Most of us don't like getting our electric bills, but electricity is a necessity. However, how you get it and whether you pay a utility company for it depends on what's on your roof.
"When I got into this business it was a bunch of geeks selling to geeks. You had to know the difference between polycrystalline and monocrystalline cell structures on solar electric panels -- and all that really means is whether there is one cell or whether there are multiple cells," says De Vito of The Sun Company based in Encinitas, California.
Solar systems are heating up especially on the west coast. De Vito says, "What I like about today is that you don't have to tell people solar [panels] work. I think they believe it."
Homeowners do in fact believe in solar panels so much that some are investing tens of thousands of dollars to put them on their roofs, on the ground or standing in their yards.
There are two ways solar panels benefit homeowners explains De Vito. He says they can eliminate their electric bill. "[Homeowners] literally can put on enough solar panels onto their homes so that they would have no electric bills for the next 30 years," says De Vito.
The expected life of solar panels is 30-40 years and the warranties from most manufacturers of solar panels are 25 years.
"The idea is whether you have a $60 or a $600 electric bill, providing you have enough south-facing roof space, you can put on enough solar panels so that you don't have to have an electric bill," explains De Vito.
He says you still would likely have to pay a minimal service charge to the utility company. Also, your solar system is plugged into the utilities so that if your system didn't produce enough electricity you could still rely on the utility company and be billed for your usage.
But the incentive to use solar systems is to try to at least reduce the electricity needed from the utility company because the more you use the more it costs.
"The more units of energy you use in a month, the more you pay per unit," says De Vito.
That kind of usage takes a toll on the pocketbook. For example, when you look at the utility-tiered pricing, you'll see the first 400-500 units of energy usage are priced at the lower-pricing levels, but then once you get into the higher tiers and pricing levels, De Vito says "You basically double or triple what you're paying per unit of energy."
Solar electricity is not based upon the pricing at the utility; solar electricity is based upon units of energy -- how much you use. If homeowners have enough roof space facing the appropriate direction then they can put on enough solar panels so that they make the energy they need and stop the utility company from assessing pricing for usage. But it's not cheap to do.
"Solar would probably run, if you had a $150 electric bill, after rebates and tax credits, it would probably run you in the neighborhood of about $30,000-$35,000," says De Vito.
So what some homeowners aim to do is only eliminate the higher-priced tiers of their electric usage. They purchase only enough solar panels to place on their roofs to drop them down to a lower-priced tier for their electricity. Some homeowners start by simply adding solar panels to heat their water systems -- a much cheaper alternative.
"You're going to pay in perpetuity with the utility if you don't do solar and they're going to say thank you for your payments by raising your rates. At least with solar there's some type of exit plan in the future," cautions De Vito.
Of course, these homeowners are also likely planning to retire in their home.
"What a lot of clients do is they'll get a home equity line of credit and they'll pay for their solar panels and now they have no electric bill," says De Vito.
Using the example of the $150 electricity bill, De Vito points out that money no longer goes to the utility company. Instead he says, "Now you're putting it into your home as equity -- you've captured that money and after roughly, say, 12 years you hit that break-even point. Then anywhere from the next 12-18 years you have no electric bill."
Another important consideration is to understand how much work your solar system will do.
"The rule of thumb with solar is if you don't need a flashlight outside, your solar panels are working -- it's only a question of how much," says De Vito.
He explains that the solar system basically works like a bell curve using the daylight hours.
"As the sun is rising the panels start working but they work at very small level. Then around 10 or 11 o'clock they're working very well and then around 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon as the sun starts setting, the panels start dropping off," says De Vito.
Therefore positioning of the solar panels is very important. "Most people think that [solar panels] get 13 hours of sunlight a day but that's not entirely accurate because the panels are stationary -- they're not moving. So they're getting the sun from different angles over the course of the day," says De Vito
For example, if you're on the California coast, your solar panels may on average only get about four and a half hours of sunlight per day with the panels working at 100 percent.
However, with the proper positioning and the correct number of solar panels you can achieve an important goal of reducing your energy consumption from the utility company.
For instance, solar systems work such that when there is daylight the solar panels generate electricity and the meter spins backwards and credits are given to the homeowners. But at night when the panels aren't working the meter spins forward because energy is being used from the utility company.
The goal is to make sure that you don't over-produce energy. De Vito says, "If at the end of 12 months you have made more electricity than you used the utility gets to keep it; they don't ever write anybody a check [for the excess energy produced]. It’s a use it or lose it policy."