Beyond Newbie with Questions...

Folks,

I am brand new to renewable power. I've been reading misc. google searches to try and bone up but would really like some more experienced/senior opinions to help guide me.

My goal for renewable power is not to make money (saw some great threads from 'Kim' on here about people hoping to sell their extra power back, get grants, etc. That's not really my goal), nor do I need renewable power to get off the grid.

I'm just seeking to supplement my existing grid power in addition to my lifestyle efforts to be green (turn off lights, unplug stuff, recycle plastic, etc.).

I don't vision needing batteries, I'd like to just tie it into the grid where I could trickle power back and hopefully reduce my bill while doing something good and fun. I'd consider it a hobby with the upside that unlike other hobbies I would actually get SOME return on my investment.

In my readings on this forum, it would appear solar is a better (at least more reliable/robust) option vs. wind for residential budget/use which is why I figured I would explore it first.

My scenario:

70's style modern residence on 10 acres of land. The roof is a single slanted angled style and does get full sun pretty much throughout the day (the slanted surface runs E-> nicely). It seems like we might luckily have a good scenario for solar panels on the roof.

Goal:

Find best value for a residential solar system that I could mount on the roof and supplement my grid power.

I'd like the system to be the best blend of price point, quality, and reliability (again, the best 'value' overall-- I'm not looking for the cheapest and would rather pay extra for quality but don't need the latest whiz-bang expensive either).

I'd like years of service free operation out of it, and would like something easily scalable (so perhaps as I could afford it, add additional panels for increased power).


Based on my goals, I was hoping some experienced experts could narrow the options for me to a couple kits that would fit my requirements. I'd like a 'kit' since I am inexperienced and would prefer something turn-key with everything I would need.

Questions:

I live in the Pittsburgh, PA area-- not a ton of sun like many posters I see here from TX, CA, AZ... would it be safe to say I could still get reasonable results with solar? (I know, define reasonable right? I'm just wondering if being in PA with many overcast days, a pretty short summer, and typical northeast type winters it's not quite CA, TX, or AZ if you know what I mean)

Metal roof vs. typical asphalt shingles? We may need a new roof soon. One contractor mentioned since our roof is just one big slant that a steel roof might be best. Would that be a good or bad thing for solar panel mounting and efficiency?


Thanks to all that read and send over their feedback to get me going in the right direction!

Comments

  • BB.BB. Super Moderators, Administrators Posts: 31,335 admin
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    You can play around with this link to see how much power you will generate (defaults are for Grid Tied system).

    I also like to tell people to look at the PDF files here--basically the same data as above--but not plugged into a software calculator--you can see yearly variations and how angles and tracking options work.

    In "sunny San Francisco Bay area" predicts my 3.5kW worth of raw panels (3.0kW rated facing about 155 degrees SSE) array would give ~4,875 kWhrs per year (very close to my real numbers).

    Exact same system in Pittsburgh PA, 3,789 kWhrs per year...

    3,789/4,875 =78% of my system or your power will cost you about 29% more than mine (~$0.25 vs $0.32 per kWhr--retail turnkey install, without rebates or tax credits) for Grid Tied power...

    If you have the land and don't mind the look--you would probably be better simply mounting your solar panel farm on the ground--much easier to build and maintain vs doing it all on a roof... If you get snow--raising the frame off the ground to allow snow to slide off (and make the panels tilt near vertical in the winter to help keep clear of snow).

    Roof does offer shading in summer, a bit out of reach of thieves, and such...

    Getting a "reasonable sized" system installed (and permitted and approved by the utility) with a licensed contractor for the first install would probably be a good idea... Once installed, you could probably copy and do some of the upgrade (with appropriate approvals) if/when you want to add more power...

    Guess... roughly $5/watt for solar panels, $0.50 to $2.00 per watt for inverter, and another $3 per watt for the install. (around $8-$10 per installed peak Watt).

    Obviously, conservation is the first place to spend money.

    Might also want to look at Solar thermal first (domestic hot water and/or domestic heating) or in addition to solar grid tie.

