In suburban America, there’s really no greater driver of home improvement-related change than whether or not a neighbor decided to do it first.

From the burliest self-propelled lawnmower to the most sought-after ceramic grill to a holiday light display that brings traffic to a crawl, things that we never thought we needed or wanted can instantly become objects of desire once the Joneses have them. As we well know, keeping up with — and outdoing — the Joneses is a tradition as old as the ‘burbs themselves.

That want becomes even more powerful once the Whites, the Weinbergers and the Wilkinsons all follow in the Joneses' footsteps. Then, all of a sudden, you find yourself in the position of being the only house on the cul-de-sac without. And nobody wants that.

In many neighborhoods, solar panels have become the most popular item to don rooftops since blow-mold Santas hit the scene in the late 1950s. Not so much a status symbol as a method of broadcasting to the neighbors that you’re doing your part to help the environment and saving big on energy bills, going solar is frequently borne from peer pressure — it’s one of the most potent factors in getting skeptical homeowners to take the plunge and invest in a rooftop photovoltaic array.

Take Connecticut, for example, where a 2013 study published in the Journal of Economic Geography found neighborly influence — not generous rebates, renewables-friendly legislation or high electricity costs — to be the predominate force in the spread of residential solar in the Nutmeg State.

Although solar panels aren’t exactly the most inconspicuous things to add to the exterior of your home (although this is changing), it can sometimes be difficult to tell exactly how many homes in your neighborhood have them — that is, without peeping through fences, conducting a door-to-door poll and scrutinizing rooflines from the road. It’s a good way to creep the neighbors out, not keep up with them.

But thanks to a newly added feature to Project Sunroof, Google’s free online solar mapping tool and calculator, solar-curious homeowners — or those with existing installations who just want to keep tabs — can snoop around and see who in their neighborhood has installed solar panels and who hasn't.

Screenshot of Project Sunroof Data Explorer feature, Arlington, Mass. Dot marks the spot: Both photovoltaic and solar thermal systems can be tracked with Project Sunroof's new Data Explorer feature. (Screenshot: Google)

Spreading green envy with red dots

Called Data Explorer, the new map-based beta feature combines satellite imagery from Google Maps and Google Earth in a way that allows users to view which rooftops around them have been outfitted with solar panels. When viewing a map of your neighborhood in Data Explorer, solar panels are indicated with a red dot.

When first launched in 2015, Project Sunroof, among other things, allowed homeowners to discover how much direct sunlight hits their roofs as well as how much money they could potentially save down the road by installing solar panels. Now, they can also enter their ZIP code and find out if they’re drowning in a sea of red dots.

Writes Carl Elkin, Project Sunroof’s senior software engineer:

A few years ago, when my family was first deciding whether or not to go solar, I remember driving around the neighborhood, looking at all the solar arrays on nearby rooftops. It made me realize: Wow, solar isn’t some futuristic concept, it’s already part of the fabric of my town! Seeing that others around me were already benefiting from solar helped me decide to do the same.

Now instead of driving street to street, it’s a little easier to see if houses around you and communities nearby have already gone solar.

Elkin goes on to note that Data Explorer's learning algorithms, which are trained to automatically locate and identify both PV and solar thermal arrays in satellite imagery, have tracked roughly 700,000 installations across American neighborhoods. That number will only grow as improvements are made and algorithms with the existing software are tweaked.

Screenshot of Project Sunroof Data Explorer feature, Tacoma, Wash. Although keeping up with the Joneses was rampant in my childhood neighborhood, it appears that solar has been a bit slow to catch on. (Screenshot: Google)

Keeping tabs on the neighbors (without trespassing)

So exactly how contagious does the "red dot fever" unleashed by Project Sunroof have the potential to be?

Extremely contagious considering how powerful peer influence can be.

"It happens at the street level, it happens within zip codes, it happens within states. It seems to be a common feature of human decision-making that crosses many boundaries," Kenneth Gillingham, a professor of economics at Yale University who co-authored the aforementioned study, recently told The Atlantic.

Gillingham's findings in Connecticut showed that when a single residential solar installation went up in a single "block group" — a U.S. Census-designated tract or cluster of blocks — several more would surely follow before spreading out in a "wave-like, centrifugal fashion." Bucking the assumption that highest concentration of solar panel-filled block groups would be in Connecticut's wealthier liberal enclaves, Gillingham and his co-authors found that Durham, a small Middlesex County town with a solidly middle-class populace and politically conservative leanings, was where neighborly influence had the greatest impact.

Gillingham also learned that people are more likely to install solar panels if they clearly and constantly see their neighbors’ installations from the street. Well-placed yard signs advertising a just-installed solar array and exploratory chats with the folks you plan to imitate certainly don’t hurt. However, there’s nothing quite like stepping outside your front door every morning and being confronted, taunted even — You need me! You want me! You’ll have me! — by a shiny new rooftop solar array gracing the roof of the home belonging to the neighbors you love to hate (and emulate).

In more semi-rural neighborhoods where homes are set back from the street by long, winding driveways and trees, it’s more difficult, of course, to tell who's gone solar and who hasn’t without snooping around. This is the genius of Data Explorer feature as it, in the words of Gillingham, "tells you that people nearby have installed solar panels even if you can’t see them from the road."

Although Gillingham does raise some potential privacy concerns, he believes the feature to be nothing but beneficial when it comes to encouraging homeowners to embrace renewable energy. (It's worth mentioning that folks with solar panels can opt out of the dataset if they wish.) "I think the idea is a really great one," he says of Project Sunroof's new addition.

"It creates a social norm around solar panels," Gillingham tells The Atlantic. "When many people have solar panels around you, it’s a normal thing to do. You’re not going out on a limb by having a company come out and look at your rooftop."

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Thinking about going solar? Google adds peer pressure into the mix
A new feature added to Project Sunroof, a free solar mapping tool from Google, makes keeping up with Joneses even easier.