Getting a Bead on Setting Up a Simple Solar Panel Kit

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When it comes to understanding electricity, my mind tends to blank out when it gets to the point where I have to determine volts, amps, amp-hours, voltage under load and other terms that are second nature to the electricity savvy.  Let me make it clear that this is not a girl thing or a guy thing.  It is simply that some of us are better at understanding how power and electricity works than others.

Harbor Freight Solar Kit (12)

In all fairness, in my boating days I was quite familiar with the operation of our house batteries and the inverter.  Using this set-up, I had fresh coffee in the morning and power for my laptop.  Life was sweet.  Although that was almost ten years ago, the lessons learned were simple: don’t discharge the batteries more than 60% and don’t mess with a working electrical system unless you know what you are doing.

Given my own thick head when in comes to all things electrical, I have always considered the prospect of installing a small solar system in my home a bit daunting.  I should not have worried.

HARBOR FREIGHT TO THE RESCUE

A few months ago I was contacted by Harbor Freight and asked if I would like to try out one of their Thunderbolt Solar Kits.  This was not the time to be bashful so of course I said yes, as long as they understood there would be little or no sun in the Washington State for a month or two. Having set the stage, I was sent the following items for testing:

Thunderbolt Magnum 45 Watt Solar Panel Kit
Thunderbolt Magnum 15 Volt Solar Power Panel
Cen-Tech 750 Watt Continuous/1500 Watt Peak Power Inverter
Thunderbolt 12 Volt, 35 Amp Hour Sealed Lead Acid Battery

Harbor Freight Solar Kit (4)

So how did it go?  The first thing I did was recruit the Survival Husband to do the heavy lifting.  Then, together, we decided that we would install the solar kit on the roof of our garage which was angled just right and facing the south.  During the summer months, we should get six to seven hour of sun a day in this location.

We also agreed that climbing the roof was a task for someone younger – a lot younger – so until my brother and my electronics wizard nephew come to visit, we set things up on our upper patio and to heck with the patio furniture.

TIPS FOR INSTALLING THE THUNDERBOLT SOLAR KIT

The Thunderbolt solar kit comes complete with three 15 watt solar panels for a total of 45 watts.  It also includes all of the parts you will need:  a mounting frame, controller box, cables, connectors and even a couple of 12 volt lights that plug directly into the controller box.  Everything is included for a ground level installation.  On the other hand, a roof top installation will require some brackets – something we have not purchased yet.

The installation was simple.  We just followed the instructions in the manual and things worked.  Okay, truth be told, Shelly (the Survival Husband) does not always read manuals thoroughly so he put the frame together goofy and had to start over.  And then he could not find the power switch on the inverter and thought it was defective.  I found it, turned it on and had immediate power.

He did offer up some tips:

When assembling the frame, make sure the top bar marked front actually faces front.  Otherwise you cannot install the legs.

Harbor Freight Solar Kit (7)

There are two sizes of screws with wing nuts.  The bag with eight screws are shorter and are the screws to be used when assembling the frame.

Harbor Freight Solar Kit (8)     Harbor Freight Solar Kit (9)

When attaching the three panels to the frame, it is easier to attach the middle panel first.  Other than that, just follow the instructions.

After completing the frame and panel setup, follow the directions by attaching the 3 leads from the panel to the splitter cable.  Add the extension cable and plug into the charge controller.  Next attach the battery terminals (on the battery) to the charge controller to confirm that you are receiving voltage from the solar panels.  There is a large LED display on the front of the charge controller indicating the voltage so that you will know right away if everything is working okay.

You need to use an inverter to convert the power to AC.  In that case, you need to attach the included cables from the inverter to your battery terminals.

Harbor Freight Solar Kit (14)

The controller box itself, without an inverter, has a 12V cigarette lighter socket, 5V USB, 3-6-9V DC outlets and two 12V sockets for the included light kit.  Note that the USB port is only 5 volts, okay for cell phones, Kindles and tablets such as an iPad but not for devices or electronics that require higher voltage.

The battery is not waterproof so you will need to keep it covered and protected from the elements.

The Quick Start guide is well laid out and intuitive with accurate, easy to understand diagrams.  Plus, all of the manuals are available online so that they will always be handy, even if you lose the originals.

BUT DOES IT WORK?

