PV Solar, save money and help the planet! Earth Day April 22 2013

PV Solar, save money and help the planet! Earth Day April 22 2013

The politicians of the world will not save the planet, WE will thru our individual actions. We need to stop blaming the politicians and take care of the problem ourselves and we CAN make a big difference. Lets talk solar energy by starting with the myths about photovoltaic (PV) solar:

1) Myth: Solar is too expensive. Its NOT. The prices have dropped so dramatically that you can now get a panel that makes 240 watts of power for about $300 making it very cost competitive with other sources.
2) Myth: Solar takes too long to pay for itself. Maybe in the old days it did but these days, even without tax incentives and credits, it still makes economic sense – especially if you do the installation yourself. Because the cost of the panels and inverters has dropped so dramatically, the major portion of the system cost is now labor so DIY makes a LOT of sense. Last earth day I installed 4000W of solar panels which cost $12000 but they save us $2000 a year in energy costs and a federal 30% tax credit brings the cost down to $8400 so in 4 years the panels will have paid for themselves and for the 21 years after that, they will be providing free power. An $8400 investment pays $2000 per year, thats a 24% return on investment, you cant do that good on Wall street!
3) Myth: Panels take too much energy to make. If you look at the studies that have been done, it takes about 2 years for a panel to be energy even, that is, it takes 2 years to make enough power to build another panel. After year 2 and for the rest of the life of the panel (typically 25 years or more), the panel provides free energy with no emissions.
4) Myth: Building solar panels damages the environment. Well yes, all forms of energy production harm the environment, not just solar. Three mile island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have all exploded and let huge amounuts of radioactive materials into the environment as well as having produced million of tons of radioactive waste that has yet to find a permanent home. Petroleum energy is certainly not clean either. Coal strip mining has destroyed thousands of square miles of wilderness and oils spills, drilling accidents have polluted thousands of miles of ocean coastline. Honestly, I think solar is a lot cleaner than any of these. The semiconductor manufacturing process does use some nasty stuff but at least in the USA, the EPA keeps it to a minimum.

Before we go into how you can install your own solar panels, lets look at an option that is a lot more inviting to many who dont have the money, time, or ability to install their own solar PV panels. There are companies like solarcity.com that will install as many solar panels on your roof for FREE, of course there is a catch. You have to agree to buy power from them for a long time to make their investment worthwhile. If you move, the next owners are bound to the same contract. The electic rate is typically set lower than your current rate so that you save money from the very first day without spending a dime. You save money and help reduce greenhouse gasses at the same time, all without spending a dime. All you do is ‘loan’ them your rooftop to install their panels.  With one single phone call, you can drastically lower your carbon footprint and save money at the same time!  Of course, to do this you need to own the home. If you rent, tell your landlord about this and ask if they are interested!

To us, it was clear that the solar panels were such a good investment that we HAD to buy them. Energy costs only go up and we are now completely isolated from the price increases. Lets talk about self install, as I mentioned its mush easier to self-install solar PV panels than it seems. I you are handy around the house you can do this all by yourself, lets step thru the process

Installing Your Own Solar PV Panels

Step 1: Visit your cities building inspection office

First stop is your city office to pick up a copy of the buidling codes for solar panels, typically they have a pamphlet describing exactly what you need to get a permit. Dont be tempted to do this without a permit. Contrary to what some bad contractors would have you believe, its very easy to get permits and pass inspections IF you build safely. Contrary to most laws, the building codes are actually straight forward and make sense. Building codes are there for YOUR safety and the safety of others. If you make sure your installation is safe, you will pass – period. There are four common sense things you want to avoid:

1) Electroction of you or utility personnal
2) Fires
3) Structural collapse of your house
4) Wind damage

The pamplet will most likely outline all the things that are required to prevent all of the above. Before you worry too much, the manufacturers of solar products do 95% of the hard work for you! They provide you with the tools to specify a bill of materials for your system and provide you with the wiring diagrams that the building deparment will require to issue the permits.

