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Solar snafu: The contractor finally installs the panels, but goofs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Editor’s Note: Scientific American‘s George Musser will be chronicling his experiences installing solar panels in Solar at Home (formerly 60-Second Solar). Read his introduction here and see all posts here.

The first message I got from my wife last week was happy news indeed: “Solar guys are working on our roof!” As readers of this blog know, we’d started the process of installing solar panels back in February, and we had no idea what were getting ourselves into. The red tape for the state and utility subsidies took through the end of May. Then we had to get our roof restored, which added a couple of months. In early July, I told myself, the wait was over. How wrong I was.

Our installer, 1st Light Energy, suddenly got a bad case of contractor-itis. New Jersey homeowners will recognize the syndrome: they never show, they never call, then out of the blue, they contact you from a noisy truck and insist they have to get over there to take some measurements, can you please abandon your job and strand your kids to wait for us, we think we can come sometime between 8 and 5? Some very talented craftsmen have worked on our home over the years, but with notable exceptions, their skills seldom included communicativeness.

The summer solstice had come and gone, the days were getting shorter, and we had missed out on the best time of the year for power production. My worries mounted. If the work weren’t done by the onset of winter, it would have to wait till the spring, and we might miss the deadline for collecting our subsidies — forcing us to go through all the paperwork rigmarole again. Also, I needed the project done in the 2009 calendar year in order to file for the Federal renewable-energy tax credit and pay off the deposit I’d put down with Home Depot.

I started to get more pro-active and pester the installers. They insisted they were waiting on the building permit. Our town’s building department, for its part, insisted it was still waiting on the installers to provide engineering data to decide whether our roof could support the panels. After a few more calls and emails, I got the structural engineer to set up a visit, collect his data, and complete the permitting process.

Then I left town for an astronomy conference and a visit to Arecibo Observatory, and wouldn’t you know it, the installers began their work during that very week. Worse, Arecibo doesn’t have wireless Internet or cellphone coverage (to avoid interference with the radio telescope), so my wife was on her own to deal with the project. The first message I eventually got was the happy one that work had begun. The second was rather less welcome.

“Solar array looks nothing like what we planned,” she wrote. The installers had installed the panel mounting brackets on the wrong part of the roof. Our contact person at 1st Light swiftly intervened to put things right, but two other issues arose. First, the installers had to increase the spacing between panels from their initial estimate, reducing the number that would fit on our main roof from 18 to 15.

Second, they weren’t able to install the six panels they’d planned for a side roof. Because this roof has a slightly different orientation, these panels would require a separate electrical inverter for reasons discussed in an earlier post. Yet the minimum number of 200-watt panels per inverter is nine.

So the total size of our system has shrunk from 24 to 15 panels. Now it won’t even cover our annual household electricity consumption. And it’s not over yet. The installers plan to finish the wiring this week, at which point the array will need to be inspected not just by the town but also by the state, and various agencies will need to finalize the subsidy packages. Only over time will I know whether the system lives up to its promise.

This misadventure doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy about my choice of installer. We did our due diligence: 1st Light was the most responsive and informative of the companies we talked to, the Better Business Bureau had registered no customer complaints, and the subsidy paperwork required the company to demonstrate its technical competence. The charitable explanation is that these are natural teething pains. The state of New Jersey has set ambitious targets for renewable energy production, a lot of businesses have sprung up to meet the demand, and there’s a learning curve.

I hadn’t thought of myself as an early-adopter. Lots of people all over the country installed solar panels long ago. But my experience proves that solar is still not a matter of plug and play. If installers can’t raise their game, the planet is surely doomed.

Panels on George’s roof

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  1. 1. Jokunen 9:28 pm 10/22/2009

    I am sorry to hear that they could not plan your installation before doing any actual work on the roof. Change from 24 to 15 panels is no little change.

