Act Locally! DIY Solar – Earth Day, April 22 2012

You CAN make a difference!  I have never written my congressman, nor my senators, nor the president. I have found it much more effective and less frustrating to ACT rather than complain and this goes for all aspects of my life. Act locally! You can make an immediate positive difference and as a side benefit, set an example for others. I use this philosophy in all aspects of my life, including fitness. Rather than wasting my time complaining about scam websites hawking expensive, useless programs I have acted and provided my own free fitness information.

The subject is earth day though. What can one tiny person do when it comes to global energy consumption and climate change? Complain? Yell at your congressman on Earth Day and then forget about it for the other 364 days? Not very effective. I have acted and made a difference in my own little way. Decades ago I gave up commuting by car to save energy. I have either arranged my life so I could bike commute or work from home.  Bike commuting to work is an awesome way to combine improving your physique and health with improving the environment!  Commuting is a huge source of energy consumption and mine has been zero for the last decade. Does that make a dent in the nations energy consumption, certainly not. What it does do is starts people thinking, at parties the subject of work usually comes up and I always mention my commute (or lack of it) along with what I do and it gets people thinking. “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to bike or jog to work”. It gets them thinking that it is a possibility. If enough people start doing it, it will cascade.

So for this Earth Day we decided to take the next step, solar power. Solar panels have come down drastically in price, so drastically in fact that the installation price is often more than the materials price making it perfect for a DIY.  Before we talk about price though, lets talk about this from a green point of view.  Those solar panels take a lot of energy to make but from what I have read, it takes a solar panel about two years for energy break even – that is, to generate enough electricity to make another panel.  So far, so good.  The panels are guaranteed to put out at least 80% of their rated output for 25 years so thats at least 24 years of pollution free energy. What about the environmental damage done in mining and building the panels?  Here is my thought.  Bad as making semiconductors is for the environment, oil is worse.  Tankers sinking and polluting coastlines, wars fought for oil, combustion pollutants – solar panels cant be as bad as the environmental damage done by producing gasoline.

Now lets talk economics, more good news!  Getting a solar PV array installed professionally has a payback period of over a decade, which isnt bad,  but doing the work myself I can get a 5 year payback!  That’s without even taking tax credits and incentives into account!!! How is this possible? Because I work at home and use several high powered computers, I’m in the third penalty tier for electric rates so most of my energy costs 33 cents per kilowatt-hour. I have room for twelve 240 watt panels on my roof, here are the numbers:

  • number panels = 12
  • max watts = 2880
  • yearly energy production = 5600kwh
  • approximate energy savings = $1840 (5600kwh x .33/kwh)
  • approximate system cost $8500 ($2.95/kwh)
    • $4800 ($400×12) 12 sharp 240 watt panels
    • $1920 ($160×12) 12 Enphase micro-inverters
    • $1000 racking
    • $4.22 permits (basically free because city encourages solar)
    • $800 wiring, conduit, panels, disconnect, etc
  • payback period = 5 years

Just think, after 5 years I get free electricity!  I could buy an electric vehicle and the drive for free!  Can you install solar panels yourself?  If you feel comfortable building a shed, replacing an electrical outlet, and could install a TV antenna mast on your roof then yes, you can install solar panels BUT you gotta do your homework!  Step one is to go visit your cities building inspections department because they will certainly have a pre-printed document on what you need to get a solar PV installation permit.  Most people have this irrational fear of building inspectors but usually these “horror stories” of how difficult permits and inspections can be are spread by fly-by-night handymen who don’t know what they are doing.  The building inspectors are your friend!  Most of them are highly experienced tradesman who will gladly share a wealth of information with you, all you have to do is ask.  There are a lot of things wrong with America but one perfect example of how right things are the building codes and construction permit process.  When earthquakes hit, our buildings remain standing.  When hurricanes hit, our homes don’t blow off their foundations nor do the roofs blow off.  Home fires are virtually unknown today when a century ago they were commonplace.  Sewer problems a century ago had everyone holding their noses, now its almost never a problem.  Why?  Because building codes protect us.  I have built two of my houses by myself and found that virtually every building code that I needed to satisfy had a very good reason – codes are completely free of idiotic politics.  If you don’t understand the reason for something in the code then ask one of the inspectors and they will be glad to tell you!  At first when you see the list of things you need for a solar permit you might be intimidated but they are all required for your safety and they are not that tough.  They are there to keep you from caving in your roof, causing leaks in your roof, to keep the solar panels from flying off in the wind, or to keep you from electrocuting somebody.  It took me 8 hours of work time to draw up my permit package and then when submitted it took only 5 days to get my permit.  Here is what my permit application package looked like:

