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Solar: Positive Investment?

May 1, 2013 | Blog


Solar Installations: Viable for Some, Poor Investment for Many

In Fresno, we loved to install electric solar systems. No, that’s not a fair statement; we really loved to install electric solar systems. They’re sleek to look at when we’re done installing them and they make us feel so good; everyone likes to make a difference in their world.
Unfortunately, we have learned over the years that solar is a poor fit for many, and that there are smarter alternatives that cost far less and are permanent. If you’re looking for a way to chop your power bill and are willing to consider a different, less sexy, and less expensive alternative, then by all means, please read on:

Where’s the sun?

If your home doesn’t have a place for solar panels (the solar industry calls them “modules”) that faces the South, West, or Southwest, then chances are that you’re trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. In order to produce enough electricity for a good return on investment, the installation must face directly into the sun as much as possible. North and East exposures just don’t produce enough face-time with the sun to be worth the investment. Trees cause havoc too, so if you’re not willing to cut down those beautiful trees or at least keep them carefully trimmed, you can expect poor performance. Sometimes people want solar so bad that, when combined with the right salesperson, they make a very poor choice that costs thousands of dollars over decades.

What was efficient isn’t efficient anymore…

Here’s an interesting concept, your home is a shelter from the sun and extreme temperatures. When it’s properly insulated and sealed, it doesn’t matter near as much where you plant that next tree. The keyword here is “properly” because what was proper over the last 50 years isn’t proper today. It turns out that there’s a 30-50% difference in performance between a wall or attic that is carelessly insulated, verses a carefully insulated wall or attic. Could it be that your neighbor has lower power bills because your home was insulated on a Friday at 3PM, verses a Tuesday at 8AM? Sadly, the answer for many homeowners is “Yes.”

At least now there’s technology that allows us to “see” inside the wall or attic, so those imperfections that “Joe the repairman” caused on a lazy Thursday afternoon can be discovered and corrected. Tools like our infrared camera and blower door paint a picture that allows for the correction of many insulating problems that wouldn’t have been known otherwise. Insulation is relatively cheap and definitely permanent; a smart one-time investment that improves comfort and efficiency so your home can be what it was intended to be, shelter from the elements!

Your attic just took a deep breath…

Air is a funny thing. We don’t think about it or respect it too much, perhaps because it’s colorless and odorless (well, it’s supposed to be), but it’s a powerful force inside of a building. It moves in and out of cracks and crevices because there’s the slightest difference in pressure, or because it’s warm at the top of the wall versus the bottom. When air moves through a building, it brings all kinds of things with it like hot and cold air, dirt and insulation from the attic. It takes things away too, things like the air that you just paid to heat or cool. Chances are, your home just took a deep breath from the attic through the wall sockets, a flaw that just didn’t matter until $500 power bills arrived.

We use technology like a blower door, smoke pencil and infrared camera to find the holes that allow homes to breathe. We’ve got to be careful here because your family needs the right amount of fresh air in the home and if we seal to tight, we’ll create a stale, unhealthy home; even your appliances depend on having enough fresh air. The idea is to seal the home so it can’t breathe on its own, especially the attic; the attic needs to be isolated from the rest of the building. Then we calculate how much fresh air you’ll need and bring that air into the home mechanically. This way we can filter and control it.

You know–your 4-ton air conditioner isn’t really a 4-ton…

Homeowners quickly learn air conditioning lingo and talk in terms of “tons” when discussing the size of their air conditioning unit; a 5-ton unit has more capacity than a 4 ton, and so on. What they don’t usually know is how much air conditioning and heating unit capacity is lost through the duct system. As a matter of fact, it’s nearly impossible to perform an air conditioning or heating installation without losing some capacity from duct system resistance to airflow, insulation and leakage. Knowing this, you’d think that the typical system delivers 90-95% of its capacity, right? 10% in capacity loss sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, 33% capacity loss is what we measure on a routine basis in homes throughout Central California. Not only does this mean that only 67% percent of every air conditioning energy dollar finds its way into your home, but it also means that the typical 4-ton air conditioner isn’t delivering 4 tons worth of air conditioning, but delivering instead 2.5-3.0 tons of air. The same can be said when we’re speaking in terms of delivered BTUs when operating a heater or furnace. Wait a tic’, what if the duct system could be improved so that a 3.0- or 3.5-ton unit was delivering 90% or more of its capacity? Less horsepower could be used to perform the same job; not unlike a car manufacturer that’s trying to find more fuel mileage.

