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Solar at Home

The trials, tribulations and rewards of going solar
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Calling all solar enthusiasts: Tell me about your system!

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.

Have you installed a grid-connected solar array on your home? If so, I’d love to hear about your experience! I’m planning to pull together a series of blog posts that surveys the variety of projects out there to see what common themes emerge. Please contact me offline at and summarize what you’ve done: the size of the system, its performance, your location, the subsidies (if any) you’ve taken advantage of, any problems you encountered, whatever. If you’re blogging about it, include the URL and I’ll link to it.

Collage of ultraviolet images of the sun by the SOHO spacecraft, courtesy of NASA and the European Space Agency

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  1. 1. craighyatt 10:01 pm 11/2/2009

    I hope the ground rules for this article exclude all DIY solar spammers such as Earth4Energy and its spawn. See

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  2. 2. Michael Hanlon 1:51 am 11/3/2009

    end? What? where’d it all go? I hit enter twice and a whole posting worth of typing was gone. I hope a double click sent it to you. If not I’ re do tomorrow.

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  3. 3. Michael Hanlon 2:08 am 11/3/2009

    Un otra que? It was touched on earlier when discussing incident angle, that the snow slides off the panels when raised to catch a lower sun. My question is: Are the panels equiped with any sort of heater to keep them functional during adverse weather (heavy snow or sleeting ice?)
    Here in Florida, a drawback to roof mounting is the event of high winds occasionally meaning they’d best be stowable. Since yours are on the top of your house, getting them to storage is difficult, I guess beyond the heater/weather defeating possibilities of such an attachment questio i add, are your panels portable if you could easily get to them?

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  4. 4. Forlornehope 4:32 am 11/3/2009

    I live in a sixteenth century thatched cottage in the South West of England. The cottage faces almost exactly due South but is a listed historical building so I cannot put panels on top of the thatch. However the garage is separate with a pitched roof facing 190 degrees. As I write 1.8 kWe panels are being fitted. This is the biggest array that will fit. In UK money, there is a government grant of 2500 pounds towards the installation and a 0.39 pounds per kWh "feed in tariff". This should give me about 8% RoI assuming 1000 kWh per kWe installed. That is reasonably conservative for this part of the UK. I costed purchasing the individual components and fitting it myself. It did not make sense for the saving compared to paying for the installation. In addition the grant requires use of an approved contractor. Because of the historic status of the house, officially described as grade 2 listed, I had to get planning permission to put in the panels (even though they were not on the house itself). This took two months, to allow for objections. The planning department were very helpful and other than the delay and a small fee it is not an onerous requirement.

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  5. 5. Michael Hanlon 12:43 am 11/4/2009

    A recallection of what evaporated on me yesterday. I figured that if you were getting the stories about solar experince via email, this blog spot should be open for another topic. It is related, so, if I may, more of my experience with the Power Co. (PoCo) when I investigated wind generation. I’ve cited the million dollar liability insurance policy already. That by itself is enough to deter. But they (PoCo) attacked any concievable method of intruding on their monopoly.
    .The part leading up to my confrontation with them. I wanted to become more self sufficient energy-wisein an environmentally considered way. With our sun exposure around 90% of our days, it would seem a good way. But we get those damn wind storms (you know the ones I’m talkin’ about). It would not allow a return on investment if they dissappeared in two years. Most home communities here now are planned and really don’t allow space for ground installation of panels either. Due to our proximity to the Gulf stream, not only do we have steady sun but also steady breeze(on the East Coast). Not enough breeze to turn a turbine generator which is why or one PoCo reasons we don’t get invested in wind farms. The same PoCo builds them in Texas but not here.
    .I needed something which met the needs of: reacts to low winds (2-20 mph) can be easily stowable and could be homeowner maintained. Pinwheels mounted on bicycle generators fit the bill. Yah, I’d need to gang dozens of them to get a fair trickle but a trickles a source none the less and trickles add uup over time.. Idrafted a proposal and submitted it to PoCo. Iexpected to make 1kW and only need 600-800W of it and thought to sell the extra to the grid.
    .Now their reaction: Insurance. Study by a reputable org like UL to assess the plan ( a thou $ easy), I buy and maintain the connection and metering gear (another thou$ and its their meter! both in source and use), A phone line permanently connected and dedicated to monitor the in/out relay status (a few hundred $), I needed to develop an emergency plan for the event of any type of grid outage local to widespread (review and approval of that document was to be performed by their engineers at a fair market rate, Ha! another thou $), I needed to have the chopped waveform output from my inverter tested and certified by that same UL operation (more thou $), I needed to survey the types of appliances which would be impacted by that non-sinusoidal waveshape (meaning go local door-to-door and intrude on my neighbors privacy and ask what types of equipment they plug in (cont)

