Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Big ideas Small steps: Solar home installations

A couple months ago when my family moved to Texas we were excited about moving from the cold Midwestern climate to hot southern weather. Of course this was before we realized how hot, how really really hot the Texas summers can get. Once the realization sunk in, we wondered if the hot sunny weather could be used to our advantage. Maybe we could find cost effective solar applications that would lower bills, use the abundant free sun energy and help our family go green in the process. Then the next realization sunk in, solar and cost effective do not go hand in hand. Many families probably go through the same conundrum - Should we invest in solar, what technology is reliable, how does the ROI work and similar. So I decided to get a little help from experts and consumers to help my family and others think through this process. This is the first in a series of blogs on Living Green in Plano dedicated to Solar home installations.

What is Solar?

It is probably safe to assume that by now everyone has heard about solar and has pretty good idea how the technology works. But as a refresher lets go through a quick Solar 101.

Solar energy is derived from the sun and used in many different forms such as heat, light and electricity. It is available in abundance in most parts of the world, is clean, non polluting and renewable. Despite solar power technology being available for decades, it is only now gaining popularity as an alternative source of fuel energy to help reduce our dependency on other forms such as petroleum and oil. Solar power can be used directly through radiant heat or indirectly through photovoltaic systems that generate electricity to run other applications.

Despite all its advantages, solar power struggles from becoming main stream because of three main issues. Firstly solar power is an intermittent source of energy, meaning it is only available during day time directly from the sun. This means there needs to be a good way to store energy during the day time to use through the night. Secondly the technology is still not optimized for cost and efficiency that can be used for mass applications. Third the economics of using solar power may not always be justified, especially in areas where regular electricity and oil is cheap and there are no incentives to help home owners overcome the initial investment.

Solar Attic Fans

This is the first of the many small steps that people can take towards using solar power in their homes. Solar attic fan prices can vary from $300 to upwards of $500 and are available at big retailers such as Costco, Home Depot, Lowes as well as private installers.

The total cost of installation depends on the number of fans required and installation costs charged in your area. Product guidelines suggest that one fan can ventilate up to 1250 sq ft of attic space. Installation costs vary from $0 for a DIY homeowner skilled in carpentry to $50/fan for a handyman to upwards of $150/fan using skilled installation services. Like any home project there is always the tradeoff of saving money by doing it yourself versus saving time and doing it right by hiring the experts. Apart from using freely available solar energy, these fans help lower energy costs, remove moisture and provide ventilation in attics.

The demand for this fan has picked up tremendously in recent days, but long term consumer reviews are unavailable. We installed these in our home this summer and have seen significantly lower attic temperatures. Our household is excited about our first solar installation and looking forward to the next one.

If you have solar installation stories to share, please leave us a comment.