Buying Solar For Your Home: A Starter Guide

If you're thinking of installing solar panels on your home, start with this crash course.

Photo of a house with solar panels.

On the Internet, it’s hard to find unbiased advice about how to go solar.

A lot of what you read is written by companies who are selling solar equipment or services.

I’ve been a solar homeowner since 2013, and I wrote this guide with all the tips and information that I wish I knew back then. To be clear, I’m a big solar advocate, and this site makes money when you get a quote for a solar installation. But I also know that there are a lot of situations where solar may not be the best investment, or a homeowner should put off solar until other upgrades are done first.

The articles below try to honestly answer most of the basic questions that a homeowner who is thinking about going solar might have. If there’s a question you still have, check out everything in the blog or shoot me a note!

Why go solar?

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According to a survey by Pew Research, 39% of homeowners in the United States have given serious thought to going to solar. That’s a lot!

The survey lists the top four reasons that homeowners have given for why they’re interested in solar:

  • Save money on utility bills (92% of respondents)
  • Help the environment (81%)
  • Receive a tax credit (64%)
  • It would be better for my own and my family’s health (59%)

Many other surveys have been conducted, and responses are similar.

Another common response is that people like energy independence. To some that means being able to have electricity when the grid is experiencing a blackout, while others want to pay less money to a utility company that they dislike.

Solar panels can help with that too, especially if you have a battery to store your excess solar electricity (because solar panels don’t work during a blackout unless you have a battery). Be aware that while a very small number of solar homes are completely off-the-grid, the vast majority maintain a grid connection.

Finally, while they certainly contribute to a cleaner global environment by reducing the need for fossil fuel power plants, solar panels don’t directly improve your family’s health - unless you also work to electrify your home. As this Popular Science article describes, gas appliances are responsible for as many as 21 hazardous pollutants in homes, including benzene and toluene. If you replace gas with electric appliances and add solar panels to offset their electricity usage, you can improve your indoor air quality.

Deciding whether solar is feasible for you

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Ultimately, the best way to find out whether solar is feasible for your home is to get three proposals from local solar installers. Multiple quotes will let you compare different system designs, power generation estimates, and prices.

Before you do that, there are some general things that will let you know if solar panels are likely to be a good investment for your home:

  • Your electricity prices are at least average or higher. The latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration says that the national average price of electricity is 15.64 cents/kWh. If your electricity is significantly cheaper (such as in the Pacific Northwest), solar panels won’t be as good an investment.
  • You’ve already done low cost energy efficiency fixes in your home. Solar panels are great, but low cost energy efficiency fixes are often more cost effective and should be done first.
  • Your roof is in good shape and has minimal shading. You want at least 15 years of life left in your roof before installing solar panels on it. A south-facing roof is generally best, and shading is always bad.
  • Net metering is available. When your solar panels generate more electricity than your home needs, you can sell electricity to the utility and receive a credit. Getting a full credit is called net metering, and will shorten your financial payback compared to partial credit schemes, such as net billing.
  • You have additional incentives available. Some local entities and state governments have additional solar incentives you can take advantage of, including Colorado, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Just because you don’t live in the sunniest location doesn’t mean that solar can’t work for you. Use our calculator to learn about incentives near you.

If several of the above items apply to you, there’s a good chance that it will make financial sense for you to install solar panels.

Choosing a solar installer

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If you’ve decided that going solar is right for you, the next step is to pick an installer for your project. For reasons described in the next section, it’s better to choose a local company rather than one of the big national companies.

You’ll want to get multiple quotes - three is a good number. If you get many more than that, you’ll tend to get diminishing returns for your time. Be aware that while solar quote comparison websites can be useful, but some people have reported “bait-and-switch” pricing tactics used by some installers.

Paying for your solar panels: tips and pitfalls to look for

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One great piece of recent news was the extension of the 30% federal tax credit for solar panels. This knocks a big chunk off the price of solar. You may have access to other incentives too, such as the state tax credits in New York, Massachusetts, and Hawaii.

These credits are available if you own your solar panels, but unfortunately many solar installers push consumers into leases and power purchase agreements. With this type of financing, you don’t get the tax credits or own the system. You are basically renting your solar system from the installer. In most cases, this is a worse option for the consumer.

This is one reason why it’s better to choose smaller local firms than the national companies. The big companies tend to derive a significant segment of their revenue from leasing and the tax credits that result. Because of this, their salespeople may not always have your best interests in mind.

If you decide to buy your system but use a loan, the solar loan industry tends to hide costs from consumers. The result is that you may be paying financing fees for your solar panels that you didn’t even know about. For this reason, you should shop around for your own financing.

Understanding the components of a solar system

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When you’re working with a solar installer, you’ll discuss equipment that you probably don’t have much familiarity with: solar panels of course, but also inverters, system monitoring, racking, and maybe a battery too. Your electrical panel might need an upgrade, and you’ll probably need a new utility meter.

All of this can be pretty confusing. The good thing is that solar equipment in general is durable and will perform well. There are millions of solar panels manufactured globally every year. The result of this competition is that it’s unlikely that your system will be a “lemon”: any equipment installed on your home will probably perform very well.

Still, it’s always good to be a knowledgeable consumer. The articles above will hopefully help demystify some of the more technical aspects of home solar.

Post-installation tips

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Have you installed solar panels? Congratulations! Generating your own clean electricity is pretty great. One of the benefits of home solar is that there’s very little you need to do. Most of the time, you don’t even need to clean them.

Still, there’s a few things you should do, such as contact your home insurance provider, and make sure that you claim your tax credit. The articles above offer some helpful tips for what to do after you’ve had your panels installed.

Save 30% or more on home solar with current incentives

Photo of a solar home.

Use our calculator to get a financial payback and solar performance estimate customized to your home, including federal, state, and local incentives.

When you’re ready, fill out our form to get a home solar quote from a local SunPower installer.