Watch on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9TioLHJ7VU

Solar Beginner - Teaching Myself The Basics With An Eco-Worthy Off-Grid Solar Kit (UK)

Introduction

I installed an Eco-Worthy 240W Off Grid Solar Power kit - in my home! This kit is actually intended for off grid use, for example in campers, RVs, boats, cabins and tiny houses and comes complete with solar panels, charge controller, LiFePO4 batteries and all required wiring and brackets.

Of course there’s no reason you can’t install one in your house and use it to power various things, even mains appliances!

So in this eco worthy solar panel kit review and installation HOWTO I show how I installed the system, how much solar power I’m getting from it in the UK, and show that my YouTube channel and working from home efforts at least can be mostly self-sufficient and off grid without the need for an expensive full house solar installation.

Script

So… What on earth have I bought now?

Well, this is a 240W off grid kit made by a company called Eco-Worthy. OK, I’m pretty sure they don’t manufacture their own stuff as I’ve seen all of these bits being sold under various brands elsewhere, but they happened to be the cheapest for this particular setup which is aimed at boats, campers, off grid cabins and the like.

I don’t have any of those, so I’m going to install it in my house and see whether it can power my little office here, and the various activities that I do in here relating to my day job and my YouTube channel.

The kit cost me £520 - which is around £100 cheaper than buying everything separately, and this is what I got.

The bits came in a few separate packages, and the first to arrive were the actual panels themselves, including the charge controller and the cables to connect the two together. The panels have aluminium frames so they’re very lightweight, and are glass bonded so they’re very tough. They’re modern monocrystalline panels that generate 120W each under regulated industry standard test conditions, and it’s important to remember that the further north you are and the less sunny your weather, the less power you’ll get out of them, of course.

So while I wait for the other parts of the kit to arrive, I’ll start assembling these. The Z brackets were included, and I decided to build some wooden frames to hold the panels at the correct angle. Ideally in the northern hemisphere solar panels should be mounted facing south, and it turns out that the rear our house is only 23 degrees off that pointing south west which just means that I’ll get a bit more sun in the evening, but actually that’s when I need it the most, so it’s not a problem at all.

For optimum performance the panels should be angled upwards at the same angle as your latitude, which in my case roughly in the middle of England is 52.5 degrees. The sun’s apparent height in the sky actually varies by 15 degrees either way over the course of the year, and some people do re-angle their panels twice a year, which can apparently net an extra 4% output.

Of course, due to the way my frames are designed I could do this if I wanted to, but whether I can actually be bothered remains to be seen.

By the way, I’m using some 2x2 treated timber here so it should survive outside, and I’ll treat the cut ends once I’m happy that it’s all together properly and going to work as intended. It’s all assembled using some decking screws and bolts I had left over from another project.

The frames are anchored to the wall so they don’t blow away, and also because I don’t want too much weight resting on the flat roof here and potentially damaging it. The window that you see here is this very room where I’m recording this, and there happens to be a handy air vent that I can run the cables through nice and neatly without having to drill any holes in the wall.

The kit comes with Y cables with industry standard MC4 connectors on them - same as the panels - and the panels are wired in parallel giving us a 12V system. There are also 24V systems that wire pairs of 12V panels in series, but the inverter that comes with this kit is 12V so that’s an easy decision to make. It also means that if one panel is dirty or partially shaded, it won’t reduce the output of the other panel as it would if they were wired in series.

It seems the final angle once all assembled worked out at 48 degrees rather than the 52 that I was aiming for, but this contraption is pretty rustic so I’m happy with that. I positioned it so that I’m able to climb out of the window which is very occasionally handy, not to mention being our upstairs fire escape, and I also have some room up here for further expansion should I want to add another bank of two panels using the same setup, which might help in the winter.

The panels connect to something called a charge controller, and the one supplied with the kit is a very basic unit that can handle up to 30A of input and can charge lead acid, gel or lithium iron phosphate batteries. It supports 12 or 24V setups. I’m massively simplifying here, but 240W divided by 12V gives us a nice round 20A, so even if I decide to move to somewhere like Kenya right on the equator and take this setup with me, it should be able to handle everything these panels can dish out.

I reduced the length of the included cables by about 1M to keep the low voltage runs as short as possible, and I’ve been careful to match the lengths of all of the cables in this installation.

As for the charge controller, I’d really prefer something that can actually log some data, but hey, it’s what comes with the kit and hopefully gets the job done. As I don’t have my batteries or inverter yet the best I can do is plug something in to the USB ports - the old OnePlus phone I use in my teleprompter is completely dead, and charges quite happily to 100% in just under an hour and a half, partly thanks to this crazy heatwave we’re having. I don’t even have the whole kit yet and I’m already getting my free electricity!

All that said, this is an expensive project, so to at least cover some of that cost - in addition to my amazing community on Patreon, my channel members, and the pittance that YouTube occasionally throws my way in ad revenue, I am working with a sponsor this time - JLCPCB.

