Author Topic: Illegal Solar Panels  (Read 3390 times)

dragoncar

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Illegal Solar Panels
« on: July 06, 2017, 12:28:04 AM »
OK, so let me preface this totally hypothetical question: I have no intention of doing this.  It's just out of curiosity

I've been thinking about making some kind of totally illegal solar panel array, sort of like this thing but without the flower BS.  More like shed that holds folded up solar panels, and a track that they open onto (forming a pergola of sorts).

Anyways, lets say you tie this into your home without permits or utility approval.  Yeah, I know it's dangerous for lineworkers if you energize lines incorrectly -- lets assume we have a smart shut-off or whatever so it's not unethical, just illegal.  How will this affect your bill?  The utlity won't be set up for net metering, so maybe it'll mess up your meter?  If you generate less than you use, on an instantaneous basis, it should be basically undetectable, right?  Only when you start feeding energy back to the grid will you run into problems?

Again, solar isn't even feasible for me now... I've just been wondering about this possible way to straddle being on and off the grid in solar-hostile jurisdictions

sokoloff

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #1 on: July 06, 2017, 04:32:20 AM »
You're starting from a premise that this is somehow illegal. I'm not sure I start with that same premise, but instead would look for the precise law or ordinance that you think you'd be violating and see if there's a way to work around/with that.

On the practicality side, there are grid-tie inverters that automatically shutdown to prevent islanding (that protects line workers) and in fact most do this by default. If you're looking to do this on a small scale, I'd consider it a hobby/engineering project and absent a specific law/ordinance that you were violating, would think of it as approximately as illegal as growing your own food, meaning that you should be concerned with safety issues, but once those are covered, that which is not illegal is legal, IMO.

dragoncar

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #2 on: July 06, 2017, 10:11:59 AM »
You're starting from a premise that this is somehow illegal. I'm not sure I start with that same premise, but instead would look for the precise law or ordinance that you think you'd be violating and see if there's a way to work around/with that.

On the practicality side, there are grid-tie inverters that automatically shutdown to prevent islanding (that protects line workers) and in fact most do this by default. If you're looking to do this on a small scale, I'd consider it a hobby/engineering project and absent a specific law/ordinance that you were violating, would think of it as approximately as illegal as growing your own food, meaning that you should be concerned with safety issues, but once those are covered, that which is not illegal is legal, IMO.

Ha, well it's true to find an ordinance I'd have to pick a jurisdiction, and I'm just thinking generically here.  I would say in most places I've lived, you can't hook up install solar panels to your electrical system without some kind of permit, because you basically can't do anything without a permit.  Thus "illegal," if only in a more innocuous sense of the word (where I live now you would just get fined 2x the original price of the permit which could end up being cheap if inflation is high and it's not discovered for a few years -- this doesn't apply to things that would require expensive demolition/reconstruction)

I guess I didn't make it clear that we aren't paying permit fees or otherwise notifying the utility/city.

I was curious what would happen at the billing level with a typical utility.  Would they notice the change and come kick your ass?
« Last Edit: July 06, 2017, 10:13:39 AM by dragoncar »

zolotiyeruki

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #3 on: July 06, 2017, 07:05:56 PM »
You're starting from a premise that this is somehow illegal. I'm not sure I start with that same premise, but instead would look for the precise law or ordinance that you think you'd be violating and see if there's a way to work around/with that.

On the practicality side, there are grid-tie inverters that automatically shutdown to prevent islanding (that protects line workers) and in fact most do this by default. If you're looking to do this on a small scale, I'd consider it a hobby/engineering project and absent a specific law/ordinance that you were violating, would think of it as approximately as illegal as growing your own food, meaning that you should be concerned with safety issues, but once those are covered, that which is not illegal is legal, IMO.

