Ever since the microFIT program was introduced in Ontario I’ve noticed that every time I go to a home show there are more and more solar panel installers. Five years ago I used to joke that home shows were all about appliances and hot tubs. I suppose that now I can add solar panels and installers to the mix. If you’re not familiar with the microFIT program, I’ve written about it before. In short, the Ontario government will pay you $0.80.2/kWh generated, for up to 20 years.
With all these new solar installer businesses popping up, I had to wonder, How do you go about looking for a reputable solar panel installer? And what about the solar panels themselves? How do you know what the right one is? There are several different manufacturers of solar panels, so how do you choose?
I contacted Aaron Goldwater of Goldwater Solar and asked him a few questions about solar panels. He’s been in the solar water business for many years and has installed thousands of kilowatts of photovoltaic panels.
1.What are some of the qualities that separate a reputable solar panel installer from an organization that opened up shop just to take advantage of the microFIT program? Are there any certifications available?
Currently, there is a certification that some installers may have from NABCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners), however it is a more common certification in the U.S. There are courses offered by CanSIA (Canadian Solar Industry Association) but no official accreditation offered through them. One way to determine if the company has been in business for a while would be to check how long they have been a member of CanSIA. Asking for references is always recommended and if you can get a referral from someone that goes a long way. In order for any company to comply with all the rules, the connection has to be done by a certified electrician. However, an electrician doesn’t always choose the equipment used. I would recommend doing some background research into the equipment (panels/inverters/racking) before making a decision as there are a lot of companies out there offering panels that have only been in the business a short while. Even though they offer a 25 year warranty on performance, they may not be around once the industry matures.
2.Have you ever heard of any bad installations where roofs have leaked afterwards (where they affix the panel hardware to the roof?)
I have not heard of leaks caused by solar installations. Generally the manufacturers of the racking systems have a careful method for attachment to roofs that include a flashing that is more than adequate for protecting the roof. A solar installation can actually protect the roof and extend the shingle longevity since it is usually the heat and UV exposure which causes them to degrade with time. The panels block the UV and lower the temperature of the roof because they are taking the sun’s energy and converting it to electricity. A recent study in California also showed that Solar PV can reduce a building’s cooling load by as much as 38%.
3.What are some of the main factors that make up a good quality solar panel? How much electricity should a standard-sized individual solar panel be generating?
Panels range in size up to as high as 300W each. These days, typically installers are using panels that are between 220 – 250W. Panels are usually rated by efficiency and the average panel is around 14% to 15% efficient. Checking the warranty of a panel is a good idea. Most offer a workmanship warranty of 5 years (although some now offer 10 years) and a power output of 80% of their original value at year 25.
4.Is there any way to check and see if your house is situated for maximum solar panel electricity generation? Does Google Earth have that ability?
Google Earth is a great tool for seeing if you have an ideally orientated roof for solar PV. A lot of installers use it as an initial assessment tool to determine if a site is suitable. Due south is ideal, but east and west can work too with about 80% overall production of a south facing roof. A typical panel is about 3′x5′ so you can even use google earth to determine how many panels you can fit on the roof with the measuring tool. At Goldwater Solar we use Google earth to assess orientation, potential shading, system sizing, and then we use PVWatts (an easy to use online PV calculator) to estimate production. We then send a proposal to the customer so they can evaluate if its worth it for them to pursue it any further. We then submit an application to the Ontario Power Authority on their behalf to begin the process (free of charge).
5.How can you figure out how much wattage your roof can generate? Does it depend on the solar panel you choose? (Are some more powerful than others?)
I would go with the 3′x5′ (3’4″ x 5’4″ to be more exact) measurement per panel and assume 240W per panel. Again, you can do this with google earth.
6.Is maintenance an issue? Do you need to be able to clean the solar panels every so often?
Cleaning the panels will definitely help with production. Panels can develop a film (dirt, debris, leaves, etc) on them that can lower performance. I would suggest if you have trees overhanging the roof (assuming they aren’t shading the panels!!), removing any leaves that fall on the panels in the fall if possible. Using glass cleaner in the spring can also ensure you maximize the performance in the peak summer months.
7.Which is a better method of generating power when using more than one panel, in series or parallel?
Performance of the array and whether you string panels in series or parallel will depend on the inverter (what converts the panel’s DC electricity to AC electricity). Their ability to convert DC to AC is what will determine how the array performs. Whether it is parallel or series doesn’t matter though from a panel standpoint since when you string them together in parallel you add the amperage and when they are in series you add the voltage. The power output is voltage x amperage so the total output (watts) would be the same regardless.
8.Regarding the microFIT program: do you know if there is a long wait to get hooked up to the grid once you’ve received the approval from the ministry?
The process can take a while. In our experience, the OPA application approval can take anywhere from 1 month to 3 months to get approval. Once you receive approval (and actually they now request that you do this first now) you need to apply to connect to your Local Distribution Company (LDC), a fancy acronym for hydro company. This application approval review can take anywhere from 1 week to 2 months depending which behemoth you are dealing with. Once you have this approval the solar company can begin their installation and the Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) then comes to inspect that the system was installed according to code. The ESA then notifies the LDC and the LDC then installs the meter base (usually 1 to 2 weeks before they get in to do it). Then the LDC then informs the OPA that the project has been done (around 1 week). Finally the OPA then will send you a notice telling you that they will be issuing you the final contract soon. Then in about a week to 10 days the OPA issues you the final contract which the customer has to approve online. So you can see with all the different parties involved, it can literally take as long as 6 months to get a project finalized!
Thanks for the tips Aaron!