Solving Solar Challenges: 8 Common Issues Faced by Tall House Owners

Introduction

As solar energy becomes increasingly popular, more and more homeowners are looking to install rooftop photovoltaic (PV) systems to save money and reduce their environmental impact. However, for those living in taller, multi-story houses, installing solar panels presents some unique challenges that typical single-family homes don’t face.

In this post, we’ll explore the 8 most common issues tall house owners encounter when going solar. From complex roof designs and shading patterns to electrical upgrades and safety considerations, we’ll dive into the key hurdles and solutions. By being aware of these potential challenges upfront, you can plan accordingly and ensure a smooth, successful solar installation in your home.

What Makes Tall Houses Different for Solar?

While the basic principles of solar remain the same, tall houses with 2-3 stories or more pose some inherent difficulties compared to single-story residential installations:

Height and Shading: Taller roofs are more exposed to shading obstacles from nearby trees or structures, which can significantly reduce solar output.

Complex Roof Designs: Multi-story homes often have multiple roof sections, angles, chimneys, and other obstructions that complicate panel placement.

Wind and Weather: Greater wind loading, debris, hail, snow, and ice buildup at higher elevations require extra protection measures.

Access and Safety: Accessing upper stories is challenging and presents fall risks, demanding OSHA harness systems and other safety equipment.

Visibility and aesthetics: Taller houses make rooftop solar panels more visible from the ground, necessitating smart placement and designs to preserve curb appeal.

Structural Engineering: Ensuring structural integrity to support the added weight of a larger system requires evaluating roof load limits.

Let’s dive into these tall house solar challenges in more depth.

1. Shading from Nearby Trees or Structures

One of the biggest impediments to prime solar production on tall houses is shading from nearby obstacles like trees and buildings. At greater heights, rooftops become vulnerable to shading patterns that standard single-story installations avoid.

Shading from tree branches, neighboring structures, or even the home’s own architecture, like chimneys, can cast shadows across sections of the solar array. Shaded solar cells experience:

  • Hot Spots: Reverse voltage buildups that can damage cells
  • Output Loss: Shaded cells act as electrical resistance, reducing system output
  • Accelerated Wear: Hot spots and resistance cause premature degradation

To mitigate these effects, homeowners may need selective tree trimming, careful panel placement to avoid shading, or module-level power electronics like micro-inverters or optimizers. A professional site survey using sun path modeling tools is critical.

Depending on the tall home’s shading challenges, annual solar output losses from shade can easily exceed 10–25% without effective prevention.

2. Complex Roof Designs and Angles

Multi-story homes are much more likely than typical single-family houses to have roofs with multiple sections, angles, orientations, slopes, and challenging obstructions like chimneys or skylights. These complex conditions make ideal solar panel layout and mounting incredibly tricky.

For maximum energy production, panels should orient southward at the home’s specific latitude tilt angle. On a basic gable or hip roof, that’s straightforward. But tall houses often have roof sections facing east, west, and northern directions that are sub-optimal.

Additionally, chimneys, vents, dormers, and other obstacles either block prime installation areas or require intricate racking solutions that snake around penetrations. Hips, ridges, and multi-faceted roofs make wire routing runs longer and more complex.

With unique roof slopes and customized racking needed for each section, achieving neat rows of panels oriented properly is much harder. Panel output can vary wildly based on placement and orientation.

Professional solar design is crucial to mapping out the ideal places for panels based on the home’s specific roof layout, pitch, shading patterns and goals for aesthetic integration. Well-established local installers will best understand working on complex roofs.

3. Wind and Weather Exposure

In addition to sun exposure, rooftop solar panels and racking systems on taller buildings also experience much harsher environmental conditions like high winds, hail impacts, debris accumulation, ice buildup and snow loading.

Higher winds from the increased elevation put tremendous force on exposed solar arrays. Proper engineering is needed to ensure panels and railings can withstand extreme gusts and potential uplift forces without dislodging.

Taller arrays also act like sails in storms, vastly amplifying the stresses at attachment points to the roof structure. Quality mounting and flashing are critical to preventing leaks and damage.

In snowy climates, solar installations on upper stories or steep roof faces may see more accumulation buildup that could cover panels entirely for months, halting production. De-icing systems or complementary batteries may be necessary.

Overall, weather effects intensify substantially with height, demanding more robust panel materials, racking, and attachment methods versus residential installations. Following local building codes and safety factors is crucial.

4. Access and Safety Challenges

The sheer heights involved in a tall house solar installation create tremendous access difficulties and safety hazards compared to working on a standard single-story roof.

First, just getting personnel, tools, materials, and panels in position on upper levels becomes a logistical challenge, often requiring special ladders, lifts, or suspended scaffolding systems. Railing or guard installation may be necessary in some areas to prevent falls during construction.

Once work begins, fall protection measures are mandatory, given the risks of working on multi-story heights. OSHA guidelines dictate perimeter protection systems, personal fall arrest harnesses, positioning lanyards, and other precautions for all employees whose heights exceeds six feet.

Just moving and lifting equipment across long distances becomes tiring ergonomic challenges. There may also be weight limitations for stacking materials on upper-floor ceilings to reach the rooftop levels.

Between enhanced fall prevention setup, specialty access equipment, potential rigging work and additional manpower needs, safety requirements dramatically increase installation costs on tall homes.

5. Aesthetics and Panel Placement

While generating solar energy is a top priority, most tall house owners are also quite concerned about preserving their home’s architectural aesthetics and curb appeal. Rooftop solar’s visual impact becomes far more apparent with increased height and line of sight from ground level.

