UNplug solar controller aims to help you take your fridge off the grid

UNplug solar controller
© Solar Trap

Where's the middle ground between having a small solar charger for your gadgets, and having a rooftop solar array capable of powering your entire house? The UNplug might know.

Solar energy is rapidly becoming a viable option for many homes and businesses, and every week seems to bring news of another new solar financing vehicle or a drop in prices, but it's still out of reach of many of us, just in terms of the initial costs. I'd love to put solar on my house, but I'm not in a position just yet to make that financial commitment.

However, I do have a few solar chargers and gadgets that serve me well for charging small devices at home or in the woods, but they aren't nearly big enough for the task of powering even some of my household needs. I've often pondered the idea of building a small standalone solar energy system that can provide clean electricity for at least some of my home's needs, that wouldn't take a major investment, and that could essentially be a small step toward having a more resilient homestead.

And I know I'm not the only one, because the internet is full of plans and articles and forums for building your own DIY solar system, so it's clearly an idea whose time has come. Most of those plans, however, are often intended for off-grid and remote applications, and not integrating into an average grid-tied house, which is where so many of us could really use it. But a new crowdfunding campaign for a device that aims to bridge the divide could help people take that one step off the grid, starting with their fridge.

The UNplug solar controller was invented by Markus Löffler in response to his own power blackout experience, where several days without electricity meant a lot of spoiled food. Löffler, an entrepreneur and software engineer living in Altadena, California, developed the UNplug device to serve as a simple and inexpensive way to begin going solar, because it serves as the brain of a micro-solar system, starting as small as a single solar panel and a small battery bank.

According to Löffler, just the 100 million or so refrigerators, laptops, and modems running every day in the U.S. is responsible for adding some 33 billion pounds of CO2 to our atmosphere each year, so if we could start taking even some of those off the fossil fuel grid, it could begin to have a big positive effect:

"How can we save money and have a quick and positive impact on the environment? Here’s the answer:

By using the greenest energy source there is… solar. No moving parts, the power is just absorbed through solar panels. With this free energy, you turn your power needs “off the grid” during the most critical "peak" times in a day. Between 10am and 6pm when energy costs are the highest. At night UNplug automatically switches you back to the electricity grid." - UNplug

During the day, UNplug feeds electricity from the solar panel into the appliances connected to it, and charges the battery bank, and then when the sun goes down, it seamlessly switches over those devices to using grid power. In the event of a blackout, UNplug then powers those same appliances from the battery bank, allowing certain crucial electricity needs to continue to be met during an outage.

The UNplug could allow homes to take at least some of their daily electrical loads off the grid, such as the fridge or other household devices, while also serving as an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) in the event of a power outage. The device doesn't function all by itself, of course, and requires solar panels, batteries, an inverter, and other accessories, but according to Löffler's campaign page, a small system could be set up for an additional $570 or so, on top of the cost of the UNplug, so the entire investment could be under $1000. (His shopping list is here.)

Find out more about Löffler's projects at Solar Trap, or check out the UNplug crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.

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