Category: DIY Solar

Install of the Month – June 2018

Install of the Month – June 2018

Our June install of the month comes from Stacy M. He built a beastly off-grid system with 24 panels and 16 batteries to power his barn in Washington.

Mother Nature did her best to stall the project. After a snowfall, the cement truck got stuck in the snow, and he had to make trips back and forth with the backhoe to haul the wet cement. But with some perseverance (and maybe a little time off for some fishing while the snow cleared), Stacy got the system up and running like a dream.

All told, Stacy built a beautiful off-grid system and pocketed over $9000 in savings with his federal tax credit. Wil, our solar tech who helped guide Stacy through the process, had nothing but positive things to say about working with him:

“Stacy was one of the coolest customers I have ever worked with. We hit it off right away and it felt like talking to an old friend. We talked about his trip to go fishing in Alaska, and I told him about our local fly fishing scene. It’s awesome to see his system turned out so well.”

Here’s some more info about the system, in Stacy’s own words:

What solar system type did you install?

Off-Grid

How or why did you choose to go off-grid?

Power was too expensive to bring in 3/8 of a mile underground.

What kind of battery bank did you get?

This Crown battery bank with 16 Crown 6CRV390 batteries.

Did you have any previous DIY experience?

No never.

What was the most difficult part of the installation?

Putting in the rack system in the middle of winter.

How many helpers did you have?

2 people sometimes, one at others, and sometimes just me.

Did you hire a contractor?

No.

Were there any unforeseen additional parts or tools you needed?

System parts were all there, I just had to borrow a torque wrench.

How long was the full installation process?

I started the rack in the middle of winter so it took the longest since I worked on weekends only and snow and 15-degree weather made it quite challenging while driving from Seattle to Spokane too.

Once racking got welded up, the panel insulation took only 4 hours to put up.

How did it feel to get your solar project finished?

It was a fantastic feeling to start up the inverter and charge controller and have everything work so smoothly, quite easy after watching the video on wholesalesolar.com.

Who else did you consider before choosing Wholesale Solar?

I searched several sites but liked the customer service I got from Wil and all the follow-up afterwards was great.

What was your total solar install costs? (Ball Park)

The system itself was right at $25,000, and probably $3,000 in mud and pipe and wiring.

How much did you save on your taxes?

I saved $9,000+ which was fantastic.

Components in Stacy’s custom system:

 

Stacy's Solar Breakdown:

  • Cost of Contractor: None
  • Cost of Electrician: None
  • Total Hours to install: 10+ hours, with delays due to winter weather
  • Daily kWh output: 16-32 kWh per day, depending on season
  • Federal Tax Incentive: Qualifies for $9,000 U.S. Federal Tax Credit
  • Utility rates per kWh: Varies: different rate plan options and TOU rates in place
  • Average Monthly Utility cost: Varies: different rate plan options and TOU rates in place

It’s Your Turn

Thinking about making the switch to solar? Download our Getting Started Guide for a crash course on how to buy a solar energy system that covers your needs.

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Expanding Your Off-Grid Solar System? Here’s What You Need to Know

Expanding Your Off-Grid Solar System? Here’s What You Need to Know

JEREMY CHAMPT, Senior Sales Tech at Wholesale Solar​

There’s nothing quite like the sense of independence that comes from living off-grid.

But with that sense of freedom comes the responsibility of providing for your own energy needs – and it can be frustrating if your solar system struggles to supply power for the things you do on a daily basis.

You might find that your energy needs have evolved over time. Or maybe the system wasn’t sized to accommodate surges of heavy usage, and you need a little extra juice to cover peak output periods.

Thankfully, most off-grid systems can be expanded with additional panels, inverters, and a bigger battery bank.

When does it make sense to expand?

Before we tell you how to expand your off-grid system, you should work out why you need to add on to your system in the first place.

There are a few situations where modular expansion makes sense:

  • Budget constraints. It’s fine to start with a small system, then expand in the future as your budget allows.
  • Increased energy consumption. Your energy usage can change if more people move on to the property, or you buy more stuff that needs to be powered.
  • Insufficient solar production. If your system wasn’t sized to account for high-usage periods, it might need a few tweaks.

Budget Constraints

An off-grid solar system is a big purchase. Not everyone has the cash on hand to buy a system that will cover 100% of their energy needs.

Fortunately, you can build your system in small installments rather than make one large purchase outright. It’s a great way to approach your off-grid installation  but it requires a bit of planning in advance.

Our designers always recommend building a system with future expansion in mind. Regardless of whether you choose a roof-mount or ground-mount racking system, make sure your setup leaves space to tack on extra panels.

You should also be aware that inverters and batteries have their own capacity limits. If you add more panels, you’ll likely pair them with new inverters and batteries to keep pace with the extra output.

Not sure what size system you need? Calculate an estimate here.

On the flip side, it’s also worth considering how much more expensive this piecemeal installation method can be the long run. You should be aware of the drawbacks of building a system step-by-step:

  1. Panel Consistency

If you go years between additions to the system, it could be challenging to find panels that are the same make and model as your existing system. Solar tech advances rapidly, and companies update their product lines to keep in line with the latest innovations.

Thankfully, this is not too big of an issue. Most panels have a standard voltage and size, so a new panel will likely be compatible with an old system. There will be cosmetic differences, but a mix-and-match system should function just fine.

In general, it’s fine to mix and match panels as long as they are within 1 volt. Electrical specs and sizes are standardized (60-cell and 72-cell panels are common). For example, if you have 60-cell panels, you’ll be able to expand with more 60-cell panels, regardless of make or model.

  1. Extra Installation Costs

When you purchase your system in installments, you end up paying a lot more in shipping and installation.

And if you’re working with a contractor, you’ll have to pay the same service fees twice. The labor always costs less if you can get the whole project done in one go.

But these surcharges are minor compared to the overall cost of the system. And it may be worth it to be able to break the purchase into installment payments.

And depending on your setup, you may be able to skip the contractor and handle any additions yourself.

The process for adding on new panels isn’t too complicated. It involves minor adjustments to the mounting hardware, like adding different clamps. Depending on the brand and frame size of your panels, you might be able to bolt it on to your existing hardware without any changes at all.

Do keep in mind that if you upgrade your system to produce more solar energy, you may also need to add another charge controller and make adjustments to your wiring so you don’t overload the existing circuitry. Electrical expansion can be complex and requires a healthy bit of knowledge and research or the aid of a certified electrician.

Our support rep Ricky learned first-hand that making wiring changes to his system was more challenging than it initially appeared. Read his story:

Going Off-Grid? Please Don’t Make the Same Battery Mistake I Did

Increased Energy Consumption

Sometimes your energy needs simply change over time, and you need to expand your system to keep up.

Did you install a well pump? Add a second refrigerator? Or maybe your household has grown recently  either new roommates or a new addition to the family  and you just need a bit more to cover the expanded usage.

In that case, you can add on to your existing solar system by purchasing more solar panels, inverters, or a battery bank expansion. It’s a great idea to talk to a DIY solar tech to understand which parts you’ll need to keep the system stable. If your current equipment isn’t on the market, they can recommend parts that are compatible with your current system.

Your Solar Panels Aren’t Producing Enough

If your panels aren’t putting out as much energy as you originally thought they would, the issue might not be related to the size of your system.

Other factors can contribute to lower energy output: temperature, shade, and the direction your panels are facing. Poor setup may cause an otherwise well-sized system to underproduce. In certain cases, reconfiguring your system can bring it up to its expected output.

