Over the past decade, as the cost of solar power has decreased, solar panels have become more ubiquitous in residential applications.  Solar panels can help you reduce the environmental impact of your home and save money. 

If you feel like this technology is still a mystery to you and can’t imagine how it could fit in your home energy set-up, you’re in the right place! In this post, we’ll provide an overview of what solar power is, how it works, and pro tips for installing solar panels at home.

What is Solar Power?

Solar power is a type of renewable or clean energy that comes from the sun’s rays.  It uses photovoltaic cells (also called solar cells) to capture the sun’s light and turn it into energy.  Solar panels work in all types of weather, making them suitable for renewable energy just about everywhere in the United States. But as you would imagine, solar panels work best in dry places with plenty of sunlight, so the southwest is a particularly great geographic area to use them.

How Does Solar Power Work?

As we’ve already mentioned, solar power works by converting sunlight into electricity.  But exactly how?

First let’s start with sunlight. Light is made up of tiny packets of energy called photons. These photons travel nearly 100 million miles from the sun to the earth in approximately 8.5 minutes!

Meanwhile, solar panels are made of smaller modules called “solar cells.” When the sun’s rays shine on a solar cell, the photons emitted by the sun react with it to generate an electrical charge in the solar cell.  Solar panels generate direct current (DC) power which is then converted to alternating current (AC) power which can be used to power your home or stored for later use. There are a number of different types of solar arrays currently available and coming to market in the near future. Feeling like you need a visual? We love this clip from TED-Ed, which provides a 101 on how solar panels work.

But Solar Panels Are Huge, Right?

While an individual solar cell is very small – about 6 inches long by 6 inches wide – many solar cells are connected together to form the larger units that you are used to seeing: solar panels.  Solar panels are typically comprised of about 60 to 72 solar cells.  This means that the average solar panel has dimensions of 5 feet x 3 feet and weighs about 40 pounds.  However, arrays of solar cells can often be constructed to conform to of your residential power needs, regardless of size. 

Why Install Solar Panels at Home?

Solar panels represent an exciting opportunity for homeowners, because they enable you to combine margin and mission. Not only will solar panels mean that you are relying less on fossil fuels for your electricity, but they will also help you save money over the many years of their lifetime.

The Economics of Solar

Rooftop solar energy is becoming more and more affordable.  Innovations in the solar industry have helped make this technology cheaper and easier to adopt.  This decrease in price is coupled with federal and state incentives to facilitate adoption of residential solar panels, which brings solar panel users an even greater savings.

The sun represents a plentiful and limitless source of solar energy which can be harvested for less than $0.06/kWh using solar power.  By contrast, the average price Americans pay for electricity using conventional fossil fuel means is about $0.12/kWh. With that in mind, experts estimate that the average home can save $10,000 to $30,000 over the 30- to 35-year lifetime of its solar panel system!

Furthermore, tax breaks and rebates have made adopting solar energy more affordable in terms of the upfront cost. In recent years, the average cost to install residential solar panels for homeowners has dropped to less than $4 per watt. After tax credits, solar panels are estimated to cost less than $14,0000 per household. Compare that to the estimated savings, and there is something to get excited about! Who couldn’t use another $10-15,000?!

For more information on how you can save money with solar panels, check out this great post from EnergySage.

It’s Environmentally Friendly

The second reason that solar energy is a great option for residential power consumption is the environmental impact.  Solar panels are admittedly associated with some greenhouse gas emissions via the manufacturing process. To produce solar panels, manufacturers also have to handle toxic chemicals. However, solar panels do not emit any toxins into the atmosphere as they’re generating electricity. And the overall greenhouse gas emissions involved in solar energy are still far lower than equivalent electricity production from coal or natural gas. In fact, a 2011 report showed that solar panels’ carbon footprint averaged about 85 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per gigawatt-hour while natural gas and coal averaged 499 and 888, respectively!

On top of these benefits, manufacturers are increasingly offering solar panel recycling programs to reduce their end-of-life environmental impact. This means that by investing in solar panels for your electricity, you can feel good knowing you are not impacting the environment every time you turn on the lights or the television as compared to your neighbors!

Installing solar panels at home can provide financial and environmental benefits. Source: Visual.ly
Installing solar panels at home can provide financial and environmental benefits. Source: visual.ly

Tried and True Tips for Installing Solar Panels at Home

Interested in installing solar panels at home but not sure where to start? You’re not alone! We hear this question, a lot. Here are recommended next steps to begin the process:

Hit the Books (er, Internet)

You are already doing this if you’re reading this post, so congratulations! There is so much information about solar panels on the Web, and it’s great to have an understanding of the process before taking any action.

If you’re really looking to installing your own solar panels, check out the U.S. Department of Energy’s helpful guide to installing solar panels at home.

If you’re not sure how much power you are using or could stand to save with solar power, check out our helpful advice and tools to audit your home energy use and calculate power consumption of typical home devices. You can also use your electricity bill to know how much electricity you currently use. Once you know how much power you’re using every month, there are helpful solar calculators that can give you a sense of how many solar panels you might need.

Reduce then Renew

As we just mentioned, it is critical to understand how much electricity you use in your home before installing solar panels at home. Just as important is to reduce that load where possible. You will position yourself to fully take advantage of this renewable energy source if you first focus on ways to reduce your home energy consumption. A home energy audit will put you on the fast track to invest in the energy efficiency strategies with the highest return. Some low-hanging fruits that you can do in the meantime are to switch out your incandescent lightbulbs for LEDs, reduce phantom loads, and adopt energy-efficient habits in your daily chores.

Lean on a Pro

Solar panel installation is definitely something you want to do right the first time! With that in mind, we recommend working with a qualified professional who has certification from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners.

Don’t Go It Alone

Whether you do work with a professional or decide to carry out the project yourself, you don’t need to go it alone when it comes to financing! There are many opportunities to take advantage of, from state and federal tax breaks, utility rebates, and financing partnerships from various sources. Make sure to familiarize yourself with these opportunities. There really is no scarcity of incentives to go solar and you can find the incentives, rebates, and tax breaks for your state here.

Safety First

Make sure to acquaint yourself with safety procedures for homes with rooftop solar panels.  While energy efficient, the panels are heavy and can pose a risk to firefighters in case of an emergency.  Make sure to weigh the risks versus the benefits in deciding your solar panel strategy. If you live in a fire-prone area, it’s definitely worth working with a professional to develop the safest plan for your local climate.

Crawl, Walk Run

Interested in taking advantage of the sun to cut back on your electricity and help the environment? But not sure you’re ready to dive into a full solar panel array for your home? If you’re undecided about solar panels, there are many solar-powered gadgets for your home that can help you make the transition. Solar-powered outdoor lighting and even cell phone chargers are becoming more popular!

Here Comes The Sun!

Solar energy can help you cut energy costs and save the environment.  But it can be a lot of work.  If installing solar panels for your home seems daunting, don’t fret.  Installing solar panels in your residence may become easier in the next decade.  Ongoing work in solar energy supported by the U.S. Department of Energy seeks to create a “plug-and-play” solution to enable any homeowner to install solar panels in under 12 hours using pre-built, easily mountable roof arrays.