April 2

Utah Off The Grid: Everything You Need to Know About Home Solar Systems

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Introduction

While we have talked at length and lamented about the sometimes severe and extreme weather in Utah [https://ctiroofing.com/?p=5181&preview=true], it’s hard to say that Utah’s weather is all bad. Salt Lake City, in particular, gets more sun each year than locations that are known for their nice weather such as Jacksonville, FL,  San Antonio, TX, and Savannah, GA despite all of them being closer to the equator than Salt Lake City. 

While only a tiny sliver of Utah is considered to be in the “sun belt,” that doesn’t mean we can’t leverage the sun as a great asset for our lives and our homes. Housing demand and construction, as you know, has exploded in Utah in the last decade. In fact, in 2020, Utah was the second fastest growing state in the United States only behind Idaho. This enormous influx of people has certainly upped the demand for energy as well as housing. While traditional methods of providing energy, such as coal and natural gas have been able to keep up with demand to-date, many are looking at self-contained home energy systems to supplement or even replace the electrical systems that we have come to rely on.

In concurrence with this supplemental energy demand, the solar industry has absolutely, unequivocally, exploded in the last decade. While the industry is seeing unprecedented growth, consumers are benefiting with solar panel prices dropping dramatically as their use base grows. These affordable prices along with the added benefits of being environmentally friendly and providing an off-the-grid option for users make it an attractive direction for homeowners and developers alike. 

While there are plenty of people out there who want to support alternative and environmentally friendly energy options, just as many, if not more, are seeing the economic benefits of adding solar panels to their home energy systems as well. Solar power is great for two reasons. The first reason is that you can directly use the power that you generate without having to go through any other processing. The second reason is that you can sell the excess electricity that you don’t use back to the grid while taking advantage of tax credits and grants. While not right for every situation, larger homes tend to benefit the most due to their large roof systems and higher electricity bills. A little number crunching could prove solar panels useful for any house or situation. 

While you may not be completely onboard with solar energy yet, one thing is for certain: solar power is here to stay. Below, we’ll dive into more detail about how solar energy works and everything you need to know about home solar system, why you should consider it, its applications, and more. We hope to give you a high-level understanding of solar power, but ultimately, the decision to install solar panels or not comes down to the math. 


What are Solar Panels?

Even if it’s not an option you’ve explored in the past, you probably have a basic understanding of how solar panels work. Generally speaking, solar panels function when light or photons from the sun hit the earth. Almost like magic, these solar panels absorb the sunlight and turn it into electricity. That’s it. That’s the most basic explanation of how a solar panel works. Part of the beauty of solar energy is how straightforward and natural the process is.

All solar panels (at least the ones you’ll encounter for home use) are made from the same element: silicon. Silicon has been used throughout history and has seemingly endless functionality and uses in modern society. From electronics to building materials, silicon is a critical part of our everyday lives. 

Solar panels are constructed from silicon for a few different reasons. It is relatively easy to work with, it is an abundant element, and it has good conductivity. Other types of solar panels exist, but it is hard to beat the price and ease of use that comes with silicon-based solar panels.

While the basic function is straightforward, it is worth explaining the intricacies of how solar panels work. As of writing this article, there are two main types of solar panels on the market. Monocrystalline and Polycrystalline models. You might be wondering what the difference is. In short, the crystals that make up the solar cells are the core difference between the two.

Monocrystalline is made from one single crystal source, whereas polycrystalline is made up of a whole bunch of silicon crystals, thus affecting its molecular structure and, ultimately, its efficiency to conduct and store energy. 

If you know anything about whiskey, it makes for good comparison. Think of it as single malt whiskey (monocrystalline) compared to a blended whiskey (polycrystalline). While the comparison isn’t perfect, it can help illustrate what the differences are.

Monocrystalline (which we’ll call MonoC from here on out), because it’s made from a singular source, is more efficient. There is less disruption in the flow of electricity because the pathways are straighter and clearer. As you may have presumed, that makes polycrystalline (PolyC), a less pure form of silicon, less efficient.

Electrical efficiency isn’t the only difference, however. MonoC panels are also more space efficient, they’re slimmer and lighter because of their conversion rates (conversion of light to energy). Many people also prefer the aesthetics of MonoC panels, they’re sleek and black compared to PolyC panels which tend to be speckled and blue. 

