Categories
Solar Info

Does my solar PV system need animal/critter guard?

Whether you’re a solar homeowner, installer or investor, you’re likely aware that pests – namely squirrels and birds – can mess with solar systems. Search the internet, and you’ll find a wide range of conflicting anecdotes and industry practices:

  • Horror stories from homeowners who’ve dealt with roof leaks and expensive repairs due to squirrels
  • Homeowners who’ve had no animal issues after decades of PV system ownership
  • Solar installers who include a protective animal barrier on every PV system they sell
  • Solar installers who sell PV systems without mentioning animal guard (or charge an additional fee to install it)

With no clear consensus on the utility of animal guard, the decision of whether to invest in it can be a tough call. Rather than throw more anecdotes at you, we’ve decided to approach this question the same way we would any business investment – using math and any hard data we can get our hands on!

The Equation

We’ll start with a simple premise: animal guard is worth installing if the money it saves (by avoiding nest removals, repairs, and lost production) exceeds the cost of installation.

Cost of animal damage > Animal guard install cost

In this article, we focus exclusively on the left side of the equation – the cost you can expect to incur if you don’t install animal guard. To estimate the cost of installing animal guard, gather quotes from local contractors or estimate the cost of doing it yourself using the resources on our website.

Takeaways

Short on time? Here are ballpark numbers to guide your animal guard decision:

  • We estimate the typical US residential PV system owner will be liable for $855 (net present value) in animal-related costs over the lifetime of the PV system should they choose not to install animal guard. These costs include nest removal, inspection, repair of animal damage, and PV production losses due to animal damage.
  • Our simulations show a standard deviation of $1,200 in liability, with the best case resulting in zero costs and the worst case over $9,000.
  • We expect about 60% of PV systems to experience at least one animal-damage event over a 30-year lifetime, with any such event requiring professional inspection and remediation.

If you’re curious how we came up with those numbers, or would like to tweak our assumptions and run your own simulation– in other words, if you’re a nerd like us– read on!

Animal Damage Scenarios

As we heard earlier, the cost of animal damage can vary widely. Factors affecting it include:

  • Geographic location and amount of squirrel/bird activity
  • Accessibility of PV system to animals (e.g. overhanging trees, roof height)
  • Local contractor rates for inspection and repairs

That said, we can make a reasonable estimate by breaking down the various animal-damage scenarios and estimating their costs and likelihoods. Consider a single year in the life of a PV system. Here are four different ways the year could play out animal-wise:

  1. No animal activity/damage. There are no costs incurred because no animal decides to venture under the PV array.
  2. An animal nests under the array and is detected quickly. A service technician is brought to the site to remove the nest. Because nests frequently result in damage to the roof or PV system, the technician must inspect the nest area for damage, which involves temporarily shutting off the PV system and removing several solar panels for access. Because nests restrict airflow under the solar array and increase PV cell temperature, the system power output will have suffered during the presence of the nest – but only for a short time.
  3. An animal nests, resulting in minor damage to the PV system or roof. See our breakdown of common animal damage. Repairs often include replacing wires whose insulation has been chewed through by rodents, replacing an individual panel whose backsheet has been scratched, and re-roofing portions of the roof where a nesting animal has scratched through the surface.
  4. An animal nest goes undetected until secondary damage has occurred. Secondary damage includes water damage and mold due to a compromised roof surface, long-term performance degradation of the PV system, and fire and electrocution hazards due to compromised electrical insulation and PV hot spots. All of these would require extensive repairs.

Likelihood of Damage

Having established these four possible outcomes, how likely is each to occur for a PV system without animal guard? We’ve been unable to track down reliable statistics around this, so let’s make some conservative guesses:

EventChance of occurrence
(over 1 year)
Nesting; no damage2%
Nesting; minor damage1%
Nesting; secondary damage0.1%
No damage96.9%

I.e. we’re estimating that in any given year, there is a 1-in-50 chance (2%) that an animal nests under the array but is removed with no further consequences. These figures will certainly vary by location, but we feel the numbers above represent a normal area with moderate critter activity. If you’re interested in a location where you know the risk to be higher (or lower), you’ll have an opportunity to plug in your own numbers later.

