Thinking of going solar but don’t know where to start?
It’s trite but true — success in any project depends on asking the right questions at the start. The more complex the undertaking, the more important it is to follow this rule.
And going solar is complicated.
Below is an actual photograph taken inside my head while I was trying to figure out how to begin.
Don’t listen to installers who tell you there’s nothing to it.
“Ya just throw some panels up on the roof and — shazam — your meter’s running backward and the power company’s paying you for electricity!”
Thank the installer for his/her time and wave good-bye.
Knowing where to start is like the old riddle: If you only have one match, and walk into a room with an oil burner, a kerosene lamp and a wood burning stove, which do you light first?
Answer: the match.
In our situation, the first question you need to ask is: What questions do I need to ask?
I turned to the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) for help. Founded in 1954, the ASES is a non-profit with some 12,000 members, from grassroots activists to academics to corporate honchos and honchas. According to their website, the ASES is dedicated to “increasing the use of solar energy, energy efficiency, and other sustainable technologies in the U.S.”
Sounded like the right place to me.
I called ASES spokesman, Neal Lurie, and asked him to walk me through the most important questions homeowners should ask when they’re just getting started.
His response was: “Um…can I get back to you?”
See how complex this is?
Lurie, of course, wanted to supply the right questions. I’m thankful to him for not rattling off some random mashup of considerations. Lurie talked with his colleagues, and then sent me the following list. It’s not meant to be complete, but it does provide a good overall sense of the things you should find out before “throwing some solar panels up on the roof.”
- Would I want to consider using solar energy to generate electricity (a solar photovoltaic system) or to heat water (a solar thermal system) or possibly both?
- Does a portion of my roof face towards the south (facing the sun) without significant obstruction from trees or other buildings? Note that solar systems can also work well facing to the east or west, or with partial shading, but the more hours of direct sunlight the solar panels receive, the more energy they will generate.
- If the roof is significantly shaded, do I have a portion of my yard that receives lots of sunlight where the solar system might be mounted?
- If I might consider a solar water heating system, do I have room in my basement, storage closet, or elsewhere where a solar water storage tank might fit?
- Have I contacted a few solar installers to get a site evaluation and a few price estimates? [see helpful links from: www.ases.org/GoSolar to find a list of solar installers]
- How long has the solar installer been in business? How many solar installations have they completed? Are they NABCEP certified? Do they have references you can contact? Do they do all the work themselves or do they have a subcontractor do the installation? If a subcontractor will be used, what are their credentials?
- What is the warranty that comes with this system?
- In addition to the 30% federal investment tax credit, what other solar incentives or rebates might be available from my state, county, municipality, or utility? [see helpful links from: www.ases.org/GoSolar on what solar rebates are available]
- While incentives and rebates can cover a significant portion of the solar installation, how do I want to finance or pay for the remaining portion of this system? [note that many people pay for their solar installation through a home equity loan, refinanced mortgage, or through an increasing number of financing programs available – others use savings, sometimes with help from a holiday bonus or tax refund]
- How much of my utility bill can I expect to decrease as a result of this solar installation? For example, do I have enough unobstructed roof-space to generate all the electricity I need or just a portion of it?
- Do I have neighbors who recently added a solar installation?
- Have I taken steps to make my home energy efficient to ensure I’m not unnecessarily wasting energy? A home energy audit can help with this.
Asking these questions, of yourself and of companies wanting to sell you a solar array, is a good start on the path to going solar.