Soaking up the Sun: An Intro to Residential Solar Panels

By Natalie McManus, last updated 7/8/14 08:00am


A large house, three kids who leave lights on, a pool whose filter runs half the day, electrical appliances, and air conditioning - all of which add up to a large electric bill – plus an electric company that annually seeks to raise rates! On a trip to Germany several years ago, to visit our daughter who was spending a semester abroad, it really impressed me that virtually every barn roof, and many homes, had solar panels on them! Solar is everywhere in Germany. And when we visited our other daughter in the Dominican Republic, we noticed solar panels on shacks! And yet here we were in the USA, with a roof that gets lots of sun most of the day, but no solar panels.

I’d been researching solar energy - specifically solar panels – for years, and then one day we received a postcard in the mail inviting us to a Saturday morning seminar on solar energy. I convinced my husband (who had other ideas on how to spend a Saturday morning) that we should attend the seminar, if only to get the information so we could make a more informed decision. The seminar was hosted by Solar Energy World in Elkridge, MD. They covered a LOT of information, and there was time devoted to questions and answers, which was very helpful. Less than four months later we had a system in place and are now enjoying significant savings, not to mention the feeling of doing something to reduce our carbon footprint and help the environment.

Here are some things we learned along the way that might help you when you are considering installing solar panels on your roof.

I. Ideally your roof should face South. Ours faces slightly southeast – good enough. The roof should get a lot of sunlight throughout the day – at least mostly between 10AM and 5pm. Check for tall trees around you as you don’t want a lot of shade on your panels. The panels work in groups and if one of them is shaded, that grouping may not produce electricity. The company will do a “shade” study to make sure your home will get enough sunlight to make the project viable. This will also help them figure out how and where to install the panels. You can have them installed on the front of the house, or the back, depending on where each faces. The look of the solar panels has improved drastically.

2. Your roof should ideally be less than 10 years old. Our roof was 16 years old and would need to be replaced in a few years, so we decided to replace the roof at the same time we were doing the solar installation. After getting several bids, we chose a company that works in tandem with Solar Energy World and came highly recommended, had no-interest financing available, and helped install an even more energy efficient roof. And because we did both projects – roof and solar – at the same time, there were increased tax incentives. If your roof is older, you may wind up like a neighbor of ours who had to have all his solar panels taken off (a very expensive task) and reinstalled once the new roof was in place. Also, since the panels sit a few inches above the roof, they are effectively shading the roof, keeping it cooler in your attic and upstairs during the summer months, and helping to further reduce your air conditioning costs. The panels also protect the roof and should extend the lifespan of the roof considerably.

3. It pays for itself much sooner than you think. When we first looked into it, it appeared that it would take 20 years to pay off, but as described below we estimate it will be 6-8 years to recoup our investment. Solar installation is not cheap – but it has become more economical. For one, you don’t have to have the entire system installed at once. You can add panels later on. Your sales representative will look at your electric bills and help you figure out how many panels you will need to get the savings you want. Some people just want to reduce their electric bills, while others want to eliminate them as much as possible. We wanted to try to eliminate ours to next to nothing, so we wanted as many solar panels as we could fit (and afford). The financing plans the company offers helped in that we only had to put down a small deposit, and then had a year in which to pay it all off with no interest charged. There are major Federal tax credits available until 2016 and Maryland still has a $1000 state grant. These two things will help reduce the final cost to you – sometimes by more than a third of the cost.

Your monthly savings are immediate. While the energy you produce is fed into the main grid, you are given credit for it in terms of a reduced electric bill for how much energy you produced. If you use less than you produce, you will receive a credit on your electric bill. Our bill used to be $250/month on the Pepco budget plan. Since we had the solar panels installed, our last two bills were $16. and $24. (once the AC and the pool filter were on). That’s savings!

In addition to reduced or eliminated electric bills – which will continue for the life of the system – you will also receive S.R.E.C. payments quarterly (Solar Renewable Energy Credits). Since the electric companies are not producing enough electricity through solar and wind power, they are required to buy this kind of power from those who are producing it. There are companies who will auction off your S.R.E.C. units (1 unit per KW produced) every three months (you can also opt to do this on your own) and they send you a check each quarter. An average unit can go for anywhere from $125-$140. Those payments will come as long as you own your system and the electric company has to buy them. Between the savings on your electric bill and your S.R.E.C. payments, you can be making money.

In addition, the value of your home goes up tremendously! Not only do you get a great return for your investment, but buyers are looking for homes with solar panels.

You might also want to consider leasing your solar panels. You’ll get some energy bill savings, but you won’t get the S.R.E.C. payments. Those will go to the leasing company.

4. When the electricity goes off in your neighborhood – so will yours. The electricity you produce through your solar panels is fed into the main grid. Unless you have a separate back-up generator, your electricity will go out when everyone else’s does during an electrical outage. You will also not be generating electricity through your panels while the electricity is out.

5. Weather factors. Snow and pollen can dampen production. If it snows enough to cover your solar panels, and it’s even too cold outside for the sun to melt the snow, you won’t be generating electricity. But you also don’t need super sunny days to generate electricity. Your panels will be producing even during cloudy days, just not as much. Likewise, when pollen season is in high gear and those ‘clouds’ of pollen come floating by from pine trees, you may get a thin film of pollen on your panels that can slightly dampen their productivity. Rain will wash that off, as will a good hose attachment, if you don’t want to wait for the rain. Pollen season is very short-lived.

6. Homeowners Associations can’t stop you from getting solar panels. In Maryland, you may have to notify your Homeowners Association that you are installing solar panels and follow the prescribed approval process, but they are not allowed to prevent you from putting solar panels on your home.

7. More than just electricity – There are different systems which can be put in place. We opted for solar panels to produce electricity, but other systems can run water through pipes to generate hot water for your home, and others rely on geothermal energy. An inexpensive solar system can be installed for your electric hot water tank.

8. Choose your solar company with care. We researched various solar companies and found that not all of them are equal. We chose our company because they have been in business for many years and are well-established and committed to staying in business in this area for years to come. This makes a difference when it comes to possible maintenance issues, S.R.E.C. payments, and other issues. You also want a company that allows different manufacturer choices so they can accommodate the homeowner’s best interests.

Still interested in solar panels for your home? Hope so! And if you have a barn or own a commercial building with a large roof that doesn’t get shaded – why not install solar panels? If we could get all the schools and public buildings to put solar panels on their roofs, just imagine the savings to the taxpayers, and the benefit to our environment. And if all new homes being built had solar panels installed as part of the building process, with savings starting on day one – wow!

Filed under Tech & Science, Home & Garden, Renewable energy / energy saving

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