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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Gardening Tips for Growing Fruits & Vegetables

How to Landscape with Fruits and Vegetables Safely and Effectively

When people get interested in food gardening, they tend to stick with traditional annual vegetable crops, such as tomatoes, beans and lettuce. But there are many other terrific food crops that yield a bountiful harvest with far less effort. Perennial fruits and vegetables, such as asparagus, blueberries and rhubarb, get planted once and then go on to produce food for several years and in some cases, a lifetime!

Some of these plants, such as asparagus and strawberries, work best when planted in standard beds, in or around the vegetable garden. Others, including blueberries and rhubarb, are shrub-like and can be integrated into your landscape along with other shrubs and trees.

Plan for Success

Perennial food crops, like almost all fruiting plants, require at least six hours of sunshine and appropriate amounts of water throughout the growing season. Some plants are pickier than others about things like soil pH, drought and winter cold. An easy way to find out what perennial food crops might be successful in your area, is to visit a local farm stand or farmers market. If they’re growing something successfully, chances are good that it’s worth a try at home! You can also contact your state’s Master Gardener Hotline through the state Cooperative Extension office.

Soil and Fertilizer

Almost all plants will perform their best in fertile, well-drained soil. most state Cooperative Extension offices offer free or low-cost soil tests that will let you know if you have adequate organic matter, minerals and if the pH of your soil (its acidity) is appropriate for the types of plants you want to grow.

Because perennial food crops get planted just once, it’s valuable to invest some time preparing the soil to ensure long-term health. Work in compost as well as an all-purpose, organic fertilizer that will provide nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and trace minerals.

If your soil is poor, consider planting your perennial food crops in a raised bed. This allows you to customize the soil mix, and will keep tasks, such as weeding and pruning to a minimum.

Moisture and Mulch

Most fruits and vegetables require about an inch of water per week. If you expect that you’ll need to be watering frequently, consider investing in an automatic timer and a drip irrigation system. This will get the water directly to the plants and minimize waste. Mulching plants with several inches of organic matter (straw, fall leaves, compost or shredded newspaper, is an easy way to suppress weeds while also preventing moisture loss from the soil surface. Organic mulches, such as the ones listed above, will gradually break down, adding additional organic matter and valuable nutrients to the soil.

Tips for Growing Popular Perennial Fruits and Vegetables

Asparagus: Modern cultivars in the 'Jersey' series produce all-male plants, which will give you much higher yields than older varieties from the 'Washington' series. Asparagus roots get planted relatively deep, so loosen the soil to a depth of 12-inches or more, adding compost and granular organic fertilizer. A well-prepared and well-tended asparagus bed can be productive for 30 years or more.

Each asparagus “crown” is comprised of four to eight roots that are joined at a central point. For each crown, dig a hole about 12-inches deep and 16-inches in diameter. Mound up the soil in the middle, set the crown on top and then spread out the roots. The top of the crown should be about 6" below the soil surface. Fill in the hole and water well. Asparagus does not compete well with weeds, so keep the area mulched and weeded. Harvesting can usually begin the second or third year after planting. Asparagus is hardy to at least minus 30 degrees F.

Blueberries: Blueberries must be grown in acidic soil that has a pH level of 4.0-5.5. If the pH level of the soil is more alkaline than this, the plants are not able to properly absorb the nutrients they need to sustain healthy growth and good fruit production. Blueberries are shallow-rooted and prefer a well-drained soil with a high organic content. Unless the soil in your yard is naturally very acidic, you’ll need to apply an acidifying agent at least once each year. This may be in the form of pine needle mulch, agricultural sulfur or a fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants (azaleas, hollies, etc.) Hardy to minus 30 degrees F.

Of all plants considered for edible landscaping, blueberries are among the most attractive — especially the highbush types (Vaccinium corymbosum). These shrubs have distinctive gray bark and are covered with white, lantern-like flowers in spring. In addition, the plants put on a beautiful show in the fall as the leaves turn a mixture of orange, red and yellow. Highbush blueberries can be used to form a hedge or add variety to a shrub border. Keep in mind that these shrubs are sure to attact wildlife. If you want berries for yourself, be sure to have some bird netting on hand when the fruit begins to ripen. Learn more about growing blueberries in the Vegetable Encyclopedia.

Rhubarb: Rhubarb is grown for its juicy, super-tart stalks. It does not require full sun — four hours is usually sufficient. A rhubarb plant that is well cared for can produce for 30 years or more, so think carefully about where you locate it. When preparing the soil, dig in a bucket of compost and a cup of organic fertilizer for each plant. For best results, keep the area well mulched to maintain consistent soil moisture. Remove flower stalks as they appear to keep the plant producing. Top-dress around the plant with compost each spring. Learn more about growing rhubarb in the Vegetable Encyclopedia.

