As more and more people go solar, there are more and more solar companies and contractors popping up to take their money. And not all of them are trustworthy or have the same interests that you do as a homeowner. So you are the one that has to prevent what I call "bad solar".
For those of you that are new to solar, I'll give you a quick crash course on four things you need to know before you start working with a solar contractor. If you aren't new to solar, skip down to the 5 tips.
4 Basic Principles Of Solar
First, to get the most energy production out of your solar panels they need to be aimed directly at the sun. Solar panels do not produce much power at all if they are just collecting reflected or ambient light. Obviously, the sun moves around the sky every day and even drops lower on the horizon during some seasons of the year. And if that sun gets blocked by an object, such as a tree or chimney, the shaded panels will not produce as much power. So how to mount your panels on your roof, what direction to face them, and how to avoid obstructions is critical in the design process of installing your solar panel system.
Second, aiming your solar panels to the south if you live in the northern hemisphere or north if you live in the southern hemisphere mathematically and scientifically produces the most power overall throughout the day. But a case can be made for some people to aim half of their panels east and half of them to the west to take advantage of early morning and late evening sun. I won't get into all of that. But there is NEVER a case to be made for aiming the panels in the opposite direction... north in the northern hemisphere or south in the southern hemisphere. You will never get a return on that investment and you might as well burn your money.
Third, solar companies do not have a vested interest in the energy production of your system. Their interests and motivations are different than yours. They make money by installing solar panel systems and then moving on to the next job. And there isn't a roof out there that they won't take your money to install a system on. Before some of you get angry and stop reading, I know there are lots of good solar companies out there. Most of them, probably. But when the interests of the homeowner and the interests of a contractor don't line up, there is potential for a problem. There are some bad apples out there taking advantage of people. So if you don't know enough about solar to intelligently evaluate bids and see through some of the smoke and mirrors, you are at risk. Because there are no contractual guarantees of the production of your system after all is said and done.
And fourth, a 15,000 Watt solar panel system does not ever really produce 15,000 Watts. In the real world, it might make anywhere from 5,000 to 12,000 depending on numerous variables. During the sales process, a solar company will use calculators and automated tools to estimate the power production of a proposed solar system. And these are decent forecasts. But they don't always factor in everything, such as your neighbor's tree, the location of your chimney, the precise pitch of your roof, or the exact model of solar panel that will be installed. And sometimes the install crew will take the path of least resistance and put the panels wherever they fit easier or where they look better instead of where they will get the absolute most sun.
To help illustrate some people from my own neighborhood that have suffered from bad solar, watch my recent Youtube video where I point out 7 homes with obviously bad solar installs: https://youtu.be/SMoTaMP1o8s
5 Tips To Avoid Bad Solar
The good news is you can avoid these issues and have a very successful solar panel system and a good sales and install experience. Here are 5 tips that will help. If you are not the DIY or handy type and don't want to educate yourself, skip to tip #5.
Tip #1 - Take pictures or video of your roof at various times of day. A competent solar designer can predict shading fairly well but you may not get a competent designer and the only way to know for sure whether the neighbor's chimney or tree is going to shade your panels is to take pictures of the shadows throughout the day. Document all of this information so that you can tell your chosen contractor where you want the panels to be installed.
Tip #2 - Get a compass or download a compass app on your smart phone. Then use it to determine precisely what direction each of the faces of your roof are facing. If you have a true south face if you live in the northern hemisphere or a true north face in the southern hemisphere you are in great shape. But if you have east and west faces you can still get pretty good production, especially if you have peak demands early or later in the day. Then based on your goals and the data you are going to collect in the next tip, you can tell the installers which roof faces you want to use and why.
Tip #3 - Get as much real data as you can. Don't guess when you use your power during the day. If your electric utility has a smart grid, you can download data that will help you find your peak demand times of day. If not, you can get a reasonably priced device that will connect to your breaker panel in your home and gather data for you. Because spending $400 now on a data tool can save you thousands if not tens of thousands on a bad solar install with incomplete or bad information. Your monthly, paper power bill is not enough. That only shows you how many kilowatt-hours (kWh) you use per day or per month. You need much more than that to properly produce your own power and not depend on a one-sided cogeneration relationship with your electric company.
Tip #4 - Make a realistic goal. Many people want to completely eliminate their power bill, but unfortunately that is obscenely expensive and impractical. It used to be that you could sell your excess power back to the power company and have a net zero bill for the month or year. But that phenomenon is uncommon nowadays and slowly going the way of the dinosaurs. So analyze your budget and the available solar options for your home and figure out where the most value is to eliminate part of your bill, if that is your goal, or provide emergency power and backup power, if that is more your interest. Along with a realistic goal is to know when to say enough is enough. There is a concept in Economics called marginal utility that basically means there is a benefit to every additional unit of something. And that benefit gets smaller and smaller with more and more units, usually. So, for example, if you fill up your south facing roof here in the US but the installer suggests that you put more panels on the east or west faces, determine what the added benefit of those panels will give you. East facing panels give power early in the morning. But if you work a swing shift and you are asleep until noon every day that won't give you much benefit or utility. It would be better to save your money and not install extra panels than to burn it on panels that aren't adding much value.
Tip #5 - If you don't want to follow the first four tips, I would highly recommend contacting EnergySage. They are a company that I trust and their whole business model is geared around helping the homeowner, not the solar companies. EnergySage is a marketplace that vets solar installers for you. It is an unbiased, free resource to help you understand your options without pushing a particular solution on you. Their goal is like mine: to protect and educate consumers. In fact, they reject over half of the solar installers that apply to their marketplace because they don't make the grade. Installers are evaluated and checked based on certifications, licenses, insurance, review ratings, and how long they have been in business. And once installers are approved, they have to compete for your business without stepping foot in your living room and giving you a high pressure sales pitch. EnergySage will show you an apples to apples comparison of the proposals and a dedicated advisor will help you with questions or concerns, if you want them to. You can do the whole process without getting a single phone call, if that is what you want. As I was going through the process myself, I was even shocked that right there in the first 30 seconds in the questionnaire I was filling out, they asked me if I would be willing to cut trees or limbs in my yard to go solar. They wouldn't do that if they didn't have my interests in mind. If you are interested in contacting EnergySage, please use my affiliate link where I will get a small commission if you end up purchasing solar: http://www.energysage.com/p/ldsreliance.