New Homeowner’s Guide To Solar Power

Is solar technology a good fit for the 21st century homeowner? Here's an overview of traditional and DIY solar options.

It’s no secret that solar power and other renewable resources have seen a spike in interest, as consumers begin to embrace the technology and local and national governments incentivize its growth.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the total capacity of residential installations in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2016, while the average installation price per watt has decreased 27 percent in that same period.

If solar is on your radar but you’ve got questions about whether to take the plunge, read on for an overview of solar technology and whether it’s a sustainable strategy for the modern homeowner.

What Are the Benefits of Solar?

It seems like every year brings new technological or environmental changes that accelerate the acceptance of residential solar energy. Industry experts such as Jeff Barnes of Modernize Home Services have witnessed a seismic shift in the industry.

Today, Barnes says, customers opting into solar have reasons “Ranging from ‘It’s the right thing to do,’ to ‘I want to get off the grid,’ or ‘I want to save money.’ ” The majority are drawn by these benefits in particular:

Environmentally Friendly

While there is a carbon cost in producing solar panels, renewable energy is the most environmentally friendly way to power your home. And if your utility company has the capability, you can even contribute to the grid, reducing your community’s use of fossil fuels.

Cost Savings

Properly sized and installed solar technology will pay for itself over time. Exactly how long depends on factors like what you pay for electricity, available green energy incentives, and the duration and intensity of sunshine throughout the year. Most residential installations will pay for themselves over several years and will become a net gain after that.

Dependability

A solar array can potentially provide critical functions such as refrigeration during blackouts, much in the same way a gas-powered generator can. But generators are expensive. The recent improvements in battery technology mean that your solar array can keep your power on all day and into the night.

Is Residential Solar Viable Throughout the U.S.?

The answer is a qualified yes.

Clearly, properties with more sun exposure and more room for panels will benefit more from solar, and the return on investment will vary by purchase price and utility savings. But you may be surprised to learn that three of the top 10 solar-producing states are in the Northeast — New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York).

Here are some of the key factors that determine whether solar is viable for you.

How Much Sun In Your Region

Surprisingly, this isn’t a major factor in determining solar panel effectiveness. Panels don’t function at night, but they do work on cloudy days. (Okay, solar panels technically do work at night, but the reflected light from the moon is such a tiny fraction of daylight that the captured energy is essentially zero.)

Local Incentives

We’ll look at this element in more depth below, but it’s worth mentioning that some cities and states have additional incentives to encourage homeowners to adopt solar technology.

Local Utility Prices and Policies

The higher the local energy prices, the more dramatic the savings from solar panels. A solar system will pay for itself far faster in an area with cloudy skies and high prices than in an area with sunny weather and low energy prices.

The other local policy that has a big impact on solar systems is net metering. With this technology, when a home has excess energy from solar panels, it can feed that excess back into the local power grid. The utility will actually pay the homeowner for consumed power. So excess energy isn’t wasted, and your investment will pay for itself faster.

If you don’t have net metering in your local market, consider investing in battery storage to provide backup coverage. “Batteries are becoming more and more sophisticated,” says Barnes.

How Effective Is Residential Solar?

It’s perfectly reasonable to wonder if a solar system on a residential roof can be truly energy efficient. The answer ultimately depends on your goals.

If you want to be completely off-grid, you’ll need a robust solar system in place. But if you simply want to supplement your energy consumption and reduce your electric bill, even a modest solar solution should work.

Residential Solar Tax Credits and Other Incentives

When determining if solar can be an effective option for your home, be sure to factor in any incentive plans offered by the government and utility companies. Normally offered as tax rebates or equipment subsidies, these programs can make a real difference in your budget.

Federal Tax Incentives

The most influential incentive program for solar has been the investment tax credit (ITC). Frequently called the “solar tax credit,” this program was created in 2005 and has proven so effective and popular it’s been consistently renewed. It allows you to claim a 26 percent credit of the solar system cost on your tax return through 2022. (In future years it will decrease, unless it’s extended again.)

State and Local Incentives

Besides the federal incentives, many states and municipalities offer additional incentives. Check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency for programs that apply to you.

Local Utility Incentives

Local utility providers also have a strong motivation for encouraging homeowners to adapt solar power. Every home that embraces solar means less strain on the local utility grid, and that makes life easier for the utility providers. Many utilities offer buyback programs, rebates and education to bring more homeowners into the solar fold.

Can You DIY a Residential Solar Installation?

Solar InstallationMint Images/ Tim Pannell/Getty Images

Simple solar panel installation is surprisingly straightforward. Depending on your local regulations, a licensed electrician may be required to make the connection between the panel array and your home. Tying into the grid is generally best left to an electrician anyway.

And yet, DIY models are extremely user-friendly. While you will likely want at least one assistant, it doesn’t take a huge crew to do most home solar installations.

Solar Power Costs

Installation

The exact cost of a solar installation will depend on the location, the panels, the slope of your roof, your existing roofing material and whether you’re using batteries or tying into the grid,

For an average 2,000-square-foot home with typical electrical usage, expect to pay $7,000 to $10,000 for panels. Installation will likely cost another $6,000 to $10,000, depending on the roof height, material and slope. If your installation is on the ground, the labor cost should drop significantly, though the materials costs may rise.

When planning a solar install, always take your roof into consideration. If it’s almost time to replace your roof, do it before installing the panels. Also check what impact the panel installation may have on your roof warranty. “You are likely altering the warranty of the shingles on your roof,” Barnes says.

Having the panels professionally installed may keep the warranty intact. Or you can replace it with the solar panel warranty.

Ongoing Costs

Solar systems have little ongoing/maintenance costs. Plan on an annual inspection of the panels, much like the annual inspection of your roof and gutters. Look for evidence of damage from animal nests or falling debris, or any loose wiring.

The easiest form of maintenance is to simply keep an eye on your utility bills to make sure the panels are performing as expected. If your energy costs creep up unexpectedly, there may be an issue with the solar system.

You may need to clean the panels from time to time, usually no more than once a year. This can be done with a squeegee and a manufacturer-approved cleaning solution.

Both the cleaning and inspection can be done on your own, or you can bring in a pro to make the whole process hassle-free. If you had your solar system installed for you, ask whether the company offers an inspection or maintenance plan.

Long-Term Predictions

Like many emerging technologies, it’s difficult to see the future for residential solar energy. The one certainty is that the technology will continue to improve and become more affordable. And as utility companies face increased scrutiny while the summers grow hotter and the winters get colder, they will offer increased incentives to go solar.

As a final thought, solar panels are also becoming smaller and less noticeable from the street. The days of bulky, unattractive panels are fading. It’s more common for frameless or low-profile panels to blend in with roof lines.

It’s only a matter of time before solar panels are no longer a novelty, but a standard feature as common as a heat pump or backyard pool.

Dan Stout
Dan Stout is a freelance writer and author based in Columbus, Ohio. Dan's non-fiction has appeared on numerous sites and in print, while his prize-winning fiction has been featured in publications such as Nature and The Saturday Evening Post. He is the author of The Carter Archives series of noir fantasy thrillers from DAW Books.