Mounting Direction & Angle

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, your panels should face true south. Facing panels directly into the sun during peak hours will maximize the energy you generate.

However, you can’t exactly change the orientation of the roof on a house you already live in. Many people have to settle for placement that’s “south-ish” or a split between east and west.

In this case, adding more panels is more cost-effective than trying to find the perfect orientation with your existing system. It doesn’t hurt to fine-tune your mounting orientation if you have an adjustable mount.

For a fixed tilt angle, your array should ideally be tilted at an angle approximately equal to your latitude, for optimal year-round production. If you use an adjustable pole mount, you can tilt to a steeper angle in the winter to optimize production throughout the year.

Realistically, it’s a lot of work to adjust mounts, and most people would rather leave it alone to avoid the hassle. But it is an option if space is limited and you need to squeeze that extra bit of efficiency out of your system.

Temperature & Location

Solar panels are rated at standard test conditions (STC). The tests are run in a controlled environment, with temperatures regulated to 77°F and an ideal amount of light shining down on the panels.

In reality, your living environment rarely matches these optimal conditions.

In fact, most panels produce about 10% less power than their rating due to heat, clouds, and other factors. A 300W panel might only put out around 270W on an average day. The maximum output is rarely achieved, except during clear sunny days with ideal conditions.

There is another rating system called PTC, which tries to account for real-world conditions. PTC ratings tend to give a more accurate picture of how panels will perform in the real world.

Before you size a system, take your local climate into account. Extreme climates translate into a larger knock on the rated efficiency of your system. Keep this in mind when sizing up an expansion for your solar array.

Shade

Solar panel production will be impacted by shade, and a few small shadows can have a big impact on your solar panel output. Solar panels need to be installed in full sunlight for optimal performance.

Some modern panels have features including bypass diodes and half cut cells that can help with shading. But if you are experiencing lower output, check to make sure the array is not being shaded throughout the day. Over time, it’s possible for trees to grow up and cast shade on your solar array, reducing its performance.

Also make sure your panels are clean from pollen, dust, leaves and other debris. Over time this can build up and start reducing performance if not cleaned off by rain and snow. Clean your solar panels with water and if needed, a small amount of mild detergent.

Aging Equipment

Over time, solar equipment will age and and drop in efficiency. Solar panels usually last for 30+ years, but the output decreases slightly every year. Most solar panels are guaranteed to produce 80% of their rated power after 25 years.

It could take years to notice the impact, but over time your panels and batteries will decline in efficiency. After 5-10 years, you may find that your production has dipped below your energy needs.

You should design your system to account for this efficiency drop. But if you didn’t take this into account from the start, it isn’t too hard to add parts to compensate for expected efficiency losses over the life of the system.

Adding To Your Off-Grid Solar Array

If you’re ready to move forward with an expansion, some of the easiest parts to add on to your solar system are the panels themselves. Most of the off-grid solar systems we sell have panels wired in strings of three. That means if you’re adding panels, you will do so in multiples of three (3, 6, 9, 12, etc.) – not one at a time.

Depending on your system, you may be able to add a few more panels to the existing charge controller(s). You could also install multiple charge controllers, but be aware: your battery bank can only handle a given amount of charge current. Eventually, if you add a lot of solar panels, you will have to upgrade your battery bank so that it can handle the additional influx of power.

Adding Panels To A Ground Mount

Because off-grid living is usually synonymous with wide-open spaces, many off-grid customers install a ground-mount system. Since you don’t have to climb on your roof to make adjustments, it’s very easy to bolt on new panels whenever you need.

This could work to your advantage if you plan to build your system over time. If you have the space, go with a ground-mount racking solution. You’ll have easy access to the system any time you need to make an addition or perform maintenance.

Adding Panels To A Roof Mount

In order to expand the solar array on the roof, you’ll have to add on more racking and connect the panels to the existing combiner box and charge controller, as long as it can carry the increased load of power.

Expanding a roof-mounted system can be a bit trickier, since space is limited. A portion of your roof may not provide a viable build space, if it faces the wrong direction or is covered in shade.

What happens if you run out of space on your roof?

The first option is to replace some modules with higher efficiency versions to bring you up to speed. If that’s not enough, you can also pair your solar array with an alternate power source like wind or hydropower. Be aware that these options are limited depending on access to local resources  it won’t be an efficient option in areas with low wind speeds or strong water currents.

Mixing and Matching Panels

Take care when mixing and matching old and new parts from different brands. As described in this article in Home Power:

“Solar panels have changed dramatically over the years…not that long ago, 80W 12V nominal modules were common; today, 200W (or larger)…are more typical.”

It is okay to mix and match panels, but make sure the new panels have the same or as close to the same operating voltage, watts, and amps possible.

For example, you could add a 270W panel to your existing array of 250W modules; both of these are 60-cell panels that operate at the same voltage. As long as the panel voltage is within 1 volt, the system will be fine.

Permitting & Code Compliance

Additional permitting may be required when you expand your system. Depending on the size of your expansion, you may have to have the plans approved by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) – in most cases, the county or city planning department.

Build your system by the books to avoid headaches down the line. Download our Solar Permitting Cheat Sheet to ensure your system is up to code.

Even if you’re off-grid and miles away from civilization, it never hurts to have all of your permitting taken care of. If you or your neighbor ever sell or appraise your land, permits will be useful to prove the system is built within your property lines and up to code.

All panels and equipment should ideally be certified by UL to be permitted in the U.S. UL is an organization that ensures PV equipment passes rigid safety and quality standards.

More Inverter Power!

Most of the off-grid inverters we sell are “stackable,” which means you can nest multiple inverters together for increased power output. This is especially useful if your usage increases over time and you need more power on tap.

Adding another inverter isn’t always simple. The circuit breakers and wiring in your system likely aren’t designed to support another inverter. In some cases, the entire inverter system may need to be rewired. But if you anticipate expansion when you build your system, expandable power centers are designed for this purpose. You can add extra inverters and rewire them to a central hub — no extra wiring necessary.

A bigger inverter may require a larger battery bank to handle the increased output. The inverter manual should indicate minimum battery bank size, typically 200-400 amp hours minimum per inverter.

Expanding Your Battery Bank

The process for expanding your battery bank depends on the type of battery you have – either lead acid or lithium.

When you add a new lead acid battery into an old bank, the new battery takes on the capacity and other characteristics of the existing batteries. When you add more batteries, they drain down to the level of the old ones.

This might not be a big deal if the battery bank is only a year old. But it’s usually it’s not a good idea to expand a lead acid bank after it’s been used for a several years. Simply put, your new batteries won’t hold as much power as they could when you mix them with older batteries.

This is one area where we recommend planning for extra capacity to future-proof your system. With proper maintenance, you can extend the life of lead acid batteries to 7-10 years. You don’t want to tack on more batteries halfway through and instantly have the new batteries run at sub-optimal efficiency.

You can increase your battery capacity by wiring in more batteries in a parallel circuit. A parallel circuit combines the positive and negative battery connections, to increase the current (in amp hours) while maintaining the same voltage.

Diagram showing series wiring versus parellel wiring

However, there is a limit on the number of lead acid battery strings that can be wired in parallel. Three parallel strings of batteries is the recommended maximum. One or two is more ideal: they will charge and discharge more evenly, which makes them last longer.

Lithium battery banks are easier to expand because there are built-in electronics to manage the battery charge and balancing. Certain off-grid lithium batteries can be expanded over time, including Simpliphi and Discover AES batteries.

If you’re pre-arranging your system for future expansion, lithium batteries are the more modular and expandable option.