Ha, well it's true to find an ordinance I'd have to pick a jurisdiction, and I'm just thinking generically here.  I would say in most places I've lived, you can't hook up install solar panels to your electrical system without some kind of permit, because you basically can't do anything without a permit.  Thus "illegal," if only in a more innocuous sense of the word (where I live now you would just get fined 2x the original price of the permit which could end up being cheap if inflation is high and it's not discovered for a few years -- this doesn't apply to things that would require expensive demolition/reconstruction)

I guess I didn't make it clear that we aren't paying permit fees or otherwise notifying the utility/city.

I was curious what would happen at the billing level with a typical utility.  Would they notice the change and come kick your ass?
No, the utility would probably not notice the change.  You'd probably get away with it, as long as neighbors didn't squeal on you.

In a lot of ways, this gets back to the (oft-debated) question about whether permits are really worth the cost/hassle if you're going to do things according to the code anyway.

BudgetSlasher

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #4 on: July 06, 2017, 07:35:32 PM »
How will it effect your bill?

Well, if your smart meter is as challenged as the one we have here . . . it will register all kwh, in and out, as kwh to be billed and jack up your bill.

If you meter is a smart meter that reports in and out to the utility . . . you will probably be found out as having an unapproved and un-permitted installation pretty quick. (This assume that you are exporting a significant amount at times; if all of your power production is consumed behind the meter and not exported they will never know). Even our poorly implemented smart meters provide hourly data and negative hourly data without an interconnect agreement (at least as required here) will probably raise some eyebrows.

If you have an old dumb meter, I am not really sure.

In addition here, a permitted installation is allowed to carry forward credits from months where more was generated than consumed. I bet a carry forward credit on an account without an interconnect agreement would raise an eyebrow or two.

Another Reader

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #5 on: July 06, 2017, 07:54:24 PM »
I wonder if it might be possible to set up separate circuits that do not feed into the grid-tied panel.  For example, I have great western exposure on my roof.  It would be nice to put the A/C on switchable circuits.  From, say, 2 PM to 5 PM, the A/C could operate on solar.  Once the sun starts to drop, turn the system off and then turn on the grid-tied circuit.  To the utility, it would look like you just got home from work and turned the A/C on.

sokoloff

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #6 on: July 07, 2017, 04:28:06 AM »
I wouldn't want to hard cut the power to my HVAC twice a day with an eye towards "saving money somehow". I'd worry about the wear on the mechanical system in that case. I also wouldn't try to cut over a running HVAC from one to another unsynchronized 240VAC source. At some point, it becomes cheaper, easier, and wiser to "go legit" and I say that as a fiercely libertarian mechanical engineer.

Another Reader

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #7 on: July 07, 2017, 06:33:57 AM »
I would only do that when it cycled off.

Actually, I'm wondering if it's possible to run two different systems simultaneously, one grid tied and one off grid.  I know people that run their detached "shed" offices off solar.  No A/C, but lights, a fan, and all the computer equipment. 

Spork

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #8 on: July 07, 2017, 09:41:39 AM »
I wonder if it might be possible to set up separate circuits that do not feed into the grid-tied panel.  For example, I have great western exposure on my roof.  It would be nice to put the A/C on switchable circuits.  From, say, 2 PM to 5 PM, the A/C could operate on solar.  Once the sun starts to drop, turn the system off and then turn on the grid-tied circuit.  To the utility, it would look like you just got home from work and turned the A/C on.

It could be easily set up the way many of us do generators: by back feeding into the panel.  In the case of solar, you'd probably want a sub-panel with your "solar driven power" on it that you would isolate from your main panel.

I just have a separate circuit for back feed in... with a lock out between that circuit and the utility power feed.


I monitor the feed with a watt meter and switch on/off circuits to keep it within reasonable range for the generator.
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WSUCoug1994

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #9 on: July 07, 2017, 09:43:02 AM »
I am not sure I understand what you are trying to avoid.  The cost of the permits?  I am sure that you can learn enough online to do this property and have it signed off by county/city/utility.  It was a cheap and painless process for me.  It would cost you more money to wire a second run to your AC than it would be to get a permit.  Electricity at these levels are no joke.  You would need to really understand your supply and demand curve because if you were running your AC on solar (without batteries) and it suddenly became overcast you have the potential of doing some serious damage to your equipment if you all of the sudden don't have enough power.

