You’ve decided that saving money on your electric bill and reducing your carbon footprint are both worth the effort. With that in mind, solar panel installation seems like a good place to start. But how do you find a reputable professional who can install the panels, and what do you need to know before you begin the process?
In this article, we take a closer look at what to consider when thinking about a solar panel installation, along with the proper steps for maintaining your panels.
Check the condition and suitability of your roof
Make sure your roof is structurally sound and can handle the additional weight of the solar panels. It should be free of obstructions such as trees and limbs that could block sunlight or fall on the panels during a storm. A southern-facing roof is well suited to solar panels, