In the summer of 2017, we had a 6.3 kWh photovoltaic system installed on the roof of our house. We have had the system for over a year now, so I will use this post to go over the process of getting the system installed, lessons learned and analyze how much money we actually saved on solar in our first year.
The Purchase and Install Process
We shopped around a bit with other local installers, but at the time, none could beat the price AND the data collection solutions of SolarCity. We spoke to representatives from SolarCity (it had just been acquired by Tesla, but was still branded as SolarCity at the time) back in mid April 2017. The process with the initial sales representative was easy, as they really didn’t need to sell us on anything. We knew that we would need a copy of our electric bill, and beyond that, we already knew what we used every month from the house and from our electric cars.
After our first in person meeting with our rep, we had a detailed proposal back from SolarCity within hours. After further emails and phone calls back and forth, we decided to go with a loan to purchase the system. We knew the break-even for our system wasn’t immediate, but it was something that we were both very passionate about and we deemed it worth the initial upfront cost to be “sort-of early adopters”.
We applied and were approved within four days – the next step was getting a site survey done where someone would come out and assess our roof physically and make sure that panels could actually be installed on the surface. Our survey was delayed a bit because of weather, but literally hours after it was done, they had the measurements for our system and we had the system design document to approve within a few days.
At the point, we signed the application and loan documents and were about one month into the process. It took about another month for the township and utility to approve of the plans. We were quick to learn that the utility company will take as much time as they can to approve anything.
Speaking of utilities, I’ll take this moment to address a common misconception that many people have about solar panels. Many people think that they will be “going off of the grid” – having no connection to the power supply that everyone else relies on. In our case and with most residential installs, you will actually be supplementing the power that you get from the utility company. With net metering installs like ours, any excess power generated that you do not use goes right back out into the grid. To that point, when everyone else’s power goes out, your system turns off as well. This is because if there are downed lines they can’t have power that you generate going back out into the lines while crews are working on them.
Once the township and utility approved of the plans, we scheduled an install date. I happened to be working from home that day anyways, so I got to watch the entire process unfold.
The install crew showed up with a box truck and various other vehicles for the install crew. I’ll admit that I kinda rolled my eyes when these “ambassadors of renewable energy” showed up in a grand total of seven vehicles beyond the box truck, none of which were even hybrids ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
That being said, every member of the SolarCity was polite, professional and knowledgeable about every aspect of the system. They had the entire install done, from door knock to final inspection and cleanup, in four hours flat! This was the end of June at this point, so just about 2.5 months out from our first contact with someone from SolarCity.
I was instructed to schedule an electrical inspection with the township, and once that was done and submitted, we began the long wait until the utility company approved of the install. Once the utility company approved the install, they had to come by and install a new meter.
The way net metering works is that any power that isn’t used by the home at the time it is generated flows right back out of the house, but it rolls the meter back as it does so. So if we used 30 kWh on a Monday but only generated 20 kWh from my solar panels, we would have only increased our net usage on the meter by 10 kWh. Conversely, if we used 10 kWh but we generated 30 kWh, that would turn back the number on our net meter by 20 kWh. With the disclaimer that the utility company where one resides may have a different arrangement, we do not “sell back” energy on a daily basis, it just rolls the meter back. Now if our meter reading for June is lower than the number for May, our utility company gives us a credit in the form of kWh for the next bill.
At the beginning of August, we received the email from SolarCity giving us the OK to flip the switch on our solar panels. I excitedly ran downstairs and flipped the switch! The system started to register energy intake, slowly but surely. But there were no fireworks, no “wom-wom”, no victory fanfare, so it was a little anti-climactic.
SolarCity does have a neat little app that allows you to check your daily usage, even down to the minute. There are a few other features that allow you to see who else has SC installs in your area and a quirky forum / social media piece but I honestly never use those parts.
