Solar Panels - What You Need to Know Before Buying

How to Choose the Perfect Solar Panel System for Your Home: A Step-by-Step Guide

Understanding Solar Panel Systems: A Beginner's Guide to Making the Right Purchase Decision
Installing solar panels on your roof is one of the best investments you can make as a homeowner. Not only will high-quality solar panels drastically lower your electricity bills for decades to come, they can also increase your home’s value and reduce your carbon footprint. However, as with any major purchase, it’s important to educate yourself beforehand so you can make the smartest buying decisions.

This comprehensive guide will walk you through everything you need to know when shopping for solar panels, from calculating your energy needs to evaluating brands, costs, and installation contractors. Follow these tips to ensure you select the ideal solar energy system for your household.

Key Points to Consider Before Buying Solar Panels

Before you begin gathering quotes or crunching numbers, keep these essential solar purchasing factors in mind: 
  • Your electricity usage - Analyze your utility bills to estimate your average monthly and yearly kilowatt usage. This determines how many solar panels you’ll need.
  • Your roof’s suitability - Optimal roofs face south, are not shaded by trees and meet structural requirements for holding panels.
  • Your location’s climate and sunlight - More sunlight equals greater energy production. Evaluate your regional weather patterns.
  • Energy bill cost savings - Calculate savings based on panel electricity production vs. your current rates.
  • Federal, state, and local incentives - Check databases for rebates, tax credits, and other solar incentives in your area.
  • Installation costs - Get multiple installation quotes to compare pricing between contractors.
  • Manufacturer warranties - Verify coverage terms and duration for both panels and inverters.
  • Grid connection policies - Understand the rules about connecting your solar system to the utility grid.
  • Return on investment timeline - Determine when solar savings will surpass system costs.

Know Your Energy Requirements

One of the biggest mistakes homeowners make when purchasing solar panels is miscalculating how many they actually need. If you undersize your system, it won’t fully power your home and offset your energy usage. If you oversize it, you’ll be paying for excess panels you don’t require.

To determine your ideal solar panel system size, follow these steps:
  • Analyze electricity bills - Examine 12 months of utility bills to find your average monthly kWh usage. Identify seasonal variations too.
  • Catalog appliances and devices - Make a list of all electric devices in your home to understand how much power you use.
  • Consider future needs - Factor in any upcoming electric vehicle purchases, home expansions, or large appliances you’ll be adding.
  • Use a solar calculator - Plug your info into a solar calculator to determine recommended panel system size.
  • Get professional input - Have installers assess your usage and provide system sizing recommendations.
Generally, you’ll need 10-15 solar panels per household occupant. However, calculating your exact energy requirements will provide the most accurate system sizing.

How to Buy Solar Panels for Less

One obstacle that deters many homeowners from going solar is the upfront cost of purchasing and installing panels. But there are ways to reduce solar costs through smart buying techniques: 
  • Shop around for the best pricing - Get quotes from at least 3 top-rated solar installers to compare bid pricing.
  • Ask about new customer or cash discounts - Some companies offer discounts and cheaper rates to attract new business.
  • Purchase during the off-season - Solar panel costs are typically lowest in the fall and winter months when demand dips.
  • Inquire about panel manufacturer rebates - Many solar panel makers offer temporary rebates that lower purchase costs.
  • Buy used or refurbished panels - Gently used solar panel systems can be thousands less than new but still work effectively.
  • Find affordable financing options - Financing spreads out upfront costs over years. Compare solar loan terms from lenders.
  • Use federal and state incentive programs - Tax credits, rebates, and solar Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) provide savings.
Being a savvy buyer will help you find the most economical solar panel system for your budget. Just be sure cheaper bids aren’t cutting important corners or using low-quality equipment.

Pre-Purchase Checklist: Key Details to Verify

Here are several critical points to confirm with both your selected solar panel manufacturer and installation company before signing any contracts or agreements:

Solar Panel Details: 

  • Solar panel wattage ratings and efficiency levels
  • Solar cell types (monocrystalline, polycrystalline, thin film)
  • Panel dimensions and weight
  • Wind/snow load durability ratings
  • Junction box IP rating for outdoor protection
  • Published test results from third-party labs
  • Details of production tolerances and defects
  • Product certifications (IEC, UL, etc.)
  • Manufacturer warranties on panels and power output

Inverter Details:

  • Inverter brand and model specifications
  • Continuous and peak power ratings
  • Operating voltage specs and ranges
  • Maximum power point tracking capability
  • Operating temperature ranges
  • Safety certifications from Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories
  • Warranty terms on parts and labor

Contractor Details:

  • Company license number and qualifications
  • Proof of liability insurance
  • Service area and years in business
  • About their crews - size, experience, and training
  • Portfolio of installed projects and reviews
  • References from past solar customers
  • Detailed scope of work documents
  • Warranties on labor and workmanship
  • Site cleanup and disposal procedures
Taking the time to verify these key details ensures high-quality solar components that are sized, designed, and installed properly for maximum energy production.

