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Solar Self-Reliance: How to Generate Your Own Solar Power When Renting

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plugging in solar panel
Elmar Gubisch / EyeEm / Getty Images

Installing solar panels is a great option for homeowners who want to reduce their power bills, and the payback period can be just a handful of years with favorable conditions. However, renters and apartment owners cannot use a typical solar power system due to the lack of space, and renters in particular must also negotiate with their landlords. A miniature solar system that is portable and easy to install can be a better option in these cases.

Rooftop solar systems can greatly reduce your electric bills, and you can add solar batteries to store solar energy for use at night. However, because most systems are tied to the power local grid, you must meet many technical requirements and get a permit to put solar on your property. The initial investment and paperwork are not a problem when installing solar panels in a home you own, but they're a limiting factor for renters.

If you don't own your home or apartment, you may have little incentive to invest in improving someone else's property. Even if your landlord gives you permission to install solar panels, the decision only makes sense financially if you plan to rent for a very long time — longer than the solar payback period. Also, consider the following factors:

  • When your lease ends, your landlord may not be willing to purchase the solar panels you installed.
  • Moving rooftop solar panels to another home is difficult, and you will need a professional installation and another permit for the new property.

There are many types of miniature solar systems that can be installed without the complex requirements and permitting procedures of more permanent structures. These systems are an excellent option for renters, since taking them to another property is as simple as relocating your TV.


Solar Benefits for Non-Homeowners

Solar panel systems offer a common benefit, regardless of their size: they generate electricity from sunlight, reducing the amount of electricity you must pay your utility company for each month. Solar power also lowers the environmental footprint of your home, especially if you live in a region where most of the grid electricity comes from fossil fuels.

Homeowners get a few extra benefits when they install a traditional solar system, including:

  • Their property becomes more valuable, and many states don't charge increased property taxes for the portion of home value that corresponds to solar panels.
  • Homeowners also qualify for the 26% federal solar tax credit as well as any additional incentives from state governments or utility companies.
  • There are permitting and grid connection requirements to meet, but once the solar PV system starts operating, it provides electricity for decades with minimal maintenance.

While mini solar panel systems may not be eligible for these perks, they have their benefits compared with rooftop systems. For example, they are much easier to install, with no permitting involved, and any maintenance is much simpler. Small-scale solar systems also have a lower price, and they are easily relocated.

The power bill savings achieved by a rooftop solar system are much higher, but that's because they're much larger. Many homeowners use solar PV systems that have capacities at or above 6 kW (6,000 W), while miniature systems often only generate up to 100 W. As you might expect, the corresponding cost of solar panels is very different: A 6 kW solar system can cost around $18,000 (before incentives) to install, while a miniature 100 W system might cost less than $300. However, each dollar invested is earned back multiple times over in both cases.

How to Utilize Solar Energy When You Rent

There are several options for renters who want to use solar power. These include:

  • Plug-in mini solar systems
  • Off-grid solar and battery systems
  • Portable solar panels
  • DIY solar setups
  • Appliance-specific solar panels

Plug-in mini solar systems work exactly like rooftop PV systems — they connect to your residence's wiring and synchronize with the voltage and frequency of your grid power — just at a smaller scale. The power generated by a plug-in mini system is usually enough to power several electronic devices and LED bulbs, but not high-power devices like air conditioners and washing machines.

Here are some things to consider when deciding whether a solar plug-in mini system is right for your rental property:

  • Plug-and-play solar panels are not subject to the permitting requirements and interconnection procedures of a traditional rooftop installation, and they can be simply connected to a suitable power outlet.
  • NOTE: When using plug-in solar panels, you must make sure that the power outlet used has a circuit with enough capacity to carry the current, as well as an adequate breaker. Otherwise, you can cause an electrical fault.
  • Because this type of panel connects to the electrical system of the property, you should ask your landlord for permission before investing in one. You should also ask an electrician to check the power outlet you plan on plugging the panels into to make sure it has adequate capacity.