Step 2: Choose your inverter

Seems like a rather odd thing to do but it is the logical first choice. You cant really mix and match purchases, everything must be 100% compatible with everything else. As you proceed down your decision path, fewer and fewer options are available. The last thing you want to do is spend hours drawing plans and that you have to redo everything because the panels you choose are not compatible with the racks so you have to get different sized panels. If you make the decisions in the order I suggest here it will minimize wasted effort and minimize your cost. The type of inverter is the biggest decision you will make, there are two types the shared inverter and the micro-inverters. With micro-inverters there is an inverter which converts the low voltage DC to 240VAC on each and every panel. With a shared inverter, its just one big honking inverter that takes the DC voltage from all the panels and converts that to 240VAC. There is a cost advantage to using a shared inverter but thats the only advantage of the shared inverter. The micro-inverters have the following advantages:

1) no single point of failure, each panel is its own independent generation facility
2) shade blocking one panel does not affect others
3) ease of expanding solar array at a later date
4) easy to monitor and diagnose.

I used the Enphase micro-inverters and found it to be the most amazing, highest quality, well engineered system I have ever used. The entire system is like a lego set, everything just plugs together. The pre-wired cables plug into the pre-wired micro-inverters which just snap onto the panels. The only wiring is in taking the 240VAC down to your houses power panel and if you are not comfortable with that, you can hire an electicion to do that little piece. One caution is that there are at least three different type of connectors provided on solar panels and none of them are compatible. When you order your micro-inverters you need to make sure that you order the connector type that your solar panels use!

Step 3: Choose your panels

The old days of the poly-crystaline panels being inferior to the mono-crystaline panels is gone in my opinion, its just a matter of price per watt, quality, and the reputation of the manufacturer. Choose the size (watts) of the panels you want then go price shopping. Remember that panels are very heavy so shipping costs can add up, make sure to factor in shipping costs when you are making buying decisions. We bought from infinigi.com and found them to have amazing customer service but I’m sure there are many other reliable companies out there. We paid about $320 for each of our 240 watt panels.

Step 4: Choose your racking system

Some might be tempted to build their own mounts, dont! Not only will it be a lot of work but it wont save you money in the end and you wont pass inspection. The racking systems save you incredible amouts of time because of the way that everything bolts together so easily and quickly. The great thing is that the manufacturers have online tools that tell you everything you need to buy. The last thing you want to do is be up on the roof with your two tons of panels only to find that the panel hold down brackets are for panels thinner than yours! I used the

http://unirac.com/residential/residential-products/solar-mount-residential

They have an online tool where you design your whole system based upon your model of solar panel and it gives you a complete parts list as well as the pages of structural calculations that the building deparments want to see for your permits.

Step 5: Now complete your building permit package

Roof Plan For Solar PermitsWiring Diagram For PV Solar PermitRoof Cross Section For Solar Permits

Now that you have all the system components specified, go ahead and complete your package for the building permit and place your order for your system. Dont be intimidated by this package. When they ask for drawings, they dont need to be done by an architecht – you can do them! Just make sure they are to scale and have all the necessary information.

Installing Your Panels

Believe it or not, the hardest part of the project is over before you go up on the roof! Understanding the right things to order and how things plug into each other is the hardest part, the actual installation is quite easy by comparison!

Solar Panel Installation, step 1: Layout lines

Measure and snap chalk lines in the positions where you will be installing the rails. Rails are the structural memebers that the solar panels clamp to. You will have determined the location of these when you drew your plans.

Solar Panel Installation, step 2: Install mounting feet

PV Solar, save money and help the planet! Earth Day April 22 2013
The rails are attached to the house by mounting feet. Depending on the type of roof you have, you might need some fancy feet with flashing. If you have a traditional composition roof, they are cheap and easy. In any case, the hardest part is in insuring that the large, strong, lag screw provided with the foot goes right in the middle of the roof rafter. This lag screw is what is going to keep your panels from flying off the roof in that thunderstorm and it can only do this if its firmly in the wood. I actually found it easier to get into the attic and drill upward, that way I was 100% sure of getting the hole precisely in the right place.

Solar Panel Installation, step 3: Bolt rails to feet

PV Solar, save money and help the planet! Earth Day April 22 2013
This is really easy if you have purchased a racking sytem like the Solarmount I used. It literally bolts on in 10 minutes.

