You may wonder how this odd grouping of subjects could possibly make a coherent piece of advice. These topics have descended on me and my wife recently and led to a determined effort to problem solve. Without mentioning names of people or products I hope the reader will find valuable information from our experience regarding approaching anything involving improving your home that contributes to our environment.
A family we know recently bought a home with solar panels and raved about their low electric bill from what was promoted by a company as the very best solar panels anywhere. Of course we asked representatives to give us our options. They also said they did roofing using the best 50 year warrantied roof shingles on the market so we need not look for a separate roofing contractor. They did say we should get all the estimates we wanted from other companies because they knew no one could match them. Every person from this company was courteous, intelligent, articulate, and helpful in informing us of all options, how solar from their company had no meaningful competitors, and we should begin as soon as possible. They even wrote up a proposal that was based on the Google photo that showed the dimensions of our roof and all the trees around it. There were plenty of tall ones as our live Xmas tree from 1983 had grown to more than 100 feet tall west of our living room fifteen feet from our swimming pool. Their rep said we could save more than 81K in the 25 years of warranty their product had and we needed 28 of the world’s best panels that outlasted all others. Although I personally thought the location they selected needed to be changed due to our trees, they were sure their plan was right although a shade test would have to confirm it. We thought we had found no reason to look further from the glowing photos, information, and reports we were shown.
They sent two other reps in successive days who were as courteous as the first. The marketing rep wondered how anyone could consider throwing away 81K to the DWP and more considering rising prices of electricity projected in the future. A printout explained how much we would save considering all the rebates the government and DWP would provide. Another came out the next day who went into the attic to photo what he could of the condition of our roof. He inspected and photographed our fuse panel, and went on the roof to use an expensive camera that was able to tell the shade expected during a 24 hour period at our location. He commented that our roof scored a 90! We were blown away with confidence thinking a 90 sounded like an A.
A phone call offering further advice suggested we have our pool man order a variable pump that would save us an additional $40 a month on electricity. But we were told we “desperately” needed to change the fuse box that would cost about 3K and the score of 90 meant our roof had more shade than they originally thought so we needed 3 more panels. They also said the location I thought the panels should go was correct. That improved my growing anxiety as the owner aware of what tree shade existed since I had planted some of those trees for shade and beauty. The price went up so that their new projection saved only 72 K, but had to also factor in 3K for the panel box. Since I was a senior citizen and would not need a 50 year roof, I asked could we find areas to reduce the price?
They said we could roof over our original 25 year-old roof to save money. They would put a synthetic blanket over our roof before nailing down the new roof over it. They said they could use the rebates on that half of the roof calling that new portion of the roof part of a solar project for even a further reduction in price. We gave them a $1000 check they required to hold their quote on the entire project for 30 days. Also they said removing the roof would cost about 2-3 K so this was best. They added that despite these calculations our monthly electric bill would go up from 11$ to 18$ even with this super solar system.
Were we really desperate? Isn’t that exactly how we were acting? Here is what I wrote back to our advisers: The first documents said we would save $81, xxx thousand, now it's below $70, xxx. I am a senior citizen. I would want to visit my family (two sons and a daughter with 4 grandchildren) spread across the US, and take more vacations with my wife while I still can enjoy nature hikes.These are personal decisions that are not based on desperation (I do not "desperately" need to change my electric box) but solid planning, clear information, and love of life. Building a castle for others to enjoy has never been my goal, it is to live fully in the present. Until I fully understand the benefits I will leave my modest savings working for me and my wife for our golden years. Who knows what advances in solar are to come next year? I appreciate your interest in selling us a system that will make better use of our electric power than pay the DWP for electricity made from sources other than our magnificent sun.
In the mail arrived a "neighbor to neighbor" promotion pamphlet that included two roofers with a 5 % discount. Both roofers mentioned they could prepare a roof for solar. I called the first one who said right away, “Do not roof over an existing roof if you are putting solar panels on.” He explained from his years of experience he would never advise anyone to do that. I thanked him and said we weren’t interested. I called the other roofer who was from a foreign country, looked energetic in his photo, and had many glowing comments about his workmanship, diligence, and expertise. He came to our house, spent an hour measuring, walking the roof, looking at our aerial photos, and impressed us as an expert in every way. He counseled against roofing over an existing old roof if we were planning a solar project as did the man we rejected on the phone. The next day he sent us a written proposal for the roof that included areas the solar company did not address. We began to see confusion and doubt where we were almost certain we had been led.
