Illustration by Scott Suchy

Going solar

On a sunny day in late March, a big switch was flipped outside of my house. Suddenly and unobtrusively, our home went from being powered by a grid-fed combination of coal, nuclear, natural gas, solar and wind, to nothing but the mighty sun. In that instant, a house which averaged around $300 per month in electric consumption — became an energy producer.

As I type on a warm day in early May, our family dishwasher and dryer are running on 16,800 watts of U.S.-built solar panels. Fresh from a Folly Road run to Lowe’s, my wife’s Tesla-motored Mercedes B250e — bought for a song during the pandemic — is transferring a hair dryer’s worth of sun-plugged juice into the car’s batteries. My beloved, big-ass 15-mpg Ford Transit van guzzles $4 of gasoline just on a Lowe’s round-trip, while the Mercedes drives there for free. It’s strange and satisfying to rocket away from a stoplight knowing its fuel is the sun.

South Carolina Solar Project’s Jonathan Mason

That March moment when we switched on a solar house was the culmination of years of my wife and I wanting to add panels to our home while avoiding mistakes and still managing to afford it. We put in a stupid number of hours of research and consultation with Jonathan Mason, owner of South Carolina Solar Project (SCSP), Storm Guard roofing owner Scott Deavenport, electrical engineer Paul Martin, Angel Oak Home Loans mortgage officer Christian Blumetti and the only non-local in the bunch, our Texas-based accountant. YouTube videos and Popular Mechanics articles helped too. 

What we learned might help those straddling the solar fence in the Lowcountry. I won’t soapbox debate the merits of solar. I’m aware the panels only work part of the day. I realize solar is only part of the solution to the world’s energy woes, and that it might not be a choice for tree-shaded Charleston houses or apartment or condo dwellers. But for right now, according to the app on my phone, our elegant system is pumping out a hundred thousand watts per day. Most of the time, when house and car are not using all of that electricity, our panels pump excess juice back into the grid. Our electric bill — aside from Dominion’s roughly $12 per month grid and power plant maintenance fee — is zero.

Energy audit
Before spending on solar, pay for a serious home energy audit with a person who is Building Performance Institute certified. They will check for air leaks, insulation issues and faulty ductwork with a fine-toothed comb. Fixing these issues might save 50% on your energy consumption, and huge amounts on your power bill, according to South Carolina Coastal Conservation League senior energy program director Eddy Moore. A super efficient house also won’t need as many panels — saving you more money. 

Your roof
Unless you have a big enough piece of property for a frame-supported, ground-based solar system, you need an unshaded roof that is well-oriented in the direction of the passing sun. Of utmost importance is your roof’s condition. The baking, windblown Lowcountry weather takes a toll and our roof was at least 20 years old, so new shingles were a must. A solar setup can last 30 years or more, and panels must be removed and reinstalled with a new roof job, so unless you have a tough metal roof, don’t consider new panels on a roof more than 10 years old. And unless you’re going metal, rely on sturdy architectural shingles. “Those shingles, in this climate, can last 25 to 30 years,” Mason said.

With solar panels now covering his roof, Chris Dixon’s house has become a 17,000-watt power plant | Courtesy Chris Dixon

Solar installers often partner with roofers so the panel job and the new roof can go on a single invoice. With state and federal solar tax deductions, that could mean a tax credit of around $5,000 on a $10,000 roof job. 

Your solar installer will deal with permitting agencies, but consider calling your permitting office before putting down money — to ensure your house doesn’t have some outstanding issue that would cause a rejection.

Mounting up 
Ask an installer how they will install your panels. SCSP uses hockey puck-ish devices to secure panels in winds up to 150 mph. They’re weather-sealed and screwed deep into the roof rafters rather than more typical “L” brackets held with screws tapped only into the plywood and sealed with silicone. That silicone can crack and leak. Strong wind can strip screws from plywood.   

What’s the cost? 
A solar installer will use copies of your electric bill — and its rundown of consumption. With the help of nifty mapping software that uses aerial images to show your home’s sun exposure, they will model a setup to produce more electricity than you consume.

