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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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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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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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