One Year with a Nissan LEAF: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As you might have read back in January, I bought a Nissan LEAF one year ago today. You can read all the details here about the process, how the car works, and what I like about it. Since electric vehicles are still a novelty, and I love talking about green technology, here is an update.

The Good

My LEAF is still a blast to drive. Compared to my Honda Fit, it’s a hotrod. If I floor it to merge with traffic, it will MOVE. The Bose sound system rocks, the best car audio system I’ve ever owned. The heated steering wheel has permanently spoiled me.

More importantly, I’ve driven a full year and over 15,000 miles in a purely electric vehicle, keeping nearly 10,000 lbs of CO2 plus some poisonous gasses like carbon monoxide out of the air. I’ve saved about 450 gallons of gas compared to my fuel-efficient Fit. Adding in the cost of the electricity I used, my LEAF saved me about $600 in fuel costs.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the LEAF also comes with some downsides that I hadn’t fully anticipated. First, to save either money or weight, Nissan chose not to provide a spare tire. They did the same for our Nissan Rogue with the third row, but they mitigated the risk by including run-flat tires. For the LEAF, instead of run-flat tires, they provide a cheesy tire repair kit with some sealant and a pump. Ehhhhh, okay.

One February night, I was driving to work and heard a loud bang on Loop 12. My tire warning light came on, and the car started to shimmy. My left front tire had gone flat. I pulled off the road, broke open the tire repair kit, and tried to fix it. After 10-15 minutes of waiting, it became clear that for whatever reason, this kit wasn’t going to air up the tire as advertised. It added a bit of air, but not enough to fully inflate it. Still over 5 miles from work and determined to get there as soon as possible, I drove very slowly the rest of the way, hoping it would make it. Smoke began to waft up from the tire in the last mile. By the time I arrived, the tire had melted.

Nissan Roadside Assistance towed me to the closest Nissan dealer the next morning after my shift. Miraculously, I hadn’t destroyed the wheel. I decided to replace all four nearly new tires with Bridgestone run-flats, similar to the ones on our Rogue. The service people thought I was a little crazy for replacing tires with only 2000 miles on them, but since Nissan hadn’t chosen to give me a spare, the run-flats were the only option for me, at a cost of nearly $800.

If that had been the only problem with my LEAF, it could be excused. However, my battery had a surprise for me, as well.

The Ugly

There are two types of pure electric vehicles (EVs). One type has an active cooling system for the battery. Teslas and the new Chevy Bolt are good examples. Heat is the enemy of a lithium-ion battery like this, and the cooling system does a good job keeping the battery healthy and preserving its capacity. I’ve heard that some higher-mileage Teslas lost only 5-10 percent of their capacity after 100,000 miles.

The other type does NOT have an active cooling system. The LEAF is the most prominent example. Many LEAF owners, particularly in warm climates like Arizona, Texas, and Florida, report unusually rapid battery degradation. I’d heard a bit about this phenomenon, but understood that the more recent LEAFS had a new type of battery (the “lizard battery”) that handles heat much better.

Apparently, I was wrong.

I won’t bore you with the details (write me through my contact page if you’re an EV junkie and want all my LeafSpy stats), but after just over 15,000 miles, I’ve already lost 15-20 percent of my capacity. I’m losing over 1 percent of my range for every 1,000 miles that I drive. Brand new, my range was around 105-110 miles with a full charge. Now it’s 85-90 miles after only one year. At this rate, by the time I reach 40,000 miles, my range will be down to 60-65 miles. With a 50+ mile commute, that will feel a little tight.

Fortunately, Nissan offers a generous warranty against battery capacity loss. They will repair or (more typically) replace my 30 kWh battery if I lose 4 capacity bars within 8 years or 100,000 miles. At my current rate, they’ll owe me a new battery sometime in 2019 after 35,000-40,000 miles. Numerous other LEAF owners, especially ones with the larger 30 kWh battery like mine, are experiencing rapid battery degradation, some much worse than mine. So there seems to be a fundamental flaw with the LEAF’s engineering, but at least Nissan seems to be good about honoring the warranty.

At this point, I haven’t decided what to do. The battery decay disappoints me greatly. I really, really wanted to love this car. With a stable battery and better range, I would. But I’m already considering how and when to replace my LEAF and kicking myself for not holding out for my reserved Tesla Model 3. Right now I’m leaning toward trading my LEAF in for a Chevy Bolt sometime in late 2018 or 2019.

If you’re considering an EV, please don’t be discouraged. The concept works. However, I urge you to consider ONLY those EVs that have an active cooling system for the battery.

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

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.


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 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.


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.


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%

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 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.


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.


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


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.

I’m Back

As you might (or might not!) have noticed, I’ve taken a break from blogging – about an 18 month break, leaving your Facebook news feed more room for funny cat videos, Trump memes, selfies, and whatever else brews your coffee. From time to time I thought, “I should probably blog about something,” but there was always something else to do or think about. Perhaps it’s time to fill you in on some of the highlights of the last year and a half. Think of this as our Christmas letter…in October. Just go with it.


