Install as much as you can: a solar case study 

Richard Fuell has been in the solar industry for more than 10 years. He started out as an installer back when the Feed in Tariff was introduced to the UK.  

Richard Fuell of Aniron Renewables shares insights gathered installing solar panels on his own home.

In that time, the market has evolved significantly, in terms of the equipment, the technology, and the interconnection of different products. Richard was a long- standing member of staff and a passionate ambassador for global inverter manufacturer SolarEdge, and now works for a commercial PV EPC, Aniron Renewables, based in Northamptonshire.  

Richard shared with us the insights he’s gathered by installing solar panels on his own home, having moved house in 2022. 

Over the years in training events, to friends, to anyone that asks for my advice on solar I say “Install as much as you can”. Solar panels work very well when the sun is shining, when it’s a clear cloudless day. But, with the infamous British weather, we get a lot of clouds so, in my opinion, you want to generate as much as you can when it’s cloudy.  

You want to consider 365 days of the year when it comes to the solar installation, and I honestly believe you should fill the roof space that’s available. 

I moved house in late 2022 and, unfortunately, it isn’t blessed to have solar panels! I could only fit seven panels on the southerly facing roof. Don’t get me wrong, 7 panels on a southerly aspect is great, and certainly better than nothing – generating approximately 2500kWh a year. However, I wanted a solar system that would generate as much power as possible from the sun. 

So, I decided to install on both my southerly and northerly facing roofs. 

Installing on a northerly facing aspect isn’t something anyone would ever really suggest. In the winter months, the northerly facing panels get no direct sunlight on them at all, and therefore they generate very little. However, in summer months, when the sun is higher in the sky, they get the direct sunlight and, quite importantly, they also get the late afternoon and evening sunshine. 

The benefit of having late afternoon and evening sunshine is that more savings can be made directly when we’re in the house using power. 

Below is a diagram showing the generation of every single solar panel in 2023. 

solar panel module layout

Caption – solar panel module layout 

The seven panels facing south-east have generated around 380kWh each in the whole of 2023. (The ones on the ends suffer from chimney shadows which is reflected in their reduced generation.) 

As expected, the panels on the north-west- facing roof generated less than those to the south. 

A quick glance shows an average of 220kWh per panel which is almost two thirds of the south- east-facing roof. For a roof on which it would never be recommended to install solar panels, I think they’ve performed very well. 

Something interesting that I noticed many times throughout the year was that, when it was a grey, cloudy day, most of the solar panels, no matter which direction they face, generally made the same amount of power. 

The question many people would ask is whether it is economically viable to install solar panels on a north-facing aspect. There is lots to consider when trying to accurately calculate this: the cost of installation, the cost of scaffolding, and comparing this to a southerly aspect roof. However, self-consumption is a big factor here, as they’re generating power later in the day when the southerly aspect has dropped in performance.  

Therefore, the economics of it all comes down to the amount of power you are not buying from the grid at this time of day, as well as the financial reward you’re gaining for putting power onto the grid at this time of day. 

It was my intention to generate as much power as I could to also heat the hot water tank with the generated solar power. I had a smart hot water controller installed, and now every day I use the power that would go to the grid to heat my hot water. At 5pm, when the boiler gets to its daily schedule to heat the hot water, the tank is already hot, so I no longer have to use gas to heat the hot water. 

This was such an incredible achievement that for 6 months of the year my gas usage was zero. ZERO. 

It was so effective that I actually turned the boiler completely off in May, and kept it off until October, when we didn’t need heating. And, without the northerly facing panels, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve this. In addition, for those six months we were able to power our eight-year-old EV, which has a small 23kWh battery, just from the afternoon sun. 

Installing solar panels isn’t just about putting panels up on the roof and away you go. The beauty of it, and the benefit of it, is knowing how much you’re generating, and then smartly using as much of that generated power when it’s available. 

I believe that installing solar panels on northerly facing roofs will become a lot more popular, especially on commercial roof tops, as the angle of the roof isn’t as steep as a residential property. The payback, the financial benefits, and the rewards, all depend on how you’re using the power, how much power you’re using and when you’re using the power. 