  • roof cross section showing structure and flashing
  • roof plans showing panel locations
  • load calculations
  • electrical plans
  • specs for inverter and solar panels

The majority of my permit package installation time was spent measuring and drawing the house to accurate show the location of structural members and decide how and where to place the panels.

Roof Cross Section For Solar Permits

Roof Plan For Solar Permits

Don’t be too intimidated by the load calculations, they look difficult but they are easy.  People who sell solar racking like Unirac have easy to use online configurators that tell you exactly what racking components you need and they spit out the three pages of load calculations that are needed for the permits!

Similarly, don’t be too intimidated by the electrical plan.  I used the electrical plan in the micro-inverter specification and photoshopped it to show my installation.  All I had to do was add the correct number of panels, add a disconnect box, and show the cabling.  Took me less than an hour to do this drawing.

Wiring Diagram For PV  Solar Permit

Less than five days later I had my permit!  I can get my order placed for my equipment in time for Earth Day 2012 which is April 22!

Solar PV Installation Permit Approved!

 

 

39 thoughts on “Act Locally! DIY Solar – Earth Day, April 22 2012”

  1. Scooby- I totally agree with every word you said! I moved from Pennsylvania to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and I immediately began taking charge of the free electricity and hot water in sunny South Florida! I installed solar panels and created my own hot water system and FREE hot water. Florida Power and Light even pays me for electric! I bike ride to work and most other places, too. Not everyone is this fortunate…In Allentown, Pa., solar power is not a “profitable” move and bike riding is not so friendly. Thank you for a great read!!!!

  2. justin van Oeveren

    Really great job Scooby. Thanks for sharing your project with us. I have been interested in alternative sources of energy for a while now and this just encourages me to pursue the idea further.

  3. What more could we ask for.
    An Iron Man. A body with brains. A great Human. A professor . A scientist. An animal lover…(to long to list all the rest) How much is this all worth to me?
    PRICELESS !
    Glad I found this site…

  4. Well, that may make some sense in sunny california where Brown and company are actively trying to destroy energy production and tax the crap out of anything that moves, but an improbable proposition in canada. not only do we have winter and snow to damage the panels, but the ROI is longer than the effective life of the panels.

    Now, I recycle, reuse, compost, and our family of 7 (five kids) produces one green garbage bag of waste per week. Never more. I used CFL bulbs for a while until i found out how much they suck in terms of light and short lifespan when turned on and off, now I stick with halogens and LED’s wherever possible.

    But there is no such thing as global warming. Consensus in science is entirely meaningless. Every single last prediction made by the warming alarmists has been false, made only to pressure governments into massive wealth redistribution. Data has been modified to fit theories instead of the other way round, opinions are routinely suppressed and literature is driven and moderated by a small cabal of politically motivated pseudoscientists.

    All the while, Al Gore, David Suzuki, Leonardo DiCaprio and reams of other busybodies are trying to dampen my lifestyle while they jet from summer home to winter home and every vacation destination in between. When people who tell me there is a crisis start behaving like there is a crisis, then I will start paying attention.

      1. Excuse me? If you have a problem Alberta then you can stop taking our equalization payments, jerk. And you want to talk about ignorant? Look who just lumped an entire province into one big pile.

    1. Excuse me sir, but whoever denies global warming is an ignorant…there is PROOF, lots of it! The results of global warming, however are free to discuss ofc, but to question its existence is in plain words ridiculous and unscientific! On the other hand u are certainly right, stating that rural areas have very different needs than cities. I think in the next 20 or 30 years, we will see a tremendous increase of electro-mobility in cities or around them, while combustion motors will still be the majority in rural areas. E.g. renault just came up with an (ugly) electro car (renault twizy) that costs only 7000 € (appr. 9000 – 10.000 $ ?), it goes over 80 km/h, has a cruising range of 100 km and it takes 3.5 hours to fully charge the batteries. In plane areas, its range is up to 120 km. This is the future, if u like it or not.

