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Why Solar Panels Are Not Your First or Second Option

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011 by Larry Janesky


My name is Larry Janesky. My commercial building in Seymour is one of the ten largest solar panel installations in Connecticut. It cost about $1.6 million to install 660 panels on the giant roof. I also own a 30 Kilowatt system on a large barn roof at my home, which cost $150,000.  I believe in the idea of solar panels and was very enthusiastic about it at one time.  And when it's your own money you are investing, you REALLY get it!  So take it from me - if you want to do something good for the environment, and make a wise investment, you DO NOT want to invest in solar to generate electricity at your home. It's simply not the first thing you want to do.  Or the second or third either. Here's why...

Why NOT Solar Panels: The Fine Print and IFS You Didn't Know

There are a number of reasons to invest in solar panels.  If you want to make your house look high tech and green, and impress passersby with your very visible statement of how environmentally responsible you are - Go for it. But DON'T buy solar panels if you want to do something good for the environment, reduce dependence on foreign oil, slow global warming, be green, or make the best financial investment you can by doing something "green".  

Solar panels simply aren't the best way to accomplish your above want list.  To simplify, solar panels will give you a 5%-ish rate of return, and perhaps up to 6% or 7% with state and federal rebates and incentives.  But this is IF you don't have any problems and IF they last their 20-year life span, which provides plenty opportunity for them to get damaged.

If the solar panels are supposed to last 20 years and you put them on a roof that will need to be replaced before then, you will have to have someone take the panels and their mounting system off, re-roof, and pay to reinstall them. For what that costs, your moderate rate of return just got really bad.

My 1-Year Experience with Solar Panels

Let me tell you about my nightmare.  I had 150 solar PV (photovoltaic) panels installed on my barn roof.  I'm a builder/carpenter.  The contractor I hired was an electrician, as many installing solar are.  An electrician mounting stuff to roofs and building structural stuff-- I should have saw it coming.  With the 30 inches of snow we had in the winter of 2010-2011, my solar panel mounting system collapsed! 

Five panels were broken by the weight of the snow and now shaped like potato chips.  The roof sprung hundreds of leaks, as the mounting system lurched down slope with the weight of the snow and dozens of mounts ripped through the roof. I and several of my family and very best friends work for days on the roof (at considerable risk) in winter trying to shovel the roof and the panels.  On Superbowl Sunday I finally got the contractor to go up there with me and remove 150 solar panels that I had paid $150,000 for, and stack them in my garage. 

There they sat until summer when we finally got all the roof leaks fixed, worked through who was going to pay for the damage and remounting them, and got them back up and running on a new mounting system.  I also had to prep the roof to last 20 years, as in my horror I realized I'd have to go through this all again if my roof every needed coating or fixing before then (it's a metal roof).  And believe me, this was hell, and I never wanted to go through this again! 

The Truth About MY ROI

My investment was looking pretty grim at that point.  But hey, it looks cool now!  Sure my electric bills are lower.  But how long will it take me to recoup my $150,000?  Well, the tax incentives paid for 1/3 of it, so my cost was about $100,000. 

**Side Note: You can have 4 panels installed instead of 150, for a ton less money, but you won't get as much free power as I do.  I was trying to power a big house and a big barn that has people and a business (not mine) in it all day.  Nevertheless, the math is close to the same.  You buy more - you get more power.  Each panel puts out 200 watts no matter how many you get.  Use my example not for the dollars you'd have to invest, but for the payback period you will experience.

I save about $500 a month in the SUMMER.  I generate nothing if the panels are covered by snow, in the WINTER. At night-- zip.  In cloudy days-- very little.  So I save about $4500 a year, which means I will get my money back in 22 years.  IF they last that long.  I already had to buy 5 new panels in year ONE for $500 each, and spend thousands on roof repairs, lost time, inconvenience, etc.  So I figure my 22 years went to about 28 years.  And what if I have any more problems?  That will just extend the payback period - and quite honestly, I don't think these things are going to last more than 20 years or so on such a hostile environment as a roof.

How My Opinion of Solar PV Has Changed

Do I feel good about my solar panels?  I used to.  Now it's okay, but I wouldn't do it again.  However, when the technology changes and you can get more kilowatts for less money with a big breakthrough - then I'll have another look.  As will many people.

So what would I do with $20,000, or even just $5,000 that would slow global warming, make me a green citizen, be a great investment and even do something that solar panels can't do (make my house more comfortable)?  I'd call Dr. Energy Saver and schedule a home energy evaluation. It's free-- that's a nice start.

Dr. Energy Saver Can Help

Full disclosure - I own Dr. Energy Saver!  I own it because after the first hand experience like what I've described above - I am very excited about what we did for my home in Middlebury; my family's homes in Shelton, Seymour, and Bethany; my friends homes in Orange, Monroe and Ridgefield; and what we do everyday for our customers homes in Danbury, Stamford, Fairfield, and all over Connecticut!

Based on your home energy evaluation, we identify and prioritize your needs and the repairs. 

Then we do the work for you.  Doing things like Air sealing in the right places, insulation in the right places, duct sealing and duct insulation, and radiant barriers are great investments - way better than solar panels. 

First, we see rates of return from 15% to 30%, depending on how bad the house is and how much we do.  And these things last forever - they never wear out like solar panels.  Do it once, do it right, and you never have to do it again.  And as the price of fossil fuels (heating fuel) goes up, your rate of return goes up.  There isn't an investment guru on Wall Street that can get you a guaranteed 15% or higher rate of return - tax free, and without risk!  It's a good deal and a very smart investment.

"Reduce Before You Produce"

High efficiency heating and air conditioning systems and water heating from Dr. Energy Saver are also areas that can have a great return.  Your furnace or boiler only costs you money when it's running.  If you can prevent the heat it creates from leaking out, it will run a lot less and cost you a lot less.  And if you could get more heat out of a unit of gas, propane, or heating oil instead of sending good heat you paid for up the chimney and into the sky, you have a double benefit.

Is there a place for solar panels?  Absolutely.  But not UNTIL you have resolved priorities such as air leaks, improper insulation, and the inefficiencies of converting fuel and electricity to hot or cool air.

So there you have it-- the confessions of a guy who has been there and done that with his own money, has the T-Shirt and knows better.

Dr. Energy Saver can help you save energy, lower your fuel and electric bills, and make your home more comfortable. As we enter into the cooler months, we proudly offer free estimates for our many services including ductwork, insulation, air sealing, and HVAC installation in New Haven, Stamford, Bridgeport, Hartford, Norwalk, Waterbury, Danbury-- and more! Call 1-800-328-1081 to set up a free visit, consultation and analysis.

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