The Solar Panel Project. An Update on the Greening of the Rhode House.

Kim wrote in today and comments on my previous post, “I’m Saving $20,000 in Electricity Because I Don’t Want to Work to Pay the Bill.”

She said:

Will you provide more info about the solar panels you chose? Where does one even start w/ that kind of project? Do you call your utility and ask if they will buy back your generated power? Would they have any recommendations about panels and/or installation contractors, do you think? If not, how would find someone locally you could trust?

Well Kim, let me give you a recap and share what I’ve learned so far.

Our goal was to reduce our dependence on utilities and save energy, not to save the environment as a primary goal. Although, reducing our carbon footprint is a very nice bonus.

The more we reduce our dependence on electricity the fewer expenses we will have. And our electric bill was pretty steep to begin with. Over the course of a year we were averaging 2,800 kilowatt hours of electricity. Everyone we spoke with was surprised how much electricity we were consuming. The electric bill was about $330 a month and while that does not sound like a huge bill to many people, it is just plenty big enough for me.

Fortunately electricity is fairly inexpensive in North Carolina at about $0.119 per kWh. If we lived in Hawaii the cost per kWh would be $0.2576. Our bill there would have been $721 a month instead of our $330. I like my bill better.

Our journey towards using solar energy to reduce our bill began first with some smaller steps that included additional insulation in the attic to reduce the heat transmission from the attic into the house and keep cooler air inside on the second floor instead of losing it through the ceiling. The insulation in the attic and above my home office, which is above the garage, cost about $1,500. This included both blown in fiberglass and a room full of fiberglass batts to close in the unfinished storage room off my office. The attic insulation is now rated at about an R-50. Both Pam and I noticed an immediate cooling and retention of cool air in the house since we did that.

We also invested about $3,500 in sealing and conditioning our crawl space under the house. This involved having the entire perimeter of the foundation foam sealed, vents closed and insulated, a heavy vapor barrier placed over the entire crawl floor and rigid foam insulation placed on all walls and sealed to the vapor barrier. We also routed a vent from the HVAC system into the sealed crawl to condition the air down there.

The crawl space is where all the ducts to the first floor are hanging and exposed. Before, in hot weather the ducts were warmed by the outside air and that reduced our cooling capacity. When it was cold in the winter, it took extra heat to make the house warm.

Conditioning the crawl space simply moves the conditioned envelope of the house further away from the living space. It’s like putting your house inside a house. and then putting a heavy down jacket around the outer house to keep the right temperature air inside at the right time of the year.

We did all of this so that when we made the big investment in solar panels that we would not be simply generating our own power to heat and cool the house only to lose the benefit of that hot or cold air by giving it easily away to the outside.

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The solar system we initially looked at to service our house at the 2,800 kWh consumption level was between $125,000 and $147,000 before rebates. Crazy!

The system that we eventually went with is a 4.8 kWh system of 24, 200 watt panels. The entire system, installed with inverters, wiring, etc., is $37,000. But we get federal and state tax credits for installing the system of about $24,000. So the finished system will cost us about $13,000. If you want to find out what state and federal rebates are available where you live, check the DSIRE site.

As part of the focus on energy reduction we purchased a whole house electricity monitoring device so we could measure the energy we were using on a real-time or day-by-day basis. The monitor we purchased is called The Energy Detective. You can read more about my monitor experience and installation, here.

The electricity monitor cost about $140 but it was the best $140 I have ever spent. Because of the monitor we were able to uncover that our pump well was running constantly and using 1,200 watts of energy and that equalled about 864 kWh of energy consumption per month. Once we found that problem, getting the well pump fixed was imperative. The pump was pulled out of the well and it was cracked in a place that required me to replace the entire pump. The pump replacement, that included new pipe to the pump and some other smaller stuff was about $1,200. That sucked, but the good news is that since the pump is now replaced it reduces my electric consumption by $102 a month. The pump repair will pay for itself in a year.

Now, with all the above taken care of, and the reduction in the need to run the air conditioning, our average electric consumption has gone from 93 kWh a day to 13 kWh. So if we can keep the A/C off a lot and cool the house with our new whole house fan, our electric bill will be between $50 to $100.

Our new solar panels will generate about 550 kWh per month and we get paid $0.19 per kWh for the power it generates and we sell back to the utility company. That means that each month we will get paid about $104 and so now we’ll have no electric bill or have free power and get paid $50 a month.

Trying to find what I thought was a competent solar panel company to work with was difficult. Many people claim to be solar installers but it is a side business at best. I probably talked to a total of eight different people and companies before deciding to go with the folks we selected.

The estimates were all over the place and the proposals ranged from a guy named Bubba sitting on my front steps and drawing a stick figure system on the back of a piece of paper, to a professional rendered design submitted by professionals.

The company we eventually decided to contract with we discovered them at a local home show. The home show was a great place to walk around and talk to different vendors and get ideas. This company was a brand new franchise from a California company and we had some questions that they could not answer, their parent company in California was well versed in solar technology so with some quick calls, the answers were discovered and we all learned from the experience.

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Part of the design process involved these guys coming out and sitting on our roof for a while with an electronic device that measured the sun angle and plotted any shade problems from trees around our house. Those measurements were then used in calculating the optimum installation pattern on our roof to generate the most amount of power.

My advice in selecting a solar company to work with is to do a lot of searching on the web, contact local companies that claim to offer expert solar system installation, and go to a local home show. I can’t really point to one specific thing that lead me to the ability to decide who to use for our system, other than to say that it was all a learning process. And because of that process, and talking to different companies, I became more comfortable in the questions I was asking and the answers I was getting.

In the end, the installation company we went with handled everything from the construction permits, coordination with our utility company, guiding us to the right tax credit forms, and handling the agreement for us to become a registered solar generating installation so we could sell our power back into the grid.

Our local power company wasn’t that much help in the solar panel process. It wasn’t until latter that I discovered that in our town of Wake Forest, with our electric company, we are the first ones that are actually installing a sell back solar system. So the only reason they were not much help to begin with is because they didn’t quite know what to do. But the system contractors went and met with the executive at the power company and worked everything out.

I was actually thinking about inviting Steve Thomas from the television show Renovation Nation out to film the installation and everything else we’ve done but I think it would freak our installers out. It’s going to be a zoo as it is with the local installers on the roof, the experts from California on the roof to supervise the local installers, the power company executives standing around watching the first installation and Pam and I.

Through this entire greening process I was frustrated that there wasn’t just one company that I could call that would perform an energy audit of our house, suggest fixes, arrange the contractors and take care of everything. There is no one-stop-shop for the greening process, but I bet these types of companies will begin to appear.

So the bottom line as of today is that it appears that in a best case scenario we will be able to eliminate our $330 a month power bill completely and get paid $50 each month to generate power back. Over the course of ten years that will result in a combination of savings and income of $45,600.


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