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