So I just wanted to let you know that I’ve used JLCPCB for pretty much all of my PCB fabrication projects in the past as well as a few new ones I have coming up, their website is very easy to use and their service in my case at least has always been fantastic with all designs individually inspected for errors after upload and a few days turnaround as far as delivery is concerned.

They offer PCBs with a whole host of different customisation options - including pretty colours which is my favourite bit - and they’re now also offering complementary services - that’s services that complement their main business, not free services obviously - like PCB assembly and even 3D printing.

1-4 layer PCBs start at just $2 and there’s a link down in the description to get $54 off, so go and check them out, and once again I’d like to thank JLCPCB for helping me to cover the cost of this project.

By this point I’m absolutely itching to get my hands on those lovely lithium iron phosphate batteries, so inevitably the next part to arrive - a couple of days later - is of course the inverter. This is the part that takes the 12V from the batteries and turns it into mains voltage for the devices that need it.

This one’s Eco-Worthy branded just like the rest of the kit and is their most basic 600W model, which can apparently handle 1200W of inrush current - or the initial surge when a connected device is switched on. In practice I’m not sure this is true - more on that in a few minutes - but it should be more than adequate for powering stuff like my laptop and LED panel lights and a soldering iron and charging my camera batteries. Hopefully I can run some old computers and consoles on it too, making the channel completely off grid - but we’ll see.

It was at this point that my batteries finally arrived with yet another courier. I know there are some laws around who can carry lithium batteries so I guess that’s the reason for that. These modern lithium iron phosphate or LiFePo4 batteries are actually not like the lithium batteries of a few years ago and are a very stable and safe chemistry. They can be used whichever way up and don’t require any ventilation.

Another cool thing about LiFePo4 batteries is that they allow you to use 95% of their advertised capacity, unlike lead acid which is only 50% - and you can charge them 10x as many times, with them degrading to around 80% capacity after 3000 charge cycles, and generally lasting for over 5000 before needing replacing, making them good for well over 10 years even under very heavy usage.

These particular batteries have a battery management system built in which protects against short circuits, over charging and various other electrical safety issues, unlike say a DIY solution where the BMS would be external.

At the time of recording the kit now comes with 50Ah rather than the 40Ah I got here, but whatever. It can always be expanded in future if these prove to be inadequate, I’ll just need to source more 20Ah units or replace the whole lot so as not to mix different capacities which can potentially damage the batteries.

As mentioned previously, the batteries are wired up in parallel using the integrated screw terminals and the pre-crimped cables for this are included with the kit. Then it’s just a case of connecting them up to the charge controller after making sure it’s set to the correct battery type. Any time you mess with the wiring or connect or disconnect batteries you have to disconnect the solar panels, of course being careful not to allow any wires to touch and create a short circuit.

Finally it’s time to sort out the inverter, and this huge chunky cable that came with it doesn’t really make much sense. The cables are coloured according to the UK mains AC standard of live being brown and neutral being blue, but there’s no way to connect it to the inverter. Perhaps they’re expecting me to wire a plug onto it? As it happens I have my red and black offcuts from earlier, so I’m using those to connect the inverter to the batteries and crimping on my own connectors.

As per the controller, I’m also using some of this heavy duty velcro to make sure it doesn’t move around and potentially pull on the wires.

I should point out that the charge controller has a dedicated 12V output on the front which is designed for a low wattage LED light - so the inverter connects directly to the batteries as I’ve done here, not to this connector. There’s actually a setting to disable this output, which is what I’ve done on mine, but if you have the controller in a dark place away from the batteries, it could definitely be useful, especially as the screen isn’t backlit.

Anyway, that’s the complete setup done!

Wait… Turns out there was also a 50A fuse in the box that I completely missed and only found afterwards when I was sorting out the recycling. With this all being nestled in amongst a load of combustible materials - AKA my game collection - it’d be pretty silly not to have it all protected - although that said, the inverter does have built in fuses as well.

So, that’s the setup done, and that was over 2 weeks ago. So what kinds of things have I been able to do with all my free power?

Well, the first day was a bit of a disappointment, actually. I wired everything up to a 6-way extension including my laptop, the hi-fi amp I use to run my speakers, my LED lighting and even my CRT TV, just to test. I thought I’d try my big old laser printer too, but it seems the inrush current is too much for this inverter, and it tripped the whole thing. To be fair we very rarely use this anyway and it’s off most of the time, so that’ll have to stay connected to the grid for now.

With the CRT off but everything else left on, I set about my day’s work, and my kill-a-watt showed that I was using about 85W of power. With 480Wh of battery capacity, I expected to be able to comfortably run everything for at least 5 hours, especially after the sun directly hit the panels at around 10AM.

As it happens, the inverter started beeping and the whole system died after around 2 hours, before the sun even had a chance to do its thing. I was pretty disheartened with the whole thing, until I started looking into the batteries and realised that they’re only shipped with 30% charge! I’d installed them quite late in the afternoon the day before and used them for a bit in the evening, and there hadn’t really been any sun to charge them so that explains that.

