Maj. Don West: We're not getting any power. Must be a loose connection in the solar batteries. I'll go up and see if I can fix 'em.
—Lost in Space, “The Hungry Sea” (10/13/65)
I was saving this story until it had more of an ending, but what the hell.
I do like being an energy-efficient kind of guy, not just because it keeps the bills down, but because Save the Earth and all that. So when I saw a representative from Solar City standing in Home Depot, I figured it was at least worthwhile to talk to someone about it.
So I chatted for ten minutes with a very pleasant lady, who gave me the basics about how it works and such. She was having a hard time getting the wifi signal on her tablet to work, but she still managed to get enough information across that I decided we needed to hear a little bit more. So she took down my information and that was that for the time being.
A few days later I heard from someone at the company. He wanted to make an appointment with both me and Wife so he could show us the whole thing and make sure all of our questions were answered. We set the date and that was that for the time being.
During the visit, the way the plan was explained to me was this: Solar City puts the panels on the house at no cost to us. Then, for the next 20 years, we’d be buying some of our electricity from our regular supplier, and some of it from Solar City (but at a lower rate). Whatever the panels generate that doesn’t get used, would roll back into the grid, effectively turning the meter backward. Solar City then makes money that way as well, by being the ones who sell the electricity back to the electric company. If the panels need maintenance, we just call them and they make the fix (or, something at our end detects a problem and alerts Solar City). After all, they own the things. If we need roof work, they’d come out and remove the panels until the roof is fixed, and then they’d put them right back on. Our only obligation is to pay for the electricity they generate, and pay for 20 years. If we move or die, the 20 year lease transfers to the new owners (because, who knows: maybe our new place doesn’t get enough sunlight).
So, to break down that deal in bullets:
- They install and maintain the system.
- We buy some of our electricity from BGE at the usual rate.
- We buy the rest of our electricity from Solar City at a lower rate, and this is ALL we pay for.
- Solar City gets the profit from the electricity flowing back into the grid.
- The deal is attached to the HOUSE for 20 years total.
This whole thing was acceptable to us, so we agreed to move forward. They set a date for a guy to come out and measure/inspect our roof, and that was that for the time being.
Awhile later, the guy came out and did his thing. He had a Google Earth photo of the house (the initial salesman did, too), and he had a rough idea of how many panels were going to be put up there. Every jurisdiction has its own rules about this sort of thing, and in Baltimore City, solar panels have to be three feet away from EVERYTHING, including the edge of the roof (including the peak), chimneys and any vent pipes that might be sticking up. So given the size and configuration of our roof, they figured that they could put eight panels up there. In the meantime, the roof itself is in very good shape, so that’s encouraging. He took his measurement notes and such, and the next step is having a formal design drawn up.
After a couple of weeks, I got an email with the design for our panels. This is the document that they’d be sending to Baltimore City as part of the permit process (another step I didn’t have to deal with). You can see part of the image to the left, here. The front of the house (with the dormer) is to the top of the picture, and the rectangle on the bottom is where my kitchen sticks out. Most of the other stuff (the D, M, and AC) are utilities that are actually in the basement. “Inv” is where the inverter would be mounted to the side of the house. “B” is the junction box that would lead from the panels down to the inverter. The inverter is the gizmo that turns the solar power into something that the electrical appliances can actually use. According to the legend (I cropped it out), there are supposed to be lines indicating where the conduits go, but they’re not on this picture. So Solar City took this picture and a bunch of paperwork and submitted it to Baltimore City for the zoning approval, and that was that for the time being.
Several weeks went by, and finally the word came back that Baltimore City had approved the plans. Now, all we needed was an installation date.
Awhile after that, we got an email AND a phone call from Solar City that it was time to schedule the installation. I called them back and got a date. It was a weekday, so I had to take a day off, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.
Installation Day: I don’t get to sleep in, because they’re coming kind of early. A truck pulls up, and while their crew chief is talking to me, there are guys running all over, carrying equipment and such and getting it ready for the install. Other guys are setting up ladders to get on the house. I show them where everything is, then I pen up the dogs in the kitchen because these guys are going to be all over the inside and outside of my house. Some of them will need to be in the basement fooling with the circuit breakers, one guy will be in a bedroom attaching some gizmo to the internet router, others will be on the roof and side of the house. And the work proceeded apace, until…
…until it wasn’t. At some point in the afternoon, it occurred to me that I wasn’t hearing people running around, nor was I hearing much of anything else. I went to the front door and looked outside. The truck was gone. The crew was gone. Most of the trash generated by their work had been cleaned up; what remained wasn’t a big deal. But that was IT. They’d left without saying anything to me at all. I called Solar City and they were puzzled by this too, but they did say that the next step was to have BGE inspect the installation and install a Net meter. A Net meter is the kind of meter that can run backwards and allow the power from the panels to come through. So we needed an inspection date from BGE, and that was that for the time being.