PolyC panels, while less efficient, come with a few upsides of their own. They are less expensive, which is why they generally dominate the residential market. They also tend to work better in the shade than MonoC panels. Keep in mind that because they are less efficient, they very well could need more space to get the same output as their MonoC counterparts.

Both types of panels are reliable and long-lasting, however. Most warranties for energy production are guaranteed through the 25-year mark, at which point there may be a dip in energy production. It is likely that in 25 years, however, that the advancement in technology will make your current solar panels look like relics or you’ll simply not have these solar panels anymore. 

It is also important for us to make a quick note that there is a third type of solar panel called “thin-film.” This type is almost never used in residential markets, saving itself for large, commercial projects and buildings. If you want to learn more about it, we recommend a quick Google search. 


Off-Grid

There are also two types of installation, on-grid and off-grid. You may be familiar with the phrase “off-the-grid” often associated with those that want to leave modern society behind and live a more quaint and rural life. That’s exactly what an off-grid solar installation is supposed to empower. Off-grid installation means that the electricity generated by your solar panels will be used by your receptacles in the house. There is no supplementary electrical power from a public utility, it is just you and your solar panels. It is a perfect setup for cabins and trailers that won’t have access to standard on-grid electricity. Obviously, the drawback is that you can’t make electricity at night and your production will be limited on cloudy days, leaving you quite literally “in the dark.” In order to keep the lights on at night or during dense cloud cover, it is important to explore your energy storage options in greater detail as they relate to your specific use case. 

On that note on storage, Tesla, famous for electric cars, launched a “powerwall” in recent years. This giant battery essentially allows you to store energy from your solar panels and retrieve it later. They are expensive, but they give some flexibility to the off-grid solar panels as you wouldn’t need them to be producing electricity all the time. However, beyond these applications, there’s unlikely a scenario you would want to consider this when you’re in the range of public utilities.

On-Grid

On-grid solar power, as you have probably deduced by now, is when you have solar energy that supplements your electricity needs from the grid. The best part about on-grid electricity is that you will use your “free” solar energy first and then start pulling from the grid. It is worth noting that not all systems will actually “use” your energy, but rather offset your energy usage. This depends on your local solar provider and municipality. If you produce more than you use, you will likely be able to sell that back to the electrical provider and receive a credit on your bill. 

Say you’re on vacation and not using much electricity at home. You very well may end up paying little to nothing on your electrical bill that month. This might be the case the majority of the time regardless of your in-home usage. Many families with working parents and school age children that are out of the house for the bulk of the day have energy consumption that peaks at night. Your solar panels can be set to sell the energy they are producing during the day time so you are offsetting what you will use later. You will also still have all the associated costs of the initial purchase or lease of the solar panels, but that is a topic we will get into down below. 

Finally, a quick note about your house and solar panels. If your house is small, gets almost no sun, or your roof is under framed, we recommend passing on solar panels as they won’t provide you much benefit. A house surrounded by a tall tree canopy is not a good candidate for panels, nor is one that simply is oriented poorly to receive sunlight. While solar panels can generate electricity without direct sunlight, it is not going to be much of a benefit to you. 

The same goes for small houses (with exceptions). A small house has a small roof and likely small electrical bills as well. This is a great recipe for not needing solar panels, but we’ll dive more into that below. Under framed roofs are common in older houses. If you’re carrying a decent amount of weight (asphalt shingles, sheathing, potential for snow build up) on say 2x4 framing, we’re recommending you skip solar panels until you reinforce your roof rafters. An average solar panel runs between 40lbs and 60lbs. While this doesn’t seem like a lot, it’s better to be safe than sorry. 

That is a basic recap on what solar panels are and how they work. We’ll go into more depth about the uses and best practices later on, but if we’ve stoked your curiosity into the solar industry, we encourage you to do your own research. You can never know too much about something you’re planning on investing in. 


Benefits of Solar Panels

The benefits seem fairly obvious, right? Solar panels produce “free” electricity much like a car gives you “free” transportation. We’re not going to pretend that there’s no costs associated with it, but you may be able to actually make your electricity free if the math works out right.

Though the benefits are mostly monetary at this stage in their technological advances, there are some other benefits that we’ll scratch the surface of. Though you can certainly make the argument that solar energy provides a greener way of living and promoting sustainable energy, even that has its shortcomings. 