Raspberries: Raspberries multiply by sending their roots in all directions, so this is a good plant to contain in a raised bed. Plant in full sun, in well-drained soil that has been amended with compost and organic fertilizer. Good air circulation is important for maintaining healthy plants and quality berries. Summer-bearing raspberries produce fruit on the prior year’s canes. Each fall, canes that bore fruit should be pruned to the ground. Weak canes should also be removed, leaving only six or eight strong canes per plant. Ever-bearing raspberries produce fruit on the prior-year canes as well as current-year canes. For a continuous crop of berries from summer through fall, remove all spent canes in fall, and leave only a few young canes. Hardy to minus 30 F. Learn more about growing raspberries in the Vegetable Encyclopedia.

Strawberries: Standard strawberry varieties produce one large crop of berries in early summer. Everbearing strawberries produce a similar size crop, but over a several-month period. Plant strawberries in full sun, in rich, well-drained soil that has been amended with compost and organic fertilizer. Strawberries should be mulched during the growing season with shredded leaves or straw to keep the soil moist and the berries clean and dry. Plants reproduce by sending out runners with smaller "daughter" plants. Thin to avoid overcrowding, keeping only the healthiest plants. In cold climates, strawberry plants benefit from a winter mulch of straw or leaves. Hardy to minus 30 degrees F. Learn more about growing strawberries in the Vegetable Encyclopedia

The Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables

Eating fruits and vegetables is one of the best ways to maintain good health. Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. They contain vitamins, phytochemicals, and minerals that can protect your body from diseases like diabetes, cancers, and heart diseases. Ideally, you should consume five kinds of vegetables and two kinds of fruits each day.

Fruits and vegetables are essential components of your daily diet. Some contain natural antioxidants that can help to keep you healthy and fit, providing nutrients which are valuable resources of energy and sustaining the quality of your life.

The common vitamins present in fruits and vegetables include vitamin A, vitamin C, folate and potassium. Almost all fruits and vegetables are low in fat and calories. Many are excellent sources of natural fiber.

Some health professionals recommend from five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables. The serving depends on your daily caloric intake. If you need around 2000 calories each day, you might need up to nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

You should get best results if you consume a variety of fruits and vegetables. Eating a single type or color of fruit and vegetable may not offer the required nutrition. Each type and color of fruit or vegetable that is generally available has some benefit.

To get the best nutrients from your fruits and vegetables, eat those which are in season in your region. Fresh produce has the best levels of the nutrients we may need during the season.

If you eat out-of-season fruits and vegetables, their nutrient value might be less, they will probably cost more and their production and transportation may have a greater financial and environmental cost.

Your diet has a critical role in defining your health and energy levels which affects every other part of your life. The fruits and vegetables you consume regularly are a powerful storehouse of beneficial, even vital, vitamins and nutrients which help out body to protect itself against many diseases and other negative factors in our environment.

Different fruits and vegetables offer varied benefits for your health.

Vegetables that are said to be high in antioxidants and nutrients include broccoli, asparagus, brussels sprouts, beets, carrots, onions, cauliflower, red peppers, squash, tomatoes, and garlic.

Fruits that some say are high in antioxidants and nutrients include apples, blueberries, apricots, bananas, cherries, cantaloupe, oranges, kiwifruits, peaches, and pink grapefruits.

Nutrients of Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables contain many different varieties of nutrients. Some fruits and vegetables are a virtual storehouse of beneficial minerals like anthocyanins, resveratrol, lycopene, and more phytochemicals are being found as research into the fruits and vegetables is conducted


These plant nutrients help sustain your body against the worst ravages of the aging process and may help to reduce health risks like heart ailments, high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Some of the phytochemicals include:

Anthocyanins, available in blackberries, blueberries, cherries, eggplant, plums, and kiwi fruit are claimed by some to have important properties that may help reduce the occurrence of severity of some urinary tract infections.

Lycopene, available in watermelon, tomatoes, and pink grapefruit.

Resveratrol is available in red grapes and peanuts. CAUTION: more people are finding they may have an allergic reaction to peanuts every year

Spacing plants in the vegetable garden is one of the most difficult tasks a new gardener will face. It just may challenge the skills of more experiences gardeners as well. The problem arises from the inability to envision full-grown plants and the space they require at maturity. A newly planted garden looks bare. In order to compensate, many gardeners add more plants than the space is equipped to support. With a few simple steps, these difficulties can be avoided. Read on to learn how to space plants for vegetable gardens.

