Do You Know Your Roof?

After qualifying for good sun exposure, the bottom line for a solar project is what condition your roof is in. The quality of attachment work and attachment components that are used on your roof can also make a big difference. Most of us don’t think about our roof until a leak occurs, but like a foundation is to a building, your roof is the foundation to a successful solar project. To determine this, I recommend you follow these four guidelines below.

1. Know what condition your roof covering is in. Since your project’s lifespan is 20 to 25 years, the roof needs to have the same or longer lifespan. This is your starting point to determine if your roof covering is ready for solar. Composite asphalt shingles range from 20 - 40 year lifespans. Concrete and clay tiles last much longer BUT the condition of the underlayment is critical to get examined. Whether you have your solar vendor or a professional roofer evaluate your roof is up to you, but do make sure that it’s done early on. Any expense needed to do so, well outweighs avoiding the troubles and expenses of leaky roof damages.

2. Know your roof support design.  A solar project generally adds 3 pounds per square foot of weight to your roof. The permit process requires that your roof support structure can accommodate that. Older homes may need some rafters added to meet that requirement. Most new homes (less than 20 years old) in California do comply. All new construction in California is required to build solar ready roof support. Your solar vendor should inform you if any support work is needed. At this point you’ll either feel confident to move forward, or you will be examining cost/benefit numbers to see if it makes sense to do any needed roof work.

3. Know your vendor’s roofing experience. If your roof and budget are now good to go, the next item is arguably the most important. If you have a sloped roof, there must be holes drilled through it to attach your solar project to your roof’s support system. For roofs with an interior that is a finished cathedral ceiling, the attachments may be secured to your roof planking. In either case there are holes that must be waterproofed for the life of the system. No new technology required here, but this heavily relies on experience and the right skills. This is an important question for your vendor regarding their staffing.

4. Know your vendor’s attachment component choice. The final step is what component manufacturer your vendor will use for attaching your solar panels to the roof (with or without rails). There are many choices for vendors and different skills needed depending on the roof covering. Asphalt roofs are the easiest to install on. Tile roofs require more skill and time. This component is the place you need the best component choice available. I believe, especially for tile roofs, that the manufacturer, Quick Mount PV, delivers quality as well as a 20-year warranty. They are California based and offer extensive training for vendors. 

Knowing the answers to these questions puts you in the position to partner with the best vendor for your solar project. Soladvisor is ready to help and assist you in getting there.

Can I Afford A Solar Panel System?

Not everyone who wants solar power can easily go forward with a $20K - $40K purchase. Fortunately, costs have definitely come down over the last decade thanks to shorter installation times, more streamlined permitting and less costly panel manufacturing. The solar industry, government, forward thinking utilities and the financial world are all contributing to making it easier and more affordable for more and more homeowners.

There are several ways to finance a solar power system. To feel confident you have chosen the right finance path, it is important to understand details of the different options. Also, not all options are available everywhere.

 PURCHASE

This route gets you the 30% Federal Tax Credit and gives the quickest return on investment on a well designed system. It is often chosen by people who are looking for a low risk, high return on investment. Many consumers take this approach using their home equity for a loan or find a low interest home improvement loan. Because of the growth of the solar industry, banks have become much more open to financing solar loans. In all cases, the interest rate and payment terms need to be evaluated for your financial suitability.

PACE FINANCING - (Property Assessed Clean Energy)

 The PACE loan gets you all the advantages of a cash purchase but with easier payment terms. This finance tool was specifically created to allow more people to make energy improvements on their homes. Solar projects are one of the many energy improvements a PACE loan is geared for. It is not universally available however. You should check with your municipality’s tax assessor’s office to confirm that. Your property taxes are the mechanism a PACE loan uses. It is still an interest loan but the payments are spread over the life expectancy of the energy improvement your PACE loan is authorized for, which for solar is 20 years. Therefore, the payment schedule of a solar PACE loan is divided over the X times a year you receive your property tax bill for 20 years. There are qualifying terms depending on the lender. Most require 20% of your house debt to have been paid off but there are no credit score requirements. A PACE loan is also not consider debt, has no effect on future borrowing and adds revenue to your municipality.

Still, you may not want to own the system or might not qualify for financing. There are still some options available to you.

LEASING

These have been very popular, especially in the early years when costs were higher and financing was harder to procure. Leasing unfortunately eliminates your 30% Federal Tax Credit which instead goes to the vendor who owns your system. The main point of a lease is to lower your electric bill immediately and for the duration of the lease (usually 20 years). You need to be sure the terms of your contract support that. Many leases are $0 down and also allow a down payment option to make your monthly payment smaller or a full payoff option in specific years. Confirm the vendor’s level of responsibility for any repairs or maintenance for the duration of the lease. The lease option gives you some control over what you pay for electricity. Your utility company will still bill you for whatever electricity they continue to supply and the various taxes and delivery charges. Since your utility costs cannot be fixed like the solar lease costs, I recommend ensuring the annual solar production warranties in your lease minimally cover half your expected annual electric usage.