    Looking back at your earlier article about inverter issues, to me it seems that you might need an step-up converter for each panel to be able to feed high voltage to the inverter. That might be the task of those solarmagic modules or similar tech. Then wire all outputs of those step-ups parallel and that might solve some of the problems that arise from reduced amount of solar panels. Those step-ups would also naturally fix the low-temp Voc-problem too. Because they are making 400V DC regardless whether they get in 12V or even 36V. That way the low voltage, high current domain is by the panel only and the bus wiring to the inverter(s) can be made with 400V, low current wiring. Of course substitute that 400V DC with what ever voltage is the best for your chosen inverter(s).

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  2. 2. jnrowell 10:04 pm 10/22/2009

    Clearly this particular installer knows nothing about solar. As someone in the biz, I can tell you that first, the paperwork is not that much and most of it can be completed before the project is even started. Secondly, the only reason they’d want that much space between the panels is so they could walk in between them because they clearly didn’t plan the installation properly and had a do-over. Finally, there is no minimum wattage for an inverter – you can even get micro-inverters that connect to single solar panels. The author would have done well to request references of other people who have had solar systems installed by these contractors.

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  3. 3. hankroberts 12:27 am 10/23/2009

    > the Better Business Bureau had registered
    > no customer complaints

    And what’s the current count? You might find it’s hard to register a complaint, if you try to go on the record for the benefit of the next person who asks. Or they might just let you file a copy of your blog post, of course.

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  4. 4. pgtruspace 1:55 am 10/23/2009

    "Professional contractor"

    Web site;1st Light Energy
    1316 Dupont Ct. Manteca, CA 95336 | Ph:209-824-5500 | Fax:209-824-5575
    MANTECA California!

    Reminds me of the last solar scam era. The fancier the ad. the more wonderful the promises, the worse the service.

    One thing for sure this company just bought a million dollars worth of bad advertising.

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  5. 5. doug 1 8:43 am 10/23/2009

    Hilarious…a comedy of errors! I don’t see why people should buy into the state subsidy concept anyway. If it were a really good idea then it wouldn’t need state subsidies, which we see are really just another piece of useless machinery put into the process and which ultimately creates more confusion and loss than if it weren’t there. And this is with a scientist? Oh, man…when I imagine how the Cap and Trade for co2 is likely to work, I shudder at the thought of all these stories maginified a zillion times while the powerful tell us how marvelous it is at the next eco-conference in Bali that they flew it on their biofuel powered private jets. Really, if you wrote this as fiction it would be hilarious and slanderous!
    Try in the mean time to get the president’s wife to be seen hanging her laundry from a clothes line to encourage us all to do the same. Now THAT would save some energy in a very meaningful way…ha ha! tire guages…what a laff.
    Oh…and no wi-fi or cell phones at Aricebo? Who’d a thunk it? Please you’re killing me with comedy. Anyhow, thanks for the object lesson is why we shouldn’t place all our trust into the superior understanding of science over engineering.

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  6. 6. PsySciGuy 10:56 am 10/23/2009

    You’re having these problems and you’re a SCIENTIST?! As a Psychologist-Scientist, well I also have a degree in EE and physics, I’d build the system myself. Advantages:it would actually work, it would meet code, it would be done on time, I could repair it. Of course I don’t have to worry about the city rules & regs – I live in the country. The County doesn’t bother me – I claim it’s ag related. The state doesn’t bother me – I live in SD. So I don’t get as big a rebate as you. I save all that and more by not paying for government permits, idiot contractors, structural engineers, inspectors, installers, etc, etc. I can also put up a windmill (or install a generator and different fan on my <B>existing</B> windmill) and have power on cloudy, winter days. Sounds like the real problem here is Eastern Mentality.

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  7. 7. jnrowell 12:44 pm 10/23/2009

    Yes, that’s an option too. In fact here in CA you could install them yourself and still claim the rebate. Probably works the same in NJ. You just have to make sure it will meet code for inspection.

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  8. 8. tharriss 1:58 pm 10/23/2009

    Doug: Your rant on subsidies just doesn’t make sense… the power you use from the power companies every day is subsidized heavily (you just don’t hear about it)… but you think a new industry should be able to compete without similar help? Try to learn a bit more before you go off on a subject and spout a slanted, factually incorrect world view.

