Those who sought to mainstream solar energy in the residential sector have grappled with an image problem for years: The clichés of geodesic domes, hippies and granola shadowed the industry like a heavy cloud. Things have changed, however. Large federal incentives for renewable-energy sources brought solar energy to the forefront in commercial and government applications. As modern solar-energy-generating systems become more commonly recognized, it is clear that today’s applications are sleeker and less visually obtrusive than those of decades past. Rising energy prices and offsetting tons of carbon dioxide each year prompted corporate entities and private citizens to find their place in the sun.
“People who want to make a statement are the early adopters, but as fuel prices increase, interest in renewable energy rises—and fuel prices are inching up again,” explains Rex Gillespie, director of marketing at Milwaukee-based Caleffi, makers of solar water heating, or SWH, systems. “When the economy slowed, traditional plumbing, mechanical and heating contractors looked to other business offerings for their existing customer base and saw solar as the new marketing opportunity.”
Still, challenges remained. Contractors ready to enter the market and meet the residential customer demand had to piecemeal systems together. A contractor had to examine all the variables, calculate the system’s size, purchase the numerous components and figure out how to install the system. The complexity and installation time prevented a lot of remodelers from approaching the task. A desire to broaden the market inspired manufacturers to create pre-engineered, turnkey solutions.
“The prepackaged systems are the easiest way for residential contractors to get into the solar market without specialized knowledge, and they can provide customers with a product in one-half to one-third the installation time of traditional systems,” says Bob Giles, chief executive officer of Redwood City, Calif.-based Ready Solar.
According to Giles, a traditional photovoltaic energy system for a residence used to take three people three days to install. With much of the pre-assembly completed before these new turnkey systems are shipped, three people can have a solar-electric system up and running in one day.
The same is true for SWH systems. Jeff Wedge, vice president of sales and marketing at FAFCO, Chico, Calif., notes that some of the systems now being manufactured are compact and uncomplicated. “These systems are made for high-volume installation. They’re small and lightweight, so they move from the factory to dealer to consumer in a fraction of the time. They can put remodelers in the solar-thermal business overnight to help them save their customers money.”
Cost and Efficiency
In fact, Wedge purports SWH systems represent a grossly underappreciated market that allows homeowners to save a significant percentage of the energy costs to heat hot water—the second largest utility cost for homeowners. “As with any system that relies on sunlight, solar-thermal systems perform best in the sunniest seasons but can provide savings nearly all year,” Wedge says.
There are several SWH models on the market. Most of the newer turnkey solutions are flat-plate panels that use the sun’s energy to heat tubes filled with a combination of water and U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved glycol that prevents the fluid from freezing in extreme temperatures. The contained glycol loop transfers heat to the potable water in the storage tank, but the solar loop remains independently closed off so the fluids never mix with the potable water.
The efficiency of a solar thermal system can be as high as 75 percent, but it is usually less in winter months. On average, most SWH systems displace at least 50 percent of the energy required to heat water in a home.
Photovoltaic electric systems collect direct-current, or DC, energy from sunlight through solar panels. Inverters convert DC to alternating current, or AC, that matches the electricity coming from the utility grid. In most urban applications, the generated electricity is sent back into the grid, essentially spinning the homeowner’s meter backward. For homes not connected to an electric grid, the energy can be sent straight into the home when there is demand or stored in a battery for future use. Currently, solar-electric panels average 11 percent efficiency with some reaching as high as 15 percent efficiency, and technological advances are increasing efficiency rates annually.
By combining federal, state and utility incentives and rebates, homeowners can save up to 50 percent on the cost of a solar-electric system, and Gillespie says a solar-thermal system can achieve savings that high in certain states. As an example, the average solar-electric system in the U.S. (3 kilowatts) would cost about $10,000 after the federal tax credit and typical state rebates. The investment in a solar-electric system typically provides a 5 to 15 percent average annual return on the initial investment, depending on state rebates and local electric rates. (Visit www.dsireusa.org for a comprehensive list of utility rebates; state, local and federal incentives; and policies that promote renewable energy and energy efficiency.)
“As the cost of the product and installation continues to drop while the price of electric rates continues to rises, the payback on solar becomes shorter and shorter,” Giles points out. “In a few more years, we expect to see the payback for solar-power systems to be around five years. At that point, we will see a mass rollout of solar electric in the U.S.”
Moreover, homeowners can benefit from increased equity as a result of installing a solar application: A study by the national nonprofit Appraisal Institute, Chicago, estimates a home’s value increases $20 for every $1 reduction in annual energy bills.
One distinct advantage for homeowners of a turnkey system is that it comes with a single warranty. “Homeowners see SWH systems as more of an appliance, and the systems that are cobbled together make it very difficult to know who to call when something goes wrong,” Gillespie explains. “A complete system provides more security and less risk for the homeowner.” Some manufacturers also offer extended warranties if the homeowner selects an installer trained and authorized by the manufacturer.
