Building and Construction, Feature, Operations, V9I3

Solar Panels=Shed Power

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As customers add power to their sheds with increasing frequency, many are considering solar power to combat high energy costs and protect the environment. 

It just makes good sense for some applications, as it provides a relatively low-cost means to power a shed, whether it be in a backyard or some far-flung locale.

Jeremy Nova, co-founder and marketing director of Studio Shed in Louisville, Colorado, says his line of high-end backyard structures is a perfect match for solar. 

He co-founded the company in 2008 and soon discovered a niche in conditioned, finished spaces for home offices, studios, mancaves, she-sheds, and a variety of other uses. 

“Our building envelopes are tight, and the addition of solar significantly adds to the energy efficiency,” he adds.

The company creates prefabbed panelized systems—most of which range from 400 to 1,000 square feet—then ships them as a kit to the site. They average about 300 projects in various stages of design and construction. 

“The Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU), outfitted with a kitchenette and bathroom, is our fastest growing product,” Nova says. “And for those, solar is requested frequently.”

That’s particularly true in California since solar is the simplest way to abide by a state requirement—the California Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan—that ADUs be zero net energy. 

“Where conditions are favorable, most of the ADUs are including solar,” Nova adds. “It’s an easy way to avoid the expense of running electricity while meeting carbon goals.”

Still, many customers are choosing a hybrid approach, whereby the building remains tied to the electrical grid “and you can immediately leverage the grid when needed. The battery then re-charges when the sun’s out. That’s becoming most common.”

As conditioned, finished spaces that abide by the International Building Code, Studio Shed’s buildings already have adequate strength to support the solar system’s photovoltaic cells. They typically source the panels from a variety of regional vendors. 

“We work with several companies that perform the actual installation,” he says. 

Adam Reathaford, sales manager and dealer support for Montana Shed Center in Great Falls, Montana, says they’re just now dipping their toes into the solar arena. 

Montana Shed Center supplies everything from a small economy shed to DIY cabins and animal shelters. 

“We’re currently looking at different solar packages and options to offer,” Reathaford says. 

In Montana, the owners of DIY cabins and other off-gride properties are “really looking hard” at solar as an alternative power source. 

“They’re wanting a way to maintain tools, battery charges, provide some lighting, etc.,” he adds. 

Montana Shed Center plans to install everything in-house, from the batteries to the panels themselves, with the help of a local electrician. That’s in line with the company’s overall business model—they build out about 90 percent of their buildings, then haul them to the site in one piece. 

“It makes for a simplified process, whereby the customer gets a completed product at the time of delivery, rather than having to wait for a subcontractor to come out to complete the process,” Reathaford says. 

Regarding solar, “the system we include with the shed will depend largely on the shed’s final use,” he adds. “For example, if you simply want a light on the shed to illuminate the front door or a couple of outlets over your workbench, you won’t need a substantial solar system.” 

Some of the packages they plan to offer will include a hybrid inverter so a customer could actually store solar power while also hooking up a generator to charge the batteries, if needed. 

They’re also studying different options for transporting the solar panels—perhaps even waiting to install them at the customer’s site.

In the early going, Montana Shed Center will perform site checks for its customers to determine the feasibility of solar. The amount of sunlight the structure receives is always a factor. 

“Solar is perfect for the wide-open spaces of Montana, but for those cabin-type buildings out in the woods it might be a different conversation,” Reathaford says. “It’s going to need good sunlight to effectively charge those power banks.

“The area in which you’re going to place the building and the amount of sunlight that it will provide are going to be the biggest factors. That’s going to tell me how big of a power range and number of panels that they’ll need.”

At times, the power load needed by the customer might make solar too costly. And more power means more batteries, all of which must be concealed somewhere within the structure. 

“But the nice thing about solar is that you can start with a small package, then add more panels and power banks after the fact,” Reathaford adds. “Additionally, you don’t have to have an electrical license to hook it up in most states.”

Wilson Zimmerman, owner/manager at Valley Structures in Lynchburg, Virginia, says his company began offering solar some two months ago.

Valley employs 17 in its shop and builds about 2,000 units a year, in-house, from small buildings up to two-story structures. 

“At present, we’re offering solar for the exhaust fans in greenhouses,” Zimmerman. “That way people don’t have to run power through the yard just to run a fan. We’re testing the waters to see how that goes.”

Valley Structures doesn’t initially plan to expand solar to other product lines, “although we do feel that would eventually be an alternative option for a variety of structures.”

While it’s true solar does add to the initial cost of the shed, a customer saves money by not having to run power to the building, then enjoys long-term energy savings. 

“That’s why greenhouses are an ideal fit for solar. Most of them don’t have any significant power needs; it’s just needed to run the exhaust fan,” adds Zimmerman. “And they avoid having to run power to the greenhouse.”

Valley Structures recently began stocking the solar-powered greenhouses in its yard, mounting the panels directly to the polycarbonate. 

“They’re very easy to install on the structure,” Zimmerman says. “We installed some extra supports under the polycarbonate to provide a location to attach the solar panels.”

Ultimately, the feasibility and practicality of solar boils down to the location and power needs of the structure. 

“If a customer is going to require heavier power loads for appliances, etc. … then solar probably wouldn’t be the way to go,” Zimmerman shares.

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