I will tell you that the utility knew exactly when my grid went live.  The guys were testing the system and within hours I could see the excess energy being calculated by my utility.  I am not sure how "smart" my meter is but as soon as it was going backwards they picked up on it.

dragoncar

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #10 on: July 07, 2017, 01:04:17 PM »
I wouldn't want to hard cut the power to my HVAC twice a day with an eye towards "saving money somehow". I'd worry about the wear on the mechanical system in that case. I also wouldn't try to cut over a running HVAC from one to another unsynchronized 240VAC source. At some point, it becomes cheaper, easier, and wiser to "go legit" and I say that as a fiercely libertarian mechanical engineer.

Lennox makes "solar ready" AC units that you can directly wire to solar panels.  Supposedly it uses it "first" for AC then feeds anything left over back to your home -- so presumably it comes with some kind of controller.  But it's also possible that it's just a marketing gimmick for an AC unit that just has an extra set of terminals, and the control is coming from some other standard solar equipment.


Jrr85

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #11 on: July 07, 2017, 01:24:08 PM »
OK, so let me preface this totally hypothetical question: I have no intention of doing this.  It's just out of curiosity

I've been thinking about making some kind of totally illegal solar panel array, sort of like this thing but without the flower BS.  More like shed that holds folded up solar panels, and a track that they open onto (forming a pergola of sorts).

Anyways, lets say you tie this into your home without permits or utility approval.  Yeah, I know it's dangerous for lineworkers if you energize lines incorrectly -- lets assume we have a smart shut-off or whatever so it's not unethical, just illegal.  How will this affect your bill?  The utlity won't be set up for net metering, so maybe it'll mess up your meter?  If you generate less than you use, on an instantaneous basis, it should be basically undetectable, right?  Only when you start feeding energy back to the grid will you run into problems?

Again, solar isn't even feasible for me now... I've just been wondering about this possible way to straddle being on and off the grid in solar-hostile jurisdictions

If you have a dumb meter, I believe it will actually run backwards.  You probably won't get caught unless you are unlucky or unless the company has good enough billing software to red flag you (which will probably only happen if your utility has experienced a problem with unauthorized hookups). 

If you have a smart meter, it will depend on how it is set up.  Many utilities set their smart meters to measure kwh going in or out as sales, so if you push power to the grid without authorization, it will actually increase your bill and the utility will probably rely on surprised owners to come to them, although if they are worried enough about safety they may be looking for negative flows.

Alternatively, the smart meter could be set up to measure flows back to the grid and those flows simply not affect your bill one way or another.  I'm not sure if most utilities would catch this, but because of the potential safety issues, utilities following good practice will have their smart billing software set up to flag unauthorized flows back to the grid. 

It really is pointless to try to interconnect with the distribution grid without getting utility signoff.  If you are trying to steal power, you are not going to save enough to make it worth the risk.  If you just don't want to deal with permitting and associated costs, your are risking criminal liability if somebody gets hurt.  And the vast majority of people that you could trust to do it right are going to be people that want to do it with a permit anyway, so you are going to run a high likelihood of getting work that is not to code while also leaving a pretty good paper trail that you were aware of the risks to other people. 

BudgetSlasher

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #12 on: July 07, 2017, 05:05:56 PM »
I would only do that when it cycled off.

Actually, I'm wondering if it's possible to run two different systems simultaneously, one grid tied and one off grid.  I know people that run their detached "shed" offices off solar.  No A/C, but lights, a fan, and all the computer equipment.

It would be possible, but to account for demand at night or when cloudy they system would have to include batteries for storage which increases the cost; in addition to the batteries you will need all of the associated equipment such as a more expensive inverter and/or charge controller. And if you have a season with lower production, such as winters in northern climates (due to shorter days), you may not even get the benefit of what you produce because it may not reliably power your demands and they will have to be switched to grid power. That is assuming that what you are powering you want to reliably be powered.

