Chicago, IL

Solar Thermal FAQs | Solar Electric FAQs | General FAQs

Solar Thermal FAQs:

Do I need a new hot water heater?
Generally speaking, NO. Solar works with existing equipment. If your existing hot water heater needs replacing, then you will still need a new tank.

Do I really need a second tank? Why can’t I use my existing hot water heater for storage?
Yes, a second tank is necessary as a pre-heat tank. If shared, the gas/electricity will always be on and won’t “wait it’s turn” when the sun is available. You will defeat the purpose and will not save energy.

If I get/have an On-Demand or Tank-less hot water heaters, do I still need solar?
Yes! Although tank systems are efficient, savings approximately 10-15% standby losses, they still burn fossil fuels to heat water. If properly sized, solar hot can heat about 70% your needs year round.

I have an electric hot water heat, don’t I need PV?
No. Your ultimate goal is hot water. Solar thermal systems are 70% efficient so by using the HEAT of the sun, you are far better off in achieving this goal.  Your back-up tank can still be electric but the sun should be your primary source of energy.

Why do thermal collectors stand up so high? Can’t they be flush with my roof?
Typically we design systems for optimal performance during the winter, when the sun is low in the sky and the days are shorter. In the Chicago area, the ideal angle for solar thermal systems is 52° - 57°.  Panels can be lowered to a more aesthetically appealing angle but additional collector area may be needed to compensate for the resulting loss in performance.

What happens in the winter? Surely it’s too cold to heat my water during a frigid Midwestern winter?
Even on a bitterly cold Chicago day, solar can fulfill the bulk of your hot water needs. In February 2009 it was -11°F outside for two days without wind chill. Solar collectors registered 150°F. The colder it is, the bluer the sky which is great for solar!

What about snow and dirt, do I need to shovel or clean my panels?
Thermal collectors should shed snow quite readily and self-clear fairly quickly when the sun returns. Mother Nature will take care of cleaning the panels in general and it is not worth the risk to climb onto your roof to do so. A day here and there is brief when considering your system is designed to last decades.

What happens if it is cloudy for several consecutive days? Will I still have heat and hot water?
With a solar thermal system, you’ll always have heat, you’ll always have hot water, you’ll always be comfortable – you’ll just pay less for that comfort. Our solar systems work in partnership with your existing furnace and water heater which will act as a back up on cloudy days.

Can businesses benefit from a solar thermal system?
Businesses that use large quantities of hot water can experience dramatic cost savings by going solar. Laundromats, apartment buildings, restaurants, factories and hotels are examples of some of our most satisfied customers. Many of these businesses use the majority of their hot water when the sun is shining and are ideal for solar. Exceptional state and federal incentives exist for commercial applications. Solar offers an opportunity to reduce the business risk associated with skyrocketing energy costs. Many businesses are benefiting from the positive publicity and media coverage that the solar systems generate, particularly as concern about global warming increases.

What are the warranties and life cycle for the panels?
Thermal collectors have a manufacture warranty of 10 years.  However, as they do not have any moving parts they should last for decades. PV panels typically have 20-25 year warranties.  Other components vary.

What kind of maintenance is required?
Typically very little. A pump may need to be replaced at about year 15 – 18 and the storage tank should last for about 18 years.  Regular inspection of your equipment is recommended.  Solar Service has installed systems that have been operational for 10, 20 and even 30 years!

I heard that thermal was an archaic technology, would I be better off with PV?
No, evolved does not mean archaic. Unlike any other mechanical system in your home, solar thermal is 70% efficient! In fact, it is required technology for new construction in many parts of the world.  The sun comes to us as heat, why not redirect that energy to something efficient and effective that not only saves money but reduces our demand on fossil fuels while simultaneously improving the environment.
The bicycle is old and yet we are unlikely to abandon it as a form of transportation.

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Solar Electric FAQs:

How much do I need to go “off grid” and not use the utility for my energy?
It depends purely on how much energy you currently use and we can analyze a recent electric bill to get an idea.  In most cases, it is difficult to go 100% off grid as families and businesses use a great deal of energy. Sizing an array is based on space on the roof, energy needs and budget. Solar Service will work with you to customize a system that specifically meets your needs.

Can I install a system just to power my lighting or some other specific need?
Energy from your solar panels will be fed to your electrical service panel where it is then directed to appliances calling for power. Generally energy cannot be sent to power an appliance. Instead, you can determine how much energy you need to offset a specific use and size the PV array accordingly.