Solar Panel Installation, step 4:Install micro-inverters and cabling

PV Solar, save money and help the planet! Earth Day April 22 2013PV Solar, save money and help the planet! Earth Day April 22 2013PV Solar, save money and help the planet! Earth Day April 22 2013
For most, this is the hardest part of the whole process. If you buy the Enphase system, everything snaps together easily, just follow the instructions. The work comes in connecting all the 240VAC wiring and running it down to the disconnect switch you will install next to your power meter. 240VAC wiring needs to be in metal conduit and connections made in waterproof boxes. Typically an installation will have several rows of panels so the conduit needs to connect each row to the next and then run to the disconnect switch. Installing the conduit and pulling the wires is straight forward but its a fair amount of hard, physical labor in rather uncomfortable locations. You can pay to have this done or do it yourself. Typically, the worst run is from the disconnect switch at your power meter to the first row of panels because this run is long and typically goes thru your hot and cramped attic. At this point, you will probably be required to have your first city inspection. Remember the inspector is not your enemy, they are your free expert advisor who will make sure that everything is done safely. Feel free to ask their advice if you are not sure about anything.

Solar Panel Installation, step 5: Clamping panels to rails

This is surprisingly anti-climatic but it is a two person job. Attempting doing this by yourself could easily end with your $350 panel slding down the roof and shattering on the patio below. To install the panels, just snap the connector on the solar panels into the connectors on the microinverter and bolt the panel down – takes at most 5 minutes per panel.

Solar Panel Installation, step 6: Get final inspections

Solar PV Installation Permit Approved!

Before you can flip that switch and start making power, you typically need two separate inspections. The first is your final city inspection, the second is from your local utility. Your utility company usually will need to install a special elecrtic meter which lets you sell power back to them and this takes awhile to get scheduled so get the paperwork started at least a month ahead of time.

Solar Panel Installation, step 7: Flip that switch and smile when your meter runs backwards!

Power Generated This Week

43 thoughts on “PV Solar, save money and help the planet! Earth Day April 22 2013”

  1. Way to go! But to be honest, if you want the greenhouse gass emissions gone these steps need to be taken.

    – Industry regulations & modernzation of production methods, while usa host some of the most advanced methods, it also hosts one of the oldest ones.
    – Build houses from materials that conserve energy such as 3 layer glass to windows etc..
    – Recycle the factory/production facilities heat which can be used to heat buildings. (Like most modern european countries do)
    – Take care waste more efficiently.
    – Recycle usable materials.
    – Avoid using non-recyclable materials.
    – Use more efficient cars.

    FACT: When domestic/Factory energy consumption lowers, the greenhouse gasses go down as less electricity etc is required. It also lowers fuel consumption and less need for nuclear plants.

    Finland is small country located in north of europe. It’s greenhouse gass emisions are the some of the lowest in the planet, not because it’s small, but because it has one of the most efficient re-clycling, re-using and construction methods on the planet. By living here, you can kinda see what’s the issue with most large countries in the world. Lack of convinient efficieny. Also it seems it’s doing rather well in euro-chrisis compared to other countries in europe. Also the education level is one of the best in the planet. Also it has the higest quantity of high iq/mensa people compared the amount of it’s population. Also it seems the people seem to be one of the richest in terms of money per capita. Also building and production is one of the most efficient on the planet. It also has one of the highest suicide ratios in the world. So efficient in everyway it seems.

    PS: Have you noticed that americans allways talk about taxes, infact i think there are 2 things in world that get equall amount of raportation: Middle east bombings and americans complaining about taxes. :P

    The thing is: The way USA’s money policy works will change, or the economy will colapse. The longer it takes, the worse it will get. So reforms, are happening and they are required, to maintain the quality of life for all people. For people. by the people…

    1. I am not saying that all is well here either, but some modernization and efficiency increase wouldn’t do bad for usa either in terms of greenhouse gass emisions. :) And about high taxes: You give up something, you gain something, even end up helping somebody else in need. :)

  2. I am sorry to inform that your PV installation is heavily subsidized. Assuming that you
    live in Los Angeles, CA this installation should deliver around 6-7000
    kWh/year. I don’t know the exact market-price of electricity in California, but
    assuming it’s comparable to the price in my country Denmark, it’s 7 cents/kWh.
    This means that your PV installation is generating electricity worth of 4-500
    USD/year. So the rest of the 2000 $ you save plus the 30 % tax credit is
    subsidized in one way or another – I don’t know how they are bringing this subsidization
    about in California.

