So You Want to Switch to Solar…

By Mary McGraw

Are you one of the many people with a desire to cut the utility cord and go off grid? If you have ever dreamed about the possibility of using electricity that you generate on your own and telling your power company to take a hike, it is easier than ever. This article will outline the steps you can take to get closer to achieving that dream.

Rooftop or ground mount?
The first step is to assess your property and decide if a ground mount or a roof mount system would work best.If you are considering a rooftop system, you will need to assess the condition of the roof. If your roof will need to be repaired or replaced in the next five to ten years, you may consider taking care of the repairs before placing the system. After the system is installed it would need to be removed in order to make repairs.

With either system, check for obstacles which will cast shade on the system during the day. This may be trees, neighbor’s rooflines or other such obstacles. Shade will reduce the power production capabilities of your system. In the northern hemisphere, it is best to have a southwest or south exposure on the system.

Solar Panels
What size system?
National Renewable Energy Labs (NREL) has a fairly decent solar calculator called PV Watts ( The calculator has a feature that allows you to draw a system on your roof or elsewhere on your property and it will estimate the average size. There are options to change system losses, azimuth and tilt values. Once those values are set, the next screen will estimate how much electricity your system will generate monthly and annually.

A 1000-watt system with good solar radiation should generate in the ballpark of 1000 watts (1kW) or more per year under ideal conditions. What if your house used 10,000 watts per year and you don’t want to invest in a 10,000-watt (10kW) system? Work towards making your house more efficient: install LED lights, insulate, put in new windows and do other energy efficiency practices to reduce your energy usage. The cheapest energy is always that which you don’t use.

Decide on a budget amount. What are you comfortable investing right now? With the technology described here, it makes it easy to work within your budget and add to your system over time.

Making the most of your system
There is a federal tax credit of 30% for qualified renewable energy systems. This tax credit was extended through December 31, 2019. If you pay taxes, this is a valuable benefit, more valuable than a deduction because it is a true credit on what you owe. Keep in mind, if you can’t use the full credit in one year, it can be rolled over to the following year until you have used the full benefit. State and local incentives vary. The best way to get information is to start with the website and also check with your utility company to see if they are offering any rebates.

Many states have net metering laws, which vary by state. Typically, this allows any power you don’t use to be put on the grid. The electricity basically goes to your neighbor’s house and you help the utility company by taking some of the pressure off the grid during peak electric usage hours. You will receive credit on your bill for energy you send to the power company to help them out. Check out your state policy to find out the specifics in your state.

This illustration is a good example of how one company in Michigan reflects net metering on a customer bill. The customer sent $33.91 in power to the grid while using $22.65 in power. Of course, the customer still pays for system access, distribution, Low-Income Assist Fund and other charges on the statement. These are considered by the utility company and others as their “fair share” of accessing the utility grid. Some utility companies go so far as to say those with solar should contribute even more. In a nutshell, this bill makes it evident the benefit of solar to a homeowner.

Going off grid
There are currently many technological advances being made in the battery storage arena. By starting to invest now in a grid-tied system, you can take the first step in readying your property to go off grid as technology advances and new battery systems like the Tesla Powerwall and other devices become more affordable. You can also continuously work to decrease your energy usage.

What does it cost to go solar?

A 4000-watt (4kW) system will generate somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year. This will be more or less, depending on where you live, and will be affected by any shade on the system and the solar radiation availability daily. A study by SEIA and GTM in March 2016 reported the average residential installation price at $3.50 per watt. This 4000-watt system would be about $14,000 and would be eligible for an approximate $4,200 federal tax credit, effectively reducing the net cost to less than $10,000.

If you are interested in reducing the cost even more and you are handy or have friends who are handy and don’t mind doing some of the heavy lifting, purchase a DIY solar kit. These kits have components designed to work together as a system and take the guesswork out of what components a homeowner will need to put a system together.

A kit normally consists of the solar panels, the racking to mount the panels to your roof, microinverters which invert the power from DC to AC at the source and a variety of wiring connectors for installing the system.

These are professional systems which are really quite easy to assemble and mount, if you have a straightforward design. The roof is penetrated to mount the racking, the microinverters are attached to the panels and the panels are mounted and fixed to the racking. The wiring is all combined into a combiner box. It is advisable from that point forward to hire a certified electrician to complete the system and hook it into your electrical box. Doing this part of the work yourself can decrease the cost by 40% or more. Many kits sell for around $2.00 per watt and can be shipped right to your home, saving you time and money.

Microinverter technology has revolutionized the industry and makes it easy to pull a single wire, add a charge controller and convert to a battery-based system as the technology improves and prices decrease. What’s more, with microinverters you are able to start smaller, say with approximately 1000 watts, and expand your system gradually.

Panel capabilities have also been improved. At one time, nameplate capacity of panels was around 165 watts, which you can still get off the shelf in some of the box stores, or 210 watts. There are 300+ watt panels available now, which means you can generate more power in less space.

Solar as an investment property

Many people make investments in rental properties. They spend thousands to purchase a house, fix it up and offer rental housing. Most have to make a mortgage payment and do property repairs and maintenance. After a tenant moves out, the property needs to be cleaned, repaired and advertised. Then comes the process of screening potential renters and hoping for a good fit.

I consider the solar on my garage the best tenant I could find. There is little or no maintenance for my system, it pays me on time day after day, it will never move out and I will never have to clean up after it. My investment was much less than purchasing a rental property, and I received a 30% tax credit, thereby reducing my initial investment. I have taken my first step in preparing to go off grid. I look forward to telling the power company to take a hike one day when I am ready!

Mary McGraw has been involved in the solar industry since 2008. She owns an e-commerce solar business. Mary is also on the Board of Directors for Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association.

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