How to Retrofit Your Home With Solar Panels on a Budget

How to Retrofit Your Home With Solar Panels on a Budget

Installing solar panels on your home can reduce your electricity bills and carbon footprint. However, the upfront cost of solar panel systems can be daunting. With careful planning and budgeting, you can retrofit your home with solar power without breaking the bank.

Determine Your Energy Needs

The first step is calculating your home’s energy consumption to properly size your solar panel system.

  • Track your monthly electricity usage for the past year. Your utility company can provide data on your home’s kilowatt-hour consumption per month. Look for seasonal fluctuations and when you use the most electricity.

  • Take inventory of major appliances and devices. Make a list of high energy-demand equipment like air conditioners, pool pumps, electric vehicles, etc. Consider when and how often you use them.

  • Evaluate energy efficiency. Determine if insulation, lighting, and appliances need upgrading to reduce waste. It’s cheaper to conserve energy than produce excess solar power.

Once you know your needs, use an online calculator to determine the solar panel system size. Oversize the system to account for future energy increases. Undersizing is a common mistake, leaving you with ongoing electric bills.

Choose an Appropriate Location

Installing solar panels on your roof maximizes sunlight exposure. Consider the following for optimal solar gain:

  • The south side of your roof receives the most sunlight. North-facing panels produce much less energy.

  • Angle matters. Match the tilt of the panels to your latitude for best year-round production.

  • Shading dramatically reduces output. Avoid sections shaded by trees, chimneys, etc. Even a little shade can disproportionately impact production.

  • The roof condition and age should support panels for 20-30 years. Replace old roofing before installing.

  • Consider ground or pole mounts if the roof won’t work. This costs more but prevents leaks and roof work.

Purchase Efficient Solar Panels

When selecting solar panels, balance efficiency and price. Consider:

  • Efficiency rating – Measured in wattage produced per square foot, more efficient panels generate more electricity. However, they cost more per watt.

  • Quality – Invest in durable panels like monocrystalline silicon solar cells. Avoid cheap panels that degrade quicker.

  • Size – Standard panels are 65″ x 39″, sized for roof installation. Larger panels cost more but require fewer connections.

  • Warranty – Quality solar panels come with 20-30 year manufacturing warranties.

  • Cost per watt – Compare costs from multiple suppliers. Aim for under $3 per watt.

Buy slightly used/reclaimed panels to save money. Many still have long warranties. Just inspect carefully for cracks or moisture damage.

Use a Simplified Ground Mount System

Roof mounts are ideal for solar but involve roof work. As a budget option:

  • Set vertical support posts in the ground for mounting panels. Use galvanized steel or aluminum posts.

  • Tilt panel racks at your optimal angle, facing south. Secure panels using mounting brackets.

  • Run wiring underground in pipes to your electrical panel. This avoids an electrician running roof wiring.

  • Maintain 3 feet between panels and the ground for safety and maintenance access.

  • Keep panels clear of shading, vents, chimneys, etc. Consider tilt adjustability for seasonal changes.

A basic pole mount is much cheaper than complicated roof racking, costing a few hundred dollars.

Connect Solar Panels Yourself

Connecting and wiring solar panels is relatively straightforward:

  • Combiner box – Collect and combine wiring from all panels into one output line. Purchase a box sized for your system’s amperage.

  • Use 10-12 awg copper wire to handle the electrical load. Run wire through conduit for protection.

  • Ground fault protection – Install a DC GFI breaker in the combiner box for safety. This detects electrical shorts/leaks.

  • Wire to generator meter – Feed the combiner output to a bidirectional net meter that tracks energy in/out.

  • Grid tie inverter – Inverts solar DC to usable AC power. Grid-ties sync to utility voltage. Must meet electrical codes.

  • Connect to your home electrical panel – Finally, wire the inverter output to connect with your main breaker panel.

If this seems daunting, you can hire an electrician just for the final utility hookup step.

Submit Paperwork and Get Connected

Finally, once everything is installed and inspected:

  • Submit interconnection agreement to utility company requesting net metering.

  • Turn the system on! The meter will spin backwards as solar energy feeds the grid.

  • Offset credit depends on your net metering policy. Track production vs usage each month.

Homeowners can often handle permitting for small solar systems, saving on installer fees.

Be Diligent About Maintenance

Like any system, solar panels need periodic maintenance:

  • Inspect wiring connections, brackets, grounding etc. Repair loose plugs or corroded parts.

  • Clear debris and dust buildup on panels. Dirty panels can cut production.

  • Check inverter operation and fans. Replace inverter filters per manufacturer.

  • Monitor online monitoring system for production/error alerts.

  • Have trees/shrubs trimmed if causing new shading. Adjust pole tilt if needed.

Don’t neglect maintenance! Solar power systems are very reliable when kept in shape.

Final Considerations

With smart planning, you can absolutely retrofit your home with solar on a budget. Here are some final tips:

  • Research incentives/rebates available in your state and electric utility. These can offset 25% or more of system costs.

  • Consider joining solar co-ops or group buys to purchase discounted panels in bulk.

  • If your roof needs replacing soon, it’s smarter to combine this with panel installation.

  • Start small if needed. Some power offset is better than none. You can expand later.

  • Leasing solar systems is another option to avoid large upfront payments.

Every home and budget is different. With time and diligence, solar power can offset a significant portion of your electric bill. Try tracking your utility costs over the next year while you plan, so you can watch the savings stack up when your system is up and running!