My New Year’s Resolution: To Quit Putting Gasoline in My Car

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My 2016 Nissan LEAF SL at a charging station

“There are two doors. Behind Door Number One is a completely sealed room, with a regular, gasoline-fueled car. Behind Door Number Two is an identical, completely sealed room, with an electric car. Both engines are running full blast.

I want you to pick a door to open, and enter the room and shut the door behind you. You have to stay in the room you choose for one hour. You cannot turn off the engine. You do not get a gas mask.

I’m guessing you chose the Door Number Two, with the electric car, right? Door number one is a fatal choice – who would ever want to breathe those fumes?

This is the choice the world is making right now.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger, from his awesome Facebook post on climate change

It finally happened, and a bit sooner than planned. I traded in my gasmobile for an electric vehicle, or EV as they say.

It’s a 2016 Nissan LEAF, and I love it.

How I Got Here

The idea of an electric vehicle intrigued my treehuggerness for years, but the affordable EVs didn’t have enough range for my taste, and the ones that did (Teslas) were way out of my price range. When we built our new home, I justified my much longer commute by swearing to get an EV fairly soon thereafter to reduce the associated emissions. I even had the builder install a dedicated 50 amp circuit and 14-50 outlet so the house would be ready when the car arrived. All that remained was the right car.

The Nissan LEAF had been around for a while, but with only a 24 kWh battery that provided around 80 miles of range, which would gradually decrease over time like all lithium-ion batteries. Actual driving conditions, including the outside temperature, highway vs. city driving, and interior climate control, could reduce the range further. For a 50-mile roundtrip commute, I wanted a bigger battery. For 2016, Nissan added an option for a 30 kWh battery that boosted the range to around 107 miles. That sounded doable, but by then I’d been distracted by a new entrant: the Tesla Model 3.

Announced in March 2016, it promised 200+ mile range, sex appeal, great performance, a purchase process free of haggling and finance managers and annoying salespeople, and the fascinating possibility of fully autonomous driving. I plunked down a reservation deposit before it was even unveiled and hoped the Wizard could deliver on his promises despite Tesla’s track record of taking a couple years longer than planned to deliver a new model.

Time passed. We paid off Jenny’s new Nissan Rogue, which we love. We started saving toward the Tesla. Then around Christmastime, I learned something that perhaps I should have anticipated – Nissan was offering huge year-end discounts on the 2016 LEAF. With the 200-mile Chevy Bolt about to hit the market and the Model 3 coming in about a year, LEAF sales had dropped, and the dealers needed to move some off the lot. I started thinking about how I’d want to configure my Model 3 – autopilot, all-wheel drive, leather, premium sound – and how much more all those extras would cost compared to a new LEAF. Also, the LEAF was available right now with acceptable range, while my Tesla Model 3 might be available in…a year? Eighteen months? Even longer? If it took long enough, Tesla might have sold enough of the Model S and Model X to start expiring the $7500 tax credit, further increasing the price of the Model 3. Hmm…get a really nice car for a great price and quit burning gasoline now, or pay $15-20k more in 12-24 months to achieve the same basic goal? I was sold.

Buying My LEAF

Actually buying the LEAF from Nissan of McKinney required the same annoying process I’ve used to buy other cars, but I got through it. I chose a red 2016 Nissan LEAF SL with the 30 kWh battery and lots of other goodies. I negotiated the deal via email as usual, traded in my faithful 2007 Honda Fit after 163,000 miles, told the usual cheesy finance managers that no, I really am NOT going to buy their cheesy extended warranty and prepaid maintenance, and finally drove off. On top of the dealer discounts, I also qualify for the $7500 tax credit for the 2016 tax year, which brought the effective cost into the range I normally like to pay for a car. Now, let’s move on to the fun stuff!

Charging and Range

Obviously, the fuel source is the biggest difference between an EV and an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle. It was a weird feeling to drive away from the dealer knowing that every gas station was irrelevant, and that I had about 110 miles of range before I needed to recharge. I’m still adjusting to that after two weeks. There are mobile apps that show you where nearby charging stations are. They aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as gas stations, but there are more than you probably realize if you don’t drive an EV. Most of them are part of a charging network such as Chargepoint, Blink, or EVGo. Some are free, while others cost a bit. Southwest Airlines generously provides free charging at my office, so I drove to work that night and started my first charge. You get access cards that you can swipe at the charging stations, but often you can start the charge with the mobile app as well. Most charging stations you’ll see are dubbed Level 2 and can add about 20 miles of range per hour of charging. That’s the type I installed a few days later in my garage. There are also Level 3 charging stations at some commercial locations. They can take my LEAF from empty to 80 percent in about 30 minutes. These chargers use so much power at once (something like 125 amps – SWEET HOLY MOLY) that they aren’t really practical for home use, but they are a great way to lure EV customers to a business. Some DFW-area Cracker Barrels have Level 3 chargers, which is genius. You plug in, go inside for lunch, and come out to a nearly charged EV.

