A completed residential solar panel installation. — PurePoint Energy photo

A completed residential solar panel installation. — PurePoint Energy photo

As more and more homeowners are changing (or thinking of changing) from coal, oil or gas to solar heating, the questions come up, “What’s it all about?” and  “What does it mean, anyway?”

According to Paul Passarelli of Solar and Thermal Systems in Norwalk, “One of the areas we enter is physics and one of the names we encounter is Albert Einstein. About 100 years ago, he described aspects of the photoelectric effect, or the production of electricity by light, the light of the sun. Solar panels are photovoltaic PV panels, which soak up energy from sunlight and produce electricity.”

The material they’re made from is one of the most abundant elements on earth, silicon. Silicon is actually the earth’s crust, and its oxide, silica, can be found in very pure form, commonly known as sand. The purest sand (generally the whitest) is gathered and reduced into purified silicon. Ingots of purified silicon are sliced into thin wafers of glass (thinner than the glass on a cellphone.)  The wafers undergo processing which activates the cells, after which we see thin silver lines covering the surface. The activated cells on the glass are held together by plastics.  The wafers are soldered together and framed. These are solar panels, in different wattages. Panels must be manufactured under the most meticulous conditions, with workers wearing special clothing, similar to the sterile, air-tight outfits worn in the most serious medical surgeries.

Technicians mount an LG 300-watt all-black solar panel and plug it into the microinverter. — One Source Solar photo

Technicians mount an LG 300-watt all-black solar panel and plug it into the microinverter. — One Source Solar photo

Solar heating is fast becoming a huge industry and there is so much information for the homeowner that it can be quite overwhelming. The tendency is to pick a company that promises to take over the whole job and save you money. Solarizing will be most successful, however, the more a homeowner knows and understands, and there are many helpful sources of information.

The first thing to consider is location. Naturally, your house should be in a sunny location, the roof should be in good shape and you should know what your annual usage of electricity is.

Mike Dowling’s Pure Point Energy (purepointenergy.com) in Norwalk creates the roof design for the panels. Some of the details that will affect the design are: the size of the roof, the amount of energy that is being used, and the length of time the homeowner anticipates living in the house. 20 years? 50 years? Is it possible that there might be a move in only 10 years? All these numbers affect the roof design. Pure Point Energy has been in business since 2007. “Step one is our free consultation,” Mike explains. “This tells a potential customer whether the house is in the right location and condition to ‘turn solar.’ Our examination can tell within 10 minutes whether a home is eligible.”

Homeowners frequently ask, “How long will the whole thing take?” “What happens in different kinds of weather?” and “How can you tell if it’s working?” and the company’s website answers most of them.

Though Chip Dunn of New Ridge Builders (newridgebuilders.com) in Darien and New Canaan is interested in renewable energy, he hasn’t been utilizing solar panels to a great extent in his recent building projects. There are practical reasons for this, he says: “Many possibilities of passive solar home building have been neglected and there are many alternative ways that energy and heat can be maximized. Capturing maximum solar energy can be achieved by house placement, by insulation, by varieties of internal mechanisms and engineering that utilize climate, weather, soil, to obtain economies of energy.”

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According to Mike Dowling, PurePoint Energy, some of the details that will affect the solar panel design are the size of the roof, the amount of energy that is being used, and the length of time the homeowner anticipates living in the house. — PurePoint Energy photo

Dunn is not opposed to solar panels, however; he believes many ancient techniques of thermal control should be re-employed to solve the home heating, cooling and illuminating needs of contemporary families. One of his specialties is a two-story solar barn. Utilizing a roof of solar panels, the barn is classic post and beam construction. The first floor is a multiple-car garage and storage space.  The second story is a vast playroom. All electric power for heating, cooling and lighting derives from the solar panel roof.

The motivation to enter the world of solar energy isn’t something that’s going to be explainable as a “passing trend.” The idealistic concept of utilizing the power and might of the sun is kin to discovery of fire, or use of rainwater or salinization of the seas.  The sun is free. It signifies eternity. Humankind has a mystical, supernatural relationship to the sun.  On a more immediately practical level, harvesting electrical power from the sun has economic, long-term benefits.  To quote once again Paul Passarelli: “Switching to solar is a multi-year payback. The initial costs may be a shock, but long-term payback is inevitable.”

David Molgard, owner of One Source Solar (onesourcesolar.net) in Trumbull, describes the three options in purchasing solar power: 1. Outright purchase of all equipment. Owner takes out loan to pay for equipment. Homeowner owns equipment and is sole recipient of savings. Financing arrangements are provided by Connecticut Green Bank Financing.  2. PPA: a Power Purchase Agreement, which is a lease, with an agreement to pay a certain pre-decided amount per kilowatt hour. 3. An outright lease where homeowner agrees to pay a certain monthly charge.

Molgard believes that the outright purchase is the best choice. “You obtain a loan to purchase the system and it’s yours from day one. It’s also free from day one,” he explains. “You can pay off the loan in 7 to 8 years. The entire system is yours, the racking, which holds the panels, the inverter, which changes the DC power of the sun to AC.”

In owning the system, according to Molgard, you have all the important information, the contractor, the manufacturer of the panels, the installation details, the tax credits, the warranties. From start to finish, the entire operation ought to take about 45 to 60 days. During the day, the solar panels are collecting light and creating electricity which is being used. At night, when there’s no sun, the energy is built up in the solar panels and there’s more than is needed. The extra electricity is sold back to United Illuminating, which subtracts the amount from the homeowner’s electric bill.