First Solar Panel Project in Ridgeview Ranch

August 20, 2014

By Marcus Strobl, August 2014

First RR Solar Panels

Marcus’ Solar Panels

Background

I first looked into having a solar array installed on the roof back when I moved into my house in 2004. I had to give it up at the time as the math showed it would take 27 years to get my money back (Return On Investment, or ROI) . I want to reduce our burning of natural gas (the primary source of electricity in Texas), but I also want it to make some financial sense. Over the last 10 years I’ve been keeping an eye on solar and watched the prices drop dramatically. This year the ROI dropped to just over 10 years or less if the price of electricity goes up.

Planning

So in the spring I started planning an array. First step was to look at my electricity usage and pick a size that would not produce much more electricity than I’d use in my lowest usage month. The reason for that is that CoServ has what they call “Net-Metering”. With Net-Metering I can produce more than I consume and then get that power back later without having to pay for it. The crux is that at the end of the month they will not pay me for any extra power I have given them. Some examples to illustrate Net-Metering:

My house uses 500 kWh in a month. My solar array produces 400 kWh that same month. I will pay CoServ for 100 kWh.

But if my solar array produces 600 kWh I will not receive any credit for the extra 100 kWh that I have given CoServ.

To get an estimate on how much power an array of a given size would produce at my location I used http://pvwatts.nrel.gov/, although I saw on some solar forums that it tends to be a bit pessimistic. My experience matches that as even with the cloudy weather we had in July I produced 20% more power than their estimate.

I picked a 5 kW array that should produce around 7,000 kWh per year (6,000 according to pvwatts).

A standard solar panel is 250 W, so my 5 kW (5,000 W) consists of 20 panels. You always want to install solar panels on a south facing roof as that is where they will produce the most power. Luckily I had a large flat roof that faces south.

So I had picked a size. Next I needed to decide the type of inverter. The inverter takes the DC voltage that the panel produces and turns it into 220V AC which is what the house needs. The inverter hooks up to the breaker box in the house, and does the same magic that CoServ does so that it can give both 220V or 110V depending on the circuit in the breaker box.

There are two basic types of inverters: The string inverter and the microinverter.

A string inverter is the lowest cost inverter. All the panels hook into a chain and at the end is a single inverter for the entire array.

The microinverter is mounted underneath each panel. A 20 panel array will thus have 20 microinverters.

I picked the microinverters even with their slightly higher cost as they have some advantages:

With a microinverter each panel is individually controlled. If I have shade on one panel, only that panel will have a reduced output. A string inverter will have to reduce output from the entire array. A microinverter also lets me monitor power production of each panel. If a panel has a problem, I can identify the exact panel that is bad.

So I wanted a 20 panel, 5 kW array using microinverters and I also wanted a monitoring system to keep tabs on it.

I then checked on the incentives that are available for us:

  • 30% federal tax credit. This means that you get to do a one-time deduction for 30% of the total cost of the array from your taxes. Note that you get to deduct it from the actual taxes, not your income. For a $10,000 array, you would pay $3,000 less in taxes that year.
  • $1,000 CoServ incentive.

Both incentives are after-the-fact incentives. You still have to pay the installer the full cost, and then you get some of the money back.

Selecting an installer

I contacted a few installers to get quotes. I made sure the quotes were all-inclusive. As you’ll see later in this article, there’s a bit of paper work to do with both CoServ and the city and I wanted to be sure the installer would take care of all of that.

Some emails and quotes later I decided on A-Apex Air (817-578-8823). What I liked about this company is that they have been in the AC and heating business for several decades. That means they know the proper process for getting city permits and doing electrical work to code. They were also willing to work with me to meet my price point. I wanted ROI in the 10 year range, and to meet that they gave me a discount.

Securing HOA permission

I suspected I would be the first one to install a solar array in Ridgeview Ranch and it turned out I was right. Although the HOA had guidelines on it, they were not what I would call ideal. I started discussing my application with the ACC chair, Karen Fairchild, and she was very helpful and supportive. Together we got the big hurdle of the process removed and it will now be much easier for future solar arrays to get ACC approval.