stations

DFW-area charging stations

My charging station is a JuiceBox Pro 40. Although very industrial-looking, it’s super simple and works great. Most of the time I charge at home with my JuiceBox. Yes, I could charge for free at work, but at home I can use my solar panels and renewable West Texas wind energy that I buy from Green Mountain Energy to further reduce my carbon impact. The JuiceBox lets me delay the start time until the sun comes up so I’m using more solar power to charge my car. If I need to, I can always charge at work or find a charging station.

The car estimates your remaining range based on your recent driving conditions. Fully charged, it might say I have 120 miles, but it seems that’s only accurate for city driving. High speeds, cold temperatures (the battery doesn’t like to be too cold), running the heat or air conditioning, aggressive acceleration, and climbing hills all reduce the range.

Charging and range force an EV driver to think a bit differently and plan their trips more carefully. An ICE driver can fill up almost anywhere in 5 minutes, but we can only charge in certain places, and charging can take quite a while. For commuting and short trips, an EV can be fantastic. Longer trips are possible if you plan your charging stops and allow enough time. Over the next few years, we’ll see more Level 2 and Level 3 charging stations that will make EVs more practical for longer trips and less populated areas.

To really test the limits, this week I tried two round trips to work on a single charge. After the first, I had 55 percent of the battery left and about 65 miles of estimated range for a 50-mile trip. No problem! But during trip 2, I fought a strong headwind on the highway and saw my range estimate drop to about 19 miles when I had at least 10 miles left to go. That’s when the squirming began. A few miles from home, it replaced my estimated remaining range with dashes, warned me, and offered to show me the nearest public charging station. With about a mile to go, the battery’s remaining capacity showed only dashes, and I found myself wondering how much the LEAF weighed and whether I could push it home. Finally, I parked in my garage, pleased that I’d made two full roundtrips but swearing never to test my range that far again.

Driving an EV

My LEAF is fun to drive. It has a Normal mode that feels quite peppy plus an Eco mode that limits your acceleration to conserve power. The battery is big and heavy and sit under the floor, so the car’s center of gravity is low and provides good stability. To further conserve power, you can also use Brake mode to use resistance from the electric motor to slow the car down when you take your foot off the acceleration. It’s a weird feeling a first, like you suddenly rolled into some mud. Brake mode quickly became a game to me as I tried to figure out the perfect spot to let off the gas – too soon, and I have to accelerate a bit to get to the intersection, too late, and I still have to use the pedal brakes. Speaking of brakes, the LEAF has normal brakes that also regenerate electricity. So between these features and the greatly increased drag at high speeds, I get much better range in city driving versus highway.

Besides the fuel source, perhaps the biggest difference from an ICE vehicle is how eerily quiet an EV is. The motor is nearly silent. You sometimes hear a faint, high-pitched whirring sound, but that’s it. Supposedly there’s a speaker under the good that produces some fake engine noise at low speeds to warn oblivious pedestrians. In reverse gear, it beeps like a construction vehicle for the same reason. Otherwise you probably wouldn’t hear it coming, just like an electric golf cart. When I start the car, I only know it’s on from the interior lights, fan, and music. They could have added fake Ferrari engine noise just for fun, but I guess someone nixed that. The near silence of the motor makes the interior extremely quiet, so my music is much easier to hear.

Other Fun Toys

As a data nerd, I love all the data that the LEAF throws my way. On top of the estimated range, it gives me the battery’s current charge percentage, my average and current energy economy measured in miles/kWh, and a power use bar that’s sorta like a tachometer. It’s in the neutral position when the car is stopped. It moves to the right with white dots when you’re using the throttle and to the left with green dots when you’re regenerating electricity through the pedal brake or slowing down in Brake mode. So it quickly trains you to drive more efficiently. Also, its navigation system includes charging stations in case you don’t have an app for that. If you need to charge away from home, you can find a station in the nav system and then get visual and spoken directions to it.

