Seven Solar Surprises!

It’s been three months since we put solar panels on our roof, and there have been a few surprises. There were things about ourselves and the technology and physics that we didn’t expect. So, as part of our ongoing look at Project Solar, here are a few things I didn’t expect.

Three_Month_Solar_in_Seattle

1) For Easy Energy Saving, Make It A Game

We have it in ourselves to be crazy electricity conservers. All it takes is making it into a game. I can’t tell you how much real-time monitoring has changed how we view electricity. I could write on and on and on about this, and will one day, but seeing how much juice we’re drawing right now absolutely changes our use patterns. Gone, except in cases of extremis, are: the drier, the dishwasher, the tv on “standby”, wantonly left-on ovens, etc.

2) Real Time Monitoring Is Key

We love the solar production, don’t get me wrong, but I wonder how much conservation would spontaneously occur if utility companies gave everyone the ability to monitor their use in real time. We had to pay a bit extra to get this ability as part of our solar install, and it has been an incredible boon to our conservation. We’ll literally shout to each other (in a friendly, loving, Team-Strauss kind of way) “What are you doing that’s using so much electricity?” or “Do you need to be running that?” or “Can you turn those off?” when one of sees an unexpected peak of red electricity use on the monitoring screen.

3) Little Slips Can Kill You

We have an old Denon amplifier, connected to our TV, that really only ever gets used when it is a special movie night or something. Well we did one of those mid June…and forgot to turn the amp off. For two weeks it was idling (we don’t use the TV a lot!), consuming 80 Watts. Doesn’t seem like much, but right there, just because of forgetfulness was 27 kWh. That’s about two days worth of typical electricity use for us, just because we forgot to turn off the stupid amplifier!

4) Cloudy Mornings and Evenings Can Help

This seems weird because typically cloud-cover is a death-knell for solar production, but a morning haze layer can actually help! This is one advantage for folks like us who live in maritime climates who think,  “solar can’t work here.” For the first and last couple of hours of each day, light isn’t landing on the panels directly because the sun is below some trees or blocked by our roof. During these dawn and twilight windows, it actually helps to have some haze or cloud in the sky, because this increases the reflected light and bumps our production from, at best, 200 Watts on a super clear morning or evening to as much as a Kilowatt on some overcast days! Ideally, as soon as the sun is high enough to start hitting directly on our panels, the cloud cover or haze will burn off, and surprisingly frequently that is just about what happens.

5) Sunbreaks Can Be Just Insane!

On the topic of reflected and diffused sunlight…we can actually get some absolutely crazy production on days that have patchy clouds. Ever find yourself standing outside when the sun suddenly peeks through a hole in the cloud and you think “damn, that is super bright!” for just a moment? It turns out that this isn’t just some psychological thing, sun breaks really are super bright. The direct sunlight streaming through a hole in the clouds is compounded by the diffused and reflected sunlight coming off all those cheerful bright clouds. On the production graph, these moments looks like crazy spikes and valleys. The average isn’t quite as good as on a truly clear day, but it works out to better than I expected. It’s also fun to watch as production zooms up so high. We’ve seen peeks over 7 kW on a couple of occasions, almost 40% more than our usual clear-day peak.

6) There’s Usually A Cloud In The Sky, Even If You Can’t See It

In Seattle, it’s rare to see a truly  cloudless day, and this shows on the production levels. Living so close to water as we do, even the most superficially clear and blue sky is carrying a fair amount of moisture, which absorbs, reflects, and scatters incoming sunlight. So often, instead of seeing the 5.2 kW peak that a truly clear day will get (and we’ve had a few of them), the system will produce something in the 4.8-4.9 kW range, tops. Visually those days both seem blue and clear, but the solar panels can tell the difference.

