Going Solar? Tips from homeowners, installers and RPU – Post Bulletin

Ivan Idso outside the home shares with his wife Mary Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Rochester.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

The future—according to the U.S. Department of Energy, at least—looks bright for sun-powered homes.

Solar energy is an ever-expanding market in Rochester and across the United States, and, according to the U.S. Solar Energy Technologies Office, residential solar panel installations are becoming more and more accessible. The average cost of the panels has dropped 70% since 2014, and numbers of electricians or contractors specialized in the installation are booming.

Despite the upward trajectory of the solar demand, getting the process started can feel no less daunting for a homeowner. We caught up with area solar expe

rts to create a comprehensive guide to the first steps of going solar.

Figure out if you’re a prime solar panel candidate

The compatibility of a home for solar energy is derived from several different factors, explains Chris Olofson, Sales Manager for local solar installer Solar Connection. The perfect house for a solar array has an up-to-date electrical system, a roof that won’t need replacement in the next 10 years, ample surface area on a south-facing roof, little to no shade on the south side.

Mature trees shading the roof could reduce a solar system’s energy use offset from 75% to 50%, Olofson explains, and he doesn’t recommend installing a system for anything less than 60%. His company also won’t install panels facing north for the same reason—less time under direct sun means a lesser offset.

Chris-Olofson.jpg

Chris Olofson.

Contributed

“Most people that we work with, their goal is to offset 75 to 100% of what their usage is over a typical year,” he says.

If you’re in the market for a home and have plans to implement solar panels on it, be sure to look for its Sun Number Score—a zero to 100 rating that indicates the house’s solar power potential, usually included in real estate listings.

Q: What happens if my roof is damaged by hail while the panels are on?

A: Your solar panels are part of your insurance claim, Olofson says. “We will take the panels down and store them in the garage for you. You get your new roof put on, and then we come back and usually put the same panels back up. If any of them got damaged in the storm, we replace them as part of that claim.”

Determine your energy usage

Studying how your home consumes energy and in what quantities could be beneficial before initiating the solar process. Experts recommend identifying areas of energy waste, such as old appliances or drafty windows and doors, before implementing solar panels. Stephanie Humphrey, a solar expert with Rochester Public Utilities, explains that this process is called an energy audit, and is the first step that RPU recommends to consumers who call the utility for guidance on going solar.

“That way you’re looking at what your home uses and can implement some conservation and energy efficiency measures before you size the solar system,” she says.

The solar arrangement for your neighbors could produce more energy than you’ll ever need—or nowhere near enough. A six-bedroom house with an electric vehicle hookup and a hot tub is going to need a larger—and, consequently, more expensive—system than a small two-bedroom home only occupied by two adults with no extra amenities, Olofson explains. Plans for future energy consumption changes, like buying an electric vehicle, installing less carbon intensive appliances or having children, are just as important.

Q: How can I get my own energy audit?

A: RPU offers a program called the Neighborhood Energy Challenge, Humphrey says, which consists of a free workshop “to learn new no- or low-cost strategies to stop energy waste.” You can then sign up for a home visit from an energy professional, who will run diagnostics on your home’s hidden energy vampires, such as air leaks and insulation levels, and may provide materials ranging from high-efficiency faucet aerators to gasket seals to LED bulbs. RPU will be available after your diagnostics for help with next steps such as attic sealing or replacing outdated equipment. The entire program costs a one-time fee of $50. For more information, contact Stacy Boots Camp at [email protected]

Get down to the dollars and cents

“There’s a trade-off [with less carbon intensive appliances] that, yeah, you’re not paying a gas bill, but your electric bill is certainly going to go up to run those things,” Olofson says.

The right solar installation company will carefully walk consumers through all of these considerations and not rush homeowners into committing to a system, Olofson says. “The first and arguably most important question that everybody asks is, how much does it cost?”

Someday in the future, solar energy may be a public amenity as freely accessible as natural gas hookups. That day is not yet here. For Solar Connection, the typical installation runs anywhere between $25,000 and $35,000 for residential homes. The fee can be financed, with good enough credit.

“Solar is a luxury item, we’re not pretending that it isn’t,” Olofson says. “There are many, many things that people can do that don’t cost $25,000 that can still have a very meaningful impact, whether it be their environmental concerns or whatever the reasons they want to go solar.”

The cost of permitting with RPU is included in Solar Connection’s fee, but unplanned costs can arise, like required transformer upgrades.

Solar electricity offers certainty in an uncertain world of natural gas prices and availability, says Rochester residents and solar homeowners Ivan and Mary Idso. The Idsos, approaching retirement, wanted more stability in their energy costs because they’ll be on a fixed income.

“Getting into solar energy, our energy bills are very small,” Ivan Idso says. The solar installment was an initial investment but “in the end will pay for itself,” he states. The solar panels cover about 40% of the Idso home’s overall annual electrical consumption—a significant number for a house that is entirely gas-free and also charges an electric vehicle.

Q: What is my new energy bill going to look like?

A: This will depend on if you are disconnecting from any gas elements to convert to electricity like the Idsos did, but the most simple answer is that you will be paying for less electricity. In some cases, you might even sell it: in peak solar times, the Idsos’ panels produce more electricity than the household consumes, and the excess is sold back to RPU.

When the Idsos installed their panels at the end of 2016, “you could probably count on one hand how many people in Rochester had solar residential panels,” Mary says. Now, as the threshold to install solar lowers to reach more and more homeowners, the Idsos are eager to see more consumers escape the volatile fossil fuel market and even occasionally open their home up for solar system tours.

Mary and Ivan’s parting advice is to find a reputable solar system installer, listen to their advice and opinions, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

“Our whole way of living is about consuming less,” Ivan says. “Less energy and reducing our emissions. So it’s an environmental reason. We have grandchildren, you know, so we’re trying to make a better life for them down the road. That’s the primary thing for us. It wasn’t about the money at all, it was about doing the right thing for our environment and for our grandchildren.”