Tim Murphy wants to install solar panels to heat the pool at his new house so his grandchildren can swim there in the winter.
After 10 months of wrangling with the developer and homeowners association for Scottsdale’s Paso Fino Estates, he’s about ready to give up on the idea.
"I’m a little bit chagrined with the whole situation," Murphy said. "My approach now is that I’m going to cancel out and not have solar put in. Because I want to be a good neighbor and part of the association."
Paso Fino — a high-end subdivision on Cactus Road, just east of Loop 101 — requires that the equipment can only go on the roof of a home if it is hidden. But hiding the solar panels also means blocking them from the sun, making them ineffective, said Tom Bohner, president of Sun Systems.
Murphy’s conflict is just the latest in a decades long battle by HOAs to keep out solar panels — deemed an eyesore by some — from neighborhoods despite a state law protecting homeowners’ installations of the equipment.
In 1979, the Legislature passed a law prohibiting HOAs from blocking installation of solar systems or requiring alterations that limit their use. "They can address aesthetics and so forth, or suggest another location, but they can’t say you flat out can’t do it," said Anthony Floyd, Scottsdale’s green building program manager.
Yet HOAs have repeatedly tried to do just that.
In 2003, the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling against the Garden Lakes Community Association that was sued by two homeowners after the Avondale HOA fought their installation of solar systems.
But that ruling has not settled the matter. "It keeps recurring and recurring," said Mike Neary, executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Association’s Arizona chapter.
Solar-powered water heaters first became popular during the 1970s energy crisis, when the federal government gave incentives to those using the alternative energy source, Floyd said. "Fly-by-night solar companies" popped up and installed many ugly systems of dubious quality.
In response, Floyd said HOAs worked to keep them out of their neighborhoods altogether.
That effort continues at Paso Fino, Bohner said.
In the fight over Murphy’s solar panels, aesthetics have been pitted against environmental sensitivity.
Scottsdale has made both a priority, toughening building standards in hope of getting quality developments that blend with the desert surroundings and reduce energy use.
Classic Stellar Homes, Paso Fino’s developer, was a member of Scottsdale’s green building program developed to implement those goals.
The builder’s resistance is strange, Bohner said, because Classic Stellar has a reputation as constructing energyefficient homes. Murphy hired Bohner a year ago to install the solar water heater.
Upon applying to his HOA for approval of the system last October, Murphy was rebuffed and asked for more details about how the equipment would be concealed.
Paso Fino’s by-laws stipulate that nothing can be placed on a roof that can be seen from a next-door neighbors’ backyard or the subdivision’s community areas.
The HOA is managed by the Morrison Group, which declined comment.
Murphy has no next-door neighbors, as the homes surrounding his are still under construction. But his home is located near Paso Fino’s entrance and his roof can be seen from Cactus Road.
The biggest problem with Murphy’s application is that he has not turned in plans with enough detail, including an explanation of how the panels will be hidden, said Tom Dannenbaum, CEO of Classic Stellar. "There (are) ways to screen the panels that are done all the time."
In 25 years of installing solar equipment, Bohner said he has never seen it hidden on a pitched tile roof such as the one covering Murphy’s home.
"If you start shading even one panel in a 10-panel array, the way photovoltaics work, the whole array shuts down," Bohner said.
Bohner has suggested Murphy ignore the HOA and install the solar panels, even offering to pay for a lawyer should he face legal action as a result.
Murphy said he likes his house and does not want to be known as a troublemaker.
He said he will likely withdraw the application.