Going Solar With Large Trees

When we first landscaped our house, nearly 40 years ago, we made sure to plant a large growing Maple on the west side. That planting location came very close to the concept of planting a large deciduous tree on the southwest side of a house, since it will shade and cool the house in summer, while dropping its leaves and allowing the sun’s warming rays through in winter.

We chose to use one of the trees I had grown from a small ‘whip,’ into a decent sized shade tree, over the previous 10 years. It wasn’t a super- fast growing and problematic Silver Maple, instead being a Red Maple or ‘Swamp Maple’ (Acer rubrum). True to our plan, it reached 45 feet tall and 25 feet wide, over the ensuing 35- years, and began nicely shading the house and front porch in summer, while allowing warm sunlight through in the winter. (You can that Maple tree in the photo above).

Going solar in 2018.

A Pittsburgh ‘solar tour’ in 2017 convinced us that we wanted to add solar energy to our house, and we scheduled a salesman from Tesla (which had just recently purchased Solar City) to come out and analyze our roof’s solar capabilities. He used some sophisticated software that pinpointed the potential of our house for solar energy, indicating we could efficiently add 29 solar panels to our roof; 18 on the front roof and 11 on the back roof, which would either provide or offset (with ‘net metering’) 92- percent of our annual electricity usage. (That was before we owned a Chevy Bolt electric vehicle).

Even though the two rooflines are identical, there were 3 roof vents, some plumbing stacks, and a tall brick chimney that cast shade, eliminating the potential for an additional 7 solar panels on the back roof, since the “string” of solar panels would only perform as well as its weakest member. For an additional expense, micro-inverters could be added to each panel, eliminating those sorts of shading issues.

One fly in the ointment,’ when it came to adding the rectangle of 18 solar panels to the front roof, was the tall Maple tree I had grown from a small whip, which would have to be ‘topped’ or (gasp) removed. My Dad’s earlier words rang true when he had said, “It’s really hard to cutdown a tree you have planted,” and I personally really hate to ‘top’ a tree, so we decided to skip the front roof, and install 11 solar panels on the back roof.

Big Evergreen Trees.

Even those 11 solar panels would have been adversely affected by tall evergreens, just years earlier, but one by one they had succumbed to lightning (damage can be seen in the photo below), various spruce tree diseases, or a couple other reasons. All our tall trees were now a comfortable distance away from the house in the backyard, where they wouldn’t cast any limiting summer shade on the roof. A couple taller Linden trees, on the north side of the house, wouldn’t be a factor, since the sun travels across the southern sky, especially during the winter months.

Lightning damage to the trunk of a large Norway Spruce

Once you have solar power, you’re always going to want more, and as my friend Ken said, you will become more energy efficient. Sure enough, shortly after the solar panels were installed on the back roof, we swapped- out every incandescent bulb in the house with an LED (other than a few CFL bulbs that were left in place). In most cases, those former 60 Watt incandescent bulbs became 9 Watt bulbs, only using 15- percent as much electricity. I also found bulbs that reduced electricity usage in our 4- foot long, dual tube shop light, fluorescent bulbs from 40 Watts down to 20 Watts. There’s another 50- percent energy savings.

Hidden advantage of LED bulbs.

Even though LED’s are more expensive to purchase, one of the huge advantages is how less often you have to replace them, which keeps you from invariably standing on wobbly chairs, and fumbling with awkward ceiling light covers and their small thumb screws and washers. Since falling is one of the greatest risks to the elderly, safety from falling is another huge plus to ditching those old, less energy efficient, incandescent bulbs.

2020 Foresight.

vwo years after installing the back 11 solar panels, we decided to more forward, literally, by adding the ‘3 by 6 rectangle’ of 18 solar panels to the front roof. In the interim, the price of solar panels had dropped, while their energy rating had increased from 300 to 315 Watts each. These were also the blackened panels (where you don’t see the grid lines in them) and Tesla added the attractive skirting, around the three more visible sides, at no extra charge this time.

The federal tax credit had decreased from 30- percent on the back panels, to 26- percent on the front panels. (For those looking to add home solar in the United States, that 26- percent ITC has been extended through next year, so ask your accountant how you might benefit).

Topping the Red Maple Tree.

Back to that Maple tree that reached 45- feet tall over the ensuing 37- years, we hired a professional tree service to have it ‘topped.’ As much as we disliked that choice, the tree had developed an open area in the bark on the lower trunk, as well as some weak branching structure, making it a more likely victim of high winds, which added greater potential for it to damage our house. It has survived the ‘topping’ process very well, but of course a multitude of small ‘water sprouts‘ have appeared, mostly toward the top, and those will need to be pruned back every two or three years.

Life’s a Beech.

There’s one more large tree, fairly close to the front of our house, that also plays into all of this. It’s a Rohanii Beech, that slowly grew into a magnificent tree, in place of a fast growing Bradford Pear, that had taken over that northern portion of our small front yard. We know how those ornamental Pears break apart in high winds, as well as snow and ice storms, so it was replaced with this higher quality, purple- leafed, multi- trunked European Beech, seen on the right side of this photo looking south, with 18 solar panels on the front roof beside it.

Like the Tri- Color Beech that is quite popular in home landscapes, their small initial size and slow growth, leads to many landscapers and homeowners planting them too close to a house. While this Rohanni Beech is a reasonable distance from the house, and on the north side, I’ve been trimming encroaching branches back from the roofline. It appears as though it will be able to cohabitate with the front solar panels without any drastic pruning in the future. Several other trees in the front yard are far enough away from the house to allow the sunlight in!

You can find an evaluation of our solar system’s performance in my April blog titled, “MARCH GLADNESS” and below is a YouTube video that I created for the virtual solar tour last year, which also includes details on the Tesla Powerwall2 that was incorporated into our solar energy system, when we first installed the 11 solar panels on the back roof in 2018. Enjoy!