Category Archives: Cool Technology

Missoula’s City Life Community Center soaks up the sun

Northwestern Energy grant, local donations help youth center install 72 solar panelsNorthwestern Energy grant, local donations help youth center install 72 solar panels

City Life Community Center is getting into the energy-efficiency game after landing a $50,000 grant to install 72 solar panels atop the center’s roof.

City Life director Bob Grace was joined by 10 volunteers and a crew from SBS Solar on Saturday to install the 23,400-watt solar array. Nine tons of ballast ensures the panels won’t leave the roof. The only change to the physical roof was two small holes drilled to conduit the energy into the building.  (Read the entire article at

Economical LED lighting is finally here!

Energy efficient LED LightingWe have finally arrived at point in time when LED’s are at equal or less cost of the compact fluorescent, curly bulbs.  This is a major achievement as LED’s last much longer, are again, much more efficient than compact fluorescents and contain no mercury which requires special handling when recycling.

When we started working and living with solar systems 30 years ago we had no choice but to use incandescent bulbs.  Mr. Edison’s revolutionary bulb though was eight times better at producing heat than it is at producing light.  So if you want to keep that pump house from freezing or warm those chickens you have the right bulb.  But otherwise it’s time to cycle these antiques out of your home.

When compact fluorescents arrived on the scene, we were a
ble to order these at 12 volts DC and these bulbs lasted for decades.  Then they became available at 120 volts AC, the kind of power we all use in out US homes.  Then overseas manufactures reduced the cost and quality of some compact fluorescents.  I have had feedback from too many that CF’s only last a year or so.  Bummer, as the major manufactures such as Sylvania and GE still produce CF’s with excellent lifespans.  Our local utility was even moved to purchase a cheap brand of bulbs and send them out at no cost to the consumer. Never mind that the CF’s embedded energy to produce makes them a negative even after their increased efficiency.

So long live the LED.  Maybe these will be nick named as more true “Obama Bulb” as the times, they are a changing.

Use your Solar Electric generated electricity most efficiently.

Use your Solar Electric generated electricity most efficiently.  Begin by looking at the largest energy loads in our Western Montana area, Heating, Cooling, Hot water, Lighting, appliances, and other electronics.


Check out Consumer Reports latest How to Tame the Energy Hogs in Your Home.

12 Module Grid-tie Shop Solar System Hamilton Montana

Hamilton Montana Solar Shop

12 Module Grid-tie Shop Solar System Hamilton Montana

12 Module Grid-tie Shop Solar System Hamilton Montana

This Photovoltaic system is typical of many we install in Western Montana. Here we have 12 -235 watt solar modules which create a 2,820 watt solar array. The modules are secured with a flush mount aluminum racking structure which is tied into the rafters of the roof. Since this is a metal roof we have specialized neoprene gaskets at each penetration to assure no moisture will penetrate the roof.

A 3,000 watt Fronius grid-tied inverter is the third major component of the system. This unit receives the high voltage DC power from the array and converts it to 240 volt AC power which runs our household electrical loads and Sells any excess power back into the grid. The inverter includes circuit breakers and software which synchronizes with the utility grid and protects utility personal.

One interesting and sometimes overlooked fact is that a system such as this needs to see power from the utility grid to operate. If we have a power outage here, our system will go down even if it is good and sunny. Once the power returns the inverter waits five minutes watching for good steady power before it reenergizes.

If you are interested in having power with or without the utility, check out the battery based inverter systems. We also have a relatively new inverter option which provides a limited amount of power to a specific circuit (1,500 watts) when the grid is down and we have sufficient light to produce power.

Check Out this Net Zero Habitat for Humanity Home!

SBS Solar is super excited to show you the latest Habitat for Humanity of Ravalli Co home in Stevensville, Montana.  This is an all-electric home with new energy star appliances, LED lighting and a very well insulated envelope.

With a $17,000 grant from NorthWestern Energy, SBS Solar was able to install a 30 module, 7.5kWh array with a grid tie inverter and an air source heat pump. We installed this system in December and made the final tie into the grid and installed a net meter on January 2nd.


