I first considered solar panels for my three Iowa self-storage facilities in 2016. I had received quotes from local installation companies that seemed almost too good to be true.
One of the first things I did was turn to Self-Storage Talk, an online community sponsored by Inside Self-Storage, to seek out other facility operators who’ve invested in solar energy. I also reached out to storage owners in my state who had installed solar panels. The following summarizes my experience with the installation, and offers advice for determining if your facility is a candidate for this technology.
Is Solar Right for You?
The first thing you’ll want to consider is what incentives your state is offering for businesses that adopt renewable energy. Today, there’s a 30 percent federal tax credit for the cost of installing a solar-energy system. In Iowa, there’s an additional 15 percent state-tax credit. On top of that, there’s accelerated depreciation, exemption from property taxes and exemption from sales taxes.
If you happen to live in a small town, there’s even the opportunity to obtain a grant for 25 percent of the project cost. This is available for small businesses in communities of less than 50,000 people (suburbs of larger towns don’t count if they’re part of the metro area).
Next, you’ll want to determine if your property is suitable for solar power, and Google has a free tool for that. Go to the Project Sunroof website and enter your property address. If your site is deemed appropriate, you’ll need to find out what agreements your state’s utility board has with your utility company for distributed power generation. Each state and company can have different rules on how this is handled.
This brings me to the topic of net metering, which is when your utility company allows you to over-produce energy during the day to power your facility at night. You can design a system that produces 100 percent of your round-the-clock energy needs, even though it sits idle during non-daylight hours.
Unfortunately, net metering has been slowly going away in areas that have been heavily developed with solar power, such Arizona, California and Nevada. Don’t count on net metering being there forever, even if your utility company still allows it.
In states where net metering is no longer an option, onsite battery storage is becoming more cost-effective. Companies such as Tesla Inc., LG Solar and others are producing inexpensive power-storage solutions, which should continue to drop in price in the coming years. Because net metering is still available in my state, I opted to wait on battery storage.
Planning the System
Once you’ve decided solar is right for your property, you must choose where to install the panels. The most efficient placement is at a 45-degree angle, facing south. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible, depending on how your property is laid out. If you must face your panels east or west, you’ll reduce efficiency from 10 percent to 20 percent. You’ll also see a reduction when you lower the mount angle. A free online tool from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory will help you determine how much power you can generate at your property with various panel configurations.
In self-storage, we generally have an abundance of roof space, but since our buildings are pre-engineered, they may not be designed to sustain large increases in load. This was the case at my properties. With the necessary snow load, my buildings were barely able to sustain the additional weight. Ultimately, we installed the panels facing east or west, at an approximate 5 degree angle to follow the pitch of the roof. Using that orientation only added about three pounds per square foot.
Prepping Your Roof
Today’s solar panels have a life span of 30 to 40 years, so it’s important to plan before you install them. Our roofs were 15, 20 and 22 years old, so they needed some rehabilitation first. We had two primary options: install a membrane system or replace the fasteners. Through my research, I found a membrane tends to only come with a 10-year warranty, which simply wasn’t going to be enough. This moved my focus to replacing fasteners.
For the best results, I discovered I should move up to the next fastener size from what was previously installed. This took some searching, but I found some that were perfect for my needs. After replacing all the fasteners, we also fixed any areas where caulking or sealants were used. One of my facilities had a standing-seam roof, so we just made sure all the seams were properly secured and the metal was still in good shape.
Installing the System
Most self-storage owners seek a contractor to do the solar-panel installation. The professional installers we talked to wanted about $2.25 per watt. Fortunately, one of our owners is a master electrician, so we opted to do the work ourselves.
Permitting is your next step. How much hassle this presents will depend on your location. Each of our facilities is in a different jurisdiction, with a different set of rules. Some are using 2014 International Building Codes and National Electric Codes, while others call for 2017 codes.
In one case, no building permit was required. In another, I had to hire a structural engineer to verify the roof could sustain the additional weight.
Over the last several months, we’ve installed 248 solar panels among our three self-storage facilities, each at 345 watts. These will satisfy 100 percent of the properties’ energy needs over the next 30-plus years. That includes heating and cooling the temperature-controlled location.
Based on our 2017 power bills, and after factoring in tax breaks, we expect a total system payoff in less than five years! We’re also shielded from future rate increases from our utility company, which is good because it plans to issue a 10 percent to 12 percent increase in my jurisdiction this year. Lastly, and most important, by installing solar, we’re being good stewards of our planet.
Randy Lucore, president of CR Area Storage, has been in the self-storage industry for more than 20 years. He operates three facilities in Cedar Rapids, Marion and Palo, Iowa. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; visit www.crareastorage.com.