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Solar Systems and Storage – What you need to know

 

If there’s more common buzzword in the solar industry today than storage, I don’t know what it would be. As is the case with many terms in the solar world, storage can mean different things – depending on who’s using it.

In its most basic use, storage means electric potential stored in a battery using a wide variety of chemistry, until presenting a load to the stored potential activates its power. For example, when you start your car, the electrical system presents a load to the battery, and the starter’s engaged.

When using the term storage within the discussion of solar energy it can get really confusing to the consumer. I tend to narrow it down to three typical applications (my terms) that actually exist at this point in time.

  1. Off-grid, when the batteries are the most fundamental part of the house electrical system. If the batteries are exhausted, you’ll either be in the dark or running off a generator system.
  2. Grid-tied with battery backup, where the battery bank mostly sits idle unless grid power is interrupted. Then the batteries engage, the inverter taking power from them and energizing a critical loads panel. You’re then operating as an off-grid system until grid power is restored – a two-mode (bimodal) system.
  3. Consumptive storage. This configuration is becoming very common in places like Hawaii and in many countries where electricity’s expensive and there’s no Net Metering (where the power company must accept all excess power from your array and credit you on a one-for-one kWh basis).

We’ve discussed off-grid systems on our website, so let’s look at systems 2 and 3 above.

A grid-tied, battery backup system (bimodal) is our favorite solar system, and I believe we’ve installed more of them than anyone in the region over the past 4 – 5 years. I know for a fact that we have dozens of systems installed and operational in the four-state region we serve.

As for the longevity of the batteries, we recently conducted a controlled load testing of a nearly 8-year-old AGM (Absorbent Glass Mat) battery system, and it showed almost no degradation of the battery bank. This test was conducted as part of an estate sale, and DEKA engineers confirmed our captured data. We’re expecting at least 10 years for the Made in USA, DEKA AGM batteries we use and have data to support that claim.

If properly and professionally designed and installed, bimodal systems provide years of trouble-free service and great peace of mind for the owners. In conjunction with an auxiliary generator system, they can provide the potential for months of electrical service in the event of a major loss of grid power. Some of our customers are preparing for this possibility.

A consumptive storage system is a different animal entirely. In this configuration, the solar array first services the house loads, then diverts excess power to be stored in batteries. When the array output doesn’t meet house loads (at night, for example) the batteries provide power to the house. One problem with this configuration is that it obviously demands batteries that can stand up to many cycles of charges and discharges (cycles). Another, really big, problem (to me) is that if the house loads are met, and the batteries are fully charged, the excess solar production is lost.

The consumptive solar system looks attractive to many, but the fact is that Net Metering, as long as we have it, is better by a wide margin.

If Net Metering goes away, then, like in Hawaii, consumptive storage will become the system of choice for many solar owners. We’re not there yet – and, by the way, neither are the battery systems needed to deliver a realistic return on investment or real work capability. If you don’t believe me, try to buy, and have delivered, one of the new Tesla Powerwall-2 DC systems. At some point other technologies like Lithium-Ion will probably be the answer, but not today.

By the way, the power companies are constantly challenging Net Metering – locally and throughout the country. I truly worry that if they influence enough politicians, Net Metering could be lost.

At this point, many of you may be wondering: If all this is true, why are some solar companies pushing customers to consider one of the latest and greatest storage systems based on cycling battery technologies, like lithium-Ion, instead of more mature and proven configurations like a bimodal system using AGM batteries.

The truth is I really don’t know for sure in every case, but I do know that potential solar consumers are being lobbied by solar salespersons with minimal or nonexistent battery system experience, understanding and credentials, and some customers are making some unfortunate purchase decisions.

Some of the battery system proposals we’ve been asked to review are both technically and economically incorrect – massively incorrect. Battery-based solar systems are substantially more complicated than typical grid-tied systems, and no place for on-the-job learning at your expense (and peril).

Do your own research. Ask for reference installs. Talk to existing system owners. Then, I invite you to give us a call or fill out a web page contact form for a free professional consultation and proposal.

Before you buy a solar system, ask the installer these questions:

There’s only one reason I can think of why anybody would take on the serious safety and long-term production risks of having an inexperienced installation company, or one using a group of trainees, install their solar system. That reason is, they may not  know what to ask about, besides price. And when safety and structural integrity are on the line, cheaper isn’t better.

Most non-micro solar systems operate at very high DC current flow and voltages (some as high as 1000 volts DC). Adding batteries takes the installation to a whole other level of complexity. The design and safety issues involved are real and not, in my opinion, a good place for a class project or on-the-job training at the homeowner’s peril.

