Andalay Solar shopping at Lowe’s

[Sunnyvale, California USA]

Andalay AC Solar Panels (“Photovoltaic modules”) and system installation accessories are in stock though collateral lags.
Plug and play AC panels enable near do-it-yourself installations once the permitting and interconnection process is simplified.

From Andalay Solar shopping at Lowe’s

When I saw the Akeena Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ:AKNS) announcement, “Akeena Solar’s Andalay AC Solar Panels Now Available at Lowe’s Home Improvement Stores”, I checked with the public relations folks and discovered one of the select 21 Lowe’s stores stocking Andalay Solar was nearby. So Friday evening, December 12, 2009, I went shopping at Lowe’s (NYSE:LOW) for solar and a very necessary set of LED icicle lights.

After wandering about Lowe’s and finding no solar joy in the Electrical aisle, I decided to ask an associate. I was directed and then lead by the Lowe’s associate to the Energy Center located in Building Materials two (2) aisles down from Electrical.

And there they were. Andalay AC (Alternating Current) solar panels ready for experienced contractors or ambitious do-it-yourself (DIY) homeowners to purchase and install. The Andalay AC panels had a retail price of $893 or about $5.10 per Watt (W) for the AC panels uninstalled and sans sales tax. Andalay accessories included things like Splice Kits, mounting Roof Kits, Extension Cables, an AC Kit, and Monitoring Unit.

As an engineer, I’m disappointed the Andalay AC Datasheet is just a combination of a Suntech Power Holdings Co., Ltd. (NYSE:STP) photovoltaic (PV) module with Andalay mounting system and Enphase Energy M190 Microinverter Datasheet specifications. It’s easy to forget this is an AC panel when the wattage rating is in DC (Direct Current).

However, by integrating the microinverter, the AC panel eliminates the central inverter and the complex design and matching considerations of the traditional string module architecture. The Andalay AC solar panel’s combination of PV module, microinverter, and Andalay mounting system enables a true DIY solar installation market in the United States for the first time.

Once I was finished reviewing the boxes and taking photos, I bumped into someone from Applied Materials also interested in DIY solar. The AMAT Arques Campus is just a few blocks away.

From Andalay Solar shopping at Lowe’s

Design Guide
While I did not see an information kiosk during the visit, I decided to revisit Lowe’s on Wednesday. The kiosk was in place at the Energy Center end cap though the solar info was sparse. I heard from an associate the kiosk was just installed on Saturday. However, a five (5) page brochure, “Andalay AC Solar Panels for your Home”, appeared near the panels at the Energy Center to provide a modicum of guidance.

The brochure directs customers to choose between working with a Lowe’s Solar Specialist to schedule an in home evaluation and leverage Lowe’s Professional Installation Services or DIY. Skilled electricians, contractors, or qualified DIY homeowners can use the included Andalay Design Guide to determine the components required to build two (2), four (4), and eight (8) AC panel systems in a style as simple and complex as IKEA furniture Buying Guides.

Permits
But it’s not as easy as figuring out what to buy, purchasing, dragging the panels home, and installing them. In California today, these small 350 Watt to 1400 Watt PV systems are treated the same as any residential installation. Before the install can begin, an electrical/building permit is required. For example, Mountain View charges a flat $152 fee to homeowners to permit and inspect solar panel installations.

I walked over to Mountain View City Hall to get the straight scoop from the Community Development Department, Building Inspection Division. The Photovoltaic Submittal Requirements (newer 10/05/08 version available) describe the PV installation plan (site plan, array mounting design, electrical, and system information) required for permitting. I reviewed a detailed ten (10) page plan for a 3.4 kW (kiloWatt) installation with the person responsible for PV installation permitting and inspections.

The Mountain View PV specialist was savvy with regard to centralized inverters. However, it appears Mountain View has not yet had a microinverter based PV installation. In our discussion, I also learned Solar City has about 90% market share of Mountain View PV installs. Solar City favors central inverters so this explains the lack of microinverter adoption.