  5. What do you do if the sun stops shining? -> Use a wind wheel. What if the wind stops blowing? -> Turn on the atomic reactor/fossil-fuel power station. Renewable energie ist just not realiable. Our hole economic system depends on a steady flow of energy. A better solution would probably be a fusion reactor. The hydrogen supply is unlimited. The only “pollutant” would be oxygen.

    1. not true! As u may not know, also a fusion reactor would create radioactive material, just not as much as a nuclear reactor…
      Next big problem: For a fusion reactor u need hydrogen. Yes there is a vast supply of hdrogen on our world, but all in compound form. So u have to put lots of energy into producing pure hydrogen before u can make use of it, thats not going to work! Also it is technically very hard to store hydrogen, becuse it diffuses even through several cm thick walls of steel, thats bad…wind and solar energy are still the most relieable sources of green energy. The main problem is how to store that energy when not immediately needed…

      1. The thing is, would you connect youre freezer to a solar panel?
        Another futuristic solution: Put solar pannels in space. That way you wouldn’t have the day/night rhythm and no clouds.
        What if the sun will burn out? How will you produce energie then? What about space travel?

          1. anyways, ofc i did not mean solar power is THE solution, but its amongst the most promising technologies at the moment, fusion technology surely is not amongst them. Please see e.g. wikipedia for further info about it since i dont have time to lecture u ;D.
            The future will certainly benefit from a MIX! of energy production technologies, wind water, thermal energy harvested underground (sry i dont know the english expression for that). Oh, another point: Read about organic electronics, it might soon be able to produce flexible solar cells many many surfaces (e.g. textiles) could be coated with. etc. etc.

          2. I know there a technical difficulties like there where with sailing accross the atlantic a couple centuries ago or lunching a spacship into space 50 years ago but eventually they will be solved. There is just no way that THE primary energy source of the universe can’t be made useful for us.
            Why collect sun energy at a distance of 150 million kilometers from the sun when you can collect it directly from the surface.

            The term you are searching for is geothermal energy. Not very effective.

            Organic electronics, thats what they use for flexible displays. Maybe the solar fabric could keep you warm in winter. Surely it won’t be enough watts to power an aircraft carrier.

          3. I am sorry to say so, but it seems as though u have absolutely no idea of the technical requirements for fusion technology. Yes it MIGHT offer means of producing green energy but that will take several more decades at least, if ever! There is absolutely no guarantee that this technology will ever be of any practical use, besides research….so, pragmatic as i am, i stick to ideas that have a realistic chance of implmentation for the next few decades!

          4. I just don’t believe in “green energy”. Everything has it’s costs. With “green energy” they are mostly overlooked. There will never be a balance with nature. That’s just not how things work. Balance -> death,mars,moon. Imbalance -> life,evolution,organic chemistry.

          5. i will end this discussion now, we are focusing on totally different points. If we were to site face to face, maybe we could find a way to agree. However, this way it is fatiguing. Ofc, life it self means imbalance…..besides the point….ofc green energy has its costs, imo besides the point. Enjoy fusion technology, or rather the dreaming of it, u are about my age (me 1982) and we will both NOT live to see the rise of it. Solar power? We will both see a lot of it coming, if u “like” it or “agree” with it, or not, my two cents, thanks for the civilised discussion & greetings from austria!

          6. The sun itself uses nuclear fusion. Yes thats how your solar panels are powered. It fuses hydrogen to helium, then helium to carbon, then carbon to oxygen, then oxygen to iron. Practically all elements of the periodic table are created in the sun through nuclear fusion. So there is nothing “not green” about nuclear fission or nuclear fusion.

      2. You simply won’t be able to supply 7 billion people with solar energy. Let alone feed them when the whole planet is covered with solar panels. This is already a problem with colza fields for biofules which drive up the foodprice in poor countries.
        I stick to the fusion power :)

    2. What to do when the sun stops shining only concerns those who want to go the grid completely (in which case they’ll need to be extremely efficient and use some batteries), but for the vast majority, that’s a non-issue. The goal of solar panels is not to replace grid supplied electricity but to offset it enough to get long term savings (the personal reason) and reduce impact on the environment (the more altruistic reason). The beauty of solar panels is that most of city’s peak electricity requirements are when the sun shines the brightest. This is when people are at work running machines and computers, having lots of lights on and burning megawatts just for air conditioning. At night time when people are sleeping (and the sun isn’t out) electricity requirements are way down. So, solar panels do make lots of sense. Of course, they don’t have immediate payback (which bothers Americans) and being a somewhat new technology some installations may work better than others.

