According to the resource website HOA-USA, there are over 351,000 homeowner associations (HOAs) in the United States, representing over 40 million households or 53% of owner-occupied households. That means the large majority of residential solar installers have had to deal with HOA rules concerning solar on certain homes.
And boy, do those rules vary. Only about half of the 50 states have laws preventing HOAs from denying solar applications for aesthetic reasons. How a HOA will react to solar requests in the other states is a toss-up.
HOAs are organizations in neighborhoods that make and enforce rules for the houses or condominiums within their jurisdiction. Those living within these established communities pay fees that go toward having and maintaining common areas. A major directive of the HOA is neighborhood uniformity and/or a high standard of appearance for each property—which is why so many HOAs choose to deny a homeowner’s right to go solar.
Indiana made headlines this year for its solar HOA problem. Many central Indiana residents wanted to go solar, but severely outdated HOA bylaws that forbid “solar heat panels” often led to solar PV application denials. When solar was approved, it was usually restricted to the back of a home—a common “compromise” HOAs make throughout the country—regardless as to whether that’s the best location for solar generation.
“The HOA solar problem tends to be more subjective rather than objective,” said Laura Ann Arnold, president of the Indiana Distributed Energy Alliance (IndianaDG), a group working to promote renewable energy and distributed generation. “Some HOA boards just don’t seem to understand that installing solar panels away from the street but on the north side of the home is not a reasonable solution and is just not cost effective. There is a lack of understanding about the technology and the economics.”
Indiana legislators stepped up, and a solar bill to give homeowners in HOAs more solar rights passed the state Senate but ultimately died in the House last year. IndianaDG is working with Republican Rep. Woody Burton to introduce new legislation during the next session to address the issues HOAs have with solar.
“The bill will prohibit HOAs from enacting absolute prohibitions on solar panels and will also prevent HOAs from limiting the intended maximum efficiency of solar panel systems by dictating where solar panels should be installed on a roof,” Arnold said.
Many states (like California, Texas and Oregon) have already passed specific legislation—called solar access laws—preventing HOAs from prohibiting solar installations. In states with these laws, HOAs cannot prevent homes from going solar, but they can make certain requests, like no ground-mounts in front yards, as long as these requests do not make the proposed solar system less effective or more expensive. Solar easements, a different kind of pro-solar document, are legal contracts solar owners work out with neighboring properties to guarantee adequate sunlight exposure to their systems. This is where requirements are written down, like making sure a neighbor’s trees don’t shade the array.
There was once a national effort to get supportive solar laws on the books. The Solar Opportunity and Local Access Rights (SOLAR) Act was introduced to the House in 2011 but wasn’t passed. The act would have required each state to adopt a net-metering standard and prohibited “any restriction impairing the ability of the owner or lessee of a one-family residential structure to install or use a solar energy system upon such property,” among other things.
Arnold said a good federal solution for the solar industry would be similar to what was enacted for satellite dish installation. The FCC rules for satellite dishes (passed in 1996) protect a property owner’s right to install, maintain or use an antenna.
Until more cohesive solar access laws are passed, solar installers have to get comfortable working around dated HOA bylaws. Although Texas does have supportive solar laws, local installer Victory Solar still had to jump through many hoops for a San Antonio homeowner wanting to go solar.
Victory Solar was the fourth solar company to give the homeowner a quote on a system. The house had a Spanish tile roof and working with the HOA was proving to be difficult. The homeowner said other solar companies had presented ground-mount systems, but the HOA still wouldn’t give approval. So Victory Solar suggested a ballasted system.
“I showed them one below the fence line, and it got approved,” said Victory president Mike Busby. “We put up a black mesh fence screen, so the neighbors couldn’t see it. We took out all the grass, put in white rock. It’s a flat roof commercial system but on the ground. If we did a normal ground-mount it stuck above the fence.”
Busby said the company deals with HOAs on about 90% of its projects. Many have stipulations—like an array can’t be street-facing—but Victory Solar has never been denied on an application. Busby said Victory Solar has a process down after many years dealing with HOAs.
“We’ve put an emphasis on the beginning that paperwork is the most important,” he said. “The paperwork has to be precise and on-point, iron-clad at all times. It’s become very streamlined with us, dealing with [HOAs]. We know exactly what they’re looking for. We probably send them too much paperwork—they want to know the color of the modules, the racking, what it will look like on the roof. So we send them the whole design packet.”
Arnold said the best way for solar installers to be proactive with HOAs is to have proof of other successful projects and data that shows solar is good for a community.
“Solar installers need to provide examples of installations done that mirror the home types in that neighborhood and also show that solar panels increase property values,” she said. “Solar installers should explain that this is just strictly about solar panels and that an HOA board should not infer that approving a request for solar panels would lead homeowners asking for other things that may be prohibited in the covenants.”
IndianaDG has found in its research that while HOA boards may deny solar applications “for the good of the community,” the majority of homeowners approve of solar. HOAs fear that if solar is approved, residents will request other prohibited items, like chain-link fences or above-ground pools—the “slippery slope” logical fallacy—when that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The solar industry as a whole needs to stay vigilant on HOA issues and work to educate the public as more people want to go solar, Arnold said.
“Unfortunately, many homeowners are totally unaware of their HOA’s prohibitions or restrictions on solar,” she said. “The solar industry needs to be proactive to educate prospective homeowners to ask questions about solar prohibitions and restrictions before they buy a new home.”