Another of my favorite features is the LEAF mobile app and a free 3G cellular connection. At any time I can check on the car through the app to get the current charge level or to preheat or precool for me. On a few cold nights at work this week, I set the heater to come on at 5:55am so it would be warm by the time I reached the car a little after 6:00am. I’ve enjoyed the heated steering wheel more than I had expected. The app also gives me additional stats about my driving, such as distance driven and kWh consumed per day, CO2 savings, and comparisons to other LEAF drivers regarding my driving habits.

Cost to Charge

What does it cost to charge? That’s a more complex question than it might seem. At home, where I pay 10.8c/kWh, completely filling my empty 30kWh battery costs about $3.25 and gets me about 100 miles of range. However, I’ll hardly ever completely drain the battery, so a typical charge costs less, and it could be free depending on where I charge. But we’re all used to thinking about the cost of a gallon of gas and miles per gallon, right? So let’s do some math and clarify things a bit, looking at my 50-mile roundtrip commute to work.

Depending on how I drive, I generally average around 4 miles per kWh of electricity. It would be higher but over half my miles are on the highway, which is less efficient. So for my commute, I’ll use around 13 kWh of electricity. If I charge at home, that’s about $1.40 worth of electricity. My Honda Fit got great mileage, maybe 33 mpg. So I’d use 1.5 gallons of gas for the same commute. At $2.00/gallon, that’s $3.00 worth of gas. So the fuel cost per mile for me is less than half what I was paying, even for an efficient ICE vehicle like the Fit.

Obviously, the relative cost varies with the cost of electricity and gasoline and the efficiency of the vehicles. The numbers would look even better with a more typical situation. Let’s say you shop around for electricity via PowerToChoose.org and are paying a more reasonable 8c/kWh, and your daily ICE vehicle gets 25 mpg. Your electric cost would be about $1.00 versus $4.00 for your gasmobile.

Maintenance

Since there’s no ICE, the maintenance is much simpler for an EV. I still have the usual tires, brake fluid, wipers, etc. Surprisingly, there is a coolant system for the battery, and its fluid needs to be changed after 125,000 miles or so. But there isn’t any engine oil, transmission fluid, spark plugs, or other maintenance related to an engine. The battery should last for several years and will slowly lose capacity over time. However, from what I’ve read, this isn’t a huge issue so far. By the time I need to replace the battery, probably several years from now, I expect the replacement battery to be much cheaper and have much higher capacity than the batteries available right now.

Wrapup

I’m really pleased I made the switch to the LEAF from the Model 3. No, I didn’t get Ludicrous Mode to go 0-60 in 2.5 seconds, and I can’t read a book while my car drives me to work. However, I love knowing that I’ve already stopped polluting the air with my long commute from suburbia. It’s a blast to drive, has a fantastic sound system, is very comfortable, and doesn’t make me visit a nasty gas station every 4-5 days.

Finally, if you’re interested in getting an electric car but understandably don’t want to buy new, there are some fantastic deals on preowned LEAFs in the $10-15k range. Most will have the 24 kWh battery, but they might make a great commuter car for you. The preowned ones don’t qualify for the federal tax credit, but it’s already baked into the low price of the car.

Six-Month Update on Our Solar Panels

We installed our solar panels in March 2016, and they’ve done great! After six months of usage, I put together some numbers in case you’re interested in how they’ve performed. If you missed my initial solar panel post, you can read it here. This is a 7.0 kW, 28-panel system facing half east and half west.

Six-Month Summary
Here is a summary of our data from April through September, the half of the year when we get the most sun and use the most electricity due to the air conditioner.

Total Avg/Month
Solar Production 5343 kWh 891 kWh
Total Usage 7612 kWh 1269 kWh
Energy Sold Back to Power Company 2797 kWh 466 kWh
Energy Produced and Used 2546 kWh 424 kWh
Total Financial Benefit (at 10.8c/kWh) $577 $96.17

Monthly Data
The panels produced more than we used this spring, so we actually built up a nice credit with Green Mountain Energy for the first couple of months. Then as the temperatures rose and we started using the a/c, the panels couldn’t produce enough to keep up, so we started using up our credit and finally had to start paying for power again. Here are the details month by month:

Month Power Generated Power Used Effective Electric Bill Savings
April 800 kWh 489 kWh $-33.59 $86.40
May 837 kWh 812 kWh $-2.70 $90.40
June 994 kWh 1503 kWh $54.97 $107.35
July 1080 kWh 1623 kWh $58.64 $116.64
August 863 kWh 1768 kWh $97.94 $93.20
September 769 kWh 1417 kWh $69.98 $72.58

Estimated vs. Actual Production
Before installing our system, I used the Department of Energy’s PV Watts calculator to estimate our production. It was pretty accurate. So far we’re actually producing slightly more than expected, an average of 3.8 percent more during this period.