InstructionsThings You'll Need:

Graph paper

Measuring tape


Row markers/sticks


Gardening book or seed catalog

Step 1
Measure the gardening area to determine your complete growing area. This should include all allowable growing space.

Step 2
Outline the dimensions of your garden on graph paper. For small areas one-inch blocks can represent one-foot areas in the garden. Larger gardens may require ½ inch blocks to represent one foot. An accurate sketch of your vegetable plot is necessary to determine the spacing of your plants.

Step 3
Decide which plants you wish to grow in your garden.

Step 4
Consult a gardening book for growing conditions for that particular plant. "Fast, Easy Vegetable Garden" by Jerry Baker provides planting instructions that tell the amount of space each vegetable plant will need at maturity and the space needed between rows. Many seed catalogs, like "Burpee's Seed" also provide this information.

Step 5
Determine the amount of space you must leave between rows and mark this clearly on your graph paper.

Step 6
Sketch the plants onto the graph paper according to the space requirements for that individual plant.

Step 7
Continue the process for all plants you wish to grow in your garden.

Step 8
Mark the rows in your garden by following the layout you have already created. Inserting a small stick into the ground at the ends of each row and running garden twine to mark the row will provide straight rows.

Step 9
Follow the sketch of your garden to plant your vegetables

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

HOME WATER CONSERVATION. Start now in Spring for a Hot Summer

Water Conservation in the Home

Here are 25 ways to conserve water in the home and yard.

1. Check faucets and pipes for leaks
A small drip from a worn faucet washer can waste 20 gallons of water per day. Larger leaks can waste hundreds of gallons.

2. Don't use the toilet as an ashtray or wastebasket
Every time you flush a cigarette butt, facial tissue or other small bit of trash, five to seven gallons of water is wasted.

3. Check your toilets for leaks
Put a little food coloring in your toilet tank. If, without flushing, the color begins to appear in the bowl within 30 minutes, you have a leak that should be repaired immediately. Most replacement parts are inexpensive and easy to install.

4. Use your water meter to check for hidden water leaks
Read the house water meter before and after a two-hour period when no water is being used. If the meter does not read exactly the same, there is a leak.

5. Install water-saving shower heads and low-flow faucet aerators
Inexpensive water-saving low-flow shower heads or restrictors are easy for the homeowner to install. Also, long, hot showers can use five to ten gallons every unneeded minute. Limit your showers to the time it takes to soap up, wash down and rinse off. "Low-flow" means it uses less than 2.5 gallons per minute.
You can easily install a ShowerStart showerhead, or add a ShowerStart converter to existing showerheads, which automatically pauses a running shower once it gets warm.

Also, all household faucets should be fit with aerators. This single best home water conservation method is also the cheapest!

6. Put plastic bottles or float booster in your toilet tank
To cut down on water waste, put an inch or two of sand or pebbles inside each of two plastic bottles to weigh them down. Fill the bottles with water, screw the lids on and put them in your toilet tank. Do it safely away from the operating mechanisms. You can also buy an inexpensive tank bank or float booster. This may save ten or more gallons of water per day.

Be sure at least 3 gallons of water remain in the tank so it will flush properly. If there is not enough water to get a proper flush, users will hold the lever down too long or do multiple flushes to get rid of waste. Two flushings at 1.4 gallons is worse than a single 2.0 gallon flush. A better suggestion would be to buy an adjustable toilet flapper that allow for adjustment of their per flush use. Then the user can adjust the flush rate to the minimum per flush setting that achieves a single good flush each time.

For new installations, consider buying "low flush" toilets, which use 1 to 2 gallons per flush instead of the usual 3 to 5 gallons.

Replacing an 18 liter per flush toilet with an ultra-low volume (ULV) 6 liter flush model represents a 70% savings in water flushed and will cut indoor water use by about 30%.

7. Insulate your water pipes
It's easy and inexpensive to insulate your water pipes with pre-slit foam pipe insulation. You'll get hot water faster plus avoid wasting water while it heats up.

8. Take shorter showers
One way to cut down on water use is to turn off the shower after soaping up, then turn it back on to rinse. A four-minute shower uses approximately 20 to 40 gallons of water.

9. Turn off the water after you wet your toothbrush
There is no need to keep the water running while brushing your teeth. Just wet your brush and fill a glass for mouth rinsing.

10. Rinse your razor in the sink
Fill the sink with a few inches of warm water. This will rinse your razor just as well as running water, with far less waste of water.

