In the spirit of DIY engineering and solar power innovation, we’re re-releasing Circuit Cellar founder Steve Ciaria’s three-part series, “Solar-Powering the Circuit Cellar.”

An excerpt from the first article in the series appears below. And for a limited time, you can download the entire series for free. Enjoy!

The photos show the roof-mounted solar panels that produce approximately 40% of the total PV power. I know it sounds like a joke that the first PV system consideration is walking around the house and looking for the sun, but you can’t generate much energy if your panels are always shaded. When you live in the middle of the woods, finding the sun is often easier said than done.

Approximately 4,200 W of PV power is generated from 20 roof-mounted SunPower SPR-210 solar panels. The other 6,560 W comes from pole-mounted arrays behind this area.

Array orientation determines how much energy you can produce. Solar panels are typically aimed due south at a specific tilt angle that optimizes the incidence angle of the sunlight striking the panel. Maximum energy is produced when this tilt angle is equal to the latitude of the location (reduced by a location correction factor). Typically, the optimal tilt angle during the summer is the latitude minus 15°, and the optimal angle for the winter is the latitude plus 15°. Hartford, CT, is located at 42° latitude and the optimum tilt angle (minus an 8° correction factor) ranges from 19° in the summer (34° – 15°) to 49° in the winter (34° + 15°). The Connecticut rebate program suggests that if a fixed tilt is used, it be set at 35°. Of course, these are computer-generated optimizations that don’t necessarily accommodate real-world conditions. While it requires some nontrivial computer calculations to show authenticity, it is my understanding that as long as the non-optimal differences in azimuth and tilt are less than 20°, the loss in maximum power production is typically only about 5%. It is exactly for that reason that the most cost-effective PV installation is typically a fixed-pitch roof-mounted array.

Team installing solar panels on Steve Ciarcia’s roof

My system includes both variable and fixed-pitch arrays. The roof-mounted panels are located on the solarium roof and oriented at a fixed pitch of 17.5° facing SSW (see Photo 1). According to Sunlight Solar Energy’s calculations, efficiency is still about 92% of the desired maximum because the 17.5° roof angle actually allows higher efficiency during longer summer hours even though it isn’t the optimum tilt for winter.

Pole-mounted arrays are more efficient than a fixed-pitch roof array by design. My configuration is single-axis adjustable. The pole-mounted arrays are oriented due south and enable seasonal adjustment in the tilt angle to optimize the incidence angle of the sun. For everyone ready to e-mail me asking why I didn’t put in a tracking solar array since this is a pole mount, let me just say that you can also send me financial contributions for doing it via the magazine.—Steve Ciarcia, “Solar-Powering the Circuit Cellar (Part 1: Preparing the Site),” Circuit Cellar 209, 2007.

Check out some of Circuit Cellar’s other solar power-related articles and projects:

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