They are also more efficient, safer and tend to last longer – which comes with a price premium, of course.

If you’re not sure where to start with your system expansion, our design techs can help you sort it out. Get in touch with a system designer to help ensure your upgrade is compatible and covers your increased energy needs.

Install of the Month – May 2018

Install of the Month – May 2018

Defying Expectations with Tom M.

It feels great to prove your doubters wrong. Just ask our May Install of the Month recipient, Tom M.! He installed his DIY system for two and a half times less than what other solar companies wanted to charge him. Now, he’s free from the power company’s ever-increasing rates.

This month’s Install of the Month goes to Tom M and his large grid-tied installation in Albuquerque, NM.

When Tom started to tell people he wanted to go solar, they looked at him sideways. Albequerque has a long permitting process and strict electrical requirements. And he would face push-back from his Homeowner’s Association. But he knew the long-term rewards were worth the effort.

Tom didn’t plan on going the DIY route at first. He contacted a few local companies for quotes. But they tried to nickel-and-dime him on installation charges and wouldn’t customize the system to his liking. He soon got to the point where he knew that he would rather do it himself.

Tom contacted Wil at Wholesale Solar, who is also a New Mexico resident and familiar with local regulations. 9 days after he got his equipment, Tom had installed his own solar PV system.

When it came time for inspection, his HOA had to admit Tom’s work well exceeded their expectations. And the electrical inspector? They said it was the largest self-installed system they’d ever seen, and they’d never seen one done so professionally.

Interview with Tom

What was your primary reason for adding solar to your home?

Saving money because of constantly increasing rates from the local electric company.

Did you have any previous DIY experience?

I am a self taught DIY’r. I have a great workshop and lots of experience in home repair and other projects.

What was the most difficult part of the installation?

The most difficult part was getting the proper permits through the city. The building permit was just a payment, but the electrical permit required passing a city electrical test, following NEC 2014 rules, to allow work on my personal residence. I was also required to get a reroof permit due to the type of installation that I performed. The HOA also only provided a conditional approval since they didn’t feel it was possible for a self install to meet their requirements. However, it exceeded their standards and received compliments from all the neighbors.

How many helpers did you have?

Family helped by handing tools up to me on the roof, otherwise no additional assistance.

Did you hire a contractor?

I did not hire a contractor for any part of the installation

Were there any unforeseen additional parts or tools you needed?

I needed engraved placards for outside labeling of the equipment. Due to removal of 9 pallets of concrete tile and lifting 34 panels up, a forklift was a helpful tool in getting equipment and parts up and down from the roof.

How long was the full installation process?

Total installation time was 9 days. The permitting process was over a period of 3 months. This time included removing concrete tile then re-roofing with asphalt shingles to protect the house under the panels. Due to the HOA requirements that no more than one foot of conduit be exposed, I put all penetrations under the panels to protect them. I also installed chicken wire around all 4 sides of both arrays to keep the birds out. Concrete tile was then replaced up to the edge of the arrays to make it look like the roof was tile. The arrays are embedded at a level no higher than the concrete tiles.

How did it feel to get your solar project finished?

A true sense of accomplishment, and a great feeling when the electrical inspector stated that he had not seen a self install system that large and one that had been done so professionally.

Who else did you consider before choosing Wholesale Solar?

CST Solar and Positive Energy in my city. But when they started charging for every little item and when they refused to install the way I wanted, I got fed up with them and decided to install myself. Their cost was two and a half times as much as what I spent.

What was your total solar install costs? (Ball Park)

$24,000

How much did you save on your taxes

$8,000

Components in Tom’s custom system:

Tom's Solar Breakdown:

  • Cost of Contractor: None
  • Cost of Electrician: None
  • Total Hours to install: 9 hours
  • Design Output of kWh per year: 19,200 kWh
  • Federal Tax Incentive: Qualifies for $8,000 U.S. Federal Tax Credit
  • Utility rates per kWh: Varies: different rate plan options and TOU rates in place
  • Average Monthly Utility cost: Varies: different rate plan options and TOU rates in place

The Full Story in Tom's Words:

We wanted to be the first in our neighborhood to have solar…

We started thinking about solar when we bought a nice 50 acre piece of property in eastern Arizona in 1998. The closest power was 9 miles away and cost prohibitive, so solar became the answer. Well, as with all things in life, the only constant is change. Having children, and a change in career that moved us overseas put the whole project on the back burner.

Over the years, the power companies continue to increase their costs, and our increasing need for more and more power has made us reevaluate things. 

Fast-forward to 2016, and life has started to settle down. Over the years, the power companies continue to increase their costs, and our increasing need for more and more power has made us reevaluate things. We still have the property in Arizona, but we are focused on daily life in our home in Albuquerque, NM.

One day while shopping in Home Depot, there was a sales representative from a local solar company. Out of curiosity I asked them to come out to the house for an evaluation and quote. I knew that we were going to be one of the larger residential systems that they would design to install.

COMPLICATIONS… AND A SURPRISE EXTRA $20,000 

We ran into complications. There were limitations from the power company, the city mandated that our system could be no larger than a 10kW grid-tied system and our the Home Owners Association said that the panels would have to be parallel mounted to the roof and be within 4 inches of the existing roof. Also we should have less than one foot of conduit exposed on the roof, and that there should be limited additional equipment installed on the outside of our house.

After taking some measurements, they came back to us with a quote of $32,000 to have a fully installed and completed system. We were also informed that Nusenda Credit Union was the only financial institution in our area that would provide loans for solar. It is refreshing to think that they see the potential and return on investment when this cutting edge technology is done properly. However, we did not need this service because we chose instead to pay cash. Our return on investment would be immediate for us.

We signed a contract from the solar company, and then came the change orders and additions. Because we were splitting the arrays between two buildings, they wanted to charge almost $5,000 for trenching and putting conduit in the ground. Additionally, the 75 foot run between buildings would cost almost $500 dollars for the two 10 gauge DC wires to be connected to the system. We were told that they would be unable to tie into the existing power panel, as it would need to be upgraded to a 200 Amp service. Our service at the time was 100 Amps. Finally, they said that they would need to outsource any roof issues to a roofing company.

The system that they designed for us would be 14 panels that would be pointed due south on the workshop, and 20 panels that would face due west on the house. The workshop was one string, and the house would have two strings of 10 each. In the garage, we installed two SMA grid tie inverters. By having 3.8k for the workshop, and 6k for the house, we would be below the 10k maximum imposed by the power company.

We originally had wanted a system that was enough for our total needs. When we showed them a one line drawing of how we wanted the system, they said they couldn’t do it that way because it would take too much effort to install and be cost prohibitive. I was sensing that we didn’t fit into their cookie cutter design and that they may not have installers that were skilled for this type of work. As the customer, we wanted it our way and were willing to pay the cost differential. After consulting with their designers, managers and technicians for 6 months of design, they gave us a new estimate for almost $52,000. Imagine the look on our faces when we saw the new cost and the return of investment changing to about 15 to 17 years. We politely asked them to leave after deciding it was time to pull the plug due to the cost and inability to work to our specifications.

After consulting with their designers, managers and technicians for 6 months of design, they gave us a new estimate for almost $52,000. Imagine the look on our faces when we saw the new cost and the return of investment changing to about 15 to 17 years.

At dinner that evening, we discussed the events of the previous months, and decided that I was handy enough, and should consider doing the install myself. The next day I began the long process of obtaining permits, and making drawings and designs. We looked for suppliers of equipment, and found Wholesale Solar. We had an idea of what we wanted, and with the expert assistance from Wil Burlin, we started the process on our own. It took two years to find a contractor that would agree upgrade the power panel to the house. Due to construction changes, a new underground feeder, meter can, main disconnect would need to be installed. While we were at it, we had them move the service panel into the garage so that we could have better access and would not have to go outside at night in the rain to check a breaker.