Since the same principle applies for heating too, it’s not unusual for a customer to see a 50% reduction in peak energy bills after Lee’s Air Conditioning downsizes, renovates, or repairs a duct system. A 30% reduction can be found by leaving the existing air conditioning or heating unit renovating the duct system. This is perhaps one of the best permanent energy conservation investments that can be made.

The $6,000 Inverter Conundrum

Proud owners of new solar systems are asked two questions more than any other, “What brand of panels did you buy and the all-important, how much?” If people knew that the heart of a solar system is the inverter, their favorite questions might go something like this, “What brand inverter did you buy and how long do you think it will last?”

An inverter is an electronic gadget that converts electricity produced by the solar modules into electricity that can be used by the electrical grid. It’s interesting that most solar modules are warranted for 20 years or more, but the inverter that the module depends on for usable power is usually warranted for 10 years; 15 years at the most. Manufacturers of inverters don’t guarantee their products for 20 years because they know it would be foolish to do so. Inverters are sophisticated electronic components that fail over time due to internally generated heat, contraction and expansion. The question is not whether an inverter will fail, but rather when it will fail. So, if you’re calculating a return on investment over 20 years, you had better throw in an extra $6,000 for inverter replacement.

The $50,000 Solar Re-do

Take a solar module out of the box and it’s going to produce 100% of its capacity for exactly one day. One month later, it’s going to produce 99.998% of its capacity. 1 year later–98%. Twenty years later—60% of its rated capacity. Wait a second; you’ll still be using power correctly? — just as much as you ever did? –will power be more expensive 20 years from now?

Yes, chances are great that in order to maintain status quo, you’ll have to invest into another solar system 20 years after installing the first one; 30 years tops. That’s a long time from now, but you know the old saying, “time flies.” Real investments appreciate over time and can be paid for in full before they must be replaced. Will your solar system be paid for 20 years from now and what will it be worth?

Momma says, “Nip the problem in the bud!”

Most people aren’t fans of the California Energy Commission or their power company, but technically speaking, there is a stroke of genius in the way residential energy is purchased in California, PG&E in particular. The 5 tier billing system rewards people that use energy conservatively and drastically penalizes people that waste energy (in the State’s view, of course). To take the concept further, two characteristics are being revealed through a $500 PG&E power bill: 1) the consumer is wasteful; 2) the home has construction defects that cause excessive energy use.

At this point, most homeowners in California are conservative in their energy use because they can’t afford their power bill otherwise. Nonetheless, their power bill continues to be a shocking affair. This is because one or more construction defects are being revealed through their tiered power bill. In fact, once the construction defects are fixed, California power bills are far more affordable for the average homeowner. That is until the same homeowner begins to loosen the purse strings and live more comfortably, which can in-turn drive the power bill back up again! This is commonly observed after an air conditioning, heating, or “instant” hot water heater installation, as usage typically increases with a false sense of security.

When power bills are out of control and we go shopping for a solar system, what we are really doing is failing to first address the root of the problem: poor insulation, a leaky shell and a poor performing air conditioning and heating system. All of which are relatively permanent and far less costly to address than a solar system. The key is to test the home before making improvements, then measure performance of the improvements when the work is done. Now that’s making smart use of hard earned money.

Once construction defects have been reasonably addressed, that’s the time to start thinking about a new electric solar system. Lee’s Air Conditioning, Heating, and Building Performance can certainly help in that department too!

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