Last updated on March 14th, 2019 at 10:38 am
Back in January, when I found a little space in my life to take on a project, I installed solar panels to power our home. Most people sign on with a contractor who does all the work, but I wanted to learn all about it, so I did it myself. As it turned out, it’s pretty easy!
I was intimidated at first. The whole project was daunting, requiring knowledge of the National Electrical Code, solar electric systems, rebates and incentives and even calculations of how much power we could generate at our location for a given azimuth and tilt of the solar panels. I can see why most people pay a contractor, but I found that it was no big deal once I got started.
The first thing I did was to learn about the federal, state, local and utility-provided incentives and rebates for solar installations. I found the Department of Energy’s website Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE). This website gives a comprehensive list of the financial incentives all over the USA. Here in Boulder, Colorado, we’re eligible for a federal tax credit, a property tax exemption, a local sales/use tax rebate and a utility rebate, which all added up paid about half the cost of our system.
Armed with a collection of recent electric bills, I was able to calculate our average electric consumption. Knowing this, I used the PV Watts Calculator provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to compute how big our solar array should be to provide for our usage. Since our consumption is lower than the average household and because I hate paying bills, I chose a system size big enough to exceed our consumption by a comfortable margin.
In our case, the next step was to start the application process for the utility rebate, since our utility company (Xcel Energy) would have to approve this installation before I went any further. This also locked in the rebate amount we would receive, since they offer a gradually-declining rebate as more systems are installed. In the meantime, I invested ten bucks in a one-year online subscription to Home Power Magazine, which allowed me to read the last three years of this magazine online and learn about what I was getting into.
Once the application was approved, I applied for the building permit for the system I planned to install. Because our area is known to get very strong winds at times, I needed to specify the racking system I planned to install, and provide calculations showing that the solar panels wouldn’t get torn off our roof the next time we have a tornado watch. It wasn’t hard, and I learned a tiny bit of structural engineering too.
Once the paperwork was all approved, it was time to write the “big check.” I’d been doing plenty of cost-comparison over the past weeks and settled upon a grid-tie system from Wholesale Solar. I closed my eyes and sent the money, hoping for the best. Not long after, a pallet of solar panels arrived by truck and a few boxes contained the inverter, disconnect switch, and more.
It really wasn’t a lot of work to install the racks and run the electrical conduit. It felt like a big job at first and then it was done. We invited some friends over to help us install the solar panels on the racks and everything else I did myself. Because I’m no expert, I failed inspection the first time and had to change the wiring a little. The re-inspection went smoothly and the utility company installed a “net meter” shortly afterwards.
The net meter is like a regular electric meter, except it runs both ways. At night, it runs in the usual direction, measuring our electric consumption. But during the day (especially in the sunny summer months), it quickly spins backwards. In the month and a half since we “flipped the switch” on our system, our meter is reading a negative 250 kWh. At the end of the year, the utility company will pay us for our excess electric generation.
The economics of the system turned out about like this: After receiving the rebates, the total out-of-pocket cost of our system was $4,739.93. The savings on our electric bill works out to about $25/month, or $300/year. At that rate, the system will pay for itself in less than 16 years. But considering that electric rates will increase, the payback period will actually be substantially shorter than that.
Now that it’s all done, I can’t believe we didn’t do this sooner. The entire system is so simple: it consists of the solar panels, a disconnect switch, and the inverter. That’s the whole thing—there are no moving parts, no batteries and there’s no maintenance. It just sits there and provides all the power for our home. Best of all, we take comfort in knowing that our home doesn’t burn coal or use nuclear power. I can’t get over the fact that our refrigerator runs on sunshine!