I would suggest that you focus your efforts at this time of finding a way to do a legit installation in a "solar-hostile" jurisdiction, rather than scheming a way to do an "illegal" installation. If it is the utility and not the government that is hostile, you may be able to properly permit your solar electrical island. If it is the jurisdiction that is solar hostile and not the utility, do you really think you go undetected? I know of a case where a guy was caught not because the jurisdiction found him, but because his next door neighbor liked the project (not solar) so much he asked the city what permits he would need to do the same thing; I bet you can guess the city was not too pleased went out and saw.

Also, what happens if/when you go to sell and you have an solar installation and all of the other electrical wiring is also unpermitted, maybe even the structure?

Another Reader

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #13 on: July 07, 2017, 05:16:46 PM »
I wouldn't do it, but I suspect some "early adopter" out there might.  California is solar happy and PG&E goes along for the ride, although the benefits are declining. 

I know people that put panels on their "shed" roof and did not hook up to the grid.  They use the office set up part time, probably for peace and quiet away from the kids.  They probably write a lot of the improvements off.

Cadman

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #14 on: July 12, 2017, 07:53:50 PM »
Even if you're secretly grid-tied, I think the biggest problem here is that you'll need LOTS of panels to make any kind of useful power. Our 10kw array is on the order of 50'x12' or so and averages 60khw/day during the summer, but at any given time, the output could vary from a few hundred watts to 7-8kw depending on cloud cover and sun angle.

Now, for an off-grid home with battery storage and very low consumption loads, you could probably get away with a portable array you pull out of the shed..

nawhite

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #15 on: July 19, 2017, 10:41:04 AM »
Running dual systems (one off grid with grid backup and one on grid) in your house should be totally fine but you'll need to clearly mark every outlet on the off grid system so that an electrician who comes in later knows which have power when the mains are cut. That said, it wouldn't be cheap as you'd need batteries and some heavy duty monitoring equipment.

If you're curious about the hardware, let me know, I've done mini-off-grid systems for RVs a number of times.
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Syonyk

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #16 on: July 20, 2017, 09:37:48 AM »
I know people that put panels on their "shed" roof and did not hook up to the grid.  They use the office set up part time, probably for peace and quiet away from the kids.  They probably write a lot of the improvements off.

I'm one of those. ;)  My "storage shed" has almost 3kW of panel hung, a 12kWh battery bank out back, and a backup generator that I use in the winter because snow covered panels don't produce much, and even if they're cleared, dark winter clouds don't let many photos through.  But I have no permiting requirements or anything along those lines because the space is too small - I'm under 100 sq ft, and outbuildings out here aren't anyone's issue unless they're >200 sq ft.  Since I don't touch the power grid, the utility doesn't care either.  Though, the downside is, I literally can't use all the power I generate in the summer.  Even with Folding@Home and BOINC, I curtail the panel output regularly.

And, yes, it's a great place to work away from wife/kid.  Also, I do things that I don't like doing in a house (battery pack rebuilds, soldering, occasionally testing some bit of small electronics to failure).  Worst case, my office is a good bit away from the house and has not terribly much combustible around it...

Now, for an off-grid home with battery storage and very low consumption loads, you could probably get away with a portable array you pull out of the shed..

That's what some RVers I know do, but they have very, very light loads, and almost everything that matters is propane on their rig (heat, fridge, etc).  I use propane to heat in the winter - though I'm considering maybe a diesel truck aux heater at some point.  I don't like that my propane heater is "direct vent" ("craps where it heats").  I'd like to dump the exhaust outside, but I didn't design a wall heater into my layout and there's no room to retrofit one in. 

Running dual systems (one off grid with grid backup and one on grid) in your house should be totally fine but you'll need to clearly mark every outlet on the off grid system so that an electrician who comes in later knows which have power when the mains are cut. That said, it wouldn't be cheap as you'd need batteries and some heavy duty monitoring equipment.

That sounds like a way to get an electrician to walk in, look around, walk out, and say "Nope."