Meanwhile my reliable pool man of many years chimed in that he would not allow a variable pump for our pool and gave us practical reasons like the pool sweep and skimmer won’t be effective and the pool will look shabby in a week. He said if we want to improve our pool, we should get a new heater and possibly a pump but have the gardeners clean all vines off the walls of the interior block wall around the pool equipment each week. Also we found out the best time to use electric power for things like pool pumps, washing clothes, etc., is before 10 AM for the lowest DWP rate! We immediately changed our pool sweep to run from 6 AM to 10 AM and began to see how this problem needed solving by gathering all the information on each project in a notebook so we are prepared before we sign any contract—a message I learned as a trial lawyer long ago regarding my cases and how to approach each.
I called my financial adviser who specializes in green investments assured that he had to know solar contractors in the area. Soon I had a solar expert at my home to discuss all that had transpired and tried to help us sort out this puzzle. He approached the problem as a teacher would a new student without being pretentious. He broke down each concept scientifically. All we are creating by solar is electricity. Do you need a Rolls Royce on your roof to produce it effectively, or can you use a Prius or maybe a Volkswagen? He explained we should calculate the kilowatts per hour of each solar system to learn what our costs are. The first plan we had been shown was about $5.5 per kilowatt hour and his proposal would produce the same amount of electricity for $4.5 per kilowatt hour! All of his panels were warrantied for 25 years also and came from a foreign country nearby--considered Tier 1 quality--not a Rolls, but a Prius. He explained his panels used a micro inverter that converted DC electricity to AC on each panel independently whereas the Rolls panels required two large inverter boxes next to our fuse box, and their panels were “in string” that meant if one of five panels in line had shade all five would cease working! Instead of two large inverter boxes we would have one micro-inverter box about the size of a hardback book! He said we did not need a 50 year roof, but the 30 year ones are getting so much better if we wait a short while they will have one that fits the LA Building and Safety requirement of Title 24 that all new roofs must be “cool roofs.” While the 50 year expensive roof did meet this requirement, it was far more expensive. Finally, he said one solar company that lumped roofing projects with solar panels to reduce the costs for consumers was under investigation by the IRS. We did not want to be exposed to that insecurity.
The next problem was the color of our roof on the former garage, now an entertainment room, roofed four years ago, did not match any approved cool roofs in the brochures. Our referred solar contractor gave us three roofing referrals who agreed to come to our house, provide their estimates, and discuss options. He had worked with each of them. Meanwhile in a discussion with our family member who had solar from the Rolls company we learned an inverter box on his house burned out and he had to have the solar company come and repair it. They were lucky the house didn’t burn down! He found out that the building company that put on the roof used their own installers to save money rather than the solar company reps! A classic case of penny wise and pound foolish. This was an example of the reason why having DC power coming off your roof to a couple of inverter boxes poses a danger not like the AC current from the micro inverter box.
Each of the three roofing referrals, like all the competent specialists we had met, were knowledgeable, courteous, and diligent. They loved our house and said they would finish the project in 2 or 3 days at most. Our new solar contractor said he would include the fuse box in his low price unless some unforeseen expense was incurred that might cost and additional 1K. Each of the roofers said removing a roof was a one day job about worth 1K. A few also would replace the rotten roof over on the two sheds on either side of our house that were not included in our original quotes from the expensive solar roofing company.
My wife and I had a very short time to reflect on the solar and roofing issues, but were slowly informed by a host of knowledgeable experts how we could make an intelligent decision once we understood all the details we had not learned nor had enough information to question the first experts. We grew to appreciate each professional as they offered solutions that gave many choices and each were right for some people. However, by continuing the investigative process and keeping an open mind, we learned what solution fit our budget, and needs.
Many consider curb appeal a critical feature of up-grading their roof. In our case, one cannot see our roof from the street. Therefore we really did not have to match the roof exactly where the older roof has darker shingles than those offered for the portion where the solar panels will rest. By taking our time in this decision one roofer said we used the best option as companies adjust to Title 24 in LA and will soon have a 30 year roof that will at least blend with ours and allow us to proceed. We could not have possibly known where this journey would have taken without having each player educate us carefully with the best information they had. Our referral from our green investment adviser opened a door of understanding our best solution. We hope this will help others who show an interest in solar panels and new roofs.