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Residential Solar > Is Solar Right for Me?


Should we install a solar electric or hot water system in our home?

An introduction to Solar-Powered homes

Let's take a look at the most basic of solar questions:

Should I install a solar electric system in my home?

There are a few pieces of information you should understand fully in order to be able to answer this for yourself.

Once you've read the intro below, go back and complete our Free Solar Evaluation  for free one-on-one consultation.

Is my home "Solar Ready"?

  • Roof orientation:
    Is your roof facing south (or close to south) that may be used to mount solar panels
  • Shading from trees:
    Is your roof sunny for at least 7-8 hours/day, year round?
  • Ground mounting:
    If the roof cannot be used for mounting the panels, is there a sunny space on the property for a ground mount array?

How much will it cost?

Solar HomeThe cost of solar panels for your home varies wildly depending on: the size of the system; the state you’re in; and how much of your electric usage you’re looking to offset. A $25,000 outlay is a pretty decent figure to work with (or about $40,000, before incentives).

If you were thinking more along the lines of under $10,000, you may want to take a look at solar water heating (solar thermal) systems. This is especially true if you have a large family (i.e., you use a lot of hot water) and an oil- or gas-fired hot water tank. 

  • If your finances allow for less $10,000, don't worry: in some states this can still get you solar panels (see below), and in most states it will get you a small one. Is it cost effective to start out with a very small system and add to it as finances allow over the years? No. Is it a possible solution if you're really committed to going solar? Yes.
  • However, a better use of your money might be a Solar Hot Water system. Especially if your family uses a lot of hot water, your water heater is oil or gas-fired, or if you're in a state with high isolation rates (basically, lots of sunshine), solar hot water systems are an incredible deal. Also referred to as solar thermal -- though this term encompasses a broader range of applications as well -- solar hot water can provide most of your home's hot water needs, year round.
  • Residential systems typically cost about $6,000 or $7,000 to install, are highly reliable, and are eligible for the same federal incentives as solar panels, in most cases. It's a technology that's been around since, oh, ancient Egypt. You really can't go wrong.

What is Your Motivation?

Identify why you want solar. Is it because your neighbor has it and it looks super cool? Because you want to be living a low-carbon lifestyle? Because you want to save money? Figuring out why you want to take this step should help you evaluate if the investment is right for you. If you find out that it will take 22 years for your system to pay for itself, that might be just fine -- or it might start to sound like you’d rather invest your money in something that shows a quicker return, or energy efficiency improvements like new windows. 

Your average electric usage and payments. Take a look at a recent utility bill. How much energy, in kilowatt-hours (kwh), did you use last month? What about over the last year? The best number to work with is an average. Combine your usage from the last year and divide by twelve. 

  • If you're spending less than $100, on average, per month, it's likely that a solar system would have an unattractive payback period for you. If you're in a state with good incentives, right around $100 or higher is probably okay; if you're in a state with poor incentives, your monthly average should be a great deal higher -- at least $150 -- to warrant the investment in solar. The more you spend every month on electricity, the more money your solar system will save you; this is the main number that goes into figuring out how long it takes for your system to pay for itself.

What is the condition of your roof?

An installed solar system has a life of about 30 years. So does a new roof. If you need to replace the roof after 10 years, though, you’re adding a great deal of expense–you have to have the panels taken off and reinstalled on the new roof. Many people seem to think their home’s roof will need to be structurally reinforced to hold the panels. This is not the case, unless, as sometimes happens in the southwest, the installer chooses to mount the panels in poured concrete.

  • The ideal roof for solar faces south (west is the next-best), is totally unshaded, and has been recently redone. Flat or angled doesn't matter too much--collector panels can be installed at an angle to correct for pitch. In general, you should allow about 100 square feet of roof area per every kilowatt of system size.
  • An average 4kw system, then, would need 400 square feet of roof. For most people there's no problem there. Many people are interested in solar shingles these days, which look like architectural shingles but act as collectors. Those require up to 50% more installation area, but are a good option if your housing association won't allow panels that are visible from the road and yet your unshaded, southern exposure roof area happens to be facing the road.

The size, orientation, and shading of your roof.Get a rough idea of the square footage of your roof, and which cardinal directions it faces. Take a good look at any trees or tall buildings near your roof: during which part of the day are they casting shade over your roof? Which part of the roof?

Review your state’s rebates and incentives for installing solar

After reading through your state's incentives on the DSIRE database -- you should have some idea of how receptive your state is for solar. The most standard incentives are tax credits, sometimes as high as 35% of system cost, and rebates. Rebates are usually calculated per watt of system size (good ones are between $2 and $5 -- with a national cost average of $8/per installed watt of system size, even a $2/watt rebate is equal to a savings of 25%).

Rebates are the most attractive form of incentive but tax credits are helpful, too. They just don't reduce your out of pocket expenses. If you live in a state with few or no incentives, think about waiting a year or two. The trend is toward renewables rather than away, and your state might institute incentives soon. Contact your state senators and representatives and tell them about your desire for solar: they'll listen.

  • Net metering, which is available pretty much everywhere, should not entice you to a PV system on its own. This is the process through which excess energy created by your system is purchased by your utility; it's a great program but on its own, it doesn't get your system to pay for itself.

Summary

If you're prepared to spend more than $10k and preferably up to $25k, spend more than $100 per month on electricity, have a large expanse of roof that receives full sun, and live in a state that provides financial incentives for PV systems, you're an ideal candidate for solar. If you don't meet this criteria, you can still pursue solar: but be aware that the time to system payback might be much longer than ideal for you, and that you might be facing higher out of pocket expenses.

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