Eight years elapsed before installing solar panels at home moved from our wish list to reality.
It’s a good thing I’d learned a thing or two about patience during that time, because the actual process of getting solar panels up and running involved another lengthy wait — but one that was well worth it.
Solar panels first landed on my radar in 2005 while I was researching an article. They sounded like an incredible way to cut electric bills, but at too high an upfront cost.
Then last year a nearly $200 June electric bill got my husband and me thinking that solar panels — also known as photovoltaic systems — were an option worth exploring again. Here are a few things we learned along the way:
Lease or buy?
Homeowners can either buy or lease rooftop solar panels.
The latter costs less upfront, and maintenance and repairs are usually handled by the leasing company. Perhaps that explains why two-thirds of California’s residential installations in 2012 and 2013 were leased, according to the California Solar Initiative.
Instead, we opted to buy, because of tax and home-value advantages. While it’s hard to quantify the precise home value that solar panels add, a 2011 study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found they increased the average worth by $17,000, based on sale prices of 72,000 California homes.
For good measure, I consulted a friend who is a longtime real estate agent. “They can only make it easier to sell your home,” he said. “The new owners get the benefit of savings without the hassle of installing.”
If you decide to buy, keep two things in mind:
High cost is what kept us from entering the solar game sooner. Then, last summer, a telemarketer promised solar panels wouldn’t cost us a penny more than we were already paying for electricity. Prove it, I challenged him.
Quotes from four companies and quite a bit of research later, we were convinced that going solar was no longer beyond our financial means.
Since 2009, the average cost of a photovoltaic system has fallen by almost 75 percent, according to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance report. A federal tax credit of 30 percent of the system’s cost also significantly helps offset the purchase price. (That credit doesn’t expire until Dec. 31, 2016.) And available financing options can make systems even cheaper than monthly electric bills.
In our case, we got a 14-panel system for $23,744, and paid $1,000 down. The tax credit will return $7,000. And thanks to favorable rates, our 20-year loan for the solar system will mean monthly payments of $83 — significantly lower than our average electric bill of $147, assuming our system generates as much power as we use, which it is estimated to do.
A couple of things to keep in mind:
For this reason, monthly electric bills are replaced by one yearly “true-up” statement, which reconciles 12 months of actual electric usage with credits for the kilowatts produced by your system. Data collected by our solar installation company shows the average true-up bill is $150 a year for their customers.
But this may eventually change. Last fall, utility companies argued that because of net metering, nonsolar customers are largely paying for the grid that solar residents also use. State lawmakers have asked the Public Utilities Commission to recommend a new net metering energy program by 2017.
Ready, set, go
Choosing a company is a personal decision. We didn’t pick the least-expensive bid, because we had priorities that outweighed cost.
We wanted installers that offered panels manufactured by a U.S. company. While researching one installer, I uncovered horror stories from solar customers whose warranties disappeared when their panels’ international manufacturer unexpectedly went out of business.
We also wanted a company that didn’t outsource its installation because of the heightened accountability. This turned out to be a good move. Our site plan called for the electrical wiring to run through the attic, but on installation day, the project manager said the wiring would run under the eaves; a quick phone call to his office had us back on track within minutes.
No matter your priorities, always check that the installer is licensed and bonded, has no major complaints on record with the Better Business Bureau and can supply at least two customer referrals.
Also ask your project manager to step you through every phase of the installation process, which, as we discovered, can be drawn out from start to finish.
For us, seven weeks passed between contract signing and installation, for three reasons: The location of our chimney and a vent required two sun reading inspections to determine where to place the panels; we changed our site plan to route wiring through the attic, and approval from the city of Concord took a month to obtain.
The actual installation took only two days. The post inspection was done a week later. Then came the real wait — for PGE to install the net meter. Nine weeks after that installation, we received our first net metering statement.
Thanks to an online monitoring system, I can see how well the panels are producing year-round. In November, we used only $8.14 more electricity than our system produced.
At this rate, we should have no problem coming in below the $150 average on our first true-up bill.