By Steve Bredernitz
Just over a year ago, I was meeting with some fellow remodelers and we were talking about quirky clients, our teenage kids, and renewable energy. A few of these gentlemen had solar arrays and wind turbines at their homes and spoke highly of the benefits. Others at the table were adamant that renewable energy was not cost effective. One remodeler in particular commented how solar was a horrible idea in the 1970s and is a horrible idea today. That was the moment I decided to act!
After some research about installation options and costs of solar arrays, I left some plans for my own solar array on the kitchen table for my wife to review. The original plan was to install the solar array on the south side of the attached garage roof. At our home, the south side of the garage roof is also part of the front of the home. The roof has a light brown shingles; the siding is beige and white trim.
The first question my wife asked… “What is the color of the solar panels?”
“Dark blue,” I said.
One disapproving look from the woman I love and I knew it was back to the drawing board.
Clearly a home rooftop system was out of the question, at least as far as my lovely wife was concerned. So was a pole-mounted system, I would later learn, as the president of our homeowner’s association insisted that such would be a violation of the association bylaws. So what were my options?
I have a nice shed in the back yard, not far from the house. The roof faced south (a good thing for solar) but it was not large enough for more than five panels. The solution was clear…. add a structure to the side of the shed with enough of a pitch for solar panels! The new structure can be thought of as a pergola for solar panels. Underneath the pergola, I installed paver bricks for a nice, shaded seating area.
Ok, now it’s time for some solar array 101. When you are planning your array, you need to decide on a grid-tied or standalone system. For us, the grid-tied system made the most sense. This means power created from the array powers the home and any extra power not used in the home is fed into the electrical grid. The electrical grid is what delivers power from the local power plant to the sub-station and then to your home via underground or overhead electrical wires.
I purchased (11) made in the USA, 245-watt monocrystalline solar panels from one of our local electrical suppliers. These panels convert sunlight into electricity (in nature, think of photosynthesis). Solar panels need to be pointed to the south, mounted to a structure (roof, pole, side of the building, etc.) and clear of objects the block the sun such as trees. We installed five panels on the shed roof and six panels on the pergola. I also purchased the appropriate inverter. The inverter is needed to convert the DC power created by the array to AC power, which the house or local power grid can use.
Making It Look Good
Once the array was installed, the landscaping was next. In order to get power from the shed and build the pergola, we had to dig a trench and postholes, which created some damaged to the lawn. Our goal was to create an attractive area that could be used for sitting in the shade. Since this was a fairly large area, I used 16-inch square decorative concrete paver blocks. These bocks were installed just like paver bricks; however, because of their size I decided to use a larger joint (3/8 inch) between them, similar to installing tile in the home. To keep these larger joints from washing out due to rainfall, I used a polymeric stone dust. This product is often used in walkways around flagstone.
What It Cost Me and What I Got in Return
The system cost was approximately $15,000.00 to build and install. This included the cost of the array, taking electrical power to the shed, building the new pergola, landscaping, and permits. With the local power company incentive and the federal government rebate, my net expense is approximately $3,520.00. I believe we will see a return on this investment in approximately 3 years.
As a remodeler and green builder, this was a perfect project to prove a number of issues. First, it validates the technology. Solar energy will not completely replace our dependence on fossil fuels, but it can help. My own experiences convince me of this. The summer of 2011 in Michigan was one of the hottest on record. Our electric bill for the summer was approximately $50.00 (and yes, we have central air). Second, a residential solar array doesn’t have to be ugly. With some thought and design, it can be attractive and meet those restrictive homeowner association rules. Finally, I believe this will increase the value of our home. As the price of the solar panels comes down (and yes they are coming down) installation costs will decrease, making this energy upgrade even more attractive.
Steve Bredernitz, owner of Bredernitz Professional Services, Inc., is a licensed Michigan builder residing in southeastern Michigan. Steve specializes in remodeling and home improvement services. Steve is also a part-time instructor at Washtenaw Community College where he teaches remodeling classes.