    PsySciGuy: You can’t blame "Eastern Mentality" for the fact that not everyone has the know-how or time to install their own panels… and regulations in a spread out, less populated area can always be fewer than are necessary in the more complicated higher population density areas… you are not comparing apples to apples. It is that kind of oversimplification that taints the reasoning of lots of non "Easter Mentality" folks and leads them to erroneous conclusions.

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  9. 9. jerryd 8:19 pm 10/23/2009

    This is why I advocate a plug and play set up where you just assemble a kit prewired with inverter on the ground or as a shed, patio roofover. Then you just plug it in an outlet or have an electrician run an outlet for it depending on size.

    You can get a 6kw system now for for $10k with inverter that you can get Fed credits on. You will save so much you will come out way ahead even without state credits.

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  10. 10. PsySciGuy 12:07 am 10/24/2009

    tharriss: Of course I’ not comparing apples to apples. I just think that the majority of his problems aren’t really technical. Rather they are the result of failing to spend time learning the technology himself combined with choosing to live "back East." My point, perhaps poorly made, is that alternative energy systems are ill suited to urban/high density areas. Not necessarily because of technical/space constraints (although a windmill might upset his neighbors), but because of the bureaucratic issues associated with said urban areas. Simply moving to South Dakota would solve the vast majority of his problems (crooked contractors, regulations, etc). And his property tax savings would pay for the system. Alternative energy may turn out to be best applied in those locations where long transmission lines make self generated power more ‘socially’ practical. For example, I have 250 gallons in my on-site fuel tank. Fuel I can use for my backup generator. Hardly suburban friendly! And probably NJ impossible.

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  11. 11. Hermit 6:06 pm 10/24/2009

    Everyone seems narrowly committed to PV’s and to have forgotten the sun can deliver heat directly. In the 30 years since we built a passive solar house in Michigan, with generous state and federal tax credits, over 40 million houses have been built in the USA with no consideration of the sun’s heat, summer or winter. All the suppliers of solar water heaters back then have gone out of business and house orientation to the road has beat orientation to the sun almost every time, most of the 40 million times, anyway.

    These houses, 1/3rd of our stock, could have averaged 20% less fuel use by orienting them sanely instead of vainly and adding 2 insulated pipes from the basement to the attic space. But we’re a plug-in culture that finds it offensive to be "put out" by opening shades or turning a valve, so we opt to wait for plugging everything in the house and garage into the magic panel on the roof. Too bad 30 years and a half dozen recessions have gone by while we waited. Now we’re stuck depending on an expensive, fast-changing PV technology with a long payback to keep our energy flowing.

    We picked all the low fruit and are having to reach higher and higher for more. We had 40 million opportunities to save a lot of energy right in our laps and we let it fall to the ground and rot. I think we’re up against more than an energy shortage; we are an immature culture when it comes to planning for the future and are our own worst enemy. I have less confidence in us every decade.


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  12. 12. Michael Hanlon 1:23 am 10/25/2009

    Stockholm has its bunnies. We have our fledgeling industry contrators. Same solution? Remember to freeze the carcasses before you generate the biofuel.

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  13. 13. carterjo 5:29 am 10/26/2009

    I wonder how much the albedo change of your roof offsets gains from electricity, much of the suns short wave energy must be being converted to heat therefor enhancing greenhouse (as well as producing some electricity) can you prove you are actually energy balance positive ???

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  14. 14. frgough 10:12 am 10/26/2009

    " Your rant on subsidies just doesn’t make sense… the power you use from the power companies every day is subsidized heavily (you just don’t hear about it)…"

    Just let this myth die already. Everyone who utters it simply proves themselves an ignorant fool.

    Hint: Being allowed to keep more of your profits is NOT a subsidy.

