ASK THE EXPERTS: Complexity

Beginner

It is becoming too complicated for the average person to install and enjoy any type of renewable energy (RE) system. I suppose Home Power has to sell the idea that only professionals are capable of sorting out all the varieties of PV modules, shunts, inverters, and what-not, but do you have to confuse me in the process? When everyone is an expert, who are we to believe?

I’m never going to go “off-grid” or even put up a single PV module—because if the module costs $100, you have to buy $400 more in equipment and spend a $1,000 more in “expert” installation costs. Using the information from your magazine as a guide, I would be tearing my installation down every month, just to install some new gizmo. Just like the electrical grid, you are pricing renewables out of the reach of most average people, and your magazine is partially responsible for tripling the complexity of renewables.

Brian Richard • via homepower.com

As a professional installer, I can appreciate your frustration. Residential PV systems have become more capable and complex, with more professional installations. While homeowners have installed their own off-grid systems for remote homes for decades, I see far fewer homeowner installations these days.

I have seen some truly frightening self-installations, some with overheated connections and no overcurrent protection. The earliest PV systems were often on plywood with exposed wiring and terminals and a surplus voltmeter and ammeter.

There are still many simple systems out there, new and old. This industry started as a do-it-yourself, backwoods replacement for car batteries and generators. Now it’s a global industry with huge consequence, including the widely shared dream of a carbon-free future.

Home Power’s role is to chronicle the ongoing evolution of the solar industry from the end user’s and residential installer’s perspectives. One size doesn’t fit all.

Much of the increased complexity and cost is the result of changes needed to make homes safer. When systems were only in remote homes, electrical codes were often an afterthought. As PV popularity and capability have grown, the professionals who revise the National Electrical Code every three years address multiple safety issues. The Code is ultimately more responsible for the complexity of today’s PV systems than Home Power, which simply chronicles the changes in the industry.

While the price of a modern system may exceed one from earlier years, its superior capabilities outweigh cost increases. An early PV system might have powered only a few loads, but was a huge improvement over running a generator. For similar cost, a modern system can run a full-featured efficient home, sending surplus energy to the grid and also operating much more efficiently than those early systems. Today we expect far more from our investment in PV systems, and we receive it.

Most modern systems are installed by solar contractors because of the complexity of the Code and required permits and inspections. Installation labor remains a relatively small part of overall system cost. You’ll save little by doing your own installation, considering the learning curve needed. Experienced contractors deal every day with these issues and know them well.

If you want to do your own installation, shift your thinking toward seeing the whole system rather than a complex interplay of components. Once you have done your homework, having designed and installed a quality system, enjoy it. Don’t change or add components unless there’s a compelling reason.

One of my favorite longtime clients built his own home 30 years ago. He had an off-grid system installed in 1988. Twenty-eight years later, the same inverter is still powering his home, having never needed repair. While he has added to his PV array and replaced batteries and a controller, this system continues to meet his needs. I simply advise him to keep some money in reserve for eventual replacements, but never to replace his inverter or other components just because they’re old. What he has is adequate.

A system from a reputable installer allows you to just enjoy the benefits. Find a local installer who you trust. Just as the system from 28 years ago is still running with equipment now considered “obsolete,” yours will be producing energy for decades to come.

Allan Sindelar • Sindelar Solar

Comments (8)

ideas2014's picture

Hi guys
I am seeking expert and installer can do grid tied battery based system 5kw wind
Any ideas how i get some one reliable and really experience ,,
I contacted some of article writers at home power ,,to b fair ,,I felt they just like talking and writing ,,when I want discuss real situation ,,require some one experienced can give correct or professional advice or consultancy ,,they run away
I need some one good and ready to pay whatever cost ,,to save my time and any failure might. Cost me double in future

Michael Welch's picture
Hi there. You being in Singapore makes finding an installer to help you very difficult, as most of our writers, readers, and advertisers are in the U.S.
Greg Smith_0_0's picture

I hate talking to homeowners and this letter validates it. It is HomePower's fault that this guy has to install every "gizmo" that comes along?

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Doug Kalmer's picture

Hiring an installer raises costs at least by a third-
There is a 2013 NREL study called "Benchmarking Non-Hardware Balance-of-System (Soft) Costs for U.S. Photovoltaic Systems, Using a Bottom-Up Approach and Installer Survey – Second Edition," that breaks down the total non-hardware costs for systems all over the country. They provide much more than "rough numbers." To wit:
With these big cost reductions mostly coming from reduced hardware prices, labor becomes a bigger piece of the overall puzzle. If the labor costs remained the same over the period between 2012 and 2014, installation labor becomes more like 14% of the total costs, permitting (etc.) becomes about 2.6%, and customer acquisition becomes 12.3%. All together, these three measures equal 29% of installed costs.

Monte Jestes's picture

6 years ago I did my own 7.2kw grid tie install. I saved $7000.00 on the mounts alone. Like DK said, I used materials that took time and an installer would not mess with it.
I am redoing my off grid hangar and find that todays ready to buy systems simplify install a lot but at much higher cost for the convenience.
The mount once again is the big savings for me this time.

kerry smith_2's picture

Check this out for a self-contained solar system you just set in your yard.
The smartflower.

Tony Savage_2's picture

Trouble is, Smartflower is not invented in the US. I've emailed Home Power at least twice about Smartflower but got no response. Pity the magazine is so obsessed with US only developments.

Doug Kalmer's picture

I installed my 4.6KW grid tied system myself, connected in January 2012. This cut costs by over half, not just due to no labor costs, but also to using materials that a professional installer would not of troubled with. Sundug http://www.builditsolar.com/Project...

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