Adding solar to your home is a rewarding DIY project, and it’s becoming more affordable every day. However, it must be clarified if you’re new to solar energy.
Even if you’re an EcoWarrior that ditches single-use plastic and practices other green habits daily, solar might still seem like a science outside your comfort zone.
What is Solar Power?
Solar power is the energy we use from the sun to create electricity and heat. This energy is produced through the conversion of sunlight into power using a variety of technologies. These include photovoltaic (PV), concentrated solar power, and thermal. Solar energy is an infinite resource that does not create harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
The most common way solar powers homes is through grid-tied systems. This is because most homeowners’ electrical loads are too large to be able to handle on their own. When you use a grid-tied system, your solar panel’s electricity is fed into your house in real time. If there is excess, it is sold back to the grid for credit. The idea is to offset a portion of your utility bill with solar electricity.
Many ask if this is worth it, and the answer is yes! While it requires a more significant upfront investment, it is a small sum compared to the amount you will pay over 25 or 30 years to buy electricity from your utility company.
The other benefit of this is that it gives you a piece of economic freedom. You will no longer need to rely on the power companies, and you can save money while helping the environment. That alone should be reason enough to invest in solar!
How Do Solar Panels Work?
You’ve probably seen solar cells on calculators, which don’t need batteries and seem to work forever as long as the sun shines. But did you know solar panels are also used in larger sizes on emergency road signs, call boxes, buoys, and parking lots to power the lights? They even powered satellites in space back in 1958. Solar energy is a renewable, clean, sustainable source of electricity that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and lowers your electric bill.
To produce solar power, your solar system uses photovoltaic cells with two sides with different conductors. When sunlight hits these solar cells, it knocks electrons from their atoms, creating electricity. Solar cells are typically wired together to form solar panels called arrays. These solar panels are then connected to an inverter, which converts DC electricity into alternating current (AC) electricity that your house can use.
Solar systems reach peak performance during hours of direct sunlight—especially before and after solar noon. But the amount of electricity they can generate will depend on several factors, including cloud cover and obstructions such as trees. If your solar system produces more energy than you need, it can be sold back to the conventional grid through a “feed-in tariff” program. It can be stored in a battery storage system if you don’t want to sell excess power.
How Much Solar Power Do I Need?
Before deciding to purchase a solar energy system, it’s essential to understand how much electricity your household consumes. This will give you a clear picture of how worthwhile it would be to switch to solar power and help you decide whether it is a suitable investment.
In most cases, the easiest way to determine household consumption is to look at past utility bills or check your account online. Typically, residential electricity consumption is billed in kilowatt-hours (kWh). The average American household consumes around 11,000 kWh per year.
The next step is determining the system size needed to meet your electricity requirements. This can be done using a formula considering three key factors: annual energy usage, panel wattage, and production ratios.
Online “solar calculators” from a solar energy system installer are great tools to help you calculate the size of the solar energy system you will need. They can also connect you with local installers for quotes.
In most cases, a grid-tied solar energy system will allow homeowners to claim credits from their utility company for the excess power they generate. At the same time, their home consumes electricity from the grid at night or on cloudy days. This is referred to as net metering. A battery storage system can also store the power produced by a solar energy system, adding to the cost.
How Do I Install Solar Panels?
Solar installation can seem daunting, but it’s very manageable. The first step is to understand your typical electricity usage. This is best done by looking at a recent electricity bill or calling your utility company. Once you have this information, you can calculate how much a system will cost and how quickly it will pay for itself.
Next, you’ll want to consider the geographic location of your home and the amount of sun it gets each day. Solar panels absorb sunlight and convert it to energy, so the more exposure they have, the more power they will produce. Generally, panels are installed on a roof facing south. If your area experiences a lot of shade or snow, installing panels in a different direction is possible, but this will affect performance.
Lastly, you’ll need to purchase an inverter, which converts the low-voltage DC signals from the PV panels into AC (for use in your household) or grid power. Inverters are the weak link in a solar energy system, so quality is essential. If your system uses micro-inverters or power optimizers, keeping all documentation and creating an array map identifying which unit controls each panel is a good idea.
Finally, you must plan your wiring run and connect your PV system to your household fuse box with a back feed breaker. It is essential to ensure the disconnect switch is easily accessible so all family members know how to shut off the system in an emergency.