7) In Some Ways, It’s Harder To Conserve In Summer

This was counterintuitive, at least to me…after all, with our long Northwest summer days we barely need our lights, we spend a lot of time outside, line drying is a cinch etc. In our particular situation, we’ve found some unexpected challenges with energy conservation in summer. First, all of our lights are LEDs, so even when on they are on, they are just a small part of our electricity use. Second, having both kids home from school, plus a rotating motley gaggle of their friends running around, has increased the load on our laundry and dishes. There’ve been sleepovers and movie nights and other things that have had our electronics running more than usual. More loads of laundry are done on “super dirty mode” than “quick wash cold mode” and the kids apparently open up the refrigerator about 700 times a day. If we lived somewhere with air conditioning, that could be a huge increase in our summer energy use, but thankfully we are spared that temptation by living in a city that proudly pretends residential A/C was never invented. However our refrigerator and freezer both have to run longer and harder to stay cool against the higher temperatures.

Three Months of Solar In Seattle: The Numbers

After three months of getting energy from the sun,  we’re still pretty jazzed about this addition to our homestead. We’ve learned a few things and had some fun – and come away far more conscious of our “energy footprint” from day to day.

During the past three months, we’ve generated more than twice as much electricity as we’ve consumed. Through heat waves and cloudy days, evenings lit by a single 6 Watt LED and more than one urgent load of laundry on the “Sanitary” setting, here are our numbers for the past three months:

  • Energy Generated: 2.77 MWh.
  • Energy Used: 1.34 MWh

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Of course, it’s summer now, so it makes sense that we’d be making electricity like crazy. It’ll be interesting to see how the numbers look in 6 months and a year, when the full gloom of winter has been accounted for.

If you want to know more about our Solar in Seattle experiment, check out our Reader Questions about Solar post from a couple months back. We still can’t say enough good about the folks at A&R Solar. If you are in the greater Seattle area and are interested in seeing what your rooftop could generate, give them a call. If you mention Northwest Edible, we’ve arranged a special “friends and family” discount for our readers.

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Comments

  1. Kimberly says:

    Thanks Erika, for those details! We have solar but not the real time usage monitor. I’m thinking we need to put that on our house project list!

    I am wondering if you have weighed the water-saving benefits of using the dishwasher with the energy use benefits of hand washing? The dishwasher has always been a troublesome appliance for me as I consider reducing my footprint. At least on the surface, it looks like the water savings is pretty substantial.

    • I know it won’t work for everyone but I have a counter top dishwasher that my boyfriend and I build a cabinet for a permanently plumbed it in. It takes about the same water to flush a toilet as it does to do a load of dishes and estimated energy to run 1 load a day for a year was under $15.

      It’s perfect for us to throw plates, glassware and silverware in since it’s just 2 of us and wash the bigger stuff by hand. When family comes I may run it twice a day but it’s still more water efficient than if I did them by hand.

      The problem with a big dishwasher for the two of us was it took several days to fill and cookware got thrown in, so when I went to cook I would have to start by pulling out dry dirty cookware and cleaning it, not my idea of a good time.

  2. This is great, thanks for the followup! I’ve been following the solar project with extra interest because we’re seriously considering a system. It sure seems like the payoff periods are getting reasonable… as long as the incentives stay in place.

    Does WA have a grandfathering program for your net metering rates? One of the things that worries me a little bit is that some utilities are starting to charge net metering households extra fees to “make up” what they aren’t paying in electricity costs. It appears that most of these schemes do include grandfathering clauses for folks who already installed and hooked up (and based their financial models on the old rate). But it makes me nervous :-) I guess there now needs to be a “regulatory risk” premium column on my financial model spreadsheet!

    • Homebrew Husband says:

      I can’t speak for WA in general, but we’re fortunate to be part of a VERY solar-friendly utility, so I’m not particularly concerned about any changes to the net metering rules. I think that there’s going to be a transition period…where utilities figure out how to incorporate distributed generation into their production schemes and some of the resistance to this newfangled hippie stuff dies down and the financial models resolve.

