Thanks to solar panels being more affordable than ever, tax breaks and incentives, home solar systems have hit the mainstream. In fact, one is installed every 3.2 minutes — bringing the number of homes and businesses in the United States powered by the sun’s rays to more than 500,000. So are you ready to tap this eco-friendly form of energy? Here is everything under the sun to know about solar panels.
The possibilities aren’t endless.
In an ideal world, everyone would have solar-powered homes. But solar panels are only available to property owners. (Apartment dwellers, you’re out of luck.) The good news, however, is that photovoltaics (the scientific word for panels that generate electricity from sunlight) can be mounted to just about any type of roof, from slanted to flat, and just about any material — metal, gravel, composite, wood, clay or slate. Since solar panels can last for more than 30 years, the roof must be in good condition, so any cracks or leaks must be repaired prior to installation.
The general rule of thumb is that you’ll need about 100 square feet of unobstructed, shade-free roof space for every kilowatt (kW) generated. For example, a medium-sized 4kW solar system requires roughly 400 square feet. Objects such as trees, chimneys or other buildings can significantly reduce the performance of a solar system, and since you want the panels to absorb as much sunlight as possible, the ideal solar array should face south; eastern or western orientations will also work, but might not be as efficient.
Think power, not panels.  
When considering the size of your solar system, it seems logical to inquire about how many panels you will need. But instead, ask yourself, “How much energy do I want to generate?” The average American home uses 903kWh (kilowatt hours) of energy per month (or 32.25kWh per day), according to The Week. Running a 5kW solar system between six and seven hours each day could meet that energy demand. To get an idea of the appropriate system size for your household, check your most recent energy bill to see how much electricity (kWh) you have consumed. Then use this simple solar calculator to roughly estimate how many kilowatts of panels you’ll need to fit your energy requirements.
Your neighbors don’t have to like it.
But you must check with your local government, utility company and, if necessary, homeowners association to see if you can actually put panels on your roof. In some instances, a solar array might need to be arranged a certain way or it could be considered a fire hazard. (Click here to find out your state’s building codes and standards.) If panels aren’t an option for you, there are several other ways to capture the sun’s rays — personal solar chargers, solar pathway lights or buying solar power from your utility are just a few of the possibilities.
You won’t go bankrupt.
It’s cheaper than ever to live off the energy of the sun. Based on trends, the average cost of solar panels has dropped from $76.67 per watt in 1977 to about $0.613 per watt today, CleanTechnica writes. That’s even less than the cost of retail electricity in most cases. Based upon that price, a 5kW system should only set you back around $3,000. However, it’s likely that you’ll end up paying $18,000 to $40,000.
Why the extreme markup? Simply put, it’s because the total retail price of a solar installation includes not just the price per watt, but also installation fees, permits, monitoring equipment, overhead fees and more. (Click here for a complete price breakdown.) Additionally, the cost can jump tens of thousands of dollars if you live in a rainy city like Seattle or New Orleans and need extra panels in order to generate the amount of energy you require. In that case, solar might not be as cost-efficient as other means of power.
However, even if you don’t live in a particularly sunny area, solar could still be the way to go. As we previously reported, eastern states such as New Jersey, Massachusetts and Delaware are having solar booms due to aging power lines and rising prices of conventional electricity. At Geostellar you can check your home’s solar potential based upon its location, and you’ll also find a list of solar companies in your area.
Be ready to navigate multiple purchasing options.
Similar to car shopping, you’ll need to decide whether to buy or lease. An upfront purchase means you’ll have the full benefits of ownership, including tax benefits and any increase in your home’s value (in California, for example, a small 3kW system can add an average of $18,324 to the value of a medium-sized home). However, you’ll be responsible for your solar system’s maintenance — from ensuring that your panels remain clean (here are some helpful cleaning tips) to monitoring its performance in case any component fails. Panels are highly durable and require little upkeep, plus solar manufacturers usually include a 25-year warranty, so owning them is usually worry-free.
If you want to defray the high sticker price, there are two types of third-party financing: a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) or a solar lease. Both require good to excellent credit in order to qualify and involve monthly payments to the solar company that owns, takes care of the installation and provides maintenance on the system. With a PPA, the harvested energy goes to the developer who then sells it back to you at a fixed rate (usually cheaper than your local power company). A solar lease, on the other hand, enables you to rent the equipment for a monthly fee and keep any power that’s produced.
Yes, there are some incentives.
By purchasing a solar or other renewable energy system, you are an environmental patron and therefore entitled to a 30 percent solar Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) until 2016. (You are not eligible if you lease or PPA.) There are also additional rebates, tax credits and other incentives, depending upon where you live. Learn more here.
Don’t try to DIY.
While installing a solar system yourself could save you about $3,000 in installation costs, it’s usually best to hire a reputable professional to do the work instead. To figure out which manufacturer to go with, opt for a large reliable company with lots of installation experience, advises Dr. Rajendra Singh, the D. Houser Banks professor of electrical and computer engineering at Clemson University in South Carolina. Look into SunPower, SolarCity, SunEdison and First Solar, or go to EnergySage for prices and reviews of local, regional and national installers in your area. Once you decide on a provider, be sure to ask these 10 questions.