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Home Solar Panels Q&A with Aaron Heth and Kyle Frazier

Episode 16 | August 21, 2018

Cost, batteries, hail, HOAs - Austin homeowner Aaron Heth is considering solar panels for his home and has a lot of questions. Fortunately, solar industry expert Kyle Frazier of Freedom Solar Power has answers. Hosts McKay Proctor and Sherren Harter moderate a question-and-answer discussion about home solar panels with Aaron and Kyle on this week's show.

Aaron is an Austin homeowner who has been thinking about going solar for a couple of years, but he has some questions about how it works, what it costs, how solar batteries fit in, and whether it makes sense for him. Kyle was on-hand to answer his questions.

Which direction should solar panels face?

Kyle explains that the optimal direction and tilt of rooftops for solar in Texas is facing 180 degrees south and at an angle comparable to your latitude, which in Austin is a 32-degree tilt. Because we live in the northern hemisphere, south-facing solar panels are the most productive because the sun moves across our southern horizon.

Solar power systems can still produce plenty of power and savings for homeowners even if they are not positioned for the highest possible production, which gives you the flexibility to adapt your system to your home not the other way around. West-facing and east-facing solar arrays produce almost as much power as south-facing systems in Texas, and even north-facing panels may be an option for roof tilts of less than five degrees.

There are two technologies available to measure the potential for solar power production on each individual roof surface and help determine whether your roof is appropriate for solar panels:

  • LIDAR estimates the amount of sunlight your roof receives using light and lasers, if you are in an area that has been mapped.
  • A shade study using the Pathfinder can, as Kyle says, “measure in any given day in any given season what does the shade look like as it strikes across the roof.”

There may be other considerations that drive your solar panel system design in addition to productivity. For example, if you have a time-of-use plan with a more expensive electricity rate in the evening, a west-facing solar array that takes advantage of the late-afternoon sun could be more valuable to you even if it produces slightly fewer kilowatt-hours.

How will my homeowners’ association respond?

Every homeowners’ association is different, and your installer will help you navigate that process by providing the necessary documentation and obtaining HOA approval. By state law, your HOA cannot prevent you from installing solar if you want it, but they may have some stipulations about where the array is placed. For example, some HOAs may restrict panels on the front of your home unless you can prove that the system meets a certain threshold of higher productivity as compared to the back of the home. Any concerns about aesthetics are often outdated, as modern solar panels include all-black options that look like a flat screen TV and can easily blend right into the rooftop.

What about hail?

The panels are made of tempered glass that Kyle says is designed to withstand impact of “a half-inch ball of ice at 53 miles per hour fired perpendicularly at ten different points on the module.” A storm that is severe enough to damage some panels would almost certainly result in other damage to your roof, HVAC, etc. In that case, you would have individual panels replaced, which would be covered under your homeowners’ insurance.

How will solar affect my homeowners’ insurance?

You should always check with your insurance company before going solar. For Kyle’s home, the replacement value of his system fell within his existing coverage, so his premiums did not increase. He’s heard anecdotally from other homeowners that premiums have gone up an additional $10-$15 per year.

Do you have to penetrate the roof?

It depends on the roof type:

  • Roof penetration is required for composite shingle and tile roofs. Installers use a metal flashing that fits under the shingle or tile that creates a weatherproof seal.
  • Standing seam metal roofs don’t require any flashing.
  • On a flat roof, the array can be laid on the roof inside a ballast tray and may or may not require penetration.

What is the best roof material for solar?

Solar can be installed on any roof type. Standing seam metal is the simplest as it doesn’t require penetration, and composite shingle is the most common roof type in Texas so most installers here have experience with it. If you have a different roof type (for example, Spanish tile, cement shingles, or a flat roof), you should ask your installer for references on similar projects.

Do the solar panels come with batteries and what happens when the grid goes down?

Not currently, although the economics are changing. Eventually portable solar-plus-storage solutions will become affordable enough for people to “cut the cord” with the utility in the same way that phone usage has shifted from landlines to mobile phones. Today, off-grid solar tends to be prohibitively expensive except in very remote locations or for small, limited-functionality structures (e.g. a boat lift located far from the home). Kyle explains that “the grid provides a lot of value still today, so the majority of systems are grid tied.” Unfortunately, that means that when the grid goes down your system goes offline.

Some people do choose to install a solar battery storage solution such as the Tesla Powerwall at an additional cost. Depending on the size of the home battery, that typically provides between a few hours up to a day of emergency backup power.

How much do home solar panels cost?

Cost is probably the single biggest factor affecting whether someone ultimately decides to go solar. “Every homeowner just wants to get to the bottom line,” as Kyle notes, but cost truly does depend on the size of the roof, the size of the system, and the equipment.

He suggests thinking about home solar panel cost using two metrics:

1. Rate of return: If you have money in a mutual fund, there is a certain rate of return that you require from another investment vehicle to move your money out of that mutual fund. Kyle says that “solar is an investment vehicle,” just like the stock market or a rental property. “Conservatively it’s a seven to eleven percent rate of return on that investment” to purchase solar depending on where you live, with little to no volatility.

2. Annuity investment: If you don’t have the cash to purchase solar panels, your solar system is still generating monthly income from the utility for the electricity you produce. For most people, the difference between this annuity payment and the loan payment is about $20 to $50 per month. From the beginning, says Kyle, “it’s about a dollar a day to go solar.” When power prices inevitably go up while your loan payment remains fixed, eventually your investment will become cashflow-positive. Moreover, you will own the asset, with equipment is guaranteed for 25 years under warranty.

What if I’m going to move in the next few years?

Home solar panels still make sense as a short-term investment, generating a comparable rate of return as long as the value of the solar power system is correctly priced in to the selling price. On average, solar increases home value by $15,000 in Texas, but there are multiple ways to appraise your system. The key to realizing that value is ensuring that your real estate broker understands how to effectively market your system to buyers. As Kyle says, “it comes down to who you hire to market and sell your home.” Listen to episode 13 of our show for more solar appraisal details and how to sell a home with solar panels.

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