7 Steps to a Solar Powered Home

People switch to solar for a variety of reasons.

Besides generating electricity that is completely pollution-free, solar has a full life-cycle pollutant level that is much lower than any fossil fuel (after accounting for manufacturing and the rest of the supply chain). 

By generating your own electricity, you reduce your reliance on the utilities and protect yourself from future price increases. For those who are truly committed to being independent, they can add batteries to their homes and be disconnected from the grid.

Despite all these compelling reasons to go solar, there are some relatively easy and even free things you should do around your house first, before you invest heavily in solar panels. Some of these are obvious, but others are little vampires that you may not even realize are draining your energy and money.

Once you’ve taken care of these relatively simple choices to make your home more energy efficient, it’s time to think about bigger projects such as solar power.

Following are some tips, in no particular order, for improving your home’s efficiency and comfort:

1. Get an energy audit

Most utility companies offer programs to help you save energy, so getting an energy audit for your home is inexpensive – on average, a couple hundred dollars – or even free. 

You may be eligible for rebates from your local utility. The couple hundred dollars you’ll spend are a great investment because they will point out the most cost-effective fixes and renovations to tackle on your own.

An auditor will use an infrared sensor to assess R-value (insulation levels) within your building envelope, letting you know if air is leaking or if insulation should be upgraded. 

Blower door testing is a more advanced test in which the contractor shuts down the doors and windows of the house and temporarily places a door with a high-powered fan inside, which increases the air pressure in the house. 

When the interior air pressure rises, air rushes out of any gaps in your building envelope (such as cracks around your windows). 

As a result, you will identify where weatherstripping, caulk, or spray foam should be used to seal up the gaps.

2. Determine your solar potential

Assess the amount of solar energy that may be produced at your home before deciding on how to utilize it. PV technologies create electricity from both direct and scattered sunlight, so the amount of sun in the United States is ample for home solar electric systems.

Nevertheless, the amount of power generated by a solar array depends on how much sunlight it receives, in addition to how large the array is. 

You can determine your home’s solar energy potential using a variety of mapping services and tools. In addition to estimates of system sizes, some services offer information on potential savings and local contractors.

With these tools, you can determine whether your home is suitable for solar and, if not, the best path forward for still gaining the benefits of solar. 

However, these tools do not consider all the variables that need to be considered for your system. 

To do that, you will need to work directly with a solar installer who can assess your solar potential and provide you with detailed recommendations, estimates, and equipment expertise.

Here are some things to consider:

Shade trees nearby.

A contractor will also help you evaluate shading, but also think about your own and your neighbor’s trees that are still growing and may shade your system in the future.

The age of your roof

and when it will need to be replaced. If you’ll need a new roof within the next few years, you might want to consider that improvement before going solar.

Restrictions or approval requirements for homeowners associations (HOAs).

In some states, solar rights provisions limit the ability of homeowners associations to restrict solar installations or solar access. Check your own HOA covenants and state laws for details. These provisions differ from state to state and by municipality.

3. Consider Your Solar Options

When it comes to going solar, you no longer have to purchase, install, and own the entire system. If you rent your home or don’t want to purchase a rooftop system, there are still many programs that will allow you to take advantage of solar power.

Here are some options for using solar energy at home. Check with your local utility or installer for programs available in your area.

  • ⬥ Buying a solar energy system
  • ⬥ Community solar or shared solar
  • ⬥ A solar lease
  • ⬥ PPAs (Power Purchase Agreements)
  • ⬥ Solarize programs

4. Calculate your solar electricity needs

Gather information about your home and electricity use to help your contractor recommend a system type and size.

  • ⬥ Calculate your annual electricity needs by reviewing your electricity bills. You will see your usage in kilowatt-hours  (kWh). Look at how much electricity you use each month of the year. (For example, you might run your air conditioner more in the summer). This review can be made easier by using tools offered by some utilities.
  • ⬥ If changes are planned, take them into account. You may need more electricity if you plan to purchase an electric vehicle or add space to your home. Alternatively, making improvements to your home’s energy efficiency can result in less electricity usage in the future.