Off-grid solar panels and solar battery systems are completely disconnected from the grid, which makes them a popular option for remote or rural sites with no electric service. In these types of systems, one or more solar panels are used to charge a battery or solar generator with USB charging sockets and power outlets for small appliances. These off-grid systems are also a viable option for renters, because they are entirely self-contained and don't connect to the utility grid.

Portable solar panels are popular for camping, but they can also be used by renters to power small devices. These are some of the smallest solar panels available, and they only have a few watts of capacity. Their main purpose is charging smartphones, tablets and other tiny USB devices, and many of them have built-in LED flashlights.

DIY solar panel setups are also an option. You can shop online for compatible solar panels, inverters, batteries and solar charge controllers, and then build a custom system according to your needs. However, keep in mind that you must have at least basic knowledge about electricity to safely and successfully install a homemade solar system.

Appliance-specific solar panels are also a viable option for renters. You can find many devices with built-in solar panels, which don't depend on a power outlet to operate. For example, you can install solar-powered outdoor lights for your backyard or balcony, or use a solar air conditioning unit or fan to provide extra ventilation during the hottest hours of the day.

Pros and Cons of Small Solar Units

Miniature solar systems have advantages and limitations like any device. They have a lower cost than traditional rooftop systems, plus they are easier to install and relocate. Just keep in mind that they can't power larger appliances, which means their power bill savings are small.

The following table summarizes the pros and cons of the most common types of miniature solar systems:

Renter-Friendly Solar System Pros Cons Typical Price
Plug-in solar system - Easy to install
- Can be plugged into a normal power outlet
- Can only operate when connected to the grid
- You need a dedicated circuit and breaker of adequate capacity
$1,500 for a 600 W solar system
Off-grid solar system - Can charge batteries or generators to be used after sunset
- Fully independent from the grid
- Batteries increase the system cost significantly if you want a high energy storage capacity $400 for a 100 W solar panel with a 24,000 mAh battery
Portable - Easy to carry
- Can be used for camping and other trips
- Limited use: Charging smartphones and other small devices $100 or less for a foldable 30 W panel
DIY Solar - You can create a custom system that meets your needs - Basic electrical knowledge is needed to set up a safe system Variable, depending on the components used.
Appliance-specific - Easy to install
- The solar panel is often included with the price of the device
- You can only use the solar panel to power one appliance or device Variable, depending on the appliance

Miniature solar power systems are designed for small, low-power devices such as LED bulbs and electronic gadgets. If you're a renter and would like to increase your savings beyond what is possible with small solar kits, you can consider joining a community solar project near you.

  • These projects normally have two membership options: purchasing a share or paying a monthly subscription.
  • In both cases, you will be entitled to a portion of the kilowatt-hours produced by the system, and this portion will be subtracted from your bill.

Another advantage of community solar is that you can move freely to another apartment or home. Since the solar panels are not physically located where you live, you can usually re-assign the electricity savings to your new address.

Products to Help Renters Maximize Solar

There are many brands of miniature solar kits, but you should look for a reliable provider like Sunboxlabs. Since you're dealing with electricity, purchasing high-quality products is strongly advised to avoid accidents. Before purchasing any solar panel or a related component, make sure it has an electrical certification mark such as:

  • UL (Underwriters Laboratories)
  • ETL (Intertek)
  • CSA (Canadian Standards Association)
  • CE (Conformité Européenne)

You can look for a solar kit that includes all components, such as this WindyNation 100 Watt Solar Panel Kit. Alternatively, you can buy compatible parts separately, and build your own system. The following are some recommendations:

Solar System Component Recommended Product
Solar Panel Renogy 100 Watt 12 Volt Monocrystalline Solar Panel
Battery Mighty Max 12V Battery
Solar charge controller ALLPOWERS 20A Solar Charger Controller
Inverter BESTEK 500W Power Inverter

Keep in mind that you will also need wiring to connect all components together, and make sure you read all instructions carefully to ensure safety.

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