PLANNING FOR HOME RENEWABLE ENERGY SYSTEMS

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Maybe you are considering purchasing a renewable energy system to generate electricity at your home. Although it takes time and money to research, buy, and maintain a system, many people enjoy the independence they gain and the knowledge that their actions are helping the environment.

A renewable energy system can be used to supply some or all of your electricity needs, using technologies like:

  • Small solar electric systems
  • Small wind electric systems
  • Microhydropower systems
  • Small hybrid electric systems (solar and wind).

Planning for a home renewable energy system is a process that includes analyzing your existing electricity use (and considering energy efficiency measures to reduce it), looking at local codes and requirements, deciding if you want to operate your system on or off of the electric grid, and understanding technology options you have for your site.

If you’re designing a new home, work with the builder and your contractor to incorporate your small renewable energy system into your whole-house design, an approach for building an energy-efficient home.

ANALYZING YOUR ELECTRICITY LOADS

Calculating your electricity needs is the first step in the process of investigating renewable energy systems for your home or small business. A thorough examination of your electricity needs helps you determine the following:

  • The size (and therefore, cost) of the system you will need
  • How your energy needs fluctuate throughout the day and over the year
  • Measures you can take to reduce your electricity use.

Conducting a load analysis involves recording the wattage and average daily use of all of the electrical devices that are plugged into your central power source such as refrigerators, lights, televisions, and power tools. Some loads, like your refrigerator, use electricity all the time, while others, like power tools, use electricity intermittently. Loads that use electricity intermittently are often referred to as selectable loads. If you are willing to use your selectable loads only when you have extra power available, you may be able to install a smaller renewable energy system.

To determine your total electricity consumption:

  • Multiply the wattage of each appliance by the number of hours it is used each day (be sure to take seasonal variations into account). Some appliances do not give the wattage, so you may have to calculate the wattage by multiplying the amperes times the volts. Generally, power use data can be found on a sticker, metal plate, or cord attached to the appliance.
  • Record the time(s) of day the load runs for all selectable loads.

Considering energy efficiency measures in your home before you buy your renewable energy system will reduce your electricity use and allow you to buy a smaller and less expensive system. For information about determining the overall energy efficiency of your home, seeenergy assessments.

LOCAL CODES AND REQUIREMENTS FOR SMALL RENEWABLE ENERGY SYSTEMS

Each state and community has its own set of codes and regulations that you will need to follow to add a small renewable energy system to your home or small business. These regulations can affect the type of renewable energy system you are allowed to install and who installs it. They can also affect whether you decide to connect your system to the electricity grid or use it in place of grid-supplied electricity as a stand-alone system.

A local renewable energy company or organization, your state energy office, or your local officials should be able to tell you about the requirements that apply in your community. If you want to connect your system to the electricity grid, these groups may also be able to help you navigate your power provider’s grid-connection requirements. Here are some of the state and community requirements you may encounter:

  • Building codes
  • Easements
  • Local covenants and ordinances
  • Technology-specific requirements
  • Building codes.

Electrical and building inspectors ensure that your system complies with standards. Building inspectors are interested in making sure the structure you are adding is safe. Your system may be required to pass electrical and/or plumbing inspections to comply with local building codes.

Many building code offices also require their zoning board to grant you a conditional-use permit or a variance from the existing code before they will issue you a building permit. Check with your building code office before you buy a renewable energy system to learn about their specific inspection requirements.

You are most likely to gain the inspector’s approval if you or your installer follow the National Electrical Code (NEC); install pre-engineered, packaged systems; properly brief the inspector on your installation; and include a complete set of plans as well as the diagrams that come with the system. In addition, you should be sure your system is composed of certified equipment, and that it complies with local requirements and appropriate technical standards (the links at the bottom of the page provide more information on technical standards).

Note: Although local inspectors are often not required to follow the NEC, many look to Article 690 of the NEC for guidance on equipment and wiring safety for small renewable energy system installations. Article 690 of the NEC specifically discusses photovoltaics (solar electric) systems, but much of the information is pertinent to small wind and microhydro systems as well. If you, your installer, or your inspector want more information on Article 690, Sandia National Laboratory in 1996 published a useful guide (PDF 8.2 MB) to installing NEC-compliant photovoltaic systems.

INSTALLING AND MAINTAINING A HOME SOLAR ELECTRIC SYSTEM

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Making sure your home solar electric or photovoltaic (PV) system is sized, sited, installed, and maintained correctly is essential for maximizing its energy performance. When installing a PV system, consider:

  • How much sun you have (solar resource)
  • How big the system needs to be to meet your electricity needs
  • Where the system will be located and how much room it needs (system siting)
  • Whether you want your system to be connected to the grid or not
  • What needs to be done to ensure that the system is safe.

