The Off Grid Ham 100 Watts for $300 Solar Energy Plant, 2020 Update.

A good value for the money never goes out of style.

Back in February of 2016 the Off Grid Ham 100 Watts for $300 solar project made its debut. Over four years later it is still one of the most-viewed articles on this website with several hundred hits every month. The conclusion I’m getting is that off grid ham radio on a budget is very popular and amateurs are hungry for information on how to pull it off.

Regular Off Grid Ham reader David from the awesome state of Maine recently sent in a link to a solar energy product he found on Amazon that amateurs will love (we’ll get to the details in a moment). That got me thinking: What’s happened in the last four years? Can we still put together a 100 watt solar setup and stay within a $300 price goal?

I did some research, and it’s mostly good news.

To make this comparison relevant, I used the same equipment, specifications, and suppliers from 2016. The good news is that the price of solar panels have come down so far that it more than makes up for the increase in the other items, resulting in a net lower cost from 2016. I will also take this moment to point out that I correctly predicted in January of 2018 that the solar panel tariff imposed by the Trump administration would not be the armageddon many “experts” foretold.

We’re still going to focus on three main components: A 100 watt (or better) solar panel, a solar controller, and a battery in the 25-35 amp-hour range. We will also include money for assorted hardware, connectors, cabling, and other incidental expenses.

300 watt DIY solar power system, 2020 version.

Renogy 100 watt monocrystal solar panel:      $88.59 (was $129.00 in 2016)

Sun Saver 10 amp controller:                             $63.00 (was $48.00 in 2016)

26 amp hour sealed battery:                              $61.95 (was $59.00 in 2016)

20 foot MC4 cables (need 2):                              $37.90 (was $30.00 in 2016)

Other supplies & expenses:                                $34.00 (was $34.00 in 2016)

2020 TOTAL:                                                            $285.44 (was $300 in 2016)

It looks like we’re coming in just shy of fifteen dollars less than 2016. By the way, the 2016 solar panel was a less efficient polycrystal model. For 2020 we’ve upgraded to a better monocrystal version and found it for $41.00 less. The biggest price bump was the controller.

So to answer our question, yes, we can still get 100 watts for $300…a little less, actually. Solar panels have crossed below the magic line of $1.00/watt at retail prices for a single panel, something that was unheard of in 2016.

But…we can do even better! off grid ham radio on a budget

off grid ham radio on a budget

Public domain photo.

David from Maine tipped me off to this 100 watt “suitcase” solar panel setup. I have not used this exact product myself, but It looks like a great value for $169.99 and I could not find any obvious “red flags”. This setup includes a monocrystal panel and either an HSQT or Renogy charge controller. If you go with the Renogy controller option, the price drops to $149.99. Both units are good, but the more expensive HQST controller allows you to add more panels up to the 30 amp limit while the Renogy tops out at 10 amps. If you do not intend on adding more panels at a later time, the 10 amp controller is plenty.

Both packages include short MC4 cables. If you can live with the short cables, all you need is a battery. A battery would bring the total to $231.94 (30 amp HSQT controller) and $211.94 (10 amp Renogy controller). The bottom line is that following David’s tip will get you a complete 100 watt solar power plant for just over $200.00.

Polycrystal vs. monocrystal. off grid ham radio on a budget

The main difference between mono- and poly- crystalline solar panels is monos are more efficient, so they will (usually not always) be smaller than a poly panel of the same wattage. The difference is very small. Unless space is critical and even one inch will make a difference, don’t get too hung up on this. Monocrystal panels are not necessarily built with better quality materials or have a longer service life than polycrystal versions. This Off Grid Ham article discusses different types of solar panels in more detail.

And now, the bad news.

The drop in solar panel prices accounts for our entire savings, and that’s not a good sign of things to come. I’m predicting the price of solar panels will not go much lower, at least not with current technology and production methods. At the same time, the cost of charge controllers, batteries, and other necessities continues to rise. At some point, cheap solar panels will not be enough to cancel out the increased prices on the other items. We’re still under $300 for now, but the easy ride will ultimately come to an end. Of course, all this could change with emerging  technologies. Some big new thing can (and probably will) come along and upend everything.

What we learned today. off grid ham radio on a budget

Not only is the “100 watts for $300” goal still alive in 2020, it’s certainly possible to come in much lower than that! The price drop on solar panels more than make up for price increases on the other components. 2020 is a great year to take amateur radio off grid. It’s more affordable with more choices than in 2016.

Resources.

This OGH article from June 2016 describes the different types of solar panels.

This OGH article from October 2017 gives other options for going off grid for cheap.


Attention Off Grid Ham groupies: Do you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed on this blog? Yes, I take requests! This article is the direct result of reader input, and I welcome your voice too. Leave your ideas and suggestions in the comment section below or send them in through the contact page. This blog is for you and I want to turn your thoughts into an Off Grid Ham article to share with everyone. 


 

14 thoughts on “The Off Grid Ham 100 Watts for $300 Solar Energy Plant, 2020 Update.

  1. Pete Barth

    Thanks for what you do for us all.

