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The Ugly Side of Solar, Part 1

The Ugly Side of Solar, PT. 1

ugly side of solar pt 1Have you ever driven by a solar installation that was so ugly you wondered what the owners of the house were thinking when they decided to install their system?

Have you found stories on the internet about leaky roofs, fly-by-night solar companies or other tales of solar despair?

If you answered yes to any of these questions you’ve stumbled upon a little talked about topic in our happy industry:  the ugly side of solar.

Most solar installers shy away from the topic of ugly solar for fear of scaring off their potential customers.  After all, who wants to ruin their home’s curb appeal or wind up with a leaky roof?  The reason for this article is to arm consumers with the knowledge they need to avoid falling into either type of botched installation.

First I’ll cover solar installations I would describe as “aesthetically challenged.”  The above photo is an extreme example of just how ugly solar can get.  As a person with nearly three years of solar sales and design experience, I can hardly wrap my brain around how the above installation was permitted in the first place.  I can only imagine how the neighbors feel when they drive by this house.  Unfortunately, I see ugly installs like this one far too often.

So, how do you avoid such a fate as you embark on your solar journey?

Asking your installer for a roof plan BEFORE signing a contract is a great first step.  This will allow you to review and compare various plans from all bidders involved in order to see who’s come up with the best design for your roof.

For example, if you have a smallish roof, you may be limited to solar panels with high power density like those made by SunPower.  Panels with high power densities often obviate the need for tilt kits on the roof.  While you may not object to the ‘look’ of the tilt kits in the above photo, you need to consider the wind profile of the area in which you live.

Mounting solar panels on your roof so they resemble sails is never a good idea because sails are what they will become during high wind conditions (like tornados, hurricanes, Santa Ana winds, etc).  While there is little chance the panels will blow off your roof if properly attached, high gusty winds may loosen “sail mounted” panels over the course of several years resulting in roof leaks, deck rot, and other collateral damage.

If your best roof happens to be above your front door, you’ll want to get black framed panels, with a black backsheet, and back contacts (if you have the budget).  The second photo shows a recent HelioPower installation using SunPower 225 panels.

First notice how the panels look more like skylights than panels.  Notice how you don’t see any white diamonds or electrical contacts (black back sheet/back contact).  Notice how the solar array is contiguous and well organized on the roof. Such a roof layout takes planning. I tried four configurations before I found one I liked enough to present to this customer.  Think the folks in this neighborhood have a slightly different opinion about solar aesthetics than the previous example? You becha!!

What are some other ways you can be sure that your solar system will look as good as it performs? Again, make sure you get some roof plans.

Once you’ve reviewed those, ask if there are any systems in your area you can drive by (this is far better than a phone reference).  Also ask to see photos of installed systems that will be similar to what the installer is proposing for your home.  Ask to see the same panels on the same roof type.  For example, if you’re interested in Evergreen panels for your Spanish tile roof, ask to see a photo of Evergreen panels on a Spanish tile roof.  A reputable installer with enough installations under his belt should be able to easily provide you with these and may already have examples you can reference on their website. If you've heard of the high efficiency of the Canadian Solar panels, then ask for installation photos showing these modules. There are many options. At HelioPower we offer all these panel options and more!

If tilt kits are required for one brand of panel, ask if they would be required if you instead bought high efficiency SunPower modules.  In solar, size matters, but in this case smaller is better.  High efficiency and smaller panels go hand in hand, but be prepared to pay a little extra for the efficiency.  It will be well worth it down the road when you have a sweet looking solar installation that doesn’t leak and is the envy of your neighborhood.

Finally, you may not have a good solar home.  That’s right, I said it.  Rare is the solar salesperson who will tell you that your home is not ideal for solar photovoltaics (electric), even if that is the case. You may not like it, but you need to listen.  Remember, these folks are mostly commissioned salespeople; they want to sell you a system.

That’s how they make their living. If one of the bidders declines to bid for this reason, put your feelings aside and consider strongly what he/she is telling you.  Fact is that the top photo is of a house that should NOT have solar panels on it. It’s not a good solar house.  Period.  Of course, the salesman that sold the job would disagree as his/her creativity with tilt kits suggests.  But facts are facts.  Which system would you rather have on your largest investment – A or B? HelioPower Energy Consultants are trained to provide you with the second option or no option at all.

While aesthetically ugly solar will scare off its fair share of customers, often times it’s what you can’t see that matters most of all.  In part two, I’ll get into the gory details of a truly botched solar installation.  It’s the type that keeps most home owners up at night.  Curious?  Stay tuned…

Visit our "Ugly Solar" Installation gallery here.

To read more about the series visit here.

5 Comments

  1. francis on August 25, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    I enjoyed this article but wish I could print out this little “estimated cost of a solar installation” here in Carmel CA
    secondly your article said nothing about the paste-on thin film solar especially on raised seam metal roofs they look NEAT !



  2. Scott Gordon on August 26, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    The thin film ‘paste on’ solar is a neat concept and is aesthetically very pleasing. Other thin film modules, like those offered by First Solar, are very good looking as well. If you have the room on your roof, thin film can be a great option. The downside of thin film is that the efficiencies are still generally under 10%. Compared to the most efficient monocrystalline panels (like those offered by Sunpower), thin film requires twice the square footage on your roof to make the same amount of electricity. As I said, thin film is a good option if you are seeking to address aesthetic concerns AND you have ample roof space to accommodate the extra modules, paste and go, shingles, tiles, or whatever your thin film fancy may be.



  3. Dan Hahn on September 2, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Scott,

    This is an excellent series! Nice job putting it together.



  4. Ken Rahn on January 8, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Scott,

    I love showing customers these pictures so they understand what I mean when I say “shading”… and to show our new employees that HelioPower is in a different league of installers than what an average consumer might stumble upon out there! Thanks!

    Ken Rahn, SunRun



  5. Scott Gordon on January 8, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    Thanks, Ken!
    Shading is an issue that most people considering solar don’t consider critical unless the system will be very obviously and heavily shaded. I’ve had folks brush it off as an annoyance. When someone tells me that ‘the other solar installer didn’t have a problem with that tree’, I wince. Whether the customer or the installer (or both conspire together) to downplay the very real negative effects of shading, one thing is certain, the Utility WILL notice and WILL reduce the customer’s rebate appropriately and WILL cite the offending installer. When it comes to solar, a little shade is a BIG problem.