Before solar companies offered production monitoring, also known as data reporting, as a standard feature with solar PV installations, our offices would get a lot of phone calls from past customers asking the same familiar, forlorn, and sometimes troublesome question: Is my solar energy system working?
This post is going to be from my own point of view, to hopefully provide you with an accessible perspective on solar energy system maintenance. I’m Hannah, I’m Ipsun’s Marketing Manager, and I have a solar installation of my own scheduled at my home this month (April 2019) which I’m super excited about! My spouse and I have been supporters of solar energy for as long as either of us can remember and now that we own a home with good solar potential, we look forward to getting our own energy from a renewable source for many, years to come.
My spouse and I know that according to our solar proposal, we’ll get nearly half our energy on an annual average from our solar installation, due to small available roof space but perfect orientation due south. We are thrilled to rely less on Dominion and self-power a substantial portion of our electric needs.
Of course in the back of our mind is the thought that something could go amiss somewhere down the line! Here’s our plan for detecting any such issues, and knowing what’s within the normal operable range.
Hail The Inverter
The panels are the really visible, business-end of the solar installation. However the nerve center of an solar installation is the inverter which changes DC power from the solar panels into AC power that the home can use. We’ll have Enphase microinverters, one on each panel, which helpfully send power production information to a centralized data server that we can access online from anywhere.
This will be the easiest way to regularly glance at our production - and consumption because Ipsun offers that too. Got monitoring? It's going to tell you a lot about what's going with your system once it's online. Based on what we know about where it’s a clear day or an overcast one and how much we’re using stuff in our home like the heat pump, electric oven, lights, and clothes dryer, we’ll get familiar with interpreting those nice graphs and numbers.
In this sample snapshot, the blue line is power from solar (whether or not it's all used in the home) and the orange line is power used in the home (whether or not it's all from solar, for example at night it's grid power.) The right sidebar has totals.
Our Electric Bill On Solar
The other piece of the puzzle is our utility bill. We have Dominion, but whatever provider you have you’ll approach your electric bill in a similar way. In Virginia, your bill will show details for your net energy metering with solar - meaning you’re billed for whatever amount of energy you used that didn’t come from your solar and wasn’t offset by credit for units of energy you sent to the grid at times when you over-produced.
It should also note the kwh balance energy credits in your account if any rolled over, depending on the size of your solar system relative to your energy usage and the time of year. My goal: Each Dominion bill and usage statement we get, we'll compare to the same billing period 12 months previous before we had solar and see the savings.
Billing problems are rare, but we definitely plan to show Ipsun our first full month’s bill once our solar comes online - Ipsun offers to walk through the bill with customers to review where to see savings from solar and project what the bill would have been without solar. Fun!
If A Failure Were To Happen
Once our solar system has been up for a year, we’ll have a full annual data set and will have an idea of how many kwh our system can produce in a certain month. With that basis for comparison, when April 2020 rolls around we can look back at data from April 2019 and see if the month’s total is in line or way off - that could indicate an issue. The kinds of malfunction we might end up seeing at some point in the life of our system include:
- A panel failure - whether due to a missed connection on the roof or a fault developing somewhere in the pv module, one panel stops producing power for us
- One or more panels with debris or solid precip accumulated on them
- One or more panels getting shade from trees that suddenly grew taller or leafier
- An inverter malfunction - it’s not unheard of for components in microinverters to be bad
By first ruling out the 2nd and 3rd bullet points, we can narrow it down and then contact Ipsun to make them aware of the problem. If they think the system is producing normally and there is simply a monitoring outage, they may talk us through some simple steps to restore connectivity by manually resetting the system. This sounds more complex than it is and generally is as easy as unplugging the communication device and plugging it back in, or updating the wifi connection.
I'm going to also shout out Capital Weather Gang here, because unseasonable weather can play a role in seeing more or less savings from solar over short to mid-term time scales. If a polar vortex strikes, any electric heating systems running can make it harder for your solar to offset as much of your energy as the modeling in your solar proposal estimated. The same goes for air conditioning demand in a heat wave or prolonged summer. Conversely, a mild and comfortable day or week means conserving heating and cooling - and probably exporting solar power to the grid and racking up savings, thanks weather gods! CWG will let you know if it's been a hotter than average, colder than average, or nicer than average month and help you calibrate your solar savings expectations accordingly!
Future Energy Peace of Mind
Ipsun prioritizes high standards of service for existing clients. As an Ipsun solar owner, I’ve got peace of mind knowing that if any covered problem should ever arise, they’ll be communicative, transparent, and attentive to solving it as quickly as possible, to get us back to running on the sun. It’s good to feel our energy future is in our hands now and that Ipsun has our back just in case of the unexpected!