still had power. We do have an emergency generator (a small Honda) but even with the rain we didn’t have to run it much and when we did we used it to charge up the batteries. If the storm was too bad with lots of lightning we shut things down but I think that is a good idea even in a conventional house.
      As far as tornadoes and earthquakes go – I can’t really speak to that because they aren’t very common in my area. However, planning your solar around your local weather and natural disaster patterns is a good idea.

  • Fred January 29, 2014, 6:01 pm

    Coleman® Stirling Power Cooler. Seems it’s still available.

    http://www.coleman.com/product/5726-750#.UumH99rTmUk

  • Comet January 29, 2014, 7:13 pm

    Is it me or is there a great underlying “attitude” on here about being critical of anyone who “admits” to using those Devils Children–non-alternative fuels? Surely it is BETTER to reduce our use of these but of someone wants to keep say food cold for safety then using a propane fridge is BETTER than hooking the entire place up to the grid. The snob factor here seems to be a bit much!

    I completely understand wanting to be un-hitched from the power companies–as someone paying $200 per MONTH in elec for a small house with 7 occupants plus (the bulk of our use) elec hot water heater—I GET IT. We don’t use elec for heat altho our house is set up to do just that–now THAT was expensive! We do sometimes turn it on in the bathroom for showers. I refuse to feel guilty for this tho! We have a Monitor Heater which is very efficient and heats the whole place—something the elec could not keep up with and the wood stove was great but not possible for a handicapped person or two.

    If the natural gas lines don’t come to your door–and they don’t out here–and fuel oil furnaces are impossible to retrofit to a NON furnace house so you are stuck with more expensive kero or wood or propane—and the up-front investment in solar is too spendy–what IS a person to DO?

    My husband even checked with a co that “rents” solar systems for individual homeowners and even tho the house is NOT shaded and sits exposed on a mountain top and has a lovely roof that would SEEM to be perfect for solar–EXCEPT that it runs due North and South (faces East and West)—and we were told we could not get this because of this roof. We get a lot of solar gain during the day from large windows in front and back tho. That is helpful but not the solution!

    Not everyone can just unhook the electrical wires much as we might like to. And as some one pointed out–getting the solar cells from China–well who KNOWS what they are made of and what the labor conditions are.

    Oh–and if you were looking into these rentals–you can get them at Lowes—but they do need a credit check which due to extreme medical issues we can’t pass! IT costs a LOT of money to SAVE money it seems.

  • Linda January 29, 2014, 7:44 pm

    The article says, “There is nothing worse than cold beer.” I take it that’s the writer’s opinion? Some people LIKE cold beer.

  • Graham January 30, 2014, 8:53 am

    I’m a fan of tiny houses and living off the grid mortgage free. But, I’ve noticed that you need a truck to move the house. .If you don’t have a truck and must buy one…that’s a mortgage Also , trucks are gas guzzlers and leave large a carbon foot print. Has anyone else noticed this irony? Any ideas?

    • Laura M. LaVoie January 30, 2014, 12:17 pm

      Graham, good question. I solved this problem for myself by building my tiny house on a foundation. If it moves, something has gone seriously wrong. Other tiny house owners don’t move their house frequently at all and will rent a truck or pay someone to help with the move. Once it is in place, you don’t have to move it much if at all.

  • Monica December 29, 2015, 7:15 pm

    This has been a sore spot with me. I have 2-250watt panels and 4 6v deep cycle batteries and for the life of me I can’t even keep my led lights, phone and laptop charged. God forbid I turn my tiny fridge on. In the summer its not as bad but here in the NW when it rains so much I can’t keep I.the batteries charged tonsave my life. Maybe I need more panels???? I thought I system would be enough. Guess not unless I am doing something wrong. Any clue???

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