What to Know About Home Wind Turbines

Updated: Mar. 22, 2024

If you've got enough wind to spin a turbine, you have a source of clean energy. Taking advantage of it is easier and less expensive than you think.

Homeowners considering solar as a backup for grid power or as a standalone energy source should take a second look at supplementing their photovoltaic (PV) panels with wind turbines. Wind power is technically a form of solar energy, because it’s the sun that drives the winds. Still, wind turbines produce electricity in a different way than PV panels. Crucially, they work when the sun isn’t out.

That doesn’t mean they work in every situation. My land mates and I would dearly like to install wind turbines on our off-grid property, but despite being located on a ridge overlooking the ocean, we don’t get enough wind to make them practical. They won’t generate any electricity if the wind doesn’t blow hard enough to make them spin, and even if they do spin, our average wind speed is too low to make them spin fast enough to generate significant amounts of electricity.

At least that was the situation the last time we checked, about 10 years ago. With improvements in technology, there may be new models that would work for us, so we plan to revisit the possibility of installing one or more in the near future. Windmills have been a thing since the Middle Ages, and they are a valuable resource for eco-conscious and pennywise homeowners.

What Are Home Wind Turbines?

Since the mid-20th century, wind farms have become common enough to the point that virtually everyone has seen a giant windmill from their car. Shrink one of those to about a quarter of its size, and you have one type of home wind turbine. Manufacturers have come up with a number of creative designs that fall into one of two categories: horizontal axis and vertical axis.

  • Horizontal-axis turbines are the kind you see from the roadway. The turbine is enclosed in a housing mounted on a tall pole, and blades attached to the turbine shaft catch the wind and spin the shaft, which activates a gear system to spin the turbine. Horizontal-axis turbines usually have a rudder, much like the one on a weather vane, that spins the rotor to keep the blades facing the wind.
  • Vertical-axis turbines have a shaft that extends vertically from the ground, and the blades can be shaped like the letters “S” or “H,” or they can be semicircular like the spokes on a whisk blender. The more compact design allows for installation on rooftops as well as on the ground.

Because wind is unpredictable, you don’t normally use the energy generated by a wind turbine directly. You either store it in a battery or feed it through the panel to lower your energy costs. Some turbines come with batteries pre-installed while others are designed to tie into the battery pack for an existing PV system.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Home Wind Turbines

Free energy from the wind? Yes, please. It’s the obvious and most important benefit of home wind turbines, and when you compare them to PV panels, which also generate free electricity, they have these advantages:

  • A budget turbine that can generate 1,500 watts of electricity occupies 10 or 20 square feet of ground space, so it’s a good solution for small properties. A panel array that generates the same wattage, on the other hand, needs 80 to 150 square feet of real estate, depending on each panel’s power rating.
  • As long as the wind is blowing, wind turbines can generate just as much power on cloudy days (and at night) as they can on sunny days.
  • Wind turbines convert as much as 50% of the energy they absorb from the wind into electricity. By contrast, solar panels are around 20% efficient.
  • The production of wind turbines releases fewer atmospheric pollutants than the production of solar panels.

All the above notwithstanding, wind turbines have serious drawbacks that can make them a less attractive choice than PV panels:

  • Wind is unpredictable, and even though turbines work when the sun isn’t out, they don’t work when the wind isn’t blowing.
  • Unlike PV panels, which are pretty much maintenance-free, wind turbines require regular maintenance, and they have moving parts that can be noisy and can break if the wind blows too hard.
  • Wind turbines have to be placed where the wind is blowing, which sometimes necessitates high towers or prominent roof placements. Because of the visual impact and the noise factor, they aren’t suitable for densely populated neighborhoods, and some communities might be reluctant to issue permits for them.
  • The blades of horizontal-axis turbines create a hazard for wildlife, especially birds and bats.

Are Home Wind Turbines Worth the Investment?

If your residential situation is suitable for a wind turbine, it can be a great investment. A small wind turbine can be surprisingly affordable — as long as you don’t have to mount it on a tall tower to catch the wind and rack up astronomical installation costs in the process. Vertical-axis turbines that can pump 1.5 kW of power into your solar battery bank or feed it to the grid cost less than $500.

A wind turbine is a bad investment if you don’t get enough wind to make it spin, but some models have very low cut-in speeds (the minimum wind speed needed to make them spin) of less than five mph, and they achieve optimal energy production at speeds around 30 mph. This is an improvement from 10 years ago, and it’s the reason why we’re rethinking our decision to put one on our property.

Home Wind Turbine Installation: Can You DIY?

Some turbine manufacturers advertise DIY installation, but Energy.gov advises against doing the job yourself. Choosing site placement and physically mounting the turbine are only half the job — the unit has to be hooked up to your electrical system. A pro has the knowledge to do the job according to code and will also handle the permits.