Over the next couple of weeks I was out with work quite a lot so didn’t get to test the all day capabilities of the system until much later on, but I did get some use out of it in the evenings, recording a repair video on my IBM 5153 monitor here - the soldering iron, desoldering station, camera and LED lighting were all powered by this setup, and I even ran the 110V stepdown transformer on it simultaneously for a short time for testing as this monitor is a US import and the inverter and batteries handled it all just fine. As it happens the monitor still has some issues, and that’s why that video hasn’t seen the light of day yet.

We were away one weekend but the other I woke up deciding I wanted an impromptu barbecue on the Saturday, and my wife informed me that we didn’t have much room in the fridge. So I plugged in an old mini drinks cooler which as it happens ended up drawing about 50W, and with it being a sunny day and the panels outputting around 3 times that, it powered it just fine all day and I had some nice cold local beers and some mixers for my wife’s gin by the evening, which as you can imagine went down very well. With 480Wh of battery capacity, I could’ve run the fridge for potentially up to 10 hours overnight too which is really cool to know but it had served its purpose by that point so I switched it off.

I did spend a couple of days working from home that following week and the system was more than enough to keep my laptop charged and run my hifi amp, consuming about 30W between them, and I even recorded and edited another video - which was the magazine one - and that I guess is the first ever video released on my channel entirely powered by solar power. Alright my router and modem aren’t connected up to it yet so I didn’t upload it using solar power, and I did make a few cups of tea which are essential to the process so if you want to be picky I guess my channel isn’t 100% solar powered just yet but I think it’s a good effort.

Finally, I thought I’d try something a bit more substantial and plugged our vacuum cleaner into it, and the cable is actually long enough to do the entire house that way, so that’s what I did. Henry was pulling about 500W which is by far the biggest load I’ve had on the system so far and other than the fan in the inverter running flat out it coped just fine for the 20 minutes or so that that job took. So not only have I used the power of the sun to make videos, do my day job, charge all my portable devices including my phone every day and every single battery in the house, and used it to cool drinks - I’ve even used it to clean the house itself!

So in total, according to my kill-a-watt, which doesn’t include the USB devices I’ve charged directly, I’ve used around 3kWh in the past couple of weeks which at current prices is about… £1 worth of electricity.

So is this kit a good investment that’s going to pay for itself in any reasonable timeframe? Probably not - although, to be fair, I’ve not really been using it to anywhere near its full capacity. But has it taught me a lot about solar power and how these systems are connected up, and could it be a good basis to expand upon in future? Well, yes actually, and I’m really pleased that I bought it, and it’s exceeded my expectations really - the caveat being that we are in the middle of summer, during a heatwave - and that’s why I’m going to be releasing occasional updates and letting you all know how I’ve been using this and I’m particularly intrigued to see how well it will do when the weather turns and of course in the winter.

On the hardware itself - a few minor complaints, and they’re all to do with the charge controller - the battery charge level is just represented as a very simple 4 step thing which isn’t very useful, although I have recently discovered that you can work it out based on the voltage, so I guess that’s not a showstopper.

The overall lack of data really is though - for me at least - at the push of a button the controller shows what the panels are generating for a few seconds in real time but it would be really cool to be able to log that and see how it changes over the course of a day, for example. Also there are more advanced controllers that use a technology called MPPT or Maximum Power Point Tracking that can squeeze a lot more power out of the panels but I suppose I can’t really complain for what this cost and all of the parts use industry standard connectors and are completely interchangeable with other manufacturers’ bits so I can always upgrade later if needs be.

But I think that’s more than enough information for now - I’ve tried to keep this video lighter on hard figures and maths purely because there are other channels who do this for a living who are far more qualified than me - for example I urge you to go and check out Will Prowse if you want to learn more as I’ve learned so much from his videos and he’s very knowledgeable when it comes to all things DIY solar. So I’ll link that down in the description.

So keep an eye out for occasional updates on my little solar system on this channel throughout the year, and of course big thanks are in order to my channel members and patrons who help me to keep this all ticking over, they get early access to videos and to special features on my Discord server as well as behind the scenes updates on my projects.

Thank you very much for watching, and I’ll hopefully see you again soon.

Support the channel!
Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/ctrlaltrees
Become a Member: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCe7aGwKsc40TYqDJfjggeKg/join
Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/ctrlaltrees

Relevant Links:
Amazon Affiliate Link (UK): https://amzn.to/3CsCqWI
Eco-worthy UK: https://uk.eco-worthy.com/collections/cabin-solar-systems/products/120w-240w-12v-1-2x120w-complete-off-grid-solar-kit-with-600w-inverter-lithium?variant=40700120760469
Eco-worthy US: https://www.eco-worthy.com/collections/the-cabin-solar-power-systems/products/100w-200w-300w-12v-1-2-3-panel-off-grid-solar-kits-with-100w-mono-solar-panel?variant=42128171335929
mobile-solarpower.com - MPPT controllers: https://www.mobile-solarpower.com/solar-charge-controllers.html

Further Viewing:
Magazine video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PejtUnp7JM
Will Prowse Tesla Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4zOVhjSbY8

If you liked this video please consider subscribing to ctrl.alt.rees on YouTube!