With each new day, technology insinuates itself further and further into our lives. When confronted with new problems, these days we almost always turn to technology for a solution. Thus, I find it refreshing when a new business pops up that doesn’t rely on technology — especially when that business aims to address a problem that arose from a technological solution.
Thanks to a mention in an article in the Daily Journal, I arranged for just such a business, the San Carlos-based Solar-Klean, to clean my home’s rooftop solar panels. I had been delighted to learn about these folks; it hadn’t even occurred to me that someone might make a business almost entirely out of this. And I am not the only one, apparently; I got in touch with them a number of weeks ago, but due to high demand they weren’t able to come until last Saturday.
Solar panels need to “see” the sun: keeping them clean is important. Over time dust, ash and other things accumulate on the panels, reducing their effectiveness. Although cleaning the panels isn’t terribly difficult, especially with the right tools, I’ve reached the point in my life where my wife would prefer that I stay off the roof. Solar-Klean uses filtered water and specialized low-tech equipment (mainly, a long-handled brush with an attached hose that provides a continuous stream of filtered water while the brush is in use) to scrub off the panels. In our case, most of the work they did consisted of scrubbing off a couple of years’ worth of accumulated tree sap. Not only are the results clearly visible, I was told that the cleaning will likely improve the workings of our panels by around 10%.
My wife and I first installed solar panels on our home’s roof just more than five years ago. I say “first installed” because we started with a smaller system — just six panels — and added to it about two years ago. We took this route for a couple of reasons. One, we wanted to own our system outright, and keeping the system small kept it within our budget (there are cheaper ways to obtain such a system, but they often involve surrendering some or all of your utility bill savings). Also, since we were getting a system that was easy to upgrade, we opted to start small and see how things went. Finally, PG&E’s electricity rates were organized into tiers, with higher tiers having significantly higher costs, and we focused more on staying out of the two most expensive tiers, rather than on eliminating our electrical usage charges.
After a few years of trouble-free operation, and having accumulated some additional cash, we added six more panels, which have indeed brought our electrical charges much closer to zero. During the summer, our 12 panels produce more electricity than we use (we don’t have air conditioning, although we do have an electric car); that excess becomes a credit that offsets the winter months, when days are shorter and our system production drops. Each month, PG&E charges us a “minimum delivery charge” of just under $10, and then once each year it compares our system’s total electricity production with our total household electricity usage. If we used more than we produced, we pay the difference (less the minimum fees we paid each month). If we produced more than we used, PG&E instead pays us (albeit at a fairly low electricity rate). Given our still small system, each year we’ve paid PG&E a bit as a result of that annual “true up” process — but that one bill is smaller than almost any of the monthly bills we received prior to activating our system. And finally, although the money we’ll save over the life of our panels just might pay for our system, that was never our goal. We’re just happy to be able to do our part in saving energy.
Walking through Redwood City, I see more and more solar installations on home rooftops, and with California’s building code now requiring that most newly built homes include a solar electricity system, I expect to see more and more. Thanks to our electricity being nearly free now, my wife and I are now contemplating the addition of a central air conditioner, along with a few more solar panels to help compensate. And once prices come down, we may even install a whole-house battery to reduce our dependence on the energy grid and allow our home to remain functional during limited power outages. Whether or not we do that, however, we stand delighted with the system we have. It does its work silently and with no fuss, requiring nothing more than a cleaning once or twice a year. And it gives me yet another reason to smile as I greet the sun each morning.
Greg Wilson is the creator of Walking Redwood City, a blog inspired by his walks throughout Redwood City and adjacent communities. He can be reached at greg@walkingRedwoodCity.com. Follow Greg on Twitter @walkingRWC.