Solar panels puzzle would-be buyers

  • Article by: TROY WOLVERTON , San Jose Mercury News
  • Updated: April 23, 2013 - 10:11 PM

There are thousands available. And how to pick a contractor?

With solar panel prices plunging and generous tax credits and incentives still available, now may be as good a time as any to go solar.

But shopping for a solar power system can be a tough task. Consumers face a bewildering array of options. There are thousands of different solar panel models from dozens of manufacturers. In some regions, consumers can choose from among hundreds of different panel installers. And once they pick their panels and a contractor, they have to figure out how to pay for their system from among several different methods.

“It can be pretty daunting and overwhelming with the number of installers that are installing solar systems these days,” said Drew Lowell-Britt, an energy specialist with EcoMotion, a consulting firm.

Solar power experts and those who have shopped for systems have plenty of suggestions on how to make the process more manageable.

The first thing to assess, they say, is just how much energy you’re using and the extent to which you can reduce that amount. The size of the system you’ll install is largely determined by how much energy you use. By reducing your energy consumption, you can get away with a smaller — and less costly — system.

That’s what San Jose, Calif., resident Brian Friss found when he shopped for a solar power system.

Just by being more conscious of turning off lights and the television and unplugging portable electronics when they’re done charging, Friss said his family has reduced its power bill by about $100 a month. And now they are looking at getting a significantly less expensive solar power system than they initially expected.

Panels are rated for their efficiency and their electrical output. Today’s panels tend to range in efficiency — which measure the percent of solar energy that the systems convert into electricity — from about 14 percent to 20 percent or more. If you go with more efficient panels, you can use fewer or smaller panels than if you use less efficient ones. But the more efficient panels tend to cost significantly more than the less efficient ones.

But efficiency and output aren’t the whole story. Consumers can also take a look at panels’ degradation rates and their warranties. As they age, solar panels typically produce less electricity; each model has an expected degradation rate, which manufacturers also provide.

  • SOLAR SHOPPING TIPS

    Shopping for a solar system can be a daunting process. Some things to consider.

    Sizing up your needs: With solar power systems, their size, cost and the time needed to recover your investment are largely determined by how much power you use.

    Picking panels: Panels are rated by their efficiency. More efficient panels tend to be more expensive, but you can potentially use fewer of them or they can take up less space.

    Choosing a contractor: Manufacturers’ websites list contractors by ZIP code. You can check with your state to see which are licensed.

    Figuring out financing: Consumers can pay for a system up front, take out a loan or sign a long-term lease agreement. Many experts recommend buying over leasing, because the time to pay off is shorter. But leasing agreements often involve no upfront costs.

    Source: San Jose Mercury News research

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