Planning a PV Installation

Some of you might take an interest in my progress as I add PV to my house. Maybe some of you have done it already! If so, I hope I can learn from you.

I’ll just start this thread as a “feeler” to gauge interest in the topic. I know for some it’s been discussed to death, and in my case I’m not looking for anything unusual. I just totaled my electricity bills from last year and for the 8th year in a row they have gone up. My energy costs are increasing by 12% per year and it just has to stop. There are several ways to address this:

  • Change electricity provider
  • Reduce consumption
  • Produce electricity and sell it
  • Produce electricity and use it here

Changing electricity provider
I just did this last month. This will reduce my costs temporarily, because I switched to a retailer who offers term packages. My previous retailer didn’t offer that, and in winter months the price spikes when my consumption is the greatest. However, the actual costs will continue to grow at the same rate, even while I’m locked in. When my term ends, the rate will surely jump again. What attracted me to this retailer is that they have a Hi/Lo rate plan where they will buy electricity exported from a permitted PV generator at almost 3x the base price. That and a neighbour with PV panels on his roof recommended them to me.

Reduce consumption
I’ve already done this extensively, to the point that I have finished many of the “easy” changes. If and when I start buying special appliances, I will pay more for them. This moves me farther away from saving money, not closer.

Produce electricity and sell it
This leads to installing solar and wind and interfacing it to the grid. There are lots of options to choose from and it’s pretty easy. Problems crop up in the mismatch between usage and production. We consume most when it’s dark (evenings and in winter). Worse, the retail rate for electricity covers only 1/3 of the cost of energy. It doesn’t includes transmission and distribution, both of which are behind the ballooning costs. So even if I did produce as much as I consume, my bills to the utility decrease by only 1/3 over each year.

Produce electricity and use it here
This is similar to the above, but you need equipment able to give you more choices. Rather than just export to the grid, your system can throttle consumption from the grid and replace it with the production of your local PV/wind system. This would be the most effective way to reduce consumption of energy from the grid. While my consumption still won’t match my production, with a battery in the system I can skim off the peaks so that what I draw doesn’t have to be as intense. Every kWhr of load that my system can supply is 100% not purchased from the grid. Basically this system costs more, but doubles or triples the rate of return.

So I will be doing all 4 (and as I said, I’ve already done the first 2). If you think I’ve missed something, please let me know. If this sparks some interest, I’ll be happy to share the process as I go along.

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Yes, I’d appreciate you keeping this topic updated as you go through the process. I have been saying I want to add solar PV to my home for years, but it keep being put off in favor of other projects. It has been “next on the list” for almost 10 years.

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ok, for new home construction, what do you recommend?

i’m building a 6-star home. Projected energy costs are very good. Simplicity, Cost, Reliability, and low maintenance are priorities. The largest power consumption are likely the water pump, oven, heating fluid pumps. freezers & refrigerator. Monolithic slab w/ radiant floor heating.

of the 4 means/method, reduce consumption and produce electricity and use are the only 2 options i would consider. proposed consumption is already reduced.

For existing homes, i recommend getting an energy audit done. This includes a thermal scan of the home (heat and electrical). homeowners will be surprised at how much energy is being lost by one means or another. changing lighting to LED or natural is a benefit.

renting a thermal camera is an option to consider. an aside, a log cabin owner had a small problem at upper wall/roof area of home and could not determine the cause. the resulting thermal scan reveal squirrels living there. yep, squirrel problem was resolved. i had a squirrel build a home inside my ram 2500 air filter housing. yep, that problem was resolved too.

monitoring electrical consumption is a benefit as the consumer can tell where power is consumed in the home.

hope this helps.

@pmover New home construction is a completely different game. You can choose the structure as a whole, and systems individually for a particular goal. Building new allows things like windows, floors and internal walls to work together as heat-storage solar mass. The builder’s choice of insulation basically fixes the house’s energy needs forever.

In my experience in North America, many of these decisions are made by “itinerant” agencies. The builders build the house and have no further responsibility. The first owners, if they choose anything at all for themselves, are largely concerned with purchase price, not long-term cost of living. Without commitments, these houses are built cheaply, and lack insulation and efficient systems, except to the minimum specifications of the building code. Most of the houses in my city are like this now: 3000 square feet of black roofs, thin walls, gas furnaces and air conditioning. They probably consume 15,000 kWhr per year each, but house only 3 or 4 people.