    This one I found on Amazon might be an equal.
    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07VN68ZBV/ref=psdc_2236628011_t3_B07L8XWJ1X
    ————————
    DOKIO 100 Watt 12 Volt Monocrystalline / $144.77 & FREE Shipping.
    The frame seems similar, but not painted, it has reinforced corners as the one you noted.

    Q: If later I buy another two panels, do the four panels ALL add in parallel into the inverter,
    or can two in parallel, be added in series to a SECOND TWO IN PARALLEL, doubling the voltage into the controller.
    IE, series double voltage into the controller.
    Under load, wouldn’t that be 24 or so volts into the inverter?

    Q: Any suggestion for a larger inverter that would take 8 panels, linear converter (no hash).
    Maybe a favorite brand name?

    Thanks, Pete Barth / W6LAW
    ====
    Controller input voltage limit is ?
    Hopefully looking for better efficiency.

    What is the hash from these controllers.
    Methinks added cost for non- switching inverters is good/best.

    Pete Barth / W6LAW

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi there, Pete. Blogging can be a lonely chore sometimes. I never know for sure if anyone is listening, so it’s gratifying to hear from readers who took the time to let me know that this website has helped them attain their off grid goals. Thanks for the kind words.

      The product you link to looks very comparable to what other readers have suggested. The only observations I have are A) I’ve never heard of the DOKIO brand and have no idea how good they are; and B) there is no mention of how much current the controller can handle, I can’t tell if this system is expandable, and C) there are only eight reviews for this product and not all of them are good. That doesn’t make it a poor product, but it is an unknown. It’s probably a solid deal, but I personally would stick with brands I know and trust.

      To answer your questions:

      A: You can add panels in any combination you want as long as you do not exceed the voltage and current limits of the controller. I’m going to guess that an inexpensive controller is likely limited to 12 volts and does not have enough current capacity to double the number of panels.

      As for the series-parallel issue, you can have both series and parallel panels on the same controller, but special considerations need to be made. Panels in series ADD the voltage (current stays the same); panels in parallel ADD the current (voltage stays the same). Panels of different wattage cannot be wired in series without degrading the capacity of the entire system. For more information on wiring solar panels, this June 14, 2018 Off Grid Ham article should answer most of your questions.

      A: I use and recommend Exeltech and Samlex inverters. Exeltech is American-made and is considered the Rolls Roys of inverters. You’re also going to pay Rolls Royce prices. Samlex is also an excellent product and reasonably priced. Both are very RF quiet. The cheap $49.00 inverters you see on sale just about everywhere will not last over the long haul and will stomp on your signal the whole time you have them. Inverters are not the place to cut corners. Get a good pure sine wave only (not a square wave or modified sine/square wave) inverter. If you really want to geek out with inverters, I’ve written several articles here on Off Grid Ham about them (use the search function or tag words).

      Reply
      1. Pete Barth

        OK. I will stick with what you favor.
        I just wondered about input specs on these inverters/ current too.
        I will examine specs.
        First use is off grid, working out of car.
        Later backpacking with lighter batteries, probably fold-able panels.
        Possibly 18650’s.

        Well then, YOU have gotten me started. Now to order!!

        I have operated mobile from BMW cycle, 160 thru 440 , CW with a paddle on right handlebar.
        Midnight out on a interstate, 70 mph, cruse control on, 20 meter CW with a trailing 24 foot wire (counterpoise). Fun, fun.

        Pete
        ====

        Reply
        1. Christopher Burt

          You don’t happen to have a website or links showing how you set that up do you? I’ve been wanting to add radio to my BMW bike for a good while now.

          I’m enjoying this blog as well now that I’m getting back into it after a long hiatus. I can appreciate that blogging is lonely work. From the other end, I like the material, but don’t want to seem too needy in the comments section!

          Reply
          1. Pete Barth

            I am listed on the QRZ site under W6LAW.
            We can communicate by email too. Email is on that site.

            BMW, 2001 Cycle, K1200LT mod for ham radios added.
            1) First I ran a 2 inch copper flat ribbon (from eBay) all the way from near the front hub of the front wheel, snaking all the way back past the 2nd seat, and up into the rear bag, and continuing out of the bag to bonded to the antenna mounts. No breaks in this foil!
            (Extra foil out of fork into frame to allow for flexing/left-right turning).
            That was strapped (very good connection to the frame) near the battery and to the battery ground connection of frame. This is called a ‘common-point’.
            I wanted the best bike counterpoise I could get, rather than relying on the frame being bolted together. This creates a separate RF (radio) common for the ham system.

            2) A second identical 12 volt battery in the right rear side suitcase, replaces the 6 CD player.
            I wanted this weight to be low on the bike.
            Diode isolated and charged from the cycle, used for the radios. Also duplicate to the bike battery for emergencies.
            (Later added a breaker so Aux battery can start dead battery on cycle).

            3) Icom 706,MK-2 in the rear, with remote at the front handlebar.

            4) 741 triband for 144, 220, 440 all separate in the rear. Remotes on front handlebar.
            Later added thin plastic plate above radios to deflect rain that sneaks into the front.

