Even with the Arizona sun beating down, the electric meter on Stephanie Feil’s home in the Rio Verde Foothills was spinning so slowly it was almost at a crawl Wednesday. Until the air conditioner kicked off. That’s when it started spinning backwards.
Feil is one of a rising number of Scottsdale residents getting solar electric permits, a figure that rose from just one in 2001 to 28 in 2007. The city has granted five permits so far this year.
Solar electricity is a good deal because it adds equity to your house, saves the homeowner money and is environmentally friendly, said David Rinehimer, president of Barcelona Homes, the custom home builder that built Feil’s house. Rinehimer has included solar energy as a standard in on his homes for about six years, just one of the features he includes as he bills himself “the green builder.”
Rolling the solar panels into the cost of the home makes it easier to see that you’re saving money on power bills from day one, Rinehimer said.
“People weren’t doing this on their own,” Rinehimer said. “We said, ‘Let’s make this idiot proof.’”
Homeowners get credits from power companies and tax credits when they put solar systems on homes. So the approximately $40,000 systems on Rinehimer’s custom homes end up being closer to $17,000.
After that, energy is automatically taken from the solar panels when they generate enough energy, then taken from the rest of the grid at night or other times when the solar isn’t generating enough to power the house, Rinehimer said.
And when excess energy is generated, it’s essentially sold back to the company, which shows up as a credit on energy bills.
Feil and her husband didn’t specifically go out looking for a green home, but they’re happy with the result.
They were used to paying $400 bills in her old 2,600-square-foot home. This 4,680-square-foot house gave her a $70 bill in April before the credits.
“I still can’t quite believe that’s right, actually,” Feil said.
Solar power can also increase property values. The amount depends on the specific home, but high-end homes can easily go up by about $25,000 in equity for every $1,000 saved in utility costs, said Jim Sexton, a Scottsdale-based real estate agent who frequently works with Rinehimer.
While more home builders are adopting green concepts, it’s still tough to convince them to offer solar energy as a standard feature on their homes, said Anthony Floyd, Scottsdale’s Green Building Program manager. In fact, Floyd was surprised to learn Barcelona had the feature and didn’t know of any other builders that did.
Floyd believes that’s because not enough builders understand solar options, and it’s easier to stick with what they’re comfortable with.
But most home buyers also don’t immediately jump to solar as their upgrade of choice, he said.
“When you make it an option, most people, if they chose between upgrades of counter tops versus solar, they choose the (counter tops),” Floyd said.
Some green building concepts, like double pane windows, insulation that’s placed right under the roof instead of under the attic, entrances covered with shade and dual flush toilets that feature different amounts of water for liquid versus solid waste, have become more common in recent years, Floyd said.
That increases energy efficiency, which is a good thing — and also one of the reasons Scottsdale recently raised its standards on what counts as a “green building” so that builders would really have to go the extra mile to earn green status, he said.
Scottsdale and other groups made moves to encourage more solar energy in the 2001 to 2002 time frame. That’s when the Maricopa Association of Governments adopted standard requirements for solar permits, which most cities have adopted, a move that makes it easier for builders to know what requirements they have to meet, Floyd said.
And Scottsdale adopted guidelines on integrating solar panels into the design of the building instead of adding them as an after thought, things like what direction roofs should face to get the maximum amount of sunlight, how tall the equipment should be on sloping roofs and different types of solar panels and paints that can make the panels look more like a normal roof.
“If it’s not integrated, it looks more like equipment. And people don’t like to see the equipment,” Floyd said. “Solar can be beautiful.”
While the Scottsdale and MAG permit guidelines are voluntary, Floyd said he believed they have helped encourage the rise in solar power on Scottsdale homes in the years since.
And while Rinehimer doesn’t think many more builders will start offering solar power as a standard part of their homes until the economy picks up, he’s looking forward to the day more builders join him.
“I think the green thing is really here to stay,” Rinehimer said. “It’s not only becoming en vogue, the prices are catching up.”