The first thing I tested was my crock pot.  If the grid was down and I wanted to eat but I did not want to build a fire, a working crockpot would be a godsend.  It uses just a modest amount of steady power and can be used for soups, stews and even for baking quick breads.  I ran the crockpot for quite some time with no problems.

Harbor Freight Solar Kit (16)        Harbor Freight Solar Kit (17)

My next test was more challenging – a hair straightening iron. If my hair iron worked, then I not only would look good, but I would be able to re-seal the Mylar bags I opened to get to my stored food items.  Again, no problem.  From there I moved to lighting and to my alkaline battery charger.  Again, everything worked perfectly and I was pleased.

Using the Harbor Freight solar system was almost to easy – definitely a set it and forget it operation although the directions indicate you should not leave a charging battery unattended.

I am not done testing yet. The way these things work is that more batteries equals more amp hours equals more current.  Or, in plain English, more battery juice means you can run more stuff for a longer period of time.  We plan to add some marine deep cycle batteries and a large watt inverter to the basic set up so we can run more stuff.  But for the basics and for now, this system works just fine.

THE FINAL WORD

This Thunderbolt Solar Kit from Harbor Freight is inexpensive if not downright cheap.  But do not let the price dissuade you.  For lighting, small appliances and laptops, this system works great.  It would be even better with a larger battery.  You do not need to be an electronics genius to set it up but if you need help, you can find it online, especially at the New World Solar/DIY Solar Energy Forum.

It is my understanding that folks have tied two or three of these systems together for even more power.  As good as that sounds, it is beyond our technical capability at this moment but we are learning and just might get to that point.

Our goal for now is the get the complete system installed on the roof and to add some additional batteries, probably the marine deep-cycle type.  We will then use the solar to kit to power all of our outdoor security lighting as well as our power tools and and everything else that we have running off of our garage and outdoor receptacles.

This does not apply to us, but I think this would be an ideal backup power source for a well.  The price is right and it is oh so easy to install and use.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
Gaye

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Bargain Bin:  Here are some useful items to have on hand when the power is out.

Ambient Weather Emergency Solar Hand Crank Radio: This is becoming a popular choice with Backdoor Survival readers. This unit is a Digital AM/FM NOAA Weather Alert Radio and a powerful 3 LED flashlight, with smart charger, all in one portable package.

AA and AAA Solar Battery Charger: Another popular item. This unit will charge up to 2 pairs of AA or 1 pair of AAA batteries via USB or solar power.

Chemical Lighting aka Light Sticks: These are inexpensive, portable and easy to use. These come in a number of colors so take your pick.

EcoZoom Versa Rocket Stove: Burning twigs and pinecones, this stove will cook a big pot of rice in under 20 minutes. The stove is solidly built and will burn charcoal as well. There is also a version that only burns biomass for slightly less money.

Coleman Rugged Battery Powered Lantern: This sturdy Coleman has a runtime of up to 28 hours on the low setting and 18 hours on the high setting but does require D cell batteries. Personally, I have both a battery operated and propane lantern. Of course by now you know that I like redundancy with my preps.

Dorcy LED Wireless Motion Sensor Flood Lite: Don’t let the $20 price lead you to think this wireless flood light is wimpy. I have two of these (so far) and feel that these lights are worth double the price.

Bicycle Canasta Games Playing Cards:  Heck, you need something to keep yourself entertained!

100 Hour Plus Emergency Candle Clear Mist: My number one choice for emergency candles. This liquid paraffin candle will burn for over 100 hours. t is also odorless and smokeless, making it a great emergency light source that can be extinguished and re-lit as often as needed. Very safe to use.

Coleman Candle Lantern: When the lights go out, there is nothing like a Coleman. They last forever because spare parts are always available. A candle lantern will not give out the bright light of say, a propane or kerosene lantern. On the other hand, candles are likely to be available when other fuels are not.


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Comments

Getting a Bead on Setting Up a Simple Solar Panel Kit — 27 Comments

  1. Gaye, I have 2 of these Harbor Freight 45 watt solar panels. I don’t get much power out of mine, as they are still in the back of my van in the box. I wanted them to provide the power to run the pumps in my aquaponic green house. I lost power once for about 24 hours, and loss 10 tilapia about 4 lbs each. I think everyone needs some solar power.

  2. I would like to know what I need to run a small air conditioner and an upright freezer in a small 8×10 shed. Solar power is awesome!!!

    • Calculating your power requirement is the first step in determining what size system you will need. I am 100% sure that my set-up will not power a freezer and even doubt that it will power my small garage refrigerator without additional panels and batteries.

