Gail Corcoran
CENTURY 21 Curran & Oberski

Residential Solar Basics

Have you done everything possible to slash your energy costs but STILL hanker for more energy savings?  Most people do all the major

projects - insulation and weatherization - and other small things to reduce energy bills.  But then the next question often is "What else can I

do?"  Installing solar panels to tap the sun for electrical power could be the answer you are looking for!  Yet do they make sense for YOU?

Here are some routine questions currently asked by homeowners and some of the basics you need to know:


  • How it works: Photovoltaic cells on rooftop solar panels absorb the sun and convert sunlight into DC (direct current) power.  An inverter converts it to AC (alternating current) that you can tap to power your home.
  • Solar candidates: Each system is customized to a particular property, so a solar expert needs to assess several variables, including the hours of sunlight, shading, and roof orientation (southfacing works best) to determine whether solar is a good choice.
  • System costs: The cost of each system varies by specifics of a given property, but also by the amount of electricity a homeowner uses and by local utility and labor costs.  What is difficult for homeowners is that they just want a straight answer to "How much will it cost?"  Sometimes they feel like not getting that answer if someone doesn't say "this will cost X."  But tossing out a general figure isn't really possible until a solar expert can assess the house.  It's not that complicated and an expert can give someone a good answer once he/she get answers to those few variables.           
  • Buy or lease?:  For homeowners put off by the cost of buying solar panels, several companies now offer leasing arrangements.  It's a topic that homeowners should consider when they're vetting installers.  Some say the advantages of leased panels are numerous.  You don't have the upfront costs, leases typically are transferable to the next owner, and the solar company will clean, fix, and maintain the panels for you.


The solar installer is the company that assesses a property, makes recommendations, and installs the solar panels.  So it's important to find a company that is competent, experienced, and reliable.  Some tips for choosing an installer include:

  • Buy local: Stick with local installers.  They'll know best about the local variables, such as hours of sunlight, and they also should be up on all the incentives available through the power company and the municipality.
  • Shop around: Just like with any professional you hire, word-of-mouth recommendations can be tremendously helpful.  Also find out how many similar jobs a company has done, what certifications and training its installers have, and talk to past clients.
  • Get multiple bids: Do thorough research and look at perhaps 10 or more companies, though 3 bids could suffice.  Be certain installers bids let you make the apples-to-apples comparisons among the contenders.  It can make a difference.  A bidder may come in with an estimate that is $10K higher than others for the exact same equipment.
  • Trust your gut: Like with other service providers, it is wise to "trust your gut" when choosing an installer.  One indication of a company's reliability is its upfront customer service.  Does someone call you back on time?  Are the answers to questions evasive or straightforward?  Are you trapped in mail jail when you try to reach someone?
  • Payment plan: Find out a company's payment plan.  Will it accept credit cards?  And how does it manage rebates and incentives?  A homeowner recently received more that $14,000 of incentives and rebates, and her installer did the solar installation without making her pay those costs upfront.  The rebate was transferred from the utility provider to solar provider without touching her hands.
  • Incentives: There is a huge array of incentive, rebates, and grants available to reduce the cost of a solar system.  For the same aforementioned homeowner, the total cost of her system was $34,000.  Of that, she's only paying $9,000 because she was able to tap some generous incentives and rebates.  See "Resources" for ways to locate more information.  Apply for incentives early in the planning process.  Sometimes there's a long waiting period - perhaps six months - to get applications processed.



  • Database of State Incentives for Renewable & Efficiency: (  The database makes locating the latest Federal and state incentives easy.  Click the link to get started.
  • Education: There are several online sources that explain solar in layman terms (  In addition, find a third party advisor - a group or someone an unaffiliated with a solar installer - who can offer objective advice and guidance.  One Arizona-based source, for instance, is Arizona Smart Power.
  • The North American Board of Certified Energy Practioners (NABCEP): The group certified renewable energy professionals across North America, and it's a place to find certified installers.  Their website is:
  • Solar Energy: Their calculator ( lets you put in your zip code, electricity provider, and some basic information about electricity usage to get a ballpark on how much a solar installation would cost and how much you could save by tapping local incentives.  Its "Useful Links" section, found under "Resources" offers links to numerous government, non-profit and education sites.
  • U.S. Department of Energy offers a solar primer and links to government incentives.  Find GREAT info at


**REALTORS® who have earned the National Association of REALTORS® Green Designation ( can refer you to local experts who can assess your home's performance