11. Use your dishwasher and clothes washer for only full loads
Automatic dishwashers and clothes washers should be fully loaded for optimum water conservation. Most makers of dishwashing soap recomend not pre-rinsing dishes which is a big water savings.

With clothes washers, avoid the permanent press cycle, which uses an added 20 liters (5 gallons) for the extra rinse. For partial loads, adjust water levels to match the size of the load. Replace old clothes washers. New Energy Star rated washers use 35 - 50% less water and 50% less energy per load. If you're in the market for a new clothes washer, consider buying a water-saving frontload washer.

12. Minimize use of kitchen sink garbage disposal units
In-sink 'garburators' require lots of water to operate properly, and also add considerably to the volume of solids in a septic tank which can lead to maintenance problems. Start a compost pile as an alternate method of disposing food waste.

13. When washing dishes by hand, don't leave the water running for rinsing
If your have a double-basin, fill one with soapy water and one with rinse water. If you have a single-basin sink, gather washed dishes in a dish rack and rinse them with a spray device or a panful of hot water. Dual-swivel aerators are available to make this easier. If using a dishwasher, there is usually no need to pre-rinse the dishes.

14. Don't let the faucet run while you clean vegetables
Just rinse them in a stoppered sink or a pan of clean water. Use a dual-setting aerator.

15. Keep a bottle of drinking water in the fridge
Running tap water to cool it off for drinking water is wasteful. Store drinking water in the fridge in a safe drinking bottle.

Water Conservation in the Yard and Garden...

16. Plant drought-resistant lawns, shrubs and plants
If you are planting a new lawn, or overseeding an existing lawn, use drought-resistant grasses such as the new "Eco-Lawn".

Many beautiful shrubs and plants thrive with far less watering than other species. Replace herbaceous perennial borders with native plants. Native plants will use less water and be more resistant to local plant diseases. Consider applying the principles of xeriscape for a low-maintenance, drought resistant yard.

Plant slopes with plants that will retain water and help reduce runoff.

Group plants according to their watering needs.

17. Put a layer of mulch around trees and plants

Mulch will slow evaporation of moisture while discouraging weed growth. Adding 2 - 4 inches of organic material such as compost or bark mulch will increase the ability of the soil to retain moisture. Press the mulch down around the dripline of each plant to form a slight depression which will prevent or minimize water runoff.

For information about different mulch materials and their best use, click here.

18. Don't water the gutter

Position your sprinklers so water lands on the lawn or garden, not on paved areas. Also, avoid watering on windy days.

19. Water your lawn only when it needs it

A good way to see if your lawn needs watering is to step on the grass. If it springs back up when you move, it doesn't need water. If it stays flat, the lawn is ready for watering. Letting the grass grow taller (to 3") will also promote water retention in the soil.

Most lawns only need about 1" of water each week. During dry spells, you can stop watering altogether and the lawn will go brown and dormant. Once cooler weather arrives, the morning dew and rainfall will bring the lawn back to its usual vigor. This may result in a brown summer lawn, but it saves a lot of water.

20. Deep-soak your lawn

When watering the lawn, do it long enough for the moisture to soak down to the roots where it will do the most good. A light sprinkling can evaporate quickly and tends to encourage shallow root systems. Put an empty tuna can on your lawn - when it's full, you've watered about the right amount. Visit our natural lawn care page for more information.

21. Water during the early parts of the day; avoid watering when it's windy

Early morning is generally better than dusk since it helps prevent the growth of fungus. Early watering, and late watering, also reduce water loss to evaporation. Watering early in the day is also the best defence against slugs and other garden pests. Try not to water when it's windy - wind can blow sprinklers off target and speed evaporation.

22. Add organic matter and use efficient watering systems for shrubs, flower beds and lawns

Adding organic material to your soil will help increase its absorption and water retention. Areas which are already planted can be 'top dressed' with compost or organic matter.

You can greatly reduce the amount of water used for shrubs, beds and lawns by:

- the strategic placement of soaker hoses

- installing a rain barrel water catchment system

- installing a simple drip-irrigation system

Avoid over-watering plants and shrubs, as this can actually diminish plant health and cause yellowing of the leaves.

When hand watering, use a variable spray nozzle for targeted watering.

23. Don't run the hose while washing your car

Clean the car using a pail of soapy water. Use the hose only for rinsing - this simple practice can save as much as 150 gallons when washing a car. Use a spray nozzle when rinsing for more efficient use of water. Better yet, use a waterless car washing system; there are several brands, such as EcoTouch, which are now on the market.

