6 tips for buying a small solar energy system

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | October 6, 2014

Whether you are interested in greening the planet or your wallet, you have likely heard the chatter over the last few years about saving energy and money by installing a small solar energy system for your home. Some owners of these photovoltaic (PV) solar panel systems do not just save on their energy bills; they may also sell excess energy they produce back to the utilities company (or "the grid.") In these cases, their net use of energy could end up being a wash. They achieve a net-zero energy house.

Some states have considered making net-zero energy houses a requirement for new-construction homes in the future by integrating small renewable energy systems and improved energy-saving features into new-build homes. Existing homes, however, may not have to wait. If you want to investigate whether a large or small solar energy system is best for your electricity usage and what it might cost, here is partial list of what you need to evaluate, research, and do before making any decisions:

  1. Perform a solar site analysis: Evaluate your site's orientation toward the sun -- south-facing is best -- and the angle the PV panels will have once they are mounted -- typically on the roof. Homes in regions with the most sunlight such as the Southwest make the best candidates for PV renewable energy systems, but factors such as periods of fog must be considered as well. Some smaller homes may not realize enough savings, sometimes because they don't have enough roof space for sufficient PV panels.
  2. Determine the condition of your roof: Companies that install photovoltaic power systems typically provide an inspection of your roof as part of their service to make sure its condition is suitable for the installation. You may want to have this done before deciding to contract with a particular installation company. If your roof doesn't pass muster, you may need to repair it or install a new roof. However, you may be able to have the solar panels set up on the ground if space and local codes allow.
  3. Conduct an energy audit: Make sure every place in your home that might be wasting energy is addressed before proceeding further with your solar panel system evaluation. If you have smart metering, your power company may be able to provide suggestions of areas that could use improvement based on your past year's energy consumption and by you answering questions about your usage habits. You can also hire an energy auditor. You might need anything from a whole new HVAC system to more insulation in the attic or just new weather stripping around your doors and windows. Fix these issues first and you may be able to save money by purchasing a smaller solar energy system than what you would otherwise need if your home is less energy-efficient.
  4. Do a load analysis: Determine not just how much electricity you use but how often, and at what times of the day and year you operate anything that runs on electricity -- appliances, electronics, lighting fixtures, etc. This information is also helpful for purchasing the right size system and gauging what times of the day and year you use more energy.
  5. Check local requirements: Building codes, community covenants and ordinances such as HOA restrictions, and prior easements or agreements may present hurdles that have to be overcome before you can proceed. Solar energy companies that operate in your locale or state may be of help at this stage, or you may need to ask for assistance from your state energy office or local building permit office.
  6. Decide if you will connect to the grid: Do you plan to supplement your solar energy system with power from your local utility company as well as sell excess power your system produces back to the grid? State, local, and your utility company regulations can affect this decision as well as how much energy you need to run your home. Conversely, deciding whether to connect to the grid can affect who might be required to do the installation, as well as what type of components you need to balance your system. For example, grid-connected systems require power-conditioning and safety equipment, instruments, and meters to distribute the energy loads and transmit power back to the grid properly. Stand-alone systems require similar components, as well as batteries for storing energy and a charge controller.

Other small solar energy system considerations

Federal tax incentives plus incentives in some states make leasing a renewable energy system a viable way for some homeowners to get a system installed with no money down. The leasing company does many of the evaluations listed above, determines the right size system for you and does the installation. You pay them a fixed rate each month to lease the equipment and whatever else their plan includes such as maintenance, for example. Leasing programs vary, so research several different companies.

Small homes that are heated by oil or natural gas may not realize enough savings to make the cost of installing solar panels a worthwhile investment. Large homes that heat and cool with electricity stand to gain the most benefit from PV systems.

Several states, such as Wisconsin, are considering changes to their incentive plans that might make small renewable energy systems less attractive in terms of savings to homeowners by increasing fees to sell energy back to the grid.

Bottom line: Do your homework. If it turns out that a solar energy system is not right for your home or your electricity usage at this time, at least you may have uncovered a few outstanding ways to save energy in the process. Either way, you win.

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.