Cost of inspection & repair

Next, let’s estimate the cost of dealing with each of the outcomes listed above. Consider the potential elements of any response:

A local service manager tells us: “If there are live animals nesting under an array (or an extensive animal mess that needs proper PPE to clean up) it can result in needing to hire animal control since service technicians are not armed with the knowledge or PPE to deal with this sort of issue.”
  • Van roll – In contractor-speak, this means having to send a qualified person (e.g. a licensed electrician) and helpers to the job site– which costs money regardless of any work performed. Typical cost: $200
  • Panel removal/inspection – If any animal activity (or debris buildup) is detected under the array, nearby solar panels must be lifted to inspect for roof rot and damage to the PV wiring. Typical cost: $200
  • Minor roof/PV repairs – Removing nests, replacing chewed wires and compromised roofing, re-commissioning system. Typical cost: $800
  • Major repairs – Interior mold remediation, PV module or electronics replacement. Typical cost: $5,000
  • Lost production – Reduced PV output and downtime due to hot spots over nests and chewed wire insulation. In a 2020 report based on observing 100,000 PV systems, NREL found that “damage caused by animals may not occur often, but… can have substantial impact on annual production.” This is because damage that reduces PV performance, but does not actually shut the system down, may go undetected for years. We’ll assume lost production equals 25% of expected production during the year in which animal damage occurs. For the average residential rooftop system, that is about (9,000 kWh)*(25%)*($.14/kWh)= Typical cost: $315
How did we arrive at these cost figures?

We surveyed our network of solar installers to determine typical service costs. These costs can be extremely variable based on location, supply and demand. For example, here in Colorado we occasionally have a bad hail storm that causes a jump in service rates and lead times. Here are the ranges we’ve found contractors are charging across the US:

  • Van roll – $150-$500
  • Hourly service rate – $180 (waiting for more data)

Note these amounts reflect the direct costs (labor and materials) a contractor would incur to perform the work. The amount billed to the customer (homeowner, lessor or warrantor) would also include the contractor’s profit margin and taxes.

There is one additional, difficult-to-quantify cost of any maintenance incident with a PV array: reputational damage to the installer, lessor or system owner (if other than the homeowner). Homeowners who encounter unexpected problems with their PV systems tend to share their experiences, and are less likely to refer friends and neighbors to the companies they dealt with. For this reason, some solar installers now include animal guard with every new PV install, rather than quoting it separately and giving the customer a choice.

Other Model Parameters

Let’s round out our hypothetical situation with these parameters:

  • Remaining PV years of service – For this demonstration, we’ll assume we are a homeowner considering adding AG on a new PV installation which we expect to produce electricity for 30 years. If your PV system is a decade old and you’re considering an AG retrofit, you might reduce this to 10 or 20 years.
  • Discount rate – We’ll discount future costs using this rate to reflect the time value of money. Our results will all be stated in terms of Net Present Value (today’s dollars). Note the discount rate represents opportunity cost, but not inflation – since solar service costs are likely to rise with inflation.
  • Contractor profit – In our example situation, we are a homeowner who expects to pay a 20% premium above the contractor’s direct labor & materials costs. If we were instead a contractor estimating the cost of offering our customers an animal-damage guarantee, we would zero this value.

Putting it all together, we have the following model:

Want to tweak these numbers to reflect your situation? Click here to open a read-only version of our Google Spreadsheet – then save your own copy and edit the yellow fields as you like.

Results

Our spreadsheet performs 1,000 simulations of the 30-year lifetime of our model PV system, calculating the costs incurred for each year and summing them in terms of today’s dollars. The histogram below shows the odds of a single PV system’s lifetime animal-related costs falling into various bins.

The first leftmost blue column tells us there is a ~50% chance that our model PV system will incur <$500 in animal-related costs over its lifetime. The second column tells us there’s a ~20% chance those costs will fall in the $500-$1000 range – and so on. If you were to add all columns together, they would equal 100%.

As you can see, there is a decent chance that lifetime costs will be less than $500, but a significant “tail” of higher-cost outcomes. Analyzing the results further:

The key figure here is the mean, or expected value, of lifetime animal-related costs – $855. According to our initial equation, we should install animal guard if it can be done for $855 or less. However, consider two scenarios:

  1. We do NOT install animal guard. We will probably incur $855 NPV costs over the lifetime of our system. However, the actual cost could be slightly lower (as low as $0) or significantly higher (our simulation’s worst case was ~$9,300).
  2. We DO install animal guard at a cost of $855. Assuming a quality installation, we have little risk of animal issues for the lifetime of the system.

Choice #2 involves the same expected cost as choice #1, but with less variation (or risk), making it a better investment all else being equal. For most investors, it would make sense to pay some premium over $855 for animal guard in order to eliminate this uncertainty.

Another interesting result is that while the odds of having zero animal issues in any given year are 96.9%, the odds of getting away scot-free for all 30 years are only 39%. In other words, the majority – 61% – of PV systems are expected to have at least one animal-related event during their lifetime.

