Home Solar Panel Kits: 5 Things to Consider

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Solar has gotten a lot of attention lately as both a source of green energy and a way to reduce power bills.  A recent Wall Street Journal article touted the viability of solar power as a long-term energy solution.  But most people don’t know where to start when it comes to purchasing a home solar panel kit.  There is a lot of confusion about solar and what it can do for homeowners.

Here are the five things you need to consider:

1.  Does it make sense in your climate?

A lot of people mistakenly think that they ‘get a lot of sun’ simply because their home is hot in the summer.  The truth is there are a lot of places in the United States where solar power kits will just never really pay off.  Some areas include the extreme Northeast, Alaska, west of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington, and in area of the Great Lakes.

The best climates are those that have extended periods of bright sunny days even beyond summer time.  You want to have plenty of sunny spring and fall days and very few extended stretches of gray and cloudy days.  The best climates are obviously the sunny Southwest, Florida, California, and Hawaii, but there a lot of less obvious places like the lower Midwest, the Central Atlantic, and the Mountain West.  If you’re unsure check out this solar insolation map to see if where you live makes sense for solar.

2.  Where should you put your system?

Where you put your system is nearly as important as where you live for collecting the sun’s rays.  The ideal location is a sunny, south-facing roof with very little shading and no obstructions like plumbing vents or chimneys.  Unfortunately very few people have that type of roof, so there are some alternatives.  You can use an east-facing roof and use special tilt legs to maximize southern exposure.  East is preferable to west as solar panels perform better when they are cool.

For many people the roof is simply not feasible.  In that event a ground mount system can be used.  The solar panels will sit on a metal-framed structure that will tilt them toward the sun.  As always, minimal shading is a must.  This can increase cost by about 10-20% sometimes but can pay for itself in the additional solar power you collect when you have a system that is angled to the sun for optimum exposure.

3.   What sort of incentives are there out there?

Over the past 10 years, solar power has come down dramatically in cost.  It is now roughly half of what it was just 5 years ago and almost one eigth of what it was in the 1970’s.  But it is still out of reach for many people, and luckily there are still plenty of programs out there it encourage investment from homeowners.  The incentives are so numerous that there is a database for them organized by state at DSIREUSA.org.  You can start by clicking on your state and looking for incentives for homeowners for your city, county, or power company.

There are also programs sponsored by finance companies that will install the panels on your home for free and then charge you a monthly lease payment.  This payment is guaranteed to be lower than your current power bill, so you save money.  Your home has to qualify for the program and all the incentives go to the leasing and financing company, but you will save a little money and get the satisfaction of knowing you’re helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

4.  How much can you invest up front?

Even with incentive programs, most people will have to make some sort of up front investment in a solar power system.  How much you can spend will ultimately drive how large your system is.  With many incentives, you will have to put up the money for the system and then collect credits, rebates, or tax credits later.

There are many things to consider when deciding how much to invest.  Most people want to know what the payback is.  This is completely dependent on your location and installation specifications, so its best to have an installer help you calculate the rate of return on your money.  Remember as you calculate it that your cost of power is only going to go up, in some areas as much as 10% per year.

As with anything, don’t invest money that you cannot afford or could need in an emergency.

5.  Should you do it yourself or have someone else do it?

Solar power has gotten significantly easier for homeowners to install themselves.  Installing your own solar power system will save you between 20-40% off installer’s prices.  You should speak to a solar professional before you get started to confirm location and system design.  You should also speak to your local building department about what they require for permits and inspections.  Your power company will want to do an inspection as well, so be sure to get their approval.  You can purchase solar panels locally or online.

Even if you do install your own system, you will always need a Master Electrician to do the final connections and the power company will change your meter and make the final connection to the grid.  Do-it-yourselfers that are considering solar should have experience with electrical components, a very good tool set with power drill, and be comfortable working on a roof for extended periods of time.

Of course, local solar contractors are a great alternative to installing your own system.  They can take care of all permitting, inspections, installation headaches and some of them will even take rebates and credits off the up front cost of the system and then go through the process of collecting them.

Kriss Bergethon is a writer and solar expert, check out the videos of his own off grid solar power system here.

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