Q: I saw a newspaper article recently about a new home that had the plumbing and wiring in place for solar systems if the buyers wanted to install them in the future. They called this a "solar-ready" home.
I've never heard of doing this before. Is this something new in houses?
A: At a time when many builders are reluctant to install solar energy systems in their homes because they say the extra costs make the homes more expensive and thus harder to sell, many of them are willing to build homes that make it easier to add these systems later.
Solar energy today is clearly an option. You can heat your home's water with gas, electricity or other fuels, so even though solar can reduce the monthly utility costs and actually pay for itself during its lifetime, many home buyers push their budgets to the limit just to afford the basic house and think that they might add solar later when their finances are better. The same goes for solar electric systems which are growing tremendously in popularity, but which also add to the home's purchase price. It's hard not to dream of having the sun produce your electricity every time you look at your monthly utility bill, but again, it can become a big expense at the time you're paying for your new home.
When you think about putting a solar system on your roof, you find certain features that are necessary for the system to work efficiently. These include having enough roof space oriented within 30 degrees of due south for the system to be installed to get the maximum sunlight, locating possible obstructions like chimneys or other building features away from this open area, sloping the roof to the best pitch for your climate to get maximum sun in both summer and winter, and making sure that the home's features and nearby structures don't shade that open roof area.
On the other end of the solar system, probably inside the home, would be an inverter for PV or water tank equipment for solar hot water. A location for this equipment should be identified as well, usually in a basement or utility room.
I talked to someone once who complained to me that after moving into his new home, he realized that no one had thought to plan for a potential rooftop solar system someday. There were wires and space in place if he wanted to someday add a central vacuum system or a house-wide intercom, but nothing ready for the solar equipment. Similarly, building in a chase or pathway for easy placement of wiring and/or plumbing from the solar panels to the inverter or water tank makes installation later easy.
Building a home with the thought of having the best location available for someday adding a solar system can greatly lower the eventual cost of the system as well as make the installation easier and help get the maximum performance from it.
I think an important part of a solar-ready house would be making the home as energy-efficient as possible in the first place. By cutting down the home's energy use through the use of efficient appliances, building strategies and products, solar systems would have reduced loads to work with and could operate even more efficiently. The Wisconsin Energy Star Homes program (focusonenergy.com) suggests that builders should consider installing conduit near the utility panel and extending it to the attic near where it will help hook up a solar system. Builders might also put in a small access catwalk in the attic to the conduit to help with system installation and maintenance, and could even install materials between the trusses or rafters in the areas where solar systems might be added to help with installation.
A bill in New Mexico last year noted that to reach the state's goals of putting solar panels on 50,000 rooftops, it would be important to have new building standards that make homes solar-ready as a standard feature of the house, helping homeowners save a considerable amount of money when they add a solar system.
Over the years, I've talked several times with Bill Roush of the Heartland Renewable Energy Society about solar-ready homes. He feels that if solar isn't designed into a home when it is built, odds are pretty good that solar won't be added later. There's often no place for the equipment to be installed, it will be difficult and more expensive to put in the wiring and the piping, and the great financial benefit of including the solar system in the initial financing will be lost.
At its simplest, Roush says, a solar-ready house should have enough south-facing rooftop space for the solar panels, a location for a pre-tank heater or inverter for the solar electric system, and a chase for easy linkage between the equipment.
Is this home "solar ready?" is a relatively easy question for a potential buyer to ask, and it certainly would go a long way in getting more builders to consider solar. Most people agree that energy costs are going to continue to increase. Doing some planning now can help homeowners add features like solar energy systems with less extra cost and with potential for better performance if the home is ready for them.