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World class bespoke services for people who are at the top of their field, or want to be.

Internet PR Consultant

Websites | SEO | Social Media | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
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Writing

Stern writes historical novels and biographies. His encyclopedic QUEERS IN HISTORY was a #1 best seller worldwide.
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Talent Management

Managerial services and advice based on 50 years in the entertainment business.
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Hobbies and semi-professional pursuits

Photographs
Photographs

I've been published in major newspapers worldwide..Select "Photos" from menu above.

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I've been there and done that. Select "Travel Tips" from menu above.

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Recipes

I was a late bloomer but I was baking my own bread BEFORE the pandemic.

Keith Stern in Print

A selection from what others have written:

“In 1997, when Sir Ian McKellen was in Los Angeles to film Gods and Monsters, he asked his friend Keith Stern, a computer consultant, to create mckellen.com, a shaggy collection of Sir Ian’s writings and photographs that is a treasure trove of contemporary Shakespearean and sci-fi lore, and the actor’s political activism.
“In his small memorabilia-crammed office above a Thai restaurant on Sunset Blvd, Keith explained, ‘As people do in this town, whether you’re a masseur or a nanny or a yoga teacher, you get passed around. So when Brendan Fraser and Lynn Redgrave saw what I’d done for Ian, they were both very interested to have me do the same for them.’
“When Keith went to New Zealand to visit Sir Ian on the set of the Lord of the Rings films, the same thing happened again. ‘I was spending my days going from hotel room to hotel room trying to help people out in various ways, making sure Orlando Bloom and Billy Boyd got their domain names, and Sean Astin and Andy Serkis both developed Web sites with me.’ [Michael Joseph Gross, Starstruck, Bloomsbury, 2005]

Michael Joseph Gross in "Starstruck"

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Going Solar, Part Three: Waiting for permission

The adventures of installing rooftop solar panels on an existing home

Now we wait.

HOA

My homeowners’ association (HOA) must approve any changes I make, particularly regarding the exterior appearance of my home. In Nevada and other states, the HOA’s ability to keep me from installing solar panels on the rooftop is limited by legislation meant to encourage renewable energy. As I understand it, they cannot refuse to allow panels. They may, however, require changes that might reduce the output of my system as much as 10%. That would put a real dent in my payback.

At request of my solar provider, the HOA sent me a standard application form. Among other things, the form asks for the signature of all my surrounding neighbors indicating if the “approve” or “disapprove.” In the case of solar panels, it’s my understanding that the neighbors’ approval is not required. In my case, getting neighbors’ signatures is complicated. During a pandemic it doesn’t seem a good idea to go door to door getting signatures. Also, the homes around me are rentals and it might prove daunting to try to get approval from out-of-state owners. I filled in “Unable to obtain due to COVID-19.”

The solar provider filled in “December 3” for the installation completion. That’s more than twelve weeks away but we all hope it will be sooner. They don’t get paid until I sign off on the installation.

Building permits

City, County and other authorities must approve the plans. This can also take 8 weeks to complete.

Warranties

I’ve been reviewing the warranty information provided by the solar contractor. With the exception of the roof, they’re standard manufacturers’ warranties. As always with warranties and their loopholes, you’ll be dependent on the good will of the company to stand by their product, assuming the company still exists in 10, 20 or 25 years.

Photovoltaic Modules: 25 year workmanship warranty / 25 year 90.76% power warranty / 25 year labor warranty. Panels tend to produce less power as time goes by. Manufacturer warrants the power output will be no less than 97% of the designated Maximum Power (Pmax) stated in the product data sheet for the first year from date of purchase of the Product by the Customer and the Power output degradation will be no more than 0.26% per year for the following 24 years, so that, at the end of 25th year, the power output will be at least 90.76% of Pmax. With a 3% margin of error, this could be down to 94% after year one, 87.76% at the end of 25 years. This does not mean an underproducing panel will be replaced with a new one. Rather, Manufacturer will refund the “value” lost. As I understand it, if a panel is only producing half the power it should, they’ll refund half the cost of the panel. This will probably be small comfort, but if you can show it’s “defective” rather than simply “degraded” they might have to replace it.

