Thinking about a solar roof? So am I

On morning walks with my dogs, I’ve been noticing more and more solar roof panels appearing on homes in our neighborhood in Scottsdale. Living in the Southwest where sunshine is abundant, it makes perfect sense and I understand the appeal. As time has gone by, I’ve found myself becoming increasingly intrigued by the growing trend. I decided it was time to do a little research, and decide if solar might be a good choice for my home, too.

Solar technology, as you may already know, isn’t really new. Solar panels—actually, photovoltaic (PV) panels—were first invented in the 1950s. Since then, though, these panels have undergone many changes. Over the past 60 years, they have become smaller and more efficient. Recently, the technology has progressed to the point where the roofing material itself can be made of PV panels.

Of course, because I work in risk management, I believe in thinking things through—examining the issues, options, and potential challenges and benefits before making the leap. My job (and my passion) is understanding people and their homes. With any new technology, there are always unintended consequences that can be better understood. So here’s what I did.

Exploring the options


I started by looking at all the possibilities for solar roofing. There are two basic types of systems: roof-mounted PV panels and integrated systems.
Roof-mounted panels are the most common: PV panels on aluminum racks are attached to your home’s existing roof. The existing roof is (for the most part) undisturbed, except where the rack components mechanically attach to the structure.

The second type—integrated systems—incorporate newer technologies and affix directly to the roof, or increasingly, are dual-purpose products where the PV panel itself is actually the roofing material. This is really where solar roofs get interesting! The solar panels essentially replace the existing roofing materials and, depending on the manufacturer, the panels more or less blend in. Integrated systems are quickly becoming the choice for most homeowners for their sleek low-profile design and high performance. Now, they also offer a wide variety of options for manufacturers, designs and applications.

At the front of the pack for integrated solar roofing systems is Tesla, owned by innovator Elon Musk. They’ve introduced a product that is a big step forward in solar technology: an entire solar roofing system. The roof is engineered to maximize the capture of solar energy (each section is outfitted with the appropriate type of panel to soak up maximum sun), and also maintains a fairly uniform appearance. The system can also integrate the roof technology with a battery system, which can provide backup power to your home in the event of utility failure. Their website includes tools and calculators to help guide your decision-making process and connect you with local resources.


Doing your homework


The first step in choosing a system, I learned, is to find out if your home is a good candidate for a solar roof of any kind. Some simple, but useful advice I found is that websites that aren’t tied to any one product can be great sources of impartial information. For example, Google’s Project Sunroof lets you use its 3D imaging model to enter your home address and estimate the cost effectiveness of solar panels for your home, taking square footage, solar exposure, and other geo and structural factors into account.

As I’m weighing a particular solar system or design, I also want to know about building codes—does the solar roofing system you are considering comply with the same building code standards as traditional roofing materials? Does the PV system meet UL790 Class A for fire resistance? This is incredibly important for people living in wildfire-prone areas. For homes in coastal areas, is the system rated to meet or exceed UL1897 for wind resistance? Or, for properties located in the “hail belt,” how comfortable would you be exposing a roof that potentially costs 10 times that of traditional materials to an assault by golf-ball sized chunks of ice?

(Side note: There is some controversy online about whether some manufacturers’ hail resistance tests fairly model real-world situations. To my knowledge, there has been no hail-damage product testing of the most recent solar designs done by any independent organizations, such as UL or the Insurance Institute for Home and Business Safety.


Knowing the right questions to ask


Once you’ve decided to install a solar system on your home, it’s time to turn to evaluating the type, provider, and installation provider that will be the best fit. Both the Federal Trade Commission and the US Department of Energy have great websites with helpful information about solar technology, how solar systems connect to home utility services and, most importantly, how to choose the right provider. It’s very important to select a manufacturer that will help you choose an installer with experience and good references. But be cautious: the low bid isn’t necessarily the right choice.

Before you buy, ask your contractors or installer questions like these:

  • How exactly will their system attach to your home?
  • What methods are used to prevent water leaks?
  • How many of this particular system have they installed, and have there been any issues?
  • Can the installation be completed in one day, and if not, how will they protect your home in the meantime?
  • If you are unhappy with the system, do they offer a guarantee to restore your roof to its original condition?
  • What insurance does the contractor carry in the event of damage as a result of their workmanship?

I’m excited about energy conservation, and the prospect of relying less on utilities to keep our family running. Like all decisions, I believe careful consideration here is pretty important—especially with newer products such as the integrated entire-roof system. With some well-directed research, a new understanding of the costs and benefits of solar roofs, and by being mindful in the choice of manufacturers and contractors, I hope to soon be one of those neighbors other dog walkers look to and think: “Wow, maybe I should go solar, too!”

Christi Kosters is a Risk Management Specialist at Berkley One.