I have a system of spreadsheets for tracking all of our energy production and usage by various sources. I go into more detail about that here. This tracking system also allows me to see how much my “solar offset” (the percentage of my energy use that was covered by the energy produced by my solar panels) was on a daily basis. I have never experienced this to be below 0%, because even on the cloudiest, rainiest, snowiest days, the system is still generating something.
When we signed our contract with SolarCity, they gave us estimated production for each calendar month based on the size of our system, climate and our location (we have a south facing roof with no trees around). I can now track how much we actually generated for any given month and compare that against what the system should be generating.
Solar Panels & Snow
Being able to compare our production against estimates came in handy very much this past winter. As you can see in our table above, our system generated almost 98 kWh less than what it was supposed to for the month of January.
This can be attributed to snow. We didn’t have any massive storms this past winter but what we did have was 2-4 inch snow events, followed by days (weeks in some instances) of sub-freezing temperatures. We have a slightly low pitch roof – which is normally great for solar panels – generally you want more of the panel facing more of the sunlight for more of the day. But the downfall of a low sloped roof vs a steeper pitched roof is that snow tends to slide off of low sloped roof at a slower rate, and that’s if the snow is warm enough to begin to melt to facilitate such movement.
I decided that when we have snow built up on the roof, we would need to remove it from the panels. Going up on the roof with a snow shovel or broom will either end with someone falling off of the roof or the panels getting damaged, so we needed a different solution.
I picked up a 23’ telescoping pole and a 14” squeegee from a big box store and tried my hand at this method for about a week with mixed results. The squeegee head wasn’t heavy or rigid enough to make a dent in the snow built up on the panels. I then heard about the Roof Rake – it had pretty decent reviews and I figured that $30 was worth the investment if it helped my panels recoup some energy during the winter months.
I attached it to the telescoping pole and this allowed me to reach all but one array of my system. It generally would take me about 15 minutes to clear the snow off of most of my panels. That being said, some days it would snow overnight and freeze, some days it would snow and freeze while I wasn’t there, so this wasn’t a cure-all. I am hopeful that since we now have the tools to keep the panels clear before the snowy season begins, we should be able to produce more energy than last year.
The very last column of the table below references the the money we saved per month from my photovoltaic system. This is simply the energy (kWh) generated by the system multiplied by the price per kWh in that given month (it didn’t vary that much, as we are locked into a 2 year rate with an energy supplier other than our utility company, but the utility company would change their distribution rates every now and again). Adding that number up for the entire 12 month time period from the beginning of August 2017 until the end of July 2018 gives us $920.03 in energy savings.
That sounds great, but there is the cost of the loan we took on the system to consider – we currently pay $92.67 per month in loan payments (that will go up next year, unless we pony up the 30% tax credit that we got from the federal government to the borrower). That payment over 12 months is $1,112.04. So we actually came out a bit behind – we paid $192.01 to have solar panels for this time period. This will likely always be a loss of some amount for us – unless electricity rates begin to skyrocket. Our loan costs per year will always be more than the power generated X the current utility rates.
Overall I still feel pretty good about our decision – our plan has always been to pay the loan off early – once that happens we will be enjoying the reduced utility bill without the extra payment! If we continued to generate around $900 in energy savings per year, that’s a 6.72% ROI on our original $13,671 investment!
I feel good about the costs / benefits of solar in general as well. We paid about $3.10 per watt to have our system installed 15 months ago. If we could hypothetically get the same system for $2.50 per watt installed, that would more than break even for our situation from year one, on a yearly basis. That is to say the loan payments would be less than the amount of energy saved per year. I am not sure how quickly prices will get that low. The price per watt of installed systems used to be as high as $8 back in 2008, and even as prices have dropped, efficiency has gone up.
Has anyone else out there had their system for a while and experienced different results? Let us know in the comments!
If you couldn’t tell, we are big fans of SolarCity (now Tesla). While we strongly advise folks to weigh all the options before deciding to pull the trigger on solar panels – If you sign up for a solar install from Tesla using our referral link, you get a 5 year extended warranty on the system (full disclosure: we get $250 for each installed referral)