Solar panels have advanced in technology and dropped in price significantly in the last decade. They are now over 20 percent efficient: the panels convert 20 percent or more of the sunlight hitting them into usable electrical energy. Although purchasing and installing today’s solar panels will mean that you’ll have less efficient panels than someone who does so in 5 or 10 years — because solar panel manufacturers continue to push the technology — you will benefit from the current efficiency. Given that natural gas and grid energy are both rising in price, having solar power now to deflect those sharp increases will help more than if you waited another decade.
That’s why when I researched solar panels, talked to my energy advisor, and reviewed the solar panel quotes I received, in conjunction with my Solar TO report, I decided to invest. Of course, I have to admit, that if the government didn’t pay for it through grants and interest-free long-term loans, I’d have had to pass on them. Again. No money, no panels.
Many are in the same boat as me. They want solar power, but they can’t afford it. That’s why the grants the Federal and Toronto governments are providing have kickstarted the residential solar industry again. The Ford government shut it down when they came to power in 2018, but climate change inexorably worsened the weather and the drain on the grid such that it didn’t matter what Ford wanted. The climate trashing the reliability of our hydro grid make solar panels on house roofs necessary adaptations. Solar that includes house batteries keeps the lights on and computers humming.
Also, free electricity is pretty cool.
To install solar panels on your roof, you need:
- A new roof or solid roof in excellent condition.
- Your Solar TO report or equivalent for your area.
- Your hydro and natural gas bills for your energy advisor and potential retrofitters in order to calculate your current average monthly energy usage and estimate your future usage if you replace your natural gas furnace and stove with heat pump and induction stove.
- An energy advisor to provide an EnerGuide rating for your house and an estimate of how many kW of solar you’ll need to cover your energy needs.
- At least two or three quotes from solar installers in your area.
- Include battery backup in the quote and ensure they will order and install it for you.
- Research the panels that they will provide in their quotes and research the inverter to ensure it can accommodate house batteries. If they don’t tell you the make and model of the panels and solar inverter they’ll be installing, ask.
- Review with your advisor if possible to ensure the quotes match your Solar TO report and your estimated future energy needs.
- Decide which installer to go with.
- Your electricity provider to give their agreement.
- Persistence, endurance, patience, and honey in your mouth.
Solar Panels and Inverter
I had CanadianSolar panels, manufactured in Guelph, Ontario, put on my roof. Israel-based SolarEdge Inverter converts the solar DC (direct current) electricity to AC (alternating current), which is what homes run on. The SolarEdge inverter software provides real-time monitoring of my solar power. It also automatically disconnects the system from the grid in the case of a grid power outage. When the power returns, inverter automatically reconnects the solar power to the house and grid.
Don’t expect to have solar power during a grid outage. Oh no! Because solar power is variable, they don’t let it keep powering your place. You need steady voltage for your house. If you want to have power during outages, you must have a battery.
Inverters looks for a steady voltage state to keep the solar panels powering your house. The steady voltage comes from either the grid or a house battery. That’s why I believe a robust solar installation includes a house battery in the quote; installers must explain that solar panels alone do not protect you from power outages — probably repeatedly explain because, to be honest, this is all so new and so much to learn, it’s hard to absorb it all.
Only a fully charged battery, properly sized to your basic electricity needs, eg, heating and refrigerator(s), can keep your home powered up during an outage.
Some people install consumption (hydro) meters that SolarEdge can also monitor because their inverter cannot include Toronto Hydro’s meter in its software. So if you want to see your consumption data in direct real-time comparison to your generation data (how much energy you buy from the grid vs how much solar power you generate), you’ll need to install your own meter.
I didn’t realize this. Sigh.
You can install your own consumption meter right next to Toronto Hydro’s as a way to check if their data is accurate. Or you can install it near your electrical panel to gain a more accurate picture of what your house consumes. Why is placement important? Because wires shed electrons. All wiring includes electricity loss, whether the wiring is giant transmission lines or the wiring inside the inverter. The former loses much; the latter a little. Yet both require calculations to include loss in order to determine how much power you’re actually using and generating.
Told you the learning curve is steep! But it’s steep because we didn’t learn it while we were growing up, unlike traditional hydro. Once you learn, it’s like you always knew it. Learning is good for the brain, anyway!!
Your solar installation will also include a manual disconnect box next to your solar inverter on the wall of your house near your hydro meter. One cautionary note: SolarEdge has non-answering customer service. Seriously sucks.