    Solar Thermal is less expensive to install (for "equivalent kWhr of heat" vs solar electric), but there is more maintenance (tanks, pumps, anti-freeze for your area, controllers, etc.).

    The sad part is, if you don't have a lot of sun because of local conditions (near us, it is the summer marine layer that can block the sun all summer long), solar is difficult to justify.

    Conservation--on the other hand--usually has the best return (your home is new--so may not be much more you can do--our home is 70 years old and had single pane windows, no insulation, and the original natural gas furnace).

    If you use A/C--Ground sourced heat pumps are neat. If you have electric hot water/heat--a solar thermal system is probably your best bang for the buck (although, ground source heat pump may be good to if you need A/C for your area).

    -Bill
    Near San Francisco California: 3.5kWatt Grid Tied Solar power system+small backup genset
  • System2System2 Posts: 6,290 admin
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    Bill,

    Thank you for the great detailed information. I will investigate the suggestions on solar thermal...

    I'm still interested in solar electric and wonder based on your experience if there is a certain product or kit out there that would be in your opinion the best value for someone wanting to buy a turn-key setup to get started?

    I prefer the roof style setup although a certainly see your points about ground level. Are there special mounting systems for ground setups? I think the roof setup would be nice based on our style roof and aesthetically would look slick ;-)

    Any thoughts on my question about metal roof vs. asphalt shingle? I have been told metal will reflect more light and may be cooler. I don't think either one of those would help solar be more efficient... I'm wondering if metal might provide a better anchor for solar panels? Metal roofing is also expensive, and is a lot less likely to ever leak so I'm thinking it might not be a great option if mounting solar panels would involve putting a ton of holes in the roof opening it for possible leaks.

    Thanks again for all the great information...
  • nielniel Solar Expert Posts: 10,300 ✭✭✭✭
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    if you still would like to do this you can reap some power from the sun even though the area is prone to some extended cloudy times. i did not understand this, "the slanted surface runs E-> nicely", but if the pvs will face south that's the goal. i've been needing a new roof myself and i'm curious of the metal roof arangement and costs so please let me know if you get that type how it compares to the standard shingles. i know that if you elect to place your pvs on the roof that you don't want to have a roofer up there too soon having to replace the roof as the costs will be higher to take down the pvs and remount them afterwards. here in pittsburgh we do benefit from the sun hitting the winter snows and upping the output somewhat so it may be good to have 2 positions for elevation. this will make more work for you to adjust the pvs twice a year, but it will up your harvest. you could also compromise and go lat+15 degrees for an angle of 55 degrees. the pvs must be kept clear of snows as best as possible so any ground mounted arrangement should be higher than the snow would accumulate plus that which would slide off of the pvs. on the roof you may be stuck with any accumulating snows as it may prove too difficult to sweep it in the winter until the sun manages to melt it. steeper angles help this. also they should be clear of anything behind them (like as in the roof itself) by at least 6 inches to allow airflow in summer to cool the pvs and a means of allowing snows to not interfere with or harm the pvs by it accruing underneath them.
    i hope you aren't on duquesne light as there's no incentives with them. i am not sure if you are in mars or not or what power company services where you are, but just in case you have a different one then you may get some help with the costs. www.dsireusa.org
    it will be expensive no matter what, but in a gridtie no battery system you can sometimes expand later on by going with mounting another string of pvs so your choice of system won't be easy to pick from with so many good pvs and inverters out there. i should also ask if you intend to install this or get someone to install it as there may be permits and inspections you'll need?
  • BB.BB. Super Moderators, Administrators Posts: 31,335 admin
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    MarsRoad,

    I am not an expert on the various mounting options out there... On my roof, just a guess, but asphalt shingle on wood--about 2-4 holes for each 175 watt panel. I would have not roof mounted if I had the space for ground mount. (plus it is a second story roof--very hard to keep clean--probably a loss of 5%+ power because of this).

    For mounting discussions, use the <SEARCH> function at the top of the page and look for "unistrut"... Brings up four or five threads where this has been discussed.

