"I love my cats because I love my home, and little by little they become its visible soul." Jean Couteau

Monday, February 15, 2016

here comes the sun

This isn't a post about DIY. This is a post about the fact that we are now officially a partially solar-powered home!

This story goes back a few months, but really starts even before that because I've always been interested in solar, but figured it was generally too expensive and not worth it. Lately, places like Solar City have become pretty well known, but from the little I heard about them, leasing for 20 years just didn't sound like that great a plan to me. Then back maybe in September or so, I heard about a meeting about group pricing for solar panel installation nearby, so I went. It was all organized through a non-profit called Retrofit Baltimore, which had negotiated super low installation rates with several local solar companies. Apparently, part of the high costs is simply customer acquisition, which Retrofit Baltimore was taking on, enabling the solar companies to offer lower rates. Plus, Retrofit Baltimore had already done all the vetting of the companies to pick good, reliable ones. 

Given the rates, plus the various government tax rebates (which may be expiring after this year), Zach and I decided it was worth investigating further. We'd get assigned one of Retrofit Baltimore's solar companies (we got Direct Energy Solar), which would get some satellite images of our house and meet with us to give some estimates of how big an installation we would be able to get, how much power that would generate, and how that would compare to how much power we use. All of these consultations would be at no cost to us, so we figured why NOT find out what we could do and what it would cost. 

It turns out, it would cost a lot. But, they estimated that we should be able to generate about 90-95% of our electricity usage, which we were both totally surprised by, given the fact that we're in a townhouse with a fairly small roof. Based on all the numbers, we figured we should make back our money in about 8 years, so we decided it was worth the investment.

Now, all of this depends on where you live. We're helped A LOT by the fact that we live in MD, which has net metering. Net metering means that, during the day when we're not home and not using much electricity but producing a lot, that all goes into the grid and powers other people's homes and businesses. Then when we come home at night and start needing more electricity, we pull back from the grid. Some days we may take more than we generated, other days we may take less. The electricity company keeps track, and it sort of balances out, and at the end of the month we just pay for that small balance. To me, this seems like an obvious way to do things, but apparently not all states have net metering. And, if we overall use less than we generate, the electricity company doesn't pay us at the same rate that we pay them, so we don't really make much money.

Anyway, the next thing to do was sort things out with our HOAs. Yes, I said HOAs, plural. We have two. Though one doesn't really care what we do and, in fact, doesn't have a form for making changes to your home and the president didn't reply to Zach's email inquiry asking if we needed to do anything, so we really only had to deal with the one. It turns out, HOAs cannot keep you from installing solar panels. They can, however, impose certain restrictions. Like, the conduit running from the panels on the roof to the breaker box in the garage must be run discretely along the side of the house with the downspout. We were pretty much planning on that anyway, but it did mean that, instead of just looping the conduit over the edge of the roof to come down, they popped it into the roof and back out the side of the house to make it "more discrete." So we had to fill out some forms and wait a few weeks for approval. Finally, the week before Christmas, our installation got scheduled!

The team came the first day, set up their ladder to get started, and it wasn't tall enough. Although there had been guys up on our roof before to do a survey, there seemed to have been some miscommunication about how tall of a ladder was needed, and the type of ladder that was, presumably, used for the survey was a skinnier, weaker ladder that wouldn't work for hauling solar panels up. So now they needed to get a lift. Which wouldn't be available until the next day. Off to a rousing start! However, the team stayed and were able to still get a decent amount of work done. The electrician got all the work done in the garage, and the rest of the team assembled a bunch of panels and left them in the garage to be ready for installation the next day.

The lift arrived the next morning, and the team got to work. They worked hard all day and got a lot of work done. With 34 panels to install, even with the prep they'd done the day before, they couldn't get it all done and had to come back for a third day. Unfortunately, that third day, it rained. There was a brief break, when they started work, but then the rain started up again. Those crazy guys just kept working, though, and finished installing the solar panels. That's dedication!

Our discretely-run conduit

We have lots of new electrics on the side of our house next to our electricity meter. One is another meter that keeps track of lifetime energy production of the solar panels. We also have a WiFi monitor in the garage that sends health status info to Direct Energy Solar about each panel, so if any one of them has a problem, they'll know about it and can come take care of it. We can also check on the status of our installation on a website to see how much energy it's producing and if any of the panels have a problem.

The next week, the county inspector came out to sign off on the job. Then we had to wait another few weeks for the electricity company to come switch out our meter to a new, special "net meter." Once they did that and we got their email of approval, we were able to flip the giant switch on the side of our house and start generating our own electricity!

I often check the website to see how our panels are doing. It's a little hard to tell, since it's only about production, with no comparison to how much energy you're also consuming. I've done a little averaging and extrapolating and compared that with our energy usage from last month, which doesn't look too good. Of course, it is winter, so even when it's not snowing, the weather is often grey. Presumably, we'll do better as we move more into spring and summer. Mostly, right now, I'm just anxiously awaiting our next electricity bill to see how we do. I never thought I'd actually be WANTING to get an electricity bill!