One of the major upsides of solar, should you choose to go with it, is the fact that it’s largely maintenance free and the parts that may fail are generally covered under warranty. Because of the lack of moving parts and its passive means of generating electricity, there’s not a lot that can fail when they are in use.

Furthermore, one of the upsides to solar in Utah is that we have a lot of sunshine. As we mentioned in the intro to this article, Utah is sunnier than places in Florida and Texas. This means that there’s immense opportunity to profit off of your solar panels and you’ll average more good days than bad ones in energy production.

Even better is that solar panels are generally installed with a clip and rail system on your roof. Usually you won’t need any large holes that require flashing or even screws that go into your roof rafters. From a roofing sustainability standpoint, there are not many bad things to say about installing solar panels. In fact, we’ll go one step further and say that another benefit is that solar panels shed snow very quickly. Their slick design and ability to heat up quickly are perfect for allowing snow to slide right off the roof, reducing the potential for ice dams or snow weight related problems to your roof.

Other than the things we’ve mentioned above, as we said, solar energy benefits are pretty straightforward. There’s actually a lot more to be skeptical of when purchasing solar panels, mostly from the companies that sell them, and we’ll get into that below. 


Drawbacks

While the benefits are easy to see, the drawbacks are definitely in the details when it comes to solar energy. From the companies that sell or lease them, the contract that you sign, to the way that the panels are produced, there are many steps along the way that need to be looked at critically. We still think there are a lot of great things about solar energy, but we’re here to give you a fair and accurate picture of home solar panels. Both the good and the bad.

The first thing you should know is that a lot of companies are out there pitching home solar systems. There are national brands and local ones, all of whom have their own rules, their own contracts, and their own way of doing things. This is probably the largest drawback in the solar game. While our company is based out of Utah, we have a broad readership. We’re not going to tell you who is good and who is bad, but we will make one thing clear: do your research.

As we mentioned in the article about picking a roofing contractor [link] you need to put in the hours it takes to come to an informed decision about who you’ll have install your solar panels. By this point, you should be an expert at research. You start with Google and then look for the all-important peer reviews. You can do this by either asking someone you know that has had solar panels installed and their experience or by simply reading reviews of actual customers online. This gives you a decent level of confidence that you’re not going to get scammed into a contract or lease that you have little recourse in getting out of should it be necessary. 

One of the worst things about a contract with a solar company is that it can complicate the selling of the house. Because contracts for solar panels often last for over a decade, it is not unreasonable to think that you might sell the house in that timeframe. If you do, you may be required to try and pass that contract on to the seller. If you can’t do that, you very well may have to pay a fee to get out of the contract and/or pay them to come and collect the solar panels from your house. We have heard stories of buyers completely backing out of buying a house when they found out the terms of the solar contract they’d have to get into. If you can, avoid a contract or lease and buy them outright, but only if the math makes sense.

If you do go with a contract, reading it thoroughly and asking a ton of questions is the best way to make sure that you won’t be surprised by any fine print. Luckily for you, everyday you don’t have a solar panel contract is an opportunity for someone else who does to voice their complaints about it online. If you find numerous reviews that are dissatisfied with a certain provider’s contract, best to move on and look for someone else. 

Many solar panel consumers look at this “clean” energy production with green-colored glasses. If helping the environment is a driving force behind why you want solar panels, research your options. Solar panels, while providing a renewable source of energy, are not as green as you might think to produce. Many caustic chemicals and energy-intensive manufacturing processes are involved in making your solar panels. If this doesn’t bother you, that’s ok. If it does, dig around a bit to see if you can find a company that produces panels in a more sustainable fashion. 


Do the Math

When it comes to solar panels, you better dust off that highschool math curriculum and refresh those math skills, because as we’ve alluded to above, it’s one of the most important criteria when choosing whether or not to get a solar panel installation. 

Solar energy really comes down to whether or not it will impact your month-to-month electrical bills and how much you want to pay up front versus over the life of your installation. 

The size of your house is, by far, the biggest determining factor when it comes to the profitability of your solar panels. As we said above, a small house likely won’t get the full benefit from a home solar energy system as they are not using enough electricity to make it worthwhile. There are always exceptions to the rule, of course. If you have a home sauna or workshop that tends to eat up a decent amount of juice each month, then it very well could be worth getting solar panels just to offset those specific amenities in your house. 