As of this writing 5 months later, the system has made more power than what the home used thru the building process.  We utilized electric, milk house, resistant type heaters to keep our workers warm and set the drywall mud.  We eventually installed an air source heat pump in March, after the coldest period of winter.

Now that the family has moved in we will see how well all the systems preform and the actual electric usage. Depending on this power usage, we will see if they are actually netting the big Zero at the end of the year.

It was a lot of fun, and a honor, being part of the design and building of what is possibly the first net zero home in Western Montana.

Massive Solar PV System for Bitterroot Valley Farm

This Solar PV system in the Bitterroot Valley in Western Montana utilizes two banks of sealed batteries (right side of photo) of 48 volts and 2,400 amp hour rating. Resulting in total capacity of 4,800 amp hours.  This equates to 230,400 watt hours of storage.

The left wall holds six solar controllers which regulate the sub-arrays charging, three inverters, associated switch gear. The inverters are battery based yet sell excess energy not used by the farm back to the grid.  We included a number of transfer switches to have the option of operating various buildings totally separate from the grid if wanted.


This is the main solar array of the ABC Farm.  It is comprised of 60 each, 250 watt modules for a 15,000 watt array.  Another 30 modules are located on the processing building to the West.  The arrays are wired through six controllers and all feed the central battery bank.

Off-Grid home goes Hybrid Grid-Tied Battery-based Solar PV System


6-panel pole-mounted array, part of a grid-tied, battery-backed solar PV system in Nine Mile Valley, Montana.

This six module system was a bit different for the SBS crew. The owners have lived in this beautiful off-grid home perched on a knoll in the timbered Ninemile Valley for some time. For 13 years they have been happy with a solar/battery/generator system as it supplied all of the electrical needs. They had the opportunity to bring in grid power last year and shared the line extension cost with a neighbor.

This summer they suffered a lightning strike making landfall on two Ponderosa pines some 40 feet from the solar array. The surge of electricity blew the bypass diodes on the modules and the controller on the propane generator. Fortunately, it did not affect the batteries, the inverter or charge controller.

Since we now had grid power to the site and we were replacing equipment anyhow, the owners decided they wanted a grid tied, battery based inverter installed. This gives them the best of all power worlds in that they have batteries for emergency power and can also sell back excess power they do not need. Remember, standard off grid battery based systems receive a huge variation of power between summer and winter. In winter our light levels are low to where we can easily use all the power our solar arrays generate. Unlike summer when most off grid systems completely charge the batteries by early in the day and the solar modules are effectively turned off for the balance of the day. Not so when we include a grid connected inverter in the system. With this addition we can keep the modules operating at full generation and send this power back through the electric meter, creating credits for later use.

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This in effect, gives us the benefit of annual storage of our solar power, something that solar enthusiasts have dreamed about, especially those who live in the Northwest where we have huge variations of insolation through the year.

Bimodal Solar PV, Grid-tied & Off-grid Combo, Close to Missoula

9 kW array, just outside Missoula, Montana

SBS Solar was really excited to work on this bimodal system.  It is just a few minutes from downtown Missoula, and the customer wanted to be fully self sufficient when the grid was down.  The customer had a slightly higher then average residential load so we sized a 36 module Canadian Solar CS6P 250P for a total of 9 kW system capable of supplying over 10 Mega watt hours annually.
We used eight of the 6 volt Unigy II 1016 amp hour Gel batteries for storage.  At over 400 lbs a piece just getting the batteries in the basement was a feat for four strong guys.  We were concerned about the end nailed stair treads giving it up with the weight we were applying, but thankfully no issues.

6 volt Unigy II 1016 amp hour Gel batteries for storage, at over 400 lbs a piece!

We used the most advanced charge controller on the market (the Xantrex XW MPPT 80 600) capable of converting up to 550 volts DC from the array to battery bank voltages allowing us to use large strings of up to 12 modules in series.  This was a huge benefit on this system allowing us to achieve less then 2% loss running four strings of 10 gauge wire on a 250′ home run instead of 12 strings of 4 gauge with a standard 150 volt max controller with a dramatic cost difference.

