Is Solar Power Right for You?

Here’s the scoop on figuring out how much solar panels will cost, how much you can save, and what to know before you install a photovoltaic system for your home.

| Feb. 17, 2009

Solar Roof

Solar-electric panels on a south-facing roof in Brooklyn, Mass.


Have you ever wondered whether a solar-electric system is right for your home? There are a lot of good reasons to consider solar power. It’s a great choice for the environment, because with photovoltaic (solar-electric) panels you can get your electricity from clean, renewable solar energy, rather than polluting fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil. In most circumstances, installing solar panels can also save you a lot of money.

To figure out whether solar-electric panels make sense for you, start by considering these questions:

1. Do you have a sunny, south-facing space to mount solar panels? Chances are you do, because there are a lot of options (check out the Image Gallery for examples).

2. How much will it cost for a solar-electric system that meets your needs?

3. Will solar power save you money in the long-term?

The last two questions are the trickiest. To begin with, you’ll need to decide if you want a grid-connected system, or if you would prefer to be “off the grid,” and completely independent of the electric utility. (More about those options here.)

sheila benson
1/3/2010 4:48:43 PM

How do we calculate usage and cost if we intend to be off the grid? We will be building a new home and will not be connected to the grid. Is air conditioning possible?

scott cronk
6/1/2009 9:39:02 PM offers some very useful online solar estimating tools. They cover solar electric (PV), solar water and solar pool heating. The solar calculator also includes all solar incentives and a nice financial analysis including payback.

david rickenbacher
4/22/2009 1:46:02 PM

I am wondering if I can run our electric range,dryer, and furnaces on solar or windpower..... Thank you for any help....

3/5/2009 12:18:15 PM

We have a 5.28 kWh system that was tied to the grid on July 31, 2007. We did not have a shade free roof so had to go with a pole mount system which added a bit to the cost because of the need for posts, a rack system vs. roof rails, and a long trench with wire and conduit. Pole mount systems are nice because the panels stay cooler, you can adjust the tilt of the panels as the seasons change and easily remove any snow that hasn't been shed by the steep winter angle. When nearby roof mounts are covered with snow, our system will produce at full capacity during the cold sunny days. Our system was designed to meet about 50-60% of our electric use. Credit from our power provider has equaled 50% of what the system has produced so far.

george works
2/20/2009 8:31:48 AM

We installed a solar electric system 3 years ago and am delighted with it. We live on the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius where there is plenty of sun, but electricity generally costs over 30 cents per KWh. Worse, electricity is often out for a day or more, and for several days when a passing storm damages the power lines. In preparation we collected the usage by appliance and used a spread-sheet to estimate total usage, and reconciled this with the electric meter reading. Since electric water heat seemed a large contributor, we replaced our electric water heater with a solar hot water heater and noticed a large, immediate drop in usage. We installed a 2.5KW solar array, 34KWH (to 50% discharge) deep-cycle long-life battery bank, a 4.5KW inverter and a charge controller. I did the installation myself with some help from local laborers, using some heavy locally-made wooden mounting rails on the roof to stand up to our occasional hurricane winds. We operated off-grid for the first year and always had plenty of power, but recently have operated in grid-interactive mode. This has the advantage that the batteries don't discharge unless the power fails, which should prolong their (15 year) life. In this mode the system "sells" excess power to the grid during the day, and "buys" it back at night using the grid as a giant storage battery. We've never had a problem with the system, and we no longer even know when the grid is off except by looking at the lights on the inverter. We continue to collect and analyze data on the system and have now installed a second one on our barn, and helped a neighbor design one for her house here.

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