      Perhaps someone can step in and help you with this. Like I said, I am not good at this electrical stuff 🙂

    • Cyndi, the Harbor Freight kit will not power an air conditioner or an upright freezer. These 2 items are large consumers of power. I can help you size a system for them if you want. We can either do it here or offline…your choide.

  3. For what it’s worth, I’m very experienced with solar power and have used it for about a decade now. I also have direct experience with this particular kit from Harbor Freight.

    In the long run, you will be very disappointed with this kit. It supplies a very small amount of power. What they supply as a charge controller is very well known in the solar community to quickly “cook” your battery bank into oblivion and then it fails itself.

    If you add extra batteries and a bigger inverter you will also find that it will destroy any batteries you hook up. Plus, only putting 45 watts @ 6-7 hours of insolation won’t work. You’re adding a trickle of energy into a larger battery bank. You will be able to draw larger amounts of power but don’t have the capacity to recharge it fast enough to work. You’d have to add more solar panels to make this work.

    I’d challenge you to try and run your straightening iron for more than 20-30 minutes. I’ll bet you will find you’ll be out of power before that.

    I’d be glad to offer more technical details off the forum.

    • Thanks for the feedback. For now we will using this set-up for very low voltage items. The hair iron is an exception but it only gets used for 5 minutes or so at a time. More of a concern is how much energy will be produced in the winter when there is very little sun to hit the panels.

      If I have questions or need help though, I will give you a holler. I appreciate the offer.

    • Yes, I need all the help I can get as I am not up on Solar (no pun intended. Thanks for the offer. Gaye can you give chris my email. Thank you.

    • Chris, is there a solar panel set up or kit that you would recommend to beginner’s who are just looking to get started or for minimal needs?

      Particularly solar panels that do not need to be roof mounted and are somewhat portable.

      Or is there a way to economically adapt the Harbor Freight kit?

      • Dirge – We did not mount our HF solar kit. Instead, it sits on our patio next to the garage wall. It works great for basic needs. Also, the “stand” portion was part of the kit so we did not have to purchase anything additional.

        • Thanks for writing this article Gaye. I’m very interested in purchasing the HF solar kit. But I want to compare it to other similar kits on the market like the Sunforce 60W.

          I also want to know if there are components I should upgrade from the HF kit for a better one, like the controller for instance.

          I’m an avid DIYer, but electronics are a weak point in my skill set. So I’d like some guidance on an initial set up and I think I can then learn and advance from there.

          Any recommendations or tips would be appreciated.

      • Dirge,

        Most prebuilt kits I’ve seen are overpriced by 200-300%. I’d start with Craigslist to find panels. Don’t pay more than $1/watt. sunelec.com has panels that are under $1/watt brand new.

        As for being a beginner I’d say this. If you can hook up a car stereo you can easily do your own solar. It’s just 2 wires from the panels to the charge controller and 2 from the charge controller to the batteries. That’s pretty simple.

        Solar panels don’t need to be roof mounted. The can be mounted anywhere you have good, uninterrupted sunshine. I have 3 racks of solar panels that are on the ground where it’s easy for me to clean them and re-aim them twice a year. They are easily portable this way too. Each of my racks is 300 watts and my wife and I can easily move them and we aren’t young people.

        The panels in the Harbor Freight kit will give you a reasonably long life. The charge controller the kit comes with will ruin any batteries you use in pretty short order…quite often in less than 18 months. The components in the kit are worth under $100. You can buy a good 50 watt panel and a simple Morningstar controller and do it all for under $100 and have some quality components.

        I’d be glad to help you spec out a system either here in this forum or offline at oldradiofan@gmail.com

        Chris

  4. Before I make my statement, I’ll give some background.
    We have solar – but not this kit. I sized my system to drive my shallow well pump, some power tools, lights. That’s about it. And it was not cheap for the setup I have. it is only temporary anyway.

    What I would like to bring to everyone’s attention is this:
    Many preppers fall into the “short term” trap.
    When most preppers think “off grid”, they think solar, generator, batteries, wind, anything to sustain what will, in a total chaos situation, become unsustainable.
    We use a wood burning stove, wood burning cook stove, hand tools, rocket stoves, solar ovens and other means of heating, cooking, etc.,. We are versed in animal husbandry, gardening, beekeeping, etc.,. Years of “trial by fire”.

