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Solar Power for Homes: Getting Started

Updated on November 21, 2011

So you've heard about the advantages of solar power for homes and you are starting to see solar panels pop up everywhere. Interested in learning more but you don't know where to start?

Determine your Energy Needs

If you are considering tapping into the sun's energy for electricity and hot water heating, you first need to know how much energy your household spends annually. Reviewing your electricity and hot water heating bills will help you determine the size of the solar power system you need. Look through your electricity bill to figure out your household's monthly average of kilowatt hours used. The amount will of course vary from season to season.
Calculating the amount you spend on electricity in a year may entice you to reduce your energy consumption. If you find ways to save energy you can lower the cost of your solar power system and save money even before you install it.

How to Cut your Energy Needs

A simple way to reduce electricity is to stop using electricity when you don't need it. Unplug appliances you are not using, stop them from draining phantom power. Programmable power bars can cut phantom power drains by shutting off automatically when you don't typically use them. If you only watch TV in the evenings, there's no need to power your television 24 hours a day. DVRs and PVRs use more energy than new fridges.


Make your Home more Efficient

Think of your home as a working unit. The insulation, heating and cooling systems, plumbing and electrical all work together. Improving your home's insulation will reduce your heating and cooling needs. Although your furnace may burn oil or natural gas, it likely runs on electricity. If you top up the insulation in your attic and walls your furnace will power up less often, saving you both electricity and heating fuel. An inexpensive way to reduce your heat loss is by installing weather stripping around windows and doors to seal drafts.

Now that you've cut your energy needs and determined your new energy consumption you can consider the different types of solar powered systems.

Let the Sun Heat your Water

A hot water tank is often the most energy guzzling appliance in a household. In order to provide a constant supply of hot water, it must be continuously heated. Many units allow you to set the water temperature, turning down your thermostat for your hot water tank can save you money. You can also buy insulating blankets for your hot water tank, which will keep the water warm, reducing the energy lost for re-heating water. If your tank is old, consider replacing it with a smaller tank or a tank-less system, you'll save even more energy if there is less water to constantly reheat. You can keep your existing hot water system and install a thermal solar hot water heating system.
Thermal solar hot water heating systems use thermal collectors to absorb the heat from the sun and air. The collectors heat water, during the day. The hot water is then stored in a hot water tank to be used at anytime. Solar hot water systems can be combined with electrical systems for back up purposes. Evacuated tube solar collectors are used in cooler climates because they are more efficient during the morning and evening. The thermal collectors can be installed on a roof or south facing wall.

Solar Electrical Systems

Photovoltaic Systems or PV systems are used to hardness energy from the sun and convert it into electrical energy. PV systems are series of solar modules made of solar cells mounted outdoors, either on a roof or pole. The solar cells are made of mostly silicon and are covered in glass or plastic. The silicon in solar cells is infused with small amounts of phosphorus and boron. When photons from the sun hit the solar cells electrons are released from the silicon atoms. Metal contacts in the cells collect the electrons, this forms and electrical current. The electricity is then carried to an inverter where it is converted into a usable form of electricity in a household.

The size of the solar array you need will depend on the amount of electricity needed and the amount of peak sunlight hours available in your location.


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