Installing a Solar Photovoltaic System

Laurie Guevara-Stone shares the story of a family who were able to keep their modern-day comforts while installing a solar photovoltaic system to save on electricity costs.

| August/September 2003

Learn how you can save on electricity costs by installing a solar photovoltaic system in your home.

Chris Banks and Paula Minucci were faced with a decision. Just bringing electric service to their beautiful mesa homesite near Carbondale, Colorado, was going to cost thousands even though the site was less than a mile from the nearest utility line. They wanted to have all the modern-day comforts, but couldn't convince themselves that forking over $8,000 to connect to the utility — and then to be burdened with a lifetime of electric bills — was a wise investment. Instead, they decided to put their money where they could reap a return: in a photovoltaic (PV) system.

Even before he was faced with the sticker shock of connecting to the utility grid, Chris was interested in using solar energy. "[Resources] are going away faster than [they are] being replaced," Chris says, "so any way to conserve helps out in the big picture."

Sizing the Solar Photovoltaic System

Chris and Paula visited Sunsense, Inc., a local PV dealer and installation company in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado, to discuss their energy requirements. Sunsense owner Scott Ely showed them different equipment options, and explained what they could expect from a PV system. Ely and his associates also visited the Banks-Minucci building site to determine the best placement of the system and help them calculate their electric loads.

Chris and Paula have many of the typical electric needs of a U.S. family: lights, toaster, blender, hair dryer, juicer, stereo, television, refrigerator and washing machine. Along with lighting needs, refrigerators, washing machines, electric heaters, air conditioners and electric ovens usually are the biggest electrical loads in a house. Thanks to their lower consumption of energy, high efficiency refrigerators and horizontal-axis washers are easy to run on solar electricity. (Appliances that use electricity to generate heat such as electric stoves and heaters are relatively inefficient and not well-suited to solar electric.) Chris and Paula bought a Sunfrost refrigerator and a Staber washing machine, which both retain their warranties even connected to a PV system. Highly insulated Sunfrost refrigerators use about one-quarter of the energy of conventional refrigerator. Their Staber washer, besides saving about two-thirds of the water typically used, also cuts energy usage in half, compared to vertical-axis washers. Chris and Paula also chose energy-efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs, which require one-quarter of the energy used by incandescent lightbulbs. just this simple switch — investing in 10 15-watt compact fluorescent fights, instead of 10 60-watt incandescent lights — can make the difference in buying three to four fewer 100-watt PV panels — a savings of thousands of dollars.

Using the calculations the couple provided to him, Ely designed an eight-panel "starter" system that could be expanded to 12 panels as the budget allowed. A backup propane-powered generator, says Ely, was the ace in the hole that enabled the initial implementation of a smaller, more inexpensive system. (You can calculate your own household's energy loads by using the Electric Load Estimation chart and the Wattage Chart, which are in the Image Gallery.)

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