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Case Study: Install solar for common areas

Anne St George, TB Guest Building, West Melbourne

Anne St George

By retrofitting solar panels, an historic biscuit factory turned apartment block is now making its own electricity.

You can do this project!

Built in 1856, the T.B. Guest and Co Steam Biscuit Factory in West Melbourne once made teddy bear biscuits and butternut snaps. Back then, its owner Thomas Bibby Guest used steam to power the factory, but found he couldn't keep up with demand. Eventually, he invested in cutting-edge automated mechanical mixers and biscuit cutting machines to speed things up. 

These days, the building is no longer a factory, but is home to 31 apartments. True to its history, it still uses new technology to improve efficiency — not to bake biscuits, but to save energy. 

Owner-occupier Anne St George was first attracted to the building for its location and history. Although she didn’t want a cookie-cutter apartment from a developer (she wanted to shape the space herself), she loves this ex-cookie-cutting building.

Not long after she bought her apartment, Anne realised joining the Executive Committee was an important way to put her tuppence in on what needed to be done. Having extensively researched the merits of solar power in the past, installing a system in the building was a top priority

Planning the project

Anne planted the seeds in the Executive Committee several years before they got serious about solar. Once anchor points were installed on the roof to meet OH&S regulations, Anne finally introduced the project to those not on the committee at the building’s AGM earlier this year.

Anne drafted a statement of intent using a free Smart Blocks template and drafted a motion to add solar to the agenda of the next general meeting. At the meeting, they discussed the options and Anne and two other owners formed a sub-committee to progress the solar project.

Anne encountered no roadblocks as she conducted further research to develop a business case for the project. They organised three quotes through Positive Charge and decided to go with Energy Matters. A supplier visited the building and at Anne’s request, one of the residents, an electrical engineer, quizzed him thoroughly.

Next, Energy Matters sent a site inspection team to the building to answer more questions and look for any challenges of installing the system at the site. Access to the roof was tricky, but as the roof is long and unobstructed and faces north, it was a prime candidate for solar.

Satisfied by Anne’s research and plan, the EC was happy to go ahead. Having introduced the plan at the AGM, Anne wanted to make sure the residents were fully on side. She emailed detailed materials to the committee six weeks before the installation date and hung notices on community notice boards informing residents about the project and warning them about potential noise on the roof.

Installing the panels

The installation of the 10kw solar system took three days. As there was no space for a scissor lift, the team had to manually carry everything up the fire stairs and onto the roof — no mean feat, with 40 solar panels and a lot of equipment.

But then, late at night on the first installation day, Anne received an email from an EC member calling for an immediate halt to the project. Despite all of the previous meetings and emails, this neighbour was suddenly concerned the project would cause leaks in his ceiling and raise the ambient temperature of his apartment.

In the wee hours, Anne responded to each of his concerns. She found research that showed solar panels in fact lowered the ambient temperature. She reassured him there would be no leaks in his roof. First thing the next morning, the resident spoke to the installation team, and was satisfied his concerns were unfounded. The installation continued smoothly.

After the installation

Apart from these minor hiccups, Anne found the process easy. Energy Matters finalised the paperwork, gave her photographs of the panels and handled the inspection by Power Check. They also showed her how to work the inverter. 

Anne says one of the biggest lessons she learned during the process was that communication can make or break a project. Keeping residents informed is time consuming but essential, although some owners will still not read the material, which can cause problems during the works.

Anne also found Smart Blocks a great help. She says the templates and advice lessened the burden that falls on the owner and committee, and ultimately, a City of Melbourne Smart Blocks rebate was the deciding factor in proceeding with the project. They expect their investment to pay for itself in just over five years.

As well as the money they will save, Anne believes the greatest benefit of the project is the satisfaction of contributing to the environment.

Her building no longer makes biscuits from flour, eggs and butter, but it is more efficient than ever. Now it makes electricity, from the sun.