Don’t Install Solar Panels on Older Roofs

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – More and more Florida homeowners are thinking about installing rooftop solar systems.

Why? “Number one, the Inflation Reduction Act [signed by President Biden last month] increased the federal tax credit from 26% to 30% for 10 years,” says Court Weisleder, founder and president of Go Solar Power, a Boca Raton-based solar installer now operating in eight states.

“Two, you can get 1.49% financing for 25 years. And three, utility rates are through the roof.”

Those are enticing considerations. But here’s something equally important to think about before signing that contract: How old is your roof?

If you think it will reach the end of its usable life within the next decade, you should consider replacing it before installing solar panels, solar experts say. And if you know you’ll need to replace it within a few years, you shouldn’t even think about installing solar panels before getting a new roof.

Otherwise, you might have to face the daunting expense of removing, storing and reinstalling your solar panels when it’s time to replace your roof. It’s a big job.

“Typically, we suggest that if you plan on replacing the roof within the next 5-10 years, that you do so before or at the same time as installing solar,” says Erin Hellkamp, regional spokeswoman for Solar United Neighbors, a nonprofit that organizes solar co-ops across the country to educate consumers and solicit volume-priced purchase and installation bids.

“The solar panels will last more than 20 years and will help protect your roof, but it’s expensive to remove the panels to repair or replace the roof,” Hellkamp says.

If they don’t ask, don’t buy

Reputable solar installers will always ask homeowners about the age and condition of their roofs and will inspect them to ensure they are up to par, says Heaven Campbell, Solar United Neighbor’s Florida program director.

“They will not install on a failing roof or one that won’t meet wind code requirements,” Campbell says. “There are standards they follow per the instructions of the equipment and state and local permitting processes. Any company not asking about the roof is a fly-by-night company and likely from out of state. I haven’t heard of this happening and it would be a super rare bad actor.”

A roof’s lifespan mostly depends on what kind it is. Asphalt shingle roofs are cheapest to install but have the shortest life, Weisleder says. “They wear out faster as the sun beats on it. I’ve seen some last 25 years, while others start getting soft at 15 years,” he says.

Next comes clay ceramic tile, which should last a minimum of 25 years, and then metal roofs, designed to last 30 to 40 years, he says.

Home insurance companies in Florida are scrutinizing ages of roofs more closely. A new law allows insurers to refuse coverage for homes with roofs 15 years old or older unless the homeowner can produce an inspection report stating the roof has five years or more of useful life.

That means a lot of roofs will need to be replaced in coming years, and if yours has solar panels, you’ll be paying to remove and reinstall them as you pay for your new roof.

Tom Gallagher, a West Boca retiree, learned that when he considered proposals to install solar panels atop his 17-year-old ceramic-tile roof. Solar installers told him he’d have to shell out between $10,000 and $20,000 for the labor required to dismantle and reinstall a rooftop solar system.

“And it’s possible that number could be much higher, depending on the complexity of the wiring system,” he said.

The system he was considering required 37 glass solar panels, he said. He’d have to find a safe place to store them during the roofing job and then possibly wait an unknown amount of time to reinstall them if the installation company was backed up.

Hellkamp says costs to remove and reinstall solar panels can vary widely.

“In addition to labor, some installers charge by the panel, others by watt, and others charge a [separate] removal and reinstallation cost,” she says. In addition, local governments require permits for the roofing and electrical work.

Homeowners who know they will need to replace their roofs within the 20 year-plus lifespan of their solar panels can request that a future time-specific quote for removal and reinstallation of their solar panels be included in their solar installation contract, Hellkamp says, adding, “You always want to hire a qualified contractor, such as your original solar installer, to do this work.”

Weisleder says his company will only remove and reinstall systems that it installed originally, which suggests that systems, configurations, and construction materials used by different solar installers vary widely.

Solar shingles in your future?

One enticing, through expensive, option is to replace a traditional roof with solar panels fabricated to look like shingles, such as the Tesla Solar Roof, introduced in 2016.

They look like shingles, eliminating the undesirable appearance of large glass rooftop slabs.

Starting at around $50,000, the Tesla roof is slightly more expensive than a roof replacement and traditional solar panel combo, the website Solar Reviews reported in a Sept. 1 article.

But Weisleder says a Tesla roof generates less electricity than a modern solar panel array because, with the Tesla shingles, solar power flows to a single inverter on the side of the house. The inverter converts direct current (DC) generated by the solar power to alternating current (AC) that supplies electricity to the home.

The Tesla configuration, also common in older rooftop solar arrays, is based on what’s known as “string inverter” technology. The primary disadvantage of string inverter setups is that all of the panels in the array can only generate as much power as the weakest panel. So if one panel’s output is diminished by shade or damage, then all of the panels are affected in equal measure.

Todays most advanced solar panels each have their own microinverter converting DC to AC. Microinverters enable each panel to produce as much current as they can on their own regardless of what might be happening to other panels in the array.

Tesla, being Tesla, of course isn’t expected to rest on its laurels and rely on obsolete technology forever. Last year it announced a new version of its inverter that includes some of the functions of microinverter technology. But for now, Weisleder says, Tesla Solar Roofs don’t offer the same power generation capacity as traditional solar panels.

Weisleder said his company was the first in Florida licensed to sell Tesla Solar Roofs and installed one two years ago in the Panhandle town of Destin. But it took much longer than expected to install and was “very challenging,” he said. The company subcontracted two other Tesla Solar Roof orders in Orlando and then stopped selling them, he said.

Other companies, such as GAF and CertainTeed, have developed hybrid solar panels that are installed over shingles and are designed to blend in better with roofs. It’s likely that more solutions will be developed to address complaints that solar panels don’t look good on homes, he said.

Bundle your roof and solar

An increasing number of solar companies in Florida are helping homeowners solve their roof-age challenges by offering to bundle roof replacements with solar installations into one project that can be financed at low interest rates over 25 years – the typical lifetime warranty period for today’s solar panels.

Weisleder’s company has staff members licensed as certified roofing contractors, as do a growing number of solar companies in Florida. Others will work with preferred or partner roofing companies. Of roughly 120 solar projects his company completes every month, about 10 include a roof replacement, he says.

Unfortunately, says Campbell, IRS guidelines state that the roof replacement portion of a roof-and-solar project won’t qualify for the 30% federal tax credit, even if they’re necessary to avoid removing and replacing a rooftop solar installation several years into the future.

© 2022 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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