By Tim Schlee
With alternative energies on the rise, self-storage owners must decide if, when and how they want to use them. Solar energy is a popular one, and it makes sense for many storage sites. Why not harness the power of the sun, an inexhaustible energy source we encounter every day? Many facilities around the nation are doing just that, but it’s still a massive and expensive undertaking.
Although solar-panel installation is cheaper than ever before (solar panels are 99 percent cheaper now than they were 35 years ago), it’s still a costly venture. With so much money at stake, self-storage operators should do their research to determine if it’s worth the investment. If you’re not sure where to start, here’s a list of questions to help steer you in the right direction.
1. What Is Solar Energy?
There’s no such thing as a dumb question. If you don’t know anything about solar energy, you certainly won’t know whether it’s right for your business. Luckily, it’s not hard to find resources out there to learn about it.
In brief, solar panels, developed in 1954 by Bell Laboratories, convert sunlight into electric currents. This allows us to harness the incredible amount of energy we receive every day from the sun and put it to use in our normal, functioning power grids. Once you know a little about what solar power is, the next step is deciding how you want to use it.
2. Do I Receive Enough Sunlight?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how eco-friendly you are—if your facility doesn’t receive enough sunlight, solar energy isn’t right for you. Does your locale get a lot of sun? Do you have trees or some structure, such as a chimney, that will shade the panels during parts of the day? Does your facility have south-facing roofs (unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, in which case you’d want north-facing roofs)?
The less sunlight your panels receive, the less energy you’ll generate. And the less energy you generate, the longer it will take your solar-power system to pay for itself.
3. Is My Facility Suitable?
Self-storage facilities are in many ways ideal for solar power. Most are single-story buildings spread out over a large area—that is, they have lots of roof area, and more roof area equals more room to place solar panels. Many facilities throughout the nation are installing solar-power systems.
But not all facilities are created equal. The condition of your building, particularly your roof, could play a role in its suitability for solar power. Roof materials should be expected to last as long as the solar panels themselves (about 25 to 30 years). If your roof is old and crumbling, you’ll need to patch or even replace it before installing the panels.
Of course, solar panels don’t need to be roof-mounted. If your facility has enough open land, a solar array could be mounted directly into the ground.
4. What Are My Goals?
This is the most important question. Once you’ve figured out whether solar energy is reasonable for your property, you need to determine your goals. If it’s to completely power your facility and sell the surplus back to the energy supplier, you’ll need a different kind of system (and a lot more funds) than if you’re merely looking to shave 25 percent off your energy bill.
Don’t just think about your immediate goals, though. How long will it take for your system to pay for itself? If you’re planning on selling your facility or moving in the next 10 to 15 years, it might not be the greatest investment. Many solar-power systems take 20 years or more to pay for themselves.
Also think about whether you want to expand your system in the future. The way it’s installed now can make it a lot easier to add on later. Be as specific as you can with your goals, and the questions that follow will be a lot easier to answer.
5. What Kind of System Do I Need?
There are several kinds of solar panels and solar-power systems. The kind of system you need largely depends on your solar-energy goals. Some systems, for example, are not connected to the power grid. A business such as a self-storage facility will probably want to remain connected, either to supplement its solar energy with standard electricity or to sell excess back to the electric company. There are also various wattages available, so be active, do your research, and talk to the professionals who are going to install the panels to determine what will work best for you.
6. What Will It Cost?
Unfortunately, solar energy is still not cheap. The price varies by a number of factors, including wattage, number of panels, the installation company, permitting and zoning processes, and more. It can vary from just a few thousand dollars to more than $50,000. Comparing the installation cost to the standard price of energy in your region can give you a general idea of how much you can save each year and how quickly it can pay for itself.
Don’t forget to include the cost of maintenance in your calculations. Most insurance policies require yearly checks to ensure the solar panels continue to function properly.
However, the bare cost is usually not what you’ll pay. The federal government offers a tax credit for 30 percent of the installation cost, and most state governments have other tax credits and rebates available. Look into what’s available in your area so you can take full advantage of the possible funding.
7. How Will This Affect My Facility’s Image?
Not everyone likes the look of solar panels covering a building’s roof. If solar power isn’t very popular in your area, people might not even realize what it is you have on your roof, and that could turn them off before they even step foot on your property. On the other hand, if you live in an area where going green is common or even expected, you’ve just added another selling point to your facility.
Don’t neglect the marketing potential in solar energy. Alternative energies are only growing in popularity, and that’s another tool to be harnessed to draw in customers.
This is far from an exhaustive list of things to consider before installing solar power. It’s a very large investment, so don’t try to cut corners. It will probably take a lot of time and effort to figure out whether it’s right for you and, if it is, what kind of system you need; but it can be worth it.
Tim Schlee is a Kansas City native who studied English and linguistics at Truman State University. He is a content writer for StorageAhead, which offers Web-marketing technology for the self-storage industry, including lead-generating search engines and facility-management software. For more information, call 913.954.4110.