Category: Science

The Solar Burn, Part 7: Solar Devils

This is Part 7 of a multi-part series about my attempt to install solar panels on my house. For the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next installation (when available), CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

Solar Devils

Ding-dong!

I open the door. It’s a man with a clipboard, wearing the cap of a solar company. I point to the “No Soliciting” sign on my door.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he says. “We’re just in the neighborhood conducting a survey.”

“Not interested,” comes my curt reply, and the door closes.

This scene has repeated quite a few times at my house, and I think at many other homes across America. A lot of folks have suffered The Solar Burn at the hands of these unscrupulous door-to-door solar devils.

The State of California has gone to great lengths to protect consumers who want to buy solar. They have a website that shows which companies have installed solar in your neighborhood, and how much they’ve charged. It also exposes which installers have been violating state regulations.

I started at this website, and made a list of initial prospects. Then I turned to Yelp, for reviews on these installers. A few of the companies got all 5-star reviews from very satisfied customers. Most had 3 to 4 stars. The lowest rated company was Sunrun, with 2 stars.

The most common complaint in the reviews was how long some companies took to install solar. They would show up unannounced at odd times, to install little bits and pieces of the solar project. This process sometimes dragged out for six months to a year, in the worst cases.

I painstakingly filtered out those companies and focused on the three with the highest reviews.

The first solar installer I called had a gatekeeping receptionist who answered the phone. She took my information. The next day I received an emailed bid. Apparently, the installer looked at a satellite photo of my rooftop, then emailed a bid for installing way more solar panels than I thought I needed.

His bid was $26,000. That seemed very high. I sensed there had been a misunderstanding, so I emailed back some clarifications to what I wanted. He emailed a reply, asserting there had been no misunderstanding, and that his proposed system was exactly what I needed. Period.

I could hardly believe it. This son-of-a-bitch had a 5-star Yelp rating, and had even been recommended to me by a local contractor who I highly respect. And yet he would not do an in-person site survey, he chose to communicate only by email, and he basically asserted that it’s “my way or the highway.”

I chose the highway and called the next devil on the list.

The lady who answered seemed very happy to be talking to me. I’ll call her Cathy. Cathy was one of those “customer is always right” types. I like that in a sales person. She had a lot of questions for me, and I had a lot for her. I’d already done extensive research into solar, so I could tell by her answers to my questions that she was an expert. She knew her product inside and out. And she was a real go-getter. I like that, too. She wanted to come out to my house just as soon as possible and do a site survey.

Wow! What a contrast from the previous installer. I think I fell in love with Cathy. So we made a date, and a few days later, there she was, at my door with her smiling face, along with a technician who hopped on the roof to take measurements.

Cathy and I sat down, where she opened up her laptop computer and showed me a proposed plan for placement of rooftop panels. It would be something like a 5.9 kW system that would generate about 120% of my electrical needs, according to her.

So, like the previous installer, this devil was trying to sell me more panels than I needed. The State of California warns consumers about this all-too-common practice and advises that the best systems meet 80% to 85% of electrical needs. That’s because if you overproduce, you don’t get paid much for the surplus you sell to the electric company. Thus, it’s more economical to underproduce than overproduce.

I expressed this concern to Cathy, and she didn’t argue with me. I talked her down to a 4.92 kW system, which we both believed would meet about 100% of my electrical needs. I had already decided that 85% would be too small for my liking, and I was willing to take a chance on overproducing a little.

Cathy emailed her bid of $21,000 to me, and advised that I get other bids before making a decision. I liked that touch of integrity.

The next person I called was named Carl, and he worked for a very large solar installation company, which I will not name. Like Cathy, Carl was eager to come to my house to do a site survey. But on the day of the survey, Carl’s technician, named Mark, showed up a half-hour before Carl. Mark told me he needed to see my garage.

When I let him in, he pulled out his cell phone and started taking pictures of everything in my garage. This was creepy. It left me feeling unnerved, and I wondered if he was casing my house to burglarize it later. I confronted him, asking why so many photos. He mumbled some vague answers that made no sense. But he got the hint and stopped taking pictures.

When Carl finally showed up he presented a plan for a 6.1 kW system. Yep, like all the rest, he was trying to oversell. I talked him down to a 4.7 kW system. Then he submitted a bid for $23,000.

That was two grand higher than Cathy’s bid. But his system would use SunPower panels and Enphase microinverters. Those brands are a little more expensive than Cathy’s proposed system of Panasonic panels and a SolarEdge string inverter.

I prefer SolarEdge over Enphase, and not just because it’s less expensive. It also handles the hot summer temperatures of our desert more efficiently. And it has a monitoring system that allows you to check each individual panel for any problems. That’s great for troubleshooting, or identifying problem areas caused by shade.

I also considered the prospect of “picture-taking Mark” returning to my house. That guy gave me the willies. I even beefed up the security system of our house, after his visit.

After some pondering, I made my decision. I went with Cathy, and quickly signed a contract with her, so that our solar array can be finished before the April 14th deadline that will end NEM 2.0.

