Congratulations, you’ve decided to look into going solar!
Regardless of your reasons…be it economic, environmental, energy independence, or otherwise…it is a sad reality that not everyone can go solar. So how do you know if your property is even a good candidate? Of course, it is important to select a few different installers to do a professional assessment, but even someone with zero solar knowledge can learn how to do a quick preliminary assessment. Here are some simple steps to determining if your home may have a great solar powered future.
If your electric bills average $100 or under each month, solar probably won’t be more cost-effective than paying the utility. The costs for permitting, design and engineering all stay the same whether you buy a 3kW system or a 10kW system. Indeed, the labor required to install 5 panels and 10 panels is not very different since installers still have the same amount of electrical ground work. The installation of the actual panels is only a fraction of the total labor. Even the costs of products improves in bulk, so the bigger the system, often the better price per Watt you can get.
Beyond this, there are many other things to consider such as whether you plan to increase your usage significantly in the future. But since utilities don’t want you to be an energy producer they won’t actually allow for more solar than your historical needs indicate… unless you plan to buy an electric vehicle. These are things you should discuss more in detail with your qualified installer.
In my blog piece “Roofing Reality Check”, I outlined the main things to consider when you examine your roof’s potential. Here are the highlights:
You could put solar here,
but it will cost you!
Space: First and foremost, to be a good solar candidate you must have adequate obstruction-free space for rows or columns of solar panels facing South, West, or East. The solar array must be three feet from any roof ridge or rake, and 18 inches from valleys to satisfy Fire Marshall guidelines. In addition, most panels are about the same size…roughly 65 inches by 40 inches. An average home in SoCal needs between 15-20 panels to offset their energy needs. This means that triangular spaces and roofs with many small faces are not going to work well for solar, but big open spaces with right angles are perfect.
Pitch and Height: Labor costs go up when installing on more difficult-to-reach roof spaces. Second story and steeply pitched roofs both increase the overall cost due to the time and effort required to keep crews safe. If you have a very steep roof solar isn’t necessarily impossible, but it will affect the bottom line, and some installers may not feel comfortable at all depending on just how steep. If it looks like an Appalachian incline more than a Rocky Mountain then you should be safe. But if we’re talking summit of Mount Everest, you may have a harder time finding a competent installer who doesn’t run when he sees the pitch.
Roofing Materials: The best roofing material for solar is composite shingles. Developments have been made to safely attach solar panels to metal and tile roofs but the cost for the racking attachments and labor are frequently higher. Run on Sun prefers to remove tile where the array will go, re-roof with composite shingles, install the solar, and backfill with remaining tiles. This incurs a re-roofing cost but is the safest way to avoid roof leaks and ensure safe attachment of the array to the rafters.
One of the first things an installer will do is take a quick look at a satellite image of your property to check for shade elements as well as the layout of your roof. A useful tool in the Los Angeles area is the LA Solar Map. This takes into account shading throughout the year and provides a handy report on your property’s viability for solar. It isn’t a perfect tool, however, so take a look around your property and note if there are any trees shading the roof spaces that you’ve identified as ideal for solar. Trees to the north would not pose a threat since solar will never be placed on a north-facing roof. But tall foliage to the south could negate any energy production value of a solar array. All may not be lost as microinverters, like the ones from Enphase that we feature on our projects, can do a lot to salvage a site plagued with shade. But even with this technology, 100% shaded areas are a non-starter. In addition to trees, note tall parapets on a flat roof, chimneys, satellite dishes, HVAC units, and second story walls which directly shade your ideal roof spaces.
Center-fed panels, like this one, can be a problem for going solar.
This is something many people are uncomfortable with, but a quick glance at your main electrical service you can be very informative. First, find your main service. This should be located on an outside wall of your home with circular enclosed meter protruding out. Open up the main panel where you’ll find a column of breakers. The main breaker, the one with the largest number stamped on it, is either at the top or sometimes in the middle of the column of breakers. If it is in the middle, this is called a center-fed panel and you may need to upgrade your electrical service before going solar.
If you find yourself tripping breakers every time you turn on a hair dryer, that is also a sign you should upgrade your service. Even if you aren’t tripping, depending on the size of your home, if the main breaker is stamped with anything under 200 you may need a higher electrical service before going solar to avoid tripping in the future.
Next, take a look at the rest of the breakers. Does it look like the entire column is full? Sometimes there are rectangles in the metal face plate which can be punched out to add breakers when needed. If there is no space at all for a new breaker for solar, then you may need to upgrade your service.
