What to Know About Installing Solar Panels in San Diego

solar panels on a houseWhether you have a preference for going green, a desire to cut your energy bill or both, installing solar panels can help. This can be a big financial commitment and there are a number of things to consider before making a final decision. Here are general things to know, but for truly specific details it’s best to have your own home analyzed.

Will I Go off the Grid?

In most cases, no. Because household solar panels don’t have the ability to store energy after the sun goes down, you will not go technically off the grid. Your solar system will generate energy that will be converted for household use. Any excess energy will be sold back into the grid, hopefully offsetting the cost of energy used by the home at night.

It is possible to estimate whether or not your system will generate enough energy to offset nighttime costs. The company installing your solar panels will likely ask SDG&E for your kilowatt usage (with your permission) and run the numbers.

Also, most rebates and special offers apply only to grid-connected solar systems.

Where Will the Panels Be Placed?

Panels facing south are best, however, it’s not always possible. Depending on which solar company you use, they show you a map of where the panels should go on a Google map image of your home. This way, you can more or less see exactly what the solar system will look like. Of course, placing solar panels on the front of a home is avoided if at all possible and care is taken to avoid vents, chimneys and other obstacles on your roof. Know that small things like venting can usually be repositioned. Note that any roofing repairs or replacements should obviously occur prior to installing solar panels.

It’s also possible that older homes may have load issues. A number of homes in La Jolla, for example, that were built in the 1960s originally had lightweight wood shake roofs. A lot of these roofs can’t handle very much additional weight without costly reinforcements. The company installing the solar system will analyze your home and design a system that will be submitted with a permit application to the city. Permits are definitely required when installing solar systems, but most solar panel companies will handle this.

What Happens During a Blackout?

solar panels on old home

One solar panel distributor told us that SDG&E demands that household solar systems be shut off immediately as not to send electricity back into the grid when people are potentially working on it. However, the real answer is that no one is likely to do this.

Remember, solar panels do not have the capability to store energy. Companies are working on perfecting some sort of battery technology that will enable this but it is years away from becoming a reality. When the sun goes down during a brownout or blackout, your house will lose power, just like the rest of the neighborhood.

New Inverter Technology

The piece of equipment that transforms the DC current generated by the solar panels into the AC energy used in your home or sent back into the grid is called an inverter. Old technology required that the inverter needed to be replaced every 5-7 years or so, radically increasing the overall solar panel investment. Now, these inverters have warranties lasting up to 25 years so this is must less of an issue than it used to be.

Tracking the Energy Output

Believe it or not, these days you can have a look at a smartphone to see how your home’s solar panels are performing. Ask to see if there is an additional cost for this convenience. Otherwise, a monitor will be installed somewhere in your home or garage where you can check to see if everything on the roof is as it should be.

Where Is the Equipment Manufactured?

Homeowners interested in the eco-friendly aspect of solar need to pay close attention to where the panels are manufactured as some are made overseas in highly-undesirable circumstances that generate pollution. At least one solar company in San Diego that we spoke with is using less equipment manufactured in China due to quality issues. Most of their equipment is from Germany or Canada. Look into the brand recommended for your home in order to get comfortable with what the brand’s manufacturing processes are.

Will My Property Value Increase?

Solar panels on roof

The County of San Diego says that the assessed value of your property will not increase for property tax purposes by adding a solar system. This means there’s no risk of an increase in property taxes. It is thought that the system will increase the resale value of your home, but this gets tricky if you lease or finance a system.

Buying Solar Panels with a Loan

There are a number of ways to pay for a solar system so it’s best to do research and seek professional advice regarding which method is best for you.

Solar Panel Loans –

The GO SOLAR… SAN DIEGO COUNTY program is a public-private partnership between the County of San Diego and commercial banking lenders that offers loans to qualified homeowners for energy efficient improvements including installation of solar panels. The goal is to promote regional energy independence and GO SOLAR requires homeowners to seek out three bids before applying. Some companies that sell solar panels also act as their own finance companies.

Leasing Options –

A very popular zero money down option involves leasing solar panels. The solar panel distributor retains ownership of the panels (and also any applicable tax credits) as well as maintenance responsibilities. The homeowner makes a monthly payment to the solar panel distributor (assuming they are the ones financing the lease), buying energy at a lower cost than the utility company. Talk to the leasing company, but the priced paid for energy  in this scenario usually stays at a lower rate and increases at less drastic rate than projected SDG&E rates.

If you sell your house and the buyer doesn’t want to assume the solar lease, you may be forced to pay it down or take a hit on your home’s selling price.

Cash –

Those with financial means or thinking of selling their home within a few years may want to consider purchasing the solar system outright. By avoiding finance charges, the system will pay for itself sooner.

(Side note: The purchase options given to us for a $28,000 solar system, including rebates, estimated the system paying for itself in 6 years using cash and 12 years using financing. Leasing would have only shaved $80 a month off of our $250 bill at current SDG&E rates.)

Federal Tax Credits

California had a tax credit for solar panels but has since run out of funds. The federal tax credit can be generous, up to 30% of the system’s cost. However, homeowners must have a tax liability in order to qualify. See advice from a tax professional prior to purchasing a system to check current IRS rules, if the tax credit is important to you.

Your Turn…

Do you have solar panels? Tell us how you like them! And, remember we have plenty of eco-friendly landscaping ideas to read about including green grilling, and artificial turf.


*Photo credits (in order of appearance): Flickr/rdmarsh, Flickr/mikecogh, Flickr/mlinksva