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Off-grid solar power at the cottage is now easier than ever

Cottagers leave a lot to chance. We can plan our meals and choose the best route north on a Friday afternoon, but the rest of the cottage experience, from the weather to the traffic—and whether the blackflies are biting—is a lot less reliable. And for cottagers in remote areas, part of that lack of reliability means dealing with power outages. That’s why Canada’s own Hybrid Power Solutions created a backup power system that makes reliable off-grid power storage a reality, whether you’re storing energy from your solar panels or simply reducing your reliance on the grid.

To learn more about off-grid power storage, we sat down with company owner Francois Byrne to see how his battery systems plug perfectly into the cottage experience.

Cottage Life: You have a specific system called the “Cottager.” What makes it ideal for cottage applications?

Francois Byrne: The Cottager is a fuel-free, reliable power solution that we designed for people who have a medium-size cottage, and they either want to go completely off the grid or just lower their hydro bills. We designed it as a kit that comes with all the major components, including the battery, inverter, and six solar panels, so it’s got everything you need to get up and running. It’s based on our Power Tower, which we think of as the Apple product of the off-grid world, and it’s as “plug and play” as an off-grid power system can be.

CL: What are the main ways that cottagers are using them?

FB: The cool thing about the Power Tower—and any of our pre-assembled packages—is that you can use them in three different scenarios. If someone’s fully off-grid, it can be their primary power source for their home or cottage. The second way is for anyone who wants to reduce their energy use. They’re not ready to go fully off grid, but they want a smaller hydro bill. For them, the system will prioritize solar power and battery power, and it will use the grid only when those aren’t available. It also gives you a backup power source. So if the grid were to go down, you’d be able to power your entire home in an off-grid scenario until it’s back up. And the third mode is using it as a straight backup power system. So for cottagers who deal with a lot of power outages, they don’t want to lose food in their fridge or have a flooded basement because their sump pump isn’t working. In those scenarios, the same system can be configured as backup power for the whole cottage, or just for essential circuits. 

CL: So this isn’t purely a solar storage system.

FB: Solar power is definitely the most popular way of charging it, but you can use the grid when it’s available. We have customers who’ve already got a generator that was installed long before solar and battery technology was as sophisticated as it is today, but they don’t like the noise or the fumes. They can use the generator to charge up the system and then run their cottage off the battery. That way, they’re only running the generator for two or three hours instead of 24 hours a day. Then for the rest of the day, they’re completely silent and running off the battery. We also have clients who use wind turbines to charge the system. You could even do all of those things—generator, solar, and wind—at the same time if you wanted to.

CL: You mentioned that the Cottager system is for medium-size cottages, but some cottages use a lot of power, whereas others are more rustic. How can owners figure out how much power they’ll need in a battery system?

FB: We’re going to be launching an online calculator to help people determine what they need, but our team is always there to help with those measurements. The easiest way is to look at your last year of hydro bills. From those, we can see how many kilowatt-hours you’ve spent on average. Or we can look at the different appliances you’re powering, and we can make a solid guess at how much power you’ll need. The great thing about our system is that it’s scalable, so even if the measurements aren’t perfect right off the bat, it’s simple to add more batteries to the system once it’s installed. That means people aren’t overspending on storage they don’t need, and it also means they’re covered if they decide to expand their system because of new appliances or power needs.

CL: Where do people usually install it in their cottages? Does it need a lot of space?

FB: Canadian electrical code specifies where you can and can’t store a piece of equipment, and there are people who have dedicated electrical loops, so they’ve transformed a closet or even a whole room into a dedicated electrical room. That way they can lock it to prevent children or anyone else from playing around in there. The other option that’s becoming a lot more popular is using a garage or a shed that’s near the home or cottage. Our new lithium batteries, which work down to -30 Celsius and have built-in heating systems, can be installed in sheds or garages that aren’t heated.

CL: You describe your systems as “plug and play.” Does that mean cottagers can install them without a contractor?