Time Period Estimated Production (kWh) Actual Production (kWh) Difference
April 815 800 (1.8%)
May 898 837 (6.8%)
June 927 994 7.2%
July 942 1080 14.6%
August 860 863 0.3%
September 705 769 9.1%
SIX-MONTH TOTAL 5147 5343 3.8%

Conclusion
We are very happy with how well the system is performing. It’s actually doing so well that we hope to add a pergola in our backyard and top it with additional solar panels to generate even more power. From October through March, we’ll largely stop using the air conditioner, so our monthly usage should drop to around 500-550 kWh. At the same time, we’ll obviously be getting less sun, so the savings from the panels won’t be quite as dramatic. I’ll try to post a full-year update in April 2017.

As always, if you would like any more information, just ask through my contact page.

More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About My Solar Panels

east panels

west panels

After years of waiting for the right house and the right time, I finally installed a solar panel system in March 2016. Technically known as a solar photovoltaic or solar PV system, it sits on my roof and converts sunlight into electricity both for our own use and for the electric grid that we all share. For those who might be interested, here are more details than you probably wanted about the planning and installation process, costs, and benefits.

Basic Details

Don’t want to read the novel that follows? Here are the basics:

Size: 7 kW, 28 panels in 7 arrays facing east and west
Net Cost: $12,856 after all incentives, or $1.84/watt
Estimated Production: 700-780 kWh/month and 8300-9300 kWh/year
Estimated Savings: $75-80/month and $900-1000/year
Estimated Payback Time: 10.7-12 years

Initial Thoughts

Our house is rectangular in shape and faces roughly south, with the narrower sides on the north and south. In the Northern Hemisphere, due south is the ideal orientation for solar panels, but we didn’t have much south-facing roof. The HOA said we could install panels on the west and east sides but not the south side facing the street. I don’t know if that prohibition is technically legal or not in Texas, but since our south roof didn’t have much room anyway and I didn’t feel like a huge battle, I went with it. So my goal was to put as many panels as possible facing east and west to maximize our production, assuming the cost wasn’t too high. Off I went.

Shopping Around

For a project this big, I wanted at least three bids. After researching DFW companies and their reviews online, I contacted four solar companies in November 2015:

  • Longhorn Solar – They seemed like a great company. They said they would get in touch once some Oncor rebate information got published later that month. They never bothered to respond. Either they’re swamped with projects or don’t like money.
  • Native Solar – They are Austin based but also install up here. I talked to a super nice guy for quite a while over the phone, and he was trying to design a system for my roof using satellite imagery. Yes, that’s somewhat possible using their modeling software. After a few weeks of waiting on rebate info and the guy trying unsuccessfully to fit as many panels on my roof as the competition could, I finally figured out the problem: he was looking at the wrong house. I didn’t think it was worthwhile to continue down the Native path.
  • SolarCity – My friend Donny in Euless leased solar panels a few years ago from SolarCity and was very pleased. He actually got the ball rolling for me by hosting a “learn about solar” event at his house in October. I met his sales guy there and later got a bid from him. SolarCity focuses almost exclusively on leases and power purchase agreements. Both are flavors of the same idea – SolarCity installs, owns, and maintains the system on your roof, and you pay them either a monthly leasing fee or pay them for the power that the panels produce. Both are an interesting way to reduce or eliminate the high up-front costs of buying your own system, but there are some drawbacks. I wanted to purchase my system. SolarCity also sells systems, but the sales guy said he hadn’t actually sold any yet.

    Of the two initial bids I actually got for purchasing a system, SolarCity’s was lower. However, the super-nice and enthusiastic sales guy was proposing that we install panels all over the north side of the house as well, facing away from the sun. He said that’s normally what they recommend, just put up as many as you have room for. Even as a solar rookie, I knew the north-facing panels would produce significantly less electricity and were not very cost-effective. So the fact that he would recommend them told me his goal is simply to sell as many panels as possible regardless of their benefit to me. I also did some research on SolarCity afterward and found a ton of reviews from unhappy customers, especially in California. So despite my friend’s good experience with SolarCity, I was leery.

