As spring begins to really set in across the country a lot of homeowners are finally getting out into the yard and garden, soaking up the sun’s rays. Something else is taking in the rays in a big way right now: your neighbor’s solar panels. Although they function all year, just to be clear, the longer days mean more electricity production and lower utility bills. If you’ve been glancing up at those panels with envy in your heart, maybe it’s time to get your own mini electricity plant.
Depending on where you live, getting started with green energy can be a simple process with a range of providers to choose between. You should still learn as much as you can before choosing a system.
Before you dive head-first into a solar system, we want to give you a bit of a primer so you know what you’re looking at when you see it. Pretty much everyone knows that solar panels somehow make sun into electricity, but that may be the end of their knowledge base.
What’s actually happening inside is that the sun’s rays are being captured by special solar cells and converted into DC electricity. Just how that all works and what you need to make it happen is more of a mystery. Luckily, you don’t have to be a scientist to choose a good system.
Solar Panel Materials
Not every solar system is the same, which is why they vary in price so much. See, solar cells can be made from one of two main materials: monocrystalline silicon and polycrystalline silicon (thin film options are also becoming more widely available, but the adoption rate is low due to high cost). The first one, monocrystalline silicon is a more expensive, but more effective, solution. You’re gonna get more juice out of this material per square foot. That matters a lot when you have limited space on your roof to place panels.
Polycrystalline silicon is meant for areas with more space to spread out, like solar farms (or even dairy farms). But, the larger surface area means more maintenance, more chances of failure and so forth. For your house, focus your efforts on monocrystalline silicon if you’re serious about green energy.
Configuring Your Panels
Although there’s a very clear answer for the materials that should be inside your solar panels, how to configure them from there is a bit more open. You should really think about what it is you want your solar array to do before committing to a setup. These are your primary options:
Photovoltaic Direct. Unless you’re only going to use it for a single application that you do during the day, configuring an array as photovoltaic direct doesn’t make much sense. Basically, this is the kind of solar power that’s on your calculator (remember those?). It’s on-demand and when there’s no light to use, there’s no juice.
Off-Grid. Mountain Men and vacationers alike can take advantage of off-grid photovoltaic systems. These are systems that aren’t hooked up to the grid (hence the name), but are sufficient to provide your entire power needs. Used in conjunction with a battery bank for those long, dark nights, an off-grid system can make sense for temporary setups (like your RV) or very remote ones (that cabin way up on the hillside).
Grid-Tied with Battery Backup. After coming back to civilization, you may want to consider a grid-tied photovoltaic system with a battery backup. This way, you kind of have your cake and eat it, too. You store your own power, but you can also pull from the grid if you don’t make enough. You’ll be able to use these systems in an outage, since you’ve stored some electricity. Once the batteries are used up, though, karaoke party time is over. That aside, metering techniques have changed enough that it may be more cost effective to chuck the battery bank.
Batteryless Grid-Tied. Most systems today will be batteryless grid-tied photovoltaic. Essentially, your solar energy goes into your house, whatever needs to be used in that moment is sucked up by your TV and your fridge and so forth, then it travels out of your house to the grid. Your electric meter keeps track of how much electricity is leaving your house, as well as how much is coming back in during the night when you’re not generating any of your own juice. The only real downside to these systems is that they cannot act as an electricity backup in case of a power outage.
Not all areas of the country are a good fit for solar, no matter how much you may want them to be. In fact, not even every house in an area generally believed to be good for solar is good for solar, so it pays to do a little legwork here before getting too emotionally invested. And by little, go to Google’s Project Sunroof and type in your address. It’ll do the rest.
Of course, having a house that’s awesome for solar is just the first step. There are several things you should do before making the leap to get the most out of the sun, including:
Weatherproofing your house. All those tiny leaks and the lack of insulation in the attic can impact how much you really benefit from solar in a big way. Because your air conditioning or heat is going to be influenced by those points, it’s a good idea to start by weatherproofing your home, no matter the season. Do it tight, do it right.
Upgrading the windows. Normally, if windows are opening and closing safely, they’re basically good. But when you’re talking about squeezing every cent out of your pricey solar panels, a window (and other glass panels like patio doors) upgrade is a great idea. Look for a low U-factor, indicating a tightly constructed window. Solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) is another story. If you’re trying to use passive solar heat with your active solar panels, choose a high rating. If you’re trying to stay cool, or at least prevent outside heat from coming in unauthorized, go with a lower number. Your local window experts should be able to advise you on what’s best for your location.
Investing in Energy Star appliances. Energy Star appliances have long been the standard for efficiency. When you see an Energy Star tag, you know you’re looking at a washing machine, dryer, microwave, refrigerator or whatnot that’s among the most efficient in the market. If your new solar panels are trying to power your 50 year old refrigerator, you’re wasting an awful lot of power for nothing. Upgrade that fridge right away (they have some new ones with really cool features like on-door touchscreens and cameras that can show you what you forgot to get at the market)!!
Planting trees and bushes strategically. This is another one of those “depending on where you live” suggestions, unfortunately. In some areas, you simply can’t grow a tree tall enough to shade problematic parts of your home, for example, but maybe you can grow a taller bush to shade your air conditioner condenser from the heat of the summer so it works more efficiently. Grow all the things, but nothing too big too close to the house.
When you’re looking to pay for these fancypants solar panels of yours, there are plenty of options. There are a lot in most states, including rebates and grants, so seriously, go find a good loan.
Although some brave homeowners have configured their own solar systems over the years, the inspection requirements are getting more complicated as more people are adopting these systems. It’s usually worth it to hire a pro, since besides avoiding the hassle, you’ll also avoid penalties for installing one without a permit if you didn’t realize you needed one and the headache of having to give it two or three goes to get the system right. There’s no shame in it, not everyone can know the secrets of solar energy.
When you’re ready to reach out to a pro, just pop into your HomeKeepr community and send up a flag. Your Realtor has already recommended plenty of pros who can help you with various home projects, including solar panel design and placement.