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How to Determine If Solar Panels Make Sense for You

Channel your inner Elon Musk.

Solar panels are quickly becoming one of the most popular options for green energy. Even Tesla, headed by Silicon Valley guru Elon Musk, has started marketing solar panels for the home. Musk has even gone so far as to power an entire island to show how efficient his new panels are.

With all of the new information available, however, it can be difficult to determine if solar is right for your home. That's where we can help.

Need-To-Know Information

When deciding whether or not solar power is the best option for your home or business, there are five pieces of information you need to consider, including:

  1. Usable sunlight hours—How much usable sunlight your solar panels can collect during the day.
  2. Energy usage—How many kilowatt hours worth of energy your home or business uses each month.
  3. Square footage—How much square footage you have available, and how many square feet of solar panels you need.
  4. Incentives—What incentives your state or local government offers for the installation of solar panels on your property.
  5. Regulations—Any rules or laws regulating the installation of solar panels on private property in your area.

While this might seem like a lot of information to collect, we've got some tools to help you do it faster and easier than you might think.

1. Usable Sunlight Hours

How many hours of sunlight do you see every single day? Depending on where you live, that could be anywhere from less than 30 minutes to more than eight hours. Now, how many of those hours of sunlight are actually usable and could be utilized to produce electricity? It's less than you might think.

The first step is to know how much sun your house gets. By inputting your address or locating your property on a map, sites like SunCalc can show you the property's daylight hours. For example, if you look at the city of Miami, Florida, it shows that usable daylight hours are between 7:04am and 5:35pm local time. Those numbers are specifically for December 21 and they will vary slightly as the days pass.

Additionally, the actual usable daylight hours will depend on local weather patterns and a number of other variables. For example, an address in Redwood, CA, one of the sunniest places in the country, will receive an average of 1,830 hours of usable sunlight per year.

2. Energy Usage

How much energy does your household or business use? It often depends on where you live—homes in colder climates that utilize electric heating may use more electricity than those in warmer climates that do not. The U.S. Energy Information Administration found that, on average, the annual household energy consumption is 10,812 kilowatt hours each year, or 910 kilowatt hours per month.

Your monthly power bill can be a great resource for learning your home's average energy usage as well. Most power companies will outline your average power usage on your bill as well as compare it to the year before. This can be a great tool to help you calculate the cost ahead of time and keep track of your overall electricity usage.

3. Square Footage

You probably know the square footage of your home, but do you know the available square footage of your roof?

While you can get an accurate measurement by contacting a local solar contractor, that can be time consuming and costly. Google's Project Sunroof uses Google Earth's images to estimate the available amount of square footage available for solar panel installation, and all you need to do is plug in your address. The site also compares this estimated amount of square footage available with the estimated square footage of solar panels that would be required to power your home.

Let's look back at that Redwood home we mentioned earlier. According to Sunroof's estimations, the home has approximately 1,434 square feet of roof space available to build solar panels, and it would need to have approximately 264 square feet of panels installed to cover up to 100 percent of the home's electricity usage.

4. Incentives

Most states offer incentives for homeowners who choose to install solar panels on their homes or businesses. There are some incentives at the federal level as well. These vary from loans and grants to tax credits, and the exact details of each incentive often change from state to state.

Multiple sites offer up-to-date databases of all the incentives being offered in the participating states and territories. It might take a bit of time to research what your state has to offer, but it can help you save quite a bit on your initial investment.

5. Regulations

Are there any regulations in your area you might need to consider before you install solar panels? One of the most common requirements is to obtain the necessary permits—such as building and electrical—from your city's or county's building department.

Your solar panel provider often takes care of this step. Be sure to follow up with them, though, to ensure everything is taken care of.

Making the Decision

Now that you have all the information, how can you decide quickly whether solar is the right choice for you? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does my property get enough usable sunlight?
  2. Do I have enough available square footage to install the right number of solar panels to offset my energy costs?
  3. Will this investment pay for itself in a reasonable amount of time?

If you can answer yes to all three of those questions, then solar is the best choice for you, and it's time to start calling contractors and looking into those incentives.

If you answered no to any or all of the questions, don't despair! While solar might not be the best choice for your home, due to whatever reason, it is not the only option in green energy. You can research other options that are available in your area. You might also be able to get together with your community to come up with the best green energy options for your city, town or neighborhood.