Q: I know solar electric systems don't make much economic sense for most homeowners today, but I want to try something. Maybe I can't make my house totally independent of the electric company but I'd like to start on that path. What are some things a homeowner can do?
A: If someone gave you a dollar for every time I've been asked a question similar to this, you could probably afford a complete system for your home by now.
The dream of cutting the power line to the electric company and living in a home totally powered by the sun (or by wind energy or other forms of renewable power) is a great one. There are probably 20,000 or more people in the United States today who live in homes totally powered by photovoltaics (solar cells, usually just called PV).
They're enjoying all the amenities you have in your home, only the sun doesn't send them a bill every month.
Sure, they paid thousands of dollars for these systems, and at today's prices, they probably won't save enough over their lifetimes to offset the equipment cost. However, they are enjoying the reliability and performance of these systems, as well as the satisfaction of knowing they are helping the environment by not having a utility company burn fossil fuels for their power.
You can start on this path in a number of small ways. I think the easiest and cheapest is to get solar lights for your sidewalk, garden or other outdoor area that needs illumination. These lights have improved tremendously in recent years and give off plenty of light, are easily installed, and require no electrical connections. Most building supply and hardware stores carry a selection of them.
Do you have a solar water heater on your roof? A small PV panel can be used there as the controller to keep the system operating.
Worried about blackouts after hurricanes, snowstorms or other natural disasters, or maybe just sick of summertime power interruptions during thunderstorms? Talk to a solar contractor (you can find one near you at www.findsolar.com) and ask him to fix you up with a small PV system of 200 to 500 watts or so. It'll be enough power for critical items in your home when electricity is not available, including your phone, radio and TV, a few lights and even a small refrigerator.
The system will be easy to hook up, won't need any fuel, and you can even take it with you in the trunk of your car. It'll cost somewhere between $2,500 and $5,000, depending on the size system you want, but it'll give you emergency power for an extended time until the grid comes back on.
There are a number of products available that use PV to power them, too, from attic vent fans that will help keep your house cooler in hot weather to water pumps and battery chargers.
If you want to see how well systems can work, including complete home systems that provide all the needed power, check out soltrex.masstech.org. This neat site gives information on dozens of homes and commercial facilities in Massachusetts that are powered by photovoltaics. You can look at the actual power output of the systems and note the impacts of weather, times of day and other factors. And for those of you who are geography-challenged, note this: Massachusetts is not in a Sunbelt state!
Solar energy systems can work well in just about every part of the United States, and looking at the consistent, reliable power production of these systems will give you an idea what this alternative form of energy might do for you.
You can expect to see more solar companies making their systems easier to buy and install as their popularity grows.
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