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Cheat Sheet: Shopping for Solar Panels

Want to save on your electric bill and do something good for the planet? Solar panels, activate! Also known as photovoltaic cells, those sleek, tinted squares can generate electricity for basically nada (after the cost of the panels) and they’re 100% pollutant-free. Even nicer, they can earn tax credits and even power company refunds that’ll help cover your initial equipment expenses. Interested? Here’s what you need to know to go solar.

Your roof exposure

The roof, the roof, the roof is on….well, it’s at least plenty warm, hopefully. That’s because the single most important detail to consider before getting started is whether your roof has enough sun exposure. Ideally, your roof faces the southern sky, though roofs that face east or west can still be sufficient for significant solar savings. However, those in heavily shaded areas will probably be ineligible to join the solar club.

The hot brands
The three most popular solar brands right now are SunPower, Sharp, and Kyocera. They’re like the Nike, Reebok, and New Balance of solar panels, and as such, the most costly. SunPower in particular is noted for its high efficiency (a measurement of how much electricity it can generate). Generally, the higher the efficiency number, the better—though that isn’t the whole story. Some brands require larger roof space in order to reap full efficiency benefits, while others may have lower efficiency but are better suited for smaller roofs. Whichever brand you choose, look for least 15% efficiency, and for panels made from monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicon, both of which materials are noted for their longevity.

Batteries sold separately
Solar panels convert sunlight into electricity to be used instantly. Unfortunately, they can’t store energy for later. To solve that problem, at night, most solar users switch back to the main grid (your local power company, like PS&G or Con ­Ed). But if you want to be completely covered in case of power outages, you’ll need batteries. (If the battery is big enough, you could get off the grid completely.) Yes, they will increase the initial cost of your system, but you’ll always have power when you need it most.

Inverters are key
All solar panels produce electricity via direct current (DC). As luck would have it for the businessmen of the solar panel industry, all households run on alternating current (AC). Thus you’ll need to purchase a separate accessory called an inverter. Fortunately, these are relatively inexpensive, and they come with a nice benefit: when your panels take in more energy than your house is actually using, the inverter will send that excess AC back to the grid. In exchange, you’ll get a reduction in your monthly energy cost, or even better, money back.

You’ll need professional help
In many states, installation by a certified solar installer is required to qualify for those energy tax credits, which could net you a refund of over half the cost of your equipment. Go pro, and let next year’s tax refund be something that makes your accountant’s jaw drop.

Thinking about going solar? Let me know in the comments!

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Jen
    July 25, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    Great info, thanks! We are looking to install panels and didn’t know where to start. Seems to be a money saver down here in FL.

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