Getting the most out of your solar investment

This month we talk to Matt Barnes, Head of Digital Transformation at HIES, about his switch to solar energy at home. Here, we talk to him about his experience of choosing the right solution, and working with it once it has been installed.

Matt Barnes knows more than most about switching to solar panels, partly due to his work at HIES, but also because he installed solar panels in his home in September 2022. His objective was to guarantee his family’s energy security and to control his electricity costs in light of rising prices. Here he gives insight into his experience for the benefit of anyone who is looking to make the switch.

One important question that homeowners want to know is how long it will take to repay their investment. There is no straightforward answer to this as it depends on several factors, such as usage, size of the system, and size of the available roof space but Matt, with a 4-bedroom detached house with 2 adults and 3 young children, expects to break even in less than 8 years, based on the last 14 months’ use. The obvious consideration is whether a homeowner will be living in the same property long enough to pay it back.

No roof is too small!

As Matt says,

“There is a disproportionate number of solar panel installations on detached and semi-detached houses compared to terraced houses, for example, because they tend to have bigger roof spaces and arguably more disposable incomes. However, solar panels are still worth looking at if you are a family of 2 in a terraced property. If you are going to stay put and can fit 8 panels, it’s still worthwhile.”

He also points out that the cost of the panels themselves is relatively inexpensive: It’s the system that costs the money, plus the scaffolding and electricians, which adds to the cost of the initial installation and cannot be bypassed. One of Matt’s key pointers is to avoid any installer who says they don’t need to erect scaffolding.

As he says,

“There is no safe short cut, and this is important to protect the structure of the roof and to ensure a safe and effective installation.”

He also recommends being aware of any issues that might affect either the installation or the effectiveness of a solar system. A good installer will check the condition of the roof and its support to ensure it can take the weight of the panels, and shading caused by trees or chimneys will have a negative impact on the effectiveness of any system.

Understand the whole system

In addition, Matt says:

“I’d advise householders to have a good understanding of what they need in order to buy the system that’s right for them. Also, be aware that solar panels alone won’t be enough, and you will need an inverter and battery system as well. This is particularly important in winter when there is less sun as the battery will be providing the electricity to your home.”

When it comes to the battery, Matt makes an excellent point:

“The capacity of your battery isn’t what you get. The battery needs to store 10% of its capacity and if it goes below this it will effectively go into defence mode and will pull power from the grid to maintain its reserve level. So if you think you need, for example, a 10kW battery to power your energy needs, you will get that minus 10%. This is something that particularly affects smaller batteries without huge capacity in the first place. Don’t forget as well that battery performance drops in cold weather, as with electric cars.”

Matt also recommends getting to know your system’s interface, that is, the system by which you set up and manage your electricity. He says,

“Because a domestic solar system involves a fair amount of technology, some of the apps might seem a bit complicated, so make sure you have a good understanding of what you can do with them and how they work to get the best out of your system. Any decent installer will have a thorough understanding of them and will be able to talk you through them.”

Working with your solar electricity supply

When it comes to managing the electricity supply, there are 3 tiers to it: firstly, use what you generate, then your battery will store the excess, and after that you can potentially sell back to the grid. What this means is that, for example, when you are on holiday, the system is still generating power and the batteries will be full so in this scenario you will be able to sell the excess.

One of the things that some homeowners might not appreciate is the need to work with the system once it’s installed. In order to gain the most benefit and to increase your chances of being off-grid, there are also some lifestyle habits that will need to change. Matt says:

“We are much more aware of how much electricity we use now we have the solar panels. As a family of 5, we need to be able to run the house in a way that suits us but to ensure we aren’t pulling from the grid we’ve changed some habits slightly. We run our washing machine and dishwasher in off-peak hours. We make more use of our air fryer and we only fill the kettle up for as much water as we need. It’s the big stuff that uses more power so we are more aware of when and how often we use them now. The idea is not to drain the battery and therefore to be able to live off the grid.”