Unfortunately upgrading your service will add some cost. Ask your solar installer for their opinion but if any of the above rings true be prepared for this additional hurdle to sunshine power.
The reality is, solar is an investment. While some companies may insist you can go solar for free, I would never count on getting something for nothing. We have outlined some of the myriad reasons we recommend avoiding zero-down solar leases in other posts like “Top 5 Reasons to Stay Away from that Solar Lease” and “The Perils of Solar Salesmen”. Frankly, the costs can more than double over time when you lease instead of purchase your system.
So the last step to assess if you are a good candidate for solar is to assess your financial position. There are many low-interest solar loan options out there as well as property-assessed PACE financing, but in order to get the economic value of solar you need to be prepared to own the system outright. This way you can take the 30% federal tax credit and any additional rebates if available from your utility.
To give you a ball-park idea of the cost for going solar in Run on Sun’s service area (LA Metro area) today, including design, labor, permit fees and the whole shebang, is roughly $4 to $5 per Watt. This means that an average house with a 5kW system will cost between $20,000 and $25,000 before rebates and incentives. Obviously the cost will be on the low end if you have a composite-shingle, single-story, low-pitched roof with no need for a service panel upgrade. Depending on your electric bills pre-solar, this investment can pencil out with a return in as early as year 5 or as late as year 10+. But deciding if the financial outlay is worth the long term investment is something you must assess before signing on the dotted line.
After going through the above steps you should have a solid idea of whether solar is right for your home or not. If you’ve determined its a go, the next step is to call your local installer and make sure they check all the same qualifiers and more. Now that you’re an expert on solar assessment 101 you can even suggest solar to any neighbors with homes that beg to be powered by the sun!
Smokey the Bear knew a thing or two about urgency, and appropriating his call to action seems particularly apt right now. Today, rooftop solar is under concerted attack before the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). If we are to maintain the growth of solar, with its tens of thousands of jobs here in California, as well as its huge benefits in reducing air pollution - particularly greenhouse gas emissions - we need YOU to act now.
Our friends over at Vote Solar, along with the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CalSEIA) are working to beat back the insidious proposals coming from the Investor Owned Utilities - including SCE - to gut net metering and impose taxes on those who invest in rooftop solar. If those proposals were to be adopted, much of the economic value of solar could be destroyed.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The CPUC is a poltical entity and like any political entity, it responds to pressure from the public. We cannot match the economic clout of the IOUs, but we can beat them the old fashioned way - by standing up for solar!
It’s easy - just click on this button:
When you do, you will go the Vote Solar website where you can add your name to the list of concerned Californians who want to preserve the many benefits of rooftop solar. Please pass this word on to your friends and colleagues and urge them to get involved too!
We can win this fight - but we need YOU now!
Three weeks ago the Run on Sun team took San Francisco by storm for the annual Intersolar events and exhibition. In the solar industry products are changing incredibly fast. Intersolar and Solar Power International (September 14-17th) are the two most important events for industry experts to come together and be able to put our hands on the latest and greatest products while establishing relationships with potential partners around the world.
As we mentioned in our Intersolar 2015 Preview blog, we were really on the prowl in the exhibition hall. Number one on our list was to find viable storage options as our client-base is quickly shifting to time-of-use rates and smart storage will be a huge asset to enable more local consumption of energy at the right time, as well as to reduce those high demand spikes for commercial clients.
Enphase Energy, of microinverter fame, actually had their own booth at IS this year, a first for them, and their emphasis was on their modular storage solution - which they call the AC Battery - made possible by their next generation, S-Series microinverter - which is bi-directional. Since the system sits on the AC side of a solar installation, it is compatible with any solar system whether it uses Enphase microinverters or not.
Enphase readily acknowledges that the economic proposition for local consumption is not really present in the U.S. yet, which is why they are first rolling the product out in Australia. However, as the present discussions before the CPUC demonstrate, net metering is changing and soon. When it does, the economic case for systems like the AC Battery will become compelling.
Second task on our list was to find out what panels LG would be offering and when we could start getting them on rooftops. Since LG didn’t have a booth at IS, hints toward panels with higher efficiency and higher output were verified by a meeting with our distributor, Baywa r.e. (formerly known as Focused Energy).We are now looking at 310 and 315 Watt panels available in September. This is up from the 305’s currently available and 260’s which were available this time just one year ago!