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  6. 6. Michael Hanlon 12:59 am 11/4/2009

    then submit that data to the UL for determination of acceptibility to add the power to the grid (another thou $). Should any determination be made that that wave contributed to other’s equipment failure, I needed not only that personnell liability but now, an asset liability insurance( many thous $ but probably spread-out-able). And they wanted rights to the design. Screw you PoCo. All I hoped to accomplish was sell them maybe $10 dollars of juice a month. Juice stored and available from my storage system (Bunch of auto and marine 12V’s)
    They’ll let us have solar (there must be a hidden drawback to it they ain’t published yet) which they are averse to developing and deny us to share the benefits of wind. Wind blows 24/7 unlike solar (12/6) The system parts are all off the shelf for pinwheel generated electricity. The pinwheels do need replacing maybe every 6months (small cost (a sheet of roof valley aluminum sheeting does the trick at $20/rol and 15 wheels per roll means each cost less than $2. Battery placement is a challenge as constant charging creates gas pressures but that’s the same only lower than with solar I have an 800W inverter now could add a thousand W unit for a couple Hundred$ return is almost immediate. But, the PoCo got to the code people first and now special investigations will need to be performed before any permit is allowed.

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  7. 7. gmusser 5:00 pm 11/4/2009

    It’s surprising and disturbing to hear that small-scale, grid-tied wind isn’t getting the same level of support that PV is. Have you asked around to see how common your experience is? As a last resort, have you considered having on-site power storage so that you don’t need the grid tie?

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  8. 8. Michael Hanlon 2:35 am 11/5/2009

    I will not contribute any further to the continued business of the PoCo. What ever I get to generate will be for my personal consumption. If I find I make too much(strike that) many electrons, I will simply invest in new storage. Battery’s only about a Hundred $. That will reduce the cycle strain on my others. If I find I don’t make enough electrons, I’ll add new pinwheels..
    . And I guess I’ll have a court battle coming as some of them are spinning now unpermitted. (They should be grandfathered as having been out there since Jan 2005, prior to any code, With generation sporadically since 2006. (My start up woes are’t worth telling) I will email you with some photos and verbage. (An auto size generator can produce a 100W easy in low wind and the wheel to drive it is four feet across and mounted on a chainlink fence pole. Still a managable size to stow in inclement weather) As an adjunct to solar, even the $1,000 prefabbed turbines would be a good idea, since you’ve invested in the storage and sinusoidal side already.

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  9. 9. Michael Hanlon 2:01 am 11/6/2009

    Albedo, Albedo, Albedo, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler to come up with an answer but being a week late, remain mum, or to suffer the tanning rays of the Sun and venture with the answer into the full of it?
    .The answer lies right up there in your banner. We have held in the discussion that black absorbs and white reflects. Absorbs is bad for global warming so, black solar PV panels are therefore bad. And you, George, took some hits for your choice. Well this is me and I seldom get to the point. In keeping with that character quirk, allow me to present how I came to the answer and then I don’t think anyone will forget it or challenge it.
    .I am in discussions with a friend about how best to build a space habitat. One of the issues in a floating "black body" is how to get rid of internal heat and/or reduce the influence of incidental energy to the sum. Therefore the exterior coating is a question which we debate. I’ll not get into the opposing side’s idea of an exterior surface treatment and as far as mine goes, I’ll only say it entails eating so human waste takes on a lighter hue and using that as a paint. But tonight I quizzed myself about other coatings and the recycling of old CDs & DVDs came to mind. Boost them to orbit and stick them on. Can you guess where this is headed yet? CDs are highly mirror like and would reflect almost anything that hit it (E/M-wise). That’d be a solution; are there any other?. Yah, solar panels are highly reflective I thought . So, If the exterior were covered in them, less heat would be absorbed into the habitat. And your quandry popped into my thoughts. Your panels aren’t black or white, they’re a measure of pure reflection, how mirror-like are they? Even though at low incidence they seem black, head on you should be able to count the eyelashes on your brow in them. That’s quite reflective and probably has a better albedo value than a white roof does.
    .Sorry it takes time for truth to dawn. It’s not my fault. I blame abandonment by my father as the reason. But, that doesn’t matter as long as we now know, the more mirror-like the better. I knew it was a correct view when I came to the site and saw your bannerhead. And there for all to see is the principle of which I speak, the Sun in the black of space. (I do not refer to the tremendous slit/split NASA image. The one up top)

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  10. 10. Michael Hanlon 2:07 am 11/6/2009

    Whenever I make these postings, SciAm is curteous enough to say thank you, your submiss……
    .I thought at least once I should exhibit politeness in return and say, "You’re welcome, anytime". Understand I do say it even though you can’t hear it each time I post.

