This simple schematic shows how a residential PV system will often take shape.

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Finishing Your Solar Power Setup

The use of batteries requires the installation of another component called a charge controller. Batteries last a lot longer if they aren't overcharged or drained too much. That's what a charge controller does. Once the batteries are fully charged, the charge controller doesn't let current from the PV modules continue to flow into them. Similarly, once the batteries have been drained to a certain predetermined level, controlled by measuring battery voltage, many charge controllers will not allow more current to be drained from the batteries until they have been recharged. The use of a charge controller is essential for long battery life.

The other problem besides energy storage is that the electricity generated by your solar panels, and extracted from your batteries if you choose to use them, is not in the form that's supplied by your utility or used by the electrical appliances in your house. The electricity generated by a solar system is direct current, so you'll need an inverter to convert it into alternating current. And like we discussed on the last page, apart from switching DC to AC, some inverters are also designed to protect against islanding if your system is hooked up to the power grid.

Most large inverters will allow you to automatically control how your system works. Some PV modules, called AC modules, actually have an inverter already built into each module, eliminating the need for a large, central inverter, and simplifying wiring issues.

Throw in the mounting hardware, wiring, junction boxes, grounding equipment, overcurrent protection, DC and AC disconnects and other accessories, and you have yourself a system. You must follow electrical codes (there's a section in the National Electrical Code just for PV), and it's highly recommended that a licensed electrician who has experience with PV systems do the installation. Once installed, a PV system requires very little maintenance (especially if no batteries are used), and will provide electricity cleanly and quietly for 20 years or more.