Home Solar Power 101

Use the Sun to Cut Your Electric Bills

Home Solar Power 101
June 9, 2015

Are you ready to put the sun to work for you? The combination of falling prices, financial incentives, and increasing environmental awareness makes solar power a tempting option for running your home. In some arrangements, you could even sell some of your unused power back to the utility company – a nice switch indeed.

Residential photovoltaic (PV) solar energy systems have four major components.

  • Solar Panels – They absorb the sunlight and convert it to energy.

  • Controller – Controllers regulate the flow of electricity.

  • Batteries – When the electricity is not in direct use, it is stored in batteries.

  • Inverter – Inverters convert the battery energy into the proper voltage for standard power outlets.

How do you go about deciding if solar power is right for you, and if it is, how do you decide on the system to install?

  • Check for Roadblocks – Solar panels are frequently installed on rooftops. These can be quite large depending on your needs, and not everyone finds them aesthetically appealing. Check for any neighborhood covenants or city ordinances that preclude or limit solar panels, and make sure that you can acquire any necessary construction permits to have the work done.

  • Set Your Goals and Tolerances – What do you want to operate with your solar power? You will need to answer some basic questions to select the proper type and size of system.

    Questions include: Do you want to power individual components such as a water heater or an A/C system, and do you require backup on these systems (either with a battery or the power grid)? Do you want to tie into the grid and use the solar component to save money when possible? Do you want to go completely off the power grid, and if so, what backup plans or potential outages can you tolerate?

  • Evaluate Your Needs and Site Capabilities – Start by checking your past utility bills for usage in kilowatt-hours (kWh). Examine the average and the peak usage – peak usage is more important in sizing your system if you are going completely off-grid. You may also consider whether your usage is higher than it should be, and make an effort to conserve overall consumption. Next, investigate the size of the system that you need to install to meet your needs. A nice generic solar project estimator can be found at http://www.wholesalesolar.com/solar-cost.html along with pricing from that vendor. Choose the type of connection, percentage of power to supply, your general monthly usage, and your peak sun hours by geographical location as shown on an adjacent graph, and you will get a good initial estimate of what you need.

    Finally, do a site analysis. Is your roof large and strong enough to handle the physical size of the panels you need, and if not, are there any other installation options? Are there shade considerations that might make your installation less efficient? Bring in a vendor for a professional opinion before proceeding with any complex installation.

  • Run the Numbers – Start by calculating the annual savings, based on the estimated power output of your system and the rate you currently pay for electricity. Be conservative and only use 80%-90% of the estimated output to account for inefficiencies with inverters and other changes over time.

    Now total up the costs. Total all costs for the panels, installation labor, taxes, and any other initial costs, and then subtract any tax incentives from your local utility or state programs. There is even a federal rebate for solar installation under the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit (currently extended through December 2016). Add in any maintenance costs over time (either estimated or as part of a service contract), and subtract any estimated resale of unused power back to the grid.

    The breakeven point is when the savings over time equals all your costs (ignoring the time value of money and fluctuations in utility rates, but you can add those assumptions if you wish). Ten to twenty years is not an uncommon payback period. (However, keep in mind that a solar installation may also increase the resale value of your home.) Beyond twenty years, you have to concern yourself with the obsolescence of the solar equipment and whether it can be retrofitted.

    Costs vary greatly, but a very crude estimate for an average home system is in the range of $10,000–$15,000 for the base system and from $20,000 to $30,000 installed. Quotes may be given on an installed per-watt basis.

  • Choose a Vendor and System – Research vendors that operate in your area and check with your local utility for recommendations. Make sure that any vendor does a thorough site analysis and customizes the system to meet your needs. Do not forget to verify maintenance requirements and who is responsible for them.

    Some companies offer lease options, where they basically install and maintain the system and sell you the solar power at a reduced rate. You do not own the equipment in that case, nor do you receive the subsidies. Do the same sort of cost-benefit analysis before choosing the lease route, and read the fine print carefully with respect to rate increases.

