Converting your home to solar is one of the best decisions you can make both for the environment and for your bank account. After the initial installation fees, the longer you operate on solar, the greater your savings. Most panels pay for themselves in under 10 years. However, you may be surprised to find the start-up costs higher than expected. Here are 6 of the most common reasons why it could take a little longer than predicted to start racking up the savings.
Powering your home with solar necessitates a 200 Amp electrical system. While this is standard in many new homes, older homes are more likely to run on 150 or even 100 Amp panels. If you have an older home, an upgrade will be necessary to connect with a solar installation and it can be an expensive process. Depending on the location of your electrical panel and the work that is required to gain access, prices can range from $2,000 to as high as $10,000.
Fortunately, the advantages of the upgrade extend far beyond solar panels alone. Electric cars and advanced in-home appliances like 4k TVs and smart fridges are all enabled by a 200 Amp panel. It also increases the market value of your home.
Solar panels can be broadly classified into two categories, standard and premium, based on factors like their performance, quality, durability and warranty.
Premium solar panels have higher upfront costs, but deliver a better long term return on investment by exceeding industry standards in each category. They also tend to generate more electricity per square foot than standard panels making them a better option for buyers with limited roof space. If roof space is not a concern, standard panels are generally used.
Standard panels are by no means a subpar option. They meet all industry performance standards and make up the majority of panels installed in the US today. If you opt to install premium panels, expect to pay about $0.30-$0.50/W extra.
Solar panels generate a direct current (DC) which must be converted to an alternating current (AC) in order to operate household electronics or flow back onto the grid. This process requires an inverter. There are two types of inverter on the market today, string inverters and microinverters, and the choice will affect the cost of your solar installation.
String inverters are the less expensive option and are generally recommended for most residential installations. They are also required for any home considering adding a battery along with their solar system. The downside to string inverters is that panel optimization happens at a system level, which means that a single underperforming panel could reduce the output of the whole system. The best of both worlds can be had by combining string inverters with panel level optimizers. This provides benefits like the opportunity to incorporate battery storage without sacrificing panel level power optimization. A standard single-phase string inverter costs about $0.18 per watt, while a DC power optimizer string inverter will be more expensive at $0.30 per watt.
In specific cases that require a micro-inverter for each panel, like tricky roof structures, costs will increase. Microinverters optimize output at the panel level, which means that in situations where part of the system experiences shade or there is a panel level issue microinverters will outperform string inverters and produce cost savings in the long run. Using microinverters will typically add about $0.40 per watt to your system.
Whether you choose to mount your solar panels on the ground or on the roof also affects the cost of the project. Although most residential solar installations are rooftop, and this is the traditionally less expensive option, there are reasons to opt for ground-mounting. Ground installations are optimized for tilt and orientation, are easier to clean and maintain, and can be installed in larger arrays. If your roof is in disrepair or presents mounting challenges, the ground-mounted option may also be less expensive.
Ground-mounted panels usually have greater installation costs because they require additional materials, time, and labor. A cement foundation or reinforced pole structure is needed to prop the panels off the ground tilt them at the proper angle. Conduits between ground-mounted panels and the power meter are often run underground necessitating a trench. Trenching is labor intensive and can be expensive; costs vary depending on the length of trench, the rockiness of the earth, and the need to manage underground water (this typically will cost $.50/W more).
Your home’s roof style could have the greatest impact on the price of your solar installation, and the number of possibilities makes it difficult for a solar provider to offer an accurate cost estimate without knowing the specifics.
Flat roofs are both good and bad for solar installations. Installers typically use a framework to mount the panels such that they have the optimum tilt and orientation to make the most of the sun’s rays. The need for this additional framework leads greater installation costs.
However, the flat roof provides the freedom to achieve this optimization and maximize the output of each panel. Additionally, flat roofs are easier to navigate so labor costs for installation can be lower.
Unusual roofs can also increase installation costs because of the labor required. Extremely steep roofs, those with numerous facets, or those on homes with three or more stories will all present challenges for the installer. These unusual roofs also make long-term maintenance more challenging and expensive.
Your home’s roofing material can also impact the cost of installation. These days, any type of roof can support a solar installation, but asphalt shingles are still considered to be the simplest substrate to work with and the one with which installers have the most experience.
Metal roofs are growing in popularity thanks to their durability and eco-friendliness. If you have a metal roof or tile roof, it may cost more to install solar panels due to the need for a specialized mounting system. An advantage to putting solar panels on a metal roof is that they cast shade and decrease the rooftop temperature. A typical 30 percent drop in rooftop temperature yields significant savings during the warmer season to mitigate additional upfront costs. Most rooftop adders will typically run 0.10-$0.45/W.
A small but common problem is the presence of plumbing vent pipes that exhaust at the roof. These vents serve to equalize pressure in the drainage system building codes prevent them from being blocked by a solar panel. Luckily, relocating the vents is not an overly difficult or expensive task and many homeowners have the skills to do it themselves. For those that cannot, hiring a professional should only run several hundred dollars.
The upfront costs for a solar installation are intimidating, but it is important to remember that solar panels last 25+ years and even a few additional fees will be more than paid for in that timeframe. Before planning your solar installation, consider the factors discussed above so you’re not surprised by unexpected bills. No matter what, you are making the best long term decision for your home, your wallet, and your planet.