SolarPod: Assemble your own solar panels

An entrepreneur has brought the assemble-it-yourself concept to solar power.

The SolarPod developed by Mouli Engineering of Eagan, Minn., comes with four solar panels and related parts, including a rack, which its developer says are no more challenging to assemble than furniture from Ikea.

"Two guys can put that thing together in an afternoon," said Nick Tamble of HGVids, who assembled one for a how-to video on a retail website.

A SolarPod can be ordered from Menards and Northern Tool and Equipment, though not Ikea.

The basic model -- which generates enough power to run a refrigerator, TV and a bit more when the sun shines -- costs under $4,000, and is eligible for a federal tax credit and possibly other subsidies that can bring down the cost.

"Solar was expensive until SolarPod came along," said the product's inventor, Mouli Vaidyanathan, founder of Mouli Engineering. "Now, SolarPod is leading the way in plug-and-play and modular solar. Nobody in the world has a product like ours."

Two key parts of the SolarPod, the solar panels and control boxes known as inverters, are standard products made by other manufacturers. Vaidyanathan, who is an engineer, designed a plug-and-play wiring harness to connect them, along with a custom mounting rack.

The wiring harness and rack are made by a contract manufacturer in Minnesota, and the entire package, including solar panels and inverters, is shipped on a single pallet to the customer's installation site. No part weighs more than 60 pounds, Vaidyanathan said.

The assembled SolarPod is designed to be mounted on the ground or a flat roof, and plugs into a special socket to feed electricity into a home or business. An electrician must install the socket, similar to that for a range, and the wiring to the circuit breaker box.

If the SolarPod owner wants to sell excess power back to the grid, a two-way meter must be installed by the local power company. The system is designed so that multiple SolarPods can be plugged together to increase electrical output. It would take four to eight units to power a home, the company says.

Mouli Engineering also offers a higher-priced SolarPod for off-the-grid use, such as at a remote cabin, that features battery storage. The company's midpriced "Heartland" unit is entirely U.S.-made. The basic model has parts from Asia.

Founded in early 2011, the company is approaching its 100th installation, Vaidyanathan said, and he expects SolarPod revenue to hit $250,000 this year. He operates as a one-person "virtual company," with everything else contracted out.

Vaidyanathan said standard solar arrays cost more than a SolarPod because they are individually designed and installed by contractors. He said many SolarPod purchasers choose to have an electrician assemble and install their system. Even then, he added, labor costs can be lower because the system is quickly put together.

Related Link:

http://www.sunpods.com/

(Contact Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter David Shaffer at david.shaffer@startribune.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

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