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Where Should You Install Solar?
Jan21

Where Should You Install Solar?

Everyone knows solar panels can save you money, but where should they go?  First, let’s discuss location on a larger scale. There is no place in the United States where solar wouldn’t work. You might think you it is too rainy, too cold or you live too far north and don’t get enough sun but let’s drop those excuses.  There is no location that gets too much rain. Even in Seattle with 226 cloudy days and 38 inches of rainfall per year gets enough sun for solar panels to be worthwhile because solar panels will still produce electricity on cloudy days, just not as much as they would on sunny days.  Too far north is not a problem, but there are things to consider. Unless you are at the equator, solar is going to produce more power and in summer and less power in winter because of the angle of the sun and the amount of daylight hours. The further north you go, the more extreme this is. In Alaska, solar works great in the summer but it won’t do much in the winter. In the continental US, you will still get solar power in the winter and with most grid-tied systems you would be on yearly net metering billing with your electric company so it doesn’t really matter what month the power was produced. Many people think solar panels don’t work when in the cold, but they actually work better when it’s cold out. Cold temperatures can increase solar production by as much as 10%. The other side of that is really hot temperatures will lower production by 10% but that still means your getting a lot of free power from the sun, so don’t sweat it. So now that you know you are in the right geographic location for solar, let’s talk about where to install solar panels on a smaller scale. If you have a few acres of land you will probably have plenty of room for a ground mounted solar system. Even a half acre yard might have enough space that isn’t shaded by the house, depending on the layout. Ground mounts have advantages in that they are easier and safer to install (no lugging solar panels to the roof or worries about fall hazards) and you also have more options on orientation. You can check out our article on ground mounts vs roof mounts to get a better understanding of whether or not ground mounted solar is right for you. If your yard is small, then your roof will be the best place for the solar panels. Solar panels facing south will produce the...

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Should You Add Batteries to Your Solar?
Jan14

Should You Add Batteries to Your Solar?

Fast food order takers ask “Do you want fries with that?” every time you order a burger and now solar installers are asking all their customers if they want batteries with their solar. Add-ons are all the rage so if you have solar or are planning to install solar soon, you need to decide if you should add those batteries.  One thing that might sway your battery decision is power outages. Many people don’t realize it, but a standard grid-tied solar power system will not provide any power if there is no utility power. The only exception to this is that SMA inverters can provide you with one power outlet that will operate small appliances when the sun is out. This is handy if the sun is out and you need to charge your cell phone, but if it’s cloudy or night time, you are out of luck.    So if you have a lot of power outages in your area, batteries might be a good idea. Even if you don’t have a lot of power outages, but having one would cause a serious problem because you require an oxygen concentrator or you like to keep a side of beef in your freezer, you might think about those batteries. What equipment you need depends on what solar equipment you have or are getting but the parts for a battery back-up system to run small things like an oxygen concentrator or freezer might only run a few thousand dollars. A Do-it-yourselfer with some electrical experience can install a simple system fairly easily. If you are thinking in terms of disaster preparedness and want to be able to run your air conditioning, electric hot water heater and swimming pool pump during the zombie apocalypse, the battery system will be far more expensive and complex. You can still install it yourself, but the parts might run into the tens of thousands of dollars depending on how extravagant you want to live during long term power outages. For some people, it is worth the peace of mind. Back-up power aside, there might be other reasons to say yes to the batteries. Changes in electric rates are a big reason why batteries are becoming more popular. Time of use rates are becoming mandatory for some electric customers and this may decrease their solar savings. Solar produces the most power around noon when the electricity is cheap and then electricity is more expensive at 8pm when the sun has gone down. A battery system can store the electricity generated during the “off-peak” cheap times so you can use it during the “peak” expensive time which will...