Other Factors to Consider

Armed with the information in this article, readers should consider a few more factors before deciding whether to install animal guard:

For the homeowner:
Raccoons have been known to scratch holes clean through roofs.
  • Some homeowners will look at the numbers in this article and think it is a no-brainer to leave their system unprotected; after all, there is a decent chance they’ll have zero animal problems, so why not avoid the up-front cost of installation?
  • Others will see animal guard as an obvious winner, since it eliminates potentially huge costs and stabilizes the return on investment of their PV system.
  • Homeowners looking to buy a new PV system may stand to gain the most from animal guard installation, because it will protect the system for longer and cost less to install (since the installer will already be on the roof). Those seeking to retrofit AG onto an existing PV system will not have these advantages, but may still find the job worthwhile.
  • Of course, there is also the option of doing it yourself – the materials for which will cost a fraction of the expected animal-damage cost. However, great care must be taken to ensure a reliable result.
  • Will homeowner’s insurance help cover animal damage under your PV system? We asked a solar service manager here in Colorado. She told us, “We have seen instances (very few though) that an animal got through AG through sheer force (raccoons in particular). If a homeowner can prove that the damage was incurred by specifically a raccoon, repairs may be covered under homeowner insurance, but they do not cover bird, squirrel, or rat damages.”
For the installer:
  • Most warranties offered from installer to homeowner do not include animal damage, so the installer is not on the hook for repairs. However, homeowners are expecting a good experience from their solar install and will associate any unexpected problems – animal or otherwise – with the installer. If your customers will not stomach an extra fee to install animal guard, is it worth doing it anyway to reduce call-backs and increase customer referrals?
  • How much does it actually cost to install animal guard? With the right tools, materials and training, the cost might be lower than you expect. Use our job cost calculator to estimate the cost of your animal guard install.
  • Do your competitors offer animal guard? Installing it by default or as an affordable add-on could set you apart.
For the investor or lessor:
  • If you own many PV systems, then you’re likely not concerned with the large variance in each system’s lifetime animal-damage costs; your portfolio-wide average cost will probably be close to the mean.
  • However, with your return on investment riding on the accuracy of that mean, some due diligence is required. Does the geographical area that you’re investing in have higher or lower animal activity than the “typical” situation described in this article? Are contractor rates higher or lower?
  • Are you or the homeowner responsible for maintaining the system and monitoring performance? How likely is a homeowner to notice or notify you of animal activity on their roof? Should the homeowner have a bad experience with an animal infestation, could it hurt your reputation?
  • If you’re contracting out a large number of PV installations, you can likely have animal guard installed at a very low per-system cost.

We hope this article answered some of your questions and gives you a firmer footing to make your animal guard decision! Check out our other animal guard information for tips that will help you get the most out of your (or your customer’s) PV system.

Cheers!

The Slick Tools Team

Categories
News

Field Tester Program

Become a Prototype Tester!

Here at Slick Tools, we strive to provide you with high quality tools that make installing Solar easier. Putting our tools into the field to get tested by the people who will actually use them has been a huge part of our product development. The more feedback we can get, the better.

That’s why we started our Field Testing Program.

This is a great opportunity for you to test the latest and greatest tools on the market, and for us to get invaluable feedback on our designs!

Here’s how it works:

  • Fill out the Field Tester Signup Form here
  • If one of our prototypes aligns with your needs, we’ll send you a unit to test
  • We’ll periodically ask you to fill out a short survey so we can improve our products.
AG Bender in Namaste solar Van

Here’s one of our first AG Benders in the field over at Namasté Solar!

Feel free to reach out with any questions you have about the program!

Cheers,
The Slick Tools Team

Categories
Solar Info

Announcing the Solar Animal Guard Sourcing Guide

Today we’re excited to share a section of our website that has been in the works for months! The Solar Animal Guard Sourcing Guide contains a breakdown of the most popular animal guard materials and tools on the market. Its main target audience is procurement folks at solar installation companies, but we expect this info to be super helpful for DIY-minded solar homeowners as well.

The Guide contains a section on each major component – the wire mesh, the fasteners, etc. For each section, we explain what to look for in that component – such as material, attachment style and other features. Then we provide our recommended product based on input from our installer network across the US. Finally, we list all the other options and their pricing. We’ve identified the lowest-cost retailer/distributor we could find for each product (Slick Tools does not distribute any of these products ourselves, other than the AG Bender).

