Here comes the sun: Solar Barn Raising group helps homeowners install their own systems

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Tapping usable energy directly from the sun has intrigued me ever since my student days, when I chose to build a solar-powered hot water system for my high-school science project.

My fascination endured, inspiring me as a bold new bride to ask for funds to install a solar electric system on our house as a wedding present.

So when I recently heard about a nonprofit called Solar Barn Raising – based on the time-honored tradition of neighbors helping neighbors erect actual barns — I had to learn more. And since my interest in solar power was based more on theory than practice, I also wanted to explore what it would take for a woman to participate in this do-it-yourself culture and install a system on her own roof. My husband had designed and installed our first solar-electric system with the guidance of a local contractor. And although I’d helped fund the project and participated in the joys of battery maintenance, panel clearing, and generator start-up when our stand-alone system ran low on sunshine, I had not spun any wrenches to make our system happen.

And when our stand-alone system took a lightning strike and was eventually replaced by a solar system tied in to the conventional power grid, I again stood on the sidelines and watched the installation, with feeding the crew lunch being my most essential task. Which at the time, seemed like the most appropriate way to participate.

A few words of explanation: A standalone solar system relies on a generator and storage batteries to supplement sun power when the panels alone are not producing enough electricity – i.e., at night and/or during a prolonged cloudy stretch. On the other hand, a solar system tied into the conventional power grid can draw supplemental power from the grid when needed, and can also feed excess power back into the grid when the panels produce a surplus, and the owners are paid for this returned energy by the electric utility.

So, when I talked to Lissa Ray about the “barn raisers,” I was encouraged to learn that it is a very welcoming group. According to her, “Everyone finds their niche – what they are good at. Women might feel intimidated being around a bunch of guys on a roof. But all they have to do is ask, and someone will show them what to do.”

Ray works with Solar Barn Raising to size and order the equipment packages for installations. As a woman with a technical bent and DIY attitude, she has participated in many of their solar installations. She noted that at the barn raisings, “Guys are generally impressed by what women can do.”

I was not convinced.

Like any other home-improvement project, the “normal” way to get a solar electric or photovoltaic power system installed on a home is to contact a solar contractor or an electrician and get an estimate. Still, the project has its own special requirements, such as coordination with the local electric provider, in this case Empire Electric Association. The contractor will generally take care of these details and may even help homeowners obtain partial funding for the project by informing them of renewable- energy investment tax credits. Yes, the federal government will reimburse homeowners for 30 percent of the cost of a solar-electric system through an income-tax credit. The total cost for a grid-tied system on a typical home in Montezuma County ranges from $7,500 to $15,000, depending on the size and orientation of the system.

According to the Barn Raisers, almost half of this total cost is labor, and this is where they come in.

According to their website (solarbarnraising. org), the Barn Raisers are a non-profit group that supports homeowners interested in a DIY approach to installing their own solar-electric system: “What you get from participating in the group is the opportunity to learn the technology and process of installing a solar power system, meeting like-minded people to promote renewable energy, and substantial savings from installing your own system.”

The Solar Barn Raising group has been installing systems for about five years. “The first system was installed by the group in Mancos,” Ray said, “but we have been working primarily on homes in La Plata County. Now, we want to expand back into Montezuma County, which is why we are promoting the upcoming project.”

A barn-raising was scheduled April 29 at Ted Ullman’s house in Mancos. Ullman is new to solar-power systems but jumped at the chance to participate. “I know how to do a lot of the installation jobs and as a climber, I’m comfortable working on my roof. I wanted to get my solar system installed this year to take advantage of the federal tax credits before they were taken away,” he said.

Ullman likes the DIY approach to solar installation and the barn-raising model. “I see this as a way to actively make a difference. . . to participate in the changeover to renewables.”

To take full advantage of his new solar- powered electric source, Ullman also changed his water heater from natural gas to electric. “This way I can use the free power to heat water as well as power my home.”

One of the first groups to implement the solar barn-raising model in Montezuma County included Lyn Patrick of Mancos. She and two of her neighbors worked together to design, order, and install their grid-tied systems in 2013. Patrick’s point of view as a woman participating in the DIY process was summed up by her succinct comment, “It is not baffling.”

“I was intimidated at first,” she conceded, “but I learned a lot and because I was involved from the start, I know my system and where key components are located. I know how to operate the main disconnect switch and how my meter works.” Patrick installed her system to achieve energy independence and is currently evaluating options for converting her grid-tied system to off-grid. Part of her motivation for moving to off-grid is her concern that the reimbursement terms in the contract with Empire Electric Association are not as favorable as they once were to solar-power providers.

“While I invested in solar electric for more reasons than simple payback, I believe that we are being discouraged from connecting our solar systems to the grid. And as a person who wants to see more solar installed in Montezuma County, this trend is concerning,” she explained.

Solar Barn Raising outlines 13 steps on its website for installing a DIY system. They concede it can be a lengthy process and “it’s definitely a learning experience.” The first step is the up-front considerations, which include:

  • Roof height, steepness, and condition – the group does not work on high or steep roofs for safety of volunteers. Does the roof need replacing? Groundmount systems may be an option for homes with steep roofs if there is a location with good solar exposure near the home.
  • Homeowners’ Association rules that may restrict solar-power system installations or configurations.
  • Upcoming Move? – The payback period on a system installed by Solar Barn Raisers is about five years – the homeowner may not see this payback if they move before then.

After working through the considerations, interested homeowners can contact Solar Barn Raisers and get assistance on the next steps. These include evaluating the roof or ground-mount location for solar exposure and sizing the system to meet their electric needs. After that there is a bit of paperwork in applying for an interconnection to the local utility system. Approval of an interconnection is not guaranteed and depends on the capacity of the utility connection and whether the area is already saturated with solar. A potentially costly service upgrade may be necessary to set up a grid-tied system that sells power back to the local utility.

Once the approvals for the system are in place, Solar Barn Raisers does a site visit to measure the roof or ground-mount location and design the system. The final steps are ordering equipment and starting the installation. To eliminate responsibility for any roof leaks, Solar Barn Raisers requires the homeowner and contractor to install mounting rails for the system on their roof.

The actual solar “barn-raising” occurs when members of the group join the homeowner in installing the solar panels. According to the website, “the host homeowner usually provides lunch for the group.” (As this is in bold typeface on the website, perhaps my sandwich-making skills would not be under-valued after all.)

While the challenges of DIY solar may be beyond an individual’s skills, the Solar Barn Raisers are offering an important community service, creating a hub for learning about this important power source and a core group of expertise held in our neighbors and friends. Even with my limited contribution to the raising of our solar system, I felt the same as Ray, Patrick, and Ullman about participating. As Ray said, “It is a cool feeling to be part of making it happen on your own house. You are benefitting your family – you did that.” There is a deep satisfaction in contributing, even in a small way, to the sustainability of your family, community, and planet.

For more information and how to participate in Solar Barn Raising is available at www.solarbarnraising.org.

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From June 2017.