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The Complete Guide to Installing Solar Panels in Alberta

From selecting a company to flipping the switch and everything in between, this is all you need to know about installing solar power on your home/business

The Complete Guide to Installing Solar Panels in Alberta

Solar panels are quickly becoming mainstream, especially here in Alberta.  As this new technology evolves, so does the industry and the number of people wanting to install solar panels on their home and the number of solar installers offering their services.

Investing in a new technology can be quite daunting, especially if you don’t have previous experience in the industry or know the right questions to ask. 

Why did we write this?

Educating clients is the most important thing we as solar professionals can do.  With so many new innovations in the industry and new solar installers in Alberta, it is prudent that we try to empower people to make informed decisions for themselves. 

This guide will cover everything you need to know about installing solar panels on your home and give you direct questions you can ask to ensure you are making the soundest decision.  We will cover selecting a solar installer, how the construction process/solar energy works, ideal homes for solar, what questions you can ask to be better prepared and finally, what you can expect out of your solar power system.

Who is this guide for?

The Complete Guide to Installing Solar Panels in Alberta is for anyone who is considering an investment in a solar power system.  Even if you don’t want to install solar this year, this guide will give you all the baseline information you need to make the right decision when the time comes. 

The guide is written for anyone interested in photovoltaic technology in Canada (although special credence is paid to the Alberta solar market).

Choosing a solar company

Alberta solar installers

There are lots of Alberta solar contractors to choose from and picking the right one might seem like picking a needle out of a haystack. To help with this and to eliminate any potential bias from us as a solar installer (obviously, we would appreciate your business) you can read the Solar Energy Society of Alberta’s post on how to choose a solar provider.

You can view a complete list of Alberta solar companies and their specific qualifications through the Solar Energy Society of Alberta.

What to expect from an Alberta solar installer

Expect a quick phone conversation which will answer many of your specific questions such as:

·         What happens to solar panels in winter?

·         How do the modules stand up to hail?

·         What is the product warranty? (See below)

·         How much do solar panels cost?

·         Are there any Alberta solar power grants?

·         How much money will solar energy save me?

These are just a few of the common questions, I am sure you will have more relating to your specific project.   Your solar installer should be able to confidently answer any and all your questions (if not, give us a ring). 

Your solar contractor should also provide a free estimate and free site appraisal (we will touch more on the site appraisal later on), outlining all pertinent information such as system cost, energy output, material listing, payment schedule etc. 

Residential solar panels Edmonton
Edmonton Solar Panels Installed by Kuby Energy, 2016

What to ask for

It is good practice to take an in-depth look at the solar contractor’s business.  The system will be with you for 25+ years so you want to make sure you get this right. A few key areas to inquire about:

  • How long the solar company has been around?
  • Are they a general electrical contractor, or do they specialize in solar energy?
  • How many solar power systems have they installed?
  • What warranties do they offer (both material warranties and workmanship warranties)?
  • What certifications do they have?
  •    Are they members of SESA?
  •    Are they members of CanSIA?
  •    Are they a licensed electrical contractor?
  •   Are they a member of APEGA or do they have APEGA members on staff?
  • What personnel do they have?
  •    Master electrician(s)?
  •    Journeyman electrician(s)
  •    Professional Engineer(s)?
  •    Who is doing the work? Electricians? Labourers?
  • Do they subcontract any of the work out?
  • How long will the solar installation take?
  • When can the installation be completed?
  • Where are they based out of?  Edmonton solar installers will be the most cost effective if you live in Edmonton.  Similarly, Edmonton solar installers might cost a little more if you live in the South-East corner of Alberta (granted, there is much more to consider when selecting a solar contractor than just the cost).
  • What is the payment schedule?
  • Does the solar installer have liability insurance (at least $2,000,000 but preferably $5,000,000)
  • Was the contract drawn up by a lawyer?  What are the terms?
  • Does the solar installer have WCB coverage? Does it include director coverage?

These are a few of the key areas you should know about when choosing a solar contractor.   

We recommend not selecting a company based purely on cost alone.  The lowest price may seem attractive, but the adage ‘you get what you pay for’ seems to hold true time and time again.  Solar panels will be on your home, possibly penetrating your roof, for 25+ years. The cheapest option is seldom the best, it certainly can be, but definitely consider more than the cost of the solar panels.  

