Can a homeowners association prohibit solar panels?

HOAs can have bylaws that can dictate the color of your house or ban you from decorating your lawn with pink flamingos. Sometimes they may also want to ban solar panels, but many states have laws to prevent this.

Photo of a HOA-type neighborhood.

A homeowner’s association (HOA) is a management organization for a private community that makes and enforces rules for that community.

It collects fees that pays for the upkeep of common property of the neighborhood, such as landscaping costs and common areas. On top of that, an HOA often has bylaws designed to maintain a common appearance to homes. For example, it may dictate the type of roofing materials that are permitted or the color that you’re allowed to paint the exterior.

Solar panels can fall under their jurisdiction too. If your community is governed by an HOA and you’re thinking of adding solar panels, you might run into resistance. The reasons an HOA might object to a solar installation vary, but they usually relate to appearances or a perceived reduction in property value.

Fortunately, many states have laws known as solar access laws that limit the ability of an HOA from preventing you from installing solar panels on your roof.

Even if you live in a state that doesn’t have a solar access law, there are still ways to convince your HOA to let you put solar panels on your home.

Fighting your HOA can be an annoying process, but taking a positive instead of a combative approach is usually the best way to move forward. You might even convince some of your neighbors to go solar too.

Why would a homeowners association not want solar panels in the neighborhood?

An HOA might object to solar panels in the neighborhood for the same reasons any homeowner might not want solar. The two most common reasons are how the panels look, and a fear that solar panels might reduce your property value.

They may have other questions as well, some of which may be based on misconceptions about solar. For example, they may wonder if your solar panels might harm birds, pose fire or health risks, or cause long term maintenance issues for the home.

Most people don’t have experience owning solar panels and will have a lot of questions like this. In discussions with your HOA, the best thing you can do is to find out what their objections are and try to patiently answer every concern they might have. This article will provide some tips, but first let’s look into solar access laws and how they may impact your situation with the HOA.

What is a solar access law?

Solar access laws protect the ability of homeowners to operate solar arrays on their property in a productive way. These include laws such as California’s Solar Shade Act, which prevents your neighbor from letting their trees grow so much that they block sunlight from reaching your solar panels.

Many states also have laws that are designed to limit the ability of homeowners associations to prevent you from installing solar panels on your roof. Currently, 26 states and the District of Columbia have solar access laws.

These laws usually aren’t absolute, and still give the HOA the right to prevent solar panels from being installed on common property or in a manner that is unsafe. In many cases, the health and safety clauses of these laws are redundant. For example, California’s law states that a solar array “shall meet applicable health and safety standards and requirements imposed by state and local permitting authorities”. This is just affirms existing laws.

However, some state laws have ambiguous language that can give an HOA enough wiggle room to still impede your planned solar project. Here’s an example from Arizona’s law:

An association may adopt reasonable rules regarding the placement of a solar energy device if those rules do not prevent the installation, impair the functioning of the device or restrict its use or adversely affect the cost or efficiency of the device.

The use of vague terms like “reasonable rules” and “adversely affect” leave them open to imterpretation. For example, is it reasonable for an HOA force you to place your solar panels in an area of your roof that would reduce their efficiency by 5%? How about 15%? Or 30%? Because there’s no clear definition of what an “adverse” impact is, you might get mired in a fight with your HOA even if your state has a solar access law.

Which states have solar access laws?

There are 26 states and the District of Columbia that have solar access laws:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • North Carolina
  • Oregon
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

To look up the law in your state, visit the Community Associations Institute website and click on your state.

California’s solar access law - a closer look

As an example, let’s take a look at California’s law, which is Civil Code Section 714.

The law states that any rule in a contract that “effectively prohibits or restricts the installation or use of a solar energy system is void and unenforceable”. Sounds good!

Unfortunately, the next paragraph makes things more complicated: “This section does not apply to provisions that impose reasonable restrictions on solar energy systems.”

What do they mean by reasonable? Fortunately the California law, unlike the Arizona rule mentioned earlier, adds this clarification:

For photovoltaic systems that comply with state and federal law, "significantly" means an amount not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000) over the system cost as originally specified and proposed, or a decrease in system efficiency of an amount exceeding 10 percent as originally specified and proposed.

This means that the HOA can request modifications to your solar project, but only if it doesn’t add more than $1,000 to the invoice price or reduce the system efficiency more than 10%.

For example, let’s say that the ideal position for your solar panels is on a south-facing section of your roof, but that section also happens to face the street.

The HOA might raise an objection, claiming that the panels ruin the curb appeal of the street. They could request that you place the panels on a different segment of roof, away from the street. However, if the installers estimate that the change will result in an loss of electricity generation greater than 10%, the request would be disallowed under California’s law.

