So you’re thinking of going solar, but you don’t know where to start? There’s no need to be intimidated by all the decisions you'll have to make before you install solar panels on your roof. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know, so you can make the best solar energy decisions for your home.
Why Install Solar Panels?
Solar panels can put money in your pocket, give Mother Nature a big hug, and give America an energy boost.
1) Decrease Or Eliminate Your Energy Bills
Why pay your local energy company each month when there’s a perfectly good nuclear reactor 93 million miles away? Whether you buy or lease, solar panels can decrease the cost of your everyday energy needs. While most homeowners slash their energy bills after switching to solar, some can even see their bills go down to zero (or near zero) if their energy needs are small enough.
2) Increase The Value Of Your Home
Installing solar panels can make your home a more attractive piece of real estate. This is perfect if you want to sell your house down the road.
3) Help The Environment
The more you rely on solar energy, the less energy you’ll consume from fossil fuel stations. Every time you take a hike through the woods, you can tell the trees “you’re welcome.”
4) Help America Be More Energy Independent
Every kilowatt hour of energy produced by the sun reduces our reliance on foreign oil. Your energy money will be supporting your local solar community, rather than a foreign company overseas.
What Is A Solar Panel System?
It takes more than just solar panels to make a solar system. Your system will have four or five different components, depending on what options you choose. These include:
You may also choose to purchase and install a fifth, optional component:
Here’s what you should know about all five components.
1) Solar Panels
The photovoltaic (PV) solar panels turn the sun's energy into electricity. Solar cells inside the panels contain semiconductors. When stimulated by sunlight, these semiconductors activate electrons, which generate direct current (DC) power. There are two main types of solar panels: monocrystalline silicon and polycrystalline silicon.
Monocrystalline panels are black and made from a single cell of pure silicon. They are currently the most commonly used and energy efficient type of solar panels, but they are also the most expensive.
Polycrystalline solar panels are blue and absorb less sunlight. As the technology improves, polycrystalline may surpass the efficiency of monocrystalline panels in the future.
2) Mounting System
The mounting system is simply how your solar system attaches to your roof. There are two main systems: railed and railless. Railed mounting is the classic system that uses rails to attach the solar system to your roof. Newer systems might be railless. Some installers prefer theses railless systems to reduce costs.
Because of how solar panels generate power, they are only capable of producing direct current (DC) electricity. That’s a problem because your TV, refrigerator, toaster, humidifier, and all other appliances in your home run on an alternating current (AC).
Inverters solve this problem by converting the DC current to an AC current.
There are four main types of inverters.
Stand Alone Inverter
This is the simplest type of inverter, and it's probably the type that you will need. It converts solar-generated DC energy into an AC current that powers your home.
Grid Connected Inverter
Some energy companies allow you to collect solar energy and supply it to the grid. It’s possible to make your energy meter run backwards, so the company actually pays you for energy. In this case, it might be a wise move to purchase a grid connected inverter. However, these types of systems don’t connect to home batteries.
Grid Interactive Inverter
The grid interactive inverter gives you the best of both worlds. You can either use it to power your home energy system and batteries, or you can supply your excess energy to the grid.
The hybrid inverter is a specialty inverter that can work with multiple renewable energy sources. Homes that rely purely on solar power as their renewable energy source won’t need this. But if you combine solar with another renewable energy source, such as wind or hydro, then all your energy will have to pass through a hybrid inverter.
4) Monitoring System
Exactly how much energy are your solar panels providing to your home anyway? A monitoring system will keep track of how efficient your solar system is. This is important because if there is ever a sudden, unexplained dip in the amount of power being generated, then you know that your system isn’t working like it should.
If you want to go off the grid as much as possible, you might also be interested in investing in a home battery system. These store energy from your solar panels. When the sun isn’t shining, your home draws energy from your batteries.
Older solar systems relied on lead acid batteries, like the one you have in your car. But newer home batteries, such as the Tesla Powerwall, use Lithium Ion batteries. Ask your solar installer about your battery options.
Assessing Your Energy Needs
How much of a dent will a solar system make in your energy bill? That depends on how much energy you are using right now. You can evaluate your usage by reviewing your energy bills from the past year.
Pay particular attention to
Simply take a year’s worth of monthly bills, add them up, and divide it by 12. That should give you a baseline estimate for how much energy you’ll need to generate in a typical month.
Do you use more energy in the summer or winter? This is important because your solar system will produce more energy during the sunnier times of the year.
What was your highest energy usage month ever? You should be prepared for times when you’ll need more energy than usual when you add your solar system.
