5 Things to Consider Before Installing Solar Panels
Saving money on your utility bill, reducing your carbon footprint, and improving your home's value—the advantages of going solar are appealing for most homeowners. While most people can benefit from installing solar panels, some roof styles, home locations, and other factors impact how much energy you can generate and how much you should anticipate spending on a system. As you research solar panel companies, review these five factors first to help you estimate your energy generation and savings potential.
1. Your Roof Condition, Material, and Layout
One of the great things about solar panels is their durability. Most systems can last thirty years or more. However, as asphalt roofs usually last around twenty years,1 this means your roof needs to be in excellent condition before installing panels. It can be challenging and costly to remove and reinstall panels to make way for roof work, so repair any damage—or replace the roof altogether, if needed—before installing your array.
Along with your roof condition, consider its layout, materials, and direction. Some companies may charge an additional fee to install on flat, concrete, or ceramic Spanish tile roofs, due to the more involved installation. Lastly, you'll need some unobstructed roof space for the panels, though the exact amount will depend on the type and number of panels you choose.
2. Your Location
The more sun shines on your solar panels, the more energy they'll generate. If you live in the South or Southwest, you have the greatest opportunity to produce energy. If you live further north, in New England or the Pacific Northwest, you'll produce much less energy. For example, Island County, Washington sees around 60% of the solar radiation of a Southern California county.2 While you can still benefit from solar panels in cloudy states, you may need to install extra panels to make up for the lower energy production.
Along with your geographic location, you'll want to determine your home's orientation. South-, southeast-, and southwest-facing roofs will produce the most energy for homes above the equator, while north-facing roofs are generally harder to work with. Make sure no tall objects, such as trees or satellite dishes, cast shadows on your roof, as that could hinder energy production.
3. Your Panel Options
While traditional, roof-mounted panels are the most popular choice, you may want to consider a ground-mounted array. These systems can be installed anywhere on a piece of property, making them ideal for those with north-facing roofs or not enough roof space. However, ground-mounted panels are often more expensive, as they require more labor and materials.
Another option is to mount your panels with a tracker, which moves panels to follow the sun. As this mount helps your panels track the path of the sun, your array can produce more power. Keep in mind, however, that this type of installation is often much more expensive.
Along with the placement of panels, you can also choose from several panel types. Always ask about the panel efficiency, as higher efficiency panels will provide greater returns. Alternatively, you can forgo panels altogether in favor of solar shingles. These tiles aren't as efficient as traditional solar panels, but they're much more discreet.
4. Your Rebate Eligibility
Rebates and tax credits can considerably reduce the cost of your solar installation, but you may be required to purchase from a particular company or complete paperwork within a set amount of time. Review your state and federal options beforehand so you have a better idea of how much you can save.
The Federal Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit is the biggest savings opportunity, as it provides a credit of 30% of qualified expenses for a system. The credit is available as long as you install your system by December 31, 2019.
Beyond the federal tax credit, several states offer incentives, as do some utility companies. Your solar installer can provide information on state rebates, or you can review the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE).
5. Your Financing Options
The actual cost of installing a solar array depends on multiple factors, including the type of panels, the size of the system, and the company you use, but it generally ranges between $25,000 and $35,000. Paying upfront is generally the simplest payment method, but if you don't have several thousand dollars on hand, solar loans are another good option. As with most other loans, you typically pay a small down payment initially and cover the remainder of the loan through monthly fees.
If you lack the funds, can't qualify for a loan, or simply don't want to purchase a system, you can lease a solar array. The solar company will own the panels, and you'll pay a small rental fee. You also have the option of entering into a power-purchase agreement, which allows you to buy discounted energy from the company that installs and maintains panels on your property. Either way, you'll save money on your utility bill and won't have to maintain the panels—but you likely won't be eligible for tax credits or rebates.
As you research your solar purchase, run through this checklist to make sure you're familiar with your panel and financing options, as well as your roof requirements, location, and rebate eligibility. If you determine that solar panels are a good fit for your home, your next step is to research solar companies and request pricing estimates. You'll be one step closer to enjoying the sustainability and savings of solar panels.
U.S. News, "How Long Can You Expect Your Roof or Fridge to Last?"
The Washington Post, "Map: Where America's Sunniest and Least-Sunny Places Are"