Crews remove the 35-year-old solar panels from this home on Cleveland Street so the hail-damaged roof can be repaired. (Photo from Jeff Balch)

Late-winter hail damaged many homes here, and for Jeff Balch and Dori Conn, repairing the roof on their Cleveland Street home meant taking down the solar panels that had heated water in the house for decades.

“After last year’s hailstorm we checked for and found roof damage, which our insurance company agreed to repair,” Mr. Balch said.

“The adjuster asked us to remove our solar thermal panels to facilitate the work. I then made our key phone call, to Brandon Leavitt, whose company installed the solar thermal panels in 1986, to ask about temporarily removing them. Brandon suggested instead that after 35 years we should shift to photovoltaics (PVs). The old thermal panels still work fine, but PV technology has advanced enormously since ’86 and now gives more benefit with an open southern roof like ours. Over the years I’ve learned to follow Brandon’s advice closely, and he put me in touch with Celestar Solar, whose owner worked for Brandon before he retired. We settled on PV panels made by REC Alpha. They’re fairly high-performance but not out of reach financially,” Mr. Balch said.

Mr. Leavitt was on hand to witness the takedown on April 2.

Solar Service, the company he founded and from which he is now retired, installed about 80 solar thermal panel sets on Evanston residents, including the home of Elizabeth Tisdahl when she was Mayor of Evanston.  

Federal and State incentives make installing solar panels attractive to homeowners, Mr. Leavitt said.

The market has shifted from the solar thermal panels, which typically heat water, to photovoltaic panels, which generate electricity – the kind that Mr. Balch and Ms. Conn have selected for their home.

Unlike the upright or slightly slanted solar thermal panels, the PVs lie flat on the roof and are much more efficient, Mr. Leavitt said.

“We’ll be out of the solar hot water business, and will continue to heat water with natural gas. Our new solar goal will be to generate most or all of the electricity we use,” Mr. Balch said.

Homeowners Dori Conn and Jeff Balch flank Brandon Leavitt, whose company in 1986 installed the solar panels that were removed on April 2. Twenty-one photovoltaic panels, which will be installed in a few weeks, will cover roughly two-thirds of the south-facing roof. Each panel’s area is about 18 square feet, so the whole 3-by-7 array will cover close to 400 square feet on the 600-square-foot roof. The north-facing roof will not be involved. (Photo from Jeff Balch.)

When the panels collect more electricity than is immediately needed, ComEd will store the surplus for the homeowner’s later use – and Mr. Balch has his own idea about that. “We now have a Chevy Bolt [car]; in time we may set it up for recharging with the new PV system. And with luck the new panels may get a few more passersby thinking about shifting to renewables, and pressuring policymakers to shift the grid in that direction,” he said.

He has already found a home for the 35-year-old panels – “an Evanston neighbor who’ll put our thermal panels and tanks to use on his own house. So we managed to keep our used equipment out of a landfill, at least for now.”

Mr. Leavitt said some of his acquaintances were surprised at his decision to go into the solar business in an area where many homes had flat roof and winters were cold and gray. His education had prepared him to think into the future.

“I studied under Buckminster Fuller,” Mr. Leavitt said. “He gave us 25 years to solve the energy crisis. I think it will take 75.”

He added, “I heard [biologist and environmental pioneer] Barry Commoner speak at the first Earth Day. He said three things: ‘A waste is a resource in the wrong place. Everything is connected. [And] There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

And there are connections. Twenty-nine Earth Days after the first one, Mr. Leavitt quoted Mr. Commoner in a speech at the Peggy Notabaert Museum. And in a few weeks, he will return to the house on Cleveland Street and watch the installation of the new photovoltaic panels.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...

2 replies on “Hail and Farewell: Roof Damage Leads Evanston Residents to Replace Decades-Old Solar Panels With PVs”

  1. This is such an inspiring article and a true testament regarding Solar in The North !
    35 years and still collecting! That’s great !
    Brandon Leavitt is truly amazing to have had the drive to bring Solar to Chicago in 1977!

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