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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 launched Swan 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, Fla.

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.

Convincing customers

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 product’s ascendancy.

“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 books.”

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 Prius syndrome.”

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 technology.

“A lot of our customers that have solar pool heaters also have solar electric and solar hot water [modules],” Gulden says.

Pools also can be an economic indicator to target the right demographic that might be interested in investing in PV, he adds.

“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.

Getting licensed

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, Fla.

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 require licensing.

“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 trades.”

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.

— J.M.