      1. Unfortunatley my longer comment with links is still awaiting approval so here is another try.

        The electricity need is in no way connected to the suns movement. This is wishful thinking. Most electricity is needed(Mo-Fr):
        A. In the morning when everyone is switching on the coffee machine
        B. At noon when everyone is cooking their lunch
        C. In the evening when everyone is coming home from work, is cooking dinner and switching on the tv etc.
        On the weekend it looks a bit different but it has strong peaks as well which don’t correspond to the suns movement.

        In total the solar pannels will only have an insignificant effect on the electricity production. Good for your conscience, not so good for the living standard.

        1. Think of solar energy as just one part of the puzzle! There are many many many many many more ways of green energy production. Also, research in power storing devices show some promising results, i would not count them out too prematurely(produce energy at daytime, consume it when needed). Anyway – a MIX is going to be the answer in the end – my two cents :)

          1. I don’t dispute the progress but future energy needs will be huge if more and more technology is incorporated in everyday life. The cheaper energy gets, the more possibilities open up. In cold areas i.e. there could be an eletric heater under the road to keep it ice free. In the desert there could be cooling devices which make it possible to grow plants.

  6. Scoob – Advice: stick to workouts and stay off the politics bro. And yes … I see this “energy” thing as a totally political issue with an agenda.

    You may be an engineer…I’m a scientist (geophysicist). Some of us can NOT commute via bike. I live 30 miles from my work in a rural area AND I live in a region of the country it is too cold and snowy to even remotely consider riding a bicycle to work for several months out of the year. The bicycle or electric car thing may work for “city folk” but it is NOT feasible for others strictly due to distance. I can ride a bike 50 miles. But it takes 2.5 hours. It would take me almost 2 hours to ride to work everyday and two hours to ride back. Think about it.

    Secondly – I’ve tried the solar panel angle. Spent 25 grand on them to supplement electricity and hot water at our newly constructed custom home. Yes….they had a warranty. They simply did not work as advertised and they created more problems than they solved. In a nutshell they were not worth a damn. As a geophysicist I have come to the conclusion technology has not come far enough to allow for reliable and cost effective power generation from current solar technology. Your mileage may vary. I hope it works for you. Good luck with it. But don’t tell us after the first 6 months…they’ll work great at first. Give the system about 2 years. Then let me know how that works out for ya. ;)

    1. Technology is constantly changing and improving, just because it did not work for you it does not mean that we should give up!

      I disagree with your comment telling Scooby not to get involve in politics; the problem with politics today and for the last few decades is that honest, trustworthy, rightly skilled and caring people are not getting involved. They see the self-serving actors and say “this is not for me” politics effects us all, being ignorant towards politics will make the world a worse place, for you and your future generations. Sitting around complaining or not and not doing anything makes you responsible for any actions your government decides to take… They work for YOU, when they realise you don’t care or don’t know they work for themselves.

      We need MORE specialised skilled people, like you… scientist, engineers, economist, teachers, doctors etc…. to get into politics, nationally and locally. Leaving politics to lawyers and actors will lead to the public being fooled over and over again.

      Once again I applaud Scooby for being Scooby.

      Evil only prevails if good men do nothing!

    1. I don’t know Scooby’s solution, but mine is just to bring clean clothes and have a shower when I get to my workplace (this is useful also for rainy days).

      However, for many commuters this is not needed: if you bike less than, say, four miles you will be as sweaty as if you walked one mile.

      1. I bike to work and most other places in South Florida. I also take spare clothes as I can shower at my job. I find that biking in the morning is actually better than drinking coffee and driving! And as my commute is 6 miles (all flat land), I do sweat alot.

  7. WOW this is so helpful Scooby! Thanks for sharing and encouraging this topic, DIY is the way to go and you’ve certainly made this environmentally friendly project look easier than it sounds. Something that my husband and I can start looking into for our house in San Diego (where the sun seems to never set! haha)…how cool!

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