  • PetersenDean – Fortunately, I got another bid, the one I selected. PetersenDean is a roofing and solar company, which was an unusual but smart combination. They operate in California and Texas and have excellent reviews. Clint, the sales guy, seemed genuinely interested in helping me select the right system for my house rather than selling me the biggest system possible. He actually recommended a west-only configuration due to the way our house faces. The western side faces a 240 degree azimuth, or west-southwest. That’s good for solar production. The eastern side faces 60 degrees, or east-northeast. That direction can produce power, but anything facing north of 270 or 90 degrees is not ideal. Clint recognized that and didn’t even suggest any eastern panels, much less northern ones like the SolarCity guy. They also sell only American-made panels rather than Asian or European ones.
    PetersenDean’s initial bid was a bit higher per watt than SolarCity’s, but the system sizes were significantly different, which likely played a role. Cost per watt is the simplest way to compare bids between companies due to differences in system size and other factors. Once I had gotten two bids, I told Clint that I liked the company but his bid was higher. He offered me a discount on some slightly less efficient panels (250 watt vs 275 watt) they had sitting in the warehouse that they wanted to clear out, “last year’s model,” if you will. I also told him I wanted to add panels on the east side as well so I could produce for as many hours in the day as possible. He worked up a new bid that looks great.

So I didn’t actually get bids from three different companies, only two. But I doubted anyone would beat PetersenDean’s bid and felt good about them, so I signed with them.

Our Usage

Although I wanted to produce as much electricity as I could, I also wanted to know how much electricity we used and how much we could offset with the panels. Our house is brand new and energy efficient, including gas heat instead of electric like we had in our previous house in Euless. Despite living in Texas where summer days often top 100 degrees, our winter electric bills in Euless were significantly higher than the summer bills due to the inefficiency of electric heat. So in our new house in Grand Prairie, we need to look at two aspects of our usage: daily activities (lighting, appliances, etc.) and running the air conditioner during the warm months.

Oncor, our electric delivery company, uses the fancy new smart meters to gather detailed data about our usage and makes it available online at SmartMeterTexas.org. If you live in north Texas, Oncor is probably your delivery company, and you can sign up to see your own usage data. It shows you not just how much you use per day and month, but down to fifteen-minute increments. Using this data and a bit of research, I tweaked our house a bit to reduce our daily usage, mostly by replacing many of our incandescent bulbs with LEDs and CFLs.

daily usage before panels

Once I made our house more efficient, we were averaging about 17 kWh per day or about 520 kWh/month. If I were paying 10c/kWh, that’s $1.70/day just to keep the lights on and run the washer/dryer, computer, media room, etc. So I wanted to produce at least that much electricity per day.

The other piece is the air conditioner. Since we haven’t lived here a full summer, I don’t have good data for our summer usage. We moved in August 9 and didn’t get around to programming our goofy Honeywell Lyric thermostats until maybe September. But our September and October data indicated that our air conditioners (one upstairs unit and one downstairs unit) were using more energy than running all the other stuff in the house combined. We added solar screens from Lone Star Solar Screens in March to block out some of the heat and reduce our A/C load. Unfortunately, due to the timing on the solar panels and screens, I won’t be able to compare our summer usage before and after we went solar. But I’m sure it will help.

All in all, I estimated our annual usage without the solar panels at about 11,400 kWh, or 951 kWh/month. But keep in mind that’s roughly 520 kWh/month from November through April and then a big spike during the summer.

Planning and Installation

roof diagram

Installing a solar PV system is a months-long process. I signed the initial contract in November 2015, and they finished the installation in March 2016. After I signed the contract, PetersenDean’s tech folks designed the nuts and bolts of the system. It needed to comply with the electrical code, fire code (turns out you have to leave some space on the roof for firefighters to walk around if necessary), and local building code on top of being a viable system. We selected SolarWorld’s SW 250 Poly panels, rated at 250 watts.

Unfortunately, although we initially agreed on an 8 kW system (32 panels of 250w each), the solar engineer determined that we only had room for a 7 kW system, or 28 panels. That saved me some money up front but also cost me some production. The panels are roughly 3 feet by 5 feet and aren’t generally available in other sizes, which limits the installation options. Also, I initially wanted 24 panels on the west side and 8 on the east, since the western panels would produce more and were eligible for the Oncor rebate (more on that later), due to space constraints, we had to split them up evenly. So the final design has 14 panels west and 14 east. It’s not optimal for production, but like with any project, you make the compromises you need to make. Due to all the different faces on our roof, they had to split our system into seven different arrays (see above).