Here’s another example. Let’s say that instead of asking you to move your panels off the street-facing segment of your roof, they ask you to install all-black panels to improve the appearance of the array. As long as the change costs less than $1,000, under California’s law this request is legally allowed.

Other state laws will have their own language, so look up the law for where you live.

How to talk to your HOA if they object to your proposed solar panels

Regardless of your local laws, it’s generally best if you don’t have to resort to legal measures to get your solar array installed. If you can convince the HOA that going solar is positive for the community, you’ll have a lot smoother time and maybe avoid a fight.

Here are some common topics that an HOA might raise about solar panels, and ways that you can address the concerns.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: curb appeal and solar panels

Some people, especially those who are environment or tech-minded, think that solar panels look cool and aren’t afraid to show them off.

Others would disagree and think that solar panels are ugly and detract from the curb appeal of a home. HOAs frequently have rules intended to maintain a uniform appearance of all the homes in the neighborhood, so the appearance of a solar array is usually the top objection you’ll encounter with an HOA.

Fortunately, there are some things you can do about it. The most obvious is moving the solar panels to a segment of roof that won’t be seen from the curb. Unfortunately, this can often be a deal-breaker if it means the alterate roof segment has less sunshine.

The alternative is to try to make the solar array look better. The easiest way to do this is to use all-black solar panels with a racking system that is also black. You can also sometimes add a black metal skirt around the array that hides the gap between the panels and the roof surface.

By doing this, the solar array will be one uniform color and have less of a “busy” look to it. This works especially well if you have dark shingles:

I think those solar panels look pretty good, don't you think?

A conventional solar panel has a grid appearance because the individual solar cells are visible, and the aluminium frame is often a different color. This gives the array a busy look. Even if you have light colored shingles or tile, an all-black array will often look better because it’s one solid color.

Another thing you can do is work with the installer to hide the metal conduit that carries the electrical wires down from the roof. It may be an option to run the conduit down the inside of an exterior wall instead of the outside of the building where it is visible. While this will add cost, it will give the project a cleaner appearance.

For more tips, you can read this article on improving the curb appeal of solar panels.

Solar panels increase the property value of a home

If your neighbor’s house is valuable, that tends to raise the value of your house too. That’s one of the reasons why HOAs often have so many rules: they want to prevent homeowners from doing things that might impact the value of your house and the houses around it.

Some people are under the impression that adding solar panels will reduce the value of the house. This can be true if the solar panels are acquired using a solar lease or power purchase agreement. When financed this way, the system is owned by the solar installer and not the homeowner. When it comes time to sell the house, either the future homebuyer must take on the solar contract, or the homeowner must buy the contract out. This is troublesome and expensive and can make a home sale difficult.

On the other hand, if you purchase the system outright, the solar panels add equity to your home. Estimates differ, but the return on investment can be a significant fraction of what you paid for the system. This means that a solar array gives you a return on investment both through the electricity it generates and the equity it adds to your home. You can read my article on this topic for more details.

The bottom line is that a typical size home solar array could add tens of thousands of dollars in equity to a house. If solar increases the resale value of your house, that’s a compelling argument to an HOA that is concerned about property values.

Solar panels are safe and good for the environment

Saving money is the top cited reason for why homeowners go solar, but most people are also interested in helping the environment. Polls show that a majority of people are concerned about climate change and the environment in general, so another argument you can make to the HOA is that every solar roof is contributing to a better environment.

There are a lot of myths about solar panels, such as the idea that solar panels kill a lot of birds, that they can’t be recycled, are toxic or pose a fire risk.

If your HOA brings up concerns like this, you can share these articles or numerous other ones from solar advocacy groups that explain the benefits of going solar. As with any technology, solar isn’t perfect and has its pros and cons, but on balance solar energy is largely positive.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

If you’re in a state that doesn’t have a solar access law and you’ve tried and failed to convince your HOA to allow your solar installation, one last thing you can do is to talk to board members individually and try to sway them. Show them a solar proposal with a complete financial analysis and show them how much money you can save. Not only might you convince some of them to vote in favor of your project, but you could even convince them to go solar themselves.

Lastly, think abou† joining the board. To make your intentions clear, you could run on a pro-solar platform. If you convince enough of your neighbors that solar is a good thing, you could get their vote and turn them into solar homeowners too.

Obviously, it’s a time committment to join an HOA board, which is why it’s better if you can simply convince them to let your project go through.

Good luck! If you’re fighting with your HOA and have a question or story to share, shoot me a note.


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