Going Solar; Getting Your Barns Off the Grid

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Credit: Thinkstock To determine whether solar is right for your particular barn, you need to consider the cost of installing a solar electric generation system versus the monthly cost of electricity purchased from the utility company.

Credit: Thinkstock To determine whether solar is right for your particular barn, you need to consider the cost of installing a solar electric generation system versus the monthly cost of electricity purchased from the utility company.

Being self-reliant when it comes to electricity is something many property owners think wistfully about, but rarely pursue because they think it’s just too expensive and difficult. But in reality, taking your barn “off the grid” is not as challenging as you may think.

Whether your barn has been standing for a 100 years or hasn’t yet been built, using natural energy from the sun to provide lighting, as well as power for water pumps, electrical outlets and other uses, is not only doable, but may make sense from both a financial and environmental standpoint.

Going Solar

The most obvious reason to switch from utility-provided electricity to solar power is cost. Buildings equipped with a solar electric generation system receive electricity generated by the sun, which means no monthly electricity bill for the life of the building.This not only decreases your costs, but also increases the resale value of the facility.

When your solar system is connected to the local power utility—as most are—you receive credit back from the utility company if your system generates more electricity than you use.

“Solar power can meet all your electrical needs,” said Wayne Irwin, president of Pure Solar Energy in Gainesville, Florida. “The system generates and produces, and is fed, in parallel to your breaker panel. It will use solar power first; utility energy acts as a backup. It essentially spins the meter backwards, using what’s necessary during the daylight, then basically crediting it back when having more power that what’s needed. Think of it as stored credit--you’re banking it for night usage.”

If your barn hasn’t yet been built, you have plenty of reasons to go solar.

“The cost of installing solar is less than or equal to connecting the barn to the grid,” said Ron Castle, owner of Sunshine Products, in Winchester, Tennessee.

Solar-powered barns are also more environmentally friendly, leaving a smaller carbon footprint than barns that are powered with utility-provided electricity.

For barns in remote areas where electricity doesn’t reach, solar power can be a better choice than paying a utility to provide the infrastructure necessary to supply power from the grid—if this is even an option. In that case, solar panels would be the main source of electricity, with a generator providing back up power in the event of inclement weather that blocks the sun for a period of days.

Right for You?

To determine whether solar is right for your particular barn, you need to consider the cost of installing a solar electric generation system versus the monthly cost of electricity purchased from the utility company.

“The number one consideration should be return on investment: Are you going to get your money back in reduced electric bills over time?” said Dustin Gruetter, owner of DC Building Inc., an Oregon-based national contracting company specializing in wood barns, who says the single biggest variable is geography. He noted that a barn in Albuquerque receives more than twice as much sunlight per year as a barn in the Chicago area.

“You can look up your local area's sunlight exposure in terms of kilowatt hours per square meter, compare it to your electric bill, and figure out how many solar panels you'll need to power the building,” said Gruetter.

According to Gruetter, in very sunny states, such as Arizona, or states that have very expensive energy bills, such as Hawaii, solar panels make more sense.

“Different states also offer different rebates and tax incentives for solar panels,” he said. “If you spend $50,000 on solar panels, you'll get an $11,000 federal rebate. Some states have a hefty rebate on top of that, such as New Jersey, which offers $12,500.”

It’s important to note that although solar power reduces your reliance on the grid, it does not eliminate it completely. Buildings with solar electrical generation systems are still tied into the local utility and are reliant on it. In the event the grid goes down, a barn with solar power will also lose access to electricity. For this reason, people who rely on solar power sometimes have generators as a backup. But while a generator makes sense for a home that is powered by solar, it might not be necessary for a barn.

Making it Happen

Once you determine that solar power will be cost effective for your barn, you need to take certain issues into consideration.

According to Castle, you will need to explore permitting issues in your locations. You also need to consider installation time and labor, and how you will learn the skills to operate and maintain the system. For an existing barn, you may need to make structural modifications for solar panel mounting, and provide space for the inside solar system components.

Other considerations include adequate battery bank sizing for times when you have consecutive days of inclement weather, and periodic maintenance of open cell batteries, if used.

“You also need to budget a long-term capital sinking fund for component repair or replacement,” said Castle. “And have insurance for possible solar panel damage from hail, storms and vandalism.”

If you have not yet built your barn and are considering solar, plan ahead to make the building most efficient for solar power.

“Once you make the decision to build a barn with solar power, you're going to want to position the barn on your property in a way that will deliver maximum sun exposure to the panels,” said Gruetter. “It will be more difficult and expensive to install solar panels on a barn with a steep roof pitch; you'll also receive less sunlight and the panels will appear more conspicuous. For this reason, we think gable and monitor barns are more conducive to solar systems than gambrel or A-frame barns.”

For barns that do not have south-facing roofs, or roofs that can’t hold the load of solar panels, a pole-mounted solar array or one that sits on a rack on the ground can be the answer. Placement of the array is crucial in order to get the most expose to the sun as possible. Shade cannot cover any part of the array, since even loss of a small portion of the array during the day can have a significant effect on the amount of electricity the system produces. Also, keep in mind that the sun changes position throughout the seasons, and that an area of sun on the ground near your barn in summer may actually be blocked by the barn’s shade in the wintertime.

Finding a reliable solar power company is crucial if you are going to get a good system that has been properly installed. To find a reliable installer, consider contacting your local power utility or state agency overseeing power utilities where you live. You may be able to get a referral to several companies that are certified to install a solar power system for your barn.

Determining the incentives available in your state are also important when determining whether you can afford to install solar. The Department of Energy has posted the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) website, which lists incentives by state for solar power installation (www.dsireusa.org).

Surviving Disaster With or Without Solar

Public agencies often warn us to be prepared in the event of a disaster. They tell us to keep plenty of food, water and batteries on hand should something happen to disrupt services. But what about those of us with horses in our care? We need a lot more than a cupboard of food and some bottled water to keep our equine charges healthy should we temporarily lose services.

Plan ahead in order to provide for your horses in the event of an emergency that knocks you off the grid.

Electricity If you have a large facility that depends on a local utility for electricity, you may want to consider investing in a generator. A small, fuel-powered generator can keep the lights on in your barn in the event of a power outage. You’ll also be able to provide working electrical outlets, and power to heat water and warm the barn.

Water Horses can’t survive long without water. Should water supplies be cut off due to a natural disaster, you’ll need to rely on stored water for your horses. If you keep 24 gallons of water on hand per horse, you’ll have enough water for your horses to cover three days. Storing this much water requires keeping large storage containers full at all times. Switch out the water at least every six months to keep it as fresh as possible.

Communications If telephone lines go down, your landline phone will be useless in an emergency. Cell towers can also be damaged by storms or earthquakes. The best insurance against losing touch with the outside world is to have several different means of communication on hand. Keep a working cellphone, a traditional landline and an Internet connection operating all times. If two of these services goes down, you’ll at least have the third resource. Consider purchasing a solar-powered charger for your cellphone so you can keep it going in the event the power goes out.