Your low-impact home makeover

Learn how to lighten your footprint, from easy DIY tips to the top things to keep in mind for a sustainable home renovation

Eco-friendly roofing

Top off your home with an earth-friendly solution, from green roofs to solar panels

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Solar panels

Nothing screams “environmentally conscious home” quite like a swath of solar panels on the roof. While the cost of these systems can be prohibitive, more compa­nies are offering solar lease programs, whereby you don’t have to pay a high lump sum in advance, just monthly payments that might be equivalent to or lower than your current utility bill. With these new cost-effective options, more people than ever are signing up to have solar panels installed on their roofs. But solar energy is not a solution for every household.

If you live in a well-insulated home with a tight building envelope and have energy-efficient appliances, use CFL light bulbs, turn off lights when you aren’t in a room, keep your thermostat turned down, turn off electrical equipment when it’s not in use, and rarely if ever use an air condi­tioner, you most likely won’t get any savings from solar panels. The only way that switching to a solar system would be cheaper than buying electricity from your local utility would be if you spend at least $120 to $150 a month right now. Even if this is the case, experts recommend adding insulation and more efficient windows and appliances before adding solar panels, as it makes no sense to feed energy generated from the panels into a house that wastes it.

However, if you live in a large and otherwise energy-efficient home but need to use your air-conditioning for many months out of the year, or if you have more electric than gas-run appliances, installing solar panels is a smart decision. Some people who are marginal in this cost equation choose to swap gas-powered appliances for electric ones just to make the system worthwhile. It’s possible to have your entire home run on solar panels in this case. Many areas offer tax credits and rebate programs that can reduce your upfront costs.

Beyond cost savings, harnessing and using your own energy rather than relying on con-ventional power plants means less coal is being burned to produce electricity, and that has wide-reaching environmental benefits. If you gather enough energy, you can even send electricity back to the utility company, getting a credit on future bills just by sitting in your home and letting it bask in the sunlight. But if you generate more energy than you use in an entire year, the utility company generally does not cut you a check, so it’s not a moneymaking scheme, just a money-saving opportunity.

Installation issues. When you call a solar company about installation, you will be asked many questions, including how much you generally spend on electricity.

If you seem like a good candidate for solar, the company will do a site evaluation. Your roof needs to be strong enough to support the panels, and new enough that you won’t have to dismantle the system to redo the roof anytime soon. Installers like to see south-facing roofs without surrounding large trees, but any direc­tion other than north can still work well enough to be worth it. The panels need to get a mini­mum of four hours of direct sunlight per day. It’s possible to install the panels on a garage, on an arbor, or even on the ground if your home’s roof isn’t appropriate.

Be sure you buy or lease a solar energy system from a reputable dealer that uses proven, high-quality equipment. A good solar company will also monitor the performance of the system, supply you with data, perform any maintenance needed, and offer a warranty on parts and installation. 


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