While photovoltaic technology has been around for some time, the cost was usually high and government programs were few and far between. However, with installation becoming more affordable, customers are jumping at the chance to green up their rooftops.
“There’s a slew of competition at the moment,”
says Cecil Fraser, owner of Swan Pools, a Pool & Spa
News Top Builder in Lake Forest, Calif. “It reminds me
very much of the pool industry when I started in 1976 — it
was a really fractional market.”
Still, Fraser liked the trends he was seeing. In January 2008, he
Solar, a companion company to his building firm. And he
isn’t alone. Fellow Pool & Spa News Top Builder
John Tortorella, owner of J. Tortorella Custom Pools in Southampton,
N.Y., also operates a solar firm called Sunstream Solar,
which he founded in 2005.
Photovoltaic panels are a bit more novel than the well-tread solar
heating products. This technology actually converts sunlight to
electricity, allowing the whole home to power itself and actually
sell energy back to the utilities. Here, we look at how PV works,
why it’s gaining popularity, and a few of the challenges
solar contractors face in installing them.
Location, location, location
The efficacy of PV panels is strongly tied to their location, both
geographically and on the property itself.
Sunshine is obviously key to a successful PV market, and hence
Seattle remains an unlikely candidate to experience a solar boom.
However, temperature is not as important. In fact, solar panels
perform better in a cooler climate — as the panels heat up,
the module produces solar electricity less efficiently. The ideal
temperature is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Open space is another key to successful PV installations. Tall
trees and shadows can make a house unsuitable for PV.
“Shading from the trees or other rooflines on the house can
cause the system to shut down,” Tortorella says.
Installers may have to prune any overlying branches to ensure the
panels are free of shade.
In addition, fallen branches and debris will affect a panel’s
performance over time, and depending on the area, manual cleaning
of the panels may be necessary. Rain can help perform the
maintenance work for you.
“If you’re in a heavily industrialized area where there
may be a lot of airborne contaminants, it might be important to
clean them [periodically] to keep everything operating
efficiently,” explains Dale Gulden, CEO of Solar Direct in Bradenton,
While the right environment may determine a company’s
location, the homeowner’s property will ultimately determine
if PV can be installed there.
Roof panels are by far the most popular (and practical)
installations, while ground-level PV is usually only an option for
more rural homeowners with significant acreage. The roof space has
to accommodate a large amount of PV panels, unlike solar pool
heaters or solar hot water modules.
The PV installations can range from 700W to power a single pool
pump up to 15kW systems on sprawling estates. A typical system to
power the entire house is closer to 5kW, which requires
approximately 500 square feet of installation area (even more in
less sunny climates).
In addition to adequate area, PV panels ideally should be installed
facing south, though panels facing eastward or westward can also
work. The best angle is between a 32- and 36-degree pitch, which is
usually achieved in the mounting process.
The appeal of PV panels has grown significantly for myriad reasons.
An increase in government rebate programs, rising energy costs and
the allure of “going green” have all contributed to the
“The state and federal government rebates are easy, because
your accountant can just put the tax credits into those
columns,” Tortorella says. “Most of the time we owe the
government anyway, so now we just owe them less.”
While a 30 percent federal tax credit has been around for a while,
it maxed out at $2,000. But that changed as of Jan. 1, 2009, and
now the government pays for 30 percent of the entire system, less
any state rebates.
State-level rebates can be a government tax credit or incentives
from utility companies. For example, one of Florida’s
programs pays back $4 per watt, a huge number considering most
installations cost between $8 and $9 a watt. While California
utility programs pay between $2 and $3 per watt, higher energy
costs will allow homeowners a quicker payback.
However, Tortorella has seen problems in some of the
programs’ pay-out systems.
“The turnaround used to be 3 or 4 weeks, and now you’re
lucky to get [the check] in 3 or 4 months,” Tortorella says.
“In the meantime, you…need to carry it on your
Still, if you can manage carrying the extra expense in the interim,
customers are hungry for energy-saving ideas. While most systems
may take 8- to 10 years for homeowners to start seeing a return on
their investment, many panels are under warranty for 25 years. This
means they likely have 15 years of not only covering their own
energy costs, but selling any superfluous solar electricity back to
the utility company.
Though the investment may be long-term, the green properties of
photovoltaic energy often are enough enticement to draw in
homeowners in the green-conscious demographic.
“The majority of the people who [buy] are proud of the fact
they do it, and the more prominently [the panels] are placed so the
neighbors notice,” Gulden says. “It’s the Toyota
PV for the pool
Historically, pools are big consumers of electricity. Even though
technological advances have allowed equipment to run much more
efficiently, new pool owners are still faced with a significant
bump in their energy bill.
Hence, photovoltaic panels may be a perfect companion for the pool,
particularly those already outfitted with some solar
“A lot of our customers that have solar pool heaters also
have solar electric and solar hot water [modules],” Gulden
Pools also can be an economic indicator to target the right
demographic that might be interested in investing in PV, he
“Right now, you need somebody who wants to be green, has
$40,000 and is looking for a return on investment — which
isn’t bad — around 8- or 10 percent,” says Brian
Goldberg, co-owner of Advance Solar in Ft. Myers, Fla.
Goldberg’s company has actually found a niche with solar pool
pumps, which run on DC power. They’re powered by small PV
panels at 750- or 875 watts, and operate as long as the sun is out.
As a back-up, a regular pump remains installed for the times when
the climate is not providing enough energy.
A number of contractors have
approached Dale Gulden about how to enter the solar business.
Whether it’s the derth of activity in other construction
fields or the allure of a burgeoning technology, interest is
definitely growing, according to the CEO of Solar Direct in Bradenton,
However, it’s not all that simple to just hop into the field.
In addition to capital, many states with a large stake in solar
“It’s not that easy to get your contractor’s
license in Florida,” says Brian Goldberg, owner of Advance Solar in
Ft. Myers, Fla. “You’re dealing with a lot of different
Not only are contractors working with hydraulics (for solar hot
water and solar pool heaters) and electricity, but they also must
have some roofing knowledge. Florida requires two years of work
with solar technology before getting licensed. A more experienced
contractor then must vouch for your work and character. California
has similar requirements, although the licenses do not distinguish
between commercial and residential.