POWER PURCHASE AGREEMENTS (PPA)

These are common in the commercial and non-profit business sectors. They are also available for residential consumers but not every residential solar vendor offers them. The main difference between a residential PPA and a residential lease are as follows. Instead of predetermined monthly payments for the duration of the PPA (usually 20 years), you pay for the amount of electricity generated by the solar system each month. Essentially, you are buying some of your electricity from a second utility provider, your PPA contractor and the “power plant” is you roof (or ground mounted system or carport system). Correct sizing of your system is very important in this scenario as you pay for what’s produced. Any solar production you didn't use that is dumped back on to the grid must still be paid for. Your utility may be giving you credit for that (net metering) but unlikely it’s at the same rate you’re paying your PPA provider. Similar to leasing, the PPA provider owns the system and covers care and maintenance.

You Have 3 Solar Proposals In Front Of You - Now What?

There should be quite a bit of information in a vendor’s proposal to you. The most important areas you need to feel confident in are explained below. These tips will help you evaluate and compare when purchasing a solar power system.

FINANCE

Do not automatically settle on the lowest price you’re offered. All vendors can quote you a “cost per watt” price. This is purely the price for all the equipment, labor and admin to install and complete your project. This is not in depth enough to make an informed comparison and to base your decision on. Why? This form of pricing has no relationship to performance. The solar vendor proposals you will be comparing should all have expected annual and lifetime production estimates. Look for a line item called “levelized cost of energy” or LCOE. This data point uses those production estimates and project costs to create your cost per solar kilowatt hour (kWh). At this point, consider the proposal with the lowest LCOE your best proposal.

EQUIPMENT

Some of this will be driven by your personal choices. Do you prefer black panels with black frames, micro inverters, or optimizers over central inverters, have a preference on panel manufacturer’s country of origin, or prefer the highest-powered panels to keep the system footprint as small as possible? All these effect price which may end up increasing your LCOE but could be of higher priority to you. In all choices, you want to have quality equipment with proven reliability and good warranties.

DESIGN

The design should put panels on your most productive roof(s). This will generate the quickest payback, reduce your LCOE and generate the highest return on investment. If you are shown a design that has panels on a north facing roof, you need to ask the vendor to illustrate how the economics of that benefit you. If your design has panels on several roofs there will be more than one conduit (electric piping) to combine them. You should agree on where these will go. If you have your vendor route these conduit runs through your attic for aesthetic reasons, it will add some cost.

CONTRACT & WARRANTIES

All solar contracts should have legal parameters that cover what constitutes your vendor’s obligations to your project execution, project change order process, payment schedule, warranty procedure and post project obligations. Some installations on tile roofs (esp. curved) cannot avoid breaking some existing tiles during installation. Be sure you have in writing how that will be addressed to your satisfaction.

So how do you know you’ve picked the best proposal?  It’s not a cut and dry choice. All these qualifiers need to be ones you have confidence in. They all affect your eventual LCOE value and must be weighed accordingly with your goals. As long as your LCOE is less than what your utility could be charging you during the life of the system, you’ll make a good financial decision. Those details are difficult for consumers to have confidence in and usually boil down to feelings of trust for the particular vendor and staff you interact with. That may be enough in some instances, but as we all know, information is power. The more you know, the smarter decisions you will make leading to better results. Soladvisor is here to help you with that.

What Are The Best Solar Modules For Your Home In 2017?

With over a dozen solar manufacturers worldwide, creating hundreds of panel options annually and 16 central inverter companies creating 320 or more model options annually, how do you know you’re getting the best for your solar project? And what about the micro inverter, racking and monitoring choices that need consideration as well?

The easy answer is to choose the best efficiency panel you can afford and then rely on your vendor to handle the rest. But the easy answer is often not the right answer. The right answer is based on your unique set of factors; your energy usage patterns, your utility and state’s solar policies, your finances, your roof condition and your house site’s solar exposure. It’s a lot to figure out.

There are three types of solar module technologies, polycrystalline, monocrystalline and thin film. They have different application scenarios, efficiencies and cost. All have a unique substrate sandwiched between a backing material and tempered glass and then encased in weather tight aluminum framing. All solar modules create direct current electricity of various power levels depending on their design and the strength and duration of the sun shining on them. Here are the differences.

• Polycrystalline has a single layer of multiple silicon crystals jumbled together which makes them easier to manufacture and cheaper than mono. Poly performs a little better in high heat conditions but hasn’t reached the conversion efficiency ratings that mono have. Poly averages around 12% efficiency.