At dinner that evening, we discussed the events of the previous months, and decided that I was handy enough, and should consider doing the install myself.

 

CHOOSING DIY 

Now to the good part…. We contacted Wil again, and he still had our original specifications. With a few changes, we finalized the order. Within 3 weeks, we received our shipment. During those three weeks, we ordered all the additional items we would need for our custom install, and I also started the permit process. For several weeks we would be receiving packages containing heavy duty switches, wire, breakers, conduit, ground lugs, labels, roof flashings, and waterproof boxes, from UPS, FedEx and USPS. It was like Christmas in April.

Also during the time that we were waiting for delivery, we worked on prepping the roof. We didn’t want the panels to be installed on top of our tile roof, so we removed the roof tiles. We found that the underlayment had water damage. If the local solar company contractors would have installed their system on top of the tile, we wouldn’t have known how much damage we had underneath.. Once the tiles were removed, we placed new underlayment, and installed a good 30-year shingle with all the proper flashings for a weatherproof roof. We also had our local roofer come out and reseal all the skylights, roof penetrations and other problem areas.

Next, we installed the Flashfoot 2 mounts and weather tight conduit flashings. We cannot say thank you enough for the Flashfoots as they were simple to install, and provided a weather tight and sound foundation for the rail system. Then we installed of the rails, and made sure they were all level and true. This is probably the most important step! Make sure they are straight, level and tight, as it will make the rest of the process go extremely quick. It is amazing how much a simple string line can do to help make everything square, true, level and straight. Hint… Don’t skimp on the roof mounts, penetrations or the amount of sealant. Spend the time and money on it now so that you don’t have to take it off later.

When submitted, my design approval with the power company was flawless, and only took about 4 days. 

When submitted, my design approval with the power company was flawless, and only took about 4 days. The approval process with the city was a little more in-depth, and it took me four trips to the city’s planning office to get the drawings approved. We paid for the building permit, but we were not informed that we needed an electrical permit. Because we were doing a self-install, they could not provide us with a permit unless I took, and passed, the city electrical test which would allow me work on my own home. I passed, so we were then almost legal. Reroofing, due to the damaged underlayment, caused the need for a reroof permit. It seemed like the city was reaching deeper and deeper into our pockets. After paying $700, we finally had the permits we needed to start the actual work.

Installation of the panels came next, and it went very fast. We actually had 14 panels on the workshop in less than an hour and then 16 of 20 on the house in about the same amount of time. Connections were easy and the final connections to THHN wire were in junction boxes already located in the attics. Panels were connected to the equipment in the garage through wires in ¾ inch conduits. Inverters, switches, production meter, fire department disconnect, a Generator disconnect relay, and to make it look good, we used no flex conduits. It took a bit longer, but all electrical (even in the attics) was run through ¾ inch EMT conduit that was bent to give it that professional and industrial look. EMT conduit also allows for easier pulling of wire on long runs versus flex conduit that the contractors wanted to use. This all took a bit longer, but in the end made it look and function much better.

For the runs from the workshop to the house, we dug a trench, 6 inches wide 16 inches deep and put multiple runs of one-inch schedule 80 PVC conduits. We would then backfill the trench, and then lay 6 inches of concrete sidewalk over the trenched area

The electric wall in the garage also had extensive work and upgrades. The drywall was removed, and some conduits were hidden in the wall with a few junction boxes for access. Plywood was hung on the wall, and it was textured and painted. Equipment was then hung on the exterior of the plywood. How many times you’ve tried to hang something on drywall only to have it sag or fall off. By using the plywood, you cannot tell any difference from the other garage walls, but you are able to mount anything anywhere and know that it is secure.

The inverters, switches and conduits all looked great. We added more than the normal number of disconnects so that we can have an AC disconnect both inside and outside. We also added a DC disconnect for each string, before each inverter so that we can perform maintenance on part of the system without shutting the entire system down.

GETTING IT APPROVED

Once everything was complete, we called for an inspection of the three permits (City electrical, city reroof, and building. The reroof and building permits were passed, but the electrical inspector was going to fail the install because the paint had not been removed from behind the ground lugs in the disconnect switches, even though the grounding screws had good contact. Unfortunately, the inspector couldn’t come back that day. But he did say that if we sent him a photo of the modifications before 3:00PM, that he would approve it and put it into the city’s computer. We ended up receiving a full approval. 

Next, we called the power company. They came out about 5 days later to install the production meter and to turn the system on. We didn’t even have to be home for this. When we came home, we found the system was working, and that it had immediately started producing power. Better yet, our meter was running backwards.

Because we use SMA inverters, we have programmed them to connect to the Sunny Portal application on our phones where we can monitor the power from anywhere that we have an Internet connection. It sends daily reports to our phone at the end of each day. Our average power usage in April is 65kWh per day, and we expect more in July and August.

In the beginning of this installation, and the many approvals and inspections, our Home Owners Association only gave use a conditional approval for installation. It seems like they wanted control of our project, and since it was a major project, they gave only a conditional approval because they didn’t know if we could actually do the install to their standards. We didn’t want to hurt their feelings by telling them that our standards are higher than theirs. We do understand their concern that not everyone is skilled enough to complete this monumental task. 

Another stipulation they had is that you can only have tile or metal roofing material in our neighborhood, and since we put shingles on the house, it wouldn’t pass their standards. To get around that, we protected our roof with the shingles, installed the solar system on top of that, and then replaced the tile right up to the edge of the panels. This way the panels are recessed in-between the tiles and no one can see the shingles. We also get some very strong winds during the year, and believe that the lower profile of the panels compared with the rise of the tiles will put less stress on the panels.

We have not heard of any protests from the HOA, but have heard praises from from our neighbors.

The shingles will last for a longer time because the panels are protecting them, just as the panels are protecting the production and ground wires and roof penetrations. We have not heard of any protests from the HOA, but have heard praises from from our neighbors.

EASIER THAN YOU MIGHT THINK

To regress a bit, we talked with many others that have solar systems, and many complain that they have birds making nests under the panels. Think of that, a dry, protected, and warm place to build a nest to raise youngin’s? We would think the same. However, not wanting to encourage the birds, we spent a little extra on bird proofing them by installing chicken wire to the panels, then down to the roof and under the tiles. Once the roofing tiles were replaced, the chicken wire almost disappeared, and now we have no worries about birds. All power and ground wires are protected under the panels and all the electrical controls are in a nice protected garage. The only thing you see on the outside of our home is the production meter and a single fire department disconnect. Due to city regulations, engraved placards are required to be placed on the equipment. Through PV Labels on line, they were easy to work with, and they completed custom labels that should outlast the life of the system.

Although this was a family project, I performed most all of the work. My wife, and daughters would occasionally help by helping to move and stack the panels, handing up tools, light up parts in the dark, keeping me fed, or filling up my water cup to keep me hydrated. I’m glad we did it in April, and not in July. It was warm, but July would have been a lot more uncomfortable. I also made use of a used forklift that we had purchased last year for other projects. I was grateful to have it while lifting the panels and lowering the excess roof tiles. Without the forklift, I would have seriously thought about hiring a younger helper to help me move the 9 pallets of tiles from the roofs to the ground.

