When Someone Else Installs It For You

Regardless of whether you design and install a system yourself or have someone else do it, you need to understand the capabilities and limitations of the system. When you choose to have someone else design and install the system you need to choose a dealer who will spend time educating you about your system.

Let me use a house I saw recently as an example. I didn't meet the owners of this home, I saw it with a Realtor and a friend who was interested in buying it, so I didn't get to ask them for their perspective on the system design. The house itself is a passive solar design with lots of south facing windows and plenty of thermal mass, it has no need for additional backup heat.

The energy system was installed by a dealer. Though the house itself is relatively small, basically a large one bedroom home, the renewable energy system cost in excess of $40,000. Since I was evaluating the system for my friend (who has little knowledge of renewable energy), I took a close look at not only the system itself but at what it was about the house that required the system to be so large and expensive.

As we toured the house I quickly got a part of the answer. The kitchen had no shortage of energy hogging appliances. The "gas" stove had piezo-electric igniters on the range top and an electric glow plug in the oven so it demanded a lot of electricity along with the gas to cook dinner. The refrigerator was a large energy inefficient model with an ice-maker and cold water dispenser, another big drain on the system. A dishwasher was installed under the counter which, if used with the drying element turned on, would demand a huge amount of electricity.

There was a separate pantry with an upright freezer (again a very inefficient model) and a gas washer and dryer. A ceiling fan was turning in one room and when we toured the living room I reached out and turned on the TV. As you might suspect it was an instant on remote controlled type and it was plugged in and drawing power, even though it was "off".

Now before you think I sound too critical, let me explain. I don't necessarily think this is a "bad" design. My concern, in terms of this discussion, is that the dealer met the needs of the homeowners as well as explained fully the impact their choice of electrical loads would have on a renewable energy system.

It could be that the homeowners made a conscious decision to have those appliances and to be able to have lots of phantom loads plugged in all the time. They may have felt that $40,000 was a bargain compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would have cost to bring in utility power to their remote site. If so, the dealer did a good job of meeting the needs of his customers. The system is robust, well-built, and adequate to meet the needs of the home.

A good dealer will make sure that anyone buying that kind of system knows what they are getting and why. That kind of system also shows that renewable energy doesn't necessarily have to be designed solely for efficiency. If a homeowner designs a home with large electrical needs a renewable energy system can be built to meet them.

But beware the dealer who wants to sell you a large system without first taking a critical look at your energy needs. A reputable dealer will point out the inefficiencies in your home and be able to suggest ways to improve them. You may still choose to go with your original design but at least it will be a fully informed choice. Some suggestions for you to consider when you look for a dealer for your renewable energy system:

  1. Ask if the dealer sells more than one brand of equipment. There are a number of quality equipment manufacturers and you and the dealer should work together to determine which is best for your situation.

  2. Find out what the dealer cannot do as well as what he can do. For example, a system should be installed by a licensed electrician (or the homeowner) in order to meet code. A renewable energy system is installed as part of the electrical permit issued by the state for the home construction. Not all dealers are licensed electricians. If you get your own permit a good dealer can guide you in the installation process. If you hire an electrician (who gets his own permit) to install your house wiring make sure the dealer and the electrician can work together if the electrician has no prior experience with renewable energy.

  3. Make sure that the dealer can provide support after the installation. Are all materials and labor covered under warranty? Will the dealer help you with any service calls you might need to make to a manufacturer?

  4. Find a dealer who is willing to train you to operate the system after the installation. You should be able to solve minor problems yourself and at the very least the system should be well and clearly labeled so you can identify the various components when you do have to call the dealer.

All Contents © 1997
Wagonmaker Press
Thomas W. Elliot


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