    For solar hot water/heating--look at this thread for a start (ignore the fact that this is for a kennel--look at links and info).

    For a kit based solar thermal system, look at www.solarroofs.com (Solar Guppy has used them before).

    A good inverter is the Xantrex GT family... I have a 3kW one (2.5 years old) with 3.5 kW of solar panels... Works great.

    There is an online calculator for Xantrex that can help you understand your solar panel configuration options (and power rating).

    To a large degree, look for good brand name products and purchase on price (and service/support from your vendor/installer).

    Regarding Metal vs Asphalt shingle... Probably depends on the type of metal roof you have...

    Out here (SF CA Bay Area), our metal roofs tend to be formed like shingles-strips... An installer puts down wood strips over the old roof, and nails the metal formed tiles up just like a shingle or wood shake roof. Is supposed to be nice (long life, "fire resistant"). I don't like the look and because of the wood battens, animals can find their way under the roof and live there.

    I know there are metal standing seam roofs--but the are not very popular here--so I don't know.

    When you call around for quotes, ask the roofers about their experiences with solar mounting and their various types of roofs (and if it violates their warranties).

    -Bill
    Near San Francisco California: 3.5kWatt Grid Tied Solar power system+small backup genset
  • System2System2 Posts: 6,290 admin
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...
    niel wrote:
    ...i did not understand this, "the slanted surface runs E-> nicely"...

    While I can't speak for marsroad, I would guess that means that the roof generally faces east and reading further in his post, his goal is to have the array face south.

    Regarding standing seam roofs, I would never attach my array to the seam. If wind got under the array, the only thing holding the array to the roof are the fasterers that hold the roof to the rafters. Of course wind under the array would be pushing up as much as it pushes down so it would seem to be a draw, I'd still fasten my rack to the rafters and then fasten the array to the rack. My two cents.

    Cheers,

    Bad Apple
  • System2System2 Posts: 6,290 admin
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    Guys, thanks for all the great replies. I am learning a ton-- I'm pretty excited to see one of the mods is local to me (I am in Mars, PA).

    I'm going to do some more reading, going to hit the book store tomorrow and try to find a good beginner book plus read some of the links recommended in the replies.

    Thank you, after further thought, I thought the roof would look really slick as we have the slant style, etc. but we do have plenty of room here, and based on the winters it does sound like ground mount is more practical.

    Not that we have a lot of vandals, how durable are most panels and are they easy to secure so they aren't easily stolen? The location I am thinking is a bit away from the house up on a hill. I have access to a trencher/excavator so could run power to the house from the hill (maybe 500-600' from the house).

    Thanks everyone!
  • mike95490mike95490 Solar Expert Posts: 9,195 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...
    marsroad wrote: »
    Not that we have a lot of vandals, how durable are most panels and are they easy to secure so they aren't easily stolen? The location I am thinking is a bit away from the house up on a hill. I have access to a trencher/excavator so could run power to the house from the hill (maybe 500-600' from the house).

    Tamper Resistant hardware is the way to prevent theft.
    http://www.mcmaster.com/
    search for tamper-resistant, they have a whole bunch of stuff. Get the Stainless versions, nothing worse then needing to get out a Pin-In-Torx screw, and finding the head full of rust. You'll have to go a size larger than normal, as the strength is a little less.
    Tamper-Resistant Tri-Groove | Tamper-Resistant Drilled Spanner | Spanner nuts | Tri-Groove nuts | Tamper Resistant Pin-in-Hex Socket |

