The “Go solar” movement is fast gaining momentum in the United States.
More than ever before, this is the right time to make the transition. The technology has markedly improved in the last decade, bringing down the cost of rooftop solar systems and making them less cumbersome and more aesthetic.
Moreover, there are financial gains to think about. The federal tax credit is substantial enough to absorb some of its high installation costs. The monthly reduction in utility bills is definitely something to look forward to. In case you are living in some of the sunny locales, you could even consider the net-metering arrangement and get credits for the excess solar energy generated.
Last but not least is the feel-good factor. You would be able to replace your guilty conscience of using fossil fuel-generated grid energy with the exhilarating feeling of saving the environment.
All good things aside, you should give it some thought before going ahead with the purchase. As it is a major investment, at times even necessitating structural or electrical modifications, this is not a decision to be taken offhand or lightly.
You should invest some time and energy in answering the questions – What to know about solar panels? And, what to know before installing solar panels?
The success of a residential solar panels system depends on a wide range of factors – from the availability of direct sunlight in your location to the condition of the roof and its inclination and orientation.
This article takes you through the various aspects you should consider before jumping into the solar bandwagon. Once you have answered the 16 questions listed here, you would be in a better position to make the decision.
1. What is your average monthly energy consumption?
This is one of the vital factors that determine the capacity of the solar power system you need to buy. You have two choices for calculating this.
The first one involves adding up the energy consumed by all major electrical appliances and devices at home in a month. For this, you can look up the wattage of each device and multiply it by the number of operational hours. You will arrive at watt-hour or kWh. One unit of electricity is equal to 1kWh.
For the second method, you need previous utility bills for 6 months or one year. Find the average energy consumption.
However, when estimating the capacity for the solar system, you need to take into account future energy demands as well. If you are planning to buy any major electrical appliances, you should add this also to your monthly energy consumption.
2. How much direct/indirect sunlight is available?
A solar system can generate electricity even using the diffused sunlight received on cloudy days. However, if your roof is shaded by trees or your location has more rainy and cloudy days than sunny days, a solar installation may not be cost-effective. The conversion efficiency of the rooftop solar panels would be abysmally low.
To get the best out of your rooftop solar panel installation, your roof should be exposed to direct sunlight most days of the year. Occasional cloudy or rainy days are manageable. In case this is not the case, you would have to install a higher capacity system such as monocrystalline solar panels to meet your energy expectations. And, it would be simple enough to understand that the higher the capacity, the more expensive the cost of installation.
3. What are the roof requirements for solar panels?
In a location with average sunlight, you will need 100-120 sq ft of roof space to generate 1 kWh of solar energy. If the availability of sunlight is less than average, you may need to have more panels to generate the same amount of electricity. And, this would require more space.
As mentioned earlier, the type, shape, orientation, and tilt of the roof are also important factors. If you are having trouble making a self-assessment, you can get solar contractors to make the assessment and give you an estimate.
If your roof is not spacious enough to accommodate the solar panels or suitable for solar installation, choosing solar power may not be worth the effort and investment.
Even if your roof or location is not ideal for solar installation, you can still make it work by choosing high-efficiency solar panels or solar tracking mounts. However, you need to be aware that all these will come at an extra cost.
You need to be aware of solar panel roof requirements before the purchase.
4. Will it damage the roof?
Not exactly if your roof can handle the weight and the installation is done properly.
The solar panels along with the mounts will add considerable weight to your roof. So, before you go ahead with your solar plans you need to get a professional to assess the quality of your roof and its ability to withstand the extra burden.
In case, your roof is found to be inadequate or too old to carry the weight of the solar panels, you still have a few options left. You can put in a new roof, do a complete revamp of your roof, or provide it with additional support. Or if you don’t want to do any of these, you can explore the possibility of installing solar panels in your yard.
5. Does your roof need repairs?
Even if you find that your roof is strong enough to handle the weight and all the remaining conditions are satisfied, a point to remember at this point is to check your roof for repairs. Besides shingles, other roofing parts such as flashing, vent, or underlayment need to be checked for damages and replaced if need be. Even if some of them don’t demand immediate attention, it is advisable to carry out the repairs and bolster the roof before a solar installation.