    A Google search tells me that you might be paying as much as 30 cents/kWh for
    electricity in California. The trick is that much of this goes to depreciation
    and maintenance of the electricity grid – and maybe taxes. You are still
    heavily dependent on the electrical grid, so if you are not paying for that
    service it’s a way of subsidization your PV installation. If you are not paying
    taxes on the electricity you are using (like everybody else) that’s another way
    of subsidization.

    I am an Energy Engineering Student and in my country we have had a recent debate on whether PV was too heavily subsidized. In Denmark we were approaching a rate of return
    of 16 % on a 25 year timescale for household investments in PV. Recently the government changed the subsidizing regime, bringing the rate of return down to only a few pct.

    The fun thing is that the IRR would be 0,34 % if your cut all the subsidization
    assuming that you are generating electricity worth of 500 USD/year. The IRR is
    -1,5 % if you are generating 400 USD/year.

    The conclusion is that PV is just about price competitive on the electrical market in
    California. Never the les the government are subsidizing the technology in a
    way that brings the IRR up to an astonishing level. One could ask whether it is
    good use of public money to reward home PV investments this heavily. The problem might be that legislation has not followed recent declines in PV prices.

  3. Keep up the good work Scooby! You show how to take care of yourself, other people and the environment, and that is what really matters in this world. I was helping my parents building up their house and was very happy to here them saying they will install solar panels to the roof. And we live in northern part of Finland!

  4. While this is a nuanced topic (I’m no fan of the green lobby for political reasons), when you divorce the issue from the politics I’m all in favor of helping the environment, not to mention cost savings, so I’ve been interested in solar energy for a long time. Thanks for this really helpful and informative post, Scooby.

  5. I admire you for you give away all your knowledge and resources to us all and don’t ask for 1 dime. In the winter are you still producing energy or do you borrow from the grid? Any experience with Wind Turbines?

    1. In winter, our electricity production is about 1/3 what it is in the summer. You just have to look at the years average. Actually, every day all year long we sell power during the day and buy it back at night.

  6. A mini windmill is an alternativ as well, I’m a pretty recent graduated energy-technician with focus on windpower. (Resident in sweden, more windhours then sunhours). Our law basically forbids us to touch any electrical parts/wires assosciated with the house wiring(meaning a proffesional is required). However we have a smililar system to reduce the installation cost. Every year our goverment poors some money towards a green initiative fund, where anyone can apply to recive some financial help with thier installation(sun/wind).

    I’ve written an master’s dissertation(dont know its the most accurate translation) on micro energy production. Wind power gives a greater payoff then the solar panels ever will(with todays models atleast) altough wind might require a larger invesment(ofc the wheater conditions have to be taken into consideration etc etc) I dont know if you use a boiler to heat your water to your household, if you do however, a tank on the roof along with a sun catcher can cut quite abit out of your bill as well.

    1. I agree. If its windy where you live, wind power is simpler and easier than PV solar. I could whip up a 5kW wind turbine with parts from the junkyard – trouble is, no city in America would let me use it. They are forbidden in any urban or suburban areas due to noise and height.

    1. Using your solar panels to power your house during power outages is actually more difficult than it would at first appear, the reason is safety. When the grip power turns off, the solar panels must immediately stop feeding power into the grid. The reason is that if the power is down, there is a good chance a lineman will have to go up a pole to fix something and you would electrocute him with your solar power if it didnt immediately turn off. You can buy electronics that makes your grid “island-able” but as you can imagine, the utility companies are very, very picky about the quality, reliability, and safety of such devices so they are rather expensive. If you really want to coast thru power outages then perhaps being off-grid is a better option, just get your own battery array and be your own utility company. Be warned though that adding batteries drastically increases the cost of the solar panel system, maybe 50% to 100% more. Its a lot of maintenance cost too because those lead acid batteries need to be replaced every 5-7 years.

    1. The good thing about solar is that you can completely justify on either of the two fronts along: cost savings or environmental benefits. Many who poo-poo the environmental can see the financial benefits.

  7. I don’t know what part of the country you live in but do you have an electric bill now? This is such a great idea. I would rather pay the solar panel makers than the electric company anyday!

  8. Leonidas Ventresca

    Scooby and to scoobys community… I live in Delaware, and I do not really have the type of weather to install solar panels. It’s not really sunny all year along enough to truly get the energy. What do you guys think?