A little time went by and I called BGE to see what was up. BGE told me that they hadn’t received the completion paperwork from Solar City, and once they got that they could do the inspection and then SCHEDULE the meter installation. Aha. So that’s a separate step, then. So I had to wait for Solar City to set up the inspection and that was that for the time being.
The inspection itself was a relatively brief affair: a guy from Solar City came to the house and waited for the guy from BGE to show up. BGE’s concern was largely related to the interior of the house, but it was brief and largely consisted of the BGE guy nodding sagely at everything the Solar City guy told him and then giving the whole works his personal blessing, which came in the form of a sticker I had to affix to the electrical panel. Can I schedule the Net meter installation now? No. In a few days Solar City will send them some information and THEN I can schedule my Net Meter. And that’s that for the time being.
A week or so later, I was able to set up the Net meter installation. If your meter is outside, no problem: they’ll just go and do it and you’ll never know it happened. If it’s inside, well, I hope you have another day off to spare. And BGE is like so many utilities in that you get that gigantic window of opportunity for their service person to show up. You know how long it takes to change out a meter? About five minutes, and your entire house loses power for maybe thirty seconds. The next step is getting word from Solar City with the directions for actually turning your system on.
So the email came in, but not everything looked quite like the pictures in the email, even though they’d accounted for several different systems. The problem was that I was supposed to turn on a circuit breaker down in the basement. And the problem with that was that there was NO breaker dedicated to the solar system in the panel. There was a breaker that had been identified on the chart as being the Solar breaker, but it actually connects to an outlet in my kitchen. On the panel itself, there was a big red sticker reading SOLAR, but it was over a blank space (i.e., no breaker) on the panel. So I called Solar City and told them that I couldn’t follow the directions as emailed. They said they’d send a technician out, and started to set up yet another weekday for the visit, but I put my foot down. It was several minutes of me complaining before they agreed to send someone out on the weekend.
A few days after the phone call, on Saturday, the technician arrived. First I showed him the display on the inverter and such, then I showed him the electrical panel. He opened the thing up, and sure enough, there was wiring but no breaker in the place indicated by the panel sticker. So remember how I told you about the inspection and what it entailed? Now you know what I mean. If the BGE guy had taken two minutes to open the panel and see that there was no breaker in place, the inspection would have failed. So the technician installed the breaker and fired everything up. So far as he could tell, everything was running fine.And that was that for the time being.
About a week ago, I got an email and a phone call telling me that the system is registering zero output, and I need to call them. Because I was out all day Saturday, I didn’t get to call them until Sunday. The person on the phone asked me a few questions about what was on the display, then he told me that another technician had to come out. I told them that as long as they don’t have to come in the house, they can come whenever they like during the week. They set me up for Thursday in the afternoon. They even gave me a courtesy call on Wednesday telling me that the arrival window had changed slightly. I told her, “Frankly, I don’t care because I’m not gonna be there.” On Thursday evening I got home and there was a door-hanger waiting for us: “Sorry we missed you!” and, at the bottom, an hand-written note: “System is off and electrically stable.” Thanks, guys! I didn’t know that stability was going to be an issue! I gave them a call.
According to their system, the tech had reported that some part of the inverter itself had gone bad and needed to be replaced. So they had to order something, which would take 7-10 days to get in, then they’d contact me to discuss coming back to replace it.
So that’s where the story ends for the time being. I have a system on my roof that’s generating zero electricity, and maybe it’ll be working again in a couple of weeks. But let me lay some extra details on you, because I’ve been deliberately obscuring them until now. Here’s the entire timeline (some of this I’m filling in gaps, other stuff I have the emails saved):
- I met the woman in Home Depot in June 2015.
- Wife and I met with the salesman in mid-July 2015.
- The guy who inspected the roof and did the measuring came at the end of July 2015.
- On August 13, 2015 I got an email that the design had been finished.
- At the end of August came the approval from BGE to install a system.
- On November 3 I got the email that it was time to schedule the installation.
- On November 20, the crew installed the system.
- In early December the system was “inspected” by BGE.
- On December 30, BGE still hadn’t received anything from Solar City, so they couldn’t schedule the meter installation.
- On January 12, BGE let me know that I could finally schedule the meter installation. That got done sometime over the next week or so.
- On February 10, Solar City told me that they’d gotten the final approval from BGE.
- On February 18, I tried to start the system and failed because of the missing breaker.
- On February 20, the technician arrived and fixed it. So
- The system generated power from February 20 through March 30, then stopped.
- On April 2 I got the “No output” email and phone calls.
- On April 3 I called them and was told a tech had to come out again.
- On April 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, according to Solar City’s website, the system was generating power
- On April 8 it stopped again, presumably because the system had been shut off.
So counting from an approximate date of June 15 (although it was probably earlier because school was still open) to today, that’s 299 days I’ve been involved with Solar City, during which time I’ve had panels generating power on my roof for a grand total of 45 days. Not an auspicious start, I say.
And that’s that for the time being.