Metro-East Living

They used to pay $180 a month in energy bills. Now they pay about half.

Brian and Allison Hart’s new home has a solar panel in the front yard that supplies most of the home’s energy needs.
Brian and Allison Hart’s new home has a solar panel in the front yard that supplies most of the home’s energy needs.

The new two-story, blue-clad house on Mascoutah Avenue in Belleville is set toward the back of a 10-acre grassy expanse. It gets many an appreciative glance from passing motorists, but it’s the solar panel array out front that gets the real attention.

Owners Brian and Allison Hart have seen enough interest that they not only put up a sign at the start of their driveway for StraightUp Solar, but also have had the company’s business cards replenished several times.

For Brian, 41, the decision was an economic one. “It’s comparable to (buying) a car, but from that point forward, it’s an investment.”

“The payback period is around seven years,” he said, factoring in federal and state incentives to power the 2,800-square-foot home with solar panels. The panels provide about 80 to 90 percent of the family’s usage and are expected to retain efficiency to 25 years, he said.

The couple, both pharmacists, moved into the home with their four children in August. Their biggest electric bill from Ameren Illinois has been about $70, they said. That includes a monthly $17 meter fee.

“Our old house was $159, $179 a month on budget billing,” Allison said. Their previous home in The Orchards subdivision was not quite as energy-efficient as the Belleville home on Mascoutah Avenue. They’ll have a better idea of their total savings after a full year to compare against their previous home, which was within a hundred square feet in size to the new one.

The Harts’ system has an array of solar panels in the front yard. There is an inverter in the basement that converts the direct current from the panels to the alternating current used in the home. The inverter is a square box attached to the wall near the electrical boxes, in the same area as the two water heaters and the HVAC system.

The meter in the backyard runs backward on sunny days, which Ameren tracks against the home’s usage to determine the bill.

Brian says cloudy days reduce the amount of energy the solar panels generate, but there is still some energy generated. On the less-productive days, the home uses more energy from the power company.

“It’s not like the television goes off when the dishwasher goes on,” Brian said. The family has not intentionally tried to heavily load the system, he said, but if they did it would simply revert to using power from the grid.

For Allison, the decision to use solar power for the new home was environmentally based.

“Brian never used to recycle. He’s come a long way,” she said.

Mike Hornitschek, director of strategic development for StraightUp Solar, lives in The Orchards with his wife and two teenagers. They have a 9.5-kilowatt solar panel system. His 3,400-square-foot home is about 10 years old and of “typical suburban home construction.” He has paid for electricity only one month in the two years he’s had the system.

“We don’t live a ridiculously frugal lifestyle” as far as energy consumption is concerned, he said. The array on his roof covers the family’s energy needs, including powering an electric car that drives about 12,000 miles a year.

Like the Harts’ system, most of the solar panel systems in the area are connected to the power grid, but do not have a battery backup, which would eliminate the need for hooking up to the grid, Mike said.

“Our experience (serving Southern Illinois and into Missouri) is about one in 20 (residential homes will have a battery backup). We expect that percentage to increase over the next two to three years,” he said, because of the dropping cost of batteries.

Brian said when the cost of batteries decreases more, it’s something they might consider.

“People will never ask what the payback is for a granite countertop or a pool in the backyard ... but they go to the math for a solar array,” Mike said.

Before the installation, the Harts debated where to place the solar panels. Allison preferred a roof placement; Brian wanted a ground placement.

“I don’t want to look out, and look at it,” she said. But the home didn’t have quite enough south-facing roof space to allow for their solar needs, so they opted for a space away from the home. The array is viewable from just one bathroom window.

Brian was surprised that grass grows under the array.

“I do have to come out and mow under it,” he said.

Want to go solar?

How much is it?

For a 2000-square-foot home with a south-facing roof and an average monthly electric bill of $100, a solar array that supplies 7.5 kilowatts is “probably about right,” says Mike Hornitschek of StraightUp Solar. That system would cost between $17,000 and $25,000.

“Then apply federal grants and SREC, then a $20,000 decision typically goes to $10,000 out of pocket,” he said.

What are the incentives?

The federal government offers a 30 percent tax incentive, and Illinois offers a Solar Renewable Energy Credit of 20 to 30 percent.

How long does it take to achieve a return on investment?

“What we see is the typical homeowner responds positively when the payback is between seven and 10 years; that’s out-of-pocket cost after all the incentives are re-applied,” Mike said. “Some are comfortable with 12 (years) or longer because they have other motivations for doing it.”

Does the power ever go out?

Yes. For solar systems that do not have batteries, the inverter will stop electricity from going to the grid if the power company loses power.

“The last thing we want is it producing more than you need, and (power) being fed onto a grid that the repairmen thinks is disconnected,” Mike said

On the Hart’s inverter, there is an outlet that would allow them to plug an appliance into a power outage.