Solar Panels Review

Fitting a home solar system

by Darren Hall

In the summer of 2016, I installed a 4 kW system on the roof of my new house. It cost just over £5000 and should pay back in around 5-7 years. 

My electricity bill has dropped dramatically over the summer, and it feels great to be generating my own power instead of buying it from someone. 

I also installed a switch to allow spare electricity to heat the water in my immersion tank. It has been working so well that I turned off the gas hot water system completely from May until October. 

I'm really pleased with the results and my energy bills are dramatically reduced. More details below. 

Solarsense 4kW PV system comprising 14 x 285W panels

I live in a detached 1950s house just south of Bristol, and having recently moved in was interested to fit solar panels. I work from home about half of the week, so would be able to use a reasonable amount of the power generated, but my primary motivation was to support the renewable energy market. My energy supplier is Ecotricity, and they handled the connection extremely smoothly through their 'Microtricity' team.

Solarsense are based in near Nailsea, a couple of miles away so I chose to support a local firm. The assessment process was incredibly simple, and I was offered a 15% discount on the initial quote. Warren was efficient, polite and knowledgeable. He had already checked the orientation and size of my roof using 'google earth' before arriving so all he had to do was check my electrical system and make sure the scaffolding company wouldn't have any problems. The final quote of £5105 arrived a couple of days later and I booked the fitting for the following week, putting down a deposit of £880. 

Installation and commissioning took less than a week, with scaffolders arriving one day, panels fitted the next, and the electrician finishing off the third day. I had a chance to 'borrow' the scaffolding over the weekend to clean out my gutters, before it was all packed up early the next week. Simples!  

Because I paid an extra £400 for an electrical switch for my immersion heater, I have a box on the wall in my airing cupboard that shows what is going on, and I can't help taking a look on sunny days to see how well the system is performing. The panels are fitted on two sides of the house at right angles to each other, so the east facing panels start generating power as soon as the sun is up over the tree line at around 7am, and the power finally stops as it gets blocked by another tree line about 8pm. As long as I don't put appliances on at the same time, I rarely use much additional power. The residual use in the house is less than 200 W, which seems to be for the fridge & the freezer, plus any standby power I don't switch off. The only appliance that goes over the limit of the panels is my kettle which is a fast boil 3.5kW model. 

My one (BIG) gripe about the whole process was the lack of explanation about the new rules on the link between the house's Energy Performance Certificate and the Feed in Tarif I was eligible for. To be fair, Solarsense mentioned it in passing, but failed to say that it wasn't possible to retrospectively change the EPC after the system had been commissioned. Therefore, fitting the system wouldn't help improve my EPC until after the FIT was set. I was 1 point below the necessary D rating, and simply having replaced all my bulbs for LEDs since the certificate was done, was enough to sort it. However, I'm told there is absolutely no wriggle room on this once the system has been commissioned, so now I am stuck with a lower rate of return for the entire life of the system. VERY ANNOYING and I think VERY UNFAIR but I'm not sure who to blame; me for not checking sooner, Solarsense for not explaining it to me and the government for being so bloody-minded about screwing the FIT payments down to the minimum. 

Overall though, if you can afford it, I highly recommend it, it feels great :-)

Immersion Heater Panel

This box is fitted in my airing cupboard and shows how power is diverted to the immersion heater whenever there is any available. It is connected to a switch on the electricity supply that checks 80 times a second whether there is any spare from the panels that can be used to heat the water. 

It is only when the hot water reaches 'max temp' it that it switches the panels to export. It works so well that I didn't have the gas hot water on at all until October, and even then it is just a boost for 30 mins in the morning.  

This unit cost an extra £450 but is worth every penny when you consider the amount of fossil fuel that it is saving (and around 4p per kW for gas I have saved).

If you would like to know more about fitting your own system, please get in touch and I will be happy to give some completely impartial advice.

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