My big fat rooftop solar installation

The installation is a major project that will take four or more hours

Solar panels on roof
Lucas Mearian

After writing about solar power for more than year, I figured it was time to pull the trigger and get rooftop panels installed on my home, a 2,200-square-foot ranch-style house.

While I'm only the second homeowner on my street to do so, more and more houses and buildings in my community are adopting solar, and for good reason: solar panels can markedly lower or nearly eliminate your electricity bills, depending on the system.

After deciding I wanted to go solar, the next quandary I faced was whether I wanted panels on my roof, or would buy into a community solar farm.

Solar Power installation Lucas Mearian

A look at the front of my house just prior to the work beginning. Your home will become a temporary construction site, complete with traffic cones and perimeter warning tape.

Community solar farms parse out clean energy to a group of shareholders. Basically, you're leasing a certain number of panels in that farm that will provide power to your home through the power grid.

While it sounds all 1960s granola, community solar farms have emerged as a fast-growing  solar energy source in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the closest solar farm is about 35 miles away. I didn't like that because in a storm, power could go down between that solar farm and the grid. That wouldn't cut my power, but it would mean I'd be back to paying the local utility full price. I also didn't like that the solar farm's success was based on how many people bought into it. So I chose to have rooftop panels installed on my home.

As any homeowner or business should, I checked with multiple installers (four, in my case), to determine which one offered the best price and would best suit my requirements: I wanted the solar panels to be low-profile and attractive. I chose SolarCity.

SolarCity installation Lucas Mearian

The photovoltaic panels being installed on the mounting brackets.

Every solar power project starts with a quick free quote that takes about two hours. In my case, a SolarCity representative came to my house to discuss my current energy use and look at my roof using satellite imaging to determine whether tree cover precluded an installation. She then tried multiple solar panel configurations using  design software that was able to determine the amount of energy the panels would provide.

I liked that SolarCity's panels have a lower profile than others and come with a drip edge, which helps address any ice damming that may occur, as I live in the Northeast and we get a lot of snow.

SolarCity solar panels Lucas Mearian

SolarCity's system tends to be lower profile than others and it include a drip edge that helps keep ice dams from building up underneath the photovoltaic panels.

I also liked the company's price. I locked in a price of 12.5 cents per kilowatt of power I use, plus an annual increase of 2.9% over 20 years; that works out to about a 1 penny per kilowatt increase every three years.

By comparison, my power utility (Eversource, formerly NSTAR) was charging me 13.3 cents per kilowatt and an additional 10 cents delivery charge. The utility had also raised its rates by nearly 60% last January, a relatively common practice these days among utilities.

On top of lower rates, SolarCity guarantees its panels will operate at a certain level of efficiency. If the panels drop in efficiency beyond the guarantee, the company will come and repair or replace them.

The approval process

The next question I asked myself is whether to buy a rooftop solar system or lease one for 20 years. Today, leasing is the most popular option because there are no upfront costs. Buying a rooftop solar system for my home would have cost upwards of $35,000 for a system similar to the one I chose.

While calculations showed if I purchased my own solar system I'd achieve a 10- to 12-year return on investment based on the electrical cost savings, I wouldn't have a partner with a vested interest in ensuring the system kept working properly. Sure, there are product warranties. But we all know how difficult it can be to get any company to fix a product quickly, let alone a relatively new company in a still-nascent industry.

Before a solar power installer will approve your home or business, you have to pass an inspection by a site surveyor to ensure the roof is solid enough and receives enough sunlight to justify the energy production rates the company is guaranteeing. My site surveyor spent about an hour my roof, in my attic and looking over my electrical panel to ensure compatibility.

Solar City power Lucas Mearian

SolarCity workers installing the solar power inverter on the side of my house. Note the galvanized conduit -- not attractive, but necessary.

All this time having someone comb over your home can feel overwhelming. Knowing the typical homeowner is new to the idea of solar power, SolarCity assigns a company representative to each customer. Our representative was Jennifer, a former social worker who lived in the next town over and brought us bagels for breakfast on the morning of our install.

The representatives are there to hold your hand; mine kept me informed via email or phone whenever we'd crossed another hurdle in the install process. Of course, representatives are looking for opportunities to pitch your neighbors during your install, but not obnoxiously so. They'll ask if it's OK to put a sign in your front yard to let neighbors know what's happening and that they're welcome to come and ask questions.

