You have read Are Solar Panels for me? and decided that Solar Panels are in your future. Planning a new solar installation requires lots of analysis and planning. You need to size your solar system, select solar equipment, select a payment option, and find a qualified local solar installer.
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Sizing a Solar Electric System
Power Usage – Grab the power bills for the last year.
- How much power do you use in a given year? What rate plan are you on and what is it?
- Do you want to zero out your bill (most environmentally friendly) or just reduce your bill (financial benefit) by moving to lower price classes?
- It may be more cost effective to fall into lower price tiers. In the San Francisco Bay Area most PG&E customers have tiered energy pricing (E1 Residential Pricing plan) that starts at 12 cents, but jumps to 14, 29 cents, 40 cents and 40 cents as you use more power. The solar installer you select must be able to help you here.
It pays to reduce your electricity consumption by conservation and efficiency BEFORE you size a system. Read our tips on saving electricity. Each $1 spent on efficiency saves almost $3 in solar costs. Consider a home energy audit.
Sizing your system – Examine your roof size, power bill, solar panel efficiency, and see how large a system you can actually install. You may be limited by space on your roof. The very nice California Clean Power Estimator takes your power usage information, physical location information, incentive information to give you savings estimates based on solar panel size. Other states may have similar tools.
San Francisco has a nice solar map. It shows various solar system installations and how much solar power and money savings you can expect from your location.
Select Solar Equipment
Solar Panels – Picking the right solar panels is determined by how shaded your location is, your budget, and your efficiency needs. Be sure to compare panels using AC watt ratings. Make sure you purchase solar panels with a long established track record, you want these to last 30 years. Solar panel companies have been having financial problems, check out the manufacturer before purchasing.
Power Inverters – These units convert DC power to AC power. Each unit can only handle so many solar panels. Newer models have better efficiency at converting power. How many inverters do you need? Where will they be positioned? Do you leave room for future solar panel additions? Some communities require them to be in the shade and away from fire hazards. We recommend sticking to popular name brands like the Sunny boy.
Micro inverters are small inverters that are usually connected to the bottom of each solar panel. Instead of having a large inverter wired to all the panels, the micro inverters convert DC power to AC power right at the solar panel. This is relatively new technology, so you need to proceed with caution. Ask how do these inverters stand up to weather and sun exposure?
Paying for Solar Panels
Many people do not have $30k sitting around. Do you want to buy, get a solar loan, or lease solar panels? Both have advantages and disadvantages.
Optimal Installation Date
The optimal time to get your solar panel installed is in early spring/late winter, avoid installations in fall if possible. Very little power is produced when the days are short or when the sun does not shine. The biggest factor affecting an installation date is usually when tax rebates ends or when they ratchet lower. Try balancing the two factors to optimize your solar electric system install.
Utility Company Interaction
Most utilities offer credit for excess solar electricity provided to the utility but not used by the home. Power utilities are now fighting this provision, and may stop this practice some day.
When you have your solar panels installed, you should be able to select “time of use” billing where during peak times (Weekdays 1-7pm) in the summer, you generate more power than you need and collect energy credit for the lean winter months. The rates are 2.5x higher in summer, so you can earn a lot of winter offsets. They will also have an interconnection agreement for you to sign.
PG&E has a section on their Solar Energy section on their website. Net metering changes your power bill to an annual cycle. Our power bill is still charged a minimum $5 a month. At the end of the year, we pay them how much PG&E power we actually had to use.
Finding a Qualified Solar Installer
After reviewing the above criteria, the next step is to contact a local Solar Panel installer. They will first look at your property via online tools to see how your roof looks, examine your power bills, evaluate your goals, and see how your property is oriented.
Solar Electric installers should then visit your location to inspect it. Expect a customized solar system design, financial analysis, and options for financing.
A solar electric quote is a detailed quote a system tailored to your budget and home.
As with any vendor, look for one with a solid track record, solid references, and competitive pricing.
Questions to ask a solar electric system installer:
- How long have you been in business, how many installations?
- What is the minimum warranted power rating of the solar panels?
- What is the PTC per watt rating of the solar panels?
- Who makes the solar panels, how long have they been shipping these, factory warranty?
- How efficient are the solar panels and power inverter?
- Who makes the solar panels and power inverter?
- Who makes the solar panel mounting racks? Are they commercial grade?
- Get a quote for a solar electric system that will zero out your electric bill and a quote for a smaller system that will kick you into the lowest electricity tier.
Be sure to read our solar panel deals page for the latest updates in special promotions.
Once your Solar electric system is installed, you will need to maintain them as Solar Panels will need occasional solar panel cleaning.