Mistakes to Avoid When Going Solar

While solar power offers tremendous benefits, you'll also want to sidestep these common mistakes homeowners make when purchasing panels:
  • Choosing the wrong panel size for your home's energy needs - Accurately calculating your household's electricity requirements will prevent undersizing or oversizing.
  • Prioritizing the lowest bid without verifying contractor quality - A cheaper installer may cut corners, use inferior equipment, or go out of business down the road.
  • Signing a contract with unclear terms and conditions - Make sure all expectations, costs, product details, timelines, and warranty specifics are addressed.
  • Not reading the fine print on warranties - Check coverage specifics like length, exclusions, transferability, claims processes, etc.
  • Failing to research and ask questions - Being an uninformed buyer can lead to disappointment and issues later on.
  • Assuming solar will eliminate electric bills entirely - You'll still have monthly service fees, non-solar usage charges, etc. on your utility bill.
  • Expecting instant savings after install - Bill reductions build as your system produces cumulative energy over time.
  • Ignoring reviews and solar company ratings - Negative feedback and low ratings are red flags to problems you want to avoid.
  • Not comparing financing offers thoroughly - Just like panel bids, compare multiple solar loan rates, fees, and terms closely.
By steering clear of these mistakes and leveraging the guidance in this article, you can make wise solar purchasing decisions and reap the rewards for decades to come.

Frequently Asked Questions About Solar Panels

If you're feeling overwhelmed about the prospect of shopping for and purchasing solar panels, you're not alone. Many homeowners have questions about costs, installation, efficiency, and more when exploring solar power. Here are answers to some of the most common solar FAQs:

Q: How much do solar panels cost for a typical home?

The average cost to purchase and install solar panels ranges from $15,000 - $25,000 for a typical suburban single-family home, although prices can differ widely based on your location, roof space, system size, electric bills, and more. The most accurate way to gauge your specific costs is to get detailed quotes from multiple local solar installers.

Q: How long do solar panels last?

A: Most solar panels still operate effectively for 25-30 years or more. Manufacturers typically guarantee a useful life of around 25 years in their warranties, at which point panel output may decrease slightly by around 0.5% annually. With proper care and maintenance, panels often exceed this lifespan.

Q: Are there maintenance costs associated with solar panels?

Solar panels themselves require very little maintenance over their lifespan. Basic care like cleaning off dust, debris or snow periodically helps sustain production. Solar inverters may need replacement after 10-15 years. Any shade issues from tree/plant growth will also need occasional trimming. Overall, maintenance is minimal.

Q: What are the main factors that affect the output and efficiency of solar panels?

The most significant factors are solar exposure at your site, temperature, panel orientation, equipment age/quality, and obstruction from shades, dirt or snow. Locations with optimal sunlight and moderate temperatures will achieve greater kilowatt yields year-round. Proper roof angles toward the sun also maximize energy generation.

Q: Can solar panels work efficiently in colder climates with snow?

Yes, solar panels can still generate ample electricity even during cold winter months. While snow cover temporarily reduces output, panel surfaces warm up quickly as exposure to sunlight increases, allowing snow to slide off. Solar efficiency drops slightly in colder weather, but modern panels still produce energy year-round.

Q: Will installing solar panels increase my home’s value?

Multiple studies reveal that adding solar panels can increase a home's value, often by more than the original panel cost. Buyers also appreciate energy bill savings. Be sure to inform your insurance company too about roof solar additions.

Q: How long does it take for solar panels to pay for themselves?

Most solar systems pay off their initial investment in 6-10 years through accumulated energy bill savings, incentives, and additional home value. Payback periods under 5 years are possible in sunnier states with high electricity rates and robust incentives.

Q: Can I install solar panels myself?

We don't recommend DIY solar installations. The process involves expertise in roofing, electrical systems, and construction that's best left to experienced solar contractors, for safety and code compliance. Most solar incentives also require professional installs.

Q: What happens if I need a roof replacement?

For re-roofing, solar panels are removed safely so the roof can be repaired, then re-installed once done. This process may carry small fees but lets you keep your system intact. Some companies also offer “re-roof” clauses in contracts.

Q: How often will solar panels need replacing?

With typical 25+ year lifespans, most homeowners only need to replace solar panels once, if at all. When output falls after decades of power production, replacing older panels with modern, more efficient models can rejuvenate solar system performance.

Solar power provides decades of free renewable energy along with terrific financial benefits. By carefully researching your options and needs beforehand, you can make smart solar decisions and leverage the maximum value from your investment. Use this guide to dive into the purchasing process informed and empowered.
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