In the first Be a Smart Solar Buyer post, we discussed the importance of asking the right questions about equipment specifications and warranties. Now we move onto the aesthetics of a solar installation.
The aesthetics of the panels on your roof will definitely set certain installers apart from others. Whether you are thinking about installing panels on the front or back of your house, you probably care about how they look. You know who else cares about how they look? Future buyers. Unless you are certain you will still be living in your house in 30 or 40 years when the practical lifespan of the solar panels runs out, you ought to consider how future buyers will view the solar panels. Solar substantially increases the value of your home, the data clearly shows. But a poorly designed system, no matter how much fossil fuel electricity it offsets, will still be a turn-off to some buyers.
One of the first things solar installers do is show you a mock-up of the modules on your roof: are there lots of clean lines that look pleasing to the eye, or are there gaps and awkward placement of modules on your roofline?
You are always limited by your home’s south-facing roof surfaces, the complexity of your roof, and the shape of the solar panels themselves (rectangles = kinda boring). But even so. Some installers have an eye for aesthetics and some, well…don’t. Installers show you a possible module configuration during the proposal phase, but you as the customer have the final say and can ask them to reconfigure any awkward module placement.
Let me repeat that: YOU have the final say in solar module placement on your roof. Just because the installer is the “expert” in solar does not mean that you, the customer, must agree to the proposed design. Otherwise you may end up thinking a terrible layout is your only option.
Ask how the installer plans to run the wiring from the solar modules to your main electrical panel. If you have more than one array (i.e. groups of modules on different roof faces), ask how they will run the wires between the arrays. Good installers take the time to hide conduits, or make them almost invisible on the outside of the house. Not-so-good installers run metal wiring all around your roof.
It is a good idea to ask to see the installers’ previous work. Many solar companies have portfolios of previous projects on their website. Checking out those photos can give you some sense of the installer’s attention to aesthetics, but in all honesty it is sometimes hard to draw many conclusions from photos on a computer screen. First of all, installers highlight the work they want to highlight. If there is a not-so-beautiful project in their portfolio, maybe they decide not to upload it onto their portfolio page. But sometimes they DO highlight every project, which is lucky for you because you can see if the company’s design sensibilities match up with yours.
Second of all, website photos do not always capture the details of an installation. Are all the modules parallel with the roof, or does the solar array look a little wavy? Did the installer cut the metal rails flush with the modules, or can you see some rail ends sticking out? Does the installer tuck the underside wiring securely into each module frame so that the wires are not touching your shingles?
You might wonder, “Why would I give a hoot what the underside of my solar panels look like?” Here’s the reason: electrical wires should not touch your roof. Loose wires can rub against the shingles and eventually fray, exposing the wire and causing a short. This is not an aesthetic issue but rather a performance and safety issue. Needless to say, Sky NRG Solar clips all wires into the module frames.
Below is a photo looking up at the tiny space between the roof and the solar panel. There are no wires visible. The panels are perfectly level. This installation was done properly.
If you are a detail-oriented person and care about quality of work, you might have some luck asking the installer to track down one of their accommodating customers close to your home. If that sounds awkward and intrusive, think about it: the type of people who choose solar are generally the type of people who A) are proud of it and are happy to show off their solar-powered house, and B) are very willing to help convert more homeowners to going solar.
Solar panels installed awkwardly on your roof will perform just as well as panels installed in a well-designed array. The annual energy production and the project payback timeframe will be equal. When comparing quotes from different solar installers, don’t stop at the $’s and kWh’s. Look at the design as well, and decide if the solar array will enhance the features of your home or detract. If you do not like the aesthetics of a certain solar company, keep searching until you find the right fit for your home.