Solar panels are booming. According to the Solar Energies Industry Association, more than a million American homes now sport solar panels. Those million homeowners could agree that sporting solar panels give their homes energy independence, more control over where their power comes from, increased property values and – most importantly – lower electric bills.
But for homeowners considering adding their own panels, the process can seem daunting.
We spoke to some experts, who suggested some questions that homeowners need to consider when researching getting solar power for themselves.
1. Does my roof get enough sunlight? How do I find out?
There are two factors to consider right off: roof orientation and shading.
Orientation is the simplest thing to determine. “Anything other than North is fine,” Vikram Aggarwal says. Aggarwal is founder and CEO of EnergySage.com, an online marketplace that makes it easy for consumers to comparison shop for rooftop energy systems. “South is generally the best. West is the next best, East is the next best.” South-facing roofs are ideal for solar because they capture the most light during the sun’s trajectory across the sky.
How much shade your roof receives is the second concern. You’ll need about 4-6 hours of continuous sunshine. “Do you have a lot of trees, adjacent homes, or other obstacles that block sun exposure on your roof?” Jen Darrah of Direct Energy Solar, an installer active in the Northeast, says. “If so, they could be a factor.” Most of the time, trees can easily be trimmed.
Aggarwal mentions another factor to consider. If your roof is complex, with sharp angles or multiple gables, you might not be able to get the combined 300 square feet or so needed by most systems. In those cases, a ground-mounted system might be more appropriate, assuming that you have the yard space to accommodate the solar array.
2. How much can I save?
“There really is no standard amount of money that people can save, because everyone is different,” GREEN says. There are a variety of factors to consider, including the size of the system, its cost, the local electricity rate, and available sunlight. “However, the bottom line is that when you go solar, you immediately lower your out-of-pocket costs for electricity, and your system can save you thousands in electricity costs for decades,” she says.
For consumers looking for a national view, Energy Sage publishes a data report every six months that summarizes costs and trends across the United States.
3. How do I decide what kind of system I need?
“It really starts with talking with a professional solar installer,” GREEN says. The installer can evaluate the home and roof to make recommendations for the best type of system. “When you meet with us, you receive a selection of panel options to choose from, so you can decide the look and price-point that’s best for you and your home.”
Roof space and electricity needs are big determining factors. Others to consider are warranties and manufacturers. “Some people are really interested in buying American made, and the options are increasing,” Aggarwal says. “You pay a slight premium, but from some people, that’s a very big deal.”
4. Should I purchase or lease the solar panels?
This is a financial decision that many homeowners face because the cost of a new solar system can be high. If you don’t have enough cash on hand to buy the system outright, low-interest solar loans are available either through the equipment manufacturers or your local bank.
One advantage of purchasing your system is the array of incentives available through government agencies or your local utility. “With solar ownership, you can take advantage of incentives, rebates, and grants, as well as special programs like net metering and Solar Renewable Energy Credits (or SRECs),” GREEN says. “These programs lower your system cost and speed up your solar payback.”
Leases, on the other hand, will give you a smaller share of the savings. On the other hand, you won’t need to worry about maintenance or upkeep costs, since the lessor handles those. “If you want to save the most money, ownership makes the most sense. If you’re looking for something very simple, leasing is good,” Aggarwal says.
5. Can I get a tax break?
If you own your system, then yes! “Several state-level tax incentives exist, but the shining star has been the popular Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) provided by the federal government,” GREEN says. The ITC is a federal solar incentive that allows you to claim a tax credit for 30% of the total cost of installing your solar system, and it’s available at least until 2022. (Congress has yet to decide whether or not to extend it past them.)
Homeowners can check www.dsireusa.org, a website run by North Carolina State University, to see a list of local credits, rebates, and incentives available in their area. Aggarwal also recommends the solar calculator available on the EnergySage website.
6. Will the system increase the value of my property?
“Studies have shown that this is indeed the case,” GREEN says. According to a 2013 study by the Appraisal Institute, a professional association of real estate appraisers, solar electric systems positively impact home values. After all, anyone who purchases your home in the future will inherit lowered energy bills.
7. How will this affect the look of my house?
“Are the panels going on the front of the house or the back of the house? People are very focused on how the panels are going to look,” Aggarwal acknowledges with a laugh. Thanks to advances in manufacturing, there is now an increased number of options available, including black-on-black panels, all-glass panels, and rimless panels. If you’re looking for a completely invisible option, California manufacturer SolarCity recently announced a premium product that integrates solar panels into individual glass shingles or roof tiles.
8. Do I need to get a new roof first?
Maybe. Installation is best done on a roof in good condition that will not need a replacement for a while. If the roof is older – say 20 years old – most installers would recommend at least replacing the part of the roof where the panels are being installed.
Aggarwal points out one benefit for your roof. “The panels do actually protect the roof, so they can extend the life of your roof,” he says. Panels are relatively easy to remove in the event that your roof needs repair.
9. What happens if I move?
You have two options. Your first option, as mentioned before, is to keep your system at your house. “It increases the value of your home and provides value to the new homeowner,” GREEN says. The system could also be transferred to your new home. Direct Energy Solar provides a moving guarantee that assists customers if they decide to move.
10. So what do I do next?
Because solar power can vary greatly from location to location, our experts recommended speaking to local contractors and gathering bids from multiple installers, and speaking to each installer find out why the installer is recommending a particular option.
Aggarwal recommended his company’s service, which takes place entirely online – with no phone call required – giving homeowners 3-7 options. “When I’m talking to my friends and family, one thing that I like to emphasize is why they should even think of solar,” Aggarwal says. “One is that it’s one of the really good investment options available to homeowners today. Two, you’re locking in your electricity prices for the next 10-20 years.”
Finally, Aggarwal says, “it’s one of the greatest ways to generate economic growth in the U.S. You’re borrowing from a local bank, you’re hiring a local contractor and you’re not exporting your energy dollars.” In other words, he says, solar is a “triple-bottom-line” product that helps your pocketbook, helps the environment, and helps the local economy. In that context, it’s a no-brainer.