Monday, October 31, 2016

Going solar #3

Another draft post that I never quite finished so it was never published. A few tweaks and I'm hitting the publish button! Originally written in 2012.

So I had made the decision to get a solar PV system. I paid my deposit and I locked in the price. I had signed up for a 1.5kW solar system to be installed any time I cared to pay the full amount owing. That was in early November 2011.

My system specs are:
8 x 1.52kW Daqo Panels
SMA SB1700 Inverter 

The solar company had assured me that my roof space was big enough, which had previously been a barrier when looking at a larger 3kW system. They made this calculation using satellite software (like Google Earth but a different website) to view my roof from above. I have since read that it’s best to get the company to actually come out and physically measure your roof as the satellite images may not match reality, but I had no problems.

Before my system could be installed I had to submit a number of photos of my roof, my meter and my switchboard. Which wasn’t so much a switchboard – it was a fuse box. I had known that if I ever wanted any electrical work done I would have to get the fuse box upgraded – no electrician will do any work without the switchboard being to code. So this was an extra expense that I was able to anticipate, and I knew it had to be done anyway.

Luckily my brother is an apprentice electrician, so he was able to recommend a qualified electrician who charged me ‘mate’s rates’. It took about 4 hours on a Saturday afternoon, and while he was there I asked him to disconnect the wall heater (which was hard wired like your oven is) to avoid the temptation to use this electricity guzzler.  I’m looking into installing a reverse cycle split-system air conditioner at some point anyway.

Once the switchboard had been upgraded I emailed a photo to the solar company and they called me to arrange an install-date. As I had annual leave before Christmas I had the installers come on one of those days (I had to be home as my switchboard is inside the house).

The installation took about half a day. Initially when speaking with the sales consultant they had asked whether I wanted to have the inverter installed inside our outside the house. Apparently it needs to be installed as close to the switchboard as possible, for reasons beyond my understanding. I asked how big it was and in my mind pictured a box approximately 50 x 60 cm and maybe 5cm deep, so figured it wouldn’t take up too much room and it would be better inside to avoid the elements. When the installer started putting it up I had a rude shock! It was an enormous bright red box that stuck out about 20cm from the wall. Not a good look at all. When the installers returned from smoko I asked nicely whether he could install it outside instead. He said no worries although I suspect he was somewhat annoyed. But I figured if I didn’t ask, I’d be stuck with a giant red box on my spare bedroom wall, and it would be pretty complicated (not to mention expensive) to move it. I have since learned that some inverters can be quite noisy so that is another reason to install them outside (and upon thinking about it, if they are made to go outside then they are clearly able to withstand the elements). The one and only benefit I can think of to having your inverter inside the house is that you don’t have to go outside to read the output.

Since then my meter has been spinning backwards (it’s an old-style analogue meter) which is tres exciting!

The next step is to get a bi-directional meter installed so that it can measure your consumption and electricity export. This is important because generally the Feed-in Tariff (the rate that you will be paid by exported electricity by your electricity retailer) differs from the rate you pay for electricity that has been consumed. Unfortunately this is quite an expensive exercise if you don’t currently have a smart meter. I’m waiting on a final figure but the “truck fee” (i.e. the cost of your electricity distributor sending the truck and staff to change over your meter) is between $370 and $420. I was not aware of this cost when making my decision to go solar although it was specified in the fine print that the price of my solar package did not cover any costs associated with metering (I just didn’t understand what the meant until now!).

As far as I understand, most solar contracts are Time of Use contracts, which means that you pay for your electricity based on when you use it. This is why the government is rolling our smart meters – they can measure what time you used the electricity so that you can be billed accordingly.
I currently have a two-rate plan where my electric hot water is on an off-peak rate, and only heats overnight when there is less demand on the electricity grid. This is great because it forms approximately half of my electricity consumption in a normal month (i.e. not winter when I’m turning on the heater). All other electricity is charged at a peak rate (about double the off-peak rate).

The Time of Use plans also have a peak and off peak rate, but what is great is that the off-peak rate doesn’t just apply to the hot water system anymore. Plus the off-peak period includes Mon – Fri 11pm to 7am and all day Saturday and Sunday. Since I am at work during the week this plan suits my lifestyle. It seems that a lot of the controversy around Time of Use metering (and by extension, smart meters) arises from people who are unable to delay their electricity consumption to off-peak periods. It appears that the peak rates for Time of Use plans are higher than the maximum rates people currently tend to pay.

I have a real opportunity to reduce my electricity bill even further by shifting my usage to off-peak times wherever possible. For example, instead of doing laundry during the week, I can shift that to the weekend. One thing that may make a significant difference is to only use my oven and stovetop (remember I don’t have gas) on the weekend, and use the microwave during the week. This would probably make a significant difference on my lifestyle too – I won’t get home and wonder what to eat, as I’ll have prepared it the previous weekend!

So, to summarise:
  • Before you can have solar panels installed, you will need to check whether you need your switchboard upgraded. If you have an old-school fuse box then you will definitely need a switchboard upgrade completed by a qualified electrician and signed off by an electrical inspector. This can cost anything from $600-$1000.
  • Have your inverter installed outside unless you desperately want to be able to check the display at any given time of the day without going outside.
  • Do you research about solar retail electricity plans and work out what works for you.

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