If you are going completely off-grid, you may want to consider installing Tesla's new Powerwall battery to serve as your emergency backup system. They are not cheap, but depending on your needs, they can serve as a solar-based backup system to eliminate the need for a backup generator.

Try some preliminary calculations and see if solar power is a reasonable investment for you. Solar panels can save you money in energy costs, increase the value of a home, and help you do your part to conserve the planet’s resources. Unless you live under a black cloud, why wouldn’t you at least investigate the possibilities? For more information, visit http://solarinstallnetwork.7eer.net/.


Photo ©iStock.com/vencavolrab

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Carl | 06.26.15 @ 15:42
My friend lives in CT, a state that welcomes energy saving solar installations... Three local towns joined together to get group discounted solar installations for homeowners... His town had volunteer engineering students view the roofs of all houses in town... the students used a program that used Google Earth to view and actually calculated which homes would make best use of a PV (Photo-Voltaic) solar system... 4% of the homes in his town were found IDEAL for PV systems... They faced south, and had sufficient roof area, and were unobstructed by trees... Those homeowners were sent letters by the town, inviting them to attend a meeting in the town hall... Bids were offered by a number of large PV system installers in the north East... The winning company, with tons of experience, won the bid... They offered 5 discount levels depending on the total number of systems installed in the three towns... Hundreds of residents applied for systems... Here is what it cost him to install an 8.5 kW system with 34 panels... This system was expected to provide the $150.00 per month worth of electricity the owner had been averaging in CT... The original system price (if the homeowner had it installed alone, without the hundreds of residents in 3 towns that signed up): $35,000. Discounted price, because hundreds of residents did sign up with the same system installer, using the highest level 5 of discount: $31,450... minus $10,224, the actual State of CT incentive paid to the installer, made the total price $21,226... then a Federal Tax Credit of 30% was available to the homeowner or leasing company, which brought the GRAND TOTAL to $14,858...!!! (FOR A $35,000 DOLLAR SYSTEM)... The best part is that my friend had 3 options of how to pay for it: (1) Pay by Check $14,858, or (2) pay $1099 down and $176. per month before Fed. tax credit, or $117 after Fed. tax credit for 15 years... OR (3) pay $110. per month for a 20 year lease, with NO MONEY DOWN...!!! He took the 3rd offer of $110. per month... Remember that he is generating $150 worth of electricity per month...!!!... CT, a true blue state that cares about it's residents and saving energy, DEMANDS that the utility company pay the homeowner for the EXCESS electricity that the homeowner generates, this program is called Net Metering - actually putting excess solar generated electricity back into the grid... My friend is receiving approximately $39. PER MONTH, after paying his lease of $110, at the present electric (usage of $150 per month) from his utility company... in fact: On Jan 1, 2015 the utility company raised its rates 54%…!! In 15 or 20 years, because electric rates are expected to at least triple in 15 to 20 years, he will be producing approx. $450 to $600 worth of electricity per month... Yet his no money down lease stays the same for 20 years - $110. per month... At the end of 20 years, the utility company WILL HAVE TO PAY him approx. $150. to $300. EACH MONTH...!!!... After paying his lease for 20 years, he will buy the system for $1.00 and will get his electricity for FREE and make approx. $250. to $400. per month...!!! This is what a Blue State, run by Democrats does for it's residents...!!!... It does not cost a dime to pump excess electricity back into the grid.... It does not cost the electric company a dime... It SAVES the electric company money, because they do not have to spend money on increasing generating capacity, especially when there is high usage, as there is during a hot spell, with air conditioning use at it’s highest... The utility company benefits, and the homeowner benefits... The Koch brothers and ALEC do not want this information made public... Copy and paste this example, and send it to your friends... Demand that your state offer incentives for solar installations and allow Net Metering...!!!... Also demand that the Federal Government provide at least 30% Federal Tax Credits for solar installations...!!!... No if's, and's or butt's...!!!
$commenter.renderDisplayableName() | 12.02.16 @ 20:02
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