Inverter: 25 year workmanship warranty

Power Optimizer: 25 year workmanship warranty

GSM Kit: 5 year prepaid plan (extendable at expiration). This is the communications module for the system monitoring app. GSM provides a cell-phone signal to facilitate remote monitoring. My understanding is the module includes WiFi so I can monitor without paying for the GSM signal.

Mounting Racks: 25 years

Contractor Labor and Roof: 25 years. For the duration of the roof warranty, contractor is guaranteeing it’s roof penetrations to be watertight under any weather conditions. In case of a roof leakage after the expiration of the home’s original roof warranty homeowner must prove that the leakage is actually caused by contractor’s roof penetrations.

Resources:

PVWATTS calculator

Rough Draft of my spreadsheet. Click “Assumptions” tab after opening.

Going Solar, Part Two: Time of Use Rates
Solar Panels are good for the environment of course.

The adventures of installing rooftop solar panels on an existing home

There is much to learn! Like “Time of Use Rates.”

Since I posted “Part One” I have had my roof inspected by the solar provider. One cracked tile was found, which they will replace, and they report “the felt is good.” They took photos of all aspects of the roof. I suppose I should get a copy of those.

They say they will be providing a 25-year warranty on my roof. That protects against leaks from the points at which they attach their panels to my roof.

Meanwhile I’ve been refining the numbers on my spreadsheet. Savings each month will vary according to how much solar is used and how much is taken from the grid. It is not simply the total generated minus the total used, because I only get a credit of 75% retail from the utility. So the more I use solar instead of the grid, the less I pay. I can calculate a maximum savings (all solar used, none sent to the grid) and a minimum (no solar used, all sent to the grid). For projections, I’ll use a figure midway between those two points.

Time of Use Rates

My research led me to something called “Time of Use Rates“. This is a plan that might provide savings to almost anyone, but especially for those with solar panels and a bit of discipline. Or it might be a total loser for those who’d rather not think about how they use energy. I’m going to give it a try, and I’m told I can cancel after 12 months and get a refund for any overage. All I had to do was notify NV Energy that I’d like to try those rates.

Basically they charge more (4 times as much) for energy from the grid 1pm-7pm during summer weekdays. At all other times (evenings, weekends, wintertime) I pay about half the going rate. Sounds like if I’m willing to sweat a little during the summer afternoons, I can cool things off at night while saving money.

I don’t know if or how this affects the credit I get for kWh sent back to the grid. Most likely my credit fluctuates with time of use. Either way I’m bound to be using solar during those summer daylight hours and unlikely to ever pay the pumped-up peak price. As I learn more I’ll update this post.

Solar is not a substitute for conservation

I may shift dinnertime from 6pm to 7:30 to avoid using cooking appliances during peak. No dishwasher, washer, dryer etc. I pre-cool the house down to 75° from 11:45am to 1pm during summer weeks, then turn the thermostat up to 81° until 7pm. Today it was 106°. From 1pm to 4pm the inside temperature drifted up from 75 to 81 and the aircon kicked back on. It didn’t take much to keep it below 81 from 4 to 7. At this time it looks like TOU rates might cut $30-60 off my monthly bill, but will be even more beneficial once I switch on the solar.

My solar rep never mentioned “Time of Use”, probably because it might reduce my existing electric bills, thus reducing the cost-effectiveness of installing solar panels. When I asked him about it, he replied, “I think that is a great idea for everyone who has a solar system on their roof.”   

In California, solar users who employ “net metering” to sell power to the grid must also adhere to “Time of Use” rates. There’s an article at Energy Sage but I can’t vouch for its accuracy, nor the comments.

Read Part Three

Resources:

PVWATTS calculator

Rough Draft of my spreadsheet. Click “Assumptions” tab after opening.

Going Solar, Part One: Up on the Roof
Solar panels can be fun!

The adventure of installing solar panels on an existing home

It is more complicated than I thought it would be, but probably it’ll be worth it.