To estimate my solar production, I used a nifty calculator provided by the U.S. Department of Energy called PV Watts. It allows you to enter your location and PV system details (size, direction, tilt, etc.) and calculate roughly how much electricity your panels will generate by month. I used this data to build a spreadsheet that compares my production to my usage and estimate what percentage I could offset. The warmer months are highlighted in orange since they’ll add usage for the air conditioner.

usage-production

The installation process itself took a few days, partly because our roof is really steep and partly because the system has so many different arrays to install and link up. The panels attach to metal rails that are screwed into the roof. The electrical wiring runs through the attic to a subpanel on the outside of our garage. So although the arrays are spread all over the roof, it looks clean because most of the wiring is hidden in the attic. Our system uses microinverters, which are more expensive but also more efficient and better suited for a system like ours that is spread out and has different arrays producing during different times of the day. The PetersenDean installation crew was very nice, worked hard, and did a great job under challenging conditions.

Costs

The cost of going solar has dropped steadily over the last several years, largely because the panel manufacturers are finding ways to make them cheaper. The tax code still provides a 30 percent tax credit for the entire out-of-pocket cost of the system. Also, some states and local utilities provide additional financial incentives. So solar might be cheaper than you think. Also, if you prefer not to pay for the entire system upfront, solar loans are becoming available from some banks. Some require no money up front.

For our 7 kW, 28-panel system, the initial cost was $20,640. But Oncor, our electricity delivery company that maintains the power lines and transformers, was offering a rebate through their Take a Load Off Texas program. Our west panels qualified for a rebate of $0.65/watt of capacity, or $2275. The east panels faced north of 90 degrees and did not qualify.

Why would Oncor want us to install solar panels? A solar PV home is a tiny power plant that creates electricity during the day. In Texas, the biggest electrical load we have occurs during summer afternoons, and Oncor needs enough power in the grid to keep millions of homes and businesses cool. The more homes generate their own power, the less need they’ll have to fire up their standby power plants or build new ones to handle the maximum possible load.

I like thinking of our home as a tiny power plant.

So our actual out-of-pocket cost was $18,365. But remember we can claim a 30 percent tax credit – not a deduction, but a dollar-for-dollar reduction of our tax bill. So after subtracting $5510 for that, our net cost for the system was $12,856.

Selling Our Extra Electricity

During the day, especially when the air conditioner isn’t running but it’s sunny outside, the panels produce more electricity than we use. It’s possible to add huge batteries like Tesla’s Powerwall to store that electricity, but they are expensive and don’t seem very cost-effective to me. The other option is to sell the excess power back to the power company. Sounds good, right? Right now only a few Texas power companies buy power from consumers. Green Mountain Energy is the best deal right now. They buy back excess power at the same rate you buy it from them. So on a typical sunny day, we overproduce from about 8:00am until about 6:00pm. During that time, we’re pumping power back into the grid, and our smart meter tracks it for us. At night, when it’s cloudy, or when we’re otherwise using more than we’re generating, we buy electricity from Green Mountain. So most months we’ll have a small electric bill, but other months (probably Feb-Apr) we’ll have a credit.

Benefits So Far

Based on my initial estimates, the system would produce 8374 kWh per year, offsetting about 74 percent of our electrical usage and saving $888 annually. Assuming the cost of electricity will go up about 3 percent annually due to inflation, our payback time would be around 12 years with a 6.9 percent return on investment in the first year (ROI).

However, after running the system for about a month, our actual power generation is higher than predicted.

We added monitoring capability so I can geek out on our production numbers, which I can view through a website or an app. I check the app throughout the day. They set up a public view of my system so you can check the production from day to day and see how it varies with the weather.

Here’s a screenshot of the website:

Enlighten screenshot

On a sunny day, we currently produce 30-35 kWh per day, nearly double the 17 kWh that we use. An overcast day drops that number roughly in half, and rainy days do less than that. On average since March 23, when we activated our system monitoring, we’re averaging 30 kWh/day. At that rate, we’re looking at roughly 900 kWh for this month versus the 765 kWh that the PV Watts calculator predicted for mid-March to mid-April. So we’re exceeding our estimate by nearly 18 percent. I can wait to see how they do this summer.

On average, at the 10.8c/kWh rate we’re paying, our monthly electric bill should be $20-30 with the panels versus $105 without them. So we’re saving roughly $75-80/month.