Basically, under the new rules as long as the array complies with some design guidelines an approval should not be a problem. The guidelines specify things such as that the array should not extend past the roof line, it should follow the angle of the roof and things of that nature. This is how an array is normally installed and should not be an issue.  [Please consult the most recent ACC Design Standards on the ACC page for details.]

Installation

Before work can begin the installer got a city permit and filed two applications with CoServ. The first was for the $1,000 incentive and second was for an “Interconnect Agreement”. It is very important that the installer secures approval for both of these from CoServ before the install. Otherwise CoServ may not pay the $1,000 incentive, nor switch the meter over to net-metering. Without net-metering you will lose any power that you send out into the grid.

Here going with an established installer paid off. I tried to contact CoServs incentive office several times. Phone calls and emails got the same result: an automated message saying I would be contacted within five business days. Months later I still have not received any response. Luckily the installer had contacts at CoServ and got the paperwork going.

With the city permit and CoServ applications done, the array was installed in two days.

To describe the system, it consists of the following:

The 20 panels each have a microinverter already installed underneath. The microinverter outputs 220V AC. All the panels are hooked together with a cable that goes through the roof into the attic. It runs inside the attic and then down the outside wall to a disconnect switch. After the switch it goes through the outside wall into the breaker box where it hooks to a standard double-pole (220V) breaker.

In addition to this I also opted for the optional monitoring system ($500). This consists of a box that goes anywhere inside the house and talks to all the microinverters over the power lines. It has a WIFI dongle that is connected to my home network. It continuously uploads data from the microinverters to the vendor’s site on the internet. I then access a webpage where I can see all the information for my array. I can see output (watts) in 5 minute increments, power (Wh) for a day, week, month, lifetime or custom date range. It also automatically stores weather data for each day so I can see if a day was sunny or cloudy.

A nice feature is that there’s a public access for my system where anyone can go and see how much my system produces right now as well as historically. The public access for my system can be found at https://enlighten.enphaseenergy.com/pv/public_systems/z6uy381748

Once the system was installed the city sent two inspectors: One for electrical and one for structure.

Results so far

The array went live June 18th. My July billing cycle with CoServ was June 8th to July 9th. So I only had the array for 2/3 of the bill cycle. The array produced 470 kWh during the 21 days it was running and my bill from CoServ was $100.

My August bill was the first one where the array had been in service for the whole month. It produced 690 kWh, and my August bill was $88.

Things that are good to know

  • What happens if there’s hail? First of all, solar panels are pretty sturdy. You can walk on them without damaging them. Panels are rated for 1” hail at 50 mph. A hail storm bad enough to damage a panel will total the entire roof. The good news is that solar arrays are covered by the home owner’s insurance. I talked to my insurance company (Travelers) and my array is simply a part of the house as far as they are concerned. If the roof underneath a panel has to be fixed, they will cover the removal and reinstall of the panel. If a panel is damaged by a storm, they will replace it. There is no extra cost for this.
  • CoServ will charge an extra $10/month fee for net-metering. I was not happy to discover this fee on my first bill, especially since it is not mentioned anywhere in any of the CoServ paperwork when I did the interconnect agreement. Looking around online I found plenty of people who were upset about this solar panel penalty, but that has not changed CoServ’s mind.
  • The CoServ $1,000 incentive (strange considering the penalty fee above) is only available until the funds they have set aside for it run out every year. Probably not a good idea to do your install at the end of the year, although I don’t know for sure as I never succeeded in contacting anyone at the CoServ rebate office to ask them.

Conclusion

If you plan to stay in the house for a long time, solar arrays make sense. You will end up saving quite a bit of money over the life of the array. I don’t know if I’d recommend financing the array though. With interest payments and loan fees the ROI gets very long. However, with solar prices steadily decreasing, and especially if electricity prices increase, financing will soon make sense also.

