Building a garden shed was a unique learning experience for my children Aside from some basic vocational skills and safety lessons that are always good to teach, we used the Pythagorean theorem to keep things square to demonstrate real world uses for seemingly “useless” math, introductory physics with lever and fulcrum to show my nine year old how to lift a 250lb wall section and block and tackle to hoist small rafter sections to demonstrate the effectiveness of pulleys, and half a dozen other things one might expect to incorporate in a building project.

We did however save the best for last.  As an outbuilding 30 yards or so from the house, I wanted a source of power and the expense of digging a trench and doing buried cables plus installing a second small breaker box was prohibitive but another even better option was available. We added electric power to our shed by installing a small solar collection unit. Aside from all the educational value of the lessons in electricity (and the added perk of discussing both AC and DC in the same system as well as how it is converted from one to the other) it opened up a whole new realm in environmental education, renewable energy, and eco- consciousness.


The lessons learned

One of the first lessons learned was in viability of solar energy. Many have said for years that solar power is still too expensive and not efficient enough for real world use.  While this small experiment did not speak to viability in whole cites or even neighborhoods or a full single family home converted to solar power, it do make clear that not only did it provide no cost electrical energy after installation , there are applications where it is cheaper than hooking into the traditional grid.

In our set-up we used 4 large PV panels and 2 12volt marine batteries capable of producing up to 400w. While not adequate electricity for things like a full size electric stove, it easily runs the fluorescent lights in the shed and the flood lights in the yard, can recharge the rechargeable batteries on my tools and lawn equipment, and run an electric mower and trimmer so these items produce no emissions and also use no fossil fuels for the electricity they use.

Our solar panels do produce more energy than we use out in the shed. If were hooked up to larger battery storage or with a grid tie inverter. We have monitored the amount of energy we can store in a single day, week, and month. Using this information and comparing it to our electric bill we could calculate how long it would take to make it a zero cost system (when the amount of savings in electric was equal or greater than the cost of installation. Our system was a relatively cheap system purchased on Amazon for about $1500. This was compared to the estimate of approx. $2100 to put in the trench underground line, have the shed wired by an electrician, and a small secondary breaker box. 

The Biggest Lesson

This is easy – that it is possible to use existing technologies to capture the suns energy for use in a real world situation right now. Following a thunderstorm the main house lost power for 2 hours and we ran an extension cord to the shed to keep the refrigerator in the main house from warming up which showed that independence from the main grid can even be advantageous in some situations. My children learned to look towards renewable energy as a resource now as opposed to believing it is simply a possibility for the future. 

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