And while a master electrician license requires knowledge and experience, the license alone doesn’t make someone truly qualified to design and install solar systems. There’s lots more to it than what’s covered in the National Electric Code book or the master test. (I’m sure of that because we have two master electricians on our team, and I’m very familiar with every edition of the NEC Book published since 2005.)

That’s only one part of a solar installation project – and the reason most authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) require a building permit as well as an electrical permit.

So in addition to pricing, licenses and components, you should also ask potential installers about track record, references from previous projects, solar experience and certifications.

Probably the best question you can ask is whether someone who’ll be working on your installation has earned North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners certifications. Their PV (PhotoVoltaic) Technical Sales and PV Installer certifications are tough to get. That’s because NABCEP is the only organization that tests for and credentials every aspect of grid-tied, off-grid and battery backup solar installations – design, mechanical issues, electrical issues, optimized production issues, installation and maintenance. (Please don’t confuse this with NABCEP’s Associate certification, which is an entry-level program; Associates must work under a senior installer, hopefully with full NABCEP certification.) You can check which, if any, NABCEP certifications an installer holds here.

Continue reading “Before you buy a solar system, ask the installer these questions:”

How would you feel getting electricity for the first time ever?

 

You’d probably feel as happy as the residents of Lingshed, India, high up in the Himalaya Mountains, where electric grids can’t reach.

Engineers volunteering for the IEEE’s Smart Village project installed off-grid solar arrays with battery backup, providing dependable electricity around the clock, day in and day out.
himalayas

What works at the top of the world works even better in your part of it.

A great AAAAAA-rated review on Angie’s list

Check out this glowing Angie’s List Review from a White Sulphur Springs, WV, customer on March 30, 2016:

Milestone Solar Consultants, owned and operated by Bill Anderson, did our install. We purposely waited 5 to 6 months before doing a review because new stuff always looks good in the beginning but what about months later? We wanted it before the winter set in and he made that happen. ALL his workers were polite, courteous and knowledgeable about what they were doing. We had the batteries and analyzers placed in our basement. There were no boxes, wiring or any trash left lying around anywhere. They even swept. They left my house better than they found it. Mr. Anderson promised a turnkey job and that’s exactly what we got. All the wiring from the outside mounting racks to the basement equipment looks like a piece of art. Their attention to even the smallest detail is second to none! Even though they are a 4½ hour drive fro us, anytime we called him Mr. Anderson made himself available to us and was ready to drive down immediately to address any concerns or issues we had even if they turned out to be unwarranted. This shows his dedication to what he is doing, and he will do whatever is needed to see both his solar system and his customer is always happy. We’ve already experienced 3 power outages with our Electric Company and didn’t even know it. The solar system’s batteries kicked in so efficiently and quickly that our digital clocks didn’t even start blinking. When the power comes back on the batteries switch back to standby without us having to do a thing. We also ran our home on just the solar system itself, going completely off the grid (in the winter) and ran everything easily for 4 or 5 days. Which is exactly what Mr. Anderson said it would do. He has the credentials and expertise to answer any questions you pose to him. None of that, “Well I don’t know. I will have to check on that question and get back to you.” Which we had with other big name solar installers. Milestone Solar came into our home as strangers and left as family. Any and ALL questions were answered by Mr. Anderson and his crew and there were a lot of them! And we know he will ALWAYS be just a phone call away if we have more questions or need him in any way. And that speaks volumes!! If you are looking to put in a Solar Array System, it would be to your advantage to have a quote from Milestone Solar. His prices can’t be beat ESPECIALLY when he uses ONLY top quality equipment and materials. We looked at many different systems from other companies but Milestone Solar stood out by miles…no pun intended 🙂

 

968,000 Pennsylvania homes lose power during ice storm

 

A February 5 ice storm left almost a million southeastern Pennsylvania households without power – some for up to nine days.

This week, WFMZ-TV News reports, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s Bureau of Technical Services will hold hearings in Montgomery and Chester Counties, which were the hardest hit. These hearings are just part of a review of last month’s massive power outages.

Specifically, “Commission officials say the[y] want to hear from residents on how the electric utility communicated information about the outages and projected restoration times.”

The hearings will take place 6:30 PM, Monday, March 24, at Montgomery County Community College and 6:30 PM Wednesday, March 26, at the Tredyffrin Township Building.

As this year’s winter drags on into spring, your home or business becomes more vulnerable to ice storms that break power lines and cause outages. With a Milestone Solar system with battery backup bank, you wouldn’t have to sit shivering in the dark, waiting for “information about the outages and projected restoration times.”

You’d have power for your lights and most important appliances. You’d have no worries whatever about the flammable fuels and toxic exhausts that come with emergency generators. And you’d have electricity for as long as the outage lasts, because the battery backup bank recharges from a power source that rises every morning and works even on cloudy days.