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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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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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Choosing Roof Attachments for Solar
Dec17

Choosing Roof Attachments for Solar

Choosing equipment is one of the bigger challenges for do it yourself solar installers. Roof attachments seem like a minor part of the system because they don’t cost much compared to the solar panels and inverters but choosing the right ones is very important. It all starts with what kind of roof you have. The type of roof you have determines the type of solar attachment you’ll need The most common residential roof material would be composition shingle, so we’ll start with that. The best options will have a flashing that is at least 12” long so that when you slide it up under the shingles, it reaches the third course above the hole that you are making. There are many brands out there, but one industry staple is the tried and true QuickMount PV. There are other options available for shingle roofs that don’t include that 12” long shingle flashing but it should be said that just because someone makes something and sells it as a solar roof attachment doesn’t automatically mean it is a good option. Tile roofs are common in places like southern California. There are many different styles of roof attachments that can be used on a tile roof. One of the more popular options is a tile roof hook. This is just want it sounds like, it is a hook-shaped pieces of metal that is lag screwed into the rafter and then hooks up around the edge of the tile so you can bolt your racking to it. What you have to keep in mind here is that the paper that is under the tile is the real waterproofing so that is where you need a flashing so many companies (but not all) include a low profile flashing that sits under the tile and provides flashing for the hole in the paper. If you don’t get the flashing with the tile hook, you can buy them separately. Another common option is the tile replacement mounts. There are made in different styles to match S-Tiles, W-Tiles or Flat tiles. The handy thing about these is that they do actually replace the tile so you end up with a few extra tiles that you can use in case you break some tiles during the solar installation process.  Finally, there are universal tile mount kits that include a small flashing for the paper and a large malleable flashing to flash the tile layer. The up side on these is that they will work with any style of tile and are especially useful if you have non-standard shaped, low profile tiles. The down side on them is that...

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Maintenance on Residential Solar
Dec13

Maintenance on Residential Solar

The good news is that residential solar power systems don’t need a lot of maintenance. The bad news is if you were using maintenance as an excuse to not install solar on your home, you are out of excuses.  What do you have to do to properly maintain your system?  It depends on the circumstances. No matter what, you should monitor your system. This is as simple as logging in and checking to make sure it is still producing the right amount of electricity at least every month. More often is better. Some monitoring systems can even be set up to send you an email with the solar production report so you don’t have to remember to check the website.  Many customers watch their monitoring at the beginning and then get lazy about it. If something goes wrong and you weren’t watching, your notification will come in the form of a really high electric bill.  Usually the failure is caused by something silly like someone switched off the PV disconnect not knowing what it was or the PV circuit breaker in your main service panel was tripped. Other times a piece of equipment like an inverter might have failed. Some errors are temporary and the device just needs to be reset, other times it might need to be repaired or replaced. Most inverters have at least a 10 year warranty and some have up to 25 year warranties so repairs will generally be covered under warranty. But you can’t get it fixed until you know it is broken, so monitor your system. Another thing you may have to do it clean your solar panels. This will depend on your climate and surroundings. If it rains regularly, you may not ever have to clean them. If it doesn’t rain much and you are in a high dust area (think desert) it would be a good idea to clean them a few times a year. If there are pine trees dropping needles and sap on your solar panels, you will have to clean them way more often. You can tell what you need to do by looking at them. If there is a layer of dirt, that will block the sun and lower your production so clean it off. If they look clean, leave them alone. Fortunately cleaning solar panels is easy. Most of the time all you need to do is give them a gentle hosing off. You should always turn the system off before you start just in case. You should never use cold water on hot solar panels, it may crack the glass. If you want to wash...

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Should You Be Your Own Solar Installer?
Dec11

Should You Be Your Own Solar Installer?

Choosing to go solar is easy. Everybody wants to save money, right? Choosing whether you should have a contactor install your solar or go the do-it-yourself route is a tougher decision. Yes, installing the solar yourself will save you even more money but is it worth it? First, let’s ask the easy questions. Are you an electrician or roofer? If the answer is yes, then you should be able to handle at least half of the installation process without much difficulty because it involves things you do every day. If you aren’t an electrician, don’t fret, you are not automatically disqualified, if you’re handy, you can still get through it.  The electrical work that you will need to do might be slightly more complicated than regular household wiring but it is not that much different. It also depends on what type of system you are installing. If you do microinverters like Enphase, almost the whole job is regular household 240 volt split phase. Only the wires on the solar panels are DC and those are simply plugged into the microinverters with the connectors that are already on the equipment. That part really is plug and play. If you are doing a string inverter, then it will be DC power from the solar panels to the inverter but it really isn’t that different. The biggest rule is that if you run it inside the house (attic wire runs are common) it must be in metal conduit.  The other part of the electrical work that might not be in every electrician’s daily routine is the conduit. It is common for residential rooftop solar installations to have EMT conduit running from the roof to the ground level equipment. There really isn’t any special things you need to know about bending EMT conduit, it just takes a fairly inexpensive bending tool and some practice. There are also lots of ways to cheat using LB’s and pre-bent 90 or 45 degree sections. You can also avoid a lot of EMT if you run the wiring through the attic. There you can often get away with flexible metal conduit for the DC and if its AC, some jurisdictions will allow Romex with no conduit at all just like any other household wiring.  The real hurdle on doing the electrical work for solar is knowing electrical safety, if you are an electrician, we would hope you already have a good grasp on that. If you aren’t an electrician, there are plenty of other ways to learn electrical safety if you don’t already know it. So now let’s talk about the roofing part of the solar installation....

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