In addition to being stunningly expensive.

What the OP is missing here is that off grid power is insanely expensive.  It's not cheap.  Solar is only cheap when you can use the grid as a free battery (or otherwise not need to store it).  Batteries, charge controllers, and inverters are all expensive.  I think the 10 year LCOE for my system is 2-3x what I'd be paying for grid power, but trenching power out here would have been difficult, and this gives me a lot of hands on experience with a full off grid system (expertise that is lacking in the area - I have invites to a lot of really interesting places to help people out with systems, when I have time).

Again, solar isn't even feasible for me now... I've just been wondering about this possible way to straddle being on and off the grid in solar-hostile jurisdictions

Usually, if the power company finds non-authorized solar, they come out, take your meter, and tell you that you're on your own now.  So it's a good way to go off grid!
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dragoncar

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #17 on: July 21, 2017, 01:05:59 AM »


That sounds like a way to get an electrician to walk in, look around, walk out, and say "Nope."

This is the best way:


The Money Monk

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #18 on: July 21, 2017, 01:22:58 AM »
OK, so let me preface this totally hypothetical question: I have no intention of doing this.  It's just out of curiosity

I've been thinking about making some kind of totally illegal solar panel array, sort of like this thing but without the flower BS.  More like shed that holds folded up solar panels, and a track that they open onto (forming a pergola of sorts).

Anyways, lets say you tie this into your home without permits or utility approval.  Yeah, I know it's dangerous for lineworkers if you energize lines incorrectly -- lets assume we have a smart shut-off or whatever so it's not unethical, just illegal.  How will this affect your bill?  The utlity won't be set up for net metering, so maybe it'll mess up your meter?  If you generate less than you use, on an instantaneous basis, it should be basically undetectable, right?  Only when you start feeding energy back to the grid will you run into problems?

Again, solar isn't even feasible for me now... I've just been wondering about this possible way to straddle being on and off the grid in solar-hostile jurisdictions

I can't answer your specific questions, but an alternative solution that bypasses the issues entirely is to have your solar system wired completely separately, not tied into your normal house electric at all. You could fairly easily just run cable from the solar system to a new outlet(s) in the 1 or 2 rooms you use most. If you aren't going to be getting paid for 'extra' energy created, then the only benefit of tying into your existing electrical would be to be able to use the existing outlets.

So especially if it would technically be illegal, it might be better to just keep it all separate. There is no way they would ever know without a physical inspection. Then add a battery bank for a truly off-grid system

fixie

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #19 on: August 12, 2017, 05:44:16 PM »
If the goal is to somehow generate some $$ savings or something going grid-tied is the only way.  I'd suggest NOT trying to go around permitting and proper installation mostly because of safety and insurance purposes.  If your house burnt down you'd have some splainin' to do!  Your power still goes out when everyone else's does unless you can work in some battery backup with a disconnect from the grid(again for safety of the line workers etc.)
Installing a PV system with battery backup, inverters, charge controllers, wire, monitoring equipment etc. in order to save a few bucks is a false economy.  In other words, the energy return on investment simply isn't there...something all Mustachians can appreciate!
However, if you were building on a property that did not already have power to the building site, THEN it might make sense to go solar with battery backup...plus the power company can never shut you off.
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bacchi

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #20 on: August 12, 2017, 09:01:59 PM »
If you have a dumb meter, I believe it will actually run backwards.

Yes, an electromechanical meter will run backwards, which is a fun thing to see the first few times it happens.

Weathering

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #21 on: August 12, 2017, 10:04:27 PM »
I've been thinking of something similar. I have a permitted legit solar electric system (14 panels on my roof). But I would like to add two more panels myself. The utility company would never know because the change in power production/consumption will be low (less than 15%). If I were to legitimately have the two additional panels then I would have to go through the entire permitting and approval process again ($$).

So I guess all that I'm adding is that if you do go the legit path then make sure you get your lifetime plan correct the first time so you don't need to get new permits later.

