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Get Started in Solar Power and Energy Efficiency

Get Started in Solar Power and Energy Efficiency

It doesn’t matter where you live in North America. Enough sun falls on your house to provide for all your energy needs, at least for part of the year. Right now, most of that solar energy is wasted — in fact, you’re probably paying good money to flush the wasted heat out of the house, or at least out of the attic.

You can convert that wasted heat into power for your home, and slash your bills for electricity, natural gas and heating oil. Some of your neighbors may already have done it by putting solar hot water or photovoltaic collectors on the roof or in the yard.

Before you climb out on the roof with a measuring tape and notepad, make your house more energy-efficient. Most American homes were built under codes written to assure structural integrity and fire safety rather than energy efficiency. This means that the typical American family can cut utility bills 20 to 40 percent simply by upgrading to thermal-pane windows; sealing doors, soffits, siding and foundations; and improving insulation. For the vast majority of homeowners, these are the most cost-effective projects you can take on.

Look into energy-efficient appliances, too. The typical refrigerator built in 1980 costs about $154 in electricity to run for a year, at today’s average rate of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour. A modern Energy Star refrigerator runs for about $55 a year. The average homeowner would save $99 a year.

Energy-efficiency improvements will save more money when it comes time to install a solar energy system. A house that uses less energy needs a smaller, less-expensive solar array. A dollar spent on energy improvement under the roof may save $1.50 or more on top of the roof.

And if you’re thinking about buying a plug-in electric car, consider that solar panels are the equivalent of free fuel for the life of the system!

Safety first: Solar systems look simple; and in principle, they are. There are no moving parts and almost no maintenance. Once up and running, they really do provide free energy. A lot of back-to-the-earth pioneers have had good luck building their own solar power systems.

For the typical American homeowner, do-it-yourself solar isn’t a good idea. These systems directly affect the structural integrity of your roof, especially in any kind of wind storm. They tie into your electrical or plumbing system. They produce high voltages of electricity or scalding-hot water. Installing the system involves moving heavy weights onto a rooftop — a classic worker-safety problem.

For these reasons, it’s important that the work be done by someone qualified and certified in roofing, electrical and plumbing practices. Work with an established local solar installer who can handle the permit paperwork and build the system to local codes. To find a qualified solar installer in your neighborhood, visit findsolar.com. You can also use this site to determine available rebates based on available state and utility incentives.

What can I afford? If you take full advantage of the 30 percent federal tax credit, utility company rebates and state or local incentives, a photovoltaic (PV) system can cost less than $4 per watt, installed. Depending on what you pay for electricity, you may earn that money back in a few years — after that, the power from your system is free. A number of installer companies specialize in leasing solar equipment, in which case a system would likely have no upfront costs at all.

A solar water-heating system is often the most economical choice, especially if you have it installed at the same time you replace your water heater. Depending on where you live, it may cut your hot-water heating costs by 40 to 50 percent. A large family with lots of kids uses plenty of hot water for bathing, laundry and dishwashing; so this can be a significant power and money saver.

How long will a solar system last? Solar PV and solar hot water systems typically last 25 years. The panels often come with manufacturer warranties for this long.

Is my area sunny enough? In North America, the answer is certainly yes. If it’s sunny enough to grow crops, it’s sunny enough to make power. If you live in the Sunshine State, or the Corn Belt, or the sun-blasted Southwest, you’re golden.

Isn’t it just cheaper to use the utility-provided electricity? Well, consider this: The average cost of electricity has risen 500 percent since 1970. The cost of coal, oil and nuclear power continue to rise. Your energy costs will always stay the same once you’ve installed solar.

To learn more about solar power and other ways to save money (and the planet!), join the American Solar Energy Society and read its award-winning magazine SOLAR TODAY. Better yet, attend the National Solar Conference, held May 17 to 21 in Raleigh, N.C. Now in its 40th year, it’s North America’s most-respected solar energy educational event.

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Photo by Matt Montagne via Flickr / Creative Commons
NOTE: This is a guest post from Seth Masia, deputy editor of SOLAR TODAY magazine.

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43 comments

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11:39PM PST on Feb 28, 2013

I have a solar system which works well & so apart from set up costs have not had to pay electric bills for 15 months, payback will probably be in 7 years & in the summer should be able to dump the excess power into the large pool ?? & extend swimming season.

3:47PM PDT on Jul 17, 2012

ty

5:50AM PDT on Oct 31, 2011

If you are planning on going solar pv or solar water heating its best to knock down your power needs..I know I wrote a long bit.
I know solar is expensive, but think about it as buying all the fuel you will need for the life of the system. If you have battery back up for it there is some maintenance and batteries have to be replaced every 8 or 10 yrs, many will last longer if you do the maint. Think about the costs to the environment by strip mining coal and the pollutants.
Solar pollutes a lot less, perhaps in manyfacturing which I need to research as I have had other things on my mind.
WE plan to be fossil fuel free in the next 10 yrs, we are looking at a 17% rate hike..some reward for reducing our power needs by 45%!

5:35AM PDT on Oct 31, 2011

I ll list some things that anyone can do.
We are on a limited income and bought a house that had been abused then turned into an MJ grow house, We have battled mould for 4 yrs now..we cant afford to be elsewhere and the place was a very good deal. Its going to be a total gut. When we do that we will 'thicken the walls to 2x6s and fill the channels with foam insulation, metal roof and siding(fire danger in pine forest).
When we moved in the prior family had bills for 4500(the family not the grow that was 10,000 kilo watt hrs. Its a total electric house, our bills when running the heat pump were 450 to 500$ a month 3300 to 4,000 kilo watt hrs
Our last bill with AC on it was 250$, but we had 20 some days over 95 and many over 100 degrees. Our July bill was 143@ and that was with AC.
I bought 2 he window units.
I am 90% disabled..i can climb a ladder to the roof, but just.
If you own your house you can tint windows. WE have aluminum with vinyl clad..they are hurricane rated, but suck heat out. I bought 'black out ' curtain liners (big difference 20$ pr short windows 25$ for full length @Lowes). I also made some panels frm foil backed styro insulation that i stick in front of the windows on very cold or very hot times.
Paint the roof with Henrys' Kool Seal. you will need 2 coats of the primer and 2 or 3 of the sealer. It cost over 1200$ for a 2,056 sq ft roof, but lowered our power bills big time, also lowered inside temp by over 20degrees, we could not cool the pla

10:15PM PDT on Oct 30, 2011

~Great informative article!~Lots of ideas~

10:50AM PDT on Jul 3, 2011

thanks but can I afford it.

8:13AM PDT on May 21, 2011

Thanks, looking into it but I have a lot of trees.

5:02PM PDT on May 13, 2011

I've been thinking of starting small by setting up a small system just to power the refrigerator. Just as an experiment.

7:11AM PDT on May 10, 2011

Investment is the key for a home to be energy efficient. Solar panels and the likes may need medium to large investment since these kind of stuffs are costly. There are some products that when installed in doors and windows delivers 7X more energy savings. These are what they call window tints. “Green” oriented sites such as http://www.TintBuyer.com are also doing their share in helping others in pursuing green living. They discuss how window tints can be labeled as one of the most effective ways to conserve energy consumption, in our home, office or car, it is a practical way to save money from energy bills while caring for the environment.

10:56AM PDT on May 3, 2011

We put 12 solar panels on a pole six years ago, knowing that it would take 40 years to pay them back. With government incentives, I put 26 panels on my roof in December.
Keep in mind that we HAVE to do something! Look at Japan!!!

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches ancient Greek, Latin and Classics at Saint Peter's University in New Jersey.... more
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