What It’s Like
Retrofitting your home is like renovating but worse. Renovation contractors and HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) companies are long-established, known entities. Homeservice Club of Canada provides well-vetted contractors to members; various organizations and personal networks have existed for decades to help people vet their own contractors.
Retrofitting is fairly new and thus not part of entities like Homeservice Club. You can’t ask older folk or people familiar with renovations who to go with because companies haven’t been around that long and renovators, at this point, don’t retrofit. For solar panel installations, it’s not as easy to suss out if the work is what it should be because it’s on your roof; unless you’re agile, strong, and like heights — or have a drone — you can’t monitor the work. The best you can do is inspect the equipment is what they said they’ll install before it goes up on the roof.
A Squirrel Digression
Choose a solar installer that makes you feel confident that they’ll start and complete the work. And, moreso, will address inevitable problems that crop up. Squirrels will be the first on the hit list. Squirrels looooove soy-based insulated wiring. And they like the shade panels provide. Good solar installers will ensure mesh is part of their solar array design. The problem is you can only rely on their word that all the wiring is behind the mesh and that the mesh eliminates the shade for nests while not looking ugly. Only when you lose solar power do you find out not so. The ESA should check for that, but they don’t.
It’s an open secret the ESA (Ontario’s Electrical Safety Authority) barely inspects. You pay a mint for 5 minutes of inspection. Since they’re still living in the 20th century — the conversation I had with one inspector was rather surreal when he claimed house batteries are brand new tech — and are wary of solar and battery technology, you’d think they’d go up on the roof or use a drone and micro-inspect the panels and wiring. Nope. They look at photos. (I should email my MPP about the ESA missing the exposed wiring.)
Toronto Hydro requires a secondary inspection by their own staff, but in my experience, they were more concerned with label placement than the safety of the equipment install and wiring.
I don’t know why either organization bothered to inspect, given squirrels had a nesting and chewing fest on my solar power wiring. That’s why at the end of the day, you need to pick a solar installer you feel confident does excellent work, whose wiring and panels will not set your roof on fire because the inspectors won’t double check with their own eyeballs in person. You also need to be confident that the solar inverter has safety systems in place to automatically disconnect when a squirrel goes num num and chows down on any soy-based wiring that’s outside the mesh. Mine did, and I used the manual disconnect for good measure.
My solar installer did return, but only after multiple calls and emails. All the wiring is now behind the mesh, they’ve assured me, and so far, the panels continue to power my home.
Getting It Done
Your chosen solar installer may claim they provide a turn-key operation or that once you contract with them, you can sit back and they’ll take care of it all. Don’t believe them.
Under-promise and over-deliver is not an adage many follow.
Ensure you know who’s your contact during installation because it won’t be the person who got you to contract with the solar installer. Save their email and phone number in your Contacts list. You’re going to need it for far longer than you expect. You’ll need to be prepared to phone them some days and email them others. Email for everything you need a record of in writing; phone calls for urgent situations and to add urgency to emails.
As much as you need to stay on top of renovators to get the work done, multiply that ten thousand times for retrofitters. Not literally! But you get the idea.
For every single interaction with them, you’ll need to be prepared and not call nor email them when angry. Honey catches more flies and gets things done well and quicker.
Have the schedule they provide you in a visible place. Schedule in targets, such as, connection agreement due from Toronto Hydro. When the agreement doesn’t land in your inbox for your review on schedule, email them. And keep at it daily or every other day so that they will keep on Toronto Hydro to get it done. If you don’t, months will go by. That may not mean much during December, January, and February, but every month you let pass, you lose hydro credits from the provincial government. Yes, even in Toronto, March to November provides more sun power than you’d expect.
Check your agreement that the power matches what you contracted for. It’s hard to find on the agreement, but anything with “kW” after it should be more than or equal to your kW installation.
Because of the pandemic, there are labour shortages and stock shortages. Because the Feds’s Greener Homes, Toronto, and Enbridge gas company provide grants, incentives, and low-interest or no-interest loans, they’ve released pent-up demand for heat pumps and solar panels. Enbridge will now even rent solar panels to homeowners (but I assume they receive the net metering credit in return for a monthly rent and taking care of install and maintenance). Because the Ford government stopped the former solar program and tossed many installers out of business, it’s going to take awhile to ramp back up sufficient qualified companies and installers to meet the rushing demand. The result: a stampede you have to compete with for scarce resources to get solar on your roof and your home solar powered.