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  11. 11. Michael Hanlon 10:50 pm 11/6/2009

    I’ve got a question for SciAm and I think this may be the only place that’s related and an answer may be forthcoming. Ina blog from ‘Basic Science’-'Physics’- there was a story just a couple of weeks ago it began and entailed a briefing on an application of metamaterial that the Chinese came up with. It detailed an electromagnetic wave ‘black hole’ which absorbed everything put to it in a set of frequency ranges.
    .Then, it disappeared. did it self-absorb? Was there found to be plegiarism in the study’s result? Was it a hoax? Has the Military put a lid on it? It did promise to be a method of near 100% usefullness of the incident energy upon it (the perfect solar panel material).
    .Where did it go?

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  12. 12. dstrandberg 9:26 pm 11/7/2009

    This is ours. Passive solar heaters disguised as window blinds.

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  13. 13. dstrandberg 9:27 pm 11/7/2009

    This is ours. Passive solar heaters disguised as window blinds.

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  14. 14. dstrandberg 9:27 pm 11/7/2009

    This is ours. Passive solar heaters disguised as window blinds.

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  15. 15. ronnie 10:18 am 11/8/2009

    Here is an interesting blog post about solar:

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  16. 16. Michael Hanlon 12:03 am 11/9/2009

    .I just went back to the beginning of your chronicling effort, where you talked about getting your roof coated with white vinyl paint. It is amazing how the difference is actually felt when that happens, isn’t it?
    I live in a Florida community that has thick cement tiles on our roofs (reason: they stay better in the super high winds). They were installed on all 2,000 roofs forty years ago. But more than half have had to be replaced in the last twenty years. The reason (in my considered opinion) is a mistake was made in the surface treatment. Being concrete, they should have had a white concrete stain applied. Instead, the job went to the low bidder who used a latex product. Well, that material doesn’t stand up like a stain would so it was determined we needed to recoat out roofs every five years! And that wear induced unforeseen stresses on the structures. That entails a worker stomping on the roof to power wash it then another to slap/roller apply a new coat. After this exposure to elements (heavy feet) many tiles cracked. (Insert bit here about every fifth or so tile gets a glob of concrete at installation to help hold the tiles in place) Every time they walked on the roofs, pressure was transferred through the tiles to the globs below which pressure caused felt paper failures (tears/ruptures) and any intruding rain or even condensation on tight roofs, began to leak through into the homes.
    The moral of the story is several really. First, when you recoat which you will need to do every three years, make sure you hire lightweights, and make sure they use not vinyl or latex but an elastomeric coating. This allows roof expansion due to heat to have less impact on the coating. Second consider using polyurethane foam product under the coating. That one inch of foam is like 10 inches of batt in the attic. Thirdly, yearly inspect the attic ceiling for any sign of water damage due to condensation build-up. Just as you immediately noticed a temp change another thing happened to your roof when you painted it, it became moisture tight, the paint reflecting moisture back into the structure. If they are not already there, solar powered roof ventilation systems are available.
    The best system is a "cold roof" as that poster from Texas mentioned and there are several variations on that theme to address the varying climates around the country (if your code guys will allow it, that is) With the installation of your mounting brackets through the roof coatings , have you been instructed to immediadetely do a paint slap before sno melt gets in?

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  17. 17. Michael Hanlon 12:23 am 11/9/2009

    Anyway, with all the other debating that has gone on, congratulations in your investment in the core storage system and welcome to the possibility of getting off grid. It shouldn’t require much servicing and you’ll probably find that tiny increases in capacity are in store. Now you can hook whatever generation system you can get your hands on to it. Wind, more/different solar, peizoelectrics some paints are on the boards which will power up, geotheermal, downspout turbines to take advantage of dropping water, static generators if you want to change that stationary bike to a producer of electrons. The world of self generated power is open to you now. Sometimes I even take some grid juice and peak out my batteries with a Sears charger when inclement winds are on the horizon. Remember also, your automobile contains a portable power plant to charge its battery combined with good jumper cables allowing you during power outages and cloudy days to burn a little carbon to watch the football games.

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  18. 18. Hermit 8:51 pm 11/18/2009

    We have been using free passive solar heat in cloudy Michigan for 30 years. We used standard building materials but put them together in a slightly different way. Our result: 2 cords of wood per winter to heat 1740 ft2 for 7000 HDD.

    How does yours work? I hope you enjoy living with the sun as much as we do.


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  19. 19. Wayne Williamson 1:57 pm 07/31/2010

    Michael Hanlon…thanks for your posts…i think i’m going to give it a try;-)

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