Right-Size Your Electrical Load for Solar Panels 4

Best Practice Tips from Green Tech Electrical

“Efficiency is like broccoli… Energy efficiency is not sexy.” That’s what Wisconsin researchers Bill Schutten and Kathy Kuntz concluded in a 2010 paper they wrote for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Solar panels, by contrast, are sexy. They’re so attractive that homeowners tend to gorge on them like chocolates, installing more than they need. Ria Langheim, a research analyst at the Center for Sustainable Energy in San Diego, discovered than despite a California law requiring solar installers to look at energy efficiency upgrades before installing solar panels, in many cases, that wasn’t done. As a result, more than 50 percent of the solar photovoltaic (PV) systems Langheim reviewed were oversized.

In such cases, greening the home’s electrical systems did not put as much green back into the owners’ pockets as it should have.

The disconnect between controlling a home’s electrical needs and producing electricity to serve them results largely from solar installers and energy efficiency contractors being different people, in different businesses with different skill sets.

“One of the best ways to save money on monthly utility bills is to make sure you’re not wasting electricity,” advises Jordan Arnhold. “Most solar installers are certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP), but they’re clueless when it comes to electrical code and theory. They usually sub-contract the electrical portion of the install to a licensed electrician.”

Arnhold, a NABCEP-certified solar PV installer, is also a master electrician. His experience includes working with Colorado Mountain College students and with the Garfield County Libraries to install 60kW of solar power on the Silt, New Castle and Carbondale Libraries.

A local who grew up in Grand Junction and studied business at CU in Boulder, Arnhold started his own company, Green-Tech Electrical, in Glenwood Springs in 2009. He says his firm differs from most electrical companies in that it takes a “whole spectrum approach to declaring energy independence,” integrating green technologies such as solar power with highly efficient lighting systems and sophisticated timers and controls. As a result, when he gets calls for installing solar PV systems, he “always pitches other upgrades first. There are many ways to take electrical usage down before sizing the solar panels: LED lighting, timers, motion detectors and lighting controls…” to name a few.

The best practice for installing solar PV panels is to first prepare the home’s “building envelope” by insulating, by weather stripping and by replacing drafty, old-fashioned windows. This ensures that the heat produced by panels on the roof doesn’t leak out through the windows, roof and foundation.

The next steps are to replace old-style Edison bulbs with efficient lighting and to reduce “plug-load” with efficient appliances and controls that ensure that electricity is being provided only when it’s needed. These energy-efficiency steps are so important that utility companies, nonprofits and government provide rebates to help entice consumers to eat their energy efficiency broccoli before popping panels on the roof like so many chocolate truffles.

Even so, because the rebate process involves considerable paperwork, some consumers fail to get the rebates—or skip the broccoli entirely, heading directly for the truffles. Arnhold, whose company has secured nearly $100,000 in rebates for customers who have undertaken LED retrofits and solar PV installations, says, “We find that it’s most helpful to offer a full spectrum of green electrical services. That’s why we do everything from analyzing the home’s electrical usage and recommending needed energy upgrades to filling out all the rebate forms. We also cover the recycling of the old fixtures in our service. We can do all the electrical work and install the solar.”

Arnhold says that for years, most of the solar power systems he has installed have been retrofits, panels installed on existing homes. But now, “we’re seeing solar in the plans for new houses. They’re not an afterthought.”

Arnhold, the father of two daughters, is pleased to see that trend. He says, “One of my goals is to use my hard-earned electrical knowledge and expertise to create a cleaner, healthier world for the next generations.”