Scoping out our roof for solar

Sam Johnson, the REC Solar engineering technician came today to check out the layout of our roof, our electrical system, etc. so that REC Solar can  specifically design the 5.5 kW system that will go onto our roof in June 2010.

A wiry, man with a shock of short curly brownish red hair that clings to his head, Sam’s been with REC Solar for a bit over a year. He graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, then worked for an environmental engineering firm in Fort Collins, Colorado for two years before coming to REC Solar in May of 2008.

The firm that he worked for in Fort Collins concentrated on helping to clean up the environmental mess left by gas and oil drilling in Colorado and Wyoming.

Natural gas not so clean
Ahh, the irony. Even supposedly “clean” natural gas has a substantial negative impact on the environment.

Yes, the production of solar panels also has an environmental impact, and there is toxic waste associated with this procedure – something we’ll look more closely at in future articles at SCD.Com.

Of course, in contrast to gas and oil wells, solar panel plants don’t need to be located in pristine wilderness areas. Moreover, the solar industry is, generally, a green one.

It has to have a clean “act” – or it could jeopardize its consumer base. Finally, last but not least – natural gas is not a renewable form of energy. It will run out.

But back to our expansive rooftop — and Sam.

I climbed onto our giant, south-facing roof with Sam on this cool, cloudy July morning to check out what it entailed to scope out our roof for the future installation of our solar system.

I’ve been on our roof a few times. Every time I come up, I think – ‘Man, I should spend some more time up here!’

Unlike down on the ground, where trees and neighbors’ houses obscure our view of the Rocky Mountains, one can take in an expansive view of the Front Range from our rooftop, which sits about 15 miles or so east of the foothills.

view of colorado mountainsLong’s Peak in view
From the roof, on a clear day, one can see well to the north of Long’s Peak – one of two 14ers visible from the major metro areas that have exploded along the Colorado plains. There’s a decent chance that I’m looking all the way to the Wyoming, about 85 miles to the north.

To the south, from our roof you can see the giant, hulking Pike’s Peak, the other major 14er visible for a large number of the close to three million people who live along Colorado’s Front Range.

You can also see Cherry Creek Reservoir, which is about one mile from our house, and, of course, the skyscrapers of downtown Denver (where my wife, Christine, works), and, closer to home, the somewhat smaller “skyscrapers” of the Denver Tech Center.

Wide-open view from roof = more open mind
The wide-open view our roof offers opens up my mind. I feel more relaxed than I have in weeks as I chat with Sam, who’s now measuring our roof, mapping out the obstacles on the roof, for instance the three tubular skylights we installed three years ago, and the one regular, rectangular skylight, plus assorted outtake pipes for various in-house machines, etc., most notably, the PVC outtake that releases the burnoff from our natural gas furnace and water heater.

Our roof, 80% of which faces due south, is, in a word, perfect for solar panels. The pitch of the roof is a bit low – it’s 18%, while 30% is ideal. However, there is basically no shade.

Right now, the roof just soaks up heat and then transfers most this into the attic, at least in the summer.

During the sometimes extremely hot, sunny summer days we have in Colorado, temperatures can spike to above 100 degrees! On these days, the heat penetrates to the second floor of our two-level home, and can push upstairs temperatures to 85 degrees.

man measuring rooftop for solar installationWelcome-to-my-garage house
To visualize our home, picture a “welcome-to-our-garage home”, built in the late 1970s. Only two of our more than a dozen oversize windows face south. The rest face north.

In cloudy northern Michigan or Vermont, we would not have bought this house, which we purchased in 2005 – unfortunately, as it turns out, right at the height of housing prices, and right before housing prices crashed. It would have been far too dark.

My wife, Christine, and I like light – lots of it. Because we live in sunny Colorado, with more than 300 days a year which are partly to completely sunny, and only about 60 completely cloudy days a year, we get more than enough light in our house, even from our north-facing windows.

The sun – and the mountains, and the comparatively mild, but also excitingly variable weather – are among the primary perks of living in Colorado, where Christine and I moved in 1996 from Massachusetts so that I could  attend Colorado State University, where I earned a master’s degree in English in 1998.

