Stick-on Solar: It’s Closer Than You Think

STICK-ON solar

Stick-on solar panels, which have an adhesive backing, have just been introduced commercially to the residential market and represent a huge step into plug-and-play solar systems.

This marks a potential shift that could make a game-changing, lasting impact on the entire residential solar industry.

In essence, these stick-on solar panels could make installing solar similar to installing a dishwasher. A homeowner could have a range of options. You could buy it and install it yourself, you could hire a company to do it for you, you could even buy one on Craigslist. It’s this power of homeowner choice that could change residential solar forever.

From a solar industry perspective, stick-on solar could change the game even in regards to those homeowners who still want to hire an installer. In solar,

In solar, cost is king and the industry has worked hard over the last 10 years to successfully drop the cost of solar panels to where, in many areas, it is as cheap as or cheaper than electricity from the utility.

However, with this focus on dropping costs of the solar panels themselves, “soft costs” such as labor and installation have largely gone ignored. National companies have worked hard to streamline the installation process, training installers in certain skills and hiring their own professional electricians, but this is all decreasing installation costs using the same old equipment.

Stick-on solar fundamentally changes the whole installation process. So even if you want to hire an installer to come out and put your system up, plug-and-play solar creates a faster, easier installation that requires little training or specialized skill – which leads to lower total costs for the homeowner.

Before we really dig into this stellar new technology, let’s quickly look at the current residential solar set-up and see how it’s installed, so we can really understand how plug-and-play solar changes everything.

Current Installation Process: Labor-Intensive!

For a typical residential installation, solar installers are up on your roof while professional electricians are on the ground, connecting your solar system to your home’s electricity (and the electric grid).

On the roof, installers first study the design plans, measure the roof, and note where the panels will be installed. After locating the roof rafters, installers bolt L-shaped feet through the roof and deep into these rafters, creating an ultra-strong anchor point.

A single solar installation could have anywhere from 10 to 40 of these anchor points. Bolted to these anchors are long aluminum rails that run horizontally across the roof. These L-feet and rails are known as the “racking” of the system. Solar panels, which have a sturdy aluminum frame around each edge (sort of like a picture frame), are then bolted to the railings using heavy-duty metal clips. Because the racking and solar panel frames are metal,

Because the racking and solar panel frames are metal, lightning is a serious concern and so all the equipment is grounded with a heavy copper wire that runs from the solar system all the way down the roof and tied into the home’s ground.

These L-feet and rails are known as the “racking” of the system. Solar panels, which have a sturdy aluminum frame around each edge (sort of like a picture frame), are then bolted to the railings using heavy-duty metal clips. Because the racking and solar panel frames are metal, lightning is a serious concern and so all the equipment is grounded with a heavy copper wire that runs from the solar system all the way down the roof and tied into the home’s ground.

Installers must piece this racking system together bit by bit – hauling the equipment up the ladder, drilling holes into the rafters, piecing together the aluminum railing, and bolting down the panels to the rails (as seen in the picture below). All this takes time, knowledge, and skill.

stick-on solar vs traditional installation

A typical solar installation. Note the long aluminum rails the solar panels are sitting on, as well as the L-feet in the top left of the roof that bolt the rails to the roof. Image credit: Jorge Edward Inga via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license

 

On the ground, a licensed electrician will install all the electrical equipment on the side of the house, including the inverter, junction boxes, and any safety disconnect switches, then connect your solar system to your breaker box on the side of the house, via the inverter. Electrical code, as well as local county and city rules, require this work to be done by a professional electrician.

What is Stick-on Solar?

Stick-on solar panels are actually quite simple. Instead of a typical solar panel’s heavy aluminum frame (which provides the structure so the panel doesn’t break), the panel is attached in direct contact with the shingles, allowing the roof itself to provide support.

It’s really as simple as that. Installers simply peel a cover off the adhesive and stick it on the roof. Installers simply bypass all the typical racking components and there’s no need to even find the rafters of the house! And all this decreases installation time by hours, even days. A typical residential solar installation takes about 49 man-hours to install (according to a 2013 study from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab). Stick-on solar, on the other hand, is reported to take less than an hour or two for professional installers – a 96% drop in installation time!

Who came up with this crazy idea?

Stick-on solar panels were first invented in the late 2000s and used primarily for commercial installations.

In 2014, the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems, a non-profit research- and development organization, installed a test system of a residential stick-on solar system using Lumeta panels. According to a press release from Lumeta, Fraunhofer sought to test not only the feasibility of a residential stick-on solar panel but a new way of interacting with the local permitting offices as well. By having data automatically sent to relevant permitting departments, the paperwork and time needed for approval from the utility and city or county would decrease as well – great for the city, solar company, and homeowner as well!

While that idea hasn’t been made commercially available yet, Lumeta launched the newest version of their stick-on solar panels for residential applications in 2016.  The panels recently passed UL inspection, a necessary certification in the electric industry and a huge milestone towards making this technology a legitimate commercial product. It appears that, after the test piece with Fraunhofer and the new UL certification, Lumeta is ready to start pushing this innovative solution.

How Stick-On Solar Works

Lumeta’s stick-on solar panels use a strong adhesive backing typically used in the roofing industry to stick directly onto asphalt or tile shingles.

The installations require only one hole in the roof for wiring. Bolting the solar system into the roof rafters isn’t necessary, so homeowners don’t need to worry about any leaking roof issues during the life of the solar panels.