    1. The east coast is PERFECT for solar, why? Because your electric bills are highest in summer because of air conditioning. When its hot, the sun is shining and your panels are pumping out the watts :) Any solar installation is going to put out 90% of its power in spring, summer, and fall and only 10% in the winter. Its the low sun angle that is more of a problem than the clouds.

    2. I’m in Green Bay, Wisconsin and am on a time of use plan with the local utility which means that I pay double for electricity during the day Mon-Fri (50 hours/week) and half price for the other 118 hours/week.

      Since I have a home office, with computers that run 24/7, I installed an Outback sine wave inverter/charger and enough battery enabling me to operate off grid for up to 12 hours in the event of a power outage. The inverter behaves much like a UPS in that it will auto switch over to battery power during a power outage and charge and maintain the batteries while grid power is available. Since the Outback is designed for renewable energy applications, it is very efficient with much less parasitic parasitic power loss compared to a typical UPS and the output is a pure sine wave.

      I originally set it up to go off grid weekdays during peak hours allowing me to run on battery power and then go back on grid during off peak hours recharging the battery bank at the discount rate. I did cut my electricity bill by more than half but I realize that the cost of maintaining a battery bank that is being deep cycled 250 days/year would consume most of what I was saving from time shifting my utility usage.

      So I have added solar panels and a charge controller not as a primary power source but to supplement the missing grid power during peak hours and extend the service life of the battery bank.

      The reality is that on a sunny day, the solar array produces enough power that I am not drawing on the batteries at all. Even on rainy days or during winter, the drain on the batteries is reduced to less than half of what it was without PV array plus I can go off grid anytime there is enough sunlight to carry the load without having to cycle the batteries at all.

      The life span of lead acid batteries increases exponentially if you reduce the depth of discharge cycles. One can expect to get 15-20 years from a battery that has not been abused.

      After two years, I am still using the original bank of batteries with the solar array and in the event of a power outage have the ability to function for days off grid (depending on the amount sunlight).

      1. Leonidas Ventresca

        Wow… My father is similar because he has a home office also so he runs computers very often. He is a computer consultant. Do you think that if I were to go to him with your information, and everyone elses he would truly think about it? I remember asking him about solar panels and he claims that it doesn’t create a lot of energy so it’s kind of a waste of an investment. But you claim that it can help your batteries, and helps during power outages. That is very interesting.

  9. I don’t want to be too negative – it’s an important topic. But (1) your tax credit means someone else is paying for your savings, and (2) you are assuming your panels will keep working – and at 100% efficiency – for 25 years. Have they been tested for 25 years? (We all know the answer is no – estimated life is based on theory, which is subjective and highly vulnerable to spin on the facts.)
    I hope it works out well for you though.

    1. The tax credit is very small and made no difference at all in our investment decision. If we didnt get the 30% federal tax credit it would take 5 years instead of 4 to pay them off and we would ‘only’ get 20 years of free electricity after the payoff instead of 21 years – no difference in the scheme of things.

    2. By the way, if you want to talk tax credits and subsidies, the petroleum based economy is probably the most heavily subsidized of all energy sources. Our presence in the middle east required to keep a stable and inexpensive source of crude oil has cost us trillions and the taxpayers foot that bill.

      1. Kurt -boi; I’m not American. Even if I were, how would that be relevant to my statement of clear facts?
        I have no objection to green technologies, only the lies and distorted facts trotted out by those selling it.

        You are too quick to make assumptions. You assumed I’m American, you assume all the green propaganda is true, and you assume these products work and last as promised. Maybe instead of throwing insults you should learn some critical thinking, and question things.
        If these products are as good as claimed they wouldn’t need subsidies. They would sell themselves like hot cakes. If the suppliers had true confidence in them, they could give precise figures on their effectiveness and an absolute guarantee: “This product will pay for itself within X years, or we will pay you the difference.” Come on manufacturers, step up to the mark. Back up your claims with some real commitment. What are you afraid of?

        1. There are Chinese companies you can buy from if you don’t want to support subsidized companies (unless you count subsidized by Chinese government, in which case they all are). How do you know this company is subsidized in particular. Solyndra and a couple other of the big name subsidized solar power companies have long since closed their doors.

  10. Thank you scooby for taking so much of your time to be such a positive force in the world and giving people such good and honest advise, and most importantly leading by example if you ran for president i would vote for you!

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