            5) Antennas: I was riding with the MARC ham radio bike club, and they had connections with Comet. So I decided to have separate UHF antennas.

            5a) I fabricated a 26 inch oval base from 1/4 inch aluminum, attached to the wire rack above my rear trunk, with three UHF loaded whips up top. That worked very well.
            5b) The bikes AM/FM antenna to left of trunk was taken off. Base is still there.

            5c) I fabricated a 1/8 inch steel plate, welded together with 3 parts, duplicating IN REVERSE the left AM/FM mount that attaches to the RIGHT side of the trunk. It looks identical to the one on the left which is cast out of aluminum.
            5d) A very long screwdriver antenna is mounted onto that huge steel base. I never did get into a auto tuner, wish I had.
            This gives me 160 thru 440 on the bike, out on the road.

            6) HANDLEBAR AREA:
            Remotes for the Icom 706 and the Kenwood UHF are side by side.
            GPS on top.
            CHP-Chase Detector up where it can receive well.
            On long rides, at 70 mph cruse control on, late at night on 20, I like CW.
            SO, since I have cruse control, I have a CW straight key, and a paddle on a plate, leg mounted on a plug into a box near the ignition key. That way I remember to pull it out when I get off the bike.
            A duplicate paddle / straight key is right near the right handle grip.
            A switch on those two keys lets me hit the straight key into the bike horn for keying out HI’s to other cars and bikes!!
            Everything external gets wet a lot, but I have never had a problem.

            Last thing, I got out better when using a trailing wire counterpoise, only used out on the highways at speed. I made up 20-22 foot tiny thin wires with a cloth 3 inch double tails tied to the end of the wires. This is kept up in the air at the height of where the wire connects to the base of the screwdriver antenna. I never did studies to find out what quarter wave worked best. I was on all bands, so that is questionable anyway. Everything radiating mobile is whatever you get.
            That works mondo well, extra gain and worth the trouble.
            When forgotten they snag on things in a parking lot and tear off and get lost.
            SO, I modified by adding automotive electric ‘push-on terminals.
            The mating male push on is permanent onto the antenna base. The male stays on, the females slobbered (my lifelong term for soldering) onto the wires get lost over time. Extras in the trunk.
            This trick I learned as I also drive a ’65 Alfa Romeo Veloce, and those sport cars do have a small metal footprint.

            This is history now. You might have noticed present tense, and past tense in the above few words.
            I have taken the radios off the BMW and inserted into our 2001 Expedition, as my wife won the argument over me riding a bike. I won partly as I did retain the cycle, only to go mobile again someday when she is not looking!
            Paddle and key still attached, along with all antennas, heh heh.

            Addenda: I was very worried about the RF getting into the BMW ignition computer, which is why I went to the extreme with the ground, actually correctly titled “COMMON POINT.”
            Never did have a problem though, and I am convinced that radiated better anyway. i used fairly thick foil, not that expensive-about $25 for 25 feet, on eBay.

            I hope this helps.
            Pete Barth W6LAW

  2. Randall Krippner

    I was wondering if anyone else was having issues with trying to source parts out of China over the last couple of months? I’ve had several parts orders now turn up as “currently unavailable”. I had three different orders for various toroid cores for a radio receiver project suddenly pop up as “unavailable” and some other miscellaneous parts pop up with the same warning. Since I’d been waiting several weeks before the orders turned up as unavailable I was a bit peeved, but I got full refunds in every case. I suspect the chaos going on in China because of the virus had something to do with it. I imagine the bigger vendors are dealing with the situation a bit better, but this could cause wide spread shortages of parts and equipment, especially for those of us who order stuff from smaller suppliers, including solar equipment.

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      I don’t often order direct from Asia, but I will guess the Covid-19 virus has something to do with your problem. A lot of people over there aren’t showing up for work, and the ones who do have a lot on their hands.

      Hopefully it will all stabilize soon.

      Reply
      1. Randall Krippner

        I imagine that’s what’s going on. I’ve been hearing of serious disruptions going on in the car industry, agriculture, etc. because of this, so that some small suppliers are having problems is to be expected. I can get most of the parts from places like Mouser and Jameco but at two or three times the price. A lot of small China based distributors and manufactures sell through Amazon, especially small, cheap parts, kits, test gear, etc.

        Another item – the virus apparently doesn’t survive outside of the body very long so it wouldn’t survive any kind of significant transit time so at least we don’t have to worry about material being shipped out of China being contaminated.

        Reply
  3. Pete Barth

    Please remember that Digi-Key was started by a “QRP building ham”.
    He started his business selling parts he had left over from building ham radio projects.
    He is probably long gone by now, but I still remain loyal, with others 2nd or 3rd.

    Reply
  4. RickP

    I believe that I have all of the parts to complete this set up. Is it possible to use powerpole connectors to hook the panels to the the controller?

    Reply
  5. RickP

    Is it possible to use Powerpole connectors on the MC4 cables to hook them to the controller to make it easier to connect/disconnect?

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      You can make your own MC4-Powerpole adapter and everything should work fine. I do not recommend cutting hard wired MC4 connectors off solar panels and replacing them with Powerpoles.

      Reply
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