We found Richard’s journey so fascinating that we wanted to dig deeper – so we asked some questions about his systems, monitoring, and his plans for the future. 

Beyond the panels, what’s the system you have in your house that allows it to operate so efficiently? 

I believe we’ve moved away from having solar panels on your house to having a “solar home energy system” with the combination of different technologies all speaking to each other. The solar panels generate the power, the devices smartly use that power in the property.  

After 10 years in the solar industry, I know the capabilities that solar has. With the combination of smart technologies and understanding the consumption of a property, my approach was to be as energy efficient as possible and reduce my intake of power from the grid and fossil fuels as much as possible. 

Working for SolarEdge, knowing the products and knowing the capabilities of the products really helped. The SolarEdge system, although more expensive than other solar inverters, has become a residential energy system with all the different products that are designed to work together. 

I think it’s important for both installers and homeowners to think beyond today. Don’t just think about generating energy, but also what you’re going to do with that energy. It’s a 20+ year investment, and you’re only going to install the solar system once, but you need a buildable system for when you add different devices as your lifestyle changes in the coming years. 

What have you learned by monitoring your system? 

Monitoring of the system has become an obsession! My wife has also become very interested in it, something I never thought would happen in a million years! So much so, last year she purchased a slow cooker to use the power during the day!  

We use the power during the day, rather than evenings, for everyday appliances like a dishwasher, a washing machine, even an oven when cooking the Sunday roast! Sad as it sounds, the small things add up to big savings throughout the year. 

Our electricity rate that we’re paying for power from the grid is currently at 30p per kWh. We receive a fraction of this for the power that goes out to the grid, so this is why it’s important to use the power that’s generated from the solar, from a financial point of view.  

The price of gas has at least tripled since we moved into our house, so the savings on gas have been outstanding. It’s not just about saving of electricity, it’s the saving on gas too. 

I believe that a kWh is simply not a familiar term to many of the public. Things like smart meters, electric cars and solar have started to make people aware what a kWh is, however, it’s still not common for someone to know how much power a kettle or a washing machine uses.  

But I believe that once you can see it and understand it, you will use the power from the solar during the day, and reduce the energy you’re purchasing from the grid. Monitoring is key. It’s very important. 

Is there anything you wish you’d done differently? 

Is there anything I would change if I could go back in time? Not really, although I would like to have installed electric underfloor heating. 

However, the cost to change the floor would have been extremely high and I couldn’t justify it. I was also interested in having a heat pump, however the house isn’t right. Although we changed the windows to double glazed which was a huge improvement, the house is so old I can’t have cavity wall installation, and we don’t generate enough power in the winter for a heat pump. 

What are the next steps for you in your home? 

I wanted to see the viability of everything for a whole year before I invested in a battery, so I suspect this is something I’ll look to in the future. However, I think in the future, with electric cars gaining in battery capacity, perhaps the need for a home battery in my situation won’t be viable. 

I’d really like to explore capturing the heat from the loft space and putting in some kind of ventilation system so that the hot air can be pumped down into the house. I’m not quite sure how I can achieve this, or of the costs involved, but I don’t like waste and feel there is wasted heat energy I could tap into.  

I’m also looking to potentially adding more panels in my small garden in the future. I’m sure there will be other smart devices which I can add to my house in the coming years which I’m looking forward to. I’d love to have a very small wind turbine, or a collection of small wind turbines on the ridge of the house. I don’t think it’s viable, but it would be SUPER cool.. 

And what do you think is next for the industry? 

I think air conditioning is going to be in big demand in the future which, perhaps, my solar system will also have a big part to play in, too. 

I also think storage is the big one, including batteries, both in residential and for commercial systems. This is not just for self-consumption but for energy trading. I’ve said for a number of years, energy trading or grid services is like talking about the internet back in the early 1990s. It’s exciting, it’s different, and it is going to change everything.  

A huge proportion of people in the solar industry don’t know what energy trading is yet, nor do they see how vital solar energy’s part in it is. Residential solar systems, commercial solar, and ground mounted solar too. As the energy market changes, renewable energy – especially solar, electric vehicles, and energy storage – is going to change everything. 

Image credit: Richard Fuell