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A contractor installs solar panel roofing on a residential home

Solar panels for homes

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Given everything the sun does for humanity, it’s almost surprising that our most important star doesn’t send us a monthly bill. And if it did, we would gladly pay it – we need the sun, after all. But what if it could do even more for us? Solar panels for homes have taken up greater prominence in recent years, largely due to the sustainable nature of sun-fueled power. Still, given that it is a newer form of harnessed energy compared to the options that have been available to homeowners for decades, there is bound to be some uncertainty among people with interest in solar panels.

It certainly sounds like a beneficial, cost-effective way to power a home, but is it really worth the investment? This, like many of the other inquiries related to solar energy,  is one best left to the professionals. Which is why JustAnswer reached out to one of the Experts with your burning solar questions!

Meet the Expert

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Phil is a retired HVAC, electrical and boiler contractor who works as a consultant to engineers and government contractors. He has been an Certified Expert on JustAnswer since September of 2009, and has assisted nearly 9,000 people on the website to date with their Home Improvement, HVAC, Appliance, Plumbing, and Electrical issues.

Phil’s years of experience make him an invaluable source of information, and he was kind enough to share his expertise with us. Solar panels and their applications come with a great deal of uncertainty, especially for homeowners looking to make a change. We posed some of the questions most commonly asked regarding solar energy solutions, in the hopes that Phil would show us the light.

Questions concerning the viability of homes for solar panel installations

Many of the uncertainties surrounding new solar panels for residences are related to the compatibility of a given house. When you consider existing structures that are already configured for more conventional forms of energy, it’s easy to assume that adding solar power isn’t an option. However, this isn’t always the case.

Workers completing solar panel for home installation
Consistently cloudy weather can harm the viability of a solar panel installation.

Not every home will be a perfect fit, but understanding which factors matter most can make figuring out your compatibility much simpler. Climate – specifically cloudy weather – is also a common concern, for obvious reasons. Luckily, there’s an Expert in the building who can dispel some of the confusion fogging things up.

 

Q: Are home solar panels still advantageous for me if I live in an area that doesn’t feature much direct sunlight (city, smoggy climate, etc.)? Can weather events like snow accumulation or heavy rain affect solar panel effectiveness?

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The higher the local electric utility rates are, the more viable... and the sunnier the climate and closer to the equator the more viable. You have to mix those two factors to get to a conclusion. 

 

QAre some roofs unsuitable for solar power? Which qualities make a rooftop a good fit for solar panel installations?

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Tile roofs can be a problem, difficult to anchor the panel supports... all others are viable.

 

QWhat factors determine the ideal size for my home solar energy system?

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Total load, cost of electricity from the utility company, willingness to (forgo) large electrical appliances or not. 

Additional Insights

The viability of solar power, according to Phil, is improved when other energy reduction measures are combined with it. To illustrate this point, he explains that by changing out an electric clothes dryer and stove for gas-powered versions, in addition to adding solar panels, you could cut costs in a big way. To further aid savings, your home would require fewer panels, as well as a smaller battery bank.

“Such a reduction in electrical load reduces your overall demand profile and in many areas can reduce the electric bill by 30% or more.” Unfortunately, he goes on to warn, companies that want to sell you the biggest possible panel systems will not tell you this.

Questions covering uses for solar panel in households

Even if you’ve successfully determined that your house’s structure and location make it a good candidate for solar energy, there are likely other questions you need answered. If you’re like countless other homeowners considering solar power solutions, you might be wondering just how far the benefits of this form of energy can go for you.

It is an investment after all, and if it’s one you’re thinking of making, it’s natural to wonder how useful sun panels would be if an unexpected power issue were to occur. Also, while there’s no denying the appeal of being able to separate your home from the electric company’s grasp, is this kind of self-sufficiency really worth the trouble – assuming it’s even possible?

 

QCan solar panels still provide electrical power in the event of a blackout?

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Yes, on a sunny day... and/or for short periods of time unless you have an oversized battery bank and do not run an electric drier or oven etc. Best application is to run the lights and refrigerator and TV... let the rest suffer. 

 

QCan I become completely self-reliant for my electricity needs with solar energy? If so, what would it take for me to get off the grid?

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Phil: You can but it is not cost effective with solar alone... too many panels and batteries required. A combination of super insulation, wind, solar, large battery bank. And forgoing whole house AC, and electric stove and drier would get you off the grid cost effectively.

Rooftop wind turbines and solar panels for home
The benefits of solar panels for homes are augmented by other sustainable energy sources.

Additional Insights

Phil maintains that opportunities for synergy between multiple energy sources like wind turbines and solar panels are too often ignored. Utilizing both, as opposed to just one, will produce better results and make living off the grid much more plausible. Additionally, he touches on a very important point regarding bigger, more demanding appliances:

“Heavy electric motors, such as air conditioning motors rated at 4 or 5 horse power, draw 3 times the current required to run a 4 or 5 hp motor for about 3 seconds on start up.”

This can be too much for the system to handle, especially if you fail to take the higher power demand for starting up into consideration when you decide on your system. You could very well end up with enough solar power  to sustain your household, but not enough to allow your air conditioning system to start up.

Wrapping up with any important solar power issues we missed

We did our best to cover some of the most common – and crucial – questions posed by people considering solar energy for their homes. Still, given the multitude of variables and factors, not to mention the countless different solar power configurations available out there, we were bound to miss a few things. Luckily, our helpful Expert Phil was happy to oblige us with some useful tidbits that might just help you come to a decision regarding your home’s primary energy source.

 

QIs there anything we didn’t mention that you’d consider important for homeowners interested in solar energy solutions?

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Solar should be combined with super insulation, going to gas for clothes drier and oven. Do not try to run a whole house AC on solar unless it’s very small (under 18,000 btu and an inverter type system). 
 
Prices on solar panels and battery bank storage have dropped dramatically in the last 10 years, and it will be less costly and more viable next year, than it is this year. Waiting as technology advances at warp speed and costs go significantly lower is not a bad idea.

Additional Insights

One of the biggest mistakes made by do-it-yourself homeowners, according to Phil, is not knowing how to calculate actual solar power output. This output is not in amps, but rather, is calculated by multiplying amps and voltage. “A 100 amp rated solar system is often confused with 100 amps of power from the grid, when in fact if the 100 amps of solar is at 12 volts, it is only 1/10th the power of 100 amps at 120 volts.”

This can be a very costly mistake, as you could potentially end up with a 100 amp solar energy system intended for an entire house, that can only supply a 10th of the power needed to replace a 100 amp electrical panel!

In conclusion, by itself solar power isn’t going to be one of the more cost-effective ways of lowering your energy bills. However, Phil maintains that if you’re planning to combine it with other consumption-reducing measures, it becomes a viable and responsible option.

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