How To Plan and Install a Solar-Panel System

Founded in 1994, New Jersey-based Roof Diagnostics Inc. is expected to become one of the largest residential solar-installation companies on the East Coast by 2013. Initially started as a roof-consulting firm, the company evolved with demand and eventually branched into solar roofing. Partnering with San Francisco-based SunRun, the leading residential solar-energy company in the United States, Roof Diagnostics is taking its business on the road by creating franchise opportunities through its subsidiary company, Roof Diagnostics Franchising. "Solar is one of the most difficult industries to break into,” cofounder Kelcy Pegler Jr. says. “We have removed all of the red tape and provided an opportunity for driven individuals to succeed in solar without the overwhelming obstacles in the way.” Below, Roof Diagnostics walks through its process for installing solar roofs.

Installing rooftop solar-panel systems across the United States through its franchising company, Roof Diagnostics is helping homeowners achieve energy autonomy.

1. Perform preproject analysis

Typically, with the Roof Diagnostics approach, it’s first necessary to make sure a home is a good candidate for solar. Using a software tool called Pictometry, which Kelcy Jr. describes as “Google Earth on Steroids,” Roof Diagnostics takes into account natural shading and the angle of the sun in relation to a home’s roof pitch. This helps determine how much energy (and therefore savings) a home might be able to collect.

For example, for Country Walk, a postretirement homeowners association, Roof Diagnostics presented analysis to a group of retired residents who were, for the most part, living on fixed incomes. “When we were able to show immediate savings of 15 percent and long-term savings of [more than] $30,000,” Kelcy Sr. says, “it was a no brainer for the homeowners to go solar.”

2. Design a personalized system

Once Roof Diagnostics has calculated a home’s electricity usage, the firm tries to design a system to offset up to 100 percent of that usage. When putting together the panel layout, the firm must also make sure the structural integrity of the home will support the solar-panel system, which it almost always does. “In the rare case, we will have to add collar ties for structural reinforcement,” Kelcy Sr. says. “The weight of the solar panel on a roof, including the roofing materials, is a load of nine pounds per square foot, and most roofs are designed for about 38 pounds per square foot.”

3. Close the sale with a specialist

The next step is the part that the Peglers like best. A solar specialist will explain a solar-panel system’s economics to the prospective client, who almost always accepts Roof Diagnostics’ proposal. “We are giving people the opportunity not only to choose who they are buying the electricity from” Kelcy Jr. says, “but almost all of our clients move forward with the zero-dollar option.”

Instead of buying the electricity from the local utility provider, clients can buy from SunRun, a company that then pays for the entire installation. “The typical savings for our client is between $20,000 and $50,000 over a 20-year period,” Kelcy Sr. says.

4. Do the paperwork

Once a project is confirmed, Roof Diagnostics has to file with the state to register the project for any rebates. Next, the firm has to apply to connect with the local utility, and then it does final calculations on the roof measurements and generates plans for a building permit. “Once we receive the permit, we are ready to build,” Kelcy Jr. says. “It costs our company more to do administration and permitting then it does to do the actual install.”

5. Install and connect

The system gets installed in 2 phases: DC and AC. Solar panels generate DC (direct current) power, but a home runs on AC (alternating current) power. The DC installation is done first, the panels placed on mounting devices and a rack system, and then Roof Diagnostics uses an advanced system called Trinamount—from Zep Solar—that combines the rack system and the grounding system into one. Once that’s done, the panels are installed in one or two days.

Then, lead by a master electrician, the AC team installs an inverter that changes the DC power to AC power, and a SunRun energy meter is installed to monitor the solar-panel system exclusively. The final step is for the local utility to install a net meter, which monitors the amount of electricity used and the amount getting put back into the grid. ABQ