Rockwood Home Goes Solar - A Larchmont First

by Judy Silberstein

(November 16, 2005) The house at 25 Rockwood Avenue in Larchmont doesn’t look like an energy pioneer. Even from the back it’s hard see what has turned this 1950’s era Cape Cod into the first solar electric home in Larchmont - the 44 solar panels installed on its gently sloping roof.

solar panels
The solar panels atop the Steinmetz home can only be seen from the back.

What inspired the thirty-something homeowners to go solar? It was a mix of philosophical and pragmatic factors. “I’m fairly green – we compost and don’t use any chemicals on the yard,” explained Julia Steinmetz, an attorney now at home with three young children. She and her husband, Greg Steinmetz, a financial analyst, had been planning an addition. “I had been interested in solar because we have a great southern exposure on the back side of the house – and we were going to tear out inside walls anyway. We knew the house was going to be a mess – so it was the right time,” she said.

The next steps required a bit of homework to research various incentive programs, locate a contractor and calculate the financial aspects. Their architects, Bart Hamlin and Deborah Goldreyer, helped the family connect with Prime Energy Solutions, a contractor eligible for New York State’s incentive program. “They came with a gizmo that reflected the tree line and sun and showed us the path of the sun and how much exposure we would get,” said Ms. Steinmetz.

The contractor calculated exposure (measured with a solar pathfinder “gizmo”) plus electricity costs (assessed by looking at a year’s worth of Con-Ed bills) plus roof size (to determine how many solar panels would fit) to determine what percentage of the family’s electricity needs could be provided with a solar system. For the Steinmetz house, the figure was 90 to 95%.

The house would continue to be hooked up to the electric grid like any other house. The family would get its electrical needs met from the solar panels, when possible, with a boost from Con-Ed, when needed. And if the panels produced more than the family could use, the excess would go back into the grid.

During the installation, the project received attention from Frank Blasi, Larchmont’s building inspector, who helped guide the family through the electrical, engineering and paperwork requirements. He had encountered solar systems once or twice in other municipalities, though this was a first for him in Larchmont.

Of particular concern for Mr. Blasi was the attachment of the panels to the roof. “You’re in a wind region here near the coast,” he explained. “You need a decent engineering plan to mount the panels.” Prime Energy Solutions anchored the Steinmetz’s panels into the beams of their roof.

Out of Pocket, Upfront $$

As with most alternative energy projects, the upfront costs were greater than those of a traditional system. “We were first thinking, even with the incentives, it would have taken 12 to 13 years to recoup our investment,” said Ms. Steinmetz.

The couple was willing to go ahead because of their commitment to green energy. However, now they’re finding that they may earn their investment back in as little as 8 or 9 years, due to unpredictable factors such as the high cost of fuel in the wake of two hurricanes and increases in available incentive programs.

What began as approximately $35,000 for the installed cost of the system, was whittled down to $19,000 after initial incentives. Then the couple received an additional $2000 by participating in a home performance audit that checked the efficiency of their appliances and insulation, and they anticipate receiving $2000 more from a federal incentive program that is still being worked out. That would bring the final cost down to $15,000.

That cost gets spread over a long use life - the photovoltaic modules come with a 25-year warranty, said Mark Smith, owner of Prime Energy Solutions. Many of the systems have virtually no maintenance, although those with battery backups, like the one at the Steinmetz house, might require a yearly checkup.

Then there’s the savings on the monthly bills. Ms. Steinmetz reported that her last bill on the “old grid” for August of 2005 was $159; the first of the new bills for September was only $8. Most of the reduction is due to the “free” solar electricity; a tiny rebate is earned by selling their excess electricity.

“We signed a contract with Con Ed. When we make more electricity than we use, our meter spins backward. It’s great to see it racing backwards on a nice sunny day,” said Ms. Steinmetz.

Not an Impluse Buy: The Process

According to Mr. Smith, most of his customers take some time to commit to solar, and the application and permit process can take from 6 to 8 months. Once the permits are approved, there may be an additional wait for the panels. “Manufacturers tell us we can expect anywhere from 6 to 10 weeks for the panels due to the world-wide shortage of silicon and a high demand for the panels,” said Mr. Smith.

In this area, interest is perking up, but still relatively small. Mr. Smith said people may not be aware that a solar system works very well in our climate. “Actually, the panels work even better in cold weather – as do all silicon devices. The peak period is spring and fall when the air is clear and the sunlight is more intense,” he explained. “Julia’s system is a prime example; her meter goes backwards all the time,” he noted.

According to Mr. Blasi, “People are more concerned about energy efficiency.” In Larchmont, he’s seeing more installations of fireplace inserts for wood burning stoves and upgrading of boilers to more efficient models. However, the Rockwood home is the first solar panel project. “It’s something a lot of people may be thinking about doing and don’t know where to start,” he said.

Need help getting started? The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority has a lot of information online. Check out NYSERDA's website.