    And maybe rig up a sensor wire like the foil tape around windows, and just hide the wire in the wire bundle. If someone cuts the wire bundle, the alarm goes off. Damage (rocks) is harder to prevent, but surround the mounts with shade lawn, maybe there will be no rocks to be found.
    Powerfab top of pole PV mount | Listeroid 6/1 w/st5 gen head | XW6048 inverter/chgr | Iota 48V/15A charger | Morningstar 60A MPPT | 48V, 800A NiFe Battery (in series)| 15, Evergreen 205w "12V" PV array on pole | Midnight ePanel | Grundfos 10 SO5-9 with 3 wire Franklin Electric motor (1/2hp 240V 1ph ) on a timer for 3 hr noontime run - Runs off PV ||
    || Midnight Classic 200 | 10, Evergreen 200w in a 160VOC array ||
    || VEC1093 12V Charger | Maha C401 aa/aaa Charger | SureSine | Sunsaver MPPT 15A

    solar: http://tinyurl.com/LMR-Solar
    gen: http://tinyurl.com/LMR-Lister ,

  • nielniel Solar Expert Posts: 10,300 ✭✭✭✭
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    that may be a challenge to keep losses down with the kind of distance to the house you are talking about. high pv voltages in a grid-tie no battery backup system may help somewhat, but we'd have to run some rough figures (or you can) in the voltage drop calculator. it is also possible to have the gt inverter up there too and have it send either 120vac or 240vac down the hill.
    ps i'm in an eastern suburb.
  • System2System2 Posts: 6,290 admin
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    Niel,

    Thanks again for the feedback. I bought a book tonight on Solar to get some of the concepts down.

    Also, doing some searches on solar in the Pittsburgh area, a name keeps popping up (Richard Rosey). Looks like back in early 2000's he was trying to get something rolling with Ebara out of Japan but is now at a company called Solar Power Industries. Interesting (East burb, your neck of the woods).

    My house has a large detached garage, the roof faces due south. We're in the process of excavating out dirt between the house and the garage (water line install, garage will be fed from the house) and while I'm at it I'll probably put in another conduit for future. The roof of the garage seems like a great place for me to start. The garage has a studio apartment above it with separate utilities as well, separate hot water tank, etc. and access wise it would be a snap to run wires or plumbing in there. I was thinking I could possibly do some PV and also investigate something to assist with the hot water tank in there as a starter project.

    I'd still like to know if there are any good 'DIY kits' that would come with some collector panels, inverter, etc. I'd like to find whatever would be the recommended product for best value overall. I know every application is probably unique, but in my industry (computer) depending on a client's business requirement I could certainly narrow the choices for them of the top products to consider and which ones to stay away from no matter how good the specs/literature reads. That is what I am seeking here, are there some panels or inverters that are basically 'the' ones to have that most people in the business use because of their value (value to me = best overall price/performance/reliability, etc.).

    Is there such a thing as a 'starter kit' from a solar supply company?

    Can anyone recommend a Good, Better, Best so I could consider price points and see where I could get started?

    Is there a 'Crutchfield' type place of Solar Products that would provide some great packages with some DIY type documentation and provide helpful assistance? (possibly the place that hosts this fine forum).

    Are there any professional Solar installers in the Pittsburgh, PA area? Perhaps that would be the best route if affordable enough to get help on the initial setup and some knowledge xfer.

    Lots of questions, thanks for reading everyone, I look forward to any replies.
  • BB.BB. Super Moderators, Administrators Posts: 31,335 admin
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    If you are going with Grid Tied Solar--you can do much of the purchasing and work your self--but to connect with the utility you will need a permit and licensed electrical contractor in most places (in the US). And if the panels are mounted on your roof--you will need a civil engineer's drawings and stamp with your permit application.

    A bit much to tackle the first time--but with a good local electrical contractor working with you--it is possible.

    And, personally, I would bury one or two 6" (or larger) ABS sewer pipes between the house and the garage now--rather than having to trench and backfill later. You might need two, one for AC power, and the second for "other" electrical cables per code (inspector may frown on multiple AC lines and phone/etc. wires in the same ABS--don't know for sure).

    If you go with solar domestic hot water / space heating, it would be nice to drag insulated lines through the ABS. Details depend on your future plans...

