Sun Powered: How to Set Up Solar Panels on Your Roof

If you have decent roof space, a rooftop solar system can be easy to put up, inexpensive and represent decades of energy savings potential.

Going solar is a great way to reduce your energy costs and help the environment. Whether you plan to install your own solar system or have one installed professional, it pays to know a little bit about how solar systems work and how to make sure they work best for you.

How Solar Systems Work

While there are some solar-powered systems that harness sunlight in a less conventional way, most home solar systems use photovoltaic cells. PV solar panels work by converting sunlight directly into electrical energy—they don’t have moving parts like turbines and generators like traditional power plants.

Despite huge advantages of solar power, this whole idea of converting sunlight to energy has its downsides. Most importantly, solar systems do not work well at all if they are facing the wrong direction or if it is cloudy. They will produce some energy on rainy days, but probably less than half their potential. They also need to be facing south as much as possible so they capture direct sunlight throughout the day. More advanced systems will actually rotate so they are always facing directly at the sun, but these are more complex and expensive than most homeowners will bother to install. For rooftop systems, this means that your roof angle and alignment is important. If you have a complex roof design or little southward facing roof space, then your system won’t be as efficient.

On Grid or Off Grid

The green energy lover’s dream is to live completely free of the constraints of conventional energy and never have an electric bill again. The unfortunate truth is that unless you are prepared to invest a great deal into your solar system, it won’t be enough to completely eliminate your electric bill or move you off the grid.

Most rooftop systems are modest and will not actually produce enough electricity for the home. They reduce energy costs by lowering the amount your need to take from the regular grid, but you will still have to stay connected. Depending on how your system works and your supplier’s policies, most systems are tied to the grid and feed energy into it. This means they will either reduce the rate your meter runs or actually run your meter backwards when they are supplying more energy than you use. This gives you a credit on your energy bill.

Since solar systems don’t produce any energy in the dark, the only way you could take your solar system off-grid is to install very large and very expensive lithium ion backup batteries. While this is a possibility, and companies like Tesla are actually pioneering more affordable options, a battery like this would probably cost more than the entire rest of the system.

Installation Hazards

While rooftop solar can be a great thing, it can also be a complete disaster for your roof if done improperly. It is easy to crack or penetrate your roof layer when installing solar. This can lead to leaks and very expensive repairs that ultimately require the system be dismantled. Even professional solar installers have been known to damage roofs. Your best bet is to hire a professional roofing contractor with solar installation experience. If you do plan to install it yourself, then be very careful you don’t puncture your roof in the process. Solar kits from sites like ML Solar can be a great investment if you know what you’re doing.


Finally, the question of affordability always comes up. While the cost of solar systems is expensive on the surface, usually $5,000 or more, tax incentives and rebates in solar-heavy areas usually reduce this cost to near zero. States like California tend to be especially solar friendly. Not only do systems work great in such climates, the government incentives make them affordable for just about anybody.

It really has never been a better time to consider going solar. If you live in the right place and have decent roof space, then a rooftop solar system can be easy to put up, inexpensive and represent decades of energy savings potential.

Dixie Somers, based in Arizona, is the author of this article. 
You can read articles written by Dixie Somers here.

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