by Caroline DiDomenico
When I tell people I’m off the grid in northern New England, I’m often met with a quizzical look; they usually think it means I’ve just turned off my cell phone and computer for the weekend. When they hear the real explanation, and then learn that I work for a major New England utility, it never ceases to get a laugh and more questions!
When we purchased land for a vacation home in Vermont about 15 years ago, my initial motivation for going “off-grid” was very simple: I had environmental concerns and a desire to use only what we needed. I wanted to use less overall energy and make as much as possible from renewable resources. After much research, it turns out going off-grid made economic sense too. There were no utilities near the property – the nearest neighbors with power are 1/8 of a mile away – and running power lines would have been obtrusive to both the landscape (and neighborly relations) and very costly. Solar became the renewable source of choice, as it was the most reliable and manageable.
Because of an awesome western view, the location and orientation for the house wasn’t something negotiable, so the conventional approach of putting solar panels on a southern-facing roof wasn’t an option for us. As we eventually found out – years later – that was a really fortunate problem to have, since solar panels on roofs ended up not being the ideal solution in snowy Vermont.
Initially, we placed the original solar panels on a small wood shed with a southern exposure. This arrangement was able to accommodate six panels, enough to power our initial needs when used along with a back-up propane generator. When a pole barn was later added with another south-facing roof, we added six more panels, with the opportunity to increase it to 12. After a few winters, we understood why people can think off-grid solar doesn’t work in snow country.
Being a vacation house, we weren’t always there when it snowed, and in Vermont it can really snow. The panels on the wood shed could be easily cleared of snow with a soft brush while standing on the ground, but the new panels on the pole barn roof could only be accessed by climbing a ladder and using a very long (20’) brush, not exactly my favorite chore when it’s 10 degrees and blowing gale force winds. The real trouble came when we weren’t there for an extended time; whatever snow that was left on the panels would freeze at night into ice. FACT: there is no easy way to remove ice from solar panels, so don’t try it! As a result, we learned some expensive lessons about what chronic inadequate charging can do to an off-grid battery bank.
When we decided to upgrade the whole power system for future full-time occupancy, we knew a ground mount system would always be easy to clear of snow and, if designed properly, might not even need clearing after most snowstorms. As the picture shows, the mount we built fixes the panels at 45 degrees, which is optimal for both year-round solar production at our latitude and for shedding snow. The ground mount currently holds 24 panels (in two arrays) with room for 12 more later (as a third array). We can now clear the ground arrays in about ten minutes – when we rarely need to – and we never even bother clearing the pole barn anymore. In a recent upgrade, we also mounted three more panels on the side of the house so we can always provide some charge to the batteries, even in the worst extended storms (We learned that trick from an issue of Home Power magazine.).
The big lesson learned about solar off-grid in snow country? Until someone comes up with a snow removal system for panels, go with a ground mount system and make maintenance (and life) simple!
Caroline is also a Design and Architectural Professional with over 30 years’ experience in the design and construction of Corporate Interiors, Healthcare Facilities, and Retail Store Design. She is an Officer and Board member of the CT Green Building Council.The Construction Institute and the CT Green Building Council have an ongoing collaborative relationship.