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Solar for tiny houses: what you need to know

In an effort to minimize energy usage (and possession of material items), homeowners across the country are moving into tiny houses. Even though these houses are much smaller than the average home, they still need energy for lighting, heating, cooling, and other appliances. If you’re living in or planning to build a tiny house, you can cut your energy bills even further by generating your own clean, free electricity with solar panels.

Benefits of solar panels for tiny houses

The benefits you’ll reap from installing solar panels on a tiny house are similar to the benefits of installing on any other larger building: you’ll save money on electricity bills, help protect the environment, and take control of your own electricity generation. Solar panel systems will also help increase the value of your tiny house should you decide to sell it in the future – prospective house buyers will value of free, renewable energy, and typically pay more upfront for it.

Additionally, many tiny houses are mobile, moving from various plots of land over time. If you have or are planning to build a tiny house on wheels, solar power is the way to go: you won’t have to rely on finding power sources wherever you end up placing your home for a bit of time. Rather, you can have a guaranteed source of electricity, no matter where you end up.

Key questions for tiny house solar panel systems

The type of solar panel system you will need for your tiny home depends on the answers to a few key questions:

How much electricity do you want to generate?

In general, tiny houses use much less electricity than the average home. However, every tiny house is different, and how much electricity you use to power your tiny home will depend on its size, how many people live in it, the appliances you use, and more. To maximize your savings, you’ll want to aim to generate as much of your overall electricity needs as possible. This may mean only installing five solar panels or installing 15 of them.

If you don’t know how much electricity your tiny house will use, the Department of Energy’s Appliance and Home Electronic Energy Use Calculator is a good place to start. You can enter individual appliances, along with how often you use them, to get an estimate of the amount of electricity they use per year.

Should you install a rooftop or ground-mounted system?

Before installing solar panels on the roof of any tiny house, you want to make sure the roof gets enough sunlight and the roof is structurally sound enough to hold up the solar panels and racking equipment. Depending on how your tiny house was built and what it was built with, the roof may not be strong enough to handle the extra weight. If this is the case, thin-film panels are worth exploring as many of them are very light compared to traditional solar panel alternatives. Some thin-film panels, like Lumeta’s panels, are even adhesive so that you don’t have to worry about the additional weight of racking materials.

Rather than installing rooftop systems, many tiny house owners choose to install solar panels on the sunny plot of land close to their house. These systems require additional racking and mounting equipment, but you’ll have more freedom to place your panels in an optimal direction and often have more space to install on. Regardless of whether the panels are on your roof or the ground, you’ll want to make sure your panels are tilted so that they capture the maximum amount of electricity.

Is your tiny house connected to the grid?

If your tiny house is connected to utility power lines, then the system and electrical setup will work in a similar fashion to standard residential rooftop systems. As you produce solar electricity during the day, it will support your electricity needs first before sending excess energy out to the grid. Many utility companies have a net metering incentive, which means they’ll provide credits for this excess generation. On a later date, you can use those credits, drawing electricity from the grid at night so that your tiny house doesn’t go dark.

Alternatively, if your tiny house is off-grid, you’ll need to pair your solar panels and inverter with a battery and charge controller – that way, you can charge your battery during the day and use that electricity after the sun goes down. If you’re using a battery, you’ll probably want to put it indoors: batteries are sensitive to temperature extremes and can degrade at a quicker rate if operating in hot or freezing weather.

If your tiny house is located in the backyard or in close proximity of another building, you can also run it on solar power by installing solar panels on the larger building. Once that building is running on solar power, you can connect your tiny house to its electrical system with extension cords, supplying your tiny house with clean, solar electricity. As a bonus, you won’t only save on electricity costs for your tiny house, but for the larger building as well.

Solar options for your tiny house

Even tiny houses with low electricity needs can benefit from solar power. If your tiny home uses only a little bit of electricity and you only need a few solar panels to meet your needs, it’s often most cost-effective to do a DIY solar panel installation. There are many companies that sell complete solar kits (such as those from Grape Solar or Reongy). Many sellers offer batteries as part of a solar kit if you’re looking to install an off-grid system. As with any type of electrical work, it’s a good idea to work on the project with an experienced electrician if possible.

Alternatively, if your tiny home uses enough electricity to require more than 3 kilowatts (kW) of solar power, you should consider working with a solar installer that can assist with the work. By signing up on the EnergySage Marketplace, you can receive turnkey solar quotes that will include the costs of equipment, labor, permitting, and more. You can provide notes in your account to indicate the type of solar panel system you’re looking to install for your tiny house.


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