By Olya Prevo of Real Goods Solar.
Most of us have seen examples of older solar hot water systems: large rectangular collectors typically titled up on roofs, often drastically altering the outline of a roof and style of a building. Some of those collectors were dark, while others have faded over time. These systems were primarily installed in the late 70s and early 80s, when generous government incentives and recent oil crises encouraged homeowners to utilize solar energy for the first time. The solar hot water systems of those days, while crucial for development of residential solar industry, have contributed to a common misconception that solar systems were unattractive. Even today many consumers first think of unsightly collectors of the past when they think of solar.
The industry has gone a long way, including in matters of aesthetics. Solar electric panels of today are usually dark and slick and most are installed to follow a roofline (as historic Stephentown home does on cover and church above). Real Goods Solar team in the Capital District of NY had installed many of them on historic homes, while preserving the original character of the structure. Even solar hot water systems of today are often installed in the manner that follows roof lines and does not require significant tilting.
Some owners of historic homes are unsure whether historic districts can prevent them from going forward with solar installation. While every historic district is different, we had seen during the last years, that it has become easier and easier to proceed with solar projects on historic properties.
When in 2009, Saratoga Springs residents Carol and Otis Maxwell contacted solar installers to get an estimate for a solar electric installation for their beautiful Victorian home in the heart of city’s downtown, most solar companies were apprehensive to proceed upon learning that the couple’s house was located within the city’s historic district. In Saratoga Springs, the Design Review Commission (DRC) has jurisdiction over exterior building changes on most properties within the city’s historic district and over its historic landmark sites. This means that any exterior changes, including house painting, roof replacement, changing windows, installing satellite dishes in the city’s historic district have to be reviewed and approved by the Commission. The review process is notorious for its critical approach towards any significant changes to the historic and architectural character of the city downtown landscape. This made acquiring permission to install the first fully visible solar electric system on a city’s historic home a daunting task.
A team of solar designers at the Albany office of Real Goods Solar (formerly Alteris Renewables), decided to work with the Maxwells on designing a system that would complement this 1880 Victorian beauty . To minimize visibility and help the system blend in as much as possible, Alteris proposed to install 20 SunPower all-black modules, flush with the roof and elevated by only a few inches off the roofline. The panels are immediately adjacent to the neighboring ones, so the system looks like a single unit resembling a large skylight. The black solar array is only slightly noticeable on the dark grey shingles of the house. Besides the panels, this solar installation did not have any exterior components: all wiring and conduit was concealed inside the walls and the solar inverter was installed inside the home’s basement.
After some deliberations, the DRC voted to approve the project. Real Goods Solar installed the system in late 2009 and since then the Maxwell family has been enjoying environmental and financial benefits of solar electricity.
The Maxwell’s successful quest for obtaining a permit for the solar installation is an example of how the use of modern solar technology can be combined with sensible planning and engineering to create unobtrusive and visually undisruptive solar systems, even in an historic neighborhood.
Mounting solar modules on flat roofs is another great strategy that allows for seamless incorporation of solar energy into historic buildings without altering their aesthetical appearance. Most flat roof solar rack systems feature a small pitch and many are ballasted (weighted down) thus ensuring that solar panels remain invisible from the ground level.
The Real Goods Solar team has used flat roof installation methods on another building located in the heart of Saratoga’s historic district – former School #4, now an office building at 112 Spring Street. This is an award-winning historic restoration project envisioned and brought to life by Barbara Glaser of Linell Lands, Inc. This 1910 building was transformed from a run-down school administration facility into a state-of-the-art office building rebuilt utilizing energy efficient building components and environmentally sensitive restoration practices. Anyone taking a stroll down Spring Street would not suspect from looking at the building that there is a 14 kW solar “power plant” hidden on the roof. The only place the system is visible from is above the roofline.
Not all historic buildings, however, are good candidates for such solar installations. Many historic buildings have slate roofing tiles, which are much too brittle to work with. Asphalt shingle and standing seam metal roofs are the best roofing types to be integrated with solar panel installations. Buildings with flat roofs of significant size can be great candidates as well.
If you own a historic building and are wondering whether solar installation is viable, you should consult an experienced solar installer who had worked on similar projects in the past.
Olya Prevo has been a Solar Power Consultant for 5 years in the Capital Region with Real Goods Solar (formerly Alteris Renewables, formerly Renewable Power Systems). She is an NABCEP Certified PV Installer™ and provides technical expertise in PV technology to homeowners, builders, contractors and architects. Olya is an avid environmental and solar advocate, a gardener, and in her spare time trains as a triathlete. Olya can be reached by email. Members (must be logged in) can learn more about Olya in her profile.