Now it’s just a matter of waiting. And paying the installments on time, as work progresses. Hopefully by this spring we’ll have a full-functioning solar array attached to the roof of our house. And then we’ll be able to tell our electric company to stick their bill where the Sun doesn’t shine.

This ends this series for now. But I’ll be posting updates later, as the installation of our solar array progresses. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for the updates!

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The Solar Burn, Part 6: Choosing a System That Won’t Burn You

This is Part 6 of a multi-part series about my attempt to install solar panels on my house. For the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

Choosing a System That Won’t Burn You

There are many things under the Sun, and that includes the wide variety of solar arrays that you can install. I won’t try to describe them all, because I try to keep the length of my posts under a million words. So I’ll just give you a sampler of what seem to be the most common varieties.

The classic system is the one we see most often, where solar panels are installed on the pitched roofs of houses. If you’re going to go this route, there are several matters to worry and fret about. One is the direction your panels will face.

If you want to generate the most electricity possible from your panels, the obvious best direction is due south, because that’s where the Sun reaches its highest point, each and every day. But even though that’s the best direction for generating juice, it may not be best for saving money on your electric bill.

We humans tend to use the most electricity in the late-afternoon and early evening hours. That’s when we get home from work, turn on the AC if it’s a hot summer day, fire up the electric range to cook our dinner, and then run a load of laundry. Because of this, demand for electricity skyrockets during these hours. And due to the law of supply and demand, the electric company tends to charge a premium for electricity at this time of day.

During the afternoon, you’ll generate more premium-priced electricity from your solar panels if they’re aimed southwest, rather than due south. Because that’s where the Sun is, in the afternoon. So if the roof of your house faces southwest, be happy. If it doesn’t, try standing on a ladder, grabbing your roof, and rotating it. If that doesn’t work, you might want to build a new house.

Standard advice on the tilt of your panels is that it’s best that the tilt matches the latitude where you live. Because that’s perpendicular to the average angle of the Sun, throughout the year. Thus, if you live at 40-degrees North latitude, it’s best that your panels be tilted at 40 degrees. This means your roof should be pitched at 40 degrees. I can give you some ladder advice on correcting your roof pitch, but you might just want to build a new house.

Actually, NASA researchers have discovered that you’ll get a little more juice from your solar panels if your roof pitch is about 5 degrees less than the latitude you live. Why this is, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t sweat it much. When I’ve crunched various panel tilts using the government’s online PVWatts Calculator, I’ve found that tilt doesn’t make a huge difference in the energy output of solar panels, as long as your panels are basically tilted toward the sun, or are at least lying flat.

NASA has conducted considerable research on solar energy, and topics like optimal tilt of solar panels.

And if you have a flat roof, there’s good and bad news. You can have panels installed on ballast racks. This type of rack doesn’t have to be bolted onto your roof. Rather, it can be weighed down by heavy, concrete blocks. The bad news is that if you don’t have a strong enough substructure in your roof, it will begin to sag under the weight, after a few years. Then, pooling of rain water may occur, which can lead to roof leaks.

If you own a lot of acreage, you can install a ground-mounted system, then run a trench to your house for the electric line. That makes for easier installation and maintenance, and protects your roof from having holes drilled into it. Plus, you have more control over the direction you aim your panels.

You can also install your panels on a pole, that moves with the Sun throughout the day, thus maximizing the output of your panels. But these systems can be expensive to install and maintain. They may only be economical if you can install the pole array where it’s free from any shade, throughout the day.

Probably your most important choice for solar equipment is the inverter, and not the solar panel. There are many brands of inverters, but the two major brands are Enphase and SolarEdge. Together, they make up nearly 90% of U.S. market share. Whoever you choose as your solar installer will probably use one or the other, or give you a choice of either.

An Enphase system uses microinverters, installed on the backs of each solar panel. This allows you to add an unlimited amount of solar panels in the future, without a problem. But SolarEdge uses a string inverter, which limits the amount of panels you can add in the future.

Enphase offers a new “Sunlight Backup” system that allows you to use your solar panels during blackouts, without having to have a battery storage system. However, it’s so expensive you might be better off just having batteries.

Enphase batteries are criticized for being a lot more expensive, while storing a lot less electricity, than other brands of batteries. SolarEdge batteries, on the other hand, are touted as the best and most economical on the market.

Enphase microinverters are notorious for overheating. And when they overheat, they produce a lot less electricity. Because of this, SolarEdge, with its power optimizers and string inverter, is regarded as being more efficient than Enphase.

But Enphase microinverters have a 25-year warranty. Which you may need, because they’ve had reliability issues in the past. The SolarEdge string inverter has a 12-year warranty. But its power optimizers, attached to each solar panel, have a 25-year warranty. But SolarEdge has also had reliability issues. So hang onto your warranty information, regardless of which system you choose.

The top three solar panel manufactures, in terms of quality, are SunPower, Panasonic, and LG. However, LG recently stopped making solar panels. Apparently, they’ve experienced The Solar Burn. That leaves us with SunPower and Panasonic. Panasonic also recently stopped making solar panels. At least, in Panasonic factories. Now they’re outsourcing their production to third-party factories.

