What are the Best Solar Panel Kits
What to consider when shopping for the best solar panel kits
If you’re looking to dip your toe into solar power, a good place to start is with a 12/24V 400W DIY solar panel kit. In this article we’ll look at five examples, and go over what you need to determine the best solar panel kits for your needs.
These little kits are a nice, practical way to get into solar power without making a huge investment, and they’re still powerful enough to be useful. Many people use kits at this size to power the appliances in motorhomes or yachts. You could run a typical fridge/freezer with one of these kits with no problem. That said, few of these kits are turnkey solutions – most of them will require you to buy extra components before you have a working system.
Most of these kits come with either polycrystalline or monocrystalline solar panels. You’ll get a little more power out of a mono-crystalline panel in a smaller area, but at this scale the practical differences aren’t huge. Of much greater concern will be the location of the solar panel, mounting and wiring.
You can change the voltage output from the panels depending on how you wire them together – in series or in parallel. Which arrangement you want is going to depend on the rest of your setup – most of the kits come with instructions and guidance to help you decide this.
The placement of your solar panels will greatly affect how much power you get out of them. For people using them on RVs or boats, however, it usually isn’t practical to put them anywhere but flat on the roof (unless you have a VW Bus with solar like this one). You’re rarely in a position to take the path of the sun into account when parking your vehicle! The most important thing to account for is obstructions like large trees or buildings – make sure nothing will be shading the panel during the hours you want it to be working.
All of these kits come with charge controllers. These charge controllers are used to keep the power coming out of the panels regulated and make sure that your batteries aren’t damaged.
Most kits don’t come with batteries, and these are a vital part of the system. The size of the battery will dictate how much power you can store, and how long you can run whatever your application is. It’s important to note you should only use “deep cycle” batteries – these are intended to be run down and charged up continuously, whereas other types of battery are meant to give a big burst of power over a short timespan.
You should also note that batteries are expensive – expect a fair amount of your budget to go into power storage.
Related: Building a DIY Battery Bank
This is another item that many kits don’t provide. The purpose of an inverter is to change the DC current provided by your solar panels to AC current. Without doing this you wouldn’t be able to power many household appliances. Whether or not you need one is going to depend on what you’re doing – many appliances built for use in motorhomes are meant for use with DC current, and powering things like lights can often be done with DC.
How big an inverter you need again depends on what you intend to do with it. Those kits that do come with inverters usually have at least 1500 watts, and many of the models intended for use with motorhomes include USB ports for charging small devices.
Another thing to take into account is whether the inverter produces a modified-sine wave or a pure-sine wave. Modified-sine wave inverters are cheaper, but more delicate electronics like computers or battery chargers don’t like them, and they cause an audible hum in audio equipment.
A few Solar Panel Kits to Consider:
The Grape Solar GS-400 kit is a nice package containing most of what you need for a basic solar set up –
- four 100 Watt polycrystalline silicon solar panels;
- a 35 amp Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) charge controller;
- a 2000 watt pure-sine inverter;
- and all the assorted cables.
The current list price for the GS-400 is $1,600.
- The kit is very simple to set up, with some very well put together guides for everything you need to do.
- Grape Solar give a fantastic standard of customer service – you can call them with any question or problem and they will go out of their way to help.
- All the connectors in the kit are industry standard, so expansion is easy.
- The GS-400 will comfortably power a fridge or RV utilities.
- The GS-400 kit doesn’t include any batteries, and you will need to purchase at least one 12V deep cycle battery in order for the kit to work.
- The kit also doesn’t come with any mounting hardware, so you’ll need to source the racks and the assorted nuts and bolts from somewhere else.
This kit by WindyNation provides impressive value. It comes with:
- four 100 Watt polycrystalline silicon solar panels;
- a 1500 watt inverter;
- a 30 amp PWM solar charge controller;
- all the necessary cables, and
- three 12 Volt deep cycle batteries.
It currently retails for $1,689.99.
WindyNation 400W Pros:
- The kit includes mounting hardware, so you won’t need to go hunting for suitable brackets.
- WindyNation customer service is helpful and responsive.
- Plenty of power for light usage, and will happily support appliances such as microwaves or small computers.
- Industry standard MC4 connectors used for the panels, so future expansion is simple.
WindyNation 400W Cons:
- You may need to install an inline fuse, which is not supplied with the kit, although sourcing the parts is easy and the fuse and fuse holder are not expensive.
- The inverter is a modified-sine model, which may not play well with some electronic devices.
A more bare-bones offering, the Renogy Solar Starter Kit offers:
- four 100 Watt monocrystalline silicon solar panels and
- a 30 amp Wanderer PWM solar charge controller,
- with cables and mounting hardware.
The kit’s relative simplicity is reflected in the current list price of only $679.99.
Renogy Starter Kit Pros:
- Renogy’s website has a lot of information to assist you in assembling the kit.
- Putting everything together is simple enough for a beginner.
- The quality of the panels is good, and the output is very consistent.
Renogy Starter Kit Cons:
- To make use of this kit you’ll still need to purchase deep cycle batteries; an inverter; and fuses.
- You will need extra cables – four 5 foot MC4 jumpers if you want to wire the kit up for 12V operation, two if you decide to go with 24V.
- The directions that come with the kit are very sparse.
The Eco-Worthy 400W Off Grid Solar Power System is a reasonably complete kit. It contains:
- four 100W polycrystalline silicon solar panels;
- a 30 amp solar charge controller;
- 1000 watt pure sine-wave inverter;
- MC4 connectors and cables; and
- Z brackets for mounting.
The kit is currently listed online for $784.99.
Eco-Worthy 400W Pros:
- This kit is very affordable.
- The Eco-Worthy 400W contains almost everything you need to get started – the only thing missing is the deep cycle battery.
Eco-Worthy 400W Cons:
- The panels used in this kit are fairly cheap, and you won’t see fantastic performance from them when compared with other kits.
- The supplied cables are fairly short, and in some cases they’ve been found to be labelled backwards. Some care is needed in assembling this kit!
- You’ll need to provide a deep cycle battery yourself before the kit is usable.
- Documentation is poor, and the instructions are not very clear – you may need to do some careful experimentation to get this kit working correctly.
Another bare-bones kit, the HQST 400W kit comes with:
- four 400W monocrystalline silicon solar panels;
- a 40 amp MPPT solar charge controller;
- a pair of 20ft long MC4 cables and
- Z brackets with the associated hardware.
The current list price for the HQST 400W kit is $712.99.
HQST 400W Pros:
- The charge controller in this kit is a Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) model, which is more efficient than the PWM controllers offered in the other kits.
- The monocrystalline panels are very good quality.
HQST 400W Cons:
- Like the other bare-bones kits, you will need to supply a lot of other components yourself before you have a working system. Neither an inverter or a deep cycle battery come with the HQST kit.
Of all the kits listed here, I would personally go for the WindyNation kit. Despite the expense, the kit is the closest thing to a turnkey solution out of all of the kits looked at. It’s cheaper than the Grape Solar kit, and provides almost all of the equipment needed to get a solar system up and running. The only caveat is the modified sine inverter won’t play well with delicate electronics, but for my purposes that’s fine. I’m not planning to hook it up to any sensitive audio equipment, and my laptop’s power brick makes it a non-issue.
By the time you’ve purchased batteries and an inverter, you’re likely to have spent at least that much. That said, if you have a specific application in mind, you may get better performance from purchasing the additional components yourself.
Photo credits: Amazon.com