5. Obtain site assessments and bids from solar installers

When searching for installers, be sure to choose professionals who are both qualified and insured and are also certified-the industry standard certification is from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. 

Additionally, you can ask friends and family members who have recently gone solar for references and check online reviews. Ask for proof of licensure before making any commitments to an installer.

Solar installers can also be found and compared online by using online tools. Get at least three bids for the installation of a PV system and make sure that the bids are based on the same characteristics and metrics to facilitate comparison shopping.

Consider asking the following questions when interviewing installers:

Are you familiar with local permitting and interconnection processes?

Building permits and receiving permission to interconnect are often arduous and time-consuming processes.  Installers who are familiar with these local procedures will ensure an efficient installation and connection of your system.

Is the company able to provide references from other customers in your area?

Find out how the company helped resolve challenges faced by other customers in the area.

Does the company have a valid license or certification?

A licensed installer should be used for installing PV systems. This usually means that the installer is either an electrical contractor or a subcontractor. You can find out whether a contractor has a valid electrician’s license by contacting your state electrical board. Local building departments might also require a general contractor’s license. For additional information on licenses, contact your city or county. In addition, solarize programs may require you to work with a specific installer to get the discounted system price.

How long is the warranty for this system?

Who is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the system? A solar equipment warranty (usually 20 years for panels and 10 years for inverters) is the industry standard. The fact that the system comes with a strong warranty is often a sign that the installer is using quality equipment. 

Additionally, the homeowner should determine whose responsibility it is to maintain and repair the system.

In most lease and PPA arrangements, the installer is required to provide system maintenance, and many installers offer competitive O&M options for host-owned systems.

Does the company have any pending or active judgments or liens?

Due diligence is recommended with any project that involves a contractor. A state electrical board can provide you with information about any judgments or complaints against a licensed electrician. If you’re unclear how to evaluate contractors, contact your city or county. Better Business Bureau information is also available.

The bid should clearly state the maximum generating capacity of the system in Watts (W) or Kilowatts (kW). Additionally, request an estimate of the annual and monthly energy output of the system (measured in kilowatt-hours). It is useful for comparing your existing utility bill with this figure.

Bids should include the total cost of getting the PV system up and running, including hardware, installation, connection to the grid, permitting, sales tax, and warranty. 

Comparing costs across different installers is easiest by comparing cost/watt and estimated cost/KWh, because installers might use different equipment or quote for different systems.

6. Understand the available financing and incentives

Note that you won’t be eligible for some tax benefits if you opt for a solar lease or a power-purchase agreement, since you won’t own the solar energy system.

Use the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) to search for additional state, local, or utility incentives for solar installations.

Take a look at solar financing options. What is best for your property depends on several factors, and each situation is unique. Guides from the Clean Energy States Alliance help homeowners understand their options, explaining their benefits and drawbacks.

7. Work with Your Installer and Utility Company

Your installer should be able to assist you with obtaining the necessary permits and steps if you decide to install a solar energy system.

Your installer will determine the system’s appropriate size. Your electric needs will determine the size, as well as:

  • ⬥ Solar resource or sunlight available at the site
  • ⬥ Orientation and tilt of the system
  • ⬥ The efficiency of the system in converting sunlight into electricity
  • ⬥ Electricity generated from other sources, such as a utility, a wind turbine, or a fossil fuel generator.

Additionally, your installer will make sure that all equipment is installed correctly and oriented and tilted so as to maximize both the daily and seasonal solar energy your system receives and produces.

Understanding net metering and billing is vital, as is understanding any additional utility fees that may apply.

Finally, while installing a PV solar system may seem like a daunting task, it is important to keep in mind that these systems are long-term investments. From a financial perspective, solar power is a good choice in many locations.

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