Greener Home Design: Should I Install Solar Panels?

Brian Hogan
Mar 4, 2021 8:30:00 AM

If you’ve been thinking about reducing your reliance on nonrenewable energy sources at home, you’re not alone — an increasing number of homeowners are opting to “go green” by switching to solar energy.

Modern home rendering with solar roof panels

Clean and abundantly renewable, solar power is the fastest-growing source of electricity in the United States: it’s projected to climb from 11 percent of total U.S. renewable energy generation (in 2017) to 48 percent (by 2050). 

Solar may not be a one-size-fits-all remedy, but it is a fully customizable solution that can help you decrease your reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuels and greatly reduce your carbon footprint. Let’s explore the ins and outs — along with the pros and cons — of going solar.

What’s a carbon footprint?

With the impacts of climate change becoming more apparent with each passing year, a lot of people have been thinking about how they can reduce their carbon footprint, or the amount of greenhouse gases generated by their lifestyle and actions. 

Here in the U.S., our carbon footprint is notoriously oversized: the average American citizen produces 16 tons of greenhouse gases per year, or four times as much as the average global citizen, who produces about four tons of greenhouse gases per year. 

To have the best chance of preventing a catastrophic rise in global temperatures, scientists say the average global carbon footprint must fall below two tons per year by 2050. This easy online calculator can help you determine your current carbon footprint. 

Household energy use is a major component of most people’s carbon footprint. Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to shrink your carbon footprint at home — you can switch to energy-efficient LED bulbs, install a programmable thermostat, and make sure your house is properly insulated. 

Installing solar panels is a simple, highly effective way to make an even bigger impact. 

How does solar power work?

Residential solar power uses photovoltaic (PV) technology to harness the sun’s energy and turn it into electricity. A standard solar panel (as known as a solar module) is made up of 36 PV cells; each cell absorbs enough sunlight to generate one or two watts of electrical power.  

Solar panels can be used individually or in a group of powerful “arrays.” When solar panels or arrays are connected to the electric grid, they become part of a complete PV system. Because residential solar systems are modular, they can be built to meet virtually any electrical power need, from small to large.  

Do solar panels work in cold climates?

Solar panels are designed to work year-round in any climate, including northern climates where snow, cloudy skies, and cold temps are the norm from late November to early March.     

Given that PV technology produces at optimum capacity on sunny days, it isn’t surprising that solar panels generate less electricity when it’s cloudy. Even so, they can still operate at 10 to 25% of capacity on overcast days, depending on the duration and heaviness of the cloud cover. 

Rain showers can actually help improve the performance of solar panels by washing away dirt, dust, and pollen; snow may block panels from receiving sunlight for a while, but it usually melts away quickly because the panels are positioned to face the sun.   

Solar panel output is generally lower in the winter because there are fewer hours of daylight, but this electricity “shortage” won’t make a difference in your daily life — even if it’s overcast or snowy for days — because you always have the local utility grid for backup.  

Luxury 2-story home with walk-out basement onto tiered garden and grounds with a hot tub and fire pitIs solar power a viable option for my home?

A home that’s surrounded by trees isn’t well-suited to rooftop solar panels because they don’t work well in the shade. Abundant sunshine isn’t the only thing you need — rooftop solar panels also perform best on a south-facing roof that’s pitched (sloped) between 15 and 40 degrees.

It’s still possible to install solar panels on a roof that faces east or west or has a different pitch, it just won’t perform as optimally. But because solar equipment costs much less than it used to, an off-axis system that produces slightly less electricity (up to 80% of optimal capacity) can still be worthwhile.

Before getting solar panels, you’ll also want to consider the age of your roof — because the panels themselves can last 25 to 35 years, you don’t want to install them on an older roof that needs to be replaced a lot sooner than that. 

What are the pros and cons of going solar?

It’s wise to weigh the pros and cons of any major investment, including solar power. 

Key advantages of going solar include:

  • Eliminate or drastically reduce your electric bill: When you install solar panels, you generate your own electricity, save money, and become less reliant on your local utility company.
  • Gain control over rising energy costs: The cost of going solar has decreased by more than 70% in the last decade, while the cost of electricity has risen about 5% — and is expected to continue rising as time goes on.  
  • Increase the value of your home: Installing solar panels can increase the value of your home — a price premium analysis of a multi-state dataset of solar homes finds that prospective buyers in most states are willing to pay more for homes with solar. 
  • Reduce your carbon footprint: Solar is a form of clean, renewable energy that helps you shrink your contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Besides easing your burden on the environment, going solar supports the long-term national goal of transitioning away from fossil fuels.

Key disadvantages of going solar include:

  • It isn’t suited to every roof type: The mounting systems used to support solar panels can be difficult to install on certain roofing materials (i.e. cedar or slate tiles). They can also be challenging to install on roofs that have skylights, decking, or any other rooftop structure. In such cases, ground-mounted solar panels may be the most cost-effective option.   
  • It’s not ideal if you plan to move soon: Solar is a major investment that can take a few years to reach its break-even point; for homeowners in the U.S. who choose to pay for their solar systems in monthly installments, the average payback period is seven and a half years. Even so, solar panels do boost home value, and you can minimize your cost by taking advantage of government tax incentives (this website keeps track of current local incentives by zip code).

The bottom line? Solar power isn’t a perfect fit for everyone, but for interested homeowners who can afford it, it’s a low-risk investment that offers major benefits and returns. 

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