Everything You Need to Know About Going Solar at Home

Your neighbor just installed a row of gleaming solar panels. You hear radio ads for solar energy. Your favorite politicians speak of the promise of renewables. All indications are that solar energy is now affordable for most residential installations. Are you next? I recently took the plunge with my garage to remodel, so from my experience, I thought I’d share some suggestions on how to start down the solar path and select a solar installer.

Before you start, it’s best to get a residential energy audit completed before getting solar bids since you may be able to identify several low-cost retrofits (like switching to LED bulbs) that can reduce your electrical use. You may then reduce the solar array size (and the project cost) to meet your electrical needs. Rise is an excellent resource for tips on making your home more energy-efficient.

5 Key Considerations to Getting Started

Motivation

Before you start searching for solar installers, you should ask yourself a few questions, not the least of which is “why do you want to have solar panels?” Most of us fall somewhere along the spectrum between “to reduce my carbon footprint ” and “to save money.” It’s possible to meet both goals, and you should go into your project keenly aware of the extent to which you’d like to do either.

Some homeowners have another goal: to get their homes “off the grid,” meaning all the power they need will be supplied by the sun, and they do not have to depend on (or do not have access to) electrical power lines provided by a utility. This will mean having batteries to store electricity for use when the sun is not shining. In this case, there are many more considerations; this article addresses “grid-tied” solar panel systems, which are more common.

Budget

Do you have a total cost in mind? And what is a reasonable payback period — that is, the number of years in which your electrical cost savings exceeds the project’s cost? How much money can you afford to pay for the project, and would you be open to financing the project? Many installers have financing plans.

Solar panels themselves are relatively inexpensive, but the installation of the panels, your inverter, emergency shut-offs, production, and bidirectional meters is labor-intensive and required for all projects, no matter the size. So, there are significant economies of scale with solar projects. As you add more panels, the cost per installed watt decreases.

There are also some considerations to make your home solar-ready, which you might want to chip away at over time to limit the size of the one-time investment. Remember that the more energy-efficient your home, the less you can expect to pay for a solar system to power it.

Where Do You Place Solar Panels on a Home?

Think of where solar panels would fit on your home and how they would function. Do you have a flat or south-facing roof? Are there any extruding items on the roof (vents, chimneys, etc.) that would prevent installing panels? Are there objects on the south side of your home that provide shade for your panels? For instance, a neighbor’s roof or a tree may block the sun while the sun is low on the horizon in winter, while a utility pole partially shades the panels in summer. Significant shade on solar panels will dramatically affect their performance. If necessary, a firm may use an instrument to determine your site’s solar potential more precisely.

Life of your roof

If the most logical place is on the roof, think of when you last replaced roofing material on the area you intend to place panels. Suppose you have to replace your roof shingles over the solar panels’ expected lifespan (about 25 years). In that case, you will need to remove your panels before re-roofing and then re-install them at considerable expense. The ideal scenario is that you’ve re-roofed within the last five years, so your panels and roofing material simultaneously mature/degrade.

Your electricity usage

Every installer will need to see at least one full year of electric utility bills to determine your overall energy usage. They should then provide options for the number of solar panels that can fit on your home, with a corresponding percentage of your electricity that the panels will provide. Do you have enough space to cover 100 percent of your electricity? Google’s Project Sunroof is a good resource for comparison purposes, but it will not be exact.

The rate a utility reimburses you for excess solar power is known as net metering. Depending on the state you live in and the rules, it usually doesn’t make sense to install solar panels in which your total annual generation of kilowatt-hours exceeds what your house uses. Be sure to include the electricity needed for an electric vehicle if you have one or plan to have one. Ask your installer about this.

Speaking of what to ask your installer, now that you’ve done your front-end homework, you’re ready to start asking for bids on installing solar at your home. A simple Internet search should point you to several reputable firms. I suggest lining up at least three site visits and asking your installer these key baseline questions:

7 Questions to Ask Installers

1. What will they look like?

The first thing installers will look at is your lot on google maps to roughly determine the placement of panels to get an idea of potential project size. They will probably superimpose images of panels onto a zoomed-in overhead screenshot from google maps as part of their bid. Having a visual representation will help you more easily make an apples-to-apples comparison of bids.

2. Do you do a lot of residential work?

In many states, including Minnesota, there is a bit of a gold rush to work on large-scale industrial or community solar projects. Many firms have either abandoned residential projects altogether or begrudgingly take them on at higher margins and lower priority. On the other hand, there are many relatively new, eager installers entering the market with less experience but a willingness to give you the attention you deserve.

3. What panels do you like to use?

For most applications, you’ll be discussing rectangular, 60 cell panels, which measure 65 by 39 inches (1.65 meters by 1 meter). Installers usually have their favorite panels because of price, performance, reliability, or some combination. Please pay close attention to the manufacturers they recommend and do your due diligence online. How reliable are they? What is the manufacturer’s warranty? Is it an established company that you would expect to outlive its warranty? Several manufacturers, including Minnesota companies, have dissolved recently, leaving both customers and installers under challenging positions as a cautionary tale. You should also make sure that they aren’t trying to sell you commercial-grade panels (often 72 cells), as your warranty would be void the moment they’re installed on your roof.

4. What is the warranty?

Beyond the warranty on the panels, does the installer offer warranties on the other components of the project, such as the inverters, brackets, etc.? Ask them to give an example of how they helped a customer with malfunctioning equipment.

5. How is electricity production monitored?

Part of the solar experience is monitoring your panels — watching them perform in real-time and over the short and long term. You should also have the ability to see if an individual panel or optimizer is not performing. Ask what monitoring software they use and insist on a demonstration of it. Do they monitor your panels from their office on occasion to make sure everything is operating correctly?

6. Do you have references?

This point might seem obvious, but call references! Do they complete projects on time and on a budget? Do their energy production projections match reality? I have found that many smaller companies use their friends as references, and you should discount their feedback accordingly.

7. What about rebates?

As you evaluate your bids, look at how they consider federal, state, and utility rebates and tax credits. You must know how they work and how any excess electricity is sold back to your electric utility. You can find out more about rebates and incentives on the Rise website.

Taking the Plunge!

When you take the plunge with one company, put your faith in them and hold them accountable for their bid aspects. I hope that you’ll have as pleasant an experience as I have had. I like to think that all my diligence in selecting an installer paid off. Though solar energy can be complicated on many levels, a basic understanding and minimum line of questioning should yield great results for you. Best of luck, and be sure to let Rise know how your experience goes!

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