Making Your Home More Energy Efficient
You stand a the best chance of being able to rely heavily on your solar system (or even going totally off grid) if you decrease your overall energy needs. Here are a few simple ways to reduce your energy consumption.
1) Switch Devices Off When Not In Use
This might sound obvious, but people still regularly leave lights and appliances on around the clock. Make sure to turn off your home computer, TV, and other household devices when you’re not using them.
2) Rethink Temperature
Air conditioning is one of the biggest energy hogs in your home. Adjust your thermostat settings to avoid heating or cooling an empty house. Also consider bumping up the AC temp in the summer and decreasing it in the winter. You won’t enjoy year-round 72 degree temperatures in your home, but in exchange for occasionally having to wear a sweater, you’ll reduce your energy needs.
3) Change Out Old Lightbulbs
Switch out all the old lightbulbs in your house with LED bulbs. These provide just as much bright light as the old bulbs, but require a fraction of the energy.
4) Monitor Your Usage
Inexpensive energy meters can help you track how much power you use. Figuring out what times of the day require the most juice can help you pinpoint which devices suck up the most energy in your home.
Assessing Your Solar Potential
Some houses are better suited to run off of solar energy than others. These three factors affect how much sunlight shines on your home every year.
Obviously, if you happen to live in a part of the country that enjoys 365 days of sunshine every year, you’re going to get more out of your solar panels. But, if you’re more accustomed to grey clouds than blue skies, that doesn’t mean you aren’t a good candidate for a solar system. Solar panels can supply a surprising amount of power even if environmental conditions are less than ideal.
The angle of your roof impacts your solar panel's efficiency. Ideally, you want a south facing roof that will get the max amount of rays as the sun travels across the sky. But roofs with other orientations can work too.
How much shade does your house get each day? If you’re positioned at the base of tall hills that shade your house for half the day, then you won’t get as much solar energy as a house that gets pounded by direct sunlight all day long.
If you want a rough estimate of your home's solar potential, check out this tool by Energystar.gov. The solar company you contact will also be able to give you an accurate assessment.
Installing Your Solar Panels
Now we’ve come to the fun part: actually installing the solar panels on your home.
Choosing A Solar Provider
Your first decision is the most important one: which solar provider will you trust to install the panels on your home? The solar industry is growing every year, and you probably have a handful of options in your area. Here are a few ways to find the best companies.
Ask For Recommendations
Have any of your friends or family installed solar panels? Ask for their opinion. Top notch installers should leave a trail of satisfied customers behind them.
Get Multiple Quotes
Most legitimate solar companies will come to your home and give you an estimate for free. This will help you eliminate any company that attempts to overcharge you.
Don’t be shy about grilling the estimator. They should have extensive knowledge on the best types of panels available today, inverters, and batteries.
Check Their Certifications
Like any contractor, you can verify that the installation company has the appropriate credentials. In the United States, the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners offers accreditation and certification to solar providers.
The Solar Installation Process
Have you found a fantastic solar installer? Ready to pull the trigger on a solar system for your home? Fantastic! Here’s what to expect during the installation process.
Your solar company will examine your home and design a system based on your electrical needs and architecture. They will also include specifications for all components, including the inverter and battery system (if you chose to include one). After you review and sign off on the plans, they will be sent to your local government to acquire the appropriate building permits.
Choose Your Financing
The total cost of your solar system will vary, but it can range between $10,000 to $20,000. If you don’t have enough money on hand to buy it outright, you have the option to take out a solar loan. If you have good credit and choose to get a secured loan by using your house as collateral, the interest rates can be very low.
If you don’t want to buy solar panels, you can also choose to lease them. For more information, check out our article on the difference between buying and leasing.
Get Your System Installed
Now it’s time to call the installation crew. Solar systems take between one to three days to install. If you have a simple system, it’s not uncommon for the installers to start work in the morning and be completely done before the day is over.
Once your solar system is installed, it’s time for your local building department to inspect your brand new panels to ensure that everything’s up to code. The installer should also communicate with your power company to connect your system to the power grid.
Now is the part you’ve been waiting for! You’re ready to start using the power of the sun to run your home.
Do Solar Panels Eventually Pay For Themselves?
If you purchased your solar system, you should expect to eventually recoup your cost in the form of energy savings. But how long it will take is based on three factors:
The total cost of your system (after tax incentives, rebates, and loan interest)
The efficiency of your solar system
The typical cost of energy in your area. If you’re able to take advantage of benefits that make your system cheaper and you have above average energy costs, then it can pay for itself very quickly. Possibly in just a few years. If you pay full price for a system and energy from the grid is relatively cheap, it will take longer.
Your solar installer can help you do the math and figure out when you should expect to receive a return on your investment.