In summary, this all sounds like an unthinkable self install project. However, it looks great, and it was easier than you might think. The system from Wholesale Solar works great. Our total cost was about $25,000 along with some sweat equity. After federal rebates of $7500, the total price out of our pocket is about $17,500.

After federal rebates of $7500, the total price out of our pocket is about $17,500.

If we had financed this project, the return on investment would have worked out to about 4 years. But instead we are free and clear from payments. The total time invested was about two weeks for permits, and 9 actual days of installation.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. Do I recommend this to others? Absolutely.

The best thing about all of this is the freedom from increasing electrical costs. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Do I recommend this to others? Absolutely. It is a part of the house that just works for us and for our environment in a positive way. I guess the only thing that I have left to do is to spray the dust off of the panels from time to time.

Going Off-Grid? Please Don’t Make the Same Battery Mistake I Did.

Going Off-Grid? Please Don’t Make the Same Battery Mistake I Did.

By RICKY RAFFAINI, Tech Support Rep at Wholesale Solar​

I have always been interested in renewable energy, but when I moved into my grandma’s old cabin in Mendocino, CA, it was the last thing on my mind.

Yes, with the cabin came a small off-grid solar setup, but I was more concerned with abstract concepts like “peace” and “beauty.”

So at first, I was happy with the single 12-volt battery I had. It forced me to live a simple life without a bunch of electronics—always a good thing.

With the limited power available I was able to use my laptop, a few lights, a small speaker, and a phone charger. There was no cell service, so my phone never died, and I used kerosene lamps to read most nights.

It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.

But eventually, I was ready to upgrade my battery bank—mostly for the experience.

However, I had no idea where to start.

My first thought was, “This can’t be that hard.”

I quickly realized it was more complicated than I thought.

One of the first things I learned: it is so important to have an understanding of how lead acid batteries work before messing around with a battery bank’s wiring.

So I asked around for information, found some basic solar books (mostly outdated books from the local library), and used my phone to research batteries when I was closer to town and had cell service.

I ended up purchasing a couple of cheap marine or “deep cycle” batteries from the local hardware store on the recommendation of a new employee.

I realize now he probably didn’t know the difference between car batteries and the marine batteries they carried… but neither did I at the time, so fair enough. (A car battery’s power is measured in cranking amps, because the battery is designed to offer bursts of energy to start a vehicle—rather than slow discharge needed to run appliances.)

Luckily my limited research helped me decide on the marine batteries, which are designed to have a longer reserve capacity than car batteries.

All that meant in my case, however, was that it took me longer to destroy them.

Knowing what I do now, I’m a little embarrassed to say that I was nowhere near ready to install a battery bank—no matter how small this setup was. Here’s where I went wrong.

The failure happened because I didn’t know the difference between a series connection and a parallel connection.

Diagram showing series wiring versus parellel wiring
Series Circuit Wiring Vs. Parallel Circuit Wiring

In a series circuit, the current through each of the components is the same, and the voltage across the circuit is the sum of the voltages across each component.

Christmas lights are a good example of series wiring. If one light stops working, it blocks the power to the rest of the lights that come after in that circuit.

In a parallel circuit, the voltage across each of the components is the same, and the total current is the sum of the currents through each component.

When hooked up in parallel, each light will have its own path to the power source. If one light goes out, the rest will stay on since they are hooked up independently.

In short, series wiring increases the voltage but the amps stay the same. And parallel wiring increases the amperage but the volts stay the same.

And when I got the two new batteries in place, I had no idea what to do.

Now remember, I was working with just one 12 volt battery before, and now I have two 12 volt batteries, which created 24 volts when wired in series.

It’s also important to remember that my inverter (the heart of the system) operates on a 12 volt battery bank. So I’m limited to 12 volts for my battery system.

But wait, you say. You now have a 24 volt battery bank and a 12 volt inverter, that can’t work. Well, yes and no.

The way I wired it, which was in series, was of course wrong. And that’s because I was running a 12 volt inverter with a 24 volt battery bank.

What I should have done was wired the batteries in parallel at 12 volts, allowing my 12 volt inverter to play nice with my battery bank.

Diagram showing the original, wrong, and right way Ricky should have wired his batteries
Ricky's Mistake: Wiring Two 12v Batteries in a Series with a 12v Inverter.

On the flip side, I could have bought a new inverter that was 24 volt rated and would have been fine running with two 12 volt batteries in series (totaling 24 volts), but that would have cost me a lot more to upgrade, when all I had to do was wire my batteries correctly.

I’m still not sure if I caused any damage to my solar equipment. I would be surprised if you told me I didn’t.

My grandma warned me that maybe I shouldn’t attempt to upgrade my system, but of course I didn’t listen. Luckily, she seems to be a firm believer in learning through experience… So the time and money spent were not a total loss in her eyes. (Or maybe she was just trying to make me feel better about destroying her stuff…).

After this experience, I decided to pursue some real education in solar installation.

And I won’t lie—my inspiration came from wanting to make things right at the cabin. (Not to mention wanting to prove to myself that I could figure it out.)

My solar disaster was 100% my fault. And although my grandma has never expressed frustration over the “battery-turned-paperweight incident,” I am sure she would appreciate a more thought out and educated approach to make things right again.

That brings me to Wholesale Solar. I have always had an interest in finding a career path in some sort of industry that supported sustainable living, with solar at the top of that list.

I’ve worked in biodynamic farms in the mountains of Mendocino. I’ve also given water conservation a go with a sustainable plumbing company building rainwater collection systems and gray water gardens in Sonoma.

And as a part of that job I noticed that at every beautiful job site there was a solar array.

I was actively taking classes and pursuing my career, but I’m happy (and lucky) to say I fell into the Wholesale Solar team by chance.

I started working here in July of 2016, and eventually found my way into the technical support department. Which is funny—because I often help folks going through the same kind of failed experiment I did.

Solar takes a lot of time, patience, and effort to install and maintain. That’s something I learned the hard way, and something I hope to teach our customers.

I have so much respect for our customers after battling a tricky installation myself, and I am so grateful to finally be in a position to not only help my grandma, but also many other off-the-grid enthusiasts trying to live in an independent paradise.

Click to download our guide to getting started with solar power
Install of the Month – March 2018

Install of the Month – March 2018

“I prefer to do it myself.” with Garland C.

Our Install of the Month for March is Arizona customer Garland C’s well-researched and fully planned out grid-tied solar system. Garland installed his system himself, with help from one friend, during the construction of his new home.

Garland was after a sound return on investment and an eco-conscious home. He wanted DIY convenience and the ability to monitor his system, so he chose Enphase microinverters. Getting American-made panels was also important to Garland and he opted for high-end, high-efficiency Suniva panels.

Garland came into this with a lot of information. He had been studying different types of inverters like Solaredge, but eventually decided on Enphase microinverters.  – Solar Tech Wil Burlin

Garland reports that the most difficult part of his project was actually getting the panels up on his roof. Normally this task isn’t so tough, but with a 8/12 pitch roof, safety while installing on such a steep roof became a number one priority. Knowing he’d still be paying far less than hiring an installer, he sprang for some roof racks to make it easier to walk on his roof, and he also made sure to always wear a safety harness.

In the end, Garland had a beautiful self-installed system on his brand new home. The moment his new home was hooked up to the grid, he saw that meter start moving backward!

Interview with Garland

What was your primary reason for adding solar to your home?

To save money.

Did you have any previous DIY experience?

Generally speaking, I do everything I can myself. I have basic knowledge of house wiring and roof construction. This was my first solar system.

What was the most difficult part of the installation?

Everything was pretty simple. Physically, the most challenging part was placing the panels on my 8/12 pitch roof.

