Tim O’Brien now builds all homes with solar ready features

At Tim O’Brien Homes Inc.’s corporate office, located in Pewaukee, about 35 percent of the building’s energy consumption is offset by 50 solar panels atop the building, according to Tim O’Brien, president of the company.

Tim O’Brien Homes, which operates in both metro Milwaukee and Madison, aims to give owners of its new homes an opportunity to achieve the same kind of energy efficiency. At the beginning of September, the semi-custom, single-family homebuilder announced that in coordination with Pewaukee-based SunVest Solar, Inc., it will ensure each one of its newly constructed homes is solar ready.

The ultimate goal of the new solar push centers on building net zero ready homes – homes that produce an amount of energy equal to the amount they consume on an annualized basis, O’Brien said.

Every home erected by O’Brien and his team will meet code for the future installation of a solar electric system, regardless of whether the homeowner moving in plans to invest in solar right away. With a proactive mindset, the company wants to equip its customers with the kind of infrastructure that will help them get closer to living in and maintaining a net zero ready home in the future.

In order to prepare its houses to be solar ready, Tim O’Brien Homes will outfit each home with a pipe chase that aligns vertically from the basement through the first and second floors to the attic. Within the chase, a homeowner wanting to invest in solar energy could run solar wiring encased in an approved metal conduit from the attic down to the basement to connect to the inverter near the electric panel. The solar wires and metal conduit cannot bend, so the chase must allow for a straight drop.

A solar ready Pewaukee home built by Tim O’Brien Homes in 2010.

“So we’re creating spaces within all of our plans to allow for this pipe to have an unimpeded journey…from the basement to the attic,” O’Brien said.

Another critical design of a solar ready home requires the company to consider the weight of solar panels when configuring the structure of the roof.

While solar panels don’t impose a ton of weight on a roof, O’Brien said, “you still have to account for that in the design of the roof structure.”

A third element in the company’s approach to solar ready homes addresses the setup of the roof pitch, or the steepness of the roof. Solar panels hit their optimum angle at between 30 and 35 degrees, according to O’Brien. The company will construct roofs to match that angle when possible. In some cases, neighborhoods and municipalities require higher roof pitches to enhance the aesthetics of area homes, so that optimum angle is challenged, he said.

An additional roofing challenge comes into play when Tim O’Brien Homes is working on a home that faces east, a direction that is not ideal for solar panels to absorb heat and light from the sun. Solar panels perform best when facing south or southwest, he said.

If a house doesn’t have that kind of orientation, the company can customize the roof layout and create an area for panels to be attached to the roof to capture solar energy.

While owners of Tim O’Brien Homes’ new houses may not all jump at the opportunity to invest in solar energy, O’Brien said that by constructing homes with solar ready features, the company can help owners avoid costly retrofitting in the future should they decide to pursue solar energy.

The renewable energy source has become more affordable in recent years as more solar panel manufacturers have cropped up, as the rate of solar panel production has picked up and as solar technology has continued to improve, O’Brien said.

A typical residential solar panel system in Wisconsin would be a 4,000 watt or a 4 kW size system with 16 panels, according to John Daugherty, Midwest project developer at SunVest Solar, Inc. The solar electric installation company currently quotes the cost of solar energy at $3,000 per kW, so the total investment would be $12,000. Homeowners can then earn a $2,400 Focus on Energy rebate and a 30 percent federal investment tax credit. The net investment would be approximately $6,700, and the system would generate more than $900 in savings on an electric bill each year, according to Daugherty.

The affordability of solar energy has largely been enhanced by a more crowded marketplace and competition to sell panels at lower prices as well as boost the production power of individual panels.

Not only has the cost come down, but the efficiency of a panel has increased about 30 to 40 percent over the past five years, O’Brien said.

In the same timeframe, the number of professionals certified to install panels has ramped up, resulting in a drop in labor costs, according to O’Brien.

The Solar Energy Industries Association reports that within the past two years, the amount of residential solar power systems installed across the country has more than doubled..

As the market stabilizes, O’Brien expects the decrease in total package price that solar installation and operating systems have experienced in recent years to level out.

The focus now will be a continued push to bolster the power that a single solar panel can generate each year, he said.

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