Can’t fight City Hall? Clean Air Gardening battles with City of Dallas to install solar panels to generate clean energy.

Here at Clean Air Gardening, we try to take our commitment to the environment seriously.

When we purchased a building last year, we went out of our way to do a green renovation of the building before we moved in. We added significant amounts of new insulation to make the building more efficient. We added high efficiency water saving toilets. We only used no VOC paint. We used carpet tiles made from recycled material and renewable cork flooring. We even added Energy Star rated skylights to bring in free natural light, to reduce the use of electric lighting.

And those are just some of the features!

We have been thrilled with the new building, and I decided to take things a step further and install a $25,000, 2.8 kilowatt solar panel system on top of our building. Solar panels would further reduce our carbon emissions by generating some of our own clean energy from the sun.

We found a Texas based solar panel installation company, Ecowatt Design, that has experience installing solar panels all over the state. Ecowatt Design helped us design a system that meets our needs and is expandable in the future, for when our budget allows more panels.

But when it came time to install the system that we designed and purchased, we ran into a big surprise. The City of Dallas wouldn’t grant a permit to install it!

Ecowatt Design has installed solar panels in cities all over Texas, including the nearby city of Highland Park, which is next to Dallas. The only permit required to install solar panels is a simple electrical permit, which is typically granted on the spot, or within 24 hours.

Indeed, the only regulations that even exist for solar panels are in the National Electric Code. Ecowatt Design uses a master electrician to install panels, who is specifically familiar with how they work, and is licensed to install these panels.

The first time that the city denied the permit, I thought that perhaps the installation company just didn’t know what they were doing and had made some kind of error when they were requesting the permit, which resulted in the denial.

The City of Dallas told Ecowatt Design that we would need an entire building permit to install the panels, and that an electrical permit would not be sufficient.

I was skeptical that this could possibly be true if the city understood that this was just a simple installation of a relatively small number of less than 20 solar panels.

So my next step was to get our architect Art involved. This was the architect who created the design for our green building renovation.

I told him the story of what had happened, and that I thought maybe it was just a case of Ecowatt Design not being familiar with how to get a permit in Dallas. Art was helpful and said he would make a few phone calls and see what was going on.

Art called someone at the city permit office, to see what the city would require to install the solar panels.

According to Art, he talked with someone at Building Inspection, who was unable to simply tell him what was required in terms of documentation. Each time Art would summarize what the inspector said he wanted as documentation, the inspector would add yet another requirement to the list.

As a next step, we hired Art and paid him to create us a roof plan of the building, with his architect’s seal, based on his conversation with the city.

Keep in mind that no other city in Texas where Ecowatt Design has installed solar panels has ever required anything more than a simple electrical permit for similar installations.

But we created the plan and got an architect’s stamp anyway, just so that we could be through with the ordeal and get the solar panels installed.

Can you guess what happened next?

The City of Dallas denied the permit again, and said that they would now require an engineer’s stamp, because an architect’s stamp was not good enough.

At this point, my frustration levels were beginning to rise. What did the city have against solar panels? Why on earth would the city go this far out of its way to block this simple installation, when the entire Dallas Metroplex is suffering from serious air quality problems that clean energy could only help?

An engineer’s stamp would take weeks and would cost more than $1,500. We had already spent several hundred dollars on the architectural drawings and stamp THAT NO OTHER CITY IN TEXAS REQUIRES to install solar panels.

Frankly, at this point I was worried that even if I spent the $1,500 or more to get the engineer’s stamp, the city would block the installation again with some other arbitrary requirement, which would mean that I had spent all of this extra money for no reason whatsoever.

I decided that this might be a good time to contact my Dallas city council representative, Angela Hunt. Perhaps Ms. Hunt, who has showed concern for the environment with many of her actions on the city council, would be able to help.

I emailed Ms. Hunt a long, five page letter detailing the ordeal.

I was pleased to get a reply from her the very same day, thanking me for my commitment to renewable energy.

She said that she would look into the matter. Indeed, she emailed several people in the Permit Office to help resolve the problem, and I am very thankful for her help, and personal response.

But what happened next took me from the level of simple frustration up to the level of fury.

An email response I got from someone in the permit office said:

“Our concern is the weight of the new equipment and the method of installation to an existing roof. The reason we are requesting an engineered drawings and or letter is to establish that the existing roof can handle the additional weight and the wind loads that will be subjected to the new panels existing roof.”

These solar panels weigh less than 300 pounds!

Even worse than that, our architect addressed this issue in extreme detail with the roof plan and an attached letter.

Let me quote what the architect wrote in our previous attempt to get a permit:

Concern # 1: The weight of the equipment on the roof.
I have examined the roof structure which is roof deck supported by steel trusses. The proposed rooftop equipment consists of seven 1.4 inch thick panels each of which weigh 35.3 pounds and is 50.8 inches tall and 39 inches wide. This will impose a total dead load of 247 pounds distributed over an area of 2.65 square feet which is 93 pounds per square foot or 11.8 pound per lineal foot of superimposed load. This additional loading is therefore negligible.

Concern # 3: Roof penetrations.
The framework of the solar panels will be anchored through the existing roof deck to the roof trusses below with clamping devices and holes in or welding to the existing trusses will not be permitted. Penetrations in the roof membrane will be properly sealed to prevent water migration through the membrane.

So tell me, am I crazy?

I am some kind of an idiot who thinks that he can install solar panels without understanding the permit process?

Or is the City of Dallas Building Inspection Department going out of its way to block this solar panel installation?

UPDATES: Clean Air Gardening was on the local CBS 11 television news at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. over the weekend on February 2. Read the online version of the news story here.

My city council representative called me personally that Saturday evening before the story went on the air (they interviewed her for the city’s perspective), and she has been helpful in trying to get the issue resolved.

The Dallas permit office called me this morning 2/6 about meeting this week to hopefully resolve the issue.