How many helpers did you have?

One.

Did you hire a contractor?

No.

Were there any unforeseen additional parts or tools you needed?

Purchased some roof racks to make it easier to walk on my roof.

As soon as they hooked my house up to the grid, my meter started moving backward, which was pretty cool! – Garland C.

How long was the full installation process?

With my house being a new construction project, I did the solar system installation in phases. Because of this approach, I don’t have a good idea of the total length of time needed to do the installation.

How did it feel to get your solar project finished?

It was several months after I completed the installation that my power company hooked my house to the grid. As soon as they did, my meter started moving backward, which was pretty cool!

Who else did you consider before choosing Wholesale Solar?

I looked at two other contractors to install my system. But I never really considered paying someone else to do it. I prefer to do things myself.

What’s your ballpark estimate of your total solar install costs?

$22,000.00

How much did you save on your taxes?

$6,600

Garland’s System:

Garland's Solar Breakdown:

  • Cost of Contractor: None
  • Cost of Electrician: None
  • Design Output of kWh per year: 12,220 kWh
  • Federal Tax Incentive: Qualifies for $6,600 U.S. Federal Tax Credit
  • Utility rates per kWh: Fluctuates based on local utility as Garland lives in a TOU area.
  • Feed-in Tariff/Net Metering Issues: None reported
Install of the Month – February 2018

Install of the Month – February 2018

Carbon Negative with Chuck W.

We LOVE this install from New Mexico customer Chuck W! It’s not only a beautiful install, but Chuck was also able to maximize his roof space perfectly allowing him to reach carbon negative. We’re also excited that this is our first ever Install of the Month featuring SolarEdge’s HD Wave inverter. Its compact size fits just right on Chuck’s small structure.

His personal solar technician Wil B. reported that working with Chuck was a joy:

Chuck already knew he wanted high end panels and the Solaredge inverter. I just had to broker the deal to find him the best Solarworld options. We went with a combination of black panels on one building and silver on the other, mostly for aesthetics. He knew he wanted the new HD Wave inverter so he ended up having to wait a few months for it to be released.  – Solar Tech Wil Burlin

Chuck received his shipment from the freight delivery service, recruited a few friends, family, and solar veterans, and got his racking and panels up himself, no installer required.

His story is pretty inspiring and he tells it better than we could, so we highly recommend reading our interview with Chuck below!

Interview with Chuck

What was your primary reason for adding solar to your home?

I feel it’s important that I support combating climate change as much as I can. The low cost of a DIY PV system made it possible for me to “max out” in terms of the system size allowed under our rules for simple approval. This system will produce a substantial surplus, even after converting all of my propane usage to electricity. I expect to be “carbon negative”, including travel, from here on out.

Did you have any previous DIY experience?

I’ve been doing it myself for as long as I can remember. – Chuck W.

What was the most difficult part of the installation?

The hardest part was dealing with the electric code. Our local authority requires taking a test for DIY solar, my installation had a couple of minor irregularities related to putting the PV juice back into my existing AC system, and in general, it was quite a lot of study to make sure it was completely by the book. Even though I’ve had a career as a design engineer, the electric code is a whole different world!

How many helpers did you have?

My friend Art from NY, a former solar installer, offered some good, practical advice (especially on dealing with inspectors) and helped put the rails up on the first structure. My friend Gene helped raise the first set of panels, and my partner Miya helped install the rails and raise the panels on the second structure.

Did you hire a contractor?

No, I didn’t hire anyone.

I feel it’s important that I support combating climate change as much as I can. The low cost of a DIY PV system made it possible for me to “max out” in terms of the system size allowed under our rules for simple approval. – Chuck W.

Were there any unforeseen additional parts or tools you needed?

The kit from Wholesale Solar was complete and accurate for everything up through the inverter. Getting everything from there to the AC connection was full of missteps in getting the myriad little pieces and fittings. I made quite a few extra trips to Lowe’s and Home Depot.

How long was the full installation process?

Overall, it’s been going on for about 4 months, with lots of off time in the middle. Doing it again, if I focused, I could probably do it in a week.

How did it feel to get your solar project finished?

FANTASTIC!

Who else did you consider before choosing Wholesale Solar?

I looked at various other companies on the web, liked what I saw with Wholesale Solar (especially the employee ownership part), exchanged a few emails with Wil Burlin, liked how that worked, decided to buy from WS.

What was your total solar install costs? (Ball Park)

For the 10 kW system (essentially two 5 kW SolarEdge systems on separate structures), about $19,500.

How much did you save on your taxes

Here in NM, there’s only the Federal 30% credit remaining, which should be worth a bit under $6,000.

Chuck has a 10kW Grid-Tied System including:

Chuck's Solar Breakdown:

  • Cost of Contractor: None
  • Cost of Electrician: None
  • Total Hours to install: 40 hours
  • Design Output of kWh per year: 17,668 kWh
  • Federal Tax Incentive: Qualifies for ~$6,000 U.S. Federal Tax Credit
  • Utility rates per kWh: 14.5 cents/kWh
  • Average Monthly Utility cost before solar: ~$200
  • Feed-in Tariff/Net Metering Issues: Local AHJ Requires Test for DIY
Install of the Month – December 2017 Round Two

Install of the Month – December 2017 Round Two

Worth the Wait With Jason S.

Our second DIY hero this month is Jason S., who installed a Grid-Tied system on his Indiana home to save money on his power bill. Jason is the kind of guy who knows research, planning, and striking while the iron is hot will often pay off in a big way.

After his initial phone call to solar tech Jeremy A., Jason took two years before he decided to pull the trigger. He called Jeremy to answer his questions, and he gained the confidence to install himself.

Over two years working together, Jason was able to learn more about the specific system he wanted and was able to watch the market to purchase at the perfect time.
– Solar Tech Jeremy A.

Once he was confident DIY was right for him, and that quick ROI was attainable, it was just a waiting game: Jason watched the solar market closely and picked the time when he projected he’d save the most before giving Jeremy the go-ahead on Jason’s project.

But you know what they say about mice and men… Once Jason received his system parts and was ready to get to work installing it, mother nature decided his wait wasn’t over just yet. He was hit with a big rainstorm, making the space where he planned to put his ground-mounted system too muddy for a stable installation. But Jason wasn’t daunted. He just sat back, waited for the ground to dry, and soldiered on, finally completing his system in about a week. Now he only has one more wait… by the mailbox to see the big fat zeroes on his next power bill!

Interview with Jason

What type of solar power system did you install?

Grid-tied, but I had a lot of land to do a ground-mounted system so I could zero out my monthly power bill. 

What was your primary reason for going solar?

I had always wanted to become more energy independent and solar power made the most sense for us. It also made financial sense, especially since I had the means to install the system myself and save more money.

Did you have any previous DIY experience?

I am a locomotive engineer but I had a remodeling/construction business for a few years. I don’t like paying people to do anything, so I always tackle projects on my own and learn as I go. 

I don’t like paying people to do anything, so I always tackle projects on my own and learn as I go.
– Jason S.

What was the most challenging part of the installation?

The wiring and panel installation was a little technical, but easily manageable with patience. The most difficult part we faced was battling the weather and mud to get the pipes and concrete piers set in place for our ground install.

How many helpers did you have?

It was just my wife and me. To her credit, she is quite handy herself and doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. 

Did you hire a contractor?

Nope! We did everything ourselves from start to finish.

 Were there any unforeseen additional parts or tools you needed?

No additional parts. As for tools, I did have a construction business, so I do have more tools than the average person. I didn’t need to go out and buy anything special.