The reason is simple. Once you install rooftop solar panels, any work on the roof will necessitate removing the solar panels and reinstalling them. This doesn’t come easy or cheap. It is recommended that you figure out existing as well as potential damages on the roof and rectify them. You can also choose to strengthen your roof with caulking and weatherproofing.
You may be aware that the life of rooftop solar panels is 20-25 years. It is highly recommended to match the lifespan of your roof with that of solar panels as this can save you time, effort, and money.
6. Is there an arrangement in place for water drainage?
When your roof was originally built, there must have been a system in place for rainwater to drain well. When you install solar panels, mounts, and other accessories, it can hamper the natural flow of water. This may lead to water accumulation on the roofs which can be damaging to the solar panels as well as to the roof itself.
Before you decide on the position of the solar installation, you need to take this factor into account. Plan it in such a way that the rooftop solar system will not interfere with rainwater runoff.
7. Are you prepared to deal with nature’s fury?
Each region comes with its own set of severe weather conditions. Somewhere, if it is heavy rains, in another place it would be heavy snow or high winds or hurricanes, or lightning storms. With global warming worsening weather conditions across the world, you can only expect this to get worse.
As rooftop solar panels are exposed to the elements, you should take sufficient precautions to limit the damage from these events. A local solar contractor would be able to guide you well in this regard.
8. Are you opting for net metering?
Are you planning to go fully solar and go completely off the grid? If so, all you need to do is to disconnect the present grid connection, if any.
A more popular choice is to stay connected to the grid and switch over to solar energy whenever it is available. This may require additional equipment and modifications in the main electric switchboard.
Another lucrative choice open to you is to opt for a net-metering arrangement. For this, you need to remain connected to the grid through a bi-directional meter at the switchboard. This will allow you to export excess energy generated during the daytime and draw energy from the grid when there is an energy shortfall.
However, you need to be aware of the formalities and conditions for net-metering in your location. You may have to apply for permission and pay fees for this. You also need to find out how the utility company will compensate you for the energy exported and charge you for the energy drawn from it.
Compensation can be as credits or cash. The rates may be skewed against you as well. Understand how it works and make an informed decision.
9. How did you choose your contractor?
How are you planning to find the solar contractor? Just doing a Google search for solar contractors near you is not a good idea. If you pick one based on recommendations from family or friends, it would be better.
Before you choose the contractor, it would be advisable to check whether they have valid credentials. Most states insist only on a general electrical license but some do require a special license for solar installation. You can also check their accreditation from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).
As your association with your solar contractor is going to be a long one, it is highly recommended that they come with a good track record and positive feedback. The terms of warranty offered by the contractor are proof of their commitment. Although rooftop solar panels rarely need maintenance, in case of trouble, they should be available to fix it.
10. Did you do enough research on solar contractors?
Before signing on the dotted line, you should do thorough market research and come up with at least three of the best solar contractors in your area.
You can approach them for assessment and estimate. Most of them will be ready to give you an estimate free of cost. After analyzing and comparing their various aspects, you will be ready to make your final choice.
Before you sign the contract, make sure it mentions the following points.
- Details about financing
- Ownership of the installation
- Assurances about performance
- After-sales service
- Who will have access to the data about your solar installation?
In case, there is omission or vagueness about any of these, raise your concern with the solar contractor. Avoid signing an agreement you don’t feel comfortable about.
11. How did you pick the solar panels?
Rooftop solar panels come with various efficiency levels and price tags to suit diverse locations and budgets. Choosing the cheapest may not always work out well. If you are looking for value for money, pick one after taking all factors into account – your energy needs, your location constraints, and your budget limitations.
Nowadays, the solar market is flooded with cheap solar panels to make them attractive for buyers. Most of them come with low-efficiency levels and less lifespan. In the long run, this will prove to be more expensive than the costlier choices. Besides, they may also pose safety hazards.
You should weigh the pros and cons of the rooftop solar panels available in the market and apply your personal factors before making the choice.
12. How well do you understand the warranties?
As you must be aware by now, the lifespan of a solar panel installation is longer than most home appliances – at 20-25 years. This means it is important to have a longer warranty cover for it and not a year or two as in the case of home appliances.
