Several Mesa homeowners looking to convert their homes to solar energy have had to put their plans on hold, as their contractor sorts out a point of contention between Mesa and Salt River Project, one that these homeowners and the contractor say unfairly puts them on the hook.
The problem? Before approving a connection of a solar system to the grid, SRP typically requires the local municipality to inspect the installation. But two years ago, Mesa stopped doing such safety and code inspections for residential solar installations. The city said the idea was to ease the process.
Mesa’s decision to remove a layer of government inspection for homeowners has created this unintended stalemate.
The contractor says the only option he’s been given thus far is to take on that responsibility himself by signing a clearance form, and that goes beyond the scope of his contract work.
“I have to take full responsibility, from the meter to the whole entire house, and if anything is not to code or burns up, I’m responsible. I shouldn’t be responsible, that’s too much,” said Keith Rowley of Mesa, President of Solar Electric Systems & Products Inc. Rowley raised the issue before the City Council last week.
It’s not just the contractor. Residents would have to sign the form as well, and some are not willing to do that either.
“We have no idea what the liability might be. Why should I accept this unknown liability?” asked Bob Brownridge, 85. Brownridge is a winter visitor who got solar panels installed in March but because of the concerns, they aren’t hooked up with SRP. “If there’s a fire with the transformer and another neighboring house catches fire, it could end up becoming my responsibility for no reason.”
According to Rowley, there are other potential customers in his RV Park, on Main Street near Higley Road, holding off on their plans for this reason.
Resident Harold Scott, 78, is one of those people. Scott said he’s still trying to figure out the details, and he’s wary of proceeding, especially after seeing Brownridge’s experience.
“I’m curious to know why the homeowner has to sign something relieving SRP of any obligation or responsibility,” said Scott. “I’m also wondering why, when Mesa does so much other inspecting, why they won’t inspect solar.”
If other homeowners and contractors are also unwilling to sign the form, the issue has the potential to be a growing problem as these solar applications rise.
Brownridge says he doesn’t know at this point what to do, but that ultimately if this isn’t sorted out, they’ll have the panels removed.
Besides being environmentally friendly, homeowners get incentives from electric providers and the federal government to go solar.
An SRP official said other East Valley entities, including Queen Creek, Apache Junction, Chandler and Gilbert, all do the check.
Mesa City Manager Chris Brady told the City Council that Mesa chose not to create an inspection and review for solar only to facilitate the process.
“We wanted to encourage this by not including it as part of the regulatory inspection,” he said.
Christine Zielonka, director of Mesa’s Development and Sustainability Department, said this issue has come up recently because SRP now has a new group that took over review of solar inspections. In fact, until recently, SRP let Mesa residents do such installations without city inspection, because these were happening in very small numbers.
But in the last few months, the demand for solar energy “has taken off,” said David Murphy, manager of design and construction at SRP. In the last three months, SRP got 100 such applications across its service area, compared to the usual one or two a month.
So, they developed a standard form, to ensure a checklist of things was being done.
“We’ve written in the standard that if the local jurisdiction doesn’t do it, we’ll require a certificate in lieu. It exempts SRP from any harm, should the inverter blow up or a roof cave in,” Murphy said.
Murphy added that SRP only does limited checks related to an installation, while the rest is done by the municipalities, for code compliance to national standards.
“All we’re trying to do here is let the customer know we don’t inspect that. We don’t have inspectors to inspect for the safety code cities usually do,” Murphy said.
Rowley says that certificate essentially pins responsibility on the homeowner and installer that the work has been done to code and beyond, to the wiring and everything of a house, which he says could end up including liability of work done before or after the installation was done.
But after a meeting between Mesa and SRP officials this week, Zielonka said SRP would consider putting in a definition to limit the liability to the solar installation.
“They’ll clarify the certification has to do with just the solar installation, not the entire house,” Zielonka said.
Following a meeting with local solar contractors Wednesday, Zielonka said that despite this proposed change in the certification, the feedback the city got was still the same: for the city to issue the permits.
For resource-strapped Mesa, that could be a challenge.
“If there’s enough of a consensus, and reason to do it, we’ll have to see how to move forward on this,” Zielonka said.
Earlier, Mayor Scott Smith said it’s “frustrating” to see the city trying to step out of the way, so business and homeowners can step in and get things done quickly.
Murphy said typically cities do take on the responsibility.
“These things are serious devices. Someone needs to watch the clock to make sure it ticks right,” Murphy said.
Not everyone in this business is as concerned.
Solar consultant Leah Bushman of Dependable Solar Products in Mesa said the certification hasn’t raised any “red flags” for them.
Bushman said the company as it is has to follow the national standards for the systems.
In fact, she believes others may follow suit as to what Mesa has done.
Bill Kaszeta, board member of Arizona Solar Center and owner Photovoltaic Resources International, said the good news is that residents don’t need a building permit and save “money and fusses.” But the alternative puts the major responsibility on the installer, not on the homeowner, “since the installer’s signature is notarized.”
He doesn’t see that as a problem either.
“The installer would still have the same liability. Just because the city inspected it doesn’t get him off the hook anyhow,” Kaszeta said.