How long was the full installation process from receiving your equipment to flipping the switch?

It was spread out over the course of 2 weeks due to my work schedule and the weather. If I had more time and good weather I could have completeled in less than a week. I saved myself about $11,000 in costs from my efforts.

How did it feel to get your solar project finished?

It was a great feeling to get the project completed…and an even better feeling once the power company swapped out our meter, put the system online and started generating our own power!

Who else did you consider before going with Wholesale Solar?

Wholesale Solar was the first company I found. I looked elsewhere, and the price and customer service couldn’t be matched! 

What was the total cost of your solar installation project?

Total cost for me was around $18,000. $13,300 or so was the price of the solar system, while the rest covered the cost of equipment rentals and materials such as pipes, wiring, and concrete.

How much did going solar save you on your taxes?

We will be saving around $5,000 when we file taxes for this year thanks to the Federal Tax Credit. We live in Indiana, so we’re lucky to have no sales tax on our purchase or added property tax from the install.

Components in Jason’s System:

Tips:

Write off Sales Tax. You can include your system’s sales tax as part of your expenditures for installing solar. (30% Solar Federal Tax Credit). Learn more.

Pay less in property tax. Most states have a renewable energy property tax exemption. This means the value that a solar system adds to a home does not increase the property taxes you pay! In other words, you only pay property taxes against $200,000, and not the new appraised value of $256,000 with the additional solar system added—unlike a new kitchen where you have to pay more taxes for that additional value, you added to the property.

Jason's Solar Breakdown:

  • Cost of Solar Components From Wholesale Solar: $13,300
  • All Other Expenses: $4,700
  • Cost of Contractor: None
  • Cost of Electrician: None
  • How Much Going DIY Saved Him: $11,000
  • Federal Tax Incentive: Qualifies for $5,400 U.S. Federal Tax Credit
  • Total time to install: ~1 week
  • Design Output of kWh per year: 13,000-14,000 kWh
  • Utility rates per kWh: 11.64¢/kWh
  • Average Monthly Utility cost: was $130
  • Feed-in Tariff/Net Metering Issues: None
7 Questions to Stump a Solar Salesperson

7 Questions to Stump a Solar Salesperson

What You Should Know Before Buying Your Off-Grid System

Choosing the right solar tech to install your off-grid system isn’t like going to a car dealership. Don’t get hassled or let yourself get hustled by sales tactics and industry jargon. Today, we’re giving you a few insider tips, so you’re in the know.

These 7 questions show you’ve done your homework before going solar, and they cover info every solar technician should know – so if yours can’t answer them, that’s a big red flag!

Save yourself some time and money with these 7 head-scratchers:

1. Does the number of cells in a solar panel matter?

Yes, because most Off-Grid Charge Controllers are optimized to handle voltage from 60-cell panels. There are charge controllers engineered to control the voltage demands of a 72-cell panel system, but they require pricey components and are not cost effective for most consumers.

panel-cells

 So what happens if you use a 72-cell panel system on a charge controller designed for 60-cell panels?

You could fry your charge controller! 

Make sure your solar technician knows your needs. Your charge controller and solar panel cell count should be compatible when designing your system. Many of our off-grid customers prefer the Midnite Solar Classic 150 Charge Controller, which is perfect for 60-cell panels in your array, usually arranged into strings of 3 linked panels.

2. Will I see an ROI on my battery-based system?

Not likely. Off-grid is more about energy independence than ROI, by the time your solar system pays for itself you’ll most likely need to replace your batteries (every 7-10 years). 

Most off-gridders aren’t going off the grid for the long-term investment. They aren’t getting the benefits of net metering or the short payback period you’d get with a grid-tied system.

Off-grid tradeoffs include: 

  • Complete self-reliance and the freedom to “be your own power company.”
  • Not paying for power lines to be run from the utility provider to your property.
  • More options when buying land, with remote, off-grid parcels often being much more affordable.

3. Should I use a tracker with my panels?

While a sun tracker will boost your energy production, you could just install a few more panels instead and save yourself some money. 

A tracker introduces moving parts, and therefore additional maintenance and added cost to your solar power system that you won’t have with a stationary install, and the benefit they add rarely outweighs the price. 

The only time a tracker would make sense is if you have a shortage of space, and need to squeeze every single kilowatt possible out of your array. 

If your solar tech pushes a tracker on you without proper assessment, they’re probably trying to add to their commission.

solar-tracker

4. How close does my inverter need to be to my batteries?

Almost all 24v and 48v battery-based inverters should be installed within 10′ of the battery bank to avoid “voltage drop.” The further the battery bank is from your inverter, the more voltage bleeds off as it travels through the wiring. The closer you can get the equipment, the better (10′ being the recommended maximum distance away). 

Most packaged systems will come with a 10′ long inverter cable for just this reason. Any good solar tech should be planning your system’s layout with this in mind, so it’s a good thing to check when laying out the installation.

5. Do I need the most efficient panels out there?

Don’t let your solar tech upsell you on the “most efficient” solar panels on the market! Most panels on the market today are going to offer you the wattage output you need and remain cost effective. 

So why would you spend more money in the most efficient PV array?

You’d only want the most efficient array if you have limited surface array to mount it on. That’s when high-end modules such as those from SolarWorld would make sense. They produce a higher wattage output for around the same space requirement as competitors, but for an added expense.

Say you need a solar array to output 7 kW to power your home. Let’s compare two brands of solar panel, each with different wattage, pricing, and array coverage: 

  • 24 Panels at $350/panel (+)
  • 60 Cells per panel
  • 295 Watts per panel (+)
  • 433 ft² total array coverage (-)
  • $8400 total (-)
  • 7 kW output
  • 26 Panels at $275/panel (-)
  • 60 Cells per panel
  • 270 Watts per panel (-)
  • 456 ft² total array coverage (+)
  • $7150 total (+)
  • 7 kW output

If you buy the SolarWorld panels, your solar array will be 23 ft² smaller in size than an Astronergy array. This is great if you’re trying to save space, but even with two fewer panels, the SolarWorld array will cost $1250 more! If you have space (and in most cases, you will), then opt for the less efficient panels: you’re saving money without really losing anything in the process.

6. Does the type of solar panel I use matter?

Solar panels can be manufactured a few different ways: polycrystalline, mono-crystalline, SIG, thin film, etc. How the solar panel is manufactured rarely matters, but who manufactured it does.

All solar panels operate on the same fundamental principle: using silicon-based semiconductors to convert the sun’s energy into electric power. However, the top 5 or 10 manufacturers make a higher quality, more reliable product than the 50 manufacturers below them. Those bottom-tier brands produce the panels that people can buy on eBay for $100. If the price is that low, you’re definitely getting your money’s worth.

Bargain-basement panels use cheaper components and manufacturing techniques. Many cheap manufacturers skimp on quality to save a buck or two, and pass the “bargain” on to you, the consumer, but in reality, you’ll be paying the price as they degrade quicker and require replacement!

Low-end manufacturers also skip the UL listing required to permit these panels, as well, which will cost you even more if you can’t pass inspections and permitting requirements.

TL, DR: Don’t get swindled by sketchy sales techniques, and don’t be a cheapskate when it comes to buying better panels! 

7. How Do I size My Off-grid Inverter?

First, you’ll need to use a Solar Cost Calculator to figure out how much energy your home and appliances will be using. Pay particular attention to the stuff that’s always on such as your fridge, well pump, outlets, etc. Some appliances have a higher “surge current” when they’re initially switched on – often appliances with motors or compressors, such as your well pump. In this case, they may have special requirements, which can vary widely. We recommend you choose a 4kW inverter minimum and consider larger ones to handle excess surge current.