Here’s our daily usage on a sunny day after installation. From about 8:00am until about 6:00pm, we were selling power back to Green Mountain, effectively running the meter backward.

daily usage with panels

Conclusion

We are thrilled with our system and very happy we chose PetersenDean. Actually, we hope to add to our system at some point if we can figure out the right way to do it. We wound up with a bit of extra space on part of our western roof that could hold one or two more panels. More importantly, we might add a solar pergola in the backyard to increase our capacity by a few kilowatts. If you have any questions or want to speak with my contact at PetersenDean about getting a free estimate, contact me.

Blog Soup 11/21/3013

Happy November and Happy Early Thanksgiving, everyone! I have a few moments and thought I would share a few thoughts and bits of news before I go tackle the huge pile of leaves in my front yard.

House

Since Facebook prematurely outed me (darn you, Facebook! ::shakes fist::), I’ll go ahead and share some house news. Once Jenny finishes school in May 2015, we are tentatively planning to move to Grand Prairie near Joe Pool Lake. There are two main reasons for the move:

  1. Family – We’ll live near my sister (currently 30+ minutes away) so our kids can go to school together. Instead of being 45 minutes from Jenny’s family, too far to see them very often, we’ll be 15 minutes away. It won’t put us too much farther from my parents and maternal grandparents, either.
  2. More Space – When we moved into our current house, we had nine-month-old Brenden and no Jonathan. Now that our family is complete and we have two very active boys, we’d like to have a bit more space, including a big game room upstairs where they can play, a study downstairs, and a media room where I can watch movies or play games late at night without worrying about waking anyone up. We can get a lot more house for the money in south Grand Prairie/Mansfield compared to the Mid-Cities.

With that plan in mind, we have been updating our current house to get it ready. I might share some more details in another post if that would interest you.

Things That Make Me Go Hmm

A few interesting observations:

  • I recently sent my ex-fiancee a babysitter recommendation. We are friends on Facebook, and when she posted a request for a good babysitter, I had one to offer. It was a bit odd, but it’s nice that we don’t hate each other despite the breakup.
  • A friend of mine got a bachelor’s from a private school, worked a bit, got a master’s in a really specialized field from another private school, and probably financed everything through student loans. Now she is married and staying home with her kids, but they are so strapped for cash that they’re selling every spare possession they can on Facebook to reduce their debt. I’m all for staying home with the kids if that’s what’s right for your family, but I don’t understand taking out massive loans for private colleges if you don’t plan to work.
  • Some people say you should rake and bag your leaves because they choke off your grass, blocking air, water, and nutrients from reaching your lawn. Others say you should mulch the leaves back into the soil. For years I’ve been mulching them, but I’ve had problems with thatch development. This year I’m going to compost the leaves instead of mulching them. Wish me luck. I need it!

Baylor

As you probably figured, I am greatly enjoying the Bears’ football season. Jenny and I went to the Baylor-Oklahoma game in Waco earlier this month and had a blast. I’ve thought all along that our toughest test would come this Saturday in Stillwater, OK, against a tough Oklahoma State team. If we can win this, and Bama loses to Auburn or Mizzou, we have a chance at the national title game. That. Is. Crazy.

Obamacare

I held out high hopes for Obamacare despite my eventual decision to support Medicare for All instead. I defended it. I explained it to people. But now that the exchange website has experienced so many problems, and so many people are getting their policies canceled despite Obama’s foolish promises that “if you like your policy, you can keep your policy,” I have little appetite left for defending Obamacare. I love the new requirements – expanding coverage to the uninsured, no ban for preexisting conditions, keeping your children on your plan longer, coverage for contraception, etc. – but the overall scheme is too complicated to work well and isn’t going to draw in enough healthy young people to make it financially feasible. So in a sense, maybe the Republicans were right on many points. However, the answer isn’t going back to the old crappy system. The answer is expanding Medicare, a system that already works well for tens of millions of older Americans, to cover every single American, much like most other civilized countries do. But I fear that after the disaster of Obamacare, the country will have little appetite for further health care reform.

Farewell to the Solar Water Heater

I call that getting swindled and pimped
I call that getting tricked by business. – Macklemore

panels

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

As some of you will recall, in 2010 we had a solar water heater installed. Thanks to the federal tax credit and a rebate from the electric company, we only had to pay about 1/3 of the total cost, and we hoped to save $30-50/month on our electric bill by using the sun to heat our water. Green? Check. Interesting and unusual? Check. Cost-effective? Probably. I pegged our break-even point at 3-5 years, much better than the 20-year break-even point for solar electrical panels.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.

