April Customer Installation of the Month
April 2015 Winner: Steele L. from Haymarket, Va
“By doing as much of the work by myself as possible, I have been able to reduce my electrical utility purchases by 75-80% (two months of 100+%). By my estimation, in 5 ½ years I’ll have completely paid off my complete 75-panel PV system, the domestic hot water system, and 8 inches of blown-in fireproof foam insulation between the rafters.” — Steele L., Installation of the Month Winner
Continue reading for our full interview with Steele.
Interview with Steele L.
Wholesale Solar: How long was the full installation process from receiving your equipment to flipping the switch?
Steele: My construction was in two phases. The first part of the project was done by an outside firm in a turnkey operation. They installed 48 panels, about 12 kW. That project took two days plus a little bit more for the monitoring equipment. The installed portion was on a steep slope of a barn roof which I had reinforced previously. So at my age of 70 years I was not about to trundle up on a 45 degree slippery slope (the roof below). The participation in the building of additional solar capacity by myself has been a very enjoyable and satisfying endeavor. Having watched the first part being installed, I told myself that “I can do this!” About 4 years later I was ready, having mostly paid off the initial installation. I studied up on the ins and outs of installing solar panels using web videos and technical articles from the very complete Enphase website. The videos and practices of Enphase inverter installation and wiring was easy to understand but a little knowledge of mathematics is beneficial. Since we have horses and the horse poop was collected and allowed to compost prior to being redistributed on the fields as fertilizer, I had installed three bins made of railroad ties as compost pits. Unfortunately, the rains made quite a mess of the compost at times, so a roof was in order. It became a combined operation to provide a roof over the poop pits and create a base for additional solar panels. Thus the poop pits became the poop palace. I started by designing the cover for the poop pits to facilitate the correct angle and declination for utmost energy production. Fortunately, this was very similar to the orientation of the horse barn. I think it took me about a month to build the roof support solely by myself. Next came the installation of 2 additional electrical array circuits, wired into a new larger accumulator box, for a total of 5 array circuits in all. This was followed by the racking and inverters. And then the panels were installed one circuit at a time. By this time — working by myself — about 2 months had gone by, and I was working about 50% of the time. Fortunately, I have two front-end loader tractors and they proved invaluable in assisting me in the heavy work. As I installed one array circuit at a time, I was able to check out electrical production by reviewing the energy produced on Enphase’s web monitoring system and by using their Enlighten monitor previously installed with the first phase. After the design process the installation was a piece of cake: just placing the PV modules on the racking and plugging them in. Of course there were a few glitches but nothing I couldn’t overcome. The secret is to use the largest wire you can afford. This minimizes voltage drops from resistance, which is the bugaboo of single panel inverters. Installation of all the panels, including those that fit between the cracks in the initial system, took an additional two weeks as a single-person operation. This included circuit checking and fault detecting for any non-functioning panel. Notice that the gap between barn sections? A row at the bottom of the barn has also been added as an array combined with the top landscape row of panels. The lower two rows of portrait orientation panels is a second array. The complete process probably took me about 2 ½ months of part-time solo work.
WSS: Did you have any previous construction experience?
Steele: I do have some construction experience, not as a contractor but as a watcher. I have always watched and observed whatever is done and with a modest engineering background (2 years of engineering college). I know what I can do.
WSS: What was the most confusing or difficult part of the installation?
Steele: Probably the most difficult part of the whole process was the design of the system from an electrical standpoint. The Enphase inverters, which I use throughout my five-array system, have come critical tolerances and by liberally utilizing Enphase’s videos and tutorials it is relatively straight-forward. There is one thing that I would recommend: Unless you are a contractor, have a reputable firm do all the electrical and structural design work as required by your county or city building codes. In my case, the major electrical supply for my grid-tie system was installed as per building code because the barn electrical supply passes through my home on its way to the grid. Unless you are a contractor, any portion requiring permits and inspections should be farmed out so as to have a safe, reliable system that doesn’t burn your home down.
WSS: Were there any unforeseen additional parts or tools you needed?
Steele: Obviously, in order to build the structure, some heavier machinery was needed to handle the installation of larger and heavier pieces. Being a horse farm, I already had two front-end loader tractors. Wholesale Solar provided me with a complete system including all the nuts and bolts and also provided quite a bit of expertise. They were very proficient in providing me with all the materials I needed, and in working with me to replace panels damaged during shipping 2,500 miles, which took its toll. WSS: How did you choose to self-install?
Steele: I chose to self-install because I knew I could do it. I felt that I could make a meaningful addition—increasing from 48 panels to 75 panels—cheaply enough to make the whole process worth it.
WSS: What was your primary reason for adding solar to your home?
Steele: I have always been an advocate of solar energy. My wife and I are very firm believers in taking advantage of all the available natural resources available to us. By doing as much of the work by myself, I have been able to reduce my electrical utility purchases by 75-80% (two months of 100+%). By my estimations, in 5½ years I’ll have completely paid off my complete 75-panel PV system, the domestic hot water system, and 8 inches of blown in fireproof foam insulation between the rafters. Fortunately, I got in early, beginning 2010, and have been able to establish good connections for the sale of my RECs (Recoverable Energy Credits) which certainly has assisted in retiring any debt I incurred in the 17.7 kW system’s construction. As part of my interest in the environment and energy conservation, I have converted my home to gas where applicable, especially in heating, where it is much more efficient. Here in Northern Virginia the summers do get pretty hot, with weeks of 100+ ºF temperatures and humidity. In the winter there are weeks of sub-freezing cold, frequently down into the single digits.
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