    -Bill
    Near San Francisco California: 3.5kWatt Grid Tied Solar power system+small backup genset
  • mike95490mike95490 Solar Expert Posts: 9,195 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...
    BB. wrote: »
    And, personally, I would bury one or two 6" (or larger) ABS sewer pipes between the house and the garage now l

    Is it kosher to put electrical wires inside ABS sewer pipe ? I thought code requires the gray plastic electrical conduit ?
    Powerfab top of pole PV mount | Listeroid 6/1 w/st5 gen head | XW6048 inverter/chgr | Iota 48V/15A charger | Morningstar 60A MPPT | 48V, 800A NiFe Battery (in series)| 15, Evergreen 205w "12V" PV array on pole | Midnight ePanel | Grundfos 10 SO5-9 with 3 wire Franklin Electric motor (1/2hp 240V 1ph ) on a timer for 3 hr noontime run - Runs off PV ||
    || Midnight Classic 200 | 10, Evergreen 200w in a 160VOC array ||
    || VEC1093 12V Charger | Maha C401 aa/aaa Charger | SureSine | Sunsaver MPPT 15A

    solar: http://tinyurl.com/LMR-Solar
    gen: http://tinyurl.com/LMR-Lister ,

  • BB.BB. Super Moderators, Administrators Posts: 31,335 admin
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    I would not use ABS as a conduit--but simply as a "hole in the ground" and use something like direct burial rated cable just pulled through the ABS--you could even pull gray conduit through the ABS--but...

    But, you may be correct--an inspector may interpret the ABS as a non-compliant conduit. I don't know.

    You need to check with your local inspector or ask you electrician...

    -Bill
    Near San Francisco California: 3.5kWatt Grid Tied Solar power system+small backup genset
  • nielniel Solar Expert Posts: 10,300 ✭✭✭✭
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    marsroad,
    yes, i am aware of solar power industries and i had considered working for them when they were still in allegheny county under ebara. they told me of their planned move that would've been too long of a commute for the pay they were offering at the time. i never did visit them and had thought of doing so, but i don't know if they would accept visitors. they are around belle vernon.
    i suppose there are kits out there, but one size doesn't fit all so unless you know that a certain kit would suit your needs now and in the future i'd steer clear of doing it that way.
    i was aware of somebody in your county years ago that installed solar and wind products, but i had forgotten the name and i am not aware of their reputation or if they are still in business. i also knew of one in washington county, but the same story with them too. in my search i came across this little link that you may find useful.
    http://www.pasolar.org/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC={B812E9F6-2C41-40D7-B72E-8E804FA18BFE}
    of the few people i know of in my county with solar, there are none that i am aware of that had it installed by somebody else. maybe you should contact solar power industries and ask them who it is they may be aware of locally.
    let me know of the outcome of any contact with them or anybody else you find out about locally. you could also give this in a private message to me if you wish to not post it all here.
  • System2System2 Posts: 6,290 admin
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    Thanks for all the replies everyone.

    Back to basics--

    So, if I just wanted to buy some panels and inverter to get started (something I could scale by adding more panels later), couldn't I have the electrician tie it into my panel so that it would simply supplement the public power?

    I am not seeking to get away from public power, nor do I expect my meter to spin backwards, etc. I'm just trying to get started and would be great to even just supplement my power and maybe bring the bill down a bit (looking at this as a great hobby with benefits).

    Love to get started and learn as I go, and do it in such a way the system would be scalable as my knowledge and finances allow for expansion.

    Thanks for any suggestions on products that would fit my initial goals.
  • BB.BB. Super Moderators, Administrators Posts: 31,335 admin
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    If you choose Grid Tie Solar--it is highly recommended that you get the permits and utility OK. And you may need new permits/OK for each additional step up in power.

    There are reports that people are going "guerrilla"... But I would not.

    From my two cents... You could start with a 1kW inverter (or maybe even smaller), but those can cost upwards of $2 a watt to buy. A 3kW inverter (and larger) are down towards $0.50 per watt... Add in the fixed price of permits and getting a crew on site, and you are not really cost effective.

    I think that a 3kW +/- system is a nice break point. So, you could add in segments of 3, 6, 9kW etc... and the other fixed costs will not kill you.

