If your home has good exposure to the sun, a rooftop solar installation can greatly reduce, if not eliminate your monthly electric bills.
Plus, it’s clean energy with none of the environmental impacts associated with power plants fired by coal, natural gas, nuclear power or hydropower.
It’s true solar installations are a big investment. But the cost of solar panels drops each year as the technology becomes more widespread and the solar industry grows.
Furthermore, depending on where you live, you can receive government tax incentives—or participate in group-buying programs to further reduce costs.
Equipment is Only Part of the Cost
While the cost of solar panels has dropped to below $1 per watt in recent years, installation costs have not dropped as much in the U.S. This is due in part to a lack of qualified solar installers in the market and a lack of standardization for the equipment used to mount and connect solar panels to homes.
Permitting costs also can be drastically different from state to state and county by county.
Nonetheless, Do-It-Yourselfers should think twice about attempting to install solar panels to save money. It’s a complicated task with many risks. Specialized training is highly recommended (if not required by law in some jurisdictions).
It’s Not As Easy As it May Look
First, it’s important to understand whether or not a roof is sturdy enough to support a solar power system.
While solar panels are not incredibly heavy, most roofs are not designed to support much more than a heavy load of snow. And because strong winds can lift solar panels, racking systems must be tightly bolted to a roof. Doing this without creating a leak can be tricky.
Before mounting a solar power system, it’s also important to know the optimal orientation and angle for sun exposure throughout the year. If your placement is off by a few degrees, you’ll reduce the effectiveness of your system—and lose money.
However, the biggest concern for safety is the wiring of your system. Solar panels can produce a lot of electricity. Routing that power through the roof to your home and interconnecting with your home’s existing electrical system is no simple task. Even an electrician is unlikely to know the requirements and best practices without first receiving specialized training.
It’s a Job Best Left to the Pros
UL recommends hiring a certified contractor to correctly install solar power on your home. In fact, UL University now offers a training course specifically for solar installers that teaches the correct use of wiring, transfer switches and other required equipment.
Another option homeowners may want to pursue is what’s known as “solar power as a service.” This type of arrangement is now available in several states. A solar power provider installs, owns and maintains a solar system on a homeowner’s property and charges the homeowner for the electric output—at a lower rate than the regional electric company charges. The result is clean, hassle-free solar power and a reduced monthly bill.
UL Puts Solar to the Test
As the solar industry grows, UL is growing too—expanding capacity to apply standardized testing for equipment.
In 2009, UL expanded its solar testing capacity by 40 percent. Five facilities around the world are carefully calibrated to test solar panels, wiring or interconnection equipment in the US, Germany, Japan, China and India.
One of the many tests UL conducts is for impact resistance. To simulate the conditions of a hail storm, researchers fire ice pellets at solar panels and observe the results. In order to ensure consistent testing at each facility, the size, velocity and angle of the ice pellets are all carefully controlled.
UL is even studying how roof-mounted solar systems affect the standard methods used by firefighters to put out house fires. UL is studying how roof mounted systems may increase the risk of collapsing roofs or electric shock.