Before Going Solar

Consider your home's orientation, roof size and energy usage to make the most of your solar system.

Solar panels on roof To get the best results from your solar system, you should install your panels on a south-facing roof with unobstructed exposure to sunlight.

More than 90 percent of Americans today favor the use of clean energy, according to recent surveys where respondents enthusiastically supported the goal of moving away from dependence on dwindling fossil fuels and expensive imported oil. Particularly tantalizing for homeowners is the thought of powering their households via the abundant — and exceedingly clean — golden rays of the sun. With new technology and financing options making solar electric systems more attainable than ever, now is the time to go solar at your house. Here are the key considerations.

Background

Photovoltaic systems (literally, photon + voltage) convert sunlight to electricity for the home and are typically made up of groups of solar panels that are installed on a roof. New technology has produced sleek black solar modules that aesthetically complement any architectural style, and there are even solar roofing shingles in development that will lay side by side with conventional roofing shingles.

Cost has been the biggest barrier keeping homeowners from installing solar photovoltaic systems, as the systems needed to power a home may cost $20,000 or more. But new financing options and plenty of federal and state incentive programs are bringing the price into the affordable range for many Americans. Indeed, for the past two years, the number of solar photovoltaic installations has risen steadily, and industry experts expect the trend to continue.

First Things First: Size Up Your Needs

To decide if a solar photovoltaic system makes sense for you, begin with some facts about your current household electricity. Look at last year's utility bills and see how many kilowatt-hours you used (the national average is 10,000 per year). Then decide if you want to invest in a system to meet all or part of your needs. Typical residential systems range from 3 kwh to 10 kwh in size. As a general rule, a 3-kwh system will generate approximately 3,600 to 4,800 kwh per year; a 5-kwh system will produce 6,000 to 8,000 kwh per year; and a 10-kwh system will produce 12,000 to 16,000 kwh per year.

Look at Your Site

The most important factors affecting a solar photovoltaic system's effectiveness are orientation toward the sun and unobstructed access to sunlight. PV systems work best on a south-facing roof, and they must receive sunlight with no obstruction from trees or other shading. In addition to your own observations, consult solar resource maps available on such websites as the U.S. government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Consider the Roof

One factor that may limit the size of your photovoltaic system is the available surface area of your south-facing roof. A solar installation company can supply a precise calculation, but ballpark figures suggest that a 4-kwh system requires 400 to 600 square feet of roof area, and a 10-kwh system requires 1,000 to 1,500 square feet.

Assess Your Home's Energy Efficiency

A photovoltaic system works best in an energy efficient structure, so think about the things you can do to reduce your home's electricity use. You may want to add insulation, replace old appliances with Energy Star versions, install more efficient lighting, and upgrade windows and doors.

Think About Cost

A 5-kwh system may run $35,000, but federal and state incentives can reduce that expense by more than half; recently introduced legislation called the "Ten Million Solar Roofs Act of 2011" proposes incentives that could lower the $35,000 cost to as little as $7,875. A clearinghouse for rebate information can be found online at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE). Also, the government offices or websites of your state or town should provide information about rebates, fees and permits for solar photovoltaic installations. Some solar installation companies also offer leasing options where you pay a monthly fee for a 20-year lease rather than paying up-front.

Find a PV Professional

If word of mouth doesn't lead you to a solar photovoltaic installer in your area, try:

  • Find Solar: This website provides contact info for established solar PV professionals. Find Solar was created through a partnership between the nonprofit American Solar Energy Society and the Seattle environmental group Cooler Planet.
  • Utility Company: Check with your utility provider for recommendations.
  • Renewable Energy Source Guide: Located online, this guide allows you to search for solar energy businesses by location.

Resources

For more information about solar photovoltaic systems, consult:

  • nrel.gov: Website of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a research facility of the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
  • eere.energy.gov: Website of the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
  • cleanegroup.org: Website of the Clean Energy Group, a national nonprofit advocacy group
  • ases.org: Website of the American Solar Energy Society, a nonprofit association of solar professionals and advocates founded in 1954

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