SUNSTRUCK – my new obsession


I love them so much I have to go and look at them every time the sun emerges from the clouds. When it doesn’t come out, my mood is immediately…well, less sunny.

Mevrouw T and I decided to do the right thing by the planet. It’s cost us a certain sum of money; that was expected. What I wasn’t prepared for was the tax on my time.

Monitoring the performance of our shiny new solar panels is taking over my life. Here’s why…

We’ve had solar hot water installed for many years. It makes good sense in sunny Sydney. It saves power bills and though water here is at a premium in drought years, we don’t need to feel guilty about taking as many showers as we like when the dams are full.

We have a gas range, gas heaters and a gas booster on the hot water system, so our electricity bills were already relatively low. I hoped that a few solar panels would get rid of them completely.

Companies were very keen to quote for the job, though it was difficult to compare like with like. I’m not an expert, and everyone was talking up the reliability of their company and the quality of the panels they’d install. A little googling told me that German panels were considered better than Chinese panels; a little more googling told me that even German panels are made in China these days.

The other problem was selecting the site for them on our roof. The roof on the old part of our house faces east and west, on the extension it’s north-facing, which is ideal for Australia. The sun and just about everything else except New Zealand is north of us.

Opinions varied about how many panels we’d need to knock off our bill. Eventually we settled on 12, to be distributed on different parts of the roof. The company to do the job was chosen, a price was agreed and the boys came around to do the job.

Within a few minutes their feet had gone through a number of the nearly 100-year-old terracotta tiles on the old roof and they declared that it was impossible to work on that part of the house. Okay, we had enough spare tiles to fill the holes, and we agreed just eight panels on the new roof over the extension would do.

Everything went fine after that. Panels installed, looking fine. Sun being converted to lovely clean electricity.

What I wasn’t prepared for was that the system is connected to the internet. Every fifteen minutes I can check in to the website and get an update on what’s happening on my roof through a snapshot like this:

Energy use

You can see from this that Tue, Feb 9 was a sunny day. The nice blue hump is caused by the panels doing their thing. The orange bits pointing down show the consumption. Those downward spikes are first the washing machine turning on (using water we collected ourselves in our rain tank) and later the tv being watched in the evening. Why the tv should use more electricity for a 45 minute period is a mystery. I can only hope that it was a particularly exciting show.

Now this obsession of mine…

Because I can check the graphs every 15 minutes, I do just that. I just flicked away from writing this post to do it again.  Excuse me a moment while I go and look at the panels again…IMG_5982

Uh-oh! See that shadow creeping across from the bottom left corner?

I feverishly monitor the energy efficiency of our dishwasher, fridge (do we really need it on all night?) and dryer (a greedy, power-guzzling machine that should never be used except in dire emergencies!)

On my next routine 15-minutely check I see the dreaded orange line has spiked sharply down. I rush through the house looking for an explanation. Mevrouw T is baking  tomatoes in the oven! In the electric oven!! What’s wrong with cold tomatoes anyway? Do they have to be baked??

Thank heavens our house doesn’t have air conditioning. Ceiling fans are far more energy efficient and do the job of keeping our house bearable most days…

Bottom line, though, on a sunny day we’re collecting nearly twice as much power as we’re using. We’re able to feed it back into the grid and be paid for it, though admittedly at a much lower rate than it costs us to draw from the grid on a cloudy day. Or at night. Or possibly in winter when there are less sunny hours in the day.

It will take a few years before the savings pay back our initial investment, but I have faith that eventually it will happen. In the meantime, we’ll see how it’s all working, and consider installing a battery so we can cut the cable and go completely off grid.

Oops, excuse me again…back soon…


Damn! Oh well, the water will help fill the rain tank.

I’d really like to hear about others’ experiences with installing solar, but don’t ask me about the best panels, best prices or most reliable installation companies. I have no idea. For  an expert, independent opinion on what suits your needs I recommend the advice of my friend Michael Mobbs, through his website



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11 responses to “SUNSTRUCK – my new obsession

  1. Caroline

    We are considering it ourselves, but I didn’t go through with it, because well, because I gave up. I’ll have a look at that site though. Facebook is enough of an obsession though, so that might be a problem for me.

  2. We have also been thinking about getting solar panels, Richard. We keep hoping that the technology will improve to make it worthwhile, that the price will come down so we can actually afford it, and that the weight of the panels will be reduced as new materials are used. We are also worried about our old terracotta roof tiles, and whether they will be able to carry the weight of those panels… and how they will be mounted without drilling holes in the old tiles… and potentially causing a deluge inside when it rains. Our city doesn’t hasn’t yet make it easy for homeowners to feed back into the grid, but I think – hope – they’re working on that. How did you accommodate the set of batteries you need for this?

    • There was no drilling holes in tiles for our installation, Reggie, just lifting some of them and hooking the mounts for the panels under them. They’re not particularly heavy either, and I can’t imagine they would collapse a roof.

      We haven’t installed a battery yet; as the battery price comes down and the size and efficiency goes up that will be the next step. But as you can see, we’re more than happy with what we have so far.

      • Oh, I didn’t know that they don’t have to drill holes in the tiles! That’s a relief. With yet another dramatic electricity price hike on the cards here, going solar as much as possible is becoming the only option.

  3. Hello Richard,

    So nice to read this story and your plans to go off the grid 🙂

    Even I do share this dream, but, I will have to wait for some more time 🙂

    Now a days, I am working with an interesting organization, researching and developing sustainable tourism initiatives in the villages of South India, so I could easily relate to what you shared in this post.

    Thank you so much for sharing the link to Michael Mobbs’ works in this area…

    Have a nice time 🙂

  4. Well done, Richard and Mev… T! In my part of the world it is geothermal heat pump that is gaining popularity. Had we lived in the country house for another ten years we would have installed such a system. Solar panel technology will have to develop further to be seriously useful for households in Nordic conditions although they can be seen also here, especially at places with no grid, such a summer cottages. (Update on your play: very good reviews! “Oh my, what magic dust of everyday.” But I’m sure that is no news about the play itself. Let’s hope I’ll manage to ‘review’ the Oulu production for you.)

    • Naturally I would love to hear what you think of the play, Teresa Maria. I do hope you’ll manage to see it. My Finnish may not be good enough to let me read the ‘official notices!’ It opens again tomorrow night in New Zealand incidentally – a remount of a very successful and very beautiful professional production from last year.

  5. Lovely article, Richard. We got panels five years ago when the govt was throwing money at people. They’ve paid for themselves twice over already, but that’s because we got the rather silly 60 cents per kw rate. For the first six months, I was just like you – checking what we used, what we gained – then I went on Amazon self-publishing … now I check booksales every 15 minutes instead!

    • Thanks Steven, and lucky you for getting in early at the good rate. The novelty of checking every 15 minutes will wear off, though I don’t think I’m yet ready for the humiliation of checking my book sales on Amazon. Glad yours are going well enough to make checking interesting!

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