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Sustainable Design for the 21st Century

Where a solar roof works and where it doesn’t

by Megan Geuss (May 19, 2017) arstechnica.com

This is not a one-size-fits-all product.

Last week, Tesla and Tesla’s newly purchased solar-panel company SolarCity announced that they’d be taking pre-orders at $1,000 a pop for installations of their new solar roof product. The solar roof is made up of tiles—some that produce solar power and some inert—that look just like regular roof tiles.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced the solar roof late last year, just before investors were about to vote on whether the electric-car company should buy SolarCity. At the reveal, Musk told the crowd that “the goal is to have a roof that’s less than the installed cost of a roof plus electricity.” Later, in a conversation with reporters, Musk said, “It’s not gonna make sense for somebody to replace a brand-new roof with a solar roof.”

But after that announcement, the CEO got bolder with his claims on the cost of his company’s roof, saying at a shareholder meeting that “It’s looking quite promising that a solar roof actually [costs] less than normal roof before you even take the value of electricity into account.”

Perhaps Musk meant this as a long-term projection, because when pre-orders opened up last Wednesday, Tesla and SolarCity also rolled out a calculator to give prospective customers an estimate on how much a solar roof would cost them. For many, the projected cost was well above the cost of a basic asphalt roof with a 30-year warranty, but roughly in line with the cost of a normal roof plus solar panels. For others, the projected cost was much more than what they would expect a new roof with any amount of solar panels to cost.

Right now, making the economics of a solar roof work out for you depends on the state you live in, how much electricity you use, and the size of your house.

Take Lee, for example

Take our senior editor, Lee Hutchinson, for example. He’s got a 2,600-square-foot house outside of Houston. Using Tesla’s solar roof calculator, he found that a Tesla-brand roof would cost him… $99,100 to install (the calculator estimated solar tiling for 3,700 square feet of roof, which Lee chose not to edit due to the fact that some of his roof has gables and angles that will add square footage to the total calculation).

That price was without adding a $7,000 Powerwall, which Tesla initially recommended. That’s expensive on its own, and with a $180-per-month-on-average electricity bill, Lee isn’t burning through enough electricity during the day to justify the cost. With a few exceptions (including Austin), most utilities in Texas don’t permit net metering, so he can’t sell any excess energy back to the grid. And while many households with smaller roofs or higher energy bills might expect to recoup the cost of a solar installation over 30 years, Tesla’s calculator says installing a roof on Lee’s house would actually cost him $41,000 over 30 years.

Lee noted that his house only cost about $200,000 originally, so, on first impression, he was concerned that adding an extra $100,000 on to that cost would raise his property taxes—especially in Texas, where property taxes tend to be higher due to the fact that the state doesn’t collect income tax (Lee’s are around four percent). He was also concerned that an increased property value would raise insurance premiums as well.

Tesla’s calculator noted that Lee could expect a $23,500 federal investment tax credit, but that’s deducted from income tax at the end of the year. Without some special financing, it wouldn’t help soften that perceived initial outlay.

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Are Rooftop Solar Tiles a Fire Hazard?

www.hometownroofingcontractors.com

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Yes, no, maybe so. One type of rooftop solar product has caused some havoc for residents in the community of Roseville, CA. Multiple reports of roof-mounted solar shingles literally going up in flames and damaging the surrounding shingles and roof deck have made residents uneasy, to say the least.

In this solar-conscious town, it’s rare to see a home that does NOT have solar panels or shingles on the roof – 1,300 homes are currently powered by the sun.

The problem: Overheating

The problem appears to stem from OE-34 solar tiles, which are a type of photovoltaic (PV) tile designed to integrate seamlessly with the existing roof shingles. The solar shingles were installed by Centex, a multi-state construction company focused on building energy-efficient homes.

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A design flaw in the OE-34 panels left them susceptible to overheating. As the panel overheats, it can damage the internal wiring, and worst case scenario, start on fire. These particular panels are no longer used in Roseville or anywhere else in California.

The OE-34 Open Energy SolarSave Roofing Tiles were placed on recall on March 25, 2014. Centex warned homeowners to stop using these solar systems several years before then due to the fire risk.

One man’s story

Edward Snyder told Fox40 of Sacramento he spent $17,000 for his solar setup. His investment wasn’t paying off; he was saving just $500 a year in energy costs. On top of that, his roof started on fire a few years after installation because of the overheating issue.

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He, like other area homeowners, was lucky no one was hurt, but the financial damage is significant. The maker of the solar shingles went out of business, so recovering the financial losses isn’t a guarantee.

Centex is trying to make good by installing safer raised-roof solar panels on affected homes for free. Insurance companies may also pay for damages caused by the fire.

Should you avoid rooftop solar systems altogether?

Absolutely not, but it’s critical to do your due diligence when purchasing a rooftop solar system. The problem in Northern California seems to be an isolated issue involving a flat-out horrible product.

Here are a few simple tips to ensure your solar installation is a safe and efficient one:

  • Choose a well-established solar installer or roofing contractor to do the install.
  • Go with a solar product that has a proven track record of good performance. A simple Google search can uncover problems you otherwise may not have known about.
  • Make sure you understand the warranty inside and out.
  • Check the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) website for current recalls.
  • Go to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) website to find out which tax credits and incentives you’ll qualify for.

In conclusion

The solar roof tile problems in California appear to be isolated, and the solar tiles in question are off the market. Don’t let this incident turn you off from home solar energy systems. A high-quality solar setup can save you up to 60% on your monthly energy bills, so it’s definitely worth looking into.

As with any major investment, it’s important to do your own research and due diligence. Don’t always rely on what others tell you about a particular product – everyone’s a salesman!

Even though solar shingles were the culprit in this story, they are largely a safe and eco-friendly product. In fact, solar shingles are becoming popular as ever as prices continue to drop and the energy efficiency of these shingle-sized tiles begin to approach that of the larger solar panels.

The Dow Powerhouse Solar Shingles are one example of how solar shingles are made right. These shingles are efficient and received safety certification from three different Underwriters Laboratories back when they were first announced in 2011. They are fire and weather resistant. 

It’s sad that in the early stages of residential rooftop solar shingle technology, good folks like those in Roseville had to in a way act as “sacrificial lambs” for everyone else to learn about the dangers of poorly made solar products. Let’s hope builders, solar installers, government entities and homeowners take notice and learn from these unfortunate circumstances.

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