24. Use a broom, not a hose, to clean driveways and sidewalks

25. Check for leaks in pipes, hoses, faucets and couplings

Leaks outside the house may not seem as bad since they're not as visible. But they can be just as wasteful as leaks indoors. Check frequently to keep them drip-free. Use hose washers at spigots and hose connections to eliminate leaks.

Water conservation comes naturally when everyone in the family is aware of its importance, and parents take the time to teach children some of the simple water-saving methods around the home which can make a big difference.

Water Conservation Summary

In 1990, 30 states in the US reported 'water-stress' conditions. In 2000, the number of states reporting water-stress rose to 40. In 2009, the number rose to 45. There is a worsening trend in water supply nationwide. Taking measures at home to conserve water not only saves you money, it also is of benefit to the greater community.

Saving water at home does not require any significant cost outlay. Although there are water-saving appliances and water conservation systems such as rain barrels, drip irrigation and on-demand water heaters which are more expensive, the bulk of water saving methods can be achieved at little cost. For example, 75% of water used indoors is in the bathroom, and 25% of this is for the toilet. The average toilet uses 4 gallons per flush (gpf). You can invest in a ULF (ultra-low flush) toilet which will use only 2 gpf. But you can also install a simple tank bank, costing about $2, which will save .8 gpf. This saves 40% of what you would save with the ULF toilet. Using simple methods like tank banks, low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators you can retrofit your home for under$50.

By using water-saving features you can reduce your in-home water use by 35%. This means the average household, which uses 130,000 gallons per year, coulod save 44,00 gallons of water per year. On a daily basis, the average household, using 350 gallons per day, could save 125 gallons of water per day. The average individual, currently using 70 gallons per day, could save 25 gallons of water per day.

When buying low-flow aerators, be sure to read the label for the actual 'gpm' (gallons per minute) rating. Often, the big box retailers promote "low-flow" which are rated at 2.5 gpm, which is at the top of the low-flow spectrum. This may be needed for the kitchen sink, but we find that a 1.5 gpm aerator works fine for the bathroom sink and most water outlets, delivering the same spray force in a comfortable, soft stream. Eartheasy's online store carries a full range of low-flow aerators and showerheads.

Finally, it should be noted that installing low-flow aerators, showerheads, tank banks and other water-saving devices usually is a very simple operation which can be done by the homeowner and does not even require the use of tools. Water conservation at home is one of the easiest measures to put in place, and saving water should become part of everday family practice.

A guide to Waterwise Gardening

The following “Seven Fundamentals of Low-Water Use” should improve your chances of creating a successful landscape.

Soil Improvement: Adding organic matter to the soil will help to retain water and provide needed plant nutrients. The depth to which this organic matter should be cultivated into soil depends on your design. Different plant types require different depths.

Appropriate Use of Turfgrass: Lawns are our largest water user. Turf requires twice as much water as established drought tolerant plants. Smaller, rounded plots of lawn on level areas are easiest to water efficiently. Local WSU Cooperative Extension agents can assist in the selection of grass species and provide information on proper maintenance.

Efficient Irrigation: There are a variety of irrigation technologies to choose from: surface systems, subsurface drip systems, timed and untimed systems, and hand watering. Efficiency in an irrigation system is attained by keeping the system well maintained and applying water only as plants need it. Good soil preparation and proper plant selection can alleviate the need for irrigation altogether.

Use of mulches: Mulches reduce the amount of moisture that evaporates from bare ground. Mulches also help insulate plant roots during cold periods and deter weed growth. Organic mulches include wood chips, bark, straw, grass clippings, peat moss, and coarse sand. Mulches should be spread a few inches thick around plants and on any bare ground.

Selection of Low-Water Use Plants: Plants that thrive in the microclimate of the site should be selected, i.e. high and low temperatures, soil types, available sunlight, humidity and natural precipitation. Plants native to our region are “best choices”. Some plants from the Mediterranean climates also do well here. Keep in mind that some low-water use plants have specific needs such as shade or hydric soils. Not meeting these needs can cause increased watering. There are many good reference materials dealing with plant selection and low-water landscape design. A reputable garden nursery person can also be helpful.

Planning and Design: Evaluate existing conditions and assess your needs. What are your conservation goals? How much time can you realistically devote to a garden? Start with a notebook, collect images, visit garden nurseries and professional gardens. Remain flexible and don’t focus on details too quickly; use “bubble” diagrams. Reinforce your shape through a variety of plant layers. Plan on 3/4 of mature size when estimating plant quantities.

Appropriate Maintenance: Even drought resistant plants require additional watering until established (usually three to six months). Planting should be done semiannually, in fall and early spring, to take advantage of natural precipitation. Weeds require a great deal of water to compete with other plants. During the first growing season it is important to hand-weed to prevent damage to the soil. Correct pruning to remove dead and diseased growth and promote the plants natural shape may reduce the plant’s water demands.

