Maximum Value Energy Efficiency Projects: Solar

With energy costs soaring and an increase in environmental concerns, homeowners are now looking to solar power to benefit the planet and their wallet. Solar energy is harvested from the sun -- the world's cleanest and most renewable energy source -- and can be used in many different ways such as: heating your home, generating electricity, heating water and lighting your home -- inside and out.

Solar energy systems can be divided into two categories -- stand alone and grid-tied systems. In both cases, the maximum benefit will come from also reducing your home's energy consumption. It is also very important to consider several factors before taking on a solar project to find which one works best for you. A home's location, amount of electricity needed and costs associated with setup are three of the most important factors in making the right choice.

CURRENT TRENDS

  • Stand alone systems. Although not the best option when looking to receive federal tax credits or rebates, a stand alone solar system is a great option for homes on larger plots of land or in a more remote location. Homes in the mountains or far away from power lines might actually find that a stand alone system will save more money than having to run the large and expensive power lines to the home. In these types of circumstances -- although more costly up front -- a stand alone system will pay you back much quicker than other solar options.
  • Grid-tied systems. Many homeowners consider staying on the traditional electric power grid because these types of systems are more likely to receive federal rebates as opposed to stand alone systems. The grid-tied system is best for existing homes where there isn't a way to add as many energy efficient designs and solar additions as you would with a new home plan. They will never fully eliminate the need for connection to utilities, but can drastically lower monthly costs.

BIGGEST MISTAKE

Energy efficient solar projects have come a long way in design over the past few years, but it is still important to do your homework and understand the realistic numbers when considering making the switch to solar power for your home. According to appraisal expert, Leslie Sellers, president of the Appraisal Institute, hiring a professional to help you make these types of decisions is your best move. Homeowners can make a big mistake by thinking that solar design will cover almost all utility costs and can unfortunately wind up being disappointed in their solar power choice.

Looking at it in perspective, solar panels usually convert about 20 percent of total sun energy collected. While this number may seem low, it can still make a relatively big impression annually on utility bills, especially combined with other efficiency incentives and while making an effort to reduce your home's energy consumption. It's important to remember that -- especially in grid-tied systems -- solar power will not account for a total elimination of all other electrical needs, but can help reduce costs in a dramatic way over time.

EXPERT TIPS

  • On a Budget: While solar panels and other forms of solar energy might not work for someone on a tight budget, there are other ways to strategically play off the sun's energy to benefit your home and your wallet. According to the Department of Energy, studies by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimate a 25 to 50 percent reduction in annual cooling energy consumption through strategically planned landscape design. You can essentially keep your home cooler in the summer though landscaping!

    Passive solar design can also work well for those on a budget. Passive solar homes range from those heated almost entirely by the sun to those with south-facing windows that -- according to the DOE -- provide some fraction of the heating load. Even on a budget you can successfully plan for solar comfort in the summer and warmth in the winter.

  • Mid-Range: For homeowners who can afford to implement more solar technology in their home, you might consider taking on solar projects that can help minimize all major electrical usage from lighting, water heating and appliances. Indoor solar lighting -- also called daylighting -- is the use of windows and skylights to bring sunlight into your home. Outdoor solar lighting systems use solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity and then store it in batteries for use at night. Both of these options give you lighting that is virtually free. Also useful are solar water heaters that come in a wide variety of designs, include a collector and storage tank and use thermal energy to heat the water for your home.
  • High-End: More expensive -- but just as beneficial -- are solar panels or photovoltaic systems which are solar cells that capture light energy from the sun and convert it directly into electricity. According to Sellers, "solar panels are a great way to go if you are on a higher budget." He says that if you can afford the more streamline, cutting-edge technology, "especially if you live in colder climates, your payback can make the investment worth it." The electricity from the panels can be redirected to all areas of the home. Tax credits and rebates are available for these types of energy efficient projects, so make sure they are certified by the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC) or Energy Star before purchase.

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