    We believe that there are a couple of scenarios that may play out when SHTF and should be considered:
    1. No infrastructure recovery – how will you replace those failing batteries/inverters/everything else that relies on the infrastructure to manufacture and support the gadgets if it doesn’t come back online?
    2. The infrastructure stays intact, but the fees to use the grid will be so high that no one can afford it (due to hyper-inflation).

    In either case, we prefer to REALLY move towards total off-grid. The solar/batteries are an interim step to freedom from the grid as we move away from it completely.

    you might think we’re crazy, but we already know how to do most of it because we already do it – daily.
    A little engineering and design work from the middle ages would provide us with ice, refrigeration and other “modern day” conveniences..

    • I think you are right which I hate to admit because I love my air conditioning in the summer. Heat im not worried about cuz we can always have a fire. Dang, all I can say is I hope s never hits the fan.

  5. It seems there are some folks here than know what they are doing. I have a question. I see in Gaye’s photo that her kit came with a frame that tilted her solar panel at an angle. I would think that the panel should point directly at the sun. On my small panels I have, They are mounted on an adjustable home made frame where I can make the panel, in the summer, almost flat with the earth. Am I doing this wrong? I see photos of acres and acres of solar panels in California, and they are all tilted to what looks about a 45 degree angle. Is this what I should be doing? Thanks in advance.

    • Yep, that would aimed wrong. There are calculations you can do to properly aim your panels, but here is the easy way. You may need a second set of hands to make this easier. Cut a piece of a 2×4 about a foot long. At noon (your local time), hold one end of your 2×4 on the solar panel. Adjust your mount horizontally and vertically until the shadow from the 2×4 is at it’s smallest. You’ve now got your panel adjusted for maximum output, assuming you have no obstructions between you and the horizon. You should do this adjustment in spring and fall but can do it more often if you want.

  6. Hey, that is what I do. I hold a stick at the panel at noon and ajust for the smallest shadow. In the summer, the panel is just about flat, as the sun if just about straight up. I have a hinge on the end of the panel and it is attached to the greenhouse with an adjustment lever on the other end that raises and lowers it. I was hopping I was doing something right. I have a small panel on the roof of my house that runs an attic fan, and I always thought if I made it more flat in the summer, it would cool the attic a little more. Thanks Chris

  7. Well im just going to put this bad news out there. I just really started prepping last fall. I guess I had a dream that my survival situation would adapt to me instead of me adapting to survival. Survival means no air conditioning. On that reality note, yes, I want to cry but anyway. If anyone does plan to go solar, which I did have plans to do so. What if chaos struck. People in the city will live off the city till everything is gone and then they will head to the country. Solar panels sure wont work then because desparate people will be hungry and destructive. Didn’t think of that till now. I have a lot to learn. I am a spoiled to airconditoning. That will be the worst thing for me to have to let go of. It also sounds like solar will not be an option for me anyway as it is to expensive for what I need to run ie air conditioner and freezer. So back to the drawing board.

    • does anybody have any ideas as to how I can adapt to the heat. It gets over a hundred degrees here in the summer.

      • My mother-in-law never had air conditioning but in the summer she would take milk jugs and freeze them. Then she placed them in a pan in front of the fan and instant cook air. I guess as long as you have ice you can cool the air and use air from a small fan, but ice may be a problem too.

  8. I am a solar installer and master electrician. I am quite familiar with what a typical home uses. What you need is more in the realm of 10 KW of solar with an inverter of around 3-5 KW and enough battery power to sustain. A/C, fridge and noncontinuous loads such as microwave throughout the hours of 5:00 pm to 10:00 am. While 45 watts will build enough charge over time with a large enough battery bank to power a crock pot or flatiron, it will not replenish enough KW-hours daily to sustain even a fridge. The price per KW on these “cheap” kits is an outrageous joke.

  9. What size solar set up do I need to keep the battery up that I use in my camper is the suitcase 13 watt too small I rin fan for furnace water pump light as needed in late fall an tv

  10. I have 3 sets connected to the hub that HFT sells.I also added wind to the mix.I use the charge controller that came with the wind turbine.Together they keep a 5 deep cycle battery bank fully charged.Add to that a 1500 watt continuous 3000 watt surge pure sine wave inverter and I have enough emergency power to supply AC to kitchen,living room and most of all the furnace when the lights go out. Used it twice this winter.Is my wife impressed!!!

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