Estimating Solar Home Costs

This article examines how homeowners can prepare to use solar energy in their homes.

So, you're thinking of getting on the renewable energy bandwagon and reducing your carbon footprint in your home. Good for you! Lately, homeowners and business owners have bombarded with positive news (e.g., government incentives for implementing solar technology) as well as negative news (rapidly-rising energy costs and the long-term effects of global warming). For many, the idea of transitioning to solar power for energy seems more than a little intimidating.


Do you remember a time when only the rich or excessively nerdy owned a personal computer? I know this was several decades ago, but the truth is, the rest of us held back until nearly everyone we knew owned a computer. One day--and it's coming sooner than you think--most homes will use a combination of renewable energy sources to supply most, if not all, our required home energy. Solar will be a big part of this equation.


However, where should you begin? I'm going to assume for a moment that you are neither a solar scientist nor thermal engineer, and that your idea of researching solar is to go down to your neighborhood Home Depot and ask the friendly salesperson if they sell solar panels, and which one from the bunch they would recommend. Bad idea. First off, Home Depot doesn't sell solar panels. (Not my local store, anyway). Second, without doing your homework about your own home energy consumption, you won't be in a position to know what your own personal energy goals and needs should be.

Begin With the End In Mind

Your goal is probably not to impress your friends and neighbors with nice, space-age solar panels on your roof. Realistically, your goal is probably to save some money by reducing your current monthly energy costs. And this can be done in several ways: a) Reduce your current home energy consumption; b) produce energy from renewable energy sources to displace your use of disposable energy sources; or c) a combination of both. If you're like most, you can probably see the benefit of choice c) a combination of reducing disposable energy consumption while increasing production of renewable energy. So, when you begin with the end in mind, you'll know your goal and you'll know what you have to do to get there.

Choice A: Reduce Your Current Home Energy Consumption

This one is easy: Turn off the light when you leave the room; take warm showers instead of hot; turn down the thermostat when you go to bed; use thicker sheets and warm bed covers as needed; don't leave the water running when you brush your teeth. (How many more activities can you think of?) Sadly, this is not as popular a choice because most people have grown accustomed to--and enjoy--their usual comforts of home, and many are not willing to adopt a change of lifestyle in order to reduce their carbon footprint.

Choice B: Produce Renewable Energy

This could well be your 'jump in' point--the point at which you've decided to explore solar energy as a renewable energy source to offset your skyrocketing water, electric and/or heating bills for your home or business. Assuming you don't plan on building a nuclear reactor in your basement, you have two viable options: For consumer-oriented renewable energy, your choices are solar and wind power. (This article focuses on solar power, but there have been numerous instances of families who were able to move completely off-grid by integrating both wind and solar systems).

Choice C: Reduce Current Home Energy Consumption While Generating Renewable Energy.

This is a winning formula. By reducing your current consumption of disposable energy while generating renewable energy, you will not only reduce your overall energy usage, but also displace your use of disposable energy with energy you've harvested on your own. It's also a great way to do your part in protecting the environment and setting an excellent example for your neighbors and your community.

Measure What You Want to Control

For most people, the reason solar home and business costs are on their radar is because they wish to limit the financial strain imposed by the rising costs of electricity, oil and natural gas. As our energy consumption costs rise, our disposable income falls, and we may feel the strain as a reduction in the quality of our life and lifestyle. Perhaps, as a result, we eat out less often....or buy a smaller flat-screen TV. We may claim these as important markers to gauge our commitment towards investing in renewable energy sources like solar, but there is a much better way: Measure what you want to control. By quantifying, or measuring, the benefit we are expecting to receive from our investment, we can better control how satisfied we'll be with our decision. Do you know the amount of your electricity bill each month? How about oil and/or natural gas? Has the amount changed year-over-year? How much? You need to know such data in order to create a baseline; that is, a starting point from which you can measure your future energy costs and/or savings relative to what those costs are today. Knowing these costs can help you determine such critical factors as evaluating how long it will take for your renewable energy system (e.g., solar panels) to pay themselves off in cost savings.

Action Item: Set Your Baseline

Okay...everything sounds good and you're still committed to going solar? Then it sounds like you're ready to 'set your baseline' by determining your energy consumption usage for today, last month, a year ago last month, and so on. You'll probably need to gather and organize your old energy bills from the shoebox or file cabinet. Once you have your old bills in hand, the next step is to conduct a Home Energy Audit which, amazingly enough, you can do yourself.

Do-It-Yourself Audits

If you have five minutes and your last 12 months of utility bills, you can use the ENERGY STAR Home Energy Yardstick to compare your home's energy efficiency to similar homes across the country. You can even get recommendations for energy-saving home improvements from ENERGY STAR. When using the ENERGY STAR service, you will also need to enter some information about your home (such as zip code, age, square footage, and number of occupants). If you don't have your bills, you should contact your utility company for a 12-month summary.

Professional Home Energy Audits

If you prefer to have a professional perform an energy audit on your home, you can consider contacting a professional Home Energy Auditor. Hire a Professional Home Energy Auditor If you are interested in getting specific recommendations for improving the efficiency of your home, you might consider contacting a professional Home Energy Auditor. A professional auditor typically uses a variety of techniques and equipment to determine the energy efficiency of your home. These audits are quite thorough, often using equipment such as blower doors, which measure leaks in the building envelope, and infrared cameras, which can reveal hard-to-detect areas of air infiltration and missing insulation.

Note: Some utility companies offer free or discounted energy audits to their customers. If yours does not, you might consider hiring a home energy professional, such as a certified Home Energy Rater, to evaluate your home's energy efficiency. Read additional articles about solar cost issues by visiting The Solar Cost Guide [].

Curt Zilbersher, a journalist and renewable energy advocate for The Solar Cost Guide, focuses on environmental and solar energy issues.