Many rebates are tied to Energy Star certifications, and it’s extremely difficult to qualify for Energy Star when a system is a mix of parts and pieces from different manufacturers. An SWH system must be projected to achieve at least 50 percent of the hot-water requirements for the home to receive an Energy Star rating. Previously, contractors had to perform the calculations themselves to prove the goal. With one complete SWH system, all the variables have been measured and the Solar Rating Certification Corp., a nonprofit, independent third-party certification entity, can certify the given system meets the efficiency rating listed.
Turnkey photovoltaic applications are becoming increasingly innovative to appeal to consumers. Modular systems provide independent panels, each with its own microinverter that converts DC power directly to AC. If one panel becomes shaded, the others continue to operate at full capacity rather than having partial shade affect the efficiency of the entire system. Modular systems also allow a homeowner to start small and increase the size of the system as more funds become available.
In addition to more recognizable crystalline panels, thin-film solar laminates have entered the residential marketplace. Thin-film PV systems produce energy under variable spectrums of light. They also generate power during peak sun hours when the surface temperature is above ambient. These variables help them meet the efficiency rates of traditional crystalline panels. Thin film can be laminated directly to roofing substrates without penetrations, ensuring roof integrity. Several manufacturers offer thin-film solar integrated with their roofing products, including asphalt shingle and metal.
Homeowners have compelling reasons to consider solar-energy applications, and turnkey solutions are making it easier than ever for contractors to enter the market, but Giles offers a word of caution. “Remodelers need to get educated and take personal ownership in the process. They need a true commitment to the business to succeed.”
The following organizations can help you prepare to enter the solar-energy marketplace:
- American Solar Energy Society,
Established in 1954, the nonprofit ASES is an association of solar professionals and advocates. Its mission is to inspire an era of energy innovation and speed the transition to a sustainable-energy economy by advancing education, research and policy. ASES has chapters in 40 states to ensure a collaborative network.
- Solar Electric
SEPA is a nonprofit resource for information about solar technologies, policies and programs. SEPA focuses on working with electric utilities but provides value to all businesses that have an interest in solar electricity. The organization partners with the Solar Energy Industries Association to host the annual Solar Power International conference and trade show, which draws 24,000 attendees.
- Solar Energy Industries Association,
Established in 1974, SEIA expands the use of solar technologies, strengthens research and development, removes market barriers, and improves education and outreach for solar. The organization partners with the Solar Electric Power Association to host the annual Solar Power International conference and trade show, which draws 24,000 attendees.
Turnkey Solar Solutions
Are you considering offering solar to your customers but want it to be easy?
Take a look at the following turnkey solutions for solar-electric and -water-heating systems:
- CertainTeed Corp.
EnerGen Photovoltaic Solar Power Roofing System
- UNI-SOLAR thin-film laminates lie flush with traditional asphalt roofing shingles without rooftop penetrations.
- The EnerGen system is offered in pre-engineered kits, containing all components necessary for installation.
- Can be customized to meet a home’s specific energy needs and environmental conditions.
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- Metal Roofing Industry
- Metal roofing manufacturers have partnered with thin-film laminate producers, including UNI-SOLAR and Advanced Green Technologies, to provide building-integrated photovoltaic solutions at an affordable price.
- The manufacturers offer everything an installer needs to complete a project, including photovoltaics, inverters, wiring, diagrams and specifications. Some also offer training and marketing assistance.
- Because metal roofs have an approximate 50-year lifespan and solar panels and laminates have an average effective lifespan of 25 years, the combined systems virtually eliminate the cost of moving a photovoltaic system during roof replacement.
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- Ready Solar
Solar in a Box
- Microinverters convert direct-current electricity into alternating current at each panel, eliminating high-voltage DC power and increasing the output of each panel.
- The frame integrates the system into a roof like a skylight.
- Modular design allows for easy future system expansion.
- Proactive and interactive Web-based monitoring included.
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Solar Water Heating
Solar Water Heating System
- The prepackaged, specially engineered system includes the solar collectors, pump station and controller, storage tank, and the necessary hardware and plumbing components, as well as a detailed warranty plan.
- Systems range in size from a one-collector system, intended for one- to two-person households, to a three-collector system for households with four to six people.
- The system’s flexibility allows a variety of installation options, ranging from roof installations to ground mounts.
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FAFCO 500 Series
- Dual-loop design heats the potable water via the solar heat exchanger while maintaining separation from the potable water loop and ensuring the quality of the heated water used in the home.
- Engineered with commercial-grade components, quick-connect fittings and ultraviolet-resistant tubing.
- The system can also be powered using an optional photovoltaic solar panel, allowing it to be completely independent of household electricity
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Solar Electric and Water Heating
- Pre-engineered photovoltaic and thermal system design ensures all components work together for efficiency and a simple warranty.
- German engineering with all hardware included.
- One-stop shopping, including technical and design support.
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