Our last mission as we weaved through the multitude of flashy products on display was to find better options for racking. While we have no intention of finding an alternative for our pitched roof racking company, Everest, our ballasted flat roof racking experience has left something to be desired by our installers. And the growing interest in solar carport systems means we need a good partner we can rely on to develop beautiful high-quality structures. We looked at several new products and talked to some great people on this front. We will be vetting these companies and discussing the applicability of their options with our clients over the next few months.
Any good industry gathering has GREAT parties, and the solar community definitely delivers in this department. The Run on Sun team enjoyed rubbing elbows with solar celebrities, new and old friends at various social events throughout the week. Laurel ate breakfast and discussed gender-specific solar challenges with WISE (Women in Solar Energy). The lunch hour Tweetup hosted by @SolarFred and put on by our friends at @Enphase, @RECSolar and @Grid was a blast. Of course the Solar Summerfest put on by CALSEIA and the Solar Battle of the Bands were not to be missed either. Who knew solar companies had such amazing musical talent?! The battle of the bands was more packed than we’ve ever seen, the only painful side to an ever expanding industry. Laurel’s favorite, the awesome funk band from Sungevity rocked the house and took home the winning title. If you attended either event you probably spotted Run on Sun’s Jim, Laurel and Josh making full use of the dance floor! No one on the RoS team will deny…we DO like to have fun.
The Run on Sun team cutting a rug at Solar Summerfest!
Thanks Kendra Hubbard for the pics!
Its hard to believe that in just over a month we will be boarding a local train to Anaheim for Solar Power International, “North America’s largest solar trade show". Beyond what we saw at Intersolar, our distributor Baywa r.e will have a presence as well as our favorite solar panel manufacturer: Life’s Good Electronics. We’re looking forward to more exciting product announcements and connecting with friends once again! Hope to see you there!
We couldn’t suppress an ironic smile when we read the headline, Los Angeles [County] Assembling Solar Action Committee to Address PV Challenges. “Physician, heal thy self,” immediately popped into mind given the propensity of LA County to create those very challenges! Here’s our take on what LA County is up to.
According to the article at Solar Industry magazine’s website:
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (DPW) has created a Solar Energy Action Committee (SEAC) to facilitate an expansion of residential and commercial solar photovoltaic power in the region.
According to the DPW, there are many challenges that are preventing the state and local governments in California from meeting aggressive renewable energy goals. Many of these challenges relate to the interpretation and application of codes and regulations in both the private and public sectors. Furthermore, solar technology is evolving so quickly and with such variety that jurisdictions are having problems determining how to apply codes and standards.
Oh heavens, don’t get me started! Well, ok, too late.
How about this for just one example (from many): we recently completed a commercial project in LA County. When we submitted our single line drawing to DPW (prepared and stamped by a licensed electrical engineer), it came back with nine “corrections". Ultimately we were able to demonstrate to DPW that seven of the nine did not even relate to our project since they all were focused on either the DC side of a PV system (and our Enphase-based system had no such components) or they related to the size of a non-existent load-side breaker. It took three iterations to whittle those bogus objections away, until we got down to the final nut: bonding.
Now one of the two remaining concerns was legit - DPW wanted our plans to call out two grounding rods. Fine, easy, done. But the remaining sticking point was a killer. We were using Everest Solar racking, which has UL 2703 listed splices for its rails that bond those splices together.
DPW refused to accept the splices for bonding, requiring bonding jumpers (like you see in the picture) across each splice. Which begs the question: what is the point of manufacturers building products to meet a national spec, if a local jurisdiction like DPW can simply say, “not in my backyard?”
Everest also had at the time an approved mid-clamp with WEEB solution for bonding between modules. In Pasadena, just across the street, that combination would have been approved without comment. But not DPW, which rejected the WEEB solution, requiring us to run a continuous #6 wire from module to module - all 246 of them!
Now when you talk to the folks at DPW they insist that this is all about safety. To which we respond - rubbish! What is the failure scenario that we are actually protecting against? In theory, you are trying to ensure that no metallic part becomes energized without a pathway to ground. That way if there is a fault, and someone touches the affected metal surface, current will not flow through them to ground (causing injury) because it has a lower resistance path to ground via the system bonding.