The City of Toronto has a list of installers. Natural Resources Canada has a list of approved energy advisors and equipment. I recommend sticking with those, no matter what your friend or neighbour or quoting contractor tells you. For one thing, you won’t get any of the grants or loans if you go outside those lists!
You’re going to be competing with other homeowners for solar panels. If you don’t keep on top of the work, politely and well-informed, you won’t have solar power when you think you will.
New Meter and Net Metering
Toronto Hydro will send your head spinning when they change your hydro meter to a bidirectional one, the kind that measures both consumption and generation for the provincial net metering program. You’ll need this different kind of hydro meter when your solar installation is complete. Toronto Hydro takes a long time compared to other utilities to switch out your meter. Until then, you can use your solar power but any excess your home doesn’t use, your meter will measure as consumption. In other words, your utility will charge you for it! For that reason, the installer will limit your inverter to 1kW. Utilities with set, reliable schedules for switch-out dates minimize this problem.
The bidirectional meter measures electricity coming into your house from the grid and electricity going from your solar panels to the grid. Contrary to some information you may have heard, solar first goes to power your house. Whatever your house doesn’t use is then sent to the grid.
Ontario’s net metering follows a rolling schedule. That means, when you accrue credits from your solar power in May, those credits are good for 12 months until the following May. Credits from June are good for 12 months, that is, until the following June. It’ll probably take some intense scrutiny of a year or two-years worth of hydro bills to get a handle on this system.
Solar panels shed snow like water from a duck. The only problem is the shed snow piles up on top of the snow at the edges of the roof. As the snow melts underneath this pile, it falls off the eavestroughs in boulder chunks. Makes it a bit dangerous to walk down the sides of the house during that time. On the other hand, it means the panels will provide power during a snowfall until it the flakes accumulate into a smooth blanket; but once the snowfall ends, the snow slides off and the panels once again send electricity into the house.
Scudding white clouds reduce solar power a bit. Grey cloud cover will reduce solar power noticeably; rain moreso. But the rain keeps the panels clean of dust and settled pollen, which slightly reduce the power output over time. I think some panels shed the dust, too. But you’ll have to check when you get quotes what their suggested equipment does.
To sum up: the only time you’ll have zero solar power is when snow thickly blankets the panels. And at night obviously.
Currently, normal residential customers without solar panels, have a nice portal where they can see their consumption data and compare time-of-use rates to tiered rates. Their bill and data are all in one place. The moment you’re switched to Ontario’s net metering program:
- You’re sent a final bill.
- You retain your old account number but you won’t have any history of your former consumption.
- Your Toronto Hydro portal will show no more consumption data.
- You may not receive a new bill for months.
- You may not get your Ontario Electricity Support Program credit transferred over (because the system doesn’t think anyone on that credit will get it, so currently, it has to be manually added when transferred to the new billing portal; thereafter, the system will do it).
- You’ll be sent to the PowerLens site for business for your consumption and generation data.
- You’ll be so confused because that site is made for HVAC people, not regular non-engineers like us.
- You’ll make many, many calls to Toronto Hydro to resolve your bills and learn how to monitor your data. The good news is that the staff are helpful unlike the old days. The better news is that they took my feedback and are now providing instructions to residential customers on how to use PowerLens.
Unfortunately, we’re stuck with Toronto Hydro PowerLens because power generation, no matter by whom, is historically seen as a business and system software upgrades take time. If we want to stay in the residential portal and not be treated as businesses, you’ll have to email your Councillor and Toronto Hydro that you want your consumption and generation data on the same easy-to-use residential customer portal as your bills. The more people who demand that, the more likely they’ll change it.
The SolarEdge monitoring software shows you all sorts of information, except they don’t download energy (kWh) in 5-minute or 15-minute increments to allow for direct measuring against Toronto Hydro’s consumption data. They only do that with power (kW), so you have to go through the tedious process of converting. However, their software does let you analyse your solar generation in every way you can think possible. Your solar installer can also access it and be alerted when there’s an issue and come to fix it.
In the chart below, the weather temps (Celsius) are the red line and the solar generation power (Watts) in green. It was very cloudy in December and January. Even February had less sunlight than normal; yet already by the end of February, solar generation was increasing. Solar panels are more efficient in colder temps; so even though little sunlight in winter, the panels convert a greater percentage of what they get to power than in summer heat.
Is It Worth It?
It’s a lot of work learning about solar panels, the inverter, squirrels spying instant nesting opportunities, Toronto Hydro’s PowerLens, but once early Spring hits and your bills become ballooning credits, and your bank account doesn’t feel the pinch of summer air conditioning, it sure is sweet.