Going with a good installer is essential to get the proper paperwork with the city and CoServ right. The installer should take care of all permits, interconnect agreements and rebate applications. I can recommend my installer, A-Apex Air (817-578-8823). They did what they said they would do and showed up when they said they would. Btw, I do not get anything from them for saying this.

So if you have a south facing roof, and plan to stay in the house for awhile, have a look at a solar array. It just may make sense to have one installed.

Back-To-School Time!

August 20, 2014

It's back-to-school time again!

It’s back-to-school time again!

It is hard to believe, but the neighborhood kids will be heading back to school Monday.  The summer break has flown by and if your family is anything like mine, everyone has mixed emotions about going back to school for the fall.

So, take these last days to celebrate summer by spending time with your family and enjoying our community play grounds, pools and tennis court.  Then, join your neighbors Sunday, August 24th at the Bellerive pool for summer’s last hurrah!  Meet at the pool from 3 to 5pm to enjoy some Dads grillin’ hot dogs, the Kona Ice truck serving snow cones and bottled water.  All provided by John Polito of Greener Image Lawn Service, Liz Aviles with VIP Realty and the Ridgeview Ranch HOA.  Here are the details once again…

  • Who – Residents of Ridgeview Ranch
  • What – The Back-to-School Pool Party
  • When – Sunday, August 24 from 3 to 5pm
  • Where – The Bellerive Pool, 2401 Bellerive Dr.
  • Why – There will be hot dogs, snow cones and water all provided by our generous sponsors and coordinated by our hard working social chair!

Also – take time out to thank our sponsors personally for helping to build a stronger community through events like these.

  • Cash Sponsor: Greener Image Lawn Service – John Polito
  • Water Sponsor: VIP Realty – Liz Aviles

We hope to see you there and good luck to all the students at Anderson, Taylor, Vandeventer, Wester, Liberty or wherever your kids attend classes this school year!

Calloway’s Timely Tips for August Gardeners

August 1, 2014

August is here and needless to say, it is HOT! However Fall is right around the corner and here are a few tips to get you through the scorching days of August and into the “Second Spring” of the South – Fall. This is usually one of the driest months for our region, and rainfall may be sparse. With new watering restrictions in place, when and how you water becomes even more important.

Make the best use of the water you have by watering early in the morning before the wind speeds pick up. Otherwise, much of the water will evaporate before the plants get to use it. To further avoid excess evaporation, use a sprinkler that produces large drops of water instead of a fine mist. Plants need about one inch of water each week during this long summer period. If you have heavy clay soil adjust the timing of the irrigation zones to make sure water is not running off the landscape. Your irrigation schedule should be adjusted to allow for slow infiltration of the water. Be a WISE – keep water on the landscape.

Soil that is exposed can heat up to more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This is hot enough to kill those tender root hairs near the surface. Three to four inches of mulch can make the soil 10 to 20 degrees cooler. Besides reducing soil temperature, mulches also conserve water by reducing evaporation, often up to 65 percent.

August is the last month to plant a new lawn before winter temperatures arrive. Newly-installed lawns need at least six to eight weeks to establish a healthy root system.

Prune roses back, but do not remove more than one-third of the plant. Prune and remove spent blooms on annuals and perennials to encourage continuous blooming well into fall.

Tomato and Peppers planted earlier this year will not set fruit during the heat of the summer, even though they may still be flowering. If the plants remain healthy, they will set fruit again once the temperatures stay below 90 degrees. Sidedress established healthy plants with fertilizer and keep watered to encourage new growth. Set out tomato transplants; look for early maturing variety (65 to 75 days). Our average first freeze is mid-November and tomato maturity slows down as the days get cool and cloudy.

*There are no clinics scheduled for August.  Stop by your nearest Calloway’s or Cornelius Nursery for expert advice from one or our Texas Certified Nursery Professionals