So much roof space – so much wasted energy opportunity
Talking about our move to Colorado brings me back to our roof – and other roofs in Colorado. There is so much wasted energy beating down on rooftops here, and really, across America, but especially here in the Southwest, which by some estimates could, with a giant concentrated solar plant, supply all of America’s electricity needs.

Our roof – with about 900 square feet of south facing, essentially un-shaded space – has been a tiny part of this vast, wasted space. But it won’t be for much longer.

Sam measures and initially maps out our roof, taking information he will then enter into a complex “CAD” computer program at the REC Solar offices in Westminster.

I lounge around and take pictures while enjoying the view from our roof on this exquisitely cool July day. There’s something incredibly relaxing about looking down on the world. It is as if you have suddenly been able to separate yourself from that world.

Finally, Sam whips out a small computer device that has a tiny fish-eye lens (unfortunately, I can’t remember what it’s called).

A fish-eye lens view of our roof
With his high-tech computer device, Sam sets about taking pictures in a southward direction to measure shading issues. The tiny fish-eye lens clicks pictures, then enters the data into the hand-held computer from which it protrudes.

It somehow figures out how much area trees, other houses, etc., will shade a particular portion of the roof at what point in the year. For instance, one’s roof will typically get more shade in December, when sun angles are low, than in June, when they are high.

man measuring rooftop for solar installationSam’s pictures and computerized assessment of these pictures confirm what I already knew: We have a near perfect roof for solar panels – and, of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s located in sunny Colorado.

For our upper roof area, where the majority of our 26 REC solar panels will go, Sam finds that all areas of our roof will receive 95 to 98% of the total sunshine available.

The numbers are a bit lower for the lower part of our roof – which sits over our two-car garage, and which I hope, within the next two years, will house a solar-charged EV, most likely a Ford Focus EV.

But even those numbers are still high.

90 percent  — or more — of total available sunlight best
For the upper area on our lower roof, the amount of unshaded sunshine is between 92-96% of what is available. This places it squarely within the minimum of 90% of available sunshine that REC likes customers to have for their panels.

As one moves down the garage roof, the percentage of available sunshine drops to 85% on the corners, due to a  few trees that do shade small parts of our house.

Generally, though, you could say that 90% of our 900 square feet of prime, Colorado, south-facing rooftop, will receive more than 90% of available sunshine.

In other words, we could increase the size of our 5.6 kW system if we wanted to.

In fact, we might do this some day. We’re going with a big enough “inverter” – a device that converts the DC power generated by the solar panels on one’s roof to the AC power needed for one’s home devices and for the general electric grid, into which our system will be tied (Colorado is one of the 44 states in the U.S. which require utilities to offer net-metering, see the accompanying image from

Real estate crash locks us into our house
I may wish to increase the size of our system down the road. There are two big ifs in terms of whether we will actually do this. We’ll do it:

man measuring rooftop for solar installation1) If we live in the house long enough for it to make sense. When we bought our house in May of 2005 – which is when I landed a job at the University of Denver — we’d been hoping to move up to a house on the foothills after living in our current house for five to seven years.

However, the real-estate crash, which has seen our home plummet in value by $30,000 since we bought it, has essentially locked us into our house for what I am guessing is at least another five to seven years, maybe longer.

Yes, we are currently “upside-down” in our mortgage, meaning even after four years of paying a $1,500-a-month mortgage, and putting about 6% down, we still owe more on our house than we could probably sell it for right now.


This is pretty depressing. But it’s not unique.

According to figures I read in a Denver Post story recently, up to two-thirds of people who bought their homes during the two-year peak of home prices in the greater Denver area are now also “upside-down” in their mortgage.

Paying Prime Mortgage Insurance (PMI) forever?
It’s not a great place to be.

You can’t get a home equity loan, because you have no equity in your home. You can’t move, because you can’t make a profit on your home to create a down-payment for another home. And, if you’re like us – who, like the majority of first-time home buyers, couldn’t put down 20% on their home – you’re stuck paying that dreaded, and ridiculous, PMI (Primary Mortgage Insurance) pretty much for 10 years or more.