Desert plant landscape is called Xeriscape. This is a great choice for San Diego County. We live in a semi-arrid desert so this is a logical choice for your home.

Dutch Touch Inc. can design, install and maintain these for you.

This blog has essential information regarding conservation of water and will definately save you money on your water bill.

For more information, please visit our website:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Starting Your Smart Investment
of Home Solar Panels

Residential solar panel systems admittedly have beginning costs that are much higher than when power for everyday use originates from the local utilities or gas. This seemingly less expense brought about by the latter makes most home owners and builders decide on siding on the conventional power source.

Still, it should be clearly explained that the solar panels for home use of today are not competitive with regards to costs and expenses. Right now, most solar power proponents not only fight for the home solar panels because of their environmental benefits, but it can likewise be an economical reason.

As years go by, conventional fuel as well as electricity is becoming more expensive; this makes solar panel systems more advantageous. And not only the solar panels for home use are cost-effective but sun-powered water heaters likewise offer great savings for the users as an effective means of solar heating. It is shown that the water heaters’ expenses and costs are at least 50 percent lower than the electric heaters.

Besides the possible savings, there are likewise local and state financial incentives as well as tax credits which will sharply decrease the cost in the end. Solar panel systems indeed are the best alternative when comes to finding ways to replace the conventional power source.

Thinking about utilizing solar energy as a way of greening your life and lightening your environmental footprint? When choosing panels for your solar power system, there are a number of factors worth considering.

Solar panel costs

 Costs vary widely depending upon the type, wattage and brand of panel. Additionally, the margins that stockists apply to their panels can differ tremendously.

You can pick up cheap panels on places like eBay, but given the size of the investment this can be risky if the merchant suddenly disappears or the sale of the panel is a sideline rather than part of the merchant's core business focus. You'll be spending a lot of cash, so you'll want to ensure the person/business you're buying from are renewable energy experts and in it for the long haul.

Calculating how many solar panels you'll need
This is one of the most asked questions and there's no set answer - it's all down to your electricity consumption, geography and other elements of your system. For example, if you have a stand alone power system as opposed to a mains grid connect , the capacity of your deep cycle batteries play a major role.

Here's a quick and dirty formula. It's based on watts rather than amps (amps would be more accurate) for the sake of convenience.

Jot down all the appliances you use.

Next to each, record their wattage.

Also next to each, record the numbers of hours of use.

Get a total for each and add those figures up.

Using the solar peak hours chart, gauge how many peak sun hours you get a day.

Divide the total wattage by the peak sun hours.

You'll have a very rough guesstimate of the total wattage of panels you'll need.

To gain a more accurate idea, some solar panel stores such as Energy Matters offer detailed solar panel calculators that will take into account issues like your geography and other elements of the system; e.g. whether you'll have a grid connect or stand alone system and how much of your electricity you wish to generate via solar power.

Solar panels still aren't dirt cheap, so if you're switching to solar it's a great time to also carefully evaluate your electricity use. The less juice you need, the fewer panels you'll need and you'll save a ton of cash. Don't forget that many governments around the world also offer substantial solar panel rebates which can really help remove the financial sting from your purchase!

The cost of a solar panel is determined in part by the size (in Watts), the physical size, the brand, the durability / longevity (or warranty period) and any certifications the solar panel might have. Choosing a solar panel on price alone is not wise, as it may not fit the area you wish to install it, may not have the necessary certifications to qualify for government rebates, or may not have the warranty required for economic payback of the power produced.

Durability / Longevity / Warranty
The durability or longevity of a solar panel is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, if the solar panel only has a 10 year warranty and it is used in a grid connect system you would expect the solar panel to produce enough power to pay for itself within 10 years.

Also, if the panel is to be used in a critical system you shouldn't risk installing solar panels that aren't as robust as the others. Reputable solar panels will have warranty a period of 25 years.

Solar Panel Size and Wattage
The size of the solar panel in Watts will directly affect the price, as solar panels are usually priced (and compared) in dollars per Watt.

Watts are related to the output of each panel; meaning a 100 Watt panel under ideal conditions will generate 100 Watts of electricity each hour and a 200 Watt panel will generate 200 Watts each hour. Therefore expect to pay double price for the 200 Watt panel, compared to the 100 Watt panel.

The output of a panel also affects the physical size of the panel, meaning the 200 Watt panel will be larger in size to the 100 Watt panel.

