Q|We really like the idea of buying a small solar electric system
By Ken Sheinkopf
Finding an Experienced, Certified Solar Installer
for our home, even if it just powers a few little appliances. I like
the idea of going green, and this would be a good start in a big way.
Where do we buy small residential systems? — J.P., Sacramento, Calif.
A|The key to getting a system for your home is to deal with a specialist in photovoltaic (solar electric) systems. Yes, you might find
ads or phone book listings for electrical contractors who have the skills
to install these systems, and there are even building supply stores that
carry off-the-shelf systems, but getting the right system at the right size
and having it properly installed is critical to its performance.
For safety’s sake, grid-tied systems must be installed by
a certified technician.
The solar industry has made tremendous strides in recent years in
the quality of products and installation techniques. Today’s systems
are efficient and very well made. Modules typically carry a 25-year
warranty — probably a longer warranty than you have on your
roofing material. The system will be up for a long time, so it only
makes sense to do the installation right the first time. Find an installer
who has been certified through a national training program. If your
state or utility company offers a rebate on installation costs, or net
metering for grid-tied systems, you’ll have to use a certified specialist to do the paperwork.
There are several easy ways to find a local contractor or company
that can work with you on a system for your home.
• Check out FindSolar.com, a great site that will help you learn all
about the systems as well as help you find someone in your area to
sell and service them.
• This magazine lists the many local ASES chapters, see pages
66– 67. Contact your local chapter to get the names of member contractors who can help.
• Contact the Solar Energy Industries Association ( seia.org), the
national trade association for the solar industry. They have chapters
in 14 states and can provide names of both their national and state
• Call your local utility company and ask for their recommendations for local solar contractors.
I’ve got to stress that experience is a critical factor to consider when
listening to salespeople or getting technical information from a company. Though the systems look fairly easy to install — and indeed,
many people have successfully installed their own home systems —
I think they’re still specialized enough that you ought to work with
people with a track record in this field. This is extremely important
when the structural integrity of your roof and the safety of people
working on it are at stake.
Q|I bought a couple of compact fluorescent light bulbs at a store
a few months ago, and both of them have already burned out.
I’ve been reading articles for a long time on how great these things
are and how they last so long, but I sure haven’t seen these benefits.
What’s the story with them? — M.M., State College, Pa.
A|The bad news is that this isn’t the first time I’ve gotten a question like this. And to tell you the truth, it’s happened to me a
few times as well.
The good news is that, in just about every case, I find out that the
short-lived bulbs did not come with the U.S. Department of Energy’s
Energy Star label.
While sometimes I feel like I’m a cheerleader for Energy Star
products (and I am a big fan because that label really does signify
the quality I want), it’s clear that there are a lot of compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) on the market that just aren’t made to Energy Star
requirements. In most cases where people tell me bulbs aren’t lasting
very long or providing much light, they’ve gone back to look at
the packaging and saw that the bulb had not earned the Energy Star
It may be that the non-Energy Star bulbs cost less and so they seem
like a better deal to buy. But when you factor in the long lifetime of
good CFLs and the tremendous energy savings they give, then these
cheaper bulbs don’t make a whole lot of sense.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released
estimates that 290 million CFLs were sold in 2007, nearly double what
had been sold the previous year and now accounting for about 20 percent of the country’s lightbulb market.
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