On sprawling single-story homes, solar panels can easily blend into rooflines or be installed towards the rear. But tall houses put arrays directly in the front-facing sightlines, creating unique aesthetic challenges.

When visible from public areas, there’s a premium on ensuring solar panels complement the home’s exterior style, colors, and overall design language rather than distract from it. Upscale neighborhoods may even enforce strict regulations around solar’s visual impact.

This means carefully considering every array’s positioning, orientation, projections, and sight lines for maximum energy while minimizing appearance from various vantage points. Leading manufacturers now offer all-black panels, low-profile racking, and sleek frameless designs for architectural integration.

Working with an experienced solar design team is key to developing a cohesive, well-planned installation that both maximizes output and preserves aesthetic priorities.

6. Structural Integrity and Load Concerns

Even if a single-story roof can support the weight of a home solar system, adding panels and racking across multiple stories and larger areas creates substantial load burdens that legacy structures may struggle with.

Standard solar panels are quite light, weighing around 2.5–3.5 lbs per square foot. But the total weight accumulates quickly on bigger roofs, factoring in panels, aluminum railing, mounting hardware, wiring, and attachment points.

For many older homes, it may be impossible to simply add hundreds or thousands of pounds without potential risks. Older roof framing was never designed for the weight of a modern solar system.

Local building codes will dictate precise requirements, but a full structural engineering analysis is recommended to evaluate concentrated loads, wind loading, and the overall roof structure’s integrity. In some cases, reinforcement beams or supports may need to be added prior to installation.

Using lightweight solar panels and components can lower overall system weight. But even then, tall buildings often trigger engineering reviews or accommodation measures that shorter residential installations can avoid.

7. Electrical System Upgrades

Just as larger, taller roofs need extra structural reinforcement for system weights, more expansive solar installations also create greater electrical demands for systems that were originally designed for traditional residential use.

Most single-story solar arrays can interconnect seamlessly with the home’s existing main service panel and electrical infrastructure. But as installations scale up on multi-story houses, existing wiring runs and equipment may lack the capacity to handle elevated amperage and voltage levels.

From service panels that need to be resized or upgraded to adding sub-panels for dedicated circuits, there are several common electrical system improvements that may become necessary:

  • Service Panel Upgrade: Larger solar systems produce more power than a standard 100-200 amp residential panel can accommodate, necessitating an upgrade to a 200+ amp panel.
  • New Subpanels: Rather than overloading the main panel, installers may add separate subpanels closer to array locations for dedicated solar branch circuits.
  • Wiring Replacements: Existing wiring may be inadequate for carrying added amperage over longer roof distances, requiring new runs with proper gauges.
  • Inverter Replacements: As systems scale up, string or central inverters may need to be replaced with higher-capacity models.
  • Outbuilding Interconnections: On estates with detached garages/structures, solar power may need to link multiple panels.

Upgrading electrical systems to handle larger solar panels can easily add $3,000–$10,000 or more to installation costs. But properly sizing equipment per National Electric Code (NEC) for safety and capacity is critical.

Working with qualified solar electricians and master electricians is highly advisable, as they understand the latest code requirements. Local permits and inspections ensure proper compliance.

8. Finding an Experienced Tall House Installer

Given the distinct challenges around shading, roof complexity, site access, engineering requirements, electrical needs and aesthetics, perhaps the most important step for any tall house solar installation is finding an experienced professional installer.

General residential installers focused on simple rooftop systems often lack the specialized know-how and equipment for tackling projects on multi-story properties. Tall installations demand:

  • In-depth experience with complex roof types and angles
  • Expertise in advanced structural load calculations
  • Proper safety gear and OSHA certifications for heights
  • Access to high-quality railed racking and premium solar products
  • Ability to procure and oversee any necessary electrical or structural upgrades
  • Advanced solar design capabilities for maximizing output and aesthetics

When vetting potential installers, it’s critical to ask about their specific tall house experience and examples of similar past projects. Request photos and references to evaluate their work quality.

A comprehensive site evaluation and detailed proposal should account for all potential hurdles like shading, electrical needs, engineering concerns, etc. Beware of installers who overlook key issues or provide incomplete quotes that could blow budgets.

It’s advisable to get multiple quotes and ask very specific questions about their installation process, attachment methods, cable management plans, worker safety policies, product brands, warranties, and overall track record.

Experienced installers will have strategic partnerships with respected solar equipment manufacturers and racking providers suited for complex installations. They should also maintain proper licensing and certifications for your area.

Conclusion

While installing solar on a tall, multi-story house requires navigating some unique obstacles compared to typical residential installations, overcoming these challenges is certainly achievable with proper planning and execution.

From shading studies and complex roof designs to structural reinforcement and electrical service upgrades, the issues highlighted in this guide can be systematically resolved. But ensuring a smooth, safe installation while preserving aesthetics demands specialized expertise.

As you begin your solar journey for a tall house, take the time to research credible local installers with multi-story project experience. Get multiple comprehensive quotes that account for all potential hurdles. And ask very specific questions about their installation process, product offerings, worker certifications and overall track record.

With the right professional team in place, going solar on your tall home can be an incredibly rewarding investment towards energy savings and environmental sustainability for decades to come.

What has been your experience with going solar on a tall house? We’d love to hear your stories and any other challenges you’ve faced in the comments below! And if you have any other lingering questions, feel free to ask as well.

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