    You could also design and buy a 3kW inverter (needs about 3.5 kW of solar panels)--but I would guess that a 1.5kW populated system would only cost you 25% less (panels are about 1/2 the cost of a system). Unless the rebates are going away for you location--I would save up and put the whole 3kW system in at once.

    -Bill
    Near San Francisco California: 3.5kWatt Grid Tied Solar power system+small backup genset
  • nielniel Solar Expert Posts: 10,300 ✭✭✭✭
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    you could look over what is available and see what prices are involved, but yes, you could pick stuff out for yourself. here is the link to our sponsor's store. http://store.solar-electric.com/

    here's the link to their inverters. http://store.solar-electric.com/inverters.html consider grid tie only without battery backup. there is also a neat little thing to calculate pv needs for the xantrex gt inverters with various pv choices. http://www.xantrex.com/support/gtsizing/disclaimer.asp?lang=eng for other inverters you'll have to figure out the voltages and other specs of the pvs chosen with the xantrex calculator to see how they will meet the specs of any other inverters. if you exceed the voltage for an inverter then you must start a new series string of them and that will then be paralleled to the first string. when strings are paralelled the current is times the number of strings used by the current output rating of the pvs in question. there are a few things with gt inverters to watch for and that's the minimum and maximum pv input voltages and the maximum current handling ability. it is not recommended to be at the very bottom of an inverter's lowest voltage rating, but somewhere just above it with the addition of 1 more pv inline would be ideal for the best overall of efficiency and possible voltage dropouts due to temps, shading, etc. watch that the open circuit voltage of the pv string does not exceed that maximum voltage for the inverter as colder temps and such could bump it higher than normal and i believe the xantrex calculator will consider that with your input of the temperatures experienced. you plan on expanding so you will want to know how far with the chosen pv and gt inverter that you could go with more strings.

    now windsun does not carry all brands of pvs, but the more reputable ones they do and you can look over some of these at this link. http://store.solar-electric.com/solarpanels.html

    ps. i hope i'm not confusing you any as it's late and you've much to grasp and do.
  • System2System2 Posts: 6,290 admin
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    Thanks for the feedback. So, the recommendation would be to start with a 3kW system as the best blend of performance/price. I appreciate that.

    Doing some googling around, I found this:

    http://www.akeena.net/cm/How_To_Buy_A_Solar_Power_System/How_Much_Does_It_Cost.html

    they estimate a 3kW system be no less than $18,000.00

    I knew solar was not cheap, but they then say in NY/NJ areas based on current prices an efficient system will save about $384 per year in power. At 18K for the system-- that's like a 46 year pay back. Yikes.

    --paste--
    Typical New York/New Jersey/ New England Area Solar Power System
    There is an average of 4.6 hours of full sun per day at a 70% annualized efficiency for well designed systems. With 17 high output modules (lower operating temperatures reduce the number of modules you can install on a single inverter), each producing 160 watts peak, this system will generate approximately 3,200 kwh per year -- or about $384 worth of energy per year at current rates.
    --end--

    Accurate? If so, I don't see how solar could possibly make sense in the PA area? Something seems wrong...

    Thanks!
  • BB.BB. Super Moderators, Administrators Posts: 31,335 admin
    Re: Beyond Newbie with Questions...

    About the only thing wrong I see is that $18k is cost after rebates:
    At least $18,000 after solar energy rebates and incentives (for 3kW).

    If your area does not have rebates (or like California, the rebates are being reduced), it will cost more (probably closer to $25-$30k installed)...

    Sounds like you are paying around $0.10 per kWhr... In California and other "progressive" states, we have tiered pricing that can push the rates from $0.12 base rate up to $0.36 per kWhr (>900kWhr/month usage for my area). In such cases, you don't necessarily have to build a system that powers 100% of your needs, just enough to get you into a lower rate tier.

    Anyway... In the end, this is why many of us here push "conservation" first. Usually a much better place to spend your money.

    For areas that are not in the Southwest US with lots of sun, solar electric is even going to be a more difficult sale to justify.

    -Bill
    Near San Francisco California: 3.5kWatt Grid Tied Solar power system+small backup genset
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