Frank’s Solar Story: From Skeptic to Enthusiast
By: Frank, from Maryland
My wife and I have always enjoyed home shows long before they featured solar panels. When we first started seeing solar panels at home shows they were the ones with the round blue solar cells on a white background. As much as the idea of free energy interested us, no way we were putting something that looked like this on our house. In addition the estimated ROI for these early panels was almost as long as their life.
As the years went by, the look of solar panels improved but the installation still looked too industrial because of the rack mounting that all panels of the time used. I knew the best roof surface on my house for solar would be the front facing slope.
We first saw the Westinghouse Solar designed panels at the American Design and Build booth. I was immediately taken by the all black panel and frame. Since the frames of the panels mount directly to the roof there is no aluminum racking required. The installed panels are about two inches off the roof so the appearance is more like a roof full of skylights than the typical look of rack mounted solar panels. The rackless design also reduces the overall cost.
I did research online and found that you could order the panels directly from Lowes. This gave me an idea of the material cost for when American Design and Build came out and gave me an estimate. I was pleasantly surprised how little more it cost to have professionals install the system.
The appearance of my house was always the primary concern when I decided to install solar. I agreed to go ahead with the installation only if American Design and Build would agree that there would be no visible wiring. I saw too many installs where conduit ran across the roof and down the side of the house. They agreed as long as I could get the local
Building inspector to pre approve this design.
I returned to my online research and found lots of helpful information on the Enphase website to effectively argue my position on not having visible wires. For example code requires a service disconnect on the roof. This is typically accomplished with an electrical box mounted to the sides of the solar panels with a disconnect switch. The documentation on the Enphase website pointed out that technically a plug is also considered an acceptable service disconnect. The Enphase inverters already have locking connectors that are used to connect the panels that meet the service disconnect requirement. The requirement to run the wiring in metal conduit over the outside of the house came from the early central inverter solar systems. These systems had 400 volts DC that ran from the solar panels to the inverter whenever the sun was shining. This was extremely dangerous to firefighters so they had to be clearly visible to prevent accidental cutting while fighting a fire. The new micro inverter based panels do not use high voltage DC. Instead they use plain old 240 volt AC power that is already approved to run inside attics and walls. Since the inverters shutdown whenever grid power is lost they are not a danger to firefighters who typically disconnect the power to the house before they begin fighting the fire with water. Armed with all the Enphase information along with NEC and NFPA code references I contacted my county inspector and went over my installation plan which they eventually agreed with. When the inspector came out to do his final inspection he commented that mine was the cleanest solar install he had ever seen.
We originally installed 21 panels and were so happy after the first year that we wanted to add more to generate 100% of our electricity needs. Since we were under the impression that any excess power generated BGE kept we did not want to but more panels then we needed. We later learned that this was false and that BGE does pay you for excess generation. So instead of just getting 13 more panels we got 19 for a total of 40. The point I like to make when people say they cannot afford solar is that a modular system like Westinghouse makes does not need to be done all at once. Start with a small system within your budget and add to it as your budget allows.
We now have a Think City electric car http://www.eurostarautos.com/think-city-electric-car.cfml so we plan to add more panels to our detached garage in the future.