Exploring Solar Energy Options

From powering your home to heating your pool, discover ways you can utilize the sun's energy.

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A solar pool heater can extend your swimming season and significantly reduce heating costs. Photo courtesy of Fafco

Solar energy systems are now more varied, reliable and cost-effective, and solar energy can be harnessed to power almost anything under the sun. With growing usage, this renewable source of energy will have a major beneficial impact on our carbon footprint. Solar energy systems range from powering a region to heating a house or pool. Many of the solar at-home systems come with substantial federal, state and local credits, as well as utility-granted incentives. When considering the use of solar energy, take the time to explore ways you can integrate solar energy systems in your home to choose the best option for you.

Powering the Home: On the Grid vs. Off the Grid

A basic step in evaluating the use of solar energy in your home is deciding whether you wish to be "on the grid" or "off the grid."

On the Grid

An on-the-grid system means you're still connected to your utility's grid. Keeping connected to a utility is a good way to ease into a solar power system. Staying on the grid allows power to still reach your house at night when the solar energy system may not keep up with the home's energy demands. Staying connected benefits the homeowner and the energy company. When a residential system generates more electricity than needed, the excess power is sent to the utility grid. When this happens, the at-home power meter actually turns backward, leading the energy companies to pay the homeowner for the surplus energy.

Staying connected to the grid also allows homeowners to reduce the up-front cost for installing a system. Here, the solar energy system will reduce energy costs as opposed to eliminating them.

Off the Grid

Off-the-grid solar power is most popular in areas where grid power is limited. The more remote a residence, the more cost-effective the solar system. An off-the-grid solar system does not rely on the utility grid; instead, it relies on available solar radiation. This system is able to collect, regulate, convert and distribute solar energy harnessed through the system. Usually, an off-the-grid system will utilize another form of energy, such as a diesel generator, as backup.

Before going off the grid, the residence should have a large area of exposed and uninterrupted sunlight for a good part of the day. When building a new house, utilizing building materials with exceptional insulation features is especially important, as this will cut down on energy needs. Federal and state governments provide subsidies and incentives for implementing off-the-grid systems.

Solar Heating Alternatives

If a homeowner is not ready to commit to a solar energy system, installing a solar power water heater or a solar powered swimming pool system is a great alternative that can reduce monthly energy bills.

According to Energy Star, the joint program of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, qualified solar water heaters can cut water heating bills in half and significantly reduce your carbon footprint. Though a solar water heater may take 10 years to pay itself off, homeowners can take advantage of federal and state tax credits to recoup the initial costs. Energy Star claims that a qualified solar water heater will prevent 4,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. This is equivalent to not driving a car for four months every year.

If you're fortunate enough to have a swimming pool for the hot, lazy summer days, another energy- and money-saving alternative is a solar swimming pool heater. According to the Department of Energy, a solar pool heater can significantly reduce heating costs and is cost-competitive with gas and heat pump pool heaters.

The solar pool heating system costs between $3,000 and $4,000 to buy and install. At this amount, payback is usually between 1.5 to 7 years, depending on your local fuel costs.

Other ways to incorporate solar power into your home include outdoor solar powered lighting, solar boats/RVs and solar powered cars. The future for solar energy is very bright, as it will save users money in many different ways. Plus, it will significantly reduce the carbon imprint.

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