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