If setting a goal for low-energy consumption (don’t get starry eyed by fads and buzzwords) a conscientious person can contract local builders to build to a higher standard, paying about 50% more for the house initially, and spending much less per year to sustain the house every year after that. For someone intending to actually LIVE in that house for a long time, the benefits of the decision constantly accrue. The higher cost barrier makes this a step more likely taken by the wealthy, and it can become more of a status symbol than an economic choice.

I’m in the position of retro-fitting an existing house / property site. My choices are drastically different. The constraints I face, dictated by decisions made by someone else, force me to select sub-optimal designs because the cost of “doing it right” is the cost of tearing the house down entirely. (Don’t think I didn’t consider that though!)

The first step is to decide what I want. What I want to install myself, what I want a professional installer to do. Dictated by what the professional should do given that they will be licensed and I am not.

I now have detailed diagrams of what I’d like to see installed, although once I start calling pro installers, they’ll put forward their own ideas. One advantage I have is that I’ve installed equipment of this nature before. One can do a lot with inverters, batteries and charge controllers in an off-grid manner. It means I know what to look for, what parts go together, and where to get them. Last week I finished my project materials estimate, if I were to do it all myself, down to the wires and junction boxes. This will be my benchmark when I evaluate the quotes from the installers. If I can resist just railroading the installers into doing what I want, I will be able to benefit from their experience, which can offer options I haven’t discovered yet.

There are several installers whose names I’ve been recommended to contact, and others whom I’ve crossed paths so often over the years, that the long track record speaks for itself.

My past experimentation with wind turbines informs my choices, and gives me a starting point. I’ve pursued building my own WTs as a hobby for almost 20 years, to the point that my current machine will be a waste if I don’t get it properly tied to support my house. I resisted doing that in the early years because my WTs were small experimental rigs, only suitable to run some lights in the barn. As I learned, my WTs have improved, and in my humble opinion worthy of being tied in now. My data logger showed me that it produced almost 1000 kWhr last year. Not a lot by some measures, but a sizeable fraction of my annual home consumption.

After studying where to put PV panels, and how to tie them in (ruling out several bad ideas first) I’ve arrived at what I think is a relatively simple installation that will have future-growth capacity. My garage is the only building with a suitable south-facing roof with good sun exposure. The old shelter-belt of trees surrounding the house and yard block sun over large portions of the property. They are tall, and cast long shadows in fall, winter, and spring. I’ll try to be virtuous by minimizing the number of trees to be cut down. The people who planted them certainly knew nothing about solar energy, but probably didn’t expect them to become 70 feet tall, either.

I’ve reached out to 3 local residential PV installers.
I have only gotten so far as to begin providing information - I haven’t received any feedback about my plans, yet.

This is what the garage looks like now:

Almost a week since I contacted 3 installers and none have provided a quote.
One is radio-silent, one is nagging me constantly for this-and-that irrelevant detail.
After my initial contact with all of them, I sent an e-mail with photos of my site, the “last month’s electricity bill”, and a written summary of the goals I have and the existing equipment I’m intending to tie in with the PV panels. Soon after, I received messages and questions from two of them that made it clear that they hadn’t ready my e-mail. So communications are already off to a rough start.

Show of hands: how many engineers out there would be thrilled to have customers who know exactly what they want, and express it with drawings?

yes, i agree, but you need to think like a contractor.

get the contractors to make a site visit, show them your dwgs, and discuss the project. ask them if they are interested and are willing to do the work in the requested timeframe. be flexible on schedule as they have other work/projects.

these days, i look for individuals whom can communicate and demonstrates knowledge, skills, and abilities. if they are not willing to learn, forget them.

so, basically, you just need someone to purchase materials and install? or just install w/ miscellaneous materials purchased by contractor?

here locally, contractors will work for those they want to. I cannot tell you how many times that people have told me of seeking contractors, only to have no work or quotes provided. often times you would be lucky to speak with one. it took me 2+ years to get a contractor that accepted/agreed to build my home.

good luck!

Contractors want cookie cutter jobs where they can do what they “usually do”.