    • Beverly Hanson says:

      We installed solar PV 18 months ago, and have not had to purchase electricity from our provider (Rocky Mountain Power – RMP) since. Love it! However, now RMP is trying to do exactly what Mr. Frugalwoods is concerned about. We are anxiously awaiting (while being involved in the movement to stop their actions) the final decision by the PUC. We are in sunny Salt Lake City.

      We would still install solar, even if RMP’s fees get implemented, because we believe it’s the right thing to do.

  3. Heather says:

    I am following this with great interest. Particularly, I am curious what will happen in the winter. Seattle does, I think, get some snow. Does this mean you have to get on the roof and clear the panels? Love that you are updating on this project.

    • Homebrew Husband says:

      We’d certainly need to clear the panels off if we wanted to generate any electricity! Structurally there’s no need to do so, though, and we tend to get pretty small amounts of snow (that pretty quickly get turned into slush by the rain). Since this system is grid-tied we don’t need to worry about “blacking out” if the panels are covered, we just have to draw from the utility through the net metering arrangement.

    • Living in upstate NY, with solar panels, I can tell you all about snow on them….

      You can actually get rubber roof rakes to remove the snow from the panels, or you can get a rubber tip to modify a roof-rake you already have: http://www.roofrake.com/Productpages/snowpro2.asp

      But unless we got alot of snow all at once we don’t bother. An inch or less melts off the panels in a day no problem.

    • I have had my panels since last October. The small amount of snow we have here is no issue. Frankly, given how relatively little energy is produced during the winter months compared to the summer, the losses due to snow are pretty irrelevant. Payoff season comes in the summer when you can bank for future months. Given my fall installation, I didn’t get the benefit of having panels during the summer, so still had a couple of hefty winter bills. I am very much looking forward to the energy banked this summer paying off this winter.

  4. amanda j says:

    I don’t know much about solar panels…but have been curious if during a power outage you can still use the electricity that you generate via solar panels? Love reading about your experience with this as we have wondered if it’d be worth the investment for our pnw home as well. Thanks!

    • Homebrew Husband says:

      With a grid-tie system like ours, if we’re in a blackout we lose the connection from the solar power inverters as well. There are systems that allow you to run with battery backup or some sort of reduced-power failover mode, but we’ve got very reliable utility service so it just didn’t end up being worth the additional cost in our analysis. You can read a bit more about that (and other “how it all works” stuff) in our earlier solar power post: http://www.nwedible.com/2014/05/solar-in-seattle.html

  5. Can you explain the real time monitoring equipment that you are using? Was it part of your solar package or from your utility. I have had solar panels for several years but without the real time monitoring it is difficult to understand how productive they are and how energy wasteful we are.

    • Homebrew Husband says:

      The monitoring system – hardware and software – comes from a company called eGauge (http://egauge.net). It is definitely not utility provided…it was an optional add-on we got from our installer. Very much worth the added cost, though, since I’m with you…without that real-time feedback and on-demand review of our consumption and production, this whole thing would have felt much less visceral.

  6. Vukovich Farm says:

    We love your “Tip Jar”. Thank you for the inspiration and motivation from this site. Thanks.

  7. Iforonwy says:

    Great to read your experiences with solar. I have probably told you before about our experience here on the other side of the pond. We don’t have a super-duper readout like yours but we can see the light flashing on the meter as the sun does its thing. This prompts up to only use the dishwasher washing machine or other items when we know the sun is providing the electricity!

    We had a quarterly payment last week which brought us in £336.41 – about $538 for 676.00kWhs generated and 338kWhs exported. This was from our PV panels.

    The hot water panels mean that we have not need to heat water at all for the last 9 weeks. We are in the process of having those panels up-dated – they have been working continuously since 1986!

    We read out meters once a week and keep an Excel sheet with the results.

  8. Hey, thanks for posting all of the info about your solar install. I love seeing the progress reports. We just had a 5.5 kW array installed on our house (panels installed today and electrical inspection on Wednesday!) and I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for them to permanently flip the switch! They did test it today after the install was done, and the meter spun backwards much faster that it was moving forwards (I wasn’t running the Vitamix). Hot damn!

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