Going Solar

By Rich Varlinsky

Solar has become ubiquitous. It is virtually impossible not to encounter advertising or offers for Solar-Article-(2)-copysolar sales or leases on television, radio, or in home-improvement stores. The sheer volume of choices can be daunting and confusing. It is not as simple as just buying a system and reaping the benefits. Solar is more than power savings alone.

This is the first in a series of articles on solar. The purpose is not to present an engineering treatise of the technical aspects of solar. I want to provide an overview of solar, providing practical information to assist homeowners in making informed choices.

Solar is an investment, and as such requires careful planning before one adopts the technology. Solar can be a viable choice to reduce carbon footprint, lower energy cost, and improve property value. These are powerful inducements and are part of helping reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Solar represents the ability for individuals to make a contribution to their own energy independence. However, it is a sizable investment that will be a part of your home for years. This begs prudence during each step of the process.

This is a system that is integrated into your home. It is one part of an overall energy program, requiring looking at your total electricity consumption profile, habits, and future needs. Many solar companies look at current consumption only, failing to address energy-reduction measures and future use. This is important, as oversizing the solar system is not cost or space efficient.

The “going solar” process begins with an overall energy audit. The goal of the audit is to eliminate waste and improve systems. Your home should be viewed as an overall unit, of which solar is a part. The audit takes time and demands attention to detail, looking for methods of reducing consumption, increasing comfort, and fixing problems.

The audit begins with looking at the last year of your electricity usage. If you have not saved your bills for the past year, you can set up an online account with your utility provider. This will enable you to obtain a complete history of your power use and associated costs. When examining the bills, look for patterns. If summer use is excessive, a close look at your cooling system is in order. The idea is to become familiar with your energy consumption. This data will be invaluable when you begin to explore system size for your home.

The following are some basic guidelines to use when conducting your energy audit.

 

  1. Lighting. Lights contribute significantly to energy use. Replacing all indoor lightbulbs with LED lighting can reduce energy consumption by up to 90 percent.
  1. Air leaks. Check weather stripping on all doors and windows. Leaks in these areas are energy wasters and easy to correct. If your home has single-pane windows, consider replacing them with new high-efficiency models. This can improve energy use and take a strain off heating and cooling units. They also can drastically reduce noise transfer. There are also many types of light- and heat-blocking drapes that can save energy for minimal cost.
  1. Insulation. Inspect attic insulation, as it can settle through time, losing some of its R value. Insulation can be self-installed or done by a professional. This can reduce energy consumption all year. Increasing attic insulation is one of the best energy improvements you can make. Many utility companies offer rebates on insulation and installation.

Consider replacing powered roof or attic fans with new passive cooling vents. If your roof does not have ridge venting it can be easily installed. This can lower attic temperatures, increasing roof life and decreasing air conditioning use.

  1. Invest in a device called a “Kill a Watt.” These measure energy consumption for any equipment plugged into an outlet. You can buy them for less than $30 and they can present an accurate picture of the cost of running any item. The results can be eye opening. Even keeping cell phone and computer chargers plugged in all the time waste power. If a device is not being used unplug it.
  1. Review your energy-use habits. Turn off lights when leaving a room. Install a programmable thermostat to control heating and cooling. This can save hundreds of dollars per year by controlling the HVAC system. Also, make sure your heating and cooling system is working at peak efficiency. Having a tune-up for these systems typically costs under $100 and can spot potential problems. It is wise to have air duct testing done to check for leaks in the ductwork. Leaks waste money and lower comfort.

Change filters regularly. Dirty filters rob efficiency and can contribute to indoor air pollution. If the system is 15 years or older it is worth looking at replacing it with a high-efficiency model. Air conditioners are among the largest power consumers in a home. If your system was installed in the 1990s, a new system can save 30-40 percent in operating costs.

  1. Look to the future. Are you planning to have significant changes in your home in the next five years? Will children be moving out of the house? If you will be having a reduction in people living in your home, energy use should drop.

Are you planning to replace the heating and air-conditioning system? It is important to remember as we replace appliances that the new models use less energy.

Looking at these areas can save you thousands of dollars on solar by not oversizing your solar system. Once the energy audit is complete and energy-saving measures have been put into place, it is time to explore solar-system components and options.

In the next article we will explore the elements of a solar system.

Rich Varlinsky is owner of RR Lane Solar Distributing and co-owner of Lassen Solar Systems LLC. He is the 2014 National Residential Solar Design Award winner for Altenergy Power, manufacturers of APS microinverters. He serves as a solar design and engineering consultant for solar contractors across the United States. For more information varlinsky@hotmail.com