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The Decade of Solar
Dec27

The Decade of Solar

Raise a glass to a successful 2019 in solar, as the final Q3 of the calendar year has proven to be the most successful one of the decade. Heck, with a statement like that, it might be better to raise the entire bottle!  But first, a quick overview of how the story played out. After steady double-digit-percent increases in the early years of this past decade, U.S. residential solar experienced growing pains from 2016-17, as that nation’s presidential leaders changed from being more coal than solar-friendly, diverting subsidies towards fossil fuels over renewables. Tariffs on Photovoltaic hardware loomed ominously on the horizon and national installers pulled back in critical solar territories such as California and the Northeast. It seemed that the solar market was receding from its peak-installation crest, reaching its high-water-mark of annual installed capacity of 687 MWdc, set in Q1 2016. That all changed in Q3 2019, however, as the Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) ticked out its final remaining months of a 30 percent payback, before beginning to phase out according to the following schedule: (CREDIT: Image provided by SEIA shows the gradual phase-out timeline of the Solar Investment Tax Credit.) Enacted in 2006 the ITC offsets the cost of solar for residential consumers by 30 percent. Experts estimate the subsidy has helped the solar industry grow more than 10,000% creating hundreds-of-thousands of jobs and generating billions in revenue. Next year’s phase-out of the ITC has inspired many home-owners on the fence about installing solar to seize upon the financial opportunity. The result was that in Q3 2019 consumers installed 712 MWdc of solar.  (CREDIT: Image from SEIA WoodMackenzie Power and Renewables Insights Report) Now, as the solar market readies to step into a new decade and matures out of its early product adopters in many North American states, a new report by Solar Energy Industries and WoodMackenzie Power and Renewables gives a glimpse into what the future of solar might look like.  California Love When it comes to being a national leader for residential solar installations, Tupac’s California Love lyrics are fitting: “Now let me welcome everybody to the Wild Wild West A state that’s untouchable like Eliot Ness…we in that Sunshine state….” Well, you get the idea.  The point is that California was and is projected to remain the state leading the residential solar market charge. In the big Q3 solar market performance of 2019, California accounted for approximately 41% of the nation’s installs which is roughly the equivalent of 300 MW.  Even though the ITC will begin phasing out in the subsequent years, the residential solar forecast for California is still promising. Fueled...

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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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What Do Batteries Do for Solar?
Nov20

What Do Batteries Do for Solar?

Everybody already knows what solar panels do. They turn sunlight into electricity. But what does it do to add batteries to the solar panel system? The short answer is that the batteries store the electricity that the solar panels generate. So let’s talk about what energy storage can do for you. If you are installing an off-grid solar system, storing the power is going to be important. Solar panels only generate electricity during daylight hours and in most cases you are going to want to use some of that energy at night. There are some exceptions like solar well pumps for irrigation or for filling a large holding tank. In these cases, it is okay for the pumps to stop working at night so the solar panels without batteries are going to be just fine. But if your off-grid system is running just about anything else, you will want to store the energy produced during the day so you can use it at night.  Of course, most of you are installing grid-tied solar which makes the batteries less necessary, but they still might be useful. For one thing, even on the sunniest day, most grid-tied solar will not produce any power when the utility company has a power outage. The one exception is an SMA inverter which can be set up with one outlet so you have a small amount of power but only when the sun is shining and it is barely enough to run a refrigerator. If you want things in your house like the lights, fans, computers, microwave and dishwasher to work when power is off, you will need to add batteries to your solar. How much battery you put in will depend on what you want to run but it will typically be $10,000 – $20,000 to run your smaller appliances but if you want your whole house to work when the power is out you are going to need to spend some big bucks. There are also some financial reasons to install the batteries but it depends on your electric rate and net metering rules. A classic example is the time-of-use (TOU) rates which are getting more popular in places like California. Being on a TOU rate means you will pay a high (peak) rate like $.30/kwh on weekdays between the hours of 4pm – 9pm and a low rate like $.15/kwh for the other hours of the day. Solar is going to generate the most power around noon when the electric rates are cheap so the batteries can store that power and you can use it at 8pm when it’s too dark to...

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Grid-Tied Solar Interconnection Options
Nov19

Grid-Tied Solar Interconnection Options

If you are installing solar to save money on your electric bill, it is going to be a “grid-tied” system. When we talk about the “grid” we are talking about the electric company’s network of transmission lines and equipment that bring the electricity from the power plant to your house. The “tied” part of “grid-tied” means exactly what you would think it does, you are going to connect your solar power system to that grid.  The actual point of interconnection is typically your main service panel. This is the point where the grid ends and your home’s electrical system starts. It can generally be said that anything before your main service breaker belongs to the electric company and we call this part of the system the line side or supply side. Anything after your main service breaker belongs to you and we call this the load side because that is where your loads are. A load is anything that uses electricity like your lights, washing machine, air conditioner, etc. There are a few different ways to make that interconnection at the main service panel and that is the point of today’s article. The simplest method for the do-it-yourself solar installer is a load side connection made with a circuit breaker in your main service panel. This means you are going to add a circuit breaker in your main service panel next to all the circuit breakers that feed your loads and you will connect your solar inverter output to that circuit breaker. One thing to note about this type of load side connection are that the inverter circuit breaker will need to be as far as possible from your main breaker so you may have to move a few load breakers to make space for it at the end of the busbar that holds all your breakers.   Another thing you need to know about a load side connection with an inverter circuit breaker is that you have to follow the 120% rule (2014 NEC 705.12(D)(2)(3)(b) or NEC 2017 705.12(D)(2)(3)) where the main service breaker plus 125% of the maximum solar output must be less than or equal to 120% of the busbar rating. You can see our previous article about evaluating your main service panel for solar to understand the math on this but the bottom line is there are times when you can’t make this type of connection without an expensive main service panel upgrade, so let’s look at the other options that are available.  So, if you are not going to interconnect your solar power system on the load side of your main service breaker, that means...

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