In addition, the Photovoltaic Installation Guidelines govern how installation work is done in preparation for the Photovoltaic Inspection Checklist. The inspection includes the inverter (again, no comprehension of microinverters yet), roof top including penetrations, general electrical, and strict signage requirements. The first PV contractor or DIYer to install a microinverter system in Mountain View will need to educate the PV inspector and help update the checklist.

Interconnection
I contacted PG&E Corporation (NYSE:PCG) and asked if the interconnection process would be streamlined for small PV system DIYers. In line with company policy, a Pacific Gas and Electric Company spokesperson said:

Over the years, PG&E has significantly streamlined the process for our customers to ‘go solar.’ One of those improvements includes working closely with solar contractors on required paperwork to minimize burden to the customer. Regardless of its size, a solar system is an electric generating device that has the ability to feed power back to the electric grid. For the safety of PG&E line workers as well as our customers, we ask that individuals contact PG&E to ensure the safe interconnection of any electric generating device when connecting to the electric grid.

California Solar Initiative (CSI) Rebate
Per the California Solar Initiative Program Handbook:

2.2.5 System Size
The minimum system size eligible for an incentive is 1 kW CEC-AC.

The Andalay Solar ST175-1 175W Monocrystalline Module has a 157.5 W CEC (California Energy Commission) rating, and the Enphase Energy M190 Microinverter has a CEC Inverter Weighted Efficiency Rating of 95.0%, so an eight (8) Andalay AC panel system will qualify for a CSI rebate with a 1.197 kW CEC-AC system rating. A six (6) Andalay AC panel system falls below the 1 kW CEC-AC minimum by the same calculation at 898 kW.

The CSI Application Process for a photovoltaic incentive is the first step of a solar project.

From Andalay Solar shopping at Lowe’s

Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC)
Regardless of system size, a residential Andalay AC solar installation is eligible for an uncapped Federal ITC equal to 30% of the installed cost. For example, if an eight (8) panel system cost $10000 to install, an individual could deduct up to $3000 from their Federal Income taxes for the year the PV system was placed into service.

My first impression is the Andalay Solar Power System launch in select California Lowe’s stores was rushed with collateral and marketing programs being rolled out piecemeal. I’m not sure if there was a holiday or contract driver behind the timing, but I’ll reserve judgment until the launch moves onto the second stage. I did not seek out a Lowe’s Solar Specialist in the store, but I did not expect to find one either.

What DIY collateral and programs do I expect?

  • Andalay Solar products and collateral listed on the Lowe’s website when the view is restricted to a California zip code.
  • An Andalay Solar website welcoming and channeling Lowe’s DIY customers to pertinent information starting with a process checklist.
  • Webinars and in store workshops to assist with system design, component selection, permit applications, interconnection, rebates, and tax issues.
  • Of course, Lowe’s Solar Specialists would be welcome to help DIYers with the above issues.

If I went the DIY route, I would use a hybrid approach by hiring an electrician to wire a 240 VAC (Volts AC) branch circuit to the home’s electrical service panel and a contractor to install the roof mounts.

I understand efforts are underway in California to reduce the complexity of permitting and interconnection for small scale ~1 kiloWatt sized PV systems. Availability of the Andalay AC Solar System at Lowe’s will encourage and accelerate these refinements as the regulations play catch up with the latest PV technologies.

From Andalay Solar shopping at Lowe’s

Well, I didn’t find LED icicle lights to my liking at Lowe’s so I checked The Home Depot around the corner. Upon entering, I was greeted by a kiosk for Installed Solar Power through Home Services in partnership with BP Solar.

This is GUNTHER Portfolio Post 400!
Thanks again to all the readers, subscribers, and friends of GUNTHER Portfolio.

GP Note: I’ve examined important issues for DIY solar in California, but the list is not intended to be exhaustive.

