4 steps to solar panels – a quick test to see if PVs could work on your roof

Over the last few weeks, I have talked to quite a few people about whether panels for electricity from solar ( photovoltaic panels (PV) ) are plausible for their roof. A lot of this is due to the government consulting on cutting support for PVs from January 1st (by up to 87%), meaning the financial payback on installing panels would typically increase from ~10 to 27 years. I’ve blogged before about when we when through the steps of getting our install together (to PV or not to PV), but I thought I would throw together a more general simple step-by-step…

If you live in a flat, the roof is one you do not solely own, or the install is on the larger side, some further steps are needed ( e.g. structural survey, certificate of easement…) however the general steps below are effectively the same.

Tastylia France       1. Work out a few details about your roof area and angle.

You will need to know roof area, roof angle, what angle it faces, how much shading it has, and whether the building has an energy performance above the minimal criteria (an EPC of D or above).

You can calculate the approximate area from eye or just use satellite photos. I tend to use Google maps through an app on a website like comparemysolar. Using this app you just place pins on the outline of the roof to get an approximate area. Google maps also gives you an compass orientation. As for angle, I would say it should be possible to get a estimate just from looking at the roof and comparing against a few examples. Then check for shading (e.g. chimney pots, neighbours roofs, trees…) and estimate what % of day you think the roof is shaded (another approach would just to check the roof at several times of day, but bearing mind this will change a lot by season). To check an the energy performance of the house according to its EPC certificate, and you don’t know it off hand, you can quickly check it on this website. If you do decide to get quotes, then all these estimates will be refined then anyway.

(e.g.  20 square meters, 30 degrees, south facing, no shading, EPC=D,  and in York)

follow url       2. Estimate the rating of the PV install

There are lots of different panels of differing shapes, sizes, capacity and performance around. Choosing panels for the install may be easiest once you have quotes. I would recommend two sets of calculations, one for a lower capacity (e.g. ~100 W/sq m & cheaper) set of panels and one for higher capacity set of panels (~200 W/ sq m) . To get the peak output ( rating ) of the install just multiply the panel capacity by the area.

(e.g.  20 square metres * 200 W/square metres =  4000 W)

no prescription generic cytotec       3. Use some apps to estimate the output and payback of the PV install

We can now just plug the numbers from steps 1 & 2 to one of many online apps that use past solar data to predict how the panels would perform.  There are lots of apps to check whether PV is worthwhile and they give give a variety of different information from just the basic payback, to yearly/monthly break downs of energy production, and ones with lots of technical gory detail. I would personally recommend getting a broad overview from the Energy Saving Trust (EST solar calculator) and the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT solar calculator, Caution: the monetary values were out of date when I last checked so just use for solar). If you are interested in more detail then the Joint Research Centre (JRC solar calculator) provides a lot more technical background.

The payback is made up of payments for generated clean renewable every (feed-in-tariffs or FITs), electricity savings (from use of electricity on site), and export tariffs (price paid per unit exported to the gird for someone else to use). The is more detail on this here and this will be broken down by the apps also. I understand that Installs for a typical residential install are generally between £4-6.5k at present.

(e.g. estimated to generate ~3300 kWh/year and have a payback of 9 years)

     4. Get a few quotes

There is a great list of recommended installers (need to be MCS certified) and a list of good questions to ask on the YouGen site. I also used the quote service from EcoExperts who quickly got us 3 quotes for comparison. The industry has taken a big shock from the recent government proposals to cut the fit in tariff and a lot of people may being trying to get installs before the expected changes to the tariff so it could be quite busy at the moment.

Once you have your quotes you can choose obviously between suppliers/installers, but also the capacity/spec of your install…. and whether you want to go ahead with it. The installs typically take a day for a 4kW domestic install and then the install will need to be registered via the installer through the government’s micro generation scheme (MCS), which installers tend to help with or just do for you.

Our installation was done whilst we were away on holiday; it was done quickly and without disruption.

(e.g.  Ecoexpert say from £3950 for a 4kW install. – Ours cost a little over £6k, but was rather technical and high spec for two years ago)

Links

Mmmmmmm Pi… – Setting up Open Source Energy/Home Monitoring via Arduino & Raspberry Pi

I’ve wanted to do this for 2 years, ever since I heard about the guys at Open Energy Monitor. Getting actual data on how the house heats & powers itself puts numbers to the evident differences we’ve noticed from things like added insulation. It also highlights where the greatest improvements can still be made. This system will hopefully do just that; and by combining this with air quality/weather measurement developed by some inspiring London sixth formers (AirPi) we might get useful insight for managing energy load & energy automation. But that’s stage II once we’ve got the data, so before that here is stage I: the install!