Jenny, after five years and countless hours of work, has finished UTA nursing school and now works as a full-time RN. She’s a labor and delivery nurse at a local hospital and works with my sister in the same unit. Lisa even trained her for one shift, but I don’t think they had time to cover Lisa’s patented “Jive Talking” dance. Labor and delivery is a lot to learn, especially as her first nursing job, but she’s working hard and doing great. In about a month, she’ll get signed off to handle patients on her own. All hail Nurse Jenny!

House News

After 6 years in our house in Euless, we sold it in March to a nice couple with a little girl who wanted to put her in a good school. For five months, we downsized into a small two-bedroom apartment nearby while the boys finished their school year and M/I Homes built our new home in Grand Prairie. The building process might earn a separate post someday, as it was fascinating but quite stressful. Finally we closed and moved in August. We love how the house turned out. It has all the space we need and more, and it’s right by Joe Pool Lake with untouchable Corps of Engineers forest to our north and west. I’ve already spent many happy hours watching sports and playing games in the media room. Plus we finally have space to host events again.



Things are great with me. I’m still dispatching for SWA on the night shift and helping out with on-the-job training and overseeing the midnight workload. We’re getting several new midnight desks this year and next, which will help spread out the work better. I’m still thankful to have a wonderful wife and sons and extended family and good health. I’m still trying to run three times a week to stay in shape, only now in our new neighborhood instead of the park I ran through for years. It’s been fun to figure out new routes to cover the mileage I need for each run.

Sleep, I’ve found, is severely underrated. I didn’t fully appreciate sleep as a younger man. Being well rested makes it so much easier to deal with the stresses of parenthood, work, and people who make you mad. So I’m trying to be more intentional about getting enough sleep. Sometimes that means missing out on some things, but it’s better than being irritable all the time and falling asleep on the way home from work in the morning.

The Boys

The boys are also doing great. They love the new house and being closer to Jenny’s family and Lisa’s family. Cousins Reagan and Reid are half a mile away, so we see them often. The boys both have excellent teachers and enjoy their school. Brenden has started tumbling lessons as of a month ago, which teach him some body control and also give him a solid workout. Brenden is in second grade. Jonathan is now a kindergartener. (!) In a decade they’ll be driving and chasing girls. Ok, Jonathan might be chasing girls before then, but still.

That’s all for now. I’ve given up on using this blog to deeply analyze the world’s problems, convince all of you to change your minds on some crazy topic, or solve the mysteries of the universe. Those things can be nice, but they wheeze on my Zen, and these days I’m more into Zen than crusading. If I keep blogging, it’ll be more about just us and what we’re doing. If we interest you, stay in touch!

Princess Cruise to Bahamas and Grand Turk


Over Spring Break, the four of us took a cruise, the first for our sons. As most of you know, Jenny and I love cruising, and we were excited to let the boys try it. In our ongoing quest to try different cruise lines, we chose Princess this round on a recommendation from our friends James and Alexis. They were absolutely right.

Here is our photo album from the cruise.

Here are some of the highlights and thoughts.


Although cruise food has nearly always been tasty for us, Princess definitely served our favorite food of any cruise line we’ve tried. We ate dinner every night in one of the main dining rooms except for one night at the signature steakhouse, Crown Grill. Every meal, every dish featured a gourmet flair…veal cordon bleu, peach soup with prosecco, seared sea scallops, Asian-spiced roast duck, some of the best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted. The Crown Grill was a special treat, a high-end steakhouse that serves a slow-paced, highest quality meal that becomes the main event for your evening. The breakfast buffet offered numerous options, many of which changed daily. Even basic items like the pizza were delicious.


Our dinner at Crown Grill

Unfortunately, all the gourmet food that we enjoyed so much made feeding our picky sons a challenge, Brenden in particular. We never bothered taking them to the main dining halls, feeding them separately before taking them to the youth center. Brenden ate lots of hot dogs on this cruise. One of the only things I would change about Princess would be to add a few more kid-friendly food options and to provide trays at the buffet so we parents could carry stuff for our kids.


It probably isn’t fair to compare our cabin to the others we’ve sailed in. Since we were taking the boys with us for the first time, we needed more space and sleeping arrangements for four instead of two. After much research, we sprung for a mini-suite, which had two TVs, a queen bed, a sofa bed, a pull-down berth, full bathtub, and an enlarged balcony. It. Was. Fabulous. The boys took turns in the upper berth, and during the few times we rested in the room, the boys could watch their TV while I watched the moving map of the ship or the bridge cam.