17 comments

  1. Scot Kelly says:

    I think that it is great that you can buy solar panels at Lowes and Home Depot. This means that the installers in my network have a back up plan if panels from their distributors are delivered in a damaged condition or they need extra components. However, I don’t think we will see many DIY homeowners racing out to Lowes to start their solar install. The renewable energy landscape very much needs expert guides at this stage. Incentives, financing and technology shift on a daily basis. The average homeowner cannot stay on top of these trends and make informed decisions. In some states (like NY), if you are not recognized as an experienced installer with their regulatory body, then you receive no incentives.

    The day that large numbers of DIY homeowners start buying panels and installing them is when homes are built pre-wired for solar, rack mounts come standard on the roof, landscaping is implemented with solar shading minimized, the south facing roof plane is not cluttered with vents and chimneys and the house’s utility interface comes standard with a separate solar meter and manual cutoff switch.

  2. Scotty says:

    I applaud Andalay Solars attempt to bring Green Alternatives to the public. Whether people choose to DIY and save or have qualified personnel install the systems for them, the more energy we can generate ourselves as Home Owner’s the better off we will be as a whole.
    The increase in personal energy production will lesson the burden on the Electric Company’s and then USA’s demand for Oil should decrease and just maybe we can help the people in areas who live close to sea level that may find their Home’s under water because of Global Warming.
    Together we can all make a difference. Here in St Louis, Missouri the Green Incentives are more than just a $Dollar$ and efforts are underway in many areas to bring a Green Lifestyles into the Home! Go Green!!! scotty@stlouisrenewableenergy.com

  3. russ says:

    İ have trouble thinking of anything less suited for DİY. Not to mention that the costs İ have seen on other sites for the Lowe’s packages aren’t a deal to begin with.

    Contrary to Scotty, İ just see a company trying to ‘cash in’ but not offering anything different.

    Enjoy the green incentives – everyone (whether they avail them or not) will be paying for them for many years to come! Right now the incentives are causing people to put up wind turbines, solar PV etc which they never would have otherwise as in many places it is silly.

  4. BigVolt says:

    One thing to note on the eligible rebate system size in CA, a site survey needs to be done that takes into account not only the panel CEC AC rating and inverter efficiency but also the physical location of the property, tilt of the roof, shading issues, and the position of the panels with respect to due south.

    I’m sure there are other factors that go into figuring out the correct rebate amount, but suffice to say, going down to Lowe’s to buy solar panels is not the first step in the residential solar process.

    Akeena is a public company, so I would check out the company’s financial history before plopping down $893 plus tax for an AC panel that you can buy on the web for at least a third less!

  5. Bill says:

    BigVolt,
    The Andalay costs a bit more than DC panels because the Andalay is a AC panel – the inverters are in the panles, so no need to add the cost of an inverter as you would with DC panels.

  6. C says:

    Bill – even accounting for not having a central inverter, this is still somewat of a rip off. Suntech panels are going for less than $2/W and Enphase inverters are less than $1/W. So, you are paying approx a 70% premium to compensate Andalay and Lowe’s for the benefit of being able to walk into a store and buy it. If you can figure out to install an Andalay, you could figure ou how to install SunTech panels on a standard mounting system, and end up way ahead… Now, if that cost included installation, that would be a different story…

  7. roddy says:

    Hello,what would be a safe bet on life expectancy of these Andalay panels?

  8. Edgar A. Gunther says:

    The Andalay solar panel has an industry standard 12/25 year power warranty and the microinverter passes through the Enphase 15 year warranty. Please see Andalay AC Specifications.

  9. Cory S says:

    Does anyone know where I can find the payback schedule? How long will I need to use it before the system pays for itself?

