Solar – Yes or No

As the veteran of TWO solar installations, one I originated and the other I inherited, I have a few suggestions for people who think that living in a sunny climate is recommendation enough.

First let me say that whether you have solar or conventional power, you’re still paying for the kilowatts you use. It doesn’t matter if you purchase solar outright, lease it, or have some deal where you pre-pay for a 20 year package of guaranteed monthly kilowatts at a fixed price. You pay for what you consume. If you buy a solar installation for $20,000 and it lasts for 15 years (optimistically), you’re paying $111 per month for your electricity for 15 years. Not bad. But not free.

Just because you pay for something up front, doesn’t mean it is free for it’s lifetime. Plus you have maintenance, which in a very sunny climate, can be a lot. This is the appeal of the pre-paid electricity, or a solar system lease.

So you’ve been paying a huge sum every month from April through October to air condition your home? It seems unreasonable to pay $500-600 a month just to survive in a desert climate, right? Yeah. Maybe. First you need to figure out why your home consumes so much electricity.

Here are some things to consider:

  • How many square feet is your house?
  • Do you have high ceilings?
  • Do you have large pane windows facing west?
  • Do you have sun blocking shades or curtains for each room as the sun moves around?
  • How good is the insulation in your ceiling? Your walls?
  • Is the house a brick or slump block house?
  • How old are your windows and are they aluminum framed, vinyl or fiberglass?
  • How old is the ‘beverage’ fridge you keep in the garage?
  • Do you cook with electricity?
  • Do you have proper attic ventilation, or a reasonably new coat of reflective roof sealant
  • How big is your AC unit? (too large or too small can consume more power than needed).
  • Where is your HVAC ducting and what condition is it in?
  • Do you have ceiling fans?
  • Have you swapped out your old incandescent light bulbs for CFL (compact fluorescent lights) or LED (light emitting diodes) bulbs?
  • Do you have a pool, and have you upgraded to a variable speed pool pump?

This is called an ‘energy audit’ or ‘assessment’. Most electricity providers will do one for you, or hook you up with a company that performs these services for a reasonable fee. Or you can just DIY, and be an energy sleuth.

Some things that cause a home to heat up like large windows in the wrong place, or a brick facing that absorbs the heat and releases it into your home at night, are going to be tough to correct. But there are many things you can control. Start cheap with energy efficient light bulbs, proper window coverings, and ceiling fans. Look at upgrading windows and appliances if you can afford it. Add insulation where you can. Upgrading an old pool pump is a huge savings. Eliminate your old drink fridge, or upgrade to one that is specially insulated to function properly in a hot garage.

Lastly, make sure that any solar you might have installed on your home … is actually working. Swab off the dust every six months. Keep an eye on the amount of kilowatts the array is producing. And, as in our our case, make sure the solar has been turned on. We inherited a system that had been installed by one company complete with a contract to monitor and maintain the array for 20 years and guarantee its output. That company went out of business. The contract was sold. Lather, rinse, repeat. The company we are working with is the third solar company to own the contract, and we are the second owner. They are happy to bill you for the monthly lease, but not so interested in resolving problems

After two weeks of moving into the house, triaging what needed to be fixed first, and beginning the process of interviewing tradespeople, The Wife one day wandered along the side of the house and noticed that the solar inverter was set to OFF. In spite of my previous experience with solar… or perhaps because of it, it never occurred to me that the solar wasn’t producing any electricity. So I didn’t look.

Anyhow, many many many phone calls and emails later to the solar lease holder, and The Wife finally managed to get someone out to perform a diagnostic and tell us why it was turned off. (about a month later) So out comes a perky solar tech who looks like he might have been doing this for six months. He scopes it out, and diagnoses the problem. THE SOLAR HAS NEVER BEEN TURNED ON. This is why the inverter and array meter only show 16 kilowatts. That is what has been produced by the array since its installation in 2015. (probably produced during install testing) There is nothing wrong with the solar on the house. Nothing. In fact, he pronounces it “quite good”, except for the fact that the plastic face plate protector on the inverter that came from the factory never got peeled off, and has since melted onto the plastic of the face plate. Oh, and the metering? That requires a wifi enabled part that should be placed inside the home near the internet source, to talk to the wifi enabled part in a separate box next to the junction box. The face plate and the wifi receiver have been on order ever since. I might have to sic The Wife on the repairs department again.

To sum it up, we bought this house from a woman who had solar installed on the house after the first five years, but who never realized it wasn’t running. This leads me to the hypothesis that the house was a rental for the entire time she owned it, and around the time of the install she got a new tenant who didn’t realize that the electric bill should be MUCH less than they were paying… and since the tenant started paying the electric bill and never complained, the owner assumed that the solar was fine and paid the solar lease on a monthly basis, secure in the wisdom of her investment. Mind you… same person who never replaced the single pane windows, so not the sharpest tool in the workshop.

Meanwhile in the last 22 days the solar has produced 742 kWh which is on pace to meet the average needs of a home in Arizona at 1000 kilowatt hours. A bit more insulation, some weather proof doors, and we should see a very small electric bill to go with our $117 a month solar lease.

So, is solar worth it? Only if you also invest in making your home more efficient (and, not incidentally, more comfortable), and you pay enough attention to make sure that this big investment is actually, um… working.

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