If You Convert To Solar, Experts Say, Go Cautiously

A Do-it-yourself Trend Is Emerging Among People Looking To Harness The Sun's Power

January 23, 2010|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

Michael Zipp has been building things his whole life, so when his wife, Karen, decided they should do their part for the environment and install solar panels on their Halethorpe home, he immediately thought about climbing on the roof himself.

But after some research, he decided he shouldn't. And as major retailers begin to push a do-it-yourself movement in solar energy, some experts say green-minded homeowners generally shouldn't get on a ladder either - even if it means paying more for installation.

Solar panels hit the shelves in early December at Lowe's stores in California, and the chain plans to stock them in other states this year. Home Depot already sells them online. While many around the industry support solar energy's move into the mainstream, there are some concerns: Electricity is involved, as well as a pile of paperwork for permits and government subsidies.

And, Michael Zipp said, "Each panel costs $1,000; what if you drop one? And what if the roof leaks?"

The home improvement stores aim to capitalize on an increasingly trendy form of alternative energy by cutting installation costs that amount to about a third of the total bill.

Solar is becoming increasingly popular. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council reported that U.S. solar electric capacity grew by 63 percent in 2008, triple the growth in 2005. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates up to 250,000 U.S. homes generate some solar energy. And half of the people the group recently polled said they were thinking about solar power for a home or business.

Abby Buford, a Lowe's spokeswoman, wouldn't comment on sales of DIY panels but said officials are encouraged enough to add them in more stores this year. The panels are made by Akeena Solar Inc. and cost $893 each, not including connection parts.

Barry Cinnamon, president and chief executive of Akeena, said officials were trying to make it easier on workers when they engineered panels to incorporate more parts, including a micro-inverter, which converts the solar electricity to the same type used by the power companies. They realized the devices were simple enough for others to use.

He said many consumers looking for energy efficiency already were buying insulation, compact fluorescent bulbs, water heaters and other equipment at Lowe's. "Why not solar panels?"

Cinnamon acknowledges that the panels require skill to properly install. He put 30 panels on his 4,000-square-foot house but hired an electrician to link them to the electrical grid - required by law in Maryland. His bill went from $400 a month to $12.

"The biggest thing is that solar panels no longer have to be a multi-thousand-dollar investment," he said. "You can put up one panel, and then two and add two more next month or year."

One panel in California would pay for itself in less than six years without any government subsidies and provide enough power for a flat-screen television, he said. When the TV isn't on, the power could be fed back into the energy grid for credit.

Still, not everyone seems ready for DIY panels. At Home Depot, spokesman Stephen Holmes said, most customers still want to hire a professional.

That's the case across the state, said Devon Dodson, legislative director for the Maryland Energy Administration. The agency offers grants of up to $10,000 for solar-power systems, on top of a 30 percent federal tax break.

In the fiscal year that began in July, records show 662 people have applied and just a handful appear to be doing their own installation.

Dodson urges consumers "to speak with their local utility and check with a contractor before ever going down this path. We're talking about a significant electric input into your home that average people can't handle themselves."

The professionals the Zipps hired at Aurora Energy in Columbia say they understand that people want to save money. Isaac Opalinsky, the company's sales manager, said that's a major benefit of solar. He has personally installed two solar thermal panels on his house in Pasadena; he expects they will heat 80 percent of his water.

But even he had friends help him on the roof and, per law, hired an electrician to finish the job.

"This is a sign of maturity of the industry that anyone can go to Lowe's and buy a panel," he said. "It's a huge development for the industry and makes solar more mainstream. At the same time, people need to proceed cautiously."

In evaluating an installation company, there are no specific solar licenses, but an independent group, the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, has a voluntary national certification program.

Aurora officials suggest checking to see how long a contractor has been in business and to ask for references.

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