If you stood in our front lawn and gazed up at our roof, it looked fine- just like a shingled roof should look. Our inspectors had blessed it when we bought our house two years ago. Of course this same inspector missed the fact that daylight was visible from our attic around the bathroom exhaust fan pipe which had lost its ring seal- but that’s another story (and a good one that involved me worming my way over attic insulation in a gas mask with full cans of caulk and spray foam insulation in the dark in the February cold). But I digress. The roof.
I had a feeling that a 27 year old roof might not be in the pristine shape it appeared to be, so I asked a roofer if he’d be interested in coming over to look at it and provide me a quote for replacement, just in the off-chance that I’d need it. When he arrived we circled the house and he pointed out how some of the singles had a mild warp that caused their exposed ends to turn upwards. “That’s an early sign that they’re getting old. It’s not too bad. I’d say your roof has 5 to 10 more years in it.” He then cheerfully provided me the gut-wrenching $10,000 quote to replace said fully functional roof.
I began a long and almost-successful line of thinking that went like this: since solar radiation, temperature fluctuations and the impact of rain, hail, etc are what cause the most damage to roof shingles over time, installing solar panels over those singles might well protect them, extending their lifetime. Perhaps installing panels that will last 25-30+ years over 5-10 year shingles will magically convert those singles to 25-30 year shingles. This was a tempting line of thought with $10,000 was at stake and I indulged in it.
But what if I installed the panels somewhere other than my roof? Surely delaying a $10,000 expense for 5-10 years was worth the effort of considering a ground-mounted array. The trouble with ground-based arrays at my house is two-fold. My yard is quite well ringed by 50-75 foot tall trees and though we have some good areas of southern exposure for the panels, the trees would shade them for certain parts of the day or could even fall on them. I found myself considering how many of my trees I’d have to cut down to install solar panels. Sure, I’d chainsaw them up and burn them for heat, but still, it just felt wrong. We like our trees. I also had visions of our 4 clever pet goats finding a way up on top of a ground-mounted array and cavorting over our kilowatt generators and prancing on our panels. I considered a pole-mounted rotating panel array but the price per kilowatt hour was always 10-30% greater than a similar roof-based array, plus the ten year warranty on the hydraulic rotator didn’t reassure me.
Community solar offered an alternative to all this roof and ground confusion and it was (and is) taking off in Maine. Basically, anyone who lacks a good roof for solar (so most people) can get together with 9 other people and all buy panels that are sited in a field (typically a field owned by one of the 9 members). The beauty of this system is that a condo dweller in Portland can own solar panels in Penobscott that offset their Central Maine Power (CMP) electric bill every month. Anyone in the CMP service area all over Maine can do this anywhere in that service area. Maine has a net metering law whereby any excess power generated by one’s panels in a given month is banked as credit for 12 months until it expires. So in sunny summer months, solar owners can generate double or triple their usage while in the dark colder months they can use up the credits they banked so a properly sized system it averages out to about $0 each year.
There was only one company in Maine offering to facilitate community solar farms, and that was Revision Energy. They had given me some very competitive quotes and even offered their own 2.99% fixed rate financing on projects with a 12 year loan where the monthly payments came out to be very close to my current average electric bill payments. It seemed like a no-brainer. Except that community solar projects have extra costs. Lawyers are involved, landowners have to be paid rent, fields have to be mowed, the group has to insure its panels etc. Nonetheless, I pursued the idea but Revision kept discouraging me from trying because I had a perfectly situated south-facing roof. They insisted that I’d be paying more per kilowatt hour to go with community solar. A ten percent extra cost on a five-figure project is nothing to sneeze at. The fact that the cheapest quotes were always for people to climb up on my roof rather than work comfortably on the ground felt counter-intuitive, but it proved universally true- roofs are cheapest.
Both Rob and Revision had been firm in one thing: I’d be crazy to put brand new panels on a really old roof. I was so eager not to pay $10,000 to replace my roof that I even had Revision quote me how much it would cost to simply remove and reinstall the panels 10 years from now when I actually did have to replace my roof. After some head-scratching the answer of several thousand dollars came back. And the level-headed suggestion that I replace my roof. Rob brought up a genius idea, as he is wont to do: why not just replace half the roof?
Eureeka! In fact, I really only had to replace about 40% (3 of 4 front pitches) of the entire roof to cover the area under where panels would go. I finally met with Rob for about two hours and got down to brass tacks.
We fully analyzed the pros and cons of ground mounted and tracker panels vs. a roof array and he provided a roof array quote that I reckoned as the cheapest (per kilowatt hour-installed) and highest quality of all the quotes I’d received. Plus, he had a really cool crystal ball instrument of sorts that allowed us to view how my trees would block a ground mounted array at all times of the day throughout the entire year. Rob got his calculator in full gear and something told me that the months I had spent quoting, questioning and analyzing needed transform into action- this was the best I was gonna get. I told him that I needed to figure out the roof situation and financing situation and I’d be back in touch.
Both happened quickly. I got a loan for the full amount of the panels and A+ Roofing gave me a jaw droppingly affordable quote of just over $3000 to replace my roof with energy star architectural shingles that reflect (rather than absorb) most of the sunlight that hits them. Game on. Roofers were soon swarming over our house, producing so much thudding that our cat’s years of paranoid vigilance proved to be warranted as she cowered in the basement expecting monsters to eat her at any moment. I estimate that the roofers smoked about one cigarette for every ten shingles they installed, but that was none of my business- it’s a damn hard job and my hat is off to anyone who can shimmy up a two story ladder with 70 pounds of equipment on their backs. A crane came and hoisted pallets of new shingles up and the men set to work with what looked like giant crowbars to pry off the old shingles into a giant tarp set up over our flower beds and plants below. They had our roof stripped bare, re-shingled, flashed, and ready for the senior prom in about six hours. Then they were cleaned up and gone with only a few scraps and cigarette butts left in their wake before I even got home from work. It was awe inspiring. They do indeed earn an A+.
Now the roof was ready...