How to Choose the Best Solar System for Your Home

With the rising cost of energy and concerns about global warming, many people are thinking about installing solar systems in their homes. Choosing the right solar system for your energy needs will lower the cost of your initial investment and help you save the most money over time.

Analyze Your Energy Costs

Doing an analysis of your energy costs is the first step in choosing a solar system. Make a list of everything in your home that uses energy including lighting, appliances, air conditioning or space cooling, water heating and space heating. Determine the type of energy each item uses and how much it costs annually to power that item. Generally, space and water heating are the most costly, followed by refrigeration and air conditioning. Before investing in a solar system, explore ways to reduce electricity consumption.  Consider upgrading to appliances with Energy Star ratings. Put small appliances on power strips that can be completely turned off to eliminate phantom load, a small draw of electricity that occurs when the appliance is not in use. Don't forget to replace all incandescent light bulbs with the new compact fluorescents. 

Two Types of Solar Systems

Solar systems come in two basic types. The most well-known type is the photovoltaic or PV panel that makes electricity. PV systems are recommended for appliances and lighting only. PV systems, however, are the most expensive type of solar system. The time it takes to recoup your initial investment and get completely free power is longer.

For power guzzlers such as water heaters, furnaces and boilers, solar designers advise using solar thermal systems. Solar thermal systems simply generate heat. Although your water heater, furnace or boiler is powered by electricity, there is no sense in making electricity to make heat when direct solar heating will do the job at a lower cost. The problem that some people have with retrofitting solar thermal in their homes is finding space to accommodate the water storage tank needed to provide hot water on demand. But, giving up space is worth the sacrifice. Solar thermal is optimal for radiant heat and tankless water heating systems. Generally, you can expect to reduce your energy costs by an average of 80 per cent annually. To maximize the usefulness of solar thermal, your system can be set up to heat a pool or hot tub in the summer. For those who are concerned about global warming, heating your domestic water with solar will reduce your carbon output more than driving a hybrid car! The Department of Energy's website has stated that investing in a solar thermal system to heat water is "better than investing in the stock market."

To Be or Not to Be on the Grid

After the devastating black outs and brown outs on the east coast, many people swore they would invest in solar PV systems that would get them "off the grid." A stand-alone system is possible. It requires an expensive bank of deep-cycle solar batteries that are charged up by the PV panels and will provide power for three to five days. Solar designers only recommend stand alone systems when there are many power outages in the area or the home is located in a remote area and does not have access to the public grid. In most states, power companies offer grid tie services. The advantages to a grid tie system are that battery back-up is unnecessary, cutting the cost of the system, and giving the owner constant electric service. In some states, excess power can be sold back to the electric company.

The Latest Solar Technology

The look of PV panels has remained the same since they were first manufactured but new technology has made the cells smaller, denser and more efficient. More wattage can now be produced at less cost than panels manufactured just two years ago. The panels themselves are thinner and less likely to crack or shatter.

Solar thermal panels are still manufactured as flat plate collectors but a new design using glass evacuated tubes is gaining in popularity. The evacuated tube design has several advantages over flat plate collectors. They lose less heat because a vacuum is the best insulation. Also, the tube design produces heat for a longer time during the day since the sun's rays hit the tubes from every angle.  Evacuated tube collectors are lighter and stand up to wind better.

Solar developers are finding new uses for both PV and thermal solar systems. For instance, solar air conditioning using PV panels in an inexpensive, direct current configuration is now available in the United States. For large homes and commercial buildings, solar thermal collectors can provide air conditioning using a small chiller system.

Solar is Affordable

A solar system will pay for itself through energy savings at an average of five to seven years for thermal and ten to fifteen years for PV. The federal government will refund 30 per cent of your initial investment for equipment and installation through a tax rebate program. Many states also have tax rebate or credit programs. Some states do not collect gross receipts tax on the purchase of equipment and installation, as well. Also, there is new government sponsored, low cost financing available. Your solar dealer will be able to help you find financing with a low monthly payment. If you can afford to pay your utility bills every month, you can afford solar!

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