For a couple of years, the system worked great in summer, okay in spring and fall, and hardly at all in winter due to changes in roof temperature. That aspect wasn’t a surprise as the system only works when the roof is warmer than the water in the tank. However, I never noticed any significant drop in our electric usage. With so much variability in weather conditions and hot water usage, it would be very difficult to measure exactly how much the solar water heater was saving. However, I expected to see some difference, especially in summer when it heated the water so well.

In 2012, after two years in service, the system stopped heating water as well as it had before. The pump still ran water up to the heating panels on the roof and back, but the water temperature rose much more slowly than it should have. So I had to call the installer back out. He cleaned out one of the filters or something like that, and afterward it worked great for about a year. Fortunately, he didn’t charge for the visit other than a small fee for a failed part. I must add that the failed part was a tube that leaked water into our bedroom closet, which was more than a bit annoying.

Finally, this summer, the pump quit working correctly. Instead of pumping water up to the roof, it merely vibrated and made weird and loud noises, loud enough for me to hear from our bedroom. The installer, along with every other North Texas company who installed the Fafco Sungrabber system, had gone out of business. The one company I could find who still serviced these systems in the area was difficult to work with and not very responsive. But they finally delivered the final straw of bad news: the replacement pump was nearly $700.

I was done. “Come take this thing out,” I told them.

On Wednesday of last week, about a week after I nearly flooded my house by trying to do it myself (always know where to find the key to turn off your water in case of emergencies, people!!), the crew came out and removed my much-hyped solar water heater. Considering how much I paid to have it installed ($1500) and then removed ($250), I am quite sure that I never earned my money back despite my high hopes at the time. My intentions were good. I think the installers did a decent job. But it seems that the technology just didn’t work that well. The boss at the removal company said he refused to install the Fafco system in homes I had because it was “crap.”

Now we are back to having a normal, boring, non-eco-friendly water heater. It isn’t the most efficient, but it works. When we sell this house someday, we won’t need to explain that we’ve got this weird solar thing and describe how to use it, nor will we need to scramble to find someone who can repair it. That’s one less thing to worry about.

The 80s Called. They Want Their Toilets Back.

The final straw came when Brenden rushed into the kitchen, a panicked look on his face, to tell me the toilet was overflowing. I praised him for telling us so quickly, cleaned up the mess, and decided it was time to complete a project I’d wanted to do ever since we moved in four years ago: replacing our original 1983 toilets with modern ones.

The old ones were pretty, um, crappy. They didn’t flush all that well and occasionally stopped up or even overflowed, as Brenden learned the hard way. I’m still surprised that the boys hadn’t plugged one up by trying to flush something weird like a Hot Wheels car or action figure.

The other problem was high water use. These used 3.5 gallons per flush, the standard in the mid-80s, whereas modern toilets flush just as well or better with as little as 1.28 gallons. With our ongoing water shortage in Texas likely to get worse in the future, I didn’t feel very responsible keeping these water-guzzlers in service. With all four of us now using the toilet several times a day (thanks, Jonathan!), replacing all three toilets would save 10,000-20,000 gallons of water per year. That’s equivalent to a backyard swimming pool.

I already had my toilet picked out: the Penguin high-efficiency at Lowe’s. I liked the Penguin because it combined great flush performance with a unique feature: overflow protection. Look back in the picture at the top of this post. See the three holes in the back of the bowl? They keep the toilet from overflowing, just like the weird hole in your bathroom sink. And if those holes get plugged up somehow, hidden backup holes can handle it. I still haven’t figure out why no one tried this a long time ago.

There are some other eco-friendly toilets like this Kohler model that offer dual-mode flushing, meaning more water for solids and less water for liquids. It’s a neat idea, but with two boys in the house who might decide to experiment with flushing Batman or Lightning McQueen, I thought the overflow protection was more important.

I wasn’t impressed with the subcontracted installer (Dr. Plumber, who did good work yesterday but showed up 2 hours late and wasn’t good about communicating), but so far I love the new toilets. They are quiet, attractive, flush and refill within maybe 15 seconds versus 45-60 for the old ones, and seem to do a great job. I haven’t gotten to test them too, um, extensively, but based on the reviews I’ve read, the Penguins can handle pretty much anything you throw at them.