FB: We’ve had customers who’ve tackled it themselves, but there are regulations to follow, so you should definitely have a master electrician come in and sign off on the work. We’ve made the system as simple as possible to install, so you can certainly do some of the work yourself and save some money, but you should still have a professional come in and check it over. 

CL: Can people with winterized cottages use your solar backup system year-round, even when it’s cold and overcast?

FB: There’s obviously a lot less sun in the winter, but what many people don’t realize is that solar panels are actually a lot more efficient when they’re cool. So when you’ve got a day that’s -10 or -15 degrees celsius, you might only get four or five hours of good sunlight, but you’ll be producing more power during those times. We’ve also switched to strictly providing bifacial solar panels in our kits. They cost about the same as standard panels, but they take in energy from both the front and the back. With those panels, you can get up to 30 percent more energy from the reflection of solar light, especially with snow, which is a great reflector of sunlight, so solar charging in the winter isn’t a problem at all.

CL: So that means going for days without power after winter storms would be a thing of the past.

FB: That’s one of the main reasons we like to tie the system in with solar, because we never know if those outages are going to be a one-day thing or a seven-day thing. That’s the beauty of solar—it allows you to go indefinitely. If you put up the right number of panels and you understand how much power you’re using, you could go forever. So even if you’re still on the grid, you’re ready to go off grid whenever something unpredictable happens.

CL: If someone’s away from their cottage for weeks or months, will the system hold a charge, or will it need to be recharged when people show up at the lake?

FB: There are a few different scenarios. There are the people who shut down their system when they’re not around, whether they’re just at the cottage on weekends or they’re shutting down for the whole winter. Those clients will actually turn off the Power Tower itself, but the solar charger always stays on. So whenever you return, your batteries are full and you’re ready to go. Others don’t want to totally shut down their power—they might have food in the fridge or freezer that they don’t want to spoil. They can leave the system running all the time on a small load. So when they get back, the system’s fully charged. For those who want to do a complete shutdown for a season, the new batteries that we’ve just released are one of the only batteries on the market that are rated for -30 degrees Celsius for operation and -40 degrees for storage. And since the inside of a home or cottage in Canada will never reach anywhere near -40 degrees, it’ll hold a charge all winter.

CL: For those who have concerns about batteries in their cottage, what sort of safety measures have you taken?

FB: We use a chemistry called lithium iron phosphate. For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s one of the safest chemistries on the market. We started off in the mining industry, and it was mandated by these larger organizations because of its track record of safety. It’s also a perfect chemistry for residential and cottage applications, which is why we stuck with it. So the safety of our batteries starts at a chemical level. But we also add extra levels of protection. We’ve got what we call a “full-scale battery management system,” which can detect any kind of anomaly and shut down the power. And on top of that, we’ve got a circuit breaker and a fuse, so we really have four lines of defense against any kind of problems.

CL: How long will the battery last in a typical cottage application?

FB: There are a ton of factors that go into what makes a battery last, but all lithium iron phosphate batteries are designed to work for 10 to 20 years. That wide variation is because batteries are cycle-rated. Each time you charge and discharge equals one cycle. And it also depends on how you cycle it: if you’re using 100 percent of that energy and draining it all the way to zero percent every time, that obviously puts more abuse on the battery than if you’re just using 50 or 80 percent of the battery before charging. Depending on how you use them, these batteries could last from 3,000 to 10,000 cycles. But the typical user can expect to get 20 years out of them.

CL: Where can cottagers learn more about your systems?

FB: The easiest way is to get in touch with us through our website. We’ve got a great chat function during business hours, so you can talk to us live right there, or we have a call-back feature if you’d like us to call you. Once we’re in touch, we’ll size up exactly what your cottage needs. Then we can help you figure out whether it’s best to install the system directly with us, or whether you want us to set you up with one of our local installers, who can handle the full installation for you.

Have questions about off-grid solar storage or backup power at your cottage? Learn more at hybridps.ca.