Is now the right time to install solar panels on your home?

If you live in Southern California or any other solar hot spots in the U.S. you have no doubt been inundated by offers from solar companies. But should you do it?

What many of these solar companies are telling you is likely true — that solar is a very good investment for most single-family house owners. But is it really something worth considering now?


Consider how an investment in solar compares to other investment opportunities.

Currently, the best cash deposit rate amongst major U.S. banks was 2.27 percent. The long-term return on investment in the U.S. residential property market from 1900 to 2012 was 3.1 percent. (observationsandnotes.blogspot.com/us-housing-prices-since-1900) and the average return on investments in the stock market between 1950 and 2009 is roughly 7 percent (http://www.simplestockinvesting.com/SP500-historical-real-total-returns.htm).

Installing solar on your home compares very well to each of the above investment possibilities. Solar-Estimate.org, an online solar cost calculator developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, shows that a San Diego homeowner with a monthly $250 utility bill would require a 10.26 kilowatt solar panel system. The tools on the site show that as of summer 2015 such a solar power system would generate a return on investment of 16.13 percent. That return is more than 6 times better than money saved in a bank, 5 times higher than residential property investments, and more than double the long-term return on investment that the stock market returns.

It sounds like a great deal, however life requires choices between competing priorities. The real question that needs answering is whether the case for going solar is so compelling that you need to look at it right now?

Here are some compelling reasons why you should not wait any longer to evaluate installing solar on your home:

The price of solar panels and systems has dropped... a lot!! Between 2009 and 2014, the cost of solar panels from leading Chinese solar manufacturers dropped around 79 percent—from around $2.40 per watt in 2009 to 50 cents per watt in 2014 (www.treehugger.com). Much of this price fall was related to expanded production, gains in the efficiency of solar panels' ability to convert more sunlight into electricity and also because of subsidies the Chinese government continues to grant to solar cell and solar panel manufacturers. Who knows how long these subsidies will last?

Federal, state and local subsidies for solar power are currently far more generous than what most people think they are. The U.S. federal renewable-energy Investment Tax Credit—which expires at the end of 2016—currently cuts the cost of a solar power system by 30 percent. It reduces the cost of a $21,400 solar system to $15,000—but again, that only lasts through the end of 2016. State and local incentives can also further reduce the price. The tools at Solar-Estimate.org provide real-time data on state and local incentives allowing you to get an accurate estimate of how much all available incentives will reduce the cost of a solar system for you.

Net metering offers a further return on investment. Net metering allows people with solar power systems to sell the energy they're not using, but producing, in the day to the utility, which uses it elsewhere on the grid. In many states people are reimbursed the full retail value for the power their system generates. This is a very generous incentive. Other electric generators are paid roughly 25 percent of the retail rate of electricity. Net-metering contracts are for many years—sometimes up to 25—and offer a reliable means of reducing electric bills. However, in some states met-metering caps are being reached after which utilities don't have to sign up for more solar power from homes and in others such systems are coming under fire from utilities for being too generous. This makes it an ideal time to lock in a good net-metering rate.

More financing options means solar is more affordable for more people. Leasing plans and solar loans are now available through most of the U.S. which means you don't need thousands of dollars of cash to go solar. You can essentially rent a solar system and still save on your energy bills or get a loan that allows you to own the system with $0 down and no installation costs (though you'll have to pay interest on the loan. In other words, you can go solar without tying up a lot of your cash on hand. Another form of zero-down purchasing is called a PPA (power-purchase agreement). Under these agreements a company owns the solar panels on your house and you simply purchase the energy they produce at long-term fixed cost.

When the Investment Tax Credit ends in 2016 it's likely that a lot of the zero-down financing options currently available will end. Given that it can take more than half a year to find and select a solar contractor and get the system installed. It's starting to get closer to that 2016 deadline, making this an ideal time to consider your solar power options.

What's next? So we know that for most homeowners solar is a good investment right now. Partly because of incentives for solar are starting to end. Perhaps it is worth considering putting off other projects to go solar now. The savings realized from going solar could be used to fund some of those other projects you're considering. Using one of the zero-down solar power options could make it even easier to go on that next vacation or remodel the kitchen.

Either way the next question becomes how do you go about buying the best solar system you can? Fortunately there are now some very good online tools that put a lot of knowledge at your fingertips before you talk to solar companies.

Estimate Your Savings for Yourself.

As much as solar power might sound like a no-brainer, not everyone will benefit from it, and taking on debt for it might not ultimately pay off. To find out if solar is right for you head to a site like Solar_Estimate.org to calculate the savings you'll realize with solar power. All you need to do is enter your address and utility bill. The tools will tell you how many solar panels you need to cover your bill, how much they should cost based on industry average system prices, what rebates and incentives are available at your house, your payback period and what your return on investment will be.

However, be aware that the site will also allow a local solar installer to call you. They will give you an opinion on whether the online ballpark estimate given by the solar calculator is accurate for your circumstances. This is the only real way to ensure whether or not the estimate was accurate. The tools can't pick up all the factors like shade, roof layout or orientation of your house, each of which can impact the accuracy of a ballpark online estimate.

The big advantage of this site is that they only one installer will call. Usually it's a smaller local installer. Online comments about Solar-Estimate.org rank the advice given by the site very highly. Other solar calculators offered by solar lead generation sites may sell your contact info to three or four installers, which can end up with you being inundated with sales calls.

Who is the best installer and what equipment should you choose?

Once you understand the true economics of solar for your home the next question becomes one of quality and reputation. Which installer should you go with and what brands of equipment should you buy?

Fortunately, a lot of help is available online. Homeowners' reviews of the services they received from solar companies are available on many sites including HomeAdvisor, Yelp and SolarReviews.com. SolarReviews.com offers reviews of both solar installers and also solar equipment brands. Consumer reviews of solar equipment brands are not widely available on general reviews websites like Yelp or HomeAdvisor. You can also find all of the installers that service your zip code to help you get competing quotes for your solar project.

Good luck!... it is not often that middle class homeowners can make a 15 percent or higher return on investment on such a low-risk investment. Indeed, this may be the only time that you have to gain this type of investment return while saving money and doing something that benefits both you and the environment.

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