• Monocrystalline has individual silicon wafers arranged in rows and columns to fill the module space. They are the go to choice for most residential projects due to their higher conversion efficiency. Though the average is 16-18%, some are as high as 21% and maintain 85-90% of their power output at 20 years. Some studies indicate they now do as well as poly in high heat.

• Thin film is the technology you find in solar calculators, toys, etc. It’s a specially coated  material that also converts light into direct current electricity. This substrate is glued directly to a metal roof in its flexible form or made into a rigid solar module for ground mounted and sloped roof applications. A thin film solar project requires 20% or more space than poly or mono to produce the same amount of power. Thin film solar modules are the least expensive module to purchase but must be weighed against how much more roof space, attaching equipment and labor costs accompany that choice.

Knowing what options are right for you before getting vendor bids is the optimal position you can be in. In a future blog, I will talk about central vs. micro inverters, another important choice you’ll need to make.

Solar Your Way = Savings

Here’s a typical hiring ad for a solar sales person:

College Degree or some college preferred but not mandatory. Some experience and success in a commissioned sales role including: recruiting, time share, investments, stock trading, real estate, mortgage, mattress or furniture, pharmaceutical, medical device, leasing, loan agent, travel agent, software or advertising, personal lines insurance or commercial insurance, home improvement, solar, etc.

Ok, sales people do need some sales skills but you don’t see any mention of needing solar knowledge. Even having solar sales experience is listed last. Vendors will be training their sales people about solar but in a very general way and usually for 2 weeks or less.

California, with an incredible amount of sun and the most solar friendly government policies in the nation, has only a 4% adoption of solarpower. Though pricing is critical and does contribute to that single digit, prices have gone down by half or more of what they were five years ago. So why just 4%?

Soladvisor strongly believes that the consumer is generally reluctant about solar for themselves even when they recognize solar as a good idea in general.  A consumer has many questions about solar and rightly so. Where can consumers get the answers they need and deserve? Up to now, this requires quite a bit of effort and time on their part and the data can be a lot to digest. Solar technology may be clean and simple but all the decisions preceding a solar project are not. As an industry, we need to make it easier for consumers to gain knowledge and confidence in solar.

This is our mission. Soladvisor is consumer focused, not sales focused so our attention to detail and the information we prepare for our clients makes it clear what their path to solar should be or not.  Soladvisor’s knowledge, guidance, project design and finance options, will put you well on your way to getting the best vendors and pricing.

Should I Buy Or Lease A Home Solar System?

If you would like more control over your energy costs, want to add value to your home and get a solid return on your investment, then you owe it to yourself to look into a home solar power system. One of the many steps in moving towards a solar system for your home is deciding if you should purchase or lease the system. Here is what you need to consider when deciding to purchase or lease a solar power system.

Option 1: Purchasing the System

1. You need a good sunny spot on your roof(s) that stays shade free from 9AM – 3PMon most days but for sure May through October.

2. The amount of (square feet) roof sunny space needs to fit enough panels to reduce your utility consumption by at least 50%. This is something that needs to be calculated in a study on your home. Good vendors will predict conservative annual system generation and not over promise.

3. You are paying in cash, financing via the PACE program or a low-interest loan and the Federal 30% Tax Credit is still in place (reducing in steps to 2023).

4. If your roof covering is good to go for the next 20 years, then all these factors will bring the shortest payoff, the best return on your investment (ROI), and free solar electricity after 5-8 years if you live in competitive market areas. That equals 12-15 years of free solar electricity!

Similar results can be reached with a ground mounted or carport system that also checks off the above four factors.

(You will still be charged by the utility company for electric delivery fees, taxes, access to the grid, and any power you still draw from them.)

Option 2:  Leasing a Solar System

1. Being shade free from 9am-3pm and a viable roof will still be desired by your vendor with some wiggle room depending on the vendor.

2. You won’t own the system so no Federal Tax Credit. The vendor should present the percentage of bill reduction they are offering you via a maximum and a minimum design accompanied by a 20-year lease payment schedule for each. From there, you can decide which design best fits your budget.

3. The primary result of leasing is an immediate reduction in what you pay your utility company with zero cash outlay. Watch for payment escalators built into your lease schedule before you commit. A good lease ensures that you pay less for your solar lease and your utility charges combined than what you would be paying without the solar system, in every year of the lease. The vendor must also have stated production and workmanship guarantees and warranties. 

When a solar system is properly sized based on your energy profile, site conditions and financial goals, you will save money. How soon varies from project to project due to the factors outlined above.

I Want To Go Solar But Should I Wait For The Next Technology Improvement?