Xantrex XW MPPT 80 600 Controller, Two Xantrex XW6048 inverters, Xantrex XW PDP Power Distribution Panel, and SCP System Control Panel

We used two of the Xantrex XW6048 inverters to supply the home, charge the batteries from the generator, and backfeed the utility from the PV Array for a total of 12,000 watts so there is room to grow in the future.  The combiners, disconnects, Xantrex XW PDP Power Distribution Panel, and SCP System Control Panel completed the system.  The Xantrex XW SCP allowed us to program the inverters and charge controllers to perform the complicated tasks of keeping our batteries happy through all temperatures, feeding critical loads during a power outage, and back feeding the power meter when the grid is up and the sun shining.
Our customer shut his power off the first weekend to see how the system would keep up with his usage and was very pleased with the power production.  When using the system off grid to power the critical load panel it only pulls as much juice from the array as is necessary to keep up with the loads and keep the batteries charged that weekend he only used approximately a third of his capacity.
This was a great system for the SBS Solar to complete, as we finished up just before installing the 22.5 kW Xantrex XW system in Hamilton with 5 times the battery capacity.  That post is coming soon!

Top Solar PV Testimonial, Ever.

(What follows is quite possible the best Solar PV testimonial we could ever ask for.  With pictures!  We hope you agree.)


SBS Solar
401 South Orange St, Unit C
Missoula MT 59801

Dear SBS Solar:

Solar PV Pergoal, Central Missoula, Montana

I’m writing to share my great experience with your company and my 100% solar-powered home. In the fall of 2011, SBS installed a 24 panel, 6 kW, grid-tied solar PV system at my home in central Missoula. Because my house had additions, I don’t have one flat surface for the panels, so SBS hired subcontractors to design and install a covered back porch structure for the panels. I started producing all of my own power in the early spring and now in the summer am producing 50% morepower than I need. I will receive a credit for this extra power and it will mitigatethe power use in December or January when I might be producing as little as 30%of own my power.

100% Solar powered electric car, from home Solar PV system in Missoula, Montana

I recently installed more efficient appliances, and thus I will probably producemore power than I use this year. This surplus of power led me to decide to lease a 100% electric car, which will be 100% solar-powered car for at least 6 or 8 monthsout of the year.

I felt compelled to act because we can’t afford to ignore the signs of climate change or the role we play in it. I feel a moral obligation to reduce my carbon footprint, to protect biodiversity and protect the planet for future generations. Can you imagine the reduction of coal and oil consumption we could achieve if every family in Western Montana had a solar-powered home and solar-powered electric car? Maybe mega-loads, tar sands mining, and Otter Creek coal mining would all become unnecessary. The technology is available and ready for this now inWestern Montana.

The cost breakdown for my solar system:


Materials and installation for PV system: $28,570
New back porch structure:$8,640
Engineering of structure:$1,643
City building permit for structure:$285
Relocation of power/gas lines for structure:$3,605
Electric panel relocation:$620
GROSS Total:$43,363

Northwestern Energy Grant ($6,000)
Federal Tax Credit($11,208)
State Tax Credit($500)
NET Total including structure:$25,655


Materials and installation for PV system: $28,570
Northwestern Energy Grant ($6,000)
State Tax Credit($500)
Federal Tax Credit($8,625)
NET Total excluding structure:$13,625

So essentially, the solar system had a net cost of less than $14,000 for 100% annual power.

The system will eventually pay itself off and then the power I use in my home and the “fuel” I use for my car will be free. While this is certainly a meaningful reward, for me the bigger reward is knowing that my decision to choose an alternative to coal and oil is a concrete physical step toward a safer planet for future generations. As Terry Tempest Williams has said: “The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with hands clasped that we might act with restraint, that we might leave room for the life that is destined to come.”

Thank you for the important work you are doing.


Rebecca Smith
(contact info withheld to maintain customer privacy.  Please contact SBS Solar directly for more information)