Are Solar Panels Right for You?

April is Earth Month, a time when many are considering how they can make changes to their homes and their lives to be more sustainable. When Academy of Natural Sciences members Chris and Alysia Fostek saw that their first energy bill for their then-new home was more than $500, they knew there had to be a better, greener way.  

Since their home is entirely reliant on electric—including heating, cooling, laundry and cooking—Alysia’s dad suggested getting their home evaluated for solar panels. Now, six years later, they say they have never regretted it—although Chris said he flinched at the bill when they bought the panels five years into leasing them. Even then, they knew it was the right choice. 

“There’s a lot more freedom when you own it yourself,” Chris said. 

Now, the Collegeville couple want to share their experience with others so they can decide whether solar panels are right for their own homes. There are a few factors to consider, they said: Does your property get enough sunlight throughout the day to generate enough energy? Is your roof in good condition if you plan to have them installed on the roof? Is the whole thing financially viable for you and your family? And if you do decide on getting the panels, which company should you hire for installation? Should you lease or buy the panels? 

Some of these questions can be answered by the companies that evaluate and install solar panels. Chris and Alysia say they spoke with three companies before choosing one.  

You can then choose based on the quotes provided by these companies. Some will offer the panels as rentals but install them for free, because the installation company will benefit from excess energy that is generated. Others will sell you the panels and installation for a larger upfront cost, but as the owner, you will immediately benefit from government rebates and excess energy production. 

The Fosteks chose a lease-to-own option where they benefitted from free installation and then bought the panels from the supplier five years into their contract at a prorated price.  

There were a few things the companies took into consideration during the evaluation: 

  • The roof must be in good shape, with a minimum of 25 years longevity left to support the 20-year lifespan of the panels. 
  • The house and roof are not obstructed by large trees that could cast shadows over the panels. 
  • The direction of the roofline. The Fostek’s home, for example, is optimally aligned from east to west so that they can can capitalize from sunup to sundown. 
  • The roof was the right size and shape to maximize the number of panels that can be installed. 
  • The energy usage trends of the household and whether the panels can produce enough to match—or preferably exceed—it.

These factors made the Fosteks’ house a very good candidate for solar panels and even resulted in one of the largest solar panel systems their supplier had ever installed on one residence, with 71 panels. 

Their supplier tracks the amount of energy generated by the panels with the use of a “net meter.” The house is still part of the standard power grid and is connected to PECO. At the end of each month, the power company will calculate the amount of power the home sent to the grid from the solar panel system. When more power is produced than used, the Fostek family receives credit. These monthly credits can carry over month to month to be used when there is less sun, as is often the case in the winter months. 

While they were leasing the panels, they made monthly payments to their solar company, which also got credit for any excess energy Chris and Alysia’s panels added to the grid. Now that they own the panels, they get money back from PECO each year. 

Not only that, but they are proud of the impact their panels have on reducing their carbon footprint. In one year, their panels generated the energy that would be equivalent to 14,802 pounds of coal or 1,512 gallons of gasoline. According to a calculator made available by the Environmental Protection Agency, that is enough power to charge a smart phone 887,076 times. 

“Five years ago, I wasn’t like ‘I have to go green,’” Alysia said. “But now it’s one of my primary roles at my current company, to reduce our carbon footprint on a corporate level. I’m very proud to be contributing to green energy at a personal level as well, and I brag about the solar panels at work.” 

Chris and Alysia shared their story about their solar panels with Academy staff while attending the Dining for a Greener Future event where a carbon-neutral menu was debuted at the Academy. (Stay tuned for the second in this environmentally-friendly dining series—coming June 27!)  

Chris said he would encourage anyone to look into solar panels for themselves but knows that it is not as feasible for everyone. The U.S. Department of Energy has a homeowner’s guide to help make that determination. 

Anyone can get involved, he said, by advocating for solar infrastructure in their neighborhoods to power streetlights or make it easier for future homes to be more solar compatible.  

“If everyone starts to add solar panels where they can, chip away at it a little, it’s not just reliant on one family’s shoulders. It belongs to everyone,” he said. 

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