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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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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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Is Your Roof Right for Solar?
Nov15

Is Your Roof Right for Solar?

If you look around, you are likely to notice that more and more roofs in your neighborhood are getting filled with solar panels. Which makes sense because all those homes use electricity and the solar panels are going to save those homeowners lots of money. But not every roof is the ideal place for solar so let’s talk about what makes a roof right for solar. First, the weather where you live will make a difference in your solar output, but even places where it rains a lot like Portland get enough sun for solar to make sense. If you are getting a solar production estimate, it is important that you use the correct zip code so you get an accurate estimate, but any location is going to have enough sun to save you money. The next thing to look at is the orientation of your roof. Solar panels produce the most power when the sun is hitting them directly. While you may think that north-facing roof looks bright and sunny, the sun never hits it at a direct angle and it is not a great place for solar panels. But sometimes people do install solar on the north facing roof so let’s get into some details on this. In the continental United States, solar panels facing South at about a 30 – 40 degree tilt angle will produce the most electricity annually. If you are in the southern states, the lower angle is better because the sun is higher in the sky. If you are in the northern states, the steeper tilt angle is better because the sun is lower in the sky.  If your roof is not quite facing due south but it’s close (within 30 degrees of south on a compass), it will still produce almost the full amount of power. If it is facing east or west you will lose about 15% – 20% of the annual production. The steeper the roof is, the more you will lose. So if the roof is pitched 10 degrees to the west, it will only be a 15% loss but if it is at 35 degree pitch to the west it will be more like 20%. A north facing roof will be a 30% – 50% annual loss depending on the pitch.   The pitch also matters on a south-facing roof 30-40 degrees is ideal for annual production and a roof that is totally flat will be at a 10% loss in the southern US and a 15% loss in the northern US.    Now, there are times where annual production is less important and you want to optimize production...

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3 Big Benefits of Microgrids
Nov11

3 Big Benefits of Microgrids

Wildfire season in Southern California has become synonymous with rolling blackouts for homes relying on grid power, shinning the spotlight on microgrids as one of the best solutions to providing the state with its energy needs and spurring a significant increase in inquiries about solar + storage.  Solar microgrids work as a localized source of energy generation, which is connected to a more extensive energy network, but can disconnect, or “island off,” from the system.  While numerous benefits come with microgrids, we’ve condensed it down to the top three reasons they rock. 1. COST Installing an energy storage solution and microgrid along with PV panels allows a solar system to store energy during peak sunlight hours and ration it for when power companies increase the time of use rates for electricity. Not paying a premium for electricity can save homeowners up to $1000 a year or more.  The development of better and more affordable batteries, coupled with lower-priced solar systems and government subsidies, makes the homeowner’s cost of going solar competitive with paying for energy generated by a coal or nuclear power plant at a centralized location.  Because solar microgrids allow people to work as a decentralized network, producing power close to its point of use, they cut down on the need for long-distance infrastructure. Reducing the need to build new transmission towers, power poles, transformers, and power lines will allow utility companies to improve the infrastructure they already have. On a macro scale, the cost of utility-scale solar has dropped to around $36 per megawatt-hour, which is cheaper than the MWh cost of building new power plants and equivalent with the cost of running existing ones.  2. AGILE ENERGY SOLUTION TO CALIFORNIA’S BLACKOUTS AND FIRES Recently PG&E chief executive, Bill Johnson, said it could take a decade for the company to improve its electrical system enough to reduce the number of customer blackouts. California’s Energy Commission can read the writing on the wall and has invested over $100 million in microgrid projects.  Solar microgrids provide homeowners with enough backup power generated from the sun to continue with their lives as usual in the ever more frequent instances when energy suppliers such as PG&E and SCE need to shut down.  The change would be beneficial for utility companies, too. Currently, in California, such companies are caught between a rock and a hard place. If a high wind is forecasted, companies are incentivized to be overly cautious and shut off power to millions of people so that downed lines won’t cause another wildfire. But leaving paying customers in the dark is not a viable long-term solution. Smaller microgrids can be...

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Should You Go Off Grid?
Oct22

Should You Go Off Grid?

Let’s face it, most of us have no choice where we get our electricity from. The local electric company is your only option and when a company has no competition, they have no incentive to make you like them.  So customers often look at solar panels and get to thinking… can I go off the grid? Typically, off grid systems are only installed on homes built where the grid isn’t available. It is not uncommon for an electric company to quote $100,000 or more to bring power to a rural property that is being newly developed. So they want you to pay $100,000 to bring in the lines so that you can pay them ever month for electricity when $100,000 will buy you an absolutely amazing off-grid solar power system. If this is your situation, you should definitely go off grid.  But if you currently own a house that is connected to the grid, the answer is not that clear. Yes, we know you don’t like the electric company and nothing would make you happier than to divorce yourself from them permanently but let’s look at the options before jumping into that decision. First, the cost of a solar power system increases dramatically when it changes from grid-tie to off grid. In order to be completely independent from the electric company, you need to have a system that generates the maximum amount of power you may need even in during those months when the days are short and the sun is low in the sky. You also need batteries to store the solar energy produced during the day so you have power to get through the night. Even more batteries if you want to have enough stored energy to get through a rainy day when the solar is producing little to no power.  Also, you shouldn’t have solar be your only power source. People who live off the grid usually have a diesel or natural gas generator as backup. This is necessary because the amount of batteries needed to run a house through a whole week of cloudy/rainy weather would be ridiculously expensive and take a up too much space. The generator may also be needed to cover your needs when a piece of equipment like an inverter or charge controller needs to be serviced. So you have to add the cost of a generator to your already too expensive solar power system to comfortably disconnect yourself from the electric company. Example of a gas generator When you stay connected to the electric company, you can put the solar panels on the roof without needing the batteries. You can...

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