  10. C. Cordell says:

    I first noticed Andalay (Westinghouse now) at Lowes a couple of months ago. For me, this fits the bill for many reasons but primarily is the roof mount for tile roofs (best I have seen), and the ease of deployment. I have a degree in electronics, etc. but I do not like home brew activities nor funky looking or working systems — no time for that. This integrated inverter, panel, frame is great. No screwing around even if it costs a few dollars more. It is clean and simple. I have investigated all aspects and are ready to install however, the permit or interconnection agreement seems the hardest.
    I am still trying to get someone here in Los Angeles County from the building commission to understand what this is and also for Edison to as well. Lowes and Westinghouse really need to have this issue sorted out if they really want to make this a DIY plug and play sort of thing (like Clarian technologies is planning).
    I would like to talk to at least one person who has installed this at a residence (under the laws and regs that is).
    All in all, the ability to have a clean simple install with the building block approach for add-on as well as the superior concrete tile mount keeps me pursuing. If I can just get the permits I can actually get this project off the ground.

  11. A Trujillo says:

    I am looking into installing these solar panels on my home. I like the integrated inverter at each panel. I was visited by a solar panel installation company that is offering to install the panels for free so there is no out of pocket costs upfront, but we will be required to pay a monthly payment which will possibly go up 2.9% per year for the next 20 years.In addition we will still have to pay Electric Co. for whatever electricity we use above and beyond the generated panel electricity. Havent committed to the installation yet so I am looking for a better alternative. The solar panels that are being installed by this certain company wont belong to us even after 20 years. There is no return on investment, just a monthly savings. I have installed electrical panels and residential wiring in an entire home and I feel fully capable of installing my own Solar Panels. i just need to know if the process has been streamlined. I also have the concrete tile roof and would like an easier that normal panel installation.

  12. C. Cordell says:

    Just an update. I ended up putting up four panels as a proof of concept. I got the permit, put the 240V line in myself, put the mounts in the roof and installed them. It was easier than I thought.
    We have been generating 4.8KW/day starting in May 2011 and now, October 2011, we are at about 3.9KW/day which is expected based upon the sun angle and solar irradiance, etc. The other day it rained all day and I still got 1KW that day — not bad.
    Savings for me (So. Cal. Edison) has been about 50% of our bill since we dropped from tier 5 rates to tier 3 (but this Summer was cooler than normal too). $80/mn in hot August for electricity using A/C in a large desert home is not bad at all. I plan to add 4-5 panels in 2012 and end it at about 16 based upon my calculations.
    Note that I tend to conserve more energy than most through “green” habits so YMMV.
    Best $4k I ever spent for the entire project so far (permit, electrical parts, panels, mounts, shipping, tax, etc.).
    Lastly, mounting under concrete tile roofing was easy but I did chisel out the underside edge of the tiles with the mounts under them to make the tile lay flat otherwise the mount bumps them up about 0.25″.

  13. i would to learn more about the panels and installing it on my building, not wired into any other line. panels would be sole sorce. how may lights could be lite with one panel. maybe two four foot shop lights,and a table saw? thank you

  14. RealSolarGuy says:

    Hello Everyone,

    I enjoyed reading everyone comments and concerns with D.I.Y solar projects. I have some questions?

    How are you able to obtain permits with out an Electrical license?

    How are you able to qualify for the 30% federal rebates without proper permits?

    How can a D.I.Y. installer provide proper system specs and environmental influences to properly/safely design the system?

    How can a D.I.Y installer summit proper forms without permits to utility companies to receive proper NEM meters to generate credits for excess energy pushed back to the grid?

    Utility companies can also void your illegal installation and remove your meter until you go through proper and licensed companies to prove that the system is code compliant.

    Just because one has obtained degrees in the loosely thrown around term “Engineering” does not mean you can successfully design a working/safe solar system. There are several factors to consider: coefficients, wire derates, grounding / bonding issues, waterproofing techniques, attachment issues ,weight and spanning calculations, shading factors, roof obstacles. String sizing. Branch circuit limitations, Main panel / interconnect limitations.

    Please consult a professional before you burn your house down..

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