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  15. 15. gmusser 11:09 am 10/26/2009

    That’s a very interesting question. I do take an albedo hit: the panels have an effective albedo of 1/6 (they dissipate 5/6 of incident solar radiation as heat), whereas my white roof has an albedo of 0.85. But the albedo reduction is a one-off climate forcing, equivalent to a certain amount of atmospheric CO2, whereas fossil power generation is an ever-increasing climate forcing, since each unit of energy entails the emission of more CO2. A quick back-of-envelope calculation suggests that it takes three years for the benefit of renewable power to offset the cost of extra surface heat absorption. I’ll ask some climate experts for their thoughts and write a blog post if they have more to say.

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  16. 16. Michael Hanlon 1:28 am 10/27/2009

    You were going to have 24 each, 200 Watt panels? That comes to 4. 8 kW/hr!! Just what are you planning to load this system with? Was the intention to become the power company? If supplying for yourself and two others, you should be able to get by with 1/2 the consumption (15 x 200W = 3.0kW, there ya go). Anything with and infra-red remote controls needs to be unplugged when not in use or the Power supply is always on. All fluorescents is a good step. Hanging clothes(not to mention dishes openly placed in a rack) to allow evaporative drying is good. A broom and a Bissel caepet sweeper is more efficient than a Vacuum cleaner. New Jersey is a good location for geo-thermal heat pumps, got one? I could go on and I sound dis-appreciative of your effortrs. Forgive that implication.
    By your own admission, something did not go as planned. May I suggest "Juran’s Handbook of Quality Control, Edition 3" for a good source of problem cause identification and methods of measure and corrective action. When the Japanese couldn’t get back on their feet after WWII, these are the methods they employed to fix the problems.

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  17. 17. Jokunen 5:53 pm 10/28/2009

    Hanlon: I think it’s not important to look at possible peak power one can get from panels, but the mean power that one is going to get in most times. Then we must remember that at the night the panels produce none, even in summer. So first one needs to calculate the number of kWh’s one is using per year. Then one can select an array that would make a certain percent of kWh’s per year. Whether that is 50% or 100%, that also means that at summer, at peak power the array owner needs to be able to feed the extra capacity to the grid. Because that is the best place to "store" that capacity while waiting for the night and the need to load the grid. So having 15 instead of 24 panels, his capacity is 62% of what he planned it to be. Assuming that there are no nonlinear factors in that equation. I bet there are, so probably the situation is worse even.

    As a side note I wonder when they come up with combined solar panel that has the glass covered aluminum conduit box filled with PV cells so that any light that is not converted to electricity could be used to heat one’s warm water. Althought I wonder if the PV’s would be hotter or cooler in it versus being in normal installation.

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  18. 18. Michael Hanlon 12:16 am 10/29/2009

    I want to agree with you Jokunen, but, what is incident on the panels is measured (or should be) in peak potential. The usage side is where the 0.707 average is applicable. These two factors are important because they center on the battery storage situation (The battery cannot exceed peak input or go boom, no matter the average)(To calculate drainage on the battery, you use average consumption to estimate heat generation and replenish times) However, if you tie into the grid, count electronsindividually to make sure you get what the Light Co. owes you.
    .The whole issue of "grid" only serves to remind that even if we all generated our own needed power, some company out there will pay a politician to see that laws are made so they get us to pay them to watch us use it.

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  19. 19. evergreensolarinstaller 8:59 am 11/1/2009

    As an installer: State by state and delays in the response from them on rebate applications as well as the economic status of local municipalities attempting to raise income for their coffers are delaying the process for installers. The lack of understanding by customers thinking Solar installs are like Aluminum siding "order today and install tomorrow" is also a problem. Solar products are a commodity and produced in batches, Modules are often changed or discontinued and must be replaced with another product and can affect the physical dimensions of the Modules,. As such by the time a job is approved for a States rebate program, the system might have to be changed. Solar has to be started with the basic Site survey,(Done correctly) on a roof at the location where the collectors are installed, not by a salesman in your drive way, next: the spacing issues. I have seen some bad installs by good companies because they ignored the manufactures install guide to gain production. BAD IDEA! a grouped array of strings will need a service alley say 18" from ridge and 18" up from gutter’s edge. and 12" from each side ..

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