Spec’ing the setup

We already monitor our PVs’ energy production and plot that up using some simple open source code I wrote (on GitHub): there’s an example in the plot below. This uses the proprietary system which came with the system (fromgeo monitor) to track the output. To its credit, this is working fine, however it doesn’t give us the full picture. We don’t get consumption data & to get a proprietary system that does this as we’d like costs at least >£200 (even the basic one that came with our system was ~£100!) and most of these monitors are still based on the pulse counting technique rather than continuous current measurements.

PV Production March 2014
PV Production March 2014

So we wanted the system to be able to:

  • monitor electricity production from the PVs
  • monitor net electricity use
  • monitor gas consumption (analogue) – not 1st build, but i’ll add this later & others have already done this
  • monitor temperature/humidity around the house
  • monitor outside air quality/weather (Inc. CO, pressure, N2O etc) – done via AirPi with a raspberry pi currently, but I’ll add this to the system via Arduino & data later and get it to sent its data via radio
  • monitor O3 & CO2 – not 1st build, i’ll add this later
  • stream data to server & store locally
  • use WiFi/Radio frequency (RF) connection between modules – to avoid mess of wires everywhere

It turns out its quite simple to meet this spec, and the build guides on the open energy monitoring ended up basically meeting this, making it all quite simple at this 1st stage.

Putting it together

Digging out our old soldering iron from the loft & picking up some solder was easy, but it had certainly been a while since I had done any soldering! Luckily the guys @Openenergymon have put together a guide for the Arduino assembly. It was quite fun once we got into the swing of it, and it was satisfying to make good connections on the board.

To monitor the temperature and humidity in the house we added additional sensors via radio connection – there are up to 30 sensor slots available through the base station, so this is easily done. These are pretty simple, and the first 2 nodes I bought came practically fully assembled.

EmonTH - Humidity & Temperature node
EmonTH – Humidity & Temperature node

The weather station (AirPi) goes together nicely as well, and has simple build instructions. It’s been designed to be attached to the Raspberry Pi directly, however I’d prefer to remotely connect to the AirPi’s outside measurements in the same way as the other sensors. So I am looking at RF linking it directly to the Raspberry Pi “base station” (more detail on that in a sec) to cut costs and collect all the data through one route.

The Raspberry Pi “base station” is the bit that gets the info from the arduino and other inputs via RF and then acts as a gateway, forwarding the readings to the internet etc. These are easily purchased pre-made & the setup is pretty simple to use. You can get the system already set up on SD from @Openenergymon & a few steps  is all it takes to get it up and running. Since this is all open source, the firmware/code is written & freely available on github.

Installing the system

This bit was very easy. We just put the clips round the household consumption & PV production cables. The nodes for temperature/humidity are automatically received by the Pi base station, so its straight to checking out the data & what it means…

 

EmonTX - Arduino AC-AC, Production and consumption monitoring
EmonTX – Arduino AC-AC, Production and consumption monitoring
Production and consumption monitoring - CT clip on PV input & home consumption
Production and consumption monitoring – CT clip on PV input & home consumption

 

What to do with the data?

The data is streamed to a server (kindly provide free-of-charge by @Openenergymon) as well as stored locally. It is viewed via a web interface & fully accessible by customisable dashboards for web browsers/iphones/etc. Again, all of this is opensource so is free to tinker with or use as is.

We’ve setup monitoring screens for the house on web/phone so we always know how the energy balance is on a particular day. But lots of people have played around more than us and come up with some pretty cool ideas. The options for exploring/plotting with the data are pretty unlimited, and we’re still testing ideas from other people like these rather cool ones below:

credit: forum submission

 

emoncms_v3credit:  nathan.chantrell.net

 

What’s next?

Although my geeky side will have a lot of fun with the data, just plotting & looking at what is happening, the real power of this data will come after about a year. Hopefully it will be possible to draw some useful insight, allowing us to predict patterns of production for PVs, just like energy companies predict generation and consumption for other renewable/fossil fuel production. We’d love to then use that to automate some of our energy use (e.g. washing machines and heating). Knowing when it’s cheapest and best to use electricity should be easy with just a couple of red/green indicators  (like the open energy monitor guys have done), but I’m really keen on automation of heating of the house during the winter when it’ll make the most difference to the bills.

I also intend to build the system further, to monitor and generate suite of air quality relevant variables (e.g. CO2 & O3) & to more completely monitor the house (e.g. gas consumption – on a analog meter! – & ventilation).

Anyone could do this, which is the part of this that gets me excited. To do the mini met station all you need is a Raspberry Pi (~£30 on RS) and an AirPi shield (~£55 on tindie) or a set of open energy parts (~£100 for energy monitoring or ~£100 for PV monitoring) for energy monitoring. Its all open source, and there are loads of far more adventurous ideas out there including voice controlled houses, cool ideas, and more quirky projects.

 

Here are some refs/links :

There are also more general relevant links on the links page.