The last thing a contractor wants is a knowledge and involved customer.

Yes, I’ve been concerned about that, but equally unacceptable is a cookie-cutter job that leaves me with a couple of panels on the roof but no practical way to develop the system in the future.

Another factor that concerns me is that many of them claim to be busy and backlogged. I wasn’t expecting that, given that the federal government grants have run out in Canada. Maybe they’re still working like mad until the backlogs of grant-approved projects are exhausted.

Yes, I could do either one. Mostly what’s on offer is “turnkey service” where there’s only one point of contact, who subcontracts all the trades they need, and the homeowner pays only one vendor. I haven’t seen any exceptions, when it comes to residential installers.

Contractors will go where the money is no matter the source.

“Busy and backlogged” - do not give up. There will be a contractor whom will work with you. like I said, it took me 2+ years to find one. have a little patience, I suppose. in my case, it was a matter of timing, i.e. contractor was available at the time of my inquiry.

something to ponder . . .

investigate the regulatory agency that lists the licensed and bonded contractors with appropriate certifications for your situation. call and inquire.

while driving, look for a contractor vehicle and ask them. If they are busy, ask whom they would recommend.

I spoke to a local excavator contractor and he gave me a list of names. I got lucky after a year of contacting them and finally one contractor on the list was available at the time of my inquiry. The excavator contractor was really helpful in talking with the contractors too.

good luck!

Thank you.
I have one quote back, but not really what I was hoping for.
Another installer has scheduled a meeting with me on Thursday to go over the details, and hopefully all the information I provided has them steered to a better way.

I’ve also enrolled in a NABCEP certified PV design and sizing course. The instructor is very technical and is providing the calculations needed to show a system design is code compliant. Halfway through and very happy so far.

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Another quote received, a much better match to the equipment I currently have and goals I have set. This quote comes from the contractor that I expected would provide the best quote. They’ve been in the business the longest and I met their founder a long time ago. He seemed to be a person who could set the right priorities in the company culture.

Meanwhile the course is going very well and I’m still learning a lot. One more class to go and this course wraps up. I’m strongly tempted to take some of their other courses, which go into more depth.

Excellent progress. for me, it is all about communication and developing relationships to get the desired results. Not only that, you may be good for the contractor too.

An excerpt from a book given to me from my first employer:
“A Sound Business Deal Must be Good NOT only for you, but for the other party as well. Start with this Principle: Find out about the man you’re trying to contract with – what he really wants and what is really good for him. When you learn that, then aim to give it to him. But at the same time, he must give you the things you want. But don’t ever get the attitude of magnifying what you want and minimizing what he wants. A man who has made a bad contract is going to sit up nights trying to find a way to break it. If it is a good contract, you can make it much more rapidly, and in the end it will be a good thing for you as well.”

I now know what PV means - Thanks!

pmover - this is how my dad taught me to do business. He lamented, in his later years, that the philosophy got lost, somewhere in the '80s, and changed to “everyone for themselves”.

Do both of you know the quote “ABC - Always Be Closing!”? A quintessentially 80’s movie (filmed in the 90’s).

Concerned about prices:
Quote 1: 4.3$CAD / watt
Quote 2: 4.4$CAD / watt

I was hoping to keep this close to 3$/Watt.
As I said before, Quote 1 didn’t include equipment that I can connect my current off-grid batteries to, while Quote 2 does, making it the leader.
I’m bad at follow-up, so I need to give myself a reminder to check in on the 3rd installer and how their quote is coming along. They keep asking questions but lately I am repeating things I’ve already told them.

@btrueblood - so true. makes one wonder at how simple matters can be; yet, matters do get complicated. the greed of others makes the world a less pleasurable place to be.

@SparWeb - No. Whoa, i never heard of ABC. Strong sales tactics never worked for me. Refer to: Always Be Closing (ABC): Explanation of Motivational Phrase

an interesting fyi article: Ditching natural gas: A real-life experience

I have heard of the heat pump clothes dryer, but they cost more and have condensed water/moisture odor problems.

#3 at least seems interested, but perhaps not quite understanding the work scope(?).

a 30% higher cost above planned? makes one re-think financial matters.

keep the faith and follow-up!