Many Conservation Minnesota members are interested in exploring what it might be like to install solar panels on their own home. It’s an exciting exploration process for homeowners who are able to take the step towards being nearly energy self-reliant. However, in that process there can be obstacles to overcome. Upfront cost is an obvious potential hurdle that comes to mind first, but there are also social and bureaucratic obstacles, such as applying through a city planning department for permission or a variance to allow solar panels. A social hurdle may include Homeowner Association (HOA) covenants, or the rules that determine what homeowners living in a particular association can and cannot do to the exterior of their homes. I recently spoke with a couple in Stillwater who has experience with installing solar panels while living in an HOA. The list below captures their experiences, along with my own observations as well.
Tips on Installing Solar While Living in an HOA
- First thing’s first, in any solar exploration process it’s important to examine if your home is even a good candidate for solar panels. This are useful even if you don’t live in an HOA. Questions to ask yourself include:
- Does my roof face south or southwest? Those are the optimal directions for most solar maximization.
- Do trees or utility poles block sunlight from my roof?
- What is the angle of my roof? Steeper angles might require more materials for solar panel stabilization.
- What condition is my roof in, and how old is it? If your roof cannot handle solar panels, then an update might be in order before adding to the structure.
- Once you’ve determined to explore rooftop solar further, the next step is to look into indicators of your neighborhood’s receptivity to solar panels:
- Are there any other roofs with solar already?
- Are there roofs with skylights? In some cases, skylights are treated similarly to solar panels.
- Are there many pools and/or alternative yard practices that are very visible (rain gardens, native plants, etc.)?
- If you think that solar might be allowed in your community and that your roof could be a good candidate, the next step is to get an estimate and some drawings of what the panels might look like from a solar company of your choice. This will help you make the case for solar on your home and it can also allow you to see opportunities to make your panels more discreet. For example, your solar installer might have ideas on how to angle the panels so they aren’t as obvious to neighbors, or you may be able to use black steel framework so there is no glare or obvious silver frames.
- Next, look into your HOA’s covenant to see if solar panels are addressed. They might appear under the header of ordinances, or restrictions, or accessories. Your HOA covenant should have been mailed to you when you moved in or built your home. If you don’t possess it, you can reach out to the HOA board members or board chair to request a copy. The solar guidelines or ordinances listed in the covenant let you know what the basic starting point of your approval process will be. If solar panels aren’t mentioned at all then you have tremendous opportunity to set a positive example for installing them. You may even be asked to help craft solar panel guidelines for others to follow. Conversely, if solar panels are mentioned and prohibited, then the you know that you need to be looking for a “variance,” or an exception to the rule.
- Finally, achieving solar panel acceptance through variance or general application can require several additional steps to prove that your project won’t be a blight on the community’s façade. The specific steps vary, of course, but here are some of the actions you may be asked to take:
- Visit neighbors who might be able to see the solar panels and acquire written acceptance from them
- Solicit support letters from neighbors within a certain radius of your home
- Develop a presentation with mock-up pictures (with help from the solar company you have selected to work with) to demonstrate that the panels would not be offensive to neighbors. This presentation can include economic benefits and reasons why you’ve decided to install solar as well
- Meet with an architecture review committee or similar subcommittee of the HOA to go through a first round of assessment
- Demonstrate city permission of solar panels as well (this will likely happen in most cases)
As we move forward towards an all-renewable world, these neighborhood-level examples of working with governing units are so crucial. The path to achieving solar might not be easy in your HOA, but it’s worth it to explore and pave the way for others to do so as well!
Have questions on working with your HOA? Feel free to email me at email@example.com.