I pulled the trigger yesterday (August 28, 2020) and arranged the first concrete step toward installing rooftop solar panels: the site inspection. That will occur next Tuesday. The solar company will be out to inspect my roof. They’ll make sure it’s structurally able to support the panels, and that the angles, inclinations, tilts and azimuths will provide sufficient direct sun exposure.

Mine will be an on-grid system, where excess energy is sent to the utility and credited at a discount. In my case that will be 75% of the residential rate. For instance my solar panels will likely produce more energy than I need in Las Vegas winters, but less than needed in the hot summers. Being on the grid allows me to balance those out to some extent. I will still have to pay a monthly base (about $12.50) to the utility , plus the cost of whatever energy I use from the grid (at night or peaks), plus taxes.

Every Kilowatt hour (kWh) of energy counts: those you generate with solar, those you feed to the grid and what you use from the grid. An old-fashioned 100-watt light bulb consumes 1/10 of a Kilowatt in an hour, for which Nevada Energy would charge me about 1.2 cents. My home is already energy-efficient. All LED lights, smart (Nest) thermostat, good insulation, tight windows and good seals around exterior doors.

The numbers

The financial benefits of rooftop solar panels are not overwhelming

When I first started looking at the numbers, solar seemed to be almost a no-brainer. The US government is providing a 26% tax rebate. On a $20,000 system (like mine) that’s $5,200 dollars up front. Most people take a loan to pay for the system, and the rebate will cover the first few years’ payments. I will be cash-flow positive for about six years, even while paying the monthly loan, the utility base fee, some kWh from the utility, and the increase in my homeowner insurance premium.

After six years, though, I will have “used up” the rebate and my cash flow takes a steep downturn. Expenses exceed the benefits for the last 5 years of the 12-year loan. I’ll go under by about $5000 at the end of the loan, but after that monthly savings kick in. By year 15 I’m cash-flow positive again with at least 10 more years of life in those panels. I’ll probably be dead by then but for a younger person who is settling down those would be the energy gravy years. If I do happen to live past age 80, I’ll especially enjoy the “free” energy.

Watch out for the “little things”

When you’re looking at 25 years, every “little” expense tends to add up. The economics of solar seem to have been figured out down to the penny, by the utilities, government, manufacturers and the contractors. Seemingly insignificant things like the monthly base fee, the 5% tax, or getting only 75% of retail for the kWh you send back to the grid, tend to tip the balance out of your favor. No matter how many pencils you wear out figuring, you’ll still have only a rough estimate of what will happen in the real sunlight. It’s not a slam-dunk, financially.

Building equity?

In the meantime, the saving grace is that I may be building up equity that will be returned when I sell the home. That’s better than funneling all that cash to the utility. At the end of the loan, when I’m $6,000 in the hole in cash-flow, I hope those panels will still be worth at least $6,000. It is a risky investment, but perhaps a sensible one.

Real estate agents frown on solar because they believe it narrows your market when you sell. They’ve also run into significant issues when a solar installation is rented instead of owned, of if the solar company put a lien on your house instead of just the panels. You may have to wait patiently for a buyer who appreciates the value of solar and is willing to pay a reasonable amount extra for it.

Some studies indicate solar panels add an average of 2%-4% to the value of a home. On a $300,000 house that might be $12,000 for a system that cost you over $20,000. Here’s a more optimistic view from Green Mountain Energy.

I used a depreciation model in my spreadsheet. I start the value of the system at 65% of cost and depreciate by 0.6% per year.

A hedge?

The value of the system may be more as a hedge against future climate change (in the warming direction) and increased energy costs from the utility. Those factors are not baked into my calculations.

Your carbon footprint

It sure seems like solar panels on your roof will go a long way toward reduction of your personal contribution to global climate change. Even if you wind up losing a bit of money over the long run on solar, this benefit seems significant.

I’ll post here again as I go through the process, and I’ll provide helpful details about the calculations involved.

Read Part Two

Resources:

PVWATTS calculator

Rough Draft of my spreadsheet. Click “Assumptions” tab after opening.