In the roaring real estate times, you’d have created 20% equity by doing nothing – your house would go up in value, and you could toss the PMI ball-and-chain aside without having to do anything.

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Not anymore.

But, as I sit on our roof and contemplate going solar on our limited annual income, and, as I sit, quite literally on a house that’s been a loss so far for us, at least I know we have company.

There are surely millions of Americans who’re are also sitting on, and in, a loss.

In any case, I’m trying to turn a bunch of negatives – loss in value of home, the fact that we can’t move to the foothills now, that fact that we’ll be paying PMI to the end of eternity seemingly to a positive.

(If you’re paying PMI, make sure you know the exact date on which you’ll reach 20% equity in your home and drop PMI like a lead balloon on that date; otherwise, your PMI company will continue to charge you PMI for a full year beyond that point!).

Solar a long-term investment – but it pays off
Now that we’re officially “stuck” in our house – and there are far worse places to be stuck – we can now commit to the long-term investment of solar!

Solar is a long-term investment. That is, it makes total and complete sense if you’re going to be staying long-term, at least another 7 to 10 years, in your home.

If you’re staying longer, you will save money, quite a bit.

But because going solar has big upfront costs, and a fairly long payback time, it probably doesn’t make much sense if you’re planning on selling your home in the short term, say in less than five years.

Yes, REC Solar tells me that you automatically increase the value of your home by putting solar panels on it, and that you will recoup the costs of going solar if, and when, you sell your home. You can ask more for your home because it’s got panels.

However, while I’m a strong advocate of solar, I’m not so sure if, in our current economic and real estate environment, this is true.

I’m guessing if I list my home $12,000 more than other homes around me to try and recoup my investment in solar, that most buyers would go for the cheaper homes around me.

picture of an electric billNo electric bill with our 120-percent solar system
Of course, the buyer of our home would have NO electric bill – though, sadly, and incredibly, Xcel Energy could soon steal that from homeowners with solar panels, by charging an outrageous montly transmission fee that could push one’s utility bill to $400 per year. This, even if you produce 100%, or more, of your own electricity!

Yes, the power companies are trying to hold onto their turf, and profits – but that’s another entry, and story for SolarChargedDriving.Com.

Our 5.6 kW system is going to produce about 8,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year. We use about 5,000 kWh of electricity per year for our family of four.

This is at least 3,000 fewer kWh than the average American household, which, as far as I can tell, uses somewhere between 8,000-10,000 kWh per year.

The 8,000 kWh per year will leave us with 3,000 kWh of electricity to power an electric vehicle (EV), or enough to power that car for about 12,000 miles per year – you get about 4 miles per 1 kWh.

So, to return to the idea of turning a negative into a positive in this somewhat meandering blog entry – it’s my first entry for the SolarChargedDriving.Com Editor’s blog, which explains its length…

Excitement of going solar hits me on our roof
Now that I know we’re going to be in our Aurora house – which, actually, is quite a nice one that backs to open space, sits very near a bike path so that I can bike 10 miles to work and back mostly on bike paths, is near a large state park (Cherry Creek State Park), and also is just two miles from a light-rail station (my wife takes the light rail to work) – for most likely another seven to 10 years, I can actually do something I’ve wanted to do for awhile:

Go Solar!

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It’s truly exciting to think about this prospect as I pepper REC Solar’s Sam with questions about the installation and solar in general.

What’s even more exciting for me is that by going solar, we can accomplish a number of things. We will:

  1. Concretely push the green economy forward – and thereby make all the naysayers who claim it can’t be done eat crow;
  2. Substanially reduce local and global pollution;
  3. Tap the most widely available, and one of the cleanest and envirionmentally friendly forms of energy;
  4. Not only cover our own home’s electricity by doing this, but also power a car to boot!

As I climb off of the roof, and descend back into my dark office basement to crank out this blog entry, I think, What could be possibly be cooler than powering your car off your roof?

And to think, two months ago, I had no idea this was even possible.

Now, I want the rest of the world to know that it is possible – and that you could be doing it too – right now!

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