Installing solar power at home is no longer about being green. With rising electricity prices and the reducing costs of solar equipment, sourcing power from the sun is starting to stack up financially.
Five years ago the payback on installing solar power did not make sense for homeowners and you were likely to be either very rich or very green to do it.
With a solar power system now costing about half of what it did and with ever rising power prices, the gap is narrowing.
Homeowners not only want to hedge themselves against the future power price hikes but add a feature to their property too, the green factor is a nice bonus. Most are adding the cost of solar to the mortgage so not only is it becoming increasingly popular but attainable too.
Solar grid-tied photovoltaic (PV) systems create electricity from the sun’s radiant energy. Power is generated to supply the house during the day and any excess is sold back to the grid (power companies).
A residential system is made up of PV panels, mounting hardware, cables, an inverter (or controller) and a meter supplied by your power company. Off-grid systems will have batteries, back-up generators and other components.
The volume of electricity generated depends on the sunlight the panels are exposed to. Solar works best in a north-facing position but east and west are also fine, although extra panels may be needed.
A variety of solar equipment is on the market. The right type for your property will depend on a number of factors including power usage, available roof space and the style of house you have.
The cost of a standard PV system is $10,000 to $11,000 for an average-sized household (a three-bedroom home with two adults and two children living in it). This would likely be a 3lWh system (3 kilowatts of power produced per hour) and include all equipment, installation and materials. It would be suited to anyone with an average monthly bill up to $200 and should reduce power costs by around half, or annually between $1,000 and $1,300.
Solar is straightforward to install in most cases but installation costs will vary between houses (i.e two-storey houses require scaffolding and concrete tile roofs need different mounting systems). The biggest killer for solar is shading, usually from trees, other buildings or even the roof’s shape.
Houses with very small roof areas or south facing are not suited to solar.
It is important to keep in mind the economics of solar are very sensitive to a system’s price, lifespan and also the amount that energy providers will pay for power.
Roy Maddox of Solar King works with many homeowners on solar. To maximise the financial benefits it is most important to establish the right size system.
“To do this we analyse a household’s power usage and then design a system where the solar power will offset all daytime power use and generate enough extra power to sell back to the power company and still get close to full retail price.” A ‘grow as you go’ type option can be a good starting point, so beginning with a 2kWh system that can increase up to 4kWh.
Households with high energy needs like ones with swimming pools or spas can really benefit from solar by setting heating and filter timers to go on during the day. This power load shifting is effective on a smaller scale too by setting timers on washing machines, dishwashers and freezers.
Solar equipment is mainly made in Europe, Asia and Australia, although EnaSolar is making inverters. The increase in Chinese companies supplying PV panels along with technology advances making installation easier, have helped with the drop in costs.
“Solar production is an international commodity market, more and more products are being made in China and the better products out of China are as good as anything out of Europe,” Roy says.
“Five years ago we focused on north facing, at a perfect angle and everything had to be ideal but now the panels are less than half what they cost and if you have an east or west facing roof you just put on a couple of extra panels to make up the difference.”
All leading brands of systems warrant that after 25 years power production will still be at least 80% of what it was new. The inverter will likely need to be replaced once during this time.
Maintenance is minimal and Roy recommends washing the panels every year or two when you clean your roof. A system adds about 10 kilograms of weight per square metre and Roy says it doesn’t put any pressure on the roof.
Rob Adamson of Right House agrees that installing solar should be matched with being smart about power use. Cost savings will come down to when and how you use electricity.
“It is amazing how aware people become of their energy usage when they go to solar and how much they can save just by turning things off or replacing light bulbs.”
Rob recommends people look closely at the quality of the solar equipment they are buying. The inverter is especially important, as it is a key component to the system turning direct current (DC) power into alternating current (AC) power. “People need to look at the quality and performance of the kit going in, they need to understand what the warranties really mean,” he says. Ask for references, search online and ask your supplier lots of questions.
Make sure you compare ‘apples with apples’ when looking at multiple quotes. Ideally, he says, opt for a one-stop shop type supplier that also installs rather than contracting out.
While the technology around solar batteries is evolving, batteries to store power from grid-tied solar systems for later use are not currently deemed financially viable. Going solar is an opportunity to look at other ways of reducing energy usage.
Replacing old light bulbs with light emitting diode (LED) lighting will help reduce electricity consumption at night. It can save up to 90% in power costs in the average home.
Demand has increased significantly in recent years says Liberio Riosa of LZ Lighting.
“When I started seven years ago I was selling the most expensive light on the market during the start of the recession,” Liberio says. “People are looking past just the lighting and they are looking at the thermal barrier, you can put insulation over your lights now.” LEDs don’t heat up like traditional lights so holes don’t need to be left around insulation.
Liberio says the average home has around 21 lights with an annual running bill of $1,080 for six hours light per night using traditional lightbulbs. Installing LED bulbs would cost around $500 and bring the yearly running cost down to around $113.
He says many homes, especially new builds, end up with more lights than they need so be careful when planning lighting for your home. Consider what each room is used for and the lighting required for that activity. Hallways and dining areas often end up with unnecessary lighting.
Dimmers are also a good option for different lighting effects. If there are multiple lights in one room then having some on a separate circuit means they don’t all switch on at the same time.
Aside from energy savings and the longer life time (LED bulbs should last 15 years), the instant, crisp and clear light makes it popular. A surge protector will help protect against power spikes.
Heat pump hot-water systems, heat pumps and insulation are among other energy efficiency options around the home.
This article by Carolyn Brooke featured on page 85 of Issue 011 of Renovate Magazine. Renovate Magazine is an easy to use resource providing fresh inspiration and motivation at every turn of the page.
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