Turning the roof of your home into a mini solar power plant can feel like a daunting project. But done right, it can save you money while making you feel proud about using clean energy.
Finding reliable product and service reviews by objective experts or fellow homeowners, however, can be about as difficult as looking for sanity in American politics. Solar is an emerging source of electricity, and the marketplace has yet to accumulate the wealth of wisdom that you can find when shopping for big-ticket items like a car or a new kitchen.
There is good information out there. The trick is how to find it. Here’s a primer to help you get started.
Where to Begin?
Going solar involves making several key decisions along the way. The major issues to consider include the type of equipment, financing options, and contractors you want to work with.
But before you begin Googling or making calls, take a look of your roof to make note of its orientation and whether it’s under the shade of trees or other structures during parts of the day, says Larry Sherwood, CEO of Interstate Renewable Energy Council, a nonprofit that works on solar policies and consumer education. This information will be useful as you discuss equipment and solar energy system designs with potential contractors.
Here’s a homeowner’s guide from the U.S. Department of Energy to help you launch the search.
Learn the Tech Basics
A solar energy system is made up of these major components: solar panels, racks that support the panels, and inverters that convert the direct current produced by the solar panels into alternating current used by the home. The vast majority of solar panels these days contain cells made with silicon, the material that converts sunlight into electricity. If you want to geek out on solar panel technology, here’s a breakdown of the solar panel system.
There’s no need to become an expert on solar technology to be a savvy shopper, but knowing some of the metrics for evaluating a solar energy system does help you become a more informed shopper.
Just like buying a car, you want to focus on the technology’s delivered results (how much sunlight will be converted into electricity), the manufacturer’s reputation, and the available warranties. You’ll learn about these when you talk to potential contractors or with family and friends who have solar panels on their roofs.
Show Me the Money
The promise of cutting utility bills for years to come is what makes rooftop solar attractive to many homeowners. The savings can be significant, because solar panels have gotten much cheaper and tax incentives are available from federal and some state governments, says Vikram Aggarwal, CEO and founder of EnergySage, an online marketplace for solar equipment, lenders, and installers.
The average price of a solar energy system for most homeowners ranges from $2.87 to $3.85 per watt nationwide, according to data from EnergySage. So, a six-kilowatt system at $3 per watt would cost $18,000. Making use of the 30 percent federal investment tax credit, which homeowners can claim on their income tax returns if they owe taxes, would reduce the price of that system to $12,600.
The publicly funded Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency can give you state-by-state lists of solar incentives. If the database feels overwhelming to navigate, then a call to your local utility or your state’s public utilities commission can help you get answers more quickly.
Buy and Sell Energy
One type of state incentive deserves a special shoutout: Net metering allows homeowners to get compensated, usually at retail electric rates, for exporting excess solar electricity to the grid. The local utilities will track the amount they buy from solar homeowners and incorporate it as credits in their utility bills. Not all states have net metering, so check with your local utility.
Without net metering, any extra solar electricity would still flow into the grid, because most rooftop solar systems are connected to the distribution network. A solar energy system often produces more energy than needed, especially if residents are away at work during the day. Energy use typically spikes in early evening, when occupants come home and start to turn on appliances.
The Big Hire
Finding a good contractor to install solar panels is arguably the most important decision in this quest.
That’s because the job involves more than just the physical work of placing solar panels on the roof and wiring them properly to the home and grid. The contractor must also design a system that both fits your roof and determines the amount of electricity you generate.
The contractor should secure the necessary permits with your local government and contact the local utility about connecting your system to the grid. That last step could require a waiting period of a few weeks or more and could be essential for claiming some of the government incentives.
Here’s a handy guide from California, the largest solar energy market, that provides good advice even for those who don’t live in the state.
The services each contractor offers can vary widely.
Larger contractors that are strictly solar service companies typically will take care of all the steps of designing a system, securing permits, installing the equipment, connecting it to the grid, and applying for incentives for you. They also typically offer financing options, such as leases and loans, that they’ve developed in-house, or they can refer you to financial institutions. Some national brands include SolarCity, Sunrun, and Vivint Solar.
Bigger doesn’t always mean better. Regional solar service companies offer similar, if not the same, services.
You can also consider more than just companies that are dedicated to solar installations. Some firms that offer roofing and other construction work can install solar panels. The key is to look for installers with the proper certifications, which can vary by city or state.
Aggarwal recommends getting bids from five contractors. Doing so will give you a better idea of both the range of costs and issues to consider. (What’s missing in one contractor’s bid might show up in another’s, for example. You can then go back to the first contractor to ask about the omission.)
Here’s a guide from California about examining bids and contracts — it will help you figure out what questions to ask even if you don’t live there. Here’s a geekier version from the National Renewable Energy Lab, part of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Leasing has been a popular model historically, but ownership is catching up. Here’s a breakdown of the arguments for each.
Leasing’s main appeal is the low startup cost. A homeowner typically signs a 10- to 15-year contract and pays the solar service company for the electricity produced.
The sales pitch usually guarantees energy savings initially — your rate for solar electricity would be lower than the rate for electricity supplied by your utility. But that promise can’t be made long term because no one can assure you what your utility rates will be years into the future. Utility rates can change from year to year and are subject to regulatory approvals or market competition.
Ownership has recently become more attractive, partly because the cost of equipment has dropped tremendously in the past 10 years, and more banks are offering loans for solar installations. You can take advantage of tax incentives if you own the system.
Generally, homeowners can end up paying less over the long term when they buy rather than lease. That also means a homeowner could reap greater savings on electric bills over time. Consumer Reports posted an article last year that championed solar ownership over leasing.
What’s the main takeaway from the whole solar sales process?
Take your time.
“I would advise consumers to slow down, read the contract, and don’t feel pressured by the salespeople,” says Sherwood. “Many of the worst examples of problems that consumers have happen when they decide too fast.”