Assuming the quality of Panasonic panels doesn’t go all to hell, due to the outsourcing, then this brand of panels is probably your best choice. Especially if you don’t want Enphase microinverters. Enphase and SunPower enjoy a close business relationship. So if you want SunPower panels, your solar installer may be obligated to use Enphase microinverters.

SunPower’s solar panels are the most efficient on the market, and currently rate a 22.8% efficiency. However, Panasonic comes close, with its new EverVolt panels, at 21.7% efficiency. The industry standard is 17%. But Panasonic panels tend to handle heat better than SunPower, so they might be your better choice if you live in a hot climate.

All solar panels degrade over time, generating less and less electricity, the older they get. But apparently SunPower and Panasonic panels degrade very slowly. SunPower claims its panels will maintain 92% of their original efficiency after 25 years. Panasonic’s claim is 90.76% after 25 years. But who knows? These are newly developed panels. Only time will tell, and I’ll probably be dead in 25 years. I’ll have to reincarnate in order to make any claim on their 25-year warranties.

These are some of the types of solar array systems available. Next we’ll discuss how to avoid The Solar Burn, while dealing with the devils who sell solar array systems.

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The Solar Burn, Part 5: No Solar Array is an Island

This is Part 5 of a multi-part series about my attempt to install solar panels on my house. For the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

No Solar Array is an Island

Many people who don’t have solar panels mistakenly assume that solar energy will free them from their electric company. But those who do have solar panels have learned the disappointing news. No, if anything it’s the opposite. Solar panels leave you married to your utility company in a kind of symbiotic relationship. You provide electricity to them, when you’re generating a surplus, and then they provide it to you when you’re enduring a deficit.

But, you may reason, suppose some drunk asshole collides his car into a power pole, or lightning strikes a transformer, or for some other reason all the power goes out in town. If the sun is shining, you can smugly enjoy all the benefits of electricity, such as using the internet and watching TV. Meanwhile your neighbors have to sit around entertaining themselves through medieval measures, such as storytelling, endless games of backgammon, or jousting.

But wrong you would be, for no solar array is an island. Solar arrays connected to the utility company’s grid have an anti-islanding feature. This feature shuts your solar array down, anytime the grid loses power. “What?!” you may pound your fist in rage. “Why should I have to suffer the same as my non-panel-owning neighbors?! By God, I paid a lot of money for my panels!” Be careful. Don’t pound your fist too hard. I nearly broke mine.

Anti-islanding is a safety feature. It protects utility workers, who are busy trying to glue the downed power lines back together, or whatever the hell they do. If your solar array was generating electricity during a power outage, it would backfeed any surplus onto the grid, and that could electrocute the utility workers.

For this reason, the inverter or inverters that convert the DC power produced by your solar panels, into AC power, are designed to detect power losses from the grid. And any time power is lost, the inverters shut down. When power is restored they wait five minutes, just to be sure, and then they start working again.

This type of inverter is mandatory, and no utility company will approve your interconnection agreement with them, unless you have this type of inverter installed.

An interconnection agreement, by the way, is a contract you make with your utility company prior to being allowed to activate your solar array. This contract spells out how you will be compensated for the excess electricity you generate, what type of equipment you’re allowed to use, and several other particulars.

After your solar array is installed, you’re not allowed to use it. Nope. Easy there, buddy. You may feel eager and anxious, but don’t flip that switch on yet, or you could get into a heap of trouble. No, you can’t legally use it until your solar array has been inspected by your utility company, and they are assured you are using approved, anti-islanding inverters. Then they sign off on the interconnection agreement, and you are allowed to activate your solar array.

And it can take a few weeks for them to come around and inspect your shiny, new solar array. So in the meantime, you have to keep using your utility company’s electricity, while your solar panels languish away in the Sun. This can feel very frustrating for new solar owners.

I have asserted that no solar array is an island. But that’s just a play on words, inspired by the famous quote from the 17th century Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne. This great Englishman delivered a sermon where he proclaimed:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

This beautiful quote illustrates our interconnection with each other. Buying solar panels won’t make us independent from the utility company’s grid. In fact, in some ways it just makes us more a part of it. Interdependent. We produce for our neighbors, then receive back at a later time, when we need it. In theory, it’s a wonderful cooperative.

In theory. But sometimes the theory is not as wonderful as the reality. If you live in an area that suffers from frequent blackouts or brownouts, you may rue the day you connected your solar panels to the grid. But take heart. Much to John Donne’s consternation, there is a way to turn your solar array into an island.

Mokolii Island (aka Chinaman’s Hat), Oahu, Hawaii.

But it will cost you. If you’re willing to spend about 10- to 20-thousand more dollars for your solar array, you can add a battery storage system. And then when the power goes out, your batteries can keep the juice flowing through your home. It requires a special inverter for this, which must be approved by your utility company, but if the expense is worth it to you, and your pockets are deep enough, then this is something to consider.

You may also want a battery system if you live way out in the sticks, far from the nearest power line. If the cost to install battery storage is less than what the utility company would charge to extend its lines to your house, then such a system would likely be worth the expense.

And then you can truly be an island.

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