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Types of Solar Panels
Jan09

Types of Solar Panels

We all know installing solar panels will save you money, that part is simple. But when it comes time to purchase your equipment, you will need to decide what type of solar panels you want. There are three basic types of solar panels available for residential systems – monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin film.   The monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels are the more popular and these are considered “First Generation” solar panels. Both of these types are made with silicon PV cells but the difference is how they are made.  Example of Monocrystalline Solar Panel Monocrystalline PV cells are super-thin slices of a silicon crystal called an ingot. The ingots are grown in the PV factories and their natural shape is round so the slices are also round. In the old days, they made the monocrystalline solar panels with the fully rounded cells but this created a lot of “dead” space in the solar panel because the area around the round cells did not produce anything. To make better use of the space in a rectangular solar panel, they started cutting of the rounded edges of the monocrystalline PV cells but they don’t make them completely square because they don’t want to waste too much of the expensive crystal slice. When you look at a monocrystalline solar panel, you can see all the solar cells have rounded corners which means there are small rectangles of the backsheet showing through. When the backsheet is white, these rectangles are very obvious. If the blacksheet is black, then you will have to look very close to see them. These little rectangles between the solar cells are how you can easily identify a monocrystalline solar panel. Example of Poly Solar Panel Polycrystalline PV cells are made by melting fragments of silicon crystals together. Because they are made in molds, they can be any shape, so they are square to avoid any wasted space in the rectangle of the whole solar panel. The square shape of the solar cell is how you identify a polycrystalline solar panel from the monocrystalline where the cells have the rounded corners. Thin film solar panels are considered “Second Generation”. There are different types of thin film solar panels but the most popular are amorphous silicon which are made with silicon that is not in crystalline form allowing for flexibility, and the non-silicon Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) and Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) solar panels. Of these three types, the monocrystalline panels are the most efficient which means that you will get the most wattage per square foot with them. Polycrystalline modules come in as a close second on efficiency. When deciding...

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How to Pass a Solar Inspection
Jan07

How to Pass a Solar Inspection

If you are going to install your own solar, you are going to have to deal with the city or county inspector. This can be easy or it can create a lot of extra work after you thought you were done with your installation. Some of it depends on the inspector, but most of it depends on you. Let’s talk about the things you can do to make the solar inspection a breeze. First, do your installation correctly. You would think this goes without saying, but it often happens that corners are cut during the installation or substitutions are made for equipment that you don’t have on hand.  Also, there are times when you may not know what “correct” is. One of the more confusing parts of installing solar is grounding. To make this aspect even more difficult, different cities and counties often have different rules. You should read our previous article that gives an overview of grounding for solar but just to cover some basics, make sure your solar racking is grounded per the racking manufacturer’s instructions and make any splices in your grounding conductor with permanent crimps instead of using wire nuts.  You will also want to know ahead of time what the city or county is expecting for your existing house grounding. The rules have changed over time and the older your home is, the more likely it is that you will have to upgrade or modify the existing grounding system. For example, you may have to add a second grounding rod that wasn’t required when your house was built, but now the inspector wants to see it. Your best bet is to ask questions about this at your local building department before you schedule your inspection so that you can have any necessary modifications completed before the inspector arrives. The other thing you should do before the inspection is document any “as built” changes to your installation. For example, the plans that were approved by the building department show the solar panel layout but you had to make a change to the layout when installing because there was a roof vent in the way. Sometimes inspectors can approve these “as built” changes on the fly, but more often than not, the inspector will want these changes submitted to the building department and approved so that the system they are inspecting matches the approved plans exactly. On the day of inspection, make sure you are there to walk through the system with the inspector. Before the inspection appointment, take the covers off all the equipment so the inspector can see the wiring inside. Set up a...

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DIY Solar Monitoring
Jan02

DIY Solar Monitoring

So you have all the solar panels installed on your roof, your wiring is completed and the system is powered on but are you done yet? No, there is one more important thing to do. You have to hook up the PV system monitoring.    You solar will work without monitoring but the monitoring is how you know it is still working. In general, solar doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, but once in a while, things go wrong. A breaker could trip, someone could turn off the solar disconnect by mistake, an inverter can have a fault that prevents it from working until it is reset, a squirrel could chew through a wire on the roof – you get the idea. Without a monitoring system, you may not realize you have a problem until you get an electric bill as high as they used to be before you installed the solar. With monitoring, you can catch a problem and fix it well before you rack up a high bill with the electric company. To install the monitoring, the first step is to get your solar hooked up to the internet. Fortunately, most solar monitoring is pretty easy to install these days so you don’t have to be an IT genius to accomplish this. When purchasing your inverter (or microinverter) equipment make sure the distributor knows you intend to install the monitoring so they can make sure they include all the parts you will need. These parts will also include instructions and if they don’t you can easily find them on the manufacturer’s website.  The one thing you will want to do during the installation process is capture the serial numbers of each microinverter or DC optimizer in your system before you install the solar panels over them. They usually have stickers that you can pull off and stick to the layout in your solar plans (or any piece of paper). This creates a map so that if one of these devices fails, you know right where it is. Without this map, you can spend a lot of time hunting through your system trying to find the optimizer or microinverter has failed. The rest of the magic happens after the system is installed. One of the biggest challenges can be that your wifi signal is too weak at the inverter or system monitor location. This can be easily solved by purchasing a wifi extender and installing it between the router and solar device. Many of these just plug into any outlet between the router and the solar monitoring device and boost the wifi signal so that it will be strong...

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