All black solar panels Edmonton Alberta
Solar Panels in Edmonton Installed by Kuby Energy, 2016

How the Installation Process Works

The solar installation process is quite simple.  The process will vary from one solar installer to the next, but in general there are four basic steps involved:

1.       Free Appraisal – after a quick phone call and some number crunching, you will be provided a very high-level ballpark estimate remotely, based off satellite imagery in the area.   We ask that you provide your address, and kWh consumption as well as some general information on your goals and what you hope to achieve and when you hope to achieve it.  Those last two points are extremely important to us; everyone has different goals and we want to  make sure we are taking care of your exact needs - not our previous clients'.  Although estimates can be given remotely, visiting the site is prudent prior to installation.  During a site appraisal, your existing electrical infrastructure will be inspected noting any upgrades that may be required.  Similarly, your trusses and/or shingles may be inspected to ensure that a solar power system is viable on your home.  If your trusses, membranes or general structure are not in perfect condition, a Professional Engineer will be called to verify the structural integrity of the building.

2.       Proposal – we will then draw up a detailed proposal for you.  In this we will include various system size and component options, outlining various colour and cost options for you to choose from.  Everyone has a unique taste, architecture and budget so we outline all your options and include our recommendations based on our conversations with you.   

3.       Installation – Most solar installations can be completed in just one day.  Large residential and commercial projects will likely take longer, but in general expect a fully functional solar power system to be completed in a day or two. All Kuby Energy solar projects are designed by Engineers registered with APEGA and installed by certified electricians under the guidance of a Master Electrician. 

4.       Commissioning – This is the final stage where we verify code compliance and proper system functionality.  During this stage, your system will be inspected by the proper authorities to ensure it meets the Canadian Electrical Code standards.  After system commissioning we will walk you through your online monitoring system so you can see your live and historical system performance. 

Following your Micro-generation project notice, your wire service provider (WSP) will replace your current electrical meter with a bi-directional meter.  This device allows them to monitor how much solar energy you import and export so they can credit you. 

Ground Mounted Edmonton Solar Panels Installed by Kuby Energy, 2016

What is Needed to Install Solar Panels?

There is not too many pieces of information required to install solar panels and everything that is needed will be provided by your solar contractor (at least it should be). To complete a solar power installation in Alberta, four documents may be required:

1.       An electrical permit.  This is pulled by a Master Electrician and lets the local electrical authorities know what work is being completed and where.  Homeowners can pull their own permit, however we do not recommend completing any electrical work unless you are a qualified electrician.

2.       A micro-generation project notice.  This form is submitted to the wire service provided and allows you to export your solar energy back to your electrical retailer for a credit.  You will see a Micro-Generation Credit line appear on your monthly power bill to see exactly how much energy you exported that billing period. 

3.       A development permit.  This is not required in every jurisdiction, but is sometimes required.

4.       Grant Application.  Depending on what classification the solar installation is (residential, commercial, municipal, farm, first nation etc.) you will need to apply for a specific grant.  Once again, we will complete this step or as much as possible on your behalf.  Most grants require a few different documents (including the aforementioned 3 items) to receive funding.  What is required for the new Alberta Solar Power Rebate is still unknown since the guidelines are not finalized yet.  Based on past grants, we estimate you will need a finalized quote from a solar installer, the two or three documents cited above and possibly an Engineered certification of the system but that is all speculation at this point.  

Is My Home Good for Solar Power?

There is usually no issues with most home solar power installations.  Some homes are more capable of generating solar energy than others, but in general, most homes are suitable candidates for solar installations. 

Ideal Home

The ideal tilt and orientation of solar panels is due South (azimuth = 180 degrees) at a tilt close to the latitude.  For Edmonton, the latitude = 53 degrees but a 45-degree tilt or a 12:12 pitch is nearly identical in energy production and is a much more common pitch.

If your home does not have a 12:12 pitch facing south, don’t worry.  There will be energy losses, but nothing detrimental.  The average Alberta home has a pitch of 4:12 or approximately 18 degrees.  If this home is facing due south, it will experience approximately 9% energy losses relative to the ideal tilt/azimuth.

If your home is facing East and West that is ok too.  You will experience approximately 24% energy losses for homes facing East and West if your home has a pitch of 4:12. This is not damaging though, as the losses in energy can usually be made up for by installing more solar panels on the larger area provided from two major roof faces.

Obstructions

Vents, chimneys, trees and other shading sources will negatively affect your solar power system. 

A good solar installer in Alberta, or anywhere for that matter will position the modules to avoid obstructions and maximize solar harvest.  If you are in the design stage of building a new home, then it would be wise to position all the vents on the North side of the home or at the very least, group them together near the crests to allow for the maximum number of solar panels to be installed.

How Solar Energy Works?

This section will cover exactly how sunlight turns into cash in your pocket. We cover how solar works in more detail, but in general, it is as follows:

How Solar Power in Alberta Works
Solar Power in Alberta

1.       Photovoltaic input - Light shines on the solar panels which generate DC electricity

2.       Inversion – DC electricity passes through an inverter(s) which outputs AC electricity.  Most Alberta homes and businesses use AC electricity (residential = 120/240V, commercial = 120/208V, 480V, 600V) so we must convert the voltage into a useable form.

