Solar Power Frequently Asked Questions

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Solar Power Frequently Asked Questions
Solar Power Frequently Asked Questions

Solar power is one of the cleanest ways to power your home, charge your electric vehicle, or earn additional income through the sale of surplus power and SRECs.  While there’s plenty of information out there about solar, many people just starting out with their research will have some basic questions about how it all works.  To that end, here’s a look at 10 frequently asked questions about solar power and answers in plain English to help you get started with clean, green power.

How Much Does A Solar Power System Cost?

This is the big question for most people investigating solar power systems.  The short answer is about $15,000-$40,000 depending on the size and power requirements for your home.  The long answer is, depending on the state and county you live in, you can have as much as 95% of the purchase cost covered by state and federal programs, and in some cases, you can roll 100% of your net cost after incentive programs into your property tax and amortize the cost over 20 years.

How Do Solar Power Systems Work?

Photovoltaic cells are made up of materials that react to the energy from the sun.  This reaction produces a very small electrical charge.  Many of these cells are tied together to produce a solar panel and many panels are then tied together to create a solar power system, capable of providing more than enough electricity to power a home.

Can I Install A Solar Power System Myself?

You CAN install it yourself, in the same way, that you CAN resurface your driveway.  Installing a solar power system is not overly complicated and there are usually no regulations preventing you from doing the work yourself, but make sure that you’re comfortable with attaching heavy panels to your roof and working inside your electrical panel.  If reading this short summary makes you nervous, then hire a professional installer.

What Equipment Do I Need To Purchase?

The equipment needed for a solar power system varies depending on your energy needs and what type of system you want (grid-tie, off-grid, etc.) but you will always need solar panels and a DC-AC inverter and in many cases, you’ll need batteries and a  charge controller.

How Does Net Metering Work?

Net metering means that you have an agreement with your local utility that you will only pay for the net amount of electricity you use.  Most grid-tie solar power systems don’t have battery backup, so you’ll be using the electric utility when the sun goes down.  Net metering means that if you generate 300kwH/month from your solar power system and you use 320kwH/month, you’ll only pay the utility for 20kwH.  Typical net metering agreements don’t include a provision where the utility would pay you for any excess power you “give back” to the grid, beyond reducing your electricity bill to $0.

What Are SRECs?

Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) are certificates that represent 1 MWh of solar electricity generated.  Many states have SREC trading programs, where electric utilities are required to produce a certain percentage of their total electricity using solar power.  Since it is very costly for the utility to build solar farms, they can alternately purchase SRECs from individuals.  These SRECs typically sell for $200-$600 depending on the time of year and the state in which they’re sold.  For more information about SRECs.

What Type Of Roof Do I Need For A Solar Power System?

Solar panels obviously work best when they get plenty of sunlight.  A south-facing exposure and no obstructions, plus a large footprint will be the ideal type of roof for solar power systems.  With that said, panels will still produce plenty of power if they face a different direction, and even in cloudy weather, just take into consideration that if you don’t have an ideal roof, you’ll never get the quoted power output of the system you purchase.

Do I Need Battery Backup For My Solar Power System?

If you’re on a grid-tie system, you don’t need batteries.  This is because you will be running off either your panels or off the grid power, so you’ll never have an interruption in your service.  If you live off the grid, batteries are essential, unless you want the lights to go off when the sun goes down.  Take note as well that even with battery backup on a grid-tied system; you’ll still lose power when the power goes out in your neighborhood.  This is a failsafe since if the power lines are down in your neighborhood, it would be dangerous to be pumping power into the grid from your panels.

What Are Solar Hot Water Systems?

Solar hot water systems use the sun to heat your water and heat your home if you have a radiant heating system.  This is accomplished differently than solar power systems in that it uses the heat energy from the sun rather than first converting the solar power into electricity.  This makes solar hot water systems much more efficient than solar power and can be used to great effect in conjunction with a solar power system.

What Are The Typical Maintenance Costs For A Solar Power System?

Solar power systems require surprisingly little maintenance.  As long as you place your panels where they will not collect debris such as leaves, you shouldn’t have to do any maintenance other than hosing them off every couple of years.  The other components in the system should be checked every few years or as they start to break down, but most solar power systems will be guaranteed for as much as 25 years, so you shouldn’t worry about the large cost associated with solar power system maintenance.

Can I Use All Of My Current Appliances?

Since you will have a power inverter on your system, all of your current appliances will work, however, appliances are typically what use the most electricity in your home.  If you don’t plan on getting a large solar power system, consider switching your range, dryer, water heater, and/or HVAC to natural gas.  You can choose to run everything off electricity, but you’ll need a very large solar power system.

How Much Power Does A Photovoltaic Panel Produce?

A typical panel will produce between 150-300 watts.  To put this into perspective, a laptop computer uses about 80 watts and a refrigerator uses around 600.  There’s no diminishing return when tying panels together, so 10 panels in a system will kick out between 1500-3000 watts.

How Easy Is It To Expand A Solar Power System?

Adding additional solar panels is fairly easy.  If you installed the system yourself, you will have no problem adding more panels; if not, you may want to use the installers who set up your system originally.  Beyond the physical act of installation, just know that you won’t need any additional equipment beyond new panels to expand your system.

How Long Will My Solar Power System Last?

Most solar power systems have a 25-year warranty.  Nearly every financing scheme for purchasing a solar power system will pay for itself long before the 25 years are over, but the PV panels themselves typically last as long as 60 years.

Can I Heat My Hot Tub Or Swimming Pool With Solar?

Heating a hot tub or pool with solar electricity would be impractical since they require so much power to run.  The best option is to swap out your current electrical heater with a solar heater.  These typically cost in the $2,000-$3,000 range and if you have a large pool or heat your hot tub year-round, the heater will pay for itself in no time.

Will My Homeowners Insurance Cover My Solar Panels?

Absolutely.  Homeowners insurance covers your home and everything in it (with some exceptions).  To make sure that you’re covered, check with your insurance company and use a certified installer so that you’re not personally liable for any damage to your home that could result from improper installation.

I Don’t Like the Look of Solar Panels

This isn’t really a question, but it comes up from time to time.  While many actually like the look of solar panels and the audible message it sends to passers-by that you’re a proponent of green energy, some prefer a more subtle, traditional look.  Thankfully, solar shingles are becoming readily available.  These are smaller panels the size of traditional shingles that install in place of roof shingles, and then they all tie back to your inverter.  It’s a bit more expensive, but if you aren’t a big fan of the large panel aesthetic, shingles might be the perfect fit.

Do Solar Panels Work In Areas With Little Sunlight?

Obviously the more sun the better, in terms of generating solar energy, but solar panels will still operate in cloudy climates.  Whereas in direct sunlight you might get 30% efficiency, it might drop down to 15% or 20% in overcast weather, but you’ll still be cranking out the watts during the daytime.

Does Temperature Affect Solar Power Systems?

Temperature does not play a critical role in solar power systems, but surprisingly, solar panels actually work better in cooler temperatures.  The difference between a 70-degree day and a 90-degree day might be 10%, but the point is that you don’t need to be too concerned about the temperature in your climate affecting your solar electricity production.

How Much Does A Solar Power System Actually Help The Environment?

There are obviously plenty of benefits to solar power beyond the environmental aspects, but many people wonder what the actual environmental benefit is.  Recent numbers show that each American produces over 50,000 lbs of carbon dioxide each year.  Switching to solar electricity can reduce this footprint by as much as 15,000 lbs CO2 per person in your home, so whether you’re an environmentalist or not, switching to solar can benefit you and everyone around you.

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