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Install of the Month – October 2017

Install of the Month – October 2017

"Solar After the Storm" with Cyril Richardson

Have you ever weathered a hurricane?

Come face-to-face with the wind and the rain as it blows at you with twice the speed of a car on the freeway?

It’s one of the most powerful, terrifying experiences on Earth—and Cyril Richardson and his family went through it twice.

First, in early September, 2017, Hurricane Irma devastated the US Virgin Islands that Cyril calls home.

But then, just as they were only starting to wrap their heads around recovery, Cyril, his wife, and their two children had to stare down Hurricane Maria—their second category 5 storm in two weeks.

They made it through both safely, but, like thousands of other Virgin Island residents, they found themselves without power—and with no real hope of having it restored for months.

Luckily, before the hurricanes were even a concern, Cyril had started looking into solar systems. What had started as a plan to simply offset his utility bill quickly became a lifeline.

After considering his options, he chose Wholesale Solar as his supplier, working with Solar Technician Jeremy Allan, who helped design and deliver a custom system within 8 days.

Cyril and his family installed an off-grid system—the obvious choice, given the power system in the USVIs. To cope with both the rough weather and the requirements of his home, Jeremy helped Cyril settle on the dependability of The Ranch 8.85 KW system; this set-up both suits his needs now and can be programmed to work as grid-assisted once power is restored next year.

Cyril Richardson: In his own words

What kind of system did you install?

I bought an off-grid system, which just made more sense for the situation here. The power won’t be restored here for almost nine months, so it makes perfect sense to provide my own power and become self-sufficient.

What kind of battery bank did you get and why?

A 16-AGM (Absorbed Gas Mat) battery bank because it requires little-to-no maintenance. That makes it useful for going off-grid.

Did you have any previous DIY experience?

I own a company that builds and maintains reverse-osmosis water treatment, so I’ve done hands-on work in the past.

Was there anything difficult about the installation?

Pulling the wire through the conduit was a bit more difficult than I expected it to be, but I managed. There was some heavy lifting involved, so I had a couple of guys assist me with carrying the panels onto the roof. I definitely appreciated having extra help.

The batteries for the system were delayed unexpectedly, due to shortages. We were able to work with the manufacturer to ensure the quickest delivery of the freshest set of batteries, however. In the meantime I helped Cyril use batteries that he already had on-site to get his system up and running.
–  Solar Tech Jeremy Allen.

Did everything go smoothly?

I had everything I needed already, and was able to do it without hiring a contractor. It took about 14 hours after everything was said and done. The installation process went smoothly, and there weren’t any major delays.

How did it feel to get your solar project finished?

Very excited! It felt great to finish a project this big and to have power restored to my home. It’s a great relief to have the lights on and everything functioning again.

Did you consider anyone else before choosing Wholesale Solar?

I looked at a few other companies here in the Virgin Islands, but none of them offered the same independence or DIY ease-of-installation that Wholesale Solar did.

What was your total solar install cost?

After everything was said and done my total install cost was around $30,000.

Cyril's Solar Breakdown:

  • Cost of Contractor: None
  • Cost of Electrician: None
  • Total Hours to install: 14 hours
  • Design Output of kWh per year: 15,000-16,000 kWh
  • Federal Tax Incentive: Qualifies for $10,000 U.S. Federal Tax Credit
  • Utility rates per kWh: 13.12 cents/kWh
  • Average Monthly Utility cost: was $175
  • Feed-in Tariff/Net Metering Issues: None (once Grid is Up)

Questions about Cyril's install? Ask us in the comments below.

So When Does Solar Pay Off?

So When Does Solar Pay Off?

We’ve already discussed maximizing the ROI on your grid-tied solar power system, but when does solar truly start to pay for itself?

At first glance, pricing your solar array and determining  cost-offsets, payback period, and overall ROI might seem like a complex formula, but we’re here to help simplify the process. After reading this article, you should have a clear understanding of how much to spend and when you should expect it to pay off.

To figure out when your solar power system will begin to pay for itself, there are a few things you must consider:

  • Gross cost of purchasing the solar panels and all equipment (racking, power center, inverter, battery bank, etc). This is the “up front” price.
  • Tax incentives and rebates which can save you money once you install a solar power system. These can save you a significant amount on the back-end, at state, local, and federal levels.
  • Your monthly wattage use. You should know this right away, using our solar power cost calculator online you can predict how much electricity you’ll need to produce with your solar array, based on the electronics you use in your home and your average power consumption per month. The higher your electricity bill, the shorter your overall payback time if you’re able to zero that bill out on a grid-tied solar system.
  • Average electricity generation is another important factor – it’s often beneficial not just to provide enough power to keep the lights on at home, but also providing over the amount you need. With grid-tied systems, over-production can be paid back to the utility company, which can yield credit paid to you. With off-grid systems that have a battery-backup, this can give your home extra power on-hand should an outage or mechanical failure occur, or provide some extra juice for unexpectedly high usage (say, having guests over).

These are the basic factors to consider when buying any solar power system, but now we’ll delve into the differences in payoff period between different types of solar. Grid-tied and off-grid systems both pay off in different ways and over a different time period, so understanding the specifics of your situation.

This helpful chart from Understand Solar visualizes all of this data into a helpful chart on a state-by-state basis. As you can see, ROI on a solar system is at its absolute peak in Hawaii due to the state’s extreme cost for utilities. If you’re planning a solar installation on your home, this chart can provide a very helpful at-a-glance analysis.

average solar ROI per state

As a rule of thumb – the higher the price of electricity in your area, the quicker your payoff period as you offset the cost of the monthly utility bill.

For more information on getting the best ROI for your solar array, Wholesale Solar has a dedicated information page to assist you. 

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Grid-Tied Solar:

Most solar customers in residential areas choose grid-tied solar, for obvious reasons! With a return on investment of only 4-6 years, your grid-tied systems start paying for themselves in very short order. If you’re producing more electricity than you need and paying it back to the power company, you can pay back your investment even faster. Government incentives pay up to 30% back, so your barrier to entry is comparatively low, and you will start seeing the difference in your power bills almost immediately.

With grid-tied power systems, this short payoff period means a much greater boon for you long-term. Power companies’ prices are only getting higher, and since most panels and inverters have 10 to 25-year warranties, you’ll be living off essentially “free” electricity for the majority of that period.

Off-Grid System:

Off-Grid solar is a very different investment from grid-tied. Generally more expensive than their grid-tied counterparts, off-grid systems give you nearly double the investment, however, as they start paying off immediately – having no connection to the grid at all and providing 100% of the power for your home (with the slight downside that the system can’t be backed up by the local grid if it fails for some reason). This minor downside is of course compensated by having a battery bank to store excess power and keep the lights on even if something goes wrong with the main system.

Installing an off-grid array using a DIY solar power kit helps you save even more money – no need to pay for an electrician or professional installer when doing it yourself. You’ll still need to file for permitting your solar array, but beyond that it’s all up to you to purchase and install.

One of the main reasons off-grid solar yields such a high ROI is the cost of wiring. If you wanted to get grid-tied solar in an extremely rural area, the price to install wiring alone can cost upwards of $50,000 – an added expense you definitely don’t want! By going off-grid, you save yourself a bit of time and a ton of money. 

The More You Know

So there you have it, the lowdown on getting the best return on your solar investement. Remember, the higher your utility costs without solar, the quicker your new array will pay for itself as it cancels those costs out once installed.