 

 

Disclaimer: I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can, and when prices have been quoted those were available openly on the date of publication. Obviously I take no responsibility for any of the prices quoted or products mentioned, and in no way am I providing financial advice or recommending a particular course of action. If you see any errors/broken links/have any comments please just drop me and email or comment.

To PV or not to PV? – are photovoltaic panels worth it on a small roof?

I thought we couldn’t afford photo-voltaics (PVs) on our budget. They were ruled out with a sad face and without much contemplation at the beginning of the project, but after a little brainwave ~9 months into the project I worked a way to get them without the outlay & making use of both the main roof and extension flat-roof. We are proud of our panels and feel they are one of the biggest bits of the “eco” renovation.

The idea – Split array & Scalability
As a small terrace, there are significant roof space restrictions so we had to get round this to allow for the panels. We have a small roof (~9m2) and a little extension with a flat roof of ~6m2, so there’s only a little space to get our capacity in. A PV installation of 4kW peak – the typical install size due to government tariffs – at the time we looked (Feb-Mar 13) came in range ~£5-7k, with the established 180/240W panels coming in at the lower end to newer more efficient/higher capacity panels coming in at the upper end. As the PV industry loves to tell us, the costs of PVs have dropped dramatically over the past decades (pic. below). However their economic viability as technology in the UK is currently dependant on the Government’s renewables uptake incentive – feed-in-tarrifs (FITs) – and these have been decreased in stages since their introduction. So, combined with local effects, each install’s economic case is unique dependant on when it is undertaken. Our window was with FITs at 15.44 p per unit generated (kWh) & an export tariff of 4.6 p per unit (kWh) transferred to the grid. So now the job was to work out the difference between different systems and get some people to quote for it.

PV module price 1977-2013
PV module price 1977-2013

Would the Sun shine on us?
To see whether the Sun will shine on your PV plan, there are lots of useful free resources out there like the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), the Joint Research Centre (JRC) PV and the energy saving trust (EST) tools. They take a few small pieces of info – like roof size, angle and location – and combine this with  weather data to convert this into payback stats for energy and money. I used 4 in the end (links at bottom) to get my head round the project. This gave us a great approximation for the project and we soon felt that if we could find a way to finance the panels it would not only help us reduce our bills, but contribute to renewable energy production & help provide some payback for all the work we’ve done on our little place. We had a think about the local issues, like avoiding shading on the panels from chimney pots & neighbours roofs. The siting had to carefully considered and this was especially the case of any rack mounted panels.

Spec’ing it out

We needed high capacity panels to fit the 4kW worth we were aiming for, which narrowed our search down to three panels (below). This was done via online reviews, installers/buyers comments (YouGen), old photon magazine listing (unfortunately now bust) and on-line reference databases (e.g. direct industry) for the individual panels.

Then we asked four companies to quote for this split array system; the companies we selected had to have micro-generation certificate scheme (MCS) registration to allow us to get FITs. We choose these through Google, YouGen, & EcoExpert. Surprisingly only two of them were willing to deal with the complexity of the split array, and one company was quickly our favourite for their responses to my excessive questions. There are lots of options when it come to panels, and the four installers who quoted all had their own favourites. Pleasingly these did seem to tally with what the independents (photon magazine) were saying, and we had the choice narrowed to REC vs. SunPower to meet our high capacity with low area requirements. In the end it was a combination of warrantee, entirely black aesthetics,  and physical size that made the decision, the SunPower’s 25 year extensive warrantee making it a firm winner in my thoughts.

Cost
The cost was the original stumbling block and the rather odd split array only pushed this cost up. My research had shown that install/labour/inverter costs outweigh the modules’ cost, so a larger array would be cheaper per kW and provide a better payback. I started growing jealous of anyone with a large east/west/south facing roof as this would let them use cheap panels and lots of them. However clearly from the quotes, the install was still very much worthwhile, so I looked into how to pay for the system. I found ways to avoid a prohibitive up-front cost through eco-loans (e.g. home eco improvement loan or company finance)  and ended up securing the money at a low interest rate by having it added onto the mortgage.

Install
When it came down to it, the install was done in a fast and efficient way – it only really took a day. Our neighbour kindly allowed us to reduce the height of his drainpipe (along with ours) to ensure the panel’s performance, and then we were off! I’ve not looked back (until this article!) and half a year & ~1500kWh later (see daily production graph below) we can only say we’re more than pleased…

PV electricity (kWh) production July-Jan
PV electricity (kWh) production July-Jan

I am next going to integrate a mini weather station into the system to be able to analyse the panel performance in context, but that will be separate blog entry.

Here are some refs/links :

There are also more general relevant links on my links page.

Disclaimer: I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can, and when prices have been quoted those were available openly on the date of publication. Obviously I take no responsibility for any of the prices quoted or products mentioned, and in no way am I providing financial advice or recommending a particular course of action. If you see any errors/broken links/have any comments please just drop me and email or comment.