Therefore, it’s best to have a professional solar contractor install the system. When choosing a contractor, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Has the company installed grid-connected PV systems? If not, has it installed grid-independent (or stand-alone) PV systems? Experience in installing grid-connected systems is valuable because some elements of the installation — particularly interconnection with the local utility—are unique to these systems. However, a competent company with off-grid PV experience should not be eliminated just because it has not yet installed grid-connected PV systems. Experience with off-grid systems is valuable too, because grid-independent systems are more technically complex than grid-tied systems.
  • How many years of experience does the company have installing PV systems? A contractor who has been in business a long time probably understands how to work with customers and to compete effectively with other firms. Additionally, he/she will probably be aware of the latest code and permitting issues surrounding the installation of PV systems.
  • Is the company properly licensed or certified? PV systems should be installed by an appropriately licensed contractor. This usually means that either the installer or a subcontractor has an electrical contractor’s license. Your state electrical board can tell you whether a contractor has a valid electrician’s license.
    Local building departments might also require that the installer have a general contractor’s license. Call the city or county where you live for additional information on licensing.
    A solar rebate program may require that, in addition to being properly licensed, installers must demonstrate that they have special knowledge about installing PV systems. Special knowledge can be demonstrated through certification by solar industry and/or trade associations.
  • Does the company have any pending or active judgments or liens against it? As with any project that requires a contractor, due diligence is recommended. Your state electrical board can tell you about any judgments or complaints against a state-licensed electrician. Consumers should call the city and county where they live for information on how to evaluate contractors. The Better Business Bureau is another source of information.

It is always a good idea to get more than one bid for the installation of your PV system. Make sure that all bids are made on the same basis. For example, a bid for a system mounted on the ground is usually very different from another bid for a rooftop system.

Similarly, some PV modules  generate more electricity per square foot than others. Bids should clearly state the maximum generating capacity of the system — measured in Watts (W) or kilowatts (kW). If possible, have the bids specify the system capacity in “AC Watts” (alternating current) under a standard set of test conditions, or specify the output of the system at the inverter. Also request an estimate of the amount of energy that the system will produce on an annual basis (measured in kilowatt-hours).

Because the amount of energy depends on the amount of sunlight — which varies by location, season, and year to year — it’s unlikely the contractor will quote a specific figure, but a range of 20% is realistic. Bids also should include the total cost of getting the PV system up and running, including hardware, installation, connection to the grid, permitting, sales tax, and warranty.

Your warranty is also a very important factor for evaluating bids. A solar rebate program may require that systems be covered by a two-year parts-and-labor written installation warranty, for example, in addition to any manufacturers’ warranties on specific components (including inverter and module warranties). The installer may offer longer warranties. Also ask yourself, “Will this company stand behind the full-system warranty for the next two years?”

MAINTAINING YOUR HOME SOLAR ELECTRIC SYSTEM

As with any mechanical or electrical appliance, PV systems require routine, periodic maintenance. System components may also need repair or replacement from time to time.

An efficient and long-lasting system will depend on a periodic check of system components and completion of any preventive maintenance as necessary. Talk with your system installer about routine and periodic maintenance. In the event of a system malfunction, effective troubleshooting and repair is necessary.

You may be able to carry out many routine inspections and maintenance tasks yourself. If, however, you are not the do-it-yourself type, or if there is a major problem with your system, you will need to locate a professional to do the work.

Everything You Need To Know About Adding Solar Panels At Home

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Solar-powered homes were a rarity as recently as a decade ago. But a plethora of federal and local tax incentives along with increasing worries about climate change have made them commonplace.

Installing solar panels can decrease your household’s carbon footprint by an average of 35,180 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. You’d have to plant 88 trees every year to offset that amount of carbon dioxide!

But between a tangle of technospeak (photovoltawhata?) and an explosion of installers and financing plans, it can be difficult to figure out where to get started. This introduction should help.

Project: Installing solar panels.

Why: To reduce your carbon footprint and save an average of $84 per month on your electricity bill.

How it works: Solar panels are photovoltaic (PV) cells. In a nutshell, these special batteries harness sunlight, transform it into energy, then send that energy to an inverter, which converts it into electricity to power the home.

Who to hire: Installing solar panels isn’t as simple as slapping cells on a rooftop. You’ll need to install additional wiring, and panel placement is key to building an efficient system. So this is one that’s best left for the pros.

Cost range: The price of solar panels has dropped 60 percent since the beginning of 2011. Together with federal and local tax credits and subsidies, that’s helped drop the national average of up-front costs to about $17,000.

Tax incentives: The federal solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) is a 30 percent tax credit for residential and commercial properties that convert to solar energy by the end of 2016.