That is certainly a noble goal, but did the changes DPW insisted upon improve safety in the real world? This array is on a free standing structure, 14′ above the ground so it isn’t likely that someone would ever casually come in contact with a metal surface to begin with. But even if they did, what would that failure mode have to be? On the one panel that happens to develop a fault, a minimum of two, and in most cases four, WEEB clips would have to fail at the same time! Call me cynical, but I find that a highly unlikely event.
In contrast, the economic consequence of what had to be done to placate DPW was very real, adding thousands of dollars in parts and labor to the cost of the project, for an at best marginal improvement in safety.
So we are all for DPW taking steps to eliminate “PV challenges", but we would suggest they look at cleaning up their own act as the proper place to start.
Intersolar North America 2015 (IS) kicks off this week in San Francisco, and as we have for the past several years, Run on Sun will be there to learn, to mingle with the rest of the Solar Tribe, and yes, to party! Here’s our preview (with more to come after the show).
One of the biggest attractions of IS, the exhibition floor is crammed with every solar-related product and service imaginable (and some you wouldn’t have believed until seen!). Here are some of the things we are actively looking for as we roam the floor (and it really is a “we” this year as Laurel and Josh will be attending as well!)
We have been writing about, and longing for, viable energy storage solutions for as long as we have been attending IS. While the hype around storage has only grown exponentially since, the number of viable products still remains depressingly thin. Will this be the show when that finally changes?
Number one on our cross-your-fingers list is the previously announced, but not yet available, storage offering from Enphase Energy. Given that we have a whole lot of Enphase systems in the field, and a client-base that is rapidly shifting to time-of-use rates, the Enphase product, if it is a product, would be huge. While the timing would surely be right, our anticipation is amped-up by the knowledge that Enphase will have a booth at IS (a first for them, to our knowledge).
Interestingly, neither SolarCity nor Tesla is listed among the exhibitors as of this morning - I guess we won’t be seeing any Powerwalls on display.
Beyond storage, manufacturers are always touting their bigger, better products at the show and this year should be no different. Of particular interest in that regard is the potential release of a slew of new, larger module options coming from our favorite solar panel maker, LG. We have seen the hints on this front for sometime now as the CEC approved list of LG modules includes units as large as 325 Watts - compared to the LG 305’s which are presently the largest thing we are seeing in distribution. So will we now have multiple options for higher efficiency, higher output panels from LG? And if so, when and at what cost?
Meanwhile, Enphase appears poised to announce a new microinverter product, the S280 (just in time to pair with those higher power LG modules?), as it too now appears on the CEC list.
We know that we have clients eagerly awaiting these developments - watch this space!
Racking solutions continue to be an area where the cleverness of the design rarely survives the realities of the roof. We are constantly exploring new approaches for difficult problems such as viable ballasted systems (that will be accepted by AHJ’s like LA City and County) and structure suppliers for the growing interest in carports, pergolas and the like. While we have worked with a number of companies in this area, we are still on a quest for solutions that not only look good on paper, but that our installers can grow to love. We will be prowling the floor of IS with that as our number one must have.
We should note, however, that we remain quite pleased with Everest Solar as our pitched roof solution, and that view was enhanced by the long-awaited release of their UL-2703 listed end and mid-clamps. The inspectors who have looked at that system on the roof have been quite impressed with it, as are we.
It wouldn’t be IS without the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and, hopefully, make some new ones amidst the Solar Tribe. After all, these are people who work every day to make the world a better, cleaner, more sustainable place. They are a great bunch of folks and we are honored to be counted among ‘em!
First up is the Tweetup, hosted once again by solar celeb, Tor - @SolarFred - Valenza, with backing from @Enphase, @RECSolar, and @Grid. This has turned into an annual, and eagerly anticipated event, and we thank in advance Solar Fred and friends for making this happen.
Then comes Summerfest, a huge gathering of folks with lots of different types of food and drink and great views of the downtown San Francisco skyline. Summerfest is a great place to exchange views of what was on display on the exhibition floor, and to plot strategy for the next day, as in, “Did you see what they had over at the XYZ booth? It was amazing you have to check it out!”
But it is Wednesday night that really crowns the show. Starting with the great afterparty/pre-SBOB party thrown by Impress Labs - thanks to Solar Curator Tom Cheyney for hooking us up - we are able to get warmed up for the main event - the Solar Battle of the Bands! For the first time ever we are heading into the show knowing where are ducats are coming from - thanks to Jessica over at Solar Power World for the connection!
It is going to be a busy week, and we look forward to learning a lot. Look for our recap of the show next week!
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