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5 ways to go solar on the cheap

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Strong has been using solar-powered vent fans in his clients' building and remodeling projects for about four years.

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"What they like about them is that they have been maintenance-free," he says.

The energy savings are hard to pinpoint. "Most homes today are not calibrated, and they don't have the electrical dashboards to be able to tell how much (the fans) are actually saving them," Strong says.

Home energy experts say you'll get the best results when you combine installing a solar attic fan with beefing up the insulation in your attic.

5. Solar-powered chargers
You're going off on a long wilderness hike to become one with nature, but you figure you'd better take along a working cell phone to stay connected to civilization. Strap on a solar backpack, embedded with light-collecting panels that convert sunlight into energy for recharging the phone's batteries, and you're good to go.

Solar battery chargers, also available as hand-held portable devices, foldable panels and stationary units, can be used to charge all kinds of small electronic devices including laptops, digital cameras, PDAs, MP3 players and CD players. Some will even power up the batteries in your car, boat or lawn mower. There are multipurpose chargers as well as those designed for specific types of products and specific brands.

Some of the latest models give the option of either storing the power in an internal on-board battery for later use or charging your gizmo directly from the sun.

Prices vary greatly according to the manufacturer, usage, style and power capacity. You might spend less than $20 for a 1.8-watt vehicle battery charger, $35 for a multi-use charger that produces up to 2 watts of power and more than $200 for a solar backpack that produces enough electricity for a laptop.

Trying out relatively inexpensive solar products like these is a good way for consumers to become comfortable with the technology, Strong says, until "they get ready to pull the trigger on that solar PV" when it becomes more affordable.

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