205guy

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #22 on: August 15, 2017, 09:54:05 PM »
I think the other replies have covered the fact that unpermitted grid tie is just too risky to impossible. Smart meters will detect it immediately, and analog meters might run backwards undetected until they send someone out to read it.

So that leaves the solution of having a second independent grid at home. You'd still need the inverter to output alternating current, and then you'd need breaker boxes, wiring, and outlets, so lots of extra costs. But theoretically, this works. For example you could wire up your storage shed, and then plug in a freezer and fridge set really cold. When the sun shines, they run and hopefully keep cold until the next day with sun. The one thing that solar does well is handle reduced load: if you don't have something drawing an excess of solar power, it doesn't hurt the panels or the inverter.

Someone mentioned the problem of power cycling and its effect on appliances, and I think that might be an issue as well. Appliances just aren't designed for intermittent power. I think with the spread of solar, that will change, we will get "smart" appliances that turn on when power is available, even optimize their running to use such power, and tolerate when it isn't.

But without batteries, such a system isn't really good for much. It's not like you see the sun shining, so you go use the second microwave that's plugged into the solar electricity when you want to make lunch, or worse need to unplug and move the appliance. I guess you could wire the solar system next to certain appliances, then you just have to plug and replug them in. For example, you know the sun is shining, so you go to the laundry room, replug the washer into the solar power and do laundry.

But really, solar panels only make financial sense when you can use all the power they produce. So without batteries, you'd need a load that soaks up all the solar power but doesn't mind the intermittent production. That's why I suggested a freezer, to "store" the energy as cold. An electric car might work too, but then you're limited to charging at home when it's sunny. An electric car is just a battery, but it does let you convert that stored energy to mobility.

As mentioned, the other use for solar electricity is air conditioning. Again, it doesn't work to either have 2 air conditioners or to flip a big switch every time you want to use solar, it's just not practical. However, they do make a mini-split unit that takes direct current from solar panels and alternating current from the grid. It uses the solar power when available and complements it with grid power when not. I have one and it works, it runs fully off of 3 300W panels in series (so 900W at around 30-35V DC), and even when it runs off of the grid, it is very efficient. But even that is an inefficient use of the solar panels, so I also store the power in batteries (through a charge controller) and I run 12V DC lights in my house from it. This is a network of 12V LED light fixtures, with their own wiring that I ran through the attic and their own switches. So that uses the solar power to offset some grid usage in my house, but with the cost of batteries and charger, it's still not a cost savings, it's more for a grid alternative backup during extended outages.

FIKristen

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Re: Illegal Solar Panels
« Reply #23 on: September 06, 2017, 09:32:01 PM »
PV installer certificate here.

If you want to know how much energy your panels will produce, go here: http://pvwatts.nrel.gov

If you want to know how it will impact your bill, that's another story.    Currently, if you live in the USA, you qualify for a 30% tax credit on the total installed cost of your system (not just the panels - panels + parts + labor etc).   The national average rooftop system is about 5 kW and costs $3/watt as of early 2017 - that works out to about $15,000.    The parts alone constitute about $4,000-5,000; the other costs include permitting, labor, overhead, etc.    After the tax credits, it comes out to more like $10,000-$11,000.   Here in Colorado, such a system could easily produce 8,000-10,000 kWh / year.   That equates to $800 - $1,000 / year worth of energy at an average rate of $0.10 / kWh : about an 8-10% ROI, not bad.  At this point multiple studies by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, National Renewable Energy Lab & others have shown that houses with "owned" solar PV systems (not leased) increase home sale value ~5% or more, which generally more than pays for the system itself.

If you decide to install a DIY system of any significant size without grid interconnection, you will save on labor and permits...but you probably have to install a battery bank - otherwise the energy produced will be wasted unless you are using it all when the sun shines.    That will probably wipe out much of the savings you were looking for. 

  If you live in an area where your utility offers "net metering," take them up on this deal: that way you don't have to install an expensive battery bank, they just deduct the extra energy you don't use from your next month's bill.