We will continue to update this guide as new products come on the market and prices change. If you’re a manufacturer or distributor who would like to recommend an update or addition to the Guide, reach out and we would be happy to include you. There are no fees or strings attached, and we’ll make our best effort to objectively highlight the benefits and drawbacks of every product.

Finding the right tools and materials is just one piece of the animal guard puzzle. Stay tuned as we continue to publish resources like this for the solar community, including an upcoming step-by-step instructional video on AG installation!

Categories
Solar Info

How Pests Damage Solar PV Systems

Thanks to prolific service technician Michael Payton for many of these fantastic images!

Nesting

Animals build nests under solar arrays because the arrays provide shelter from predators and the elements. Nesting is a precursor to every form of damage described below. Squirrels, birds, rats and raccoons are the main offenders.

Primary Damage

Chewed wires

Squirrels, rats and other rodents must regularly gnaw on material of a particular hardness in order to sharpen their teeth. The vast majority of modern PV systems have exposed wires underneath the array which cannot be enclosed in conduit. These wires have a thick coat of insulation which is, unfortunately, irresistible to rodents. Note – you may have heard of the phenomenon of rodents being drawn to soy-based wire insulation. Whether or not those stories are true, soy is not an ingredient in the tightly regulated wiring used in modern PV systems.

Once an energized wire’s insulation has been chewed through, there is a risk of fire, electrocution and lost production.

Roof rot

Most roof surfaces are will slowly degrade if moisture is continually present. When an animal builds a nest under the solar array – or sticks and leaves simply blow in and accumulate – the organic material retains moisture and prevents normal drying. Nesting animals also have a tendency to scratch away the roofing material at the nest site (both squirrels and raccoons have been known to burrow clear through the roof and into the attic). This leads to water damage.

Hot spots

Every solar PV array performs best when it’s kept at a low, uniform temperature. When a nest reduces airflow at one location under the array, a few individual PV cells heat up and become restrictive to the flow of electrons through the system. This causes them to heat up even more, creating a “hot spot” with an outsize impact on system performance. The presence of a hot spot may also increase fire risk, with under-array temperatures routinely reaching 150°F even for normally-functioning systems.

Secondary Damage

Water damage

When the waterproofing membrane of a roof is compromised due to roof rot or animal burrowing, water can enter the home and cause direct damage to drywall and paint as well as long-term mold issues.

Fire

While PV-related fires are extremely rare, they have occurred. Nearly all documented cases we’ve found were the result of wires or connectors being damaged or improperly installed, such that current flowing through them was restricted but not cut off completely. Such a restriction converts electrical energy to heat, and can ignite nearby materials. Unfortunately, a restriction in normally-current-carrying conductors (as opposed to an outright severance or ground fault) will not trigger any safety mechanism – allowing the problem to continue unnoticed. Roofing materials and PV components are designed to be fire-resistant, but the organic materials of a nest can ignite easily.

Electrocution hazards

When the insulation around an energized conductor is compromised, that conductor presents an electrocution risk to anyone who comes in contact with it. This risk is amplified when the conductor comes into electrical contact (e.g. when it rains or snows) with other metal components of the PV system, such as the racking or module frames. Modern, code-compliant PV systems include a safety mechanism that will shut down the system if such a ground fault is detected, making this more of a lost production hazard than a safety hazard. However, ground-fault protection systems do not always function as intended, and older inverters may lack protection and require replacement if there is a ground fault. Any PV system with suspected insulation damage should be deenergized immediately.

Lost production

In a 2020 report based on observations of 100,000 PV systems over 5+ years, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that “damage caused by animals may not occur often, but… can have substantial impact on annual production.” The report tracked lost production specifically attributable to pests, and found an average 28% production loss during the year in which the animal-related event occurred. For reference, this would represent a loss of about $350 for the average US residential PV system.

When a PV system stops operating entirely due to a ground fault, broken conductor, or during repairs, it of course stops generating income and reduces the system’s return on investment. Such disruptions often take longer than expected to fix due to high demand and low supply of solar service technicians.

A bigger problem, though, is when system output is reduced due to animal activity but not stopped entirely. This is likely to go undetected by the system owner because solar PV production is so variable to begin with (due to weather, temperature and other effects). Production losses can then persist for years.

What to do about it

Phew… now for some good news!

All of the hazards described above can be virtually eliminated through the careful installation of a good quality solar animal guard. This is best done by an experienced professional, but homeowners on a budget can do it themselves.

Stay tuned as we publish more info to help homeowners, installers and investors decide whether animal guard is worth the investment, and how to perform a top-quality install.