3.       Distribution – The solar power system is tied into the breaker panel where the solar energy can be distributed/used throughout the home.  You will use any generated solar energy first, and any additional energy that can’t be supplied by the solar panels (such as at night or during winter) will be imported from the grid as usual (this is one of the key advantages of solar power in Alberta). 

4.       Generate Credit -  If you generate more solar energy than you need, you will export your energy to your retailer who will credit you on your monthly bill.   By generating solar energy, you no longer import as much energy.  By not importing energy, not only do you reduce your energy charge, but you also reduce your transmission and distribution fees too!

If you get a power bill every month, you are interconnected to the grid (‘grid-tied’).  By ‘grid’ we mean the Alberta electricity infrastructure – power lines running from you home to various substations and power plants that give you energy. Here is the best part:

Grid-tied solar power installations do not need batteries!

People always ask us where the batteries go because they think we are taking them ‘off-grid.’  Being off-grid means you have no power lines running to your home and are completely independent of the Alberta power grid. With solar panels, you are still connected to the grid, you just won’t need it as often.

Batteries are not needed because of point #4 above.  Any excess solar energy that you generate can be sold back to your retailer for a credit.   So rather then store your energy in a battery bank, you can sell it and make money from it.

With that said, if you want or need backup power when the grid goes down or you live off-grid, then batteries are an ideal means of retaining your standard of living.

The Tesla Powerwall 2 is now available in Alberta through Kuby Renewable Energy. This energy storage system is the most state of the art (and sexy) battery on the market today.

Tesla Powerwall 2 in Edmonton Alberta
Tesla Powerwall 2 - Now Available in Alberta through Kuby Energy!

What to Expect from your Solar Power System

Financially

One common misconception is that the solar panels will pay for themselves in three to five years and will make you rich.  Another equally unfortunate misconception is that solar panels will never pay for themselves and are a poor investment. 

Both are incorrect.  The truth lies somewhere in the middle. 

Solar power systems will typically pay for themselves in 12 to 15 years depending on the size of your system and the grants that are available to you.  In select cases, under favourable conditions, a solar power system may pay for itself in less than 10 years, but we like to err on the side of caution and not overpromise on your investment.

Warranty

Your solar panels are performance warrantied for 25 years and are expected to last for 30+ years.  Solar panels also come with a 10-year material warranty as well.

Inverters generally come with a 10 or 12-year warranty which you can extend to 25 years as well. 

Performance

Solar energy generation will follow a bell curve over the course of a year as shown below by the sample production graph.  Most solar energy will be generated in the spring, summer and fall month, with very little production coming in the winter.  This is to be expected and does not mean that solar doesn’t work.

Sample Edmonton Solar Energy Output
Edmonton Solar Energy Output Sample Curve

How much solar energy your panels will produce depends on a few key factors: your roof tilt (standard roof pitch is 4:12), your azimuth (degrees from North), and how many obstructions you have (how much shade will fall on the solar panels).  The average Alberta home will need ~20 to 24 solar panels to be electrically net zero (i.e. to not pay for electrical energy again). 

Alberta Solar Rebates

There are multiple solar power grants and rebates available to Albertans. 

Residential and Commercial Solar Program

The most recent and prominent incentive is the Alberta Residential and Commercial Solar Rebate.

This is a broad based solar rebate targeting most homes and businesses in Alberta.

Residential solar installations will receive $0.75/W up to 30% or $10,000 off their solar power system. Commercial solar installs will receive $0.75/W up to 25% or $500,000 off their solar power system.

The guidelines are still being finalized, but you can read more details using the previous link.

Conclusion

The most important part of the whole process is choosing the right solar installer.  We recommend not choosing a contractor based purely on cost, and to highly consider their qualifications and what they will provide you.  When in doubt, trust your gut.  The lowest cost option may have been a suitable criterion for choosing beer when you were 20, but it might not be sufficient when selecting a solar installer to put a life-long investment on your home. 

We hope that you have gained a little more insight into a few different aspects of installing residential solar panels in Alberta.  The same methodology will apply to commercial applications, although a more detailed financial analysis will occur.

To reduce any uncertainty and misunderstandings, communication is key.  Discuss any and all questions you have with your solar contractor, don’t assume anything. 

At Kuby Energy, we strive to make the process as simple and stress-free for you as possible.  This is why we take care of every step of the process including all the paperwork, engineering and installation.  We don’t use outside subcontractors so you can rest easy knowing that certified electricians completed your solar installation.

Even if you don’t choose us as your solar installer, you can always reach out for a second opinion or to learn more on solar power in Alberta.

Questions, comments or concerns? We would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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