Consider too, if you own a gas furnace and water heater, you’ll still be paying for that gas. Heat pumps, by contrast, run on electricity. If you’re planning for an electric car, have an installer figure those kilowatts into the equation. 

Added bonus: By blocking sun from shingles, panels can seriously reduce heat transfer to your house, creating far less air-conditioner burden. The reduction in sunny day heat in the loft of our home is frankly astonishing.

How to pay 
Talk to your solar installer, take notes, talk to an accountant and a lender. Our system came in at $40,000. We couldn’t pay cash on salaries of a reporter and teacher, so we considered a home equity line of credit (HELOC), solar company leasing or financing or a home refinance. We ultimately chose a refi because our rate would be low, we would own the panels, we could take the 1098 mortgage interest deduction (which you can’t do with other options), and there would be no panel-induced second lien on our house. While most solar loans are unsecured and have fairly low rates, some secure that low rate with your house. 

“Really, you’re not buying solar equipment, you’re buying power for a period of time,” said Mason. “You’re also buying a financial product that works for you. I’ve sold millionaires solar systems, and they still want the financing, because they’d rather take the $35,000 or whatever the system costs and invest that money in the market, where they can get a 5% or 10% return.”

Some might recommend relatively low-cost leased panels. Blumetti warned against this. When a client with a leased system went to refinance her house, Blumetti had a hard time getting the leasing company to accept a payoff on her panels. In a worst-case scenario, a homeowner could even be on the hook for panels on a house they’re selling.

“There’s a lot of fine print,” he said. “They made getting out of that very tough. And they tacked on a bunch of penalties and interest.”

A HELOC, Blumetti and Mason said, can make sense, but a variable interest rate could increase substantially. Also, HELOCs work a lot like credit cards, with a temptation to make the very low monthly payment that only covers interest, but leaves tens of thousands of dollars accruing interest. 

Incentives and payoff
The feds give a 26% tax credit for systems installed from 2020 to 2022 and 22% credit for systems installed in 2023. The federal credit will expire in 2024 unless Congress renews it. South Carolina gives a 25% credit. That means a $40,000 system could ultimately cost $20,000. Our 1,700-square-foot house gobbled $3,600 of electricity per year. So for us, a payoff on the system, and a true $12/month electric bill, will happen in 5.4 years. The credits can also go towards a solar battery system installed with the panels. 

If you live in the country, the Rural Energy for America program can provide 25% additional cash grants on systems along with other incentives. 

Some insurance companies won’t insure panels. Some will charge you a higher premium. Some like USAA and State Farm may well leave rates unchanged. Check before signing a solar contract.

Batteries vs. net metering vs. generators
A battery or generator system can require considerable home wiring upgrades, especially for an older home. Battery technology is also changing rapidly. And though prices are dropping, dealer-installed Generac or Tesla battery systems will cost at least $15,000 and still may not power air conditioning during an outage. But battery and gasoline or propane generator backup systems will at least work during a power outage.

Our system, in contrast, needed no wiring upgrades because it simply taps into the power input on the side of our house. It’s set up through an arrangement called “net metering,” in which Dominion Energy credits us for excess energy produced. Think “rollover minutes” with your cellular company. You produce excess power during the sunniest months, “bank” that power and roll it over to credit your utility-generated electricity during the high-consumption summer or solar deficient winter — when panels simply don’t keep up. 

The downside: Most net-metered systems will not provide electricity during a blackout. New technology coming down the pipe will allow for your panels to power your home solo without battery backup, but they’re not yet perfect — and they only work, said Mason, when the sun shines.  

An inverter takes solar panel power and converts it to grid power. Small, single inverter per-panel systems are preferable to those reliant on one large inverter. That way, if one inverter fails you’re still getting power from the other panels. 

Have a very clear idea on whom is responsible for what. Will your solar company follow up if you need a panel repair? How do panels affect a new roof’s warranty? Be sure your roofer and panel installer are communicating, understand who fixes what and know what your homeowners insurance will cover. 

Output can drop by 50% on dirty panels. Clean them every six months. A hose works, but a telescoping brush with an attached hose is way better. Or you can hire a company to do it. But do it.

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