General Vibe

Princess targets a different crowd than our previous cruise lines (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian) and does things a little differently. They carry few kids (our ship had maybe 150 total under age 18, less than 50 under age 8, during Spring Break out of over 3000 total passengers) and cater more to middle-aged and older travelers. The older cruisers enjoyed our boys, giving me the impression that Brenden and Jonathan reminded them of their own grandkids. Princess felt more like a relaxing, refined pleasure cruise than a nonstop party. The few drunk people I saw were stumbling back to the ship on our Nassau day. The Cruise Director plans some activities but doesn’t blabber over the PA system every morning about how you can play The Newlywed Game at 9:00 beside the pool. They respect you enough to leave you alone and let you seek out the activities you want, so it’s generally quieter. They also seem to personalize things a bit more for their guests, such as printing your name on a card outside your room, leaving a welcome message on your phone, and providing information specific to the children’s program if you’re sailing with kids. I am sold.


Child Care

Although Princess doesn’t cater to families, it does offer an excellent children’s program that our boys adored. The youth center is split into three areas by age. Our sons played in the Pelicans area (ages 3-7), which offered age-appropriate activities such as face painting, crafts, Olympic games, movies, a play structure, and computers. They are used to environments like this from being in school and the gym’s child care, so we figured they would like it fairly well. They wound up choosing to spend every evening there from roughly 6-10pm. They stayed busy and had a blast while Jenny and I enjoyed a delicious dinner, explored the ship, or relaxed in the room. It was like having date night every night for nearly a week.


One more highlight was the kids’ area on Princess Cays, their private resort. It features two large covered areas, one a playground and the other a huge sand pit, and youth workers to watch your kids while you go play on the beach or read a book. Again, the boys had a blast there. If a parent was present to supervise, kids could also swim in a kiddie pool, the only kiddie pool our boys encountered on the trip (none available on the ship).


Since Princess’s focus is different, its entertainment options were a bit different as well. Our ship included one large theater for shows. Jenny isn’t as into the shows as I am, and I only caught one – an illusionist/comedian. He was pretty good. I’m sorry I didn’t see some of the other shows, but we preferred to enjoy the nice meals and relax rather than racing through dinner to make a showtime. In the beautiful three-story atrium, we saw a couple of acts: a pair of acrobats and three Filipino chefs making food art, which Brenden loved. For me, my favorite entertainment offering was Movies Under the Stars. The ship includes a large video screen on one of the top decks next to the pool and plays recent movies at night. They even provide blankets and popcorn. Our sailing included Gravity, Captain Phillips, and Thor: The Dark World. We discussed watching a movie as a family but never found the right movie and night. I, however, did catch an afternoon showing of Top Gun. If we sail with Princess again when the boys are older, we might get to try it. I love the concept.


Port #1 was Nassau, which we had already visited twice but was new to the boys. This time we walked from the dock to a nearby public beach called Junkanoo and let the boys play for a couple of hours. Then we walked another 1-2 miles to Ardastra Gardens, the zoo we visited on our first Nassau cruise that featured the marching flamingoes. The boys enjoyed it but were a bit tired after all the walking. Then the visit took a nosedive when Jonathan lost his balance and fell onto a cactus. We took a cab back to the ship and finished fishing out all the cactus spines before dinner.

Port #2 was Princess Cays, the line’s private resort at the far end of one of the many Bahamian islands. We loved it there – plenty of beach chairs, palm trees for shade, watersports, the kids’ play area, good food, gorgeous beaches. Brenden and I took a 30-minute trip on a kayak, which was lots of fun but more work than I was expecting. This was a very relaxing and peaceful day with ZERO cactus incidents.

Port #3 was Grand Turk, a first for me and Jenny. It’s a very small island that’s the capitol of Turks and Caicos, an island nation that is somehow part of the British Commonwealth. Here Jenny and I initially left the kids onboard in the youth center and enjoyed our only official excursion, a kayaking and eco-walk adventure on the barely-developed north end of the island. I wish we’d brought a waterproof camera so I could have gotten some pictures as this area was rugged and beautiful. We got to see and touch some local, nonvenomous mangrove jellyfish. The guides spotted a nurse shark underwater and tried to grab it (!) but did not succeed. I did get to hold a sea urchin and sea cucumber before paddling back. Then we bought some gifts to take home, picked up the boys, and took them to play on the beach one last time. The island and the cruise lines built a beautiful pier and shopping center to siphon away tourist dollars, and there’s a great beach right next to the pier. We played on the beach with a beautiful view of the ship, which was just a cool experience.


Overall Impression

Jenny and I LOVED Princess. The next time we sail just the two of us, we’ll be strongly tempted to choose Princess again. The food, the quieter and more elegant atmosphere, and the personal touches made this a very pleasant way to travel. If we’re traveling with the boys, we’ll be torn. They had a wonderful time and still talk about our trip three weeks later. However, at least while they are young and picky eaters, we might try a more family-friendly cruise line such as Carnival or Disney to make things a bit easier on us.