I’d like to get a battery system and go completely off grid. How can I do that?
Going off grid is a big goal – not impossible but challenging and more expensive than most realize. Batteries, add a level of complexity that is not needed for typical owners. Because “Net Metering” programs credit customers for excess energy fed back to the grid, battery systems are not common. Batteries often double the cost of the system and add limited value as they only provide a few hours of electricity if the grid shuts down.

In areas such as the tornado belt or where brown-outs are common such as in Los Angeles, batteries may make sense. In Illinois, however, most installers recommend saving your money and letting ComEd be your "battery" by feeding excess electricity back into the grid. This eliminates maintenance and keeps your used batteries from going to a land fill every 5–10 years.

Recently Tesla has announced production of a home battery solution called the Powerwall.  Technical specifications released by Tesla at this point have been limited but most solar arrays will be able to integrate with battery technology in the future but will likely require a few new components. They are currently taking orders for future shipments and some industry reports speculate this to be as far out as 2017 and beyond.  They have shifted production to their Gigafactory which should acellerate their production capacity. 

Can the panels be flush with my roof?
Typically, yes! Where thermal panels tend to be optimized for the winter, PV is optimized for the summer when the sun is high and demand for electricity is too.  The ideal angle for PV in Illinois is about 33°, perfectly suited for most roof types!

What happens when it snows?
Unlike thermal panels, PV panels do not shed snow as readily. Typically they will shed at about the same or slightly better rate than the roof itself. To avoid injury and possible damage to panels, it is not recommended that you shovel your array. It is important to look at solar throughout the entire course of the year and not focus on a single day, month or season. These systems will perform for decades, a few lost hours of production will be gained back in the summer when the days are bright and long.

What are the warranties and life cycle for the panels?
PV collectors typically have a 20-25 year performance warranty.

What kind of maintenance is required?
Typically very little. Once a PV array is installed there really shouldn’t be any maintenance for the life of the system, although we do recommend a regular inspection every few years to check components and connections.

If the technology is evolving, should I just wait for something better to come along?
No, the best analogy is the computer industry. Did you wait for your cell phone, computer or MP3 player to fully evolve? Probably not even if you are not typically an "early adopter". Yes these technologies all have a lower price point than solar BUT solar will not become obsolete with time. Electricity is electricity no matter how it is generated. There will likely be more efficient technology in 5, 10 or 15 years, however those are YEARS you will continue to purchase energy from the utility. Plus, with time sensitive incentives, there has never been a better time to buy!

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General FAQs

What are the benefits of getting a solar system now?

  • Incentives have never been better!  Federal tax incentives provide a 30% credit for both residential and commercial applications and photovoltaic systems qualify for Renewable Energy Credits to help pay for solar.
  • After heating, hot water is the second biggest natural gas expense and you use it every day, all year long.
  • Solar systems add value to your property but are exempt from property taxes.
  • Enhances resale advantage - homes with solar tend to sell faster and hold their value.
  • As part of a diversified portfolio, owning your energy at a fixed cost as natural gas and electricity prices rise each year is a very wise investment - IN YOU!
  • This clean energy source reduces greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and pollution that impacts our health and well being.
  • Our systems are very reliable and designed for a 30 year life expectancy.
  • Solar will extend the life of your hot water heater and furnace by reducing their work load.
  • Commercial systems benefit from positive publicity!

Is a solar thermal system a good financial investment?
A 3rd party customer research company surveyed our customers and found the #1 reason for purchasing solar was financial. This is in line with national studies as well.  With today's incentives, commercial solar energy systems commonly pay for themselves in 6-9 years, with residential systems paying back around 10-15 years. Unlike any other appliance or mechanical system you can purchase, solar will pay for itself over and over in time. 

The merits of owning your energy versus renting it are the same as owning your car or home versus renting. Solar lets you gain independence and puts your money to use for YOU, turning your roof into income generating property for the next several decades! 

Plus, solar adds value to your property. The National Appraisal Institute states that your home’s value increases $20 for every $1 reduction in annual utility bills. Your home value is likely to increase if you are selling a free stream of energy with it.As gas and electricity prices rise, the return on investment increases and the payback period shortens, increasing the value of solar as well. AND, Solar savings are tax-free, unlike most other investments.


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