The End and Beginning of an Era, Part 1

In the middle of August 2006, we had solar panels installed on our home. Unlike what a lot of early-adopters of the residential solar panel systems. the purpose of our installation wasn’t to make money but to make electricity and lower our carbon footprint and impact on the environment by covering as much of our electrical need as possible. The fact that the Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs) are not worth today what we were promised they would be worth is annoying to me, but it mostly just makes the payback period longer.  Truth is, we loved the solar panels from the first day they were installed, despite the fact that they didn’t really perform as advertised, also from the first day they were installed.  I had tons of problems with the system from day one and calls to the installer and the manufacturer went unanswered or, at best, answered inadequately.

Which was the real problem.

I am a math nerd.  This is a fact that I’ve accepted from a very early age.  This comes with its downsides, of course, the largest one being the biological need for always having some form of calculation, statistical analysis and/or numerical sequence going through my head.  Well, that and the pointing, staring and laughing that some folks do when I walk by. But that’s a different story.

In any event, my nerdiness has proven very beneficial to the whole process of figuring out why my solar panels were not working as expected.  I had a system with 36, 175 watt panels, arranged in 4 strings of nine panels each. The four strings joined at a single inverter in my basement.  The setup looked like this:

 

36 solar panels on my roof Inverter, emergency shutoff and circuit panel tie-in

Every day, I’d diligently go down to the basement and read the numbers off of the inverter, trying to catch it just before it shut off for the day so that I could keep my accounting of each day’s production as accurate as possible.  Doing this provided me with the ability to:

  1. Know exactly how much power we generated at any given time
  2. Know if the behavior of the panels changed at any given time
  3. Feed my need to always be doing math, by allowing me to have a spreadsheet with years and years of tabs, each with 30 or more formulas, averages, minimums, maximums, trends and other statistical tidbits on it.
  4. Know immediately when things were going horribly wrong

Now, math is one thing you don’t argue about with me.  Especially simple math.  When you tell me that I have 36 panels which should generate a specific wattage under full sunlight… and then I go look at the power output during the day (full sunlight) and the reported energy production doesn’t match that amount… clearly something is wrong.  The company who installed my panels refused to acknowledge that there was a real problem, instead blaming “shade issues” for my system’s diminished output.  After a few months, they stopped even returning my calls.

And then we had our first outage due to the system shorting out.

It took some time, but I got the inverter replaced. In the meantime, I had an electrician come out and discover that 1/4th of the panels weren’t even connected!  It was amazing how much better the system worked when it was, well, connected properly.  But even then, we still had a couple more outages due to shorts and failures of fuses and such.  And the system, even when it was “working” was not generating enough power.

We had an drop in power production which turned out to be a failed (burned) solar panel.  Given the setup, where 9 panels were set up in a string, they work like Christmas lights – one goes out, they all do. So again, we were down by 1/4th of the panels.  This panel got replaced and everything started working again. But still not as well as it should have.

Next up on the problem list was the leaks in the roof.  Now, being the man I am, I had planned this out perfectly – replace the roof before bolting big, heavy glass things on top of it.  That way, one would think, we would not have to remove the panels to replace the roof later.  So, when these were installed, apparently they were not sealed properly and you can guess what happened next – the roof leaked into the dining room.  I had people come in and fix the leaks as they came up, but it was not an easy, or efficient process.

After the third repair for the leaks, I was about ready to just rip the whole system down. It wasn’t that I had lost confidence in the technology; even with all the problems, our electric bills were low (sometimes non-existent), so I knew the panels and solar in general worked.  But the hassle, the constant struggle to get help and to overcome the poor quality of the initial installation were just weighing on me.  But then, one fateful day, I called the folks who were coming to repair my roof to discuss the option of possibly taking it all down, repairing the roof and putting it back on.

That’s when the end of the first solar panel era began.

The people who I’d been having come and repair these leaks were out again and found another burned out panel. This time, as an added bonus, the burned out panel was also shattered:

shattered panelburned panel

While I was on the phone, someone in the background said:

Hey, does he have those 175 watt panels?

Why yes… yes he does have those 175 watt panels…

Oh… they’re recalled.

Recalled.  Recalled?  Recalled?

It took six—almost seven—years to convince anyone that I wasn’t insane or imagining things with the panels not performing properly and now, after all this time, they’re recalled?

Yeah, they have a tendency to burn and perhaps shatter…

Hmmm… you don’t say.

Anyway, that set off the next round of calls to the manufacturer, who played dumb and insisted at first that there was not a recall on the panels.  A few calls later, the person acknowledged that there was an “unacceptably high rate of failure” on the panels and as such they were willing to pay me to have the panels removed and disposed of and then pay me enough to “replace the panels with new ones and have enough left over to go on vacation”.

“Right,” I said, knowing that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance of that vacation happening.

I looked into it and found that I *could*, in fact, replace the panels with exactly the same type for about what they were paying me.  No vacation, unfortunately, but at least they were giving me enough to cover exactly what I had.  But I wanted more (cue the AT&T commercial with the little kids where the girl talks about how “We want more, we want more!”)  So, I worked with a solar contractor who came out and evaluated our setup.

“Hmm,” he said. “Even if this had been setup properly, it wouldn’t have worked.”

“Imagine that,” I thought, and then said.

Turns out, the inverter we had could only handle one angle on a roof and, if you refer up to the pictures, we have two.  Imagine that.

So what we ended up doing was we removed the 36 recalled 175-watt panels and replacing them with 29 not recalled 255-watt panels (a 17% net increase in capacity).  In addition to this, we installed micro-inverters – one inverter per panel. This way, if one panel has a problem, the other 28 continue to work.

We had these installed about 20 days ago. In that time, we have seen a 47% increase in electricity production.  This is partially due to the better, newer panels. It is partially due to the fact that the better, newer panels are actually installed properly. And it is partially due to the fact that as our “shade issue” creeps across the roof, one panel at a time degrades in its production, rather than 9 at a time.   But all told, it’s simply exciting.  We’re seeing the production we expected to see from the beginning. This is definitely the start of a new era for our solar panels!

Oh, and the new panels are blue.  That’s exciting, too.

Here’s the new look of the panels and the devices in my basement:

WP_20130709_005

WP_20130727_008

 

Edit/Update:  One other fancy new thing about the new solar panels is that they are tied to a website which allows me to track the power each panel generates in 5 minute increments.  I can even have the site animate it for me and watch the power production as it adjusts throughout the day. It’s pretty awesome. Well, for a nerd like me at least.

2 Comments

  1. Matt
    Aug 7, 2013

    Nice!

    • Rob
      Aug 7, 2013

      Thanks! Maybe next time we get together I’ll show you the tracking website for the panels. It’s fun in a nerdy sort of way.

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