Jun 3, 2013

Estimates of Cost to Build or Add Solar Energy to the Home

Solar home shows are popular in the United States today as homeowners seek ways to save money and lower their carbon footprint. For example, the Hampton Roads Solar Group hosted a homes tour on the Virginia Peninsula on Sunday, September 26.

Four homes in the Williamsburg area gave attendees an overview of solar home costs, from totally green to a simple retrofit. Two of the homes were new construction and two were existing homes where the owners added solar panels. Each shared literature about the products and vendors they used. The hosts and hostesses were happy to tell how much they spent and how much they are saving.

Energy Efficient and Green Homes from the Ground Up

In Lanexa, a homeowner was proud to show off his totally green home, now for sale for $799,900. Some people attend shows to get ideas for their own project and if finding products and being your own general contractor is of interest, this home was one to see. The owner showed how the concrete walls were made and let visitors into the crawl space to see his twelve-tank solar heated water storage area. Water was heated for washing, heating and even de-icing the driveway. The owner and his family attended many shows to spec products and they did most of the work. Although not always practical, a totally green and owner-built home is always fun to hear about and see.

At another home in Williamsburg, the owner wanted to build a green and "energy neutral" home that looked like the rest of the neighborhood and was a comfortable 2,200 square feet for the empty-nest husband and wife. This couple used Urban Grid Solar, a Richmond, Virginia company, for solar products. The house included a number of energy-saving design features (geothermal heat, natural lighting) and products (Energy Star appliances, half-flush toilets, high performance doors and windows, and highly efficient insulation), so the 36 photovoltaic panels supply more than enough energy to power the home. The gross cost for the solar panels and inverter box that changes the DC power to AC power (the "magic box" between the solar panels and the home's electrical panel box) was $58, 600.

Adding Solar Water Heating and Electricity to the Existing Home

The Williamsburg solar home tour also included two existing homes that were retrofitted by Solar Services, Inc., a Virginia Beach, Virginia company. These were excellent examples for the homeowner seeking to tap into the power of solar energy without starting from the ground up. In both, the homeowners were also empty-nesters who had retrofitted in two steps. First, they added a solar water heating system to their homes. The water heater is a separate unit of panels that have a type of antifreeze running through to heat the water. The panels and tank for a solar water heating system cost them about $4,000 to $5,000. The panels look a little thicker than the photovoltaic panels and have tubes running from one to the next to circulate the antifreeze.

For photovoltaic panels (the panels that soak up the sun – watch this U.S. Dept of Energy video for a quick explanation of how photovoltaic panels work), one home used 24 panels and another 16 panels. In both cases, the panels ran about $1,500 each and the inverter box was an additional $3,000. Even though they had different numbers of panels, both said they got about 40 to 50 percent of their power from solar energy. Both home owners said the juice usage was variable depending upon how much you use the two major culprits: the air conditioner and the dryer. They both mentioned that they used these biggest energy using features of the home a lot. If you hang some of your laundry outside and love the fresh air, savings could be higher.

Estimate for Adding Solar Efficiency to the Existing Home

Doing the math for a 2,000 square foot home retrofit, an estimate would include $5,000 for the water heating system, 20 photovoltaic panels at $1,500 each, and $3,000 for an inverter box for a grand total of $38,000. Many states offer a tax incentive to homeowners who add solar systems and homeowners can also sell their energy credits on the carbon exchange.

For example, in Virginia homeowners can take a 30 percent tax write-off, so that would bring the estimated cost down to $26,600. Virginia also allows homeowners to participate in a carbon credit exchange (your savings can be bought by companies that can't reduce their energy use by the required amount) that, according to the two retrofit homeowners above, earned them about $200 a quarter. By estimating that the homeowner in this example would not spend any money for electricity and would received the energy credits, the savings and earnings can be assumed at about $2,000 a year. In this example, the system would pay for itself in a little over 13 years.


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