To be candid, I was pleasantly surprised how genuine my rep was. There were several times when I told her I was considering bowing out and looking at other options and she never pressured me; her attitude was, "as long as you're doing solar, great!"

The installation

After my house passed the initial inspection, it took more than a month for the SolarCity to get the required permits from my local building department; this isn't atypical, but once the permits come, the install process is a major project.

SolarCity solar panels Lucas Mearian

Four to five people will be pounding on your roof for at least four hours during the installation. Here, the workers are installing mounting brackets.

There's no getting around the fact that four to five people will be climbing around your roof for hours. My 6.2-kilowatt system took five hours to install.

In addition to workers on your roof, a licensed electrician will be installing an inverter box near your home's electrical panel. Sometimes the boxes can go inside the house; in my case, it was mounted to the outside wall of my house due to space constraints inside the closet that housed my electric panel.

All solar systems have inverters, which convert the variable direct current (DC) output of a photovoltaic (PV) solar panel into a utility-grade frequency known as alternating current (AC). The AC electricity can then be fed into a commercial electrical grid or used by a house or business off-grid electrical network.

Solar Power Panels Lucas Mearian

One of the many safety anchor points that SolarCity workers attached to my roof with a 4-in lag bolt. The workers tie onto the anchors with a nylon rope for safety. After the job is completed, the holes left from the anchors are sealed with flashing and caulking.

During the installation, workers pounded on my roof with hammers to find rafters into which they could secure the solar panels' mounting brackets. Then they drilled through my roof to secure the panels using 7/8-in. lag bolts.

Believe me, as someone who has installed a skylight in my own roof, removed rooftop vents and repaired shingles, I know how nerve wracking it is to have holes drilled in a roof. Every hole is an opportunity for a leak; frankly, it's a leap of faith a homeowner must take that the professionals know what they're doing; of course, the system is also guaranteed not to leak over its lifetime. So if it does, they have to fix it.

In addition to drilling holes for mounting solar panels, building safety codes required SolarCity to drill anchor points in my roof not only for workers to tie themselves to with nylon ropes, but also to secure ladders leaning against my house.

All the anchor holes in the roof are sealed with flashing (thin pieces of aluminum) and all-weather caulking.

SolarCity's panel mounting system

SolarCity's solar panel roof mounting devices differ from those of other companies in that they don't use rails to attach solar panels. Instead, they use the Zep Solar mounting system, which consists of a hockey-puck like mount -- four or more for each panel depending on the panel's size.

First, a rectangular piece of flashing is slid into place under a roof shingle (that allows rain to run over the flashing and onto the shingles). Then, the edges of the flashing are sealed with all-weather caulking. Next, a heart-shaped plastic "puck," roughly four-inches in diameter, is attached on top of the flashing with four-inch lag bolts through the roof. A solar panel mounting bracket is then bolted to the puck.

Solar panel power Lucas Mearian

This is SolarCity's Zep Solar mounting system. The base is a piece of roof flashing, followed by a plastic puck and finally the actual panel mounting bracket.

SolarCity power Lucas Mearian

The Zep Solar mounting brackets attached to my roof. Note the flashing inserts under the shingles to allow rain to flow over them.

SolarCity boasts that its modular mounting system uses fewer contact points than other solar roof mounts, which is supposed to do less damage to a roof.

One thing I had to come to terms with was the electrical conduit -- galvanized pipe that runs from your inverter to the solar panels.

The electrical conduit runs up from the inverter up the side of your house and across your roof. It's not pretty, but it's an obvious necessity. Some companies do run the conduit through your attic for aesthetics, but SolarCity runs its outside the house to decrease the likelihood of leaking at points where the conduit enters and exits the attic.

I'll eventually spray paint the conduit to better match my roof's dark gray.

Even after the solar panel installation is completed, you won't be receiving the benefits of solar power for weeks, if not months. Your utility will have to change out your meter for a "revenue grade meter" -- one that can feed power back into the electrical grid and track how much power is being produced by your solar panels.

In my case, I was told it would take an additional four to six weeks for my utility to install my revenue grade meter -- the inference being that utilities drag their feet because residential and business solar power installations are eating their lunch.

Overall, I was pleased with the installation process. I think SolarCity could have done a better job informing me of all the nuances of a solar install, but the company was upfront and open about answering any of my questions.

Now, I'm just anxious for the local inspectors and my utility company to tell me I can flip the switch and start using all that free energy from the sun.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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