Two Evanston homeowners, who are also Illinois Solar Ambassadors, opened their homes and shared their experiences with people curious about solar technology on Saturday, Sept. 24, as part of the 2022 Solar Tour. 

The Illinois Solar Education Association hosted the event and lined up more than 100 homes and businesses throughout Illinois. The tours give homeowners an opportunity to talk to people about the switch to solar power and see how it works. (Three Evanstonians offered virtual tours, but only two offered in-person tours.)

Jeff Balch in front of his home with a new roof and 21 PV panels. Credit: Wendi Kromash

The local tours are part of a national effort. The National Solar Tour Oct. 1 and 2 was promoted by the American Solar Energy Society. Virtual tours will also be available through January of 2023 at 5,500 buildings in 3,200 communities across the U.S. 

Each of the homes participating in the tour use PV panels and/or solar thermal panels. Photovoltaic panels convert light into electricity. The panels are made of cells connected together out of semiconductor materials.

The use of terms like megawatt hours and kilowatt hours may make those less scientifically inclined run for the hills. But don’t panic. There are many online and human resources available to translate all of this and make it understandable. 

The federal Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy website answers many of the questions people have about solar energy. Plus the City of Evanston also has a page of solar resources, benefits and community savings it has negotiated to encourage solar power for residents as part of its Climate Action and Resilience Plan. 

The RoundTable’s Matt Simonette recently wrote an article about solar pricing and incentives.

Nicola Brown, program associate with the Illinois Solar Education Association, described the financial incentives available to Illinois residents in an email. Brown wrote, “What makes it particularly exciting this year is that recent legislation, both on the state level and on the federal level, has made it even easier and cheaper to go solar than it has been in the past. 

“The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA), which was passed in Illinois almost exactly a year ago, ensures robust state incentives for solar for many years to come. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was passed federally only a few weeks ago, and ensures a 30% income tax credit for a decade.”

According to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Illinois legislation “expands renewable development, provides funding for electric vehicles and charging stations, creates clean energy workforce training programs” and much more.

The tours – Carrington House

Of the three virtual tours for Evanston residences, Chuck Carrington’s tour had the most quantitative data. He’s been a solar proponent since 1985.

He owns a two-flat and his solar system consists of 26 330-watt PV panels and two thermal panels for heating water. It is held in place on racks secured by bricks, so there are no holes necessary in the roof. The state Association website states his system produces 10.83 MWh (megawatt hours) each year. (One megawatt hour equals 1,000 kilowatt hours.)

But he said the system supports his family’s apartment plus common areas, an electric washer and dryer for both units, hot water for both units and a charging system for an electric car. Carrington’s tour, the longest of the three, is less than six minutes and filled with details, including a review of his first post-installation electric bill. But it does not address installation costs.

Moran house

Mike Moran’s virtual tour offers a deep dive into installation. He added two solar thermal panels in 2005 when he and his wife added another level to their home. 

The company they selected, Solar Service Inc., installed the solar thermal panels and handled all of the rebate paperwork with the state and federal governments. After the rebates, the panels essentially cost them $4,400. Moran said he recouped the cost within eight years. The panels heat 70% of the family’s hot water needs year-round. 

Mike Moran in his basement. The heat exchanger is the small white tank behind his arm and the water storage tank is labeled AC Smith. Credit: Wendi Kromash

After the tour, Moran explained how it works in an email: “The solar thermal panels run a closed loop of food-grade antifreeze that never mixes with the household water. A heat exchanger tank in the basement transfers the heat to the household water which is then stored in an 80 gallon tank adjacent to the water heater.

“When there is demand for hot water, the water heater draws water from the storage tank (not directly from the municipal supply), which is most often already heated. As a result, the gas that heats the hot water heater is hardly ever turned on.” All three ‘machines’ sit side-by-side in Moran’s basement.

Moran also has a charger for his electric car. The cost for all the electrical work and the charger hook up came to about $1,200. The car can travel about 200 miles fully charged, which he tries to do at night when the kilowatt hour price is lowest. 

In an email, Moran said, “Sometimes we charge it for just $2 or $3, and sometimes even get paid a dollar or so to charge it when the supply exceeds demand.” 

Balch Home

Jeff Balch’s tour starts with a short jaunt through his south Evanston neighborhood where there are at least five homes with solar panels, including the Moran home. The home Balch and his wife purchased in 1997 included solar thermal panels, which was why they were interested in the house. Balch said, “We credit Fran, the woman we bought the house from in 1997, as being a trailblazer. She was way ahead of her time.” 

Balch explained that their roof was damaged in 2020 in a hail storm, but the panels were unscathed. Still, when they replaced the roof, they decided to recycle the original solar thermal panels and upgrade to PV panels. They installed 21 PV panels and gave the old ones to a neighbor. The new panels produce approximately 9,000 kilowatt-hours annually.

Jeff Balch with, from right, the inverter, the emergency shut off and the net meter. Credit: Wendi Kromash

On the tour, Balch explained how it works. He also provided sheets with information from the Association. As sunlight hits the solar panels, the light becomes electrons of direct current (DC) electricity. The direct current flows to an inverter, shown in the photo on the side of Balch’s house. The inverter converts direct current electricity into alternating current electricity, or DC into AC.

The other two machines he has are the shut off switch and the net meter. All of the information gathered by ComEd is available for Balch to view online and through apps on a smartphone, which he eagerly demonstrated to the RoundTable. 

“When you get a PV system, you also get the technology to track production and consumption. You can glance at the app and see how your system is doing,” Balch said. 

Whatever electricity that is produced but not used flows into the grid to be used by others. When this happens, the Balches receive renewable energy credits on their next bill. The credits are  good for up to one year.

If there is a time when they need more electricity than they have banked or produced, they can draw from the grid. Every kilowatt is tracked through the net metering program.

Balch said the new panels and their installation cost them about $20,000. They received a $7,000 rebate from the state and will receive federal tax credits for five years. Federal tax credits vary based on income, and what isn’t used in one year can be rolled over to the next. The system will pay for itself within 10 years.

Moran refers to Balch’s home as “the nicest looking solar installation in Evanston.” The grid of panels, perfectly centered on the roof, looks like a card game for giants that is about to start. Both Moran and Balch are enthusiastic supporters of solar technology because of its cost-saving advantages and its ecological value. 

Carrington said in the introductory panel to his virtual tour that “for the health of our planet and for future generations. I have long thought it important to do what we can to reduce the use of fossil fuels.” 

Wendi Kromash

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

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