Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Living in a Solar Powered Home

After the first question, “How much does solar cost?”, the second question people often ask is,  “What's it like living in a solar powered home?” For anyone considering (or just curious about) a solar powered home, here are some of our experiences living in a home powered by the sun.

First, a bit of background info. Our system is a grid-tie solar photovoltaic (PV) system mounted on the roof of our one story home. Grid-tie means the electric utility and our solar system provide power to our home. The PV system converts sunlight into electricity which we use in conjunction with the normal utility to power our home. We've had the solar system for 3+ years, and it provides roughly 1/3 of our yearly energy consumption. At times, when we produce more than we use, our retail electric provider (REP) buys back the excess energy. Our average electric bill is under $100. During a utility power outage, the solar PV system is shut down. This prevents the flow of electricity back to the grid (from the solar system), protecting equipment and utility workers.

Having a grid-tie solar system does not require any major lifestyle changes, although you do become more aware of your overall energy consumption. Peak production for the solar PV system is midday. To take advantage of this, it's advantageous to run pool pumps, washing machines, etc. during this time period. This is not required, but does reduce the amount you “sell back” to your REP and also reduces demand on the utility grid.  Another great tool for monitoring overall energy consumption (if you are in the north Texas Oncor service area , and have a smart meter) is to register your electric meter at smartmetertexas.com. With a smart meter, energy consumption can be easily tracked. And, with a solar system, it's always fun to look and see “zero” consumption during many midday hours!

Maintenance on the PV system does not require a great deal of effort, but if you periodically clean the solar panels, they will produce more energy. We use window washing equipment (mop, squeegee, extension pole/handle) to keep the panels clean. On a single story home this is not a problem, because we clean the panels from the ground. However, this can be potentially dangerous on multi-story homes, so alternative methods may be necessary. Occasionally here in north Texas, snow removal is also necessary to achieve maximum production. Other maintenance items are to make sure the underside of the panels are free from leaf clutter, visual inspection for nesting, loose wiring, etc. and to check the attic periodically for leaks. Occasional trimming of trees/shrubs may also be needed to prevent shading on the solar panels.

It's also important to monitor (if you have a monitoring/data collection with your system) daily/weekly/monthly energy production. Periodically checking this data can highlight inconsistencies or an issue with the system. Many system monitoring services also provide email trouble reports/alerts for malfunctioning equipment. A minor problem recently occurred on our system. We were alerted (via email) to the problem, which eventually required warranty replacement for the malfunctioning equipment.

Protecting your investment from peril is also necessary. Inform your insurance company of the added value of your solar system, and adjust your homeowners policy to cover replacement in the event of a hailstorm, other weather event, or even theft/vandalism. For example, last year, we had hail damage on the roof covering of our home. There was no damage to the solar panels, but the claim covered removing/replacing the solar PV system so the roof could all be replaced.

So, living in a solar home does require some extra effort. But the long term satisfaction of knowing we produce (at least a portion) our own power, outweighs the required effort. If you are thinking about installing solar, I hope these experiences help in your decision making process. Go solar!

Plano Solar Energy Advocate (RL)