3 must-do improvements before you add solar panels

By: Matt Grocoff , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Home Improvement Tips, Green Renovations, Technology, Historic Preservation

As the cost of solar comes down and energy prices go up, home solar arrays are looking more and more attractive.  Across the country homeowners are putting up solar at a record pace.  In April, a study released by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed that solar electric added an average of $5.50 per watt to the value of a home.  So, my family’s 8.1 kW system could add between $44,550 - $54,000 to the value of our old Victorian home.

Solar panels may seem even more appealing to you when I tell you that our July 2011 total energy bill was -$89.06 (note that is a minus sign in front of the dollar sign).

But, don’t go racing for the green bling just yet.

Why spend money on renewable energy that you are going to waste?  If I said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Reduce.  Reduce.  Then . . . produce.  (Then reduce some more).

Here are three things you should do before putting the boots on the roof:

1.  Find the waste.

The best way to find where you are wasting energy is to get an energy assessment from a reputable whole-house performance company.  For about $300 - $500 a good performance company will use a blower-door test and infrared imaging to find the hidden air leaks and poorly insulated spots in your home.

The assessment will help the contractor give you an itemized list with a plan for how to get the biggest bang for you buck.

2.  Seal and insulate.

Photo by Ryan Stanton

Photo by Ryan Stanton

The biggest part of home energy bills is by far your heating and cooling.  Before running out to get a new furnace and a/c you need to seal up all the air leaks and add as much insulation as possible.  A well-insulated home will often allow for a smaller heater and a/c.  So, the money you save on a smaller HVAC you can invest in a more efficient system which will continue to save you money for the life of the unit.

3.  Invest in more efficient appliances.

Again, why use solar panels to power a wasteful refrigerator?  That vintage 1990 fridge will use almost six times as much energy as a new 2011 Energy Star model.

By cutting your energy consumption with Energy Star appliances, you may need fewer solar panels.

Think about it.  If you use 10,000 kWh of electricity you will need an 4kW solar array to cover half your use.  But, if you can reduce your consumption by 70% by cutting out the waste and making your home more comfortable, you may be able to have the utility company actually pay you for the extra power you generate.

Matt Grocoff, Esq. LEED is host of Greenovation.TV, a contributor to The Environment Report on Public Radio, the green renovation expert for Old House Web and a sought after lecturer. His home is America’s oldest net-zero energy home and was honored as one of USA Today’s “Seven Best Green Homes of 2010″ and Preservation Project of the Year.  He has been featured in hundreds of publications and news shows including USA TODAY, Washington Post, Detroit Free Press, Miami Herald, Preservation Magazine, Solar Today, Fox Business News, Huffington Post and more.  Join him on Twitter and Facebook