The solar industry has made continual progress in its technology advancements over the last decade. Some advancements, while remarkable, didn’t make it through the challenging market conditions. Solar shingles are another example of an advanced product idea but it didn’t survive the installation problems that sometimes caused fires. There is always R&D going on to keep pushing the envelope but it takes many years to get to market and see if a new product is successfully adopted.

The solar panel today is not all that different from 20 years ago. They look almost the same and manufacturers are constantly tinkering with them to get an edge over their competitors. Incremental changes have kept panels moving towards higher efficiency and higher power rating, but waiting for a more powerful panel may not really pay off.

For Example: If you needed 10 panels to produce X amount of power in the year 2000, today you may only need 8 or 9. That could save you up to $2000 off your purchase. If you installed solar in the year 2000 however, you could have conservatively saved $5400 off your utility bill. (@10 180 watt panels, @$0.15 /kWh). That is more than double the savings of waiting for a better panel.

The most important new technology is energy storage for residential grid connected solar. This is a game changer for several reasons.

1. BATTERY TECHNOLOGY Energy storage has changed to leaner, lighter and safer, bringing costs down. The current focus is on storing solar power that you generate during the day that isn’t used (most people at work, school etc.). You then tap into it at night when your solar system is not making power. Without battery storage, the solar power you didn’t use during the day is automatically “dumped” back onto the utility grid and regulated by net metering agreements with your utility.

2. NET METERING Utilities initially gave customers credit on their bill for whatever amount of solar electricity their system dumped back onto the utility grid, equal to their current $/kWh charges. Now most utilities are moving towards crediting only at the wholesale price of a kWh and some are not giving any credit at all. Battery storage for night use can eliminate loosing market value for power dumped back to the grid. 

3. BILL SAVINGS To make energy storage even more appealing, some utilities are going to be moving their consumers to “Time of Use” (TOU) charges for electricity. The time of day you use electricity will determine what rate you pay. The highest rates are in the late afternoon and evening when most people return home and your solar system is winding down. Energy storage as part of your solar system is a smart way to diminish or even avoid the TOU rates.

This technology is available now and more versions will be coming to market soon. There is no compelling technology reason to wait on getting a solar system. But it would be prudent to wait and see how the market shakes out on storage and then purchase your best option. Manufacturers will be marketing their wares to retrofit already existing solar systems. In California, the TOU change starts in 2019 so there is time to watch the market develop. New industry products take time to see if the market supports them. You want to have products that have proven quality, performance and financial stability. You want your manufacturer to be around to honor their warranties if you ever need them.

How Long Does A Solar Installation Last?

 How long will solar panels on a home last? The panels are not the only component involved in a home solar system and there are a few factors that affect the life of the components. The longevity of other components and the quality of the installation also needs to be considered.

1. Solar Panels made today maintain at least 80% of their original power output or even higher for 20-25 years. Solar panels manufactured in the 1970’s are still working today but not at their original output levels as there is an annual degree of degradation. Panels are getting more efficient over time, allowing more power over less space and currently minimizing degradation to 0.5% annually in the best panels.

2. The Inverter turns the DC electricity from the solar panels into AC electricity used by everyone connected to a utility company. Central Inverters (1 used for the whole system), are warrantied from 10-15 years though you can purchase extended warranties up to 20 years. In the field, good central inverters do last 15-20 years before needing replacing. Micro Inverters (1 attached to each panel), are warrantied for 25 years from the get go. Micro inverters have not been around for 25 years, but to date, they have been performing very well and brought streamlined installing, panel level monitoring and lower voltage to solar installations. One inverter manufacturer combines its central inverter with a voltage regulator for each panel. This produces similar results as a micro inverter system though some argue it creates more possible failure points. It also comes with a 25 year warranty.

3. The Roof Support System, Wiring & Electric Components are not easily visible once installed but must all be rated for use with solar power. There are many quality manufacturers of all these components and all perform for the full life of the system when installed properly.

4. The Quality of Work Done by your installation crew is probably the most important piece. They must know and perform best practices for roofing and electrical work. Their work must comply with current national and state codes. Your local building department must pass the design before a permit can be issued and then inspect the finished project before you can use it. Your utility company will also have its own version of what must be inspected and/or approved. This process, while time consuming, goes a long way towards protecting the consumer and having a solar system ready to work properly for 20+ years. A quality solar vendor also adds on workmanship warranties of 10 years or more in addition to manufacturer’s warranties.

So it can be safely said, no matter which technology options you choose, you can expect a good 20 years out of your solar power system. They are practically maintenance free and you will never need an energy delivery. Now that panel level monitoring is available to the consumer and the installer, finding and solving any issues can be done quickly. I always loved turning on a solar power system for my clients. When people actually see their utility meter going backwards, it starts to sink in and smiles start to grow.