Some experts say that the $200 per month electricity bill is a good marker to tell if solar would work out for your home. If you are at or near this number, then it is likely that solar will be a benefit to your house and to your pocketbook (assuming you have a decent exposure to put it on your roof). 

Figuring out if you would benefit from solar panels requires three main things: Your electricity costs, the costs of the panels themselves and installation, and any credits or subsidies that are offered in your area.

The first two are fairly obvious but you want to make sure that all associated fees (if any) and long-term payments are factored into your decision. If you lease your solar panels or lease-to-own after you break down interest and installation, it could mean that your electricity is just cheaper to buy outright from your provider. Keep in mind that electricity rates are almost guaranteed to go up. 

Even though the 1-2 year outlook on solar panels might not make sense, it is not unrealistic to think that political or financial disruptions could cause electricity to jump. Most of Utah’s (and America’s) electricity comes from fossil fuels such as natural gas or coal. While these have been high-yielding and reliable in the past, it is not unreasonable to think that new EPA requirements or policies would hamstring the fossil fuel industry and consequently cause prices to increase. Likewise, into the future, there is good evidence that solar panels themselves will get cheaper and more efficient, as this is what happens with almost all technology. 

Rebates are almost always in play when it comes to solar energy. The federal tax credit expires at the end of this year, unless Congress renews it, but there could be state and municipal credits available as well, depending on where you live. Researching and factoring in all of these potential rebates and credits can make a world of difference when it comes to making the math work on a solar installation. It is also not unrealistic to think that the credit could be extended or even expanded depending on what happens at the federal government level. Only time will tell, but we’re confident that solar arrays will be more common and likely more affordable (either through price decreases or subsidies) in the future. 

Our recommendation is that if the math doesn’t make sense right now, don’t completely shut the door to solar. The solar option could be beneficial for your energy consumption needs in a few years if not today. If you’re savvy enough, create a spreadsheet with averages, such as electricity costs per month and formulas that calculate your annual costs and potential savings. This way when prices start to rise or fall, you can update it and see what your net gain might be against the current energy and solar prices.

Even with rebates and incentives, solar is an expensive endeavor and project for your home. If you are set on getting solar panels installed, see our article about financing your roof [link] and simply apply the same strategies for financing solar. However you decide to go about it, you really do need to take some time and figure out the cost of every detail involved in getting a solar array. The last thing you want to do is pay more for electricity when you don’t need to. 


The Future of Solar

It is worth speculating on the future of solar just to give you all the information possible. Solar is a high-growth industry. It is not going to slow down anytime soon and you will only see more and more installations come online, either on rooftops or for municipal electrical supplies. 

Tesla made news not too long ago about their solar roof. These are basically shingles that are solar panels. This is highly-innovative but not widely adopted yet. If the past is any indication, we believe that some such as Tesla will take their patented approach to marketing and feel free to lose money just to gain market share. We recommend keeping an eye on this because it’s very interesting and could be a game changer, especially if states start mandating solar installations. 

Tesla also offers regular solar panels that are free from complicated leases and contracts. Again, we’ve all seen Tesla force the car industry to change to meet their electric vehicles, we wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happened with solar panels. Tesla could be the company that kicks off the normalization of home solar systems. Bringing solar to the masses.


Wrapping up

Solar is no small investment. Depending on the route you go, it could be on par with paying for a second roof. However, the difference between the two being that this one could actually save you money rather than just being an out-of-pocket cost. The solar industry is growing and changing rapidly, prices likely will fall and incentives will probably stick around. If you’re not ready for a solar system in your current house, maybe you will be in your next house. If you’re not planning on moving, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that solar prices will fall so far that almost any house benefits from an installation. 

If you are thinking about getting solar panels installed and you are coming up on needing a new roof, it may be the right time to explore solar energy. Combining the two expenses may allow you to take advantage of additional incentives or could get you a better deal on financing. You may also find that doing them both at the same time is less of an inconvenience for you as the homeowner. Additionally, if your home has had weather damage and insurance is paying you more than the cost of the roof replacement, it may be worth investing the rest in solar panels if your home is a good candidate for it, as explained above.

There is a lot of technology and complicated science inside a solar panel, that’s why it’s such an interesting subject and why “free” energy seems so magical. As we wrote before, keep an eye on the solar industry. It’s fast-moving and continuing to grow. Before you know it, you might be getting paid outright to put panels on your roof. Exciting times are ahead for the solar industry and sustainable energy in general. 


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