How Can Your Home Harness Solar Energy?

If you live in a sunny climate and are tired of spending hundreds of dollars to cool your house each summer, you may be considering the benefits of investing in a solar system -- not a series of planets, but a way to harness the sun's energy and use it to your advantage. There are several home modifications available that might be able to help you curb your high energy bills while simultaneously reducing the amount of harmful fossil fuels produced and combusted. Read on to learn more about the solar options available and how they may be able to benefit you.

What options do you have for harnessing solar power?

  • Solar panels

If you live in a sunny area, the simplest and most effective way to take advantage of solar power is by installing solar panels on your roof. These panels will absorb sunlight and transmit the resulting energy to solar cells, which then store and convert this solar energy into electricity as needed. 

Depending upon the size of your home, the angle of your roof, and your family's typical energy usage, you may be able to use solar panels to provide most or even all of your family's electricity needs. These systems have a backup mechanism that takes advantage of the existing electrical infrastructure to ensure that you have all the power you need, even on cloudy or rainy days.

To explore this option, you'll need to consult with a licensed contractor to ensure that this is a possibility for your home. Although solar panels are fairly versatile and can be installed on a variety of surfaces (like asphalt, metal, and wood), there may be some modifications that must be made to your roof to allow exterior access to the panels and interior storage for the solar cells. 

  • Solar water heaters

In addition to using solar energy to create the electricity needed to power your home, you can use this energy to heat your bathing and laundry water. Most solar water heaters operate through one of two methods -- active or passive heat.

Active solar water heaters operate on a similar principle as solar panels -- small panels are placed in a suitable "collection" area near the water heater and the resulting solar energy is used to power the water heater. Because water heaters can account for a sizable portion of your utility usage (around 18 percent of your total electric bill), using small solar cells to replace this usage can cut your utility costs significantly.

Passive solar water heaters are less sophisticated than active water heaters, but can be equally effective in warm and sunny parts of the country. Rather than relying upon the collection and conversion of solar power, these water heaters simply use the sun's warmth to heat water inside pipes or a central holding tank (often placed on your roof). Depending upon how the plumbing is currently, the conversion process may be simple.

Some passive water heaters have an "active" component as a backup. If you like the idea of a passive water heater but don't quite have the infrastructure to fully support one, you may want to consider a hybrid tank that combines the two technologies.

Will solar power really save you money?

The up-front cost of installing a solar system may seem daunting -- estimates range anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000, depending upon the size and capacity of the system. However, you'll be able to recoup most of these costs fairly quickly, and can continue to take advantage of low (or nonexistent) utility bills for decades to come. 

One cost-saving measure is the federal energy tax credit, allowing you to instantly recapture 30 percent of the system's purchase price in the form of a lower tax bill or larger refund. There are often similar state or other credits available that can help bring your purchase price down even more. 

Because most solar systems can pay for themselves within 5 years of installation, choosing one of the above options may help you increase your home's resale value while lowering your energy bills.