It Pays to Know Your Stuff

Some people build their own solar power systems. Some people pick up the phone and then write a check for theirs. It’s ok, either way, but I advise that you at least have a basic understanding of how things work.

If you have to ask why, I can give you a recent example from my neighborhood. It isn’t what a lot of people would call a regular neighborhood. It is nearly a mile to the nearest corner and 4 miles the other way. There are only 7 houses located along the road and nearly twice as many of us live as much as a half mile or more out in the bushes. I don’t think any of us know all of the neighbors. After 30 years here, I’ve gotten to know a few. In fact I think I am in 4th place to become the Old Timer. Miss Christine is 92 and holds that title, for now.

I met the newest neighbor, Brad, last week. I’ve met most of his friends and contractors because a GPS quirk sends them all to my house. That’s how I knew he was getting solar power at his place.

Well, someone who has solar is always interested in keeping up with the Joneses, or the Brads, so I stopped in to meet him the other day when the power lines were down, again.

Oh my! What a system he has. It has some interesting quirks to it, cost a fortune and it doesn’t work!

For some background, Chuck lived there during the last really fun hurricane season, about 15 years ago. The FIVE WEEK power outage prompted Chuck to get a very large propane Generac and a fuel tank to match. Fast forward to 2020, when everything else has gone wrong, and the reported $850/month power bills prompted Brad to add solar.

Now, I don’t know a lot about Brad or his house or his lifestyle, but I suspect that anyone with an $850/ month power bill has a certain amount of potential for conservation measures. Just sayin’.

Back to his system, there are about 27 kilowatts worth of shiny new LG panels on the roof of his 5 car garage/shop structure. It is a great roof for solar, except it faces to the west. I’ve been telling you that solar isn’t just for southern exposure, anymore, but a strictly western exposure is not ideal. On the other hand, the roof of his house is very steep and is full of crazy angles. I’d have to go along with the shop roof placement. BTW, close proximity to a wall of pine trees ruled out putting half of the array on the east face of the shop.

27kw of solar panels are on the 5 car garage and shop. What more could anyone want? I forgot how many of these smaller LG modules there are up there and I’ve lost track every time I’ve tried to count. DC power runs underground to the electronics.

The array is set up for grid tie and that is where the problem lies. I have mentioned more than once that our power co-op hates solar. There are companies, like his installer, that have mastered the power company paperwork and folks like Brad who are willing to put up with the extra fees and unfair billing practices. However, that still does not mean that the power company is any rush to sign off on the connection. (Read some past blogs to find ways around this.)

The thing I don’t like about grid tie is that there has to be a grid to which you tie. On the day of my visit, the grid was down, post Hurricane Zeta, so it hardly mattered that he didn’t have grid tie. Somewhere along the line many solar owners decided that they wanted to keep their lights on when the power company couldn’t. There are several ways to skin that cat and in Brad’s case it was manifested in the form of three Tesla Powerwall batteries.

The Powerwall is a neat gadget, I’ll give them that, but it is pricey. According to a recent article I read, they recently increased the price from $5500 to $7000. Each! It is more than just a battery in a compact box. You have some electronics in there, too. Still, for a fraction of the cost of ONE of those Powerwalls, Roberto can fix you up with the makings of a decent little back up system for your house.

Two Powerwall batteries showing and another around the corner, plus associated hardware. The older looking box is for the Generac generator. All in all, a tidy job.

Back to Brad, though, here he has these batteries and all this stuff ready to go, but his lights were out, too, like most of the other neighbors. All because the power company doesn’t like solar.

Oh, wait, what about that big Generac? Remember, it is still 2020. It was great after Hurricane Sandy. It kept the lights on for a while until the 15 year old propane regulator failed. The inrush of excess gas blew the exhaust system off and the overspeeding motor smoked the control board. He couldn’t get parts before the next storm came.

So now we get to my Know Your Stuff admonition. There is a big gray electrical box with a big red handle in the OFF position. I strongly suspect that moving that handle to the ON position would have turned on the lights. There may have been more to it, but I don’t know Brad’s stuff. Let’s just say that would have worked. That still would not have been a great idea because the system is set up for grid tie. When the power came back on from the co-op, his system would have gone into the forbidden grid-tie mode. His smart power meter would have phoned home and ratted him out and caused more strife with the company that controls the fate of his system.

Let’s look at another scenario. Let’s say that Brad had observed, asked a lot of questions and read all of the manuals. Let’s say that Brad knew his stuff, all that fancy new hardware. He would have known for certain about the big red switch and would have known how to turn off the grid tie mode so the meter couldn’t rat him out. He’d have had solar power for lights, fridge and MR. COFFEE. (A survey of several neighbors, post storm, put powering the coffee machine ahead of keeping the fridge running.)

Brad will eventually get his Generac repaired and the co-op will run out of excuses and sign off on his connection. He’ll have the finest, triple-sourced power system in the area. Life will be good. Take a lesson from Brad’s experience.

Take the time and get to know your stuff. It will be worth the effort. –Neal