The type of solar cells used in its production also determines the size of the solar panel. They key issue to consider is that your system overall has enough Watts to power your appliances, and that the solar panels will physically fit in the area you wish to install them.

Solar Panel Efficiency
There's much debate about efficiency in solar panels, i.e. how effective the panel is in converting sunlight to electricity; but the key point to remember is that a 100 watt solar panel will produce 100 watts; regardless of its efficiency ratings.

Solar Cell Type
There are 3 main types of solar cells.

Mono-crystalline silicon

The most efficient and produces the smallest solar cells, and therefore the smallest panels.

Poly-crystalline (or multi-crystalline) silicon

Produces the next most efficient type of cells, but equivalent wattage panels are larger than their monocrystalline counterparts.

Amorphous (or thin-film) silicon

Uses the least amount of silicon and also produces the least efficient solar cells. This means thin film system take up more area than the other two, but it has the advantage of offering flexible panels that can be used on curved or irregular surfaces not suited to solid panels.

Solar Panel Suitability
Mono-crystalline and multi-crystalline work very well in bright cool conditions, whereas amorphous (thin-film) silicon will be more efficient at higher temperatures.

We generally recommend monocrystalline or multi-crystalline for large unshaded roofs, and amorphous panels for roofs with partial shading.

Regardless of the technology currently in use, a solar panel in full shade will only generate a small fraction of its rated capacity; so the "shade tolerant" features you may see advertised can be somewhat misleading.

A solar panel is made up of photovoltaic cells, usually 36 all told, varying in size depending upon the watt/amp rating of the panel. These cells are made from two very thin silicon wafers approximately 1 mm thick; one with a positive charge and the other negatively charged.

When exposed to the sun's rays, electron activity is generated which is captured by a grid of very fine finger-like electrical contacts distributed across the panel. This is then channeled through the junction box on the back of the panel and emerges as DC (direct current) electricity.

Closeup of a polycrystalline cell showing the fingers of conductor material

Covering the silicon wafers is a layer of toughened glass, usually around 3mm thick. It has to be strong enough to withstand hail, extreme temperatures and a degree of flexing, but thin enough not to filter out or reflect appreciable amounts of light.

As silicon (which is made from sand) is also reflective; it requires a thin layer of anti-reflective material.

The back of the solar panel is made from aluminium and the panel is set into an aluminium frame.

Cabling is critical
Once the juice exits the panels, it travels along cabling. The size/diameter of cabling is of critical importance. If it's too thin for the panel's output and distance to be covered, it's a little like trying to pour a large volume of water through a small opening. There will be a loss of electricity as it will convert to heat along the cable to the point the cabling can burn out.

This handy DC cabling size calculator can tell you what diameter cable you'll need for amp rating of the panel you buy and the distance there will be between the panel and the solar regulator or inverter.

Makes it all sound relatively simple doesn't it? I'm still in awe that sun shining on silicon and a bit of wiring can generate electricity though, but each time I try to delve further into how panels work, my brain says "let's go check out the latest Dilbert comic strip instead" :)

Monocrystalline vs Polycrystalline (Multicrystalline)
Rigid solar panels cell are usually made up of either monocrystalline or polycrystalline (aka multicrystalline) cells. Monocrystalline cells are cut from a chunk of silicon that has been grown from a single crystal. These are used in the more expensive types of solar panels and are more efficient in converting the sun's rays to electricity.

A polycrystalline cell is cut from multifaceted silicon crystal. More surface area is required due to inherent flaws and these panels are less efficient in converting the sun's rays. However, polycrystalline technology has closed up the performance gap in recent years.

Also, a 120 watt rated monocrystalline solar panel and a 120 watt molycrystalline panel are essentially the same thing - they crank out the amount of electricity.

The easiest way to visually identify the difference between a monocrystalline and polycrystalline panel is the polycrystalline has a shattered glass look as shown in the image above. Monocrystalline cells tend to be uniform in appearance.

Thin film solar panels
Thin film panels are created by the application of a thin layer of silicon directly onto various materials. It's applied in such a way that flexible panels can be made. The need for less silicon will reduce manufacturing costs significantly in the time ahead.

Thin film panels are also less efficient that polycrystalline and monocrystalline panels, so a larger surface area is required. Again, peformance in thin film technology is constantly improving in the area of efficiency. Given the processes to create thin film, cheaper alternatives to silicon can also be used, such as cadmium telluride; although cadmium is frowned upon by many as it's a heavy metal.

