What Do I Need to Know Before Installing Solar Panels on my Mixed-Use Condo?

Q: I’m a condo resident in a building that also has offices on the first floor, and I have an opportunity to convince my neighbors to install solar panels on our roof. How would the electrical bill be divided among the condo owners if we get solar panels? Currently, we have individual billing, and the offices below have a separate set up. Would we also share the savings with them?

In addition, are there environmental health and safety issues for the people living under such a grid of panels? What should we know about any kind of emissions, radiation, or potential toxicity?
–Kathy St. Claire, Menlo Park, California

A: This is a tricky technical question. Because each of the units in your condominium and the offices you mentioned are on separate meters, it could be difficult to create a way in which the savings on electrical bills resulting from the installation of solar panels can be shared by all members of your association.

However, if your condo association has a community center or a meeting room on its own meter, you might want to connect the solar electric panels to that meter. Or, if you have some outside lighting–in a parking area or tennis court–the solar panels could be wired to those circuits, again resulting in joint savings that could be deducted from the monthly electrical bill and the monthly fees charged to each member.

Regarding your second question, electrical equipment of all sorts produces low-frequency electromagnetic fields to which some people are reportedly sensitive. Fortunately, fields from direct current (DC) electricity–the type of electricity produced by solar electric panels–are fairly weak and are probably of little concern to those living below them. Of greater concern is the inverter, an electrical device that converts DC to alternating current (AC) electricity and boosts the voltage to match most modern appliances and electronic devices. The inverter should be carefully placed in a room away from residences. And finally, solar electric panels produce no toxic emissions, so that’s not an issue.

Dan Chiras is the author of the bestselling The Natural House: A Complete Guide to Healthy, Energy Efficient, Environmental Homes (Chelsea Green, 2000) and The Solar House: Passive Heating and Cooling (Chelsea Green, 2002).