Most manufacturers offer 20 years of warranty for the equipment. The longer the warranty, the higher chances that the equipment is good value for money. Some states offering solar incentives have made warranty mandatory for the equipment.
Again, not all warranties are the same. You should understand it well before going ahead with the purchase. Some of the common warranty terms are:
Warranty for solar panels: This can be anywhere from 15-25 years or even more. Of course, the more the better. However, don’t choose a solar panel with less than 20 years warranty because that is the industry standard.
This warranty should cover minimum energy output. Typically, this should be 80% energy output during the warranty period.
Warranty for installation: This covers damages incurred due to incorrect installation or broken/damaged/defective equipment. Usually, this can be anywhere between 2-10 years. Labor is covered in this warranty besides defective parts in the equipment, damage to the roof, shipping damages, and replacement/repair of the defective parts.
Warranty for the inverter: Based on the kind of inverter included in the system, the warranty period differs. For a standard string inverter, 5-10 years warranty is normal. Generic microinverters come with a warranty of 20-25 years. Typically, manufacturing and material defects are covered in these warranties.
13. Have you considered insuring the installation?
Do you know that you can insure against damages caused at the time of installation? This will include damages to your home as well as to the equipment. Many states insist on insurance to avail rebates and other financial incentives offered for solar installation.
Even if you are not availing of any of the benefits, you may still have to insure the installation as it may be a legal requirement and part of the building code. As these rules are not the same everywhere, you better verify this with the local solar contractor.
14. Did you avail of the tax credits and rebates?
A solar power installation can set you back by $20,000-30,000 or even more. This is a pretty big sum for most households. However, financial incentives like tax credits and rebates are offered by federal, state, and local administrations as well as solar companies.
Before you make the purchase, try to gather as much information on the various incentives available to you. Your solar contractor may be able to guide you on this.
As the US government is really keen on promoting solar energy, the Department of Energy is offering almost 30% of the price through tax credits and rebates. Besides this, you may also be eligible for more incentives from utility companies.
Related: How Do the Solar Tax Credits Work
15. Are you planning to install solar panels by yourself?
As a cost-cutting measure, if you are going for DIY, think twice. If you are well-qualified and equipped to do the installation, go ahead and save some money. But if this is not the case, you should refrain from this. Solar power installation is best left to professionals.
It is not for nothing that rules and regulations require a minimum electrical license for this job. Many states insist on a specialized solar license. This is because so many things can go wrong during the installation. Unless you are trained for it, you may find it hard to handle the situation or you may handle it wrong.
Damage to the roof: If the holes are not drilled correctly, sealing is not done skillfully, or the mounts are not fixed well, your roof may start leaking.
Problems with wiring: There is a lot of wiring involved in the solar energy installation both on the roof and inside the home. If you go wrong anywhere, it can result in electric shock or a short circuit. This can be dangerous for you and your family as well as the system itself.
Compliance with rules: If you are availing of financial incentives, you may be required by law to get the installation done by a professional. Most solar companies mandate installation by a licensed professional to get warranty benefits. This means you will lose money if something goes wrong when you are self-installing solar panels.
Moreover, you may not be familiar with the various rules and regulations of solar installation. If the paperwork is not properly done, your request may get rejected.
16. Have you considered the expenses for maintenance?
At the time of purchase, this is one aspect you may ignore altogether. To ensure the smooth functioning of the solar panel system, regular maintenance is vital. Having a good understanding of the requirements and the expenses involved is highly recommended. Your solar contractor can help you here.
Rooftop solar panels do not require much maintenance but they will not function efficiently without any either. If you find the maintenance requirements too much to handle on your own or too expensive to outsource, you need to be aware that the solar panel efficiency will be lower and the lifespan shorter.
Related: Solar Panel Maintenance Checklist
What to know before going solar?
As you can see there are many things to consider before installing solar panels. By taking the time to research and understand all the benefits and drawbacks of this decision, you can make an informed choice about whether solar is right for you.
If you decide that solar is the right move for you, be sure to research reputable installers in your area and ask for references. And, work with a qualified installer to get the best results.
Installing solar panels can save you money on your energy bills and help reduce your carbon footprint.
You may also want to take a look at our solar panel buying guide.
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