The sun and geography
Sunlight isn't the same around the world. Even without cloud cover, different places on Earth receive varying levels of solar radiation. When calculating the size and number of solar panels you'll need; kilowatts-hours per square metre (kwH/m2), or more commonly known as solar "peak hours" need to be taken into account. This is the number of hours a day when the sun has maximum punch in relation to potential for electricity generation.

These peak hours are also measured against average winter sun; the time of the year when you'll have the least sunlight. 

You can get an idea of how many peak hours of sunlight in your area by using using this solar panel calculator - the figure to look for once you type in your area is the "Solar Irradiation:" Whatever the kW/m2/d figure is, that's your peak sun hours.

Solar panel orientation and angle
Again, this is dependent upon where you are in the world and also greatly varies with the season.

During summer, the sun sits a lot higher in the sky that during winter, so it's best to "chase the sun" so you can to get the maximum oomph from your panels. However, this is difficult to achieve if the panels are sitting on your roof, so a happy medium is usually found. Basically, if you have the angle good enough to get you through the winter months, you'll have no problems during the summer.

The general guidelines are:

Solar panels should face South in the Northern Hemisphere and North in the Southern Hemisphere

A solar panel's angle should be set to the equivalent of your your latitude plus 15 degrees during winter, or minus 15 degrees in summer.

Solar panels and shade
Solar panels and shade simply don't mix. While some panels claim to be shade tolerant, you will lose substantial charging power even if only a partial area of the panels is affected by shade. If one quarter of the panel cell area is shaded, the juice being cranked out will be virtually nil.

Solar panel care
One of the wonderful thing about solar panels is there's no moving parts, therefore next to no maintenance! A wipe/brush down occasionally will help prevent buildup of dust and grime that can impact on effectiveness; but usually the rain will also take care of this. Other than that, a visual inspection of frame seals and wiring from the junction box is all that's really needed.

Solar Panel Installation Tips

Solar Panels are typically installed on rooftops, building tops, or stand-alone facilities. It is vital to install your solar panel so that it gets the most direct sun exposure. You want to make sure your solar panel is maximally effective year round. To do this, there are several web-based solar resources to help you properly set up and install your solar panels by tracking the position of the sun in the sky over the course of the year.

Position your solar panel in direct sunlight
Solar Panels perform at optimum capacity when placed in direct sunlight. Try to position your photovoltaic array directly under the noontime sun for maximum efficiency from your photovoltaic unit.

Notice obstructions to sunlight
Remove all items unnessary items or trim branches that may be blocking sunlight to your solar unit. Trace the path of the sun in the sky to determine if an object is casting a shadow over your solar photovoltaic panels. If this is the case, then the operating efficiency of your unit will undoubtedly suffer.

Mounting your Solar Panel
Solar Panel Mounts are used to install photovoltaic solar panels. Solar panel mounts come in three main varieties: pole mounts, roof-ground mounts, and flush mounts. Using these mounts, you can install your solar panel onto an RV, on top of or against the side of a pole, on your roof, or even install them as a free-standing unit. You can learn more about installing solar panels using mounts in our mounts section.

Water pumping with solar panels
A good way to put solar panels to use is to install a solar-powered water pump for your well. Although windmills have traditionally been used to power such systems, a solar-powered system works just as well, and is equally friendly to the environment.

Your Well Pump
It is important to choose a quality well pump for use with your solar powered well pump system, one that makes the best use of your power and doesn't require an inefficient, wasteful transformer. Your well drilling provider is likely to offer you the industry standard well pump, a 220 volt alternating current model. The problem with such a high-voltage pump system is that the required transformer is extremely wasteful and can be a huge strain on your inverter during startup. This can cause the power to home to dip, and the lights to dim, which can cause a full-out inverter failure unless you have a top-quality inverter. Avoid such a high voltage system if you can, and instead, opt for a 120 volt AC model, which is much more efficient and does not put nearly as much of a burden on your inverter.

The Solar Panel
Your solar panel does not have to have a very high wattage rating in order to run your solar pump, just check with your well-drilling company to determine what wattage rating you need from your solar panel. An important consideration when setting up an outdoor solar panel system for your well pump is to ensure that you purchase a mounting rack that offers plenty of clearance between the ground and your solar panel and keep in it an open area away from trees. You don't want any large pets, floodwater, or falling branches to damage your system.

Solar Panels and Power Meters
As you purchase more and more solar panels for your home, your reliance on the city's power grid will progressively decline until your power meter doesn't turn at all. As you continue to buy solar panels, you wonder, what happens beyond that point? What happens on the days when my home produces more energy from solar panels that it needs?

Also, we recommend using a true sine wave inverter with your solar powered pump system. True Sine wave inverters tend to work better when motors are involved (such as those found in a water pump).

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