Looking For Solar Advice

I live in Michigan. And yes, I know that the name Michigan conjures up images of freezing rain, snow storms, weather shutting down schools and freeways (as well as the automotive industry and unions threatening to go on strike, but that is a separate post). But the fact of the matter is that we get a lot of sunshine in Michigan, far more than most people expect, especially where I live in Southeast Michigan. When I first moved here (almost 20 years ago) we almost did get snowed in during September and October, but that has not happened in a long time. The summers last longer, and the winters are shorter and less severe. And with sunny 90+ degree weather this week (in October!) I’ve been thinking …
I have a large roof on my house, with lots of out-of-the-shade south facing surface area, perfect (I have been told) for solar panels. And while I understand the technology involved in harnessing solar power, what I am missing are practical answers and advice from those who have researched, and utilize, solar power.
So, if you have any experience that you can share, here are some questions …

  • Solar power is popular in California, and Arizona, and other more sun-drenched locations. Is it as viable (or even cost effective or justifiable) in the Midwest?
  • We do get snow and icy weather, usually in December through February. How does this type of weather impact solar equipment, if at all?
  • I have seen all sorts of installation and setup costs, from one extreme to the other, but have not been able to fully ascertain what the true costs are. Does anyone have real-world experience here?
  • What are the unforeseen costs? Things like roof structural requirements due to panel weight, or cost of panel replacement, or ongoing maintenance costs?
  • What else am I not thinking of here?

Any advice and suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

10 responses to “Looking For Solar Advice”

  1. Jonny Avatar

    Have you been reading Mike Dillon’s blog and his shiny new solar panels.
    It is worth a read and a worthwhile quote "…. it wasn’t a financial decision – it’s about the environment…."

  2. John Farrar Avatar
    John Farrar

    Congratulations on thinking this way Ben!
    Ok… there are a number of things to consider.
    * Solar water doesn’t work as well in the north as it would in the south. You should likely be looking at solar air if your looking to pull heat in. (of course someone might have figured something out)
    * Solar electric is another consideration. Some do both… and then don’t forge the sun drives wind. Wind power is something you might want to look at also. (Depending on what you generate and use in electric you can sell back excess to the power company also.)
    * The primary keys to solar air are the design of your house (ranch houses where air travels less distance works best.) … you want to pay attention to what the panels are built with also. We put foil (a metal) onto potatoes to cook them because they don’t hold heat. Therefore the type of metal you put in your panel will greatly effect how productive they are at holding the heat they receive. (copper was what we used in the ones I sold around 1985) Feel free to contact me off list if you want.

  3. Brian Philippus Avatar
    Brian Philippus

    You should check with your power company to see if they offer rebates on solar panels. Ours does, but I live in Las Vegas. Still though, the payback time can be about 20 years or so from what I’ve read. A positive for you is that photovoltaic solar cells are more efficient in cold weather. You may still want to hold off for a while though… advancements are being made all the time.
    (a CF page no less)

  4. Alexandre Madurell Avatar
    Alexandre Madurell

    Hi Ben,
    Sorry I’m not familiar with technological details (other than having enjoyed such panels when I lived in Brazil).
    Soon you’ll be able to see a nice use of solar power (it actually feeds the building where Adobe MAX 2007 Europe will be taking place at) 🙂
    I got a TV special on how they built it (not sure in what language it was, mostly spanish I think), but I’ll try to get to you and hand you a copy on DVD. The way they conceived the panels to move following the sun’s trajectory (kinda like a tech sunflower) was kinda inspiring.
    Congrats on your choice, and looking forwards to seeing you soon 😉

  5. jerryhamby Avatar

    Check out
    They have lots of good info, they also have a monthly magazine you can purchase for those long airplane flights you seem to take a lot of.

  6. Ben Forta Avatar
    Ben Forta

    Jerry, is a CF7 powered site, too. Nice! 🙂
    — Ben

  7. Andrew Gscheidle Avatar
    Andrew Gscheidle

    I recall seeing some emerging products that you might find appealing:
    Basically, this system is at least 50% of the normal cost of solar hot water and you can do it yourself. The product is a flexible panel, rather than a rigid glass installation. I read a review in "the family handyman" magazine that indicated it was worth looking into.
    I gathered that it was a very affordable way to get into solar power.

  8. Kris Avatar

    If you’re going to be in the Washington, DC area next week, you’ll want to check out the 2007 Solar Decathlon on the Washington mall, October 12-20:

  9. Jon Avatar

    If you have the money, I’d recommend this design/contracting company:
    They’ve been in the business for over 30 years and really understand the issues top-bottom.
    (Note: I have a friend who works for this company, but I don’t benefit from endorsing them)

  10. David Rainey Avatar
    David Rainey

    I can’t answer the technical questions, (Solar was installed prior to my buying the home) but I used to live in Kansas and we had solar heat (air) in the house. The panels on the roof did not seem to have any extra structural support and the avg. cost to heat my 1500 sqft ranch style house in Jan. and Feb was about $75/month less than for my neighbor with a similar home.

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