During the late 1990s, when I was just beginning my career in the field of architecture, I worked on an information counter for a local airport. As part of this project, the counter featured a pair of state-of-the-art plasma televisions. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent to purchase the televisions that today you could get for under $500.
In many areas, new technologies are quickly adopted, changed, and then replaced by newer technology. Building technology seems to be an exception to this pattern. Tankless water heaters, solar tubes, and LED lights have all been around for many years, yet have only recently started being widely used by architects, builders and homeowners.
Throughout my career, I’ve heard lots of reasons why clients are reluctant to incorporate new building technology into their homes and businesses, including: cost, impact on the rest of their building, impact on resale, and concern it won’t last or won’t perform as advertised. Since it’s hard to argue on these points, I decided years ago that where possible, I would test these types of new technologies in my own home so that I can speak from a place of personal experience, and not just as an architect. My most recent test was for solar panels.
When I purchased our home in 2004, I saw new tract homes advertised as being “solar panel ready.” “If developers were doing this,” I thought, “then solar panels are probably going to be around for awhile.” So a roof with a lot of south-facing exposure became one criterion I looked for in our new (pre-owned) home.
How the system works: Normally, electricity is generated at a power plant and then conveyed to your home, miles from that plant, by power lines. Solar electricity on the other hand, is created and used on the same site when the sun is shining. When it is not sunny, or at night, the system reverts back to using power produced by the local power company.
Our electrical bill has also changed. Comparing a graph of last year’s usage versus this year’s, you can see that our bill used to show increased use during the late afternoon with a drop overnight, it now shows us producing energy during the day and use at night when demand is low.
Cost: Rather than putting out the $25-30,000 that it would have cost for us to own our panels, we elected to go with a company that installed the system at no upfront cost to us, and then we pay them an amount equivalent to Edison’s lowest tier (in our case, 15 cents per kWh). This rate rises slightly every year to keep pace with Edison’s rate increases. The panels are supposed to save us about 40% over conventional electrical. We’ve definitely seen a decrease in our monthly electric bill, but I’m going to track our bills for a whole year before I can say what our actual savings are.
Installation: The installation process started at the first of the year. We were given the okay from Southern California Edison at the beginning of May to operate our panels, so it took about four months to install and get final permission to be up and running. Our 29-panel installation itself took one day. The electrical installation took a couple of weeks to schedule, but only a day or two to install. The City Inspector had to make two visits to our house. Our system failed the first inspection – not entirely uncommon, because the inspector needed clarification on the capacity of the existing electrical panel.
Roof & Aesthetic: We haven’t experienced any roof damage or leaks (and we’ve had several rainy days since the installation). There was one panel that could be easily seen from the front of the house, so I had them remove it for aesthetic reasons. I prefer to see the panels as little as possible, but it doesn’t mean that panels on the front of the house are always unsightly.
Though this is difficult to verify, we are told that all things being equal, the asking price of homes with solar panels tends to be slightly higher than those without panels. However, this may change as solar panels become more common.
Historic districts in cities like Long Beach have restrictions on solar panels and special permission is usually required. The City tries to balance the value of solar power while attempting to maintain the city’s rich historic aesthetic. For this reason, limited visibility of the panels is desired, meaning that the number of panels will likely be limited as well.
Some other Things to Consider:
In most jurisdictions, solar panel installation is considered an improvement to a property and so the homeowner may be required to comply with other city requirements. We’ve experienced this on two separate occasions. In one case, we had to prove that we had properly installed smoke and carbon dioxide detectors before we could get final approval. In another case, we had to help a client obtain permits for existing, non-permitted work done by a previous owner, prior to installing the solar panels.
Installing solar panels doesn’t make sense for every home, especially if electrical use is low, or if the building is small. But as an architect who has worked on multiple projects involving solar in the Long Beach area, including my own home, I can help you decide if solar is something you should include in your home or business.