If you have always wanted to “go solar,” harnessing solar energy, now is a good time. From 2010 to 2013, the price of photovoltaic solar energy systems plummeted more than 30 percent. In addition, the federal government offers a 30 percent tax credit, and there are some state and local incentives. Follow these tips to determine if you home is a good fit for a solar energy system.

When my husband and I were house shopping, it was obvious we are solar enthusiasts. We would discuss the solar energy potential of each home: where is the best place to mount panels, whether the roof had enough space to generate all our electricity, and if the panels would be shaded.


Orientation of the House

It is ideal to mount solar panels facing south; therefore, the ideal roof is either flat or has a ridge running east to west. For a flat roof, a racking system is typically used to angle the panels south, while panels are usually mounted flush against a pitched roof. Solar panels can also be mounted on a roof with a peak running north and south – but they either will be mounted perpendicular to the peak of the roof or will capture considerably less energy if they are mounted facing east or west. Panels can also be mounted on the garage, as an awning, on the ground, or even as a trellis.

South-facing solar panels gather the greatest quantity of energy over the course of the year (in the northern hemisphere). If your home is oriented slightly southeast or southwest, it will not significantly reduce you solar system output. If the panels face east or west however, however, they will capture primarily morning or afternoon sun, considerably decreasing your energy production. An easy way to determine the orientation of your home is to view a satellite photo of the property on Google Maps.

Solar Exposure

Is your roof in full sun, or do trees or buildings shade it? Keep in mind the future growth of the trees around your home, as the designed life of photovoltaic solar panels is 40 years. Obstructions on the east, west, and especially the south sides of the home are the most concerning.  Even a shadow from a chimney can impact the performance of your photovoltaic system. Early morning and late evening shade will have less impact on the overall system output than midday shade, when the energy generation potential is greatest.

Panel Placement

Although your house roof is the most obvious place to mount the solar panels, there may be a better option if condition pose problems. Other options may be more costly to install, but the boost in solar system output may justify the additional expense.

An awning mount may be ideal if your roof peak runs north and south. Awnings can also provide beneficial shading for south-facing windows that may get excessive summer sun. Solar panels can be placed in a position that allows winter sunlight to enter the home (when the sun is lower in the sky), but provides shades in the summer (when the sun is higher in the sky). The space for solar panels may be limited however, requiring a smaller system to be installed.

Catawba Valley Habitat for Humanity's Zero Energy House
Catawba Valley Habitat for Humanity’s Zero Energy House. Image courtesy of Sarah

Solar panels can also be mounted on an attached or even a detached garage. The greater the distance, however, the greater the wire loss for photovoltaic systems, but this loss may be preferable to mounting panels in a shadier location. Detached garages may also be an ideal place to mount panels if you don’t want them to be visible from the front of the home.

If you have ample unshaded yard space, a solar trellis or carport can also provide shade and rain cover in your yard as an added benefit. Constructing this additional structure will increase your overall cost, but may provide additional benefits.

Sizing Your Solar System

The size of your system will be limited by the available space for panels, your budget, or your household demand for electricity. Examine your current annual electric use by reviewing your electric bill and to determine how much electricity you would like to generate from solar. The system output will depend on the system size, the solar radiation in your area, and the angle of the panels. The National Renewable Energy Labs has a calculation tool called PV watts that estimates system production throughout the year and the dollar value of the energy produced. In some areas, it might be possible to lease a solar system, dramatically reducing the upfront cost of a system.

The same system in New York City will generate less electricity than a system in Las Vegas. Although energy use varies greatly from house to house, the average single-family home uses approximately 12,000 kWh of electricity annually, while the average unit in a multi unit building uses less. Keep in mind that a solar system doesn’t have to generate 100% of your electricity (unless you aren’t connected to the electric grid).

Solar PV panel installation
Solar PV panel installation. Image courtesy of brian kusler.

The cost of your electricity is a major factor,but this varies widely from across the country. In Hawaii, electricity is $0.38 per kWh compared to $0.10 per kWh in Idaho or West Virginia. The type and severity of the environmental impact of this electricity also varies by fuel source. For example, coal produces more carbon emissions than nuclear power, but nuclear has a host of other dangers associated with it.

Net metering laws also vary widely, but currently 43 states have them.These laws obligate the power company to bank excess electricity supplied to the grid for later use by the homeowner. For example, if you feed 8 kWh of electricity into the grid during the day and then consume 8 kWh of electricity at night, under net metering laws, you will neither owe money nor be reimbursed for this power if you provided as much electricity as you later consumed.

Harvesting the sun and generating your own energy is fulfilling and reduces your dependence on fossil fuels. When you are using your computer or turning on a light – it is great to know the power comes from the sunlight falling on your own property.

Feature image courtesy of Earthworm

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.