And before you think that the first gust of wind would rip the panels right off the roof, Lumeta has tested their residential products in winds up to 110 MPH, a requirement for solar installations typically laid forth by many local city or counties. Once the panels are installed on the roof, all panels are wired together and then run to the inverter on the side of the house, similar to a traditional set-up.

The panels can be peeled off easily if you need to re-roof and even provide more thermal insulation for the home, which provides a more constant inside temperature so you can stay cool in the summer and cozy in the winter.

In addition solar panels today weigh around 40 pounds each, which quickly adds up to thousands of pounds of equipment on your roof. When designing a solar system, the solar company will estimate the additional weight of the solar panels and all the equipment, then assess the home’s roof structure to make sure it can safely hold this weight.

Lumeta’s LPP-175S, on the other hand, weighs just 17 pounds. Less than half of a traditional panel, this leads to less stress on your roof as the panels hang out up there for 20 or more years.

Why it’s an Industry Game Changer

Currently, the US residential solar industry is dominated by larger installation companies like Solar City, Sunrun, and Namaste in Colorado. Like any large company, many of their expenses are “soft costs”, those expenses that don’t go to equipment costs. This includes paying installers, project acquisition, employee benefits, office rent, desks, pencils and everything else.

In 2015, the National Renewable Energy Lab reviewed installation costs for the residential and commercial solar industry and their report, the US Photovoltaic Prices and Cost Breakdown (PDF), notes that hardware such as the solar panels, inverter, and racking account for only 45% of a project’s total cost. Installation labor accounts for 11%.

Where does the other 44% go? To those soft costs described above. See the chart below, created based on data from the report, to see how the costs compare.

Source: National Renewable Energy Lab’s 2015 report US Photovoltaic Prices and Cost Breakdown (PDF)

As mentioned before, the solar industry is always trying to lower costs – always reaching out for that golden icon: grid parity. Lower costs mean more financial savings for homeowners, which translates to more projects, and ultimately less carbon emissions (which is what we are all here for right?). So far, the solar industry has focused on decreasing the cost of equipment (specifically the actual panel) and they’ve done a fantastic job at that. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)’s Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2014 (PDF) the price per watt for a solar panel fell from about $4.60 in 2000 to about $0.75 in 2014, an average drop of about 12% per year.

However, while the cost per solar panel has decreased like wildfire, other costs have been slower moving.

Stick-on solar 2

Image credit: via FlickR under CC license

National solar companies have focused on growing their business – and growing fast. Between 2012 and 2015 Solar City, the largest solar installation company in the US, grew at an average rate of 95%, an insanely high growth rate by any standard. All this growth costs – sales, marketing, training employees, buildings, employee insurance, vans and trucks – and those are all incorporated into that “soft cost” above. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – as companies grow, costs decrease due to “economies of scale”, bulk pricing, and more streamlined service.

In the meantime, as these companies grow, homeowners are stuck with footing the bill for all these soft costs. And these costs, as we’ve seen, add up to a substantial amount.

And that’s where plug-and-play systems, of which stick-on solar is an integral part, come in. Saving money is most often the number one reason a homeowner goes solar – it’s a financial decision.

For the frugal homeowner who doesn’t mind spending a couple of hours up on their roof, they have the potential to knock thousands of dollars off their installation price. And while professional electricians would still need to install the inverter and disconnects as well as connect the solar system to their home’s electricity, the homeowner could essentially cut out those soft costs by bypassing the installation company and performing the work themselves.

While it may seem counterintuitive, from an industry growth perspective, isn’t this what is needed? For the solar industry to really flourish, solar needs to become another boring home appliance like the dishwasher, air-conditioning, and water heater. But until the cost of solar decreases substantially, we aren’t likely to see this normalization of solar. And that, in essence, is why stick-on solar is such a game changer.

But What If I’m Not Comfortable Installing My Own Solar?

There are some who simply aren’t comfortable installing their own solar. Maybe they don’t have the time, their roof is very steep, or maybe they aren’t comfortable handling electrical equipment. For these homeowners, installation companies will still be around. Who knows, if solar does become as common as air conditioning, maybe even big box home improvement stores will offer solar installation services, similar to their current offerings. While solar companies continue to develop ground-breaking technologies like stick-on solar and the residential solar market continues to grow, prices will continually lower due to cheaper technology, faster installation times, and less need for marketing and sales time. So even homeowners who aren’t installing themselves will reap the benefits.

How does this benefit the homeowner?

As we’ve seen, plug-and-play solar provides options for homeowners – and that’s the real beauty. In the future, a homeowner could install their own solar system and hire an electrician to install the inverter and make all the electrical connections. Or, if they’re not comfortable up on their roof, homeowners could just hire a company to install the system for them. Solar installation costs are always lowering and as more advanced technology is introduced that lowers the installation time and total cost, even more homeowners will install systems, leading to ever lower installation costs as companies install systems faster and cheaper. Maybe one day, we’ll even be able to walk into Home Depot, pick up a couple of light bulbs, browse the latest tools, and schedule a solar installation for the next day.

And so now we see why solar analysts have been waiting for a plug-and-play solar system. It’s not just a new technology that makes installing solar systems a little faster. It’s a game changer that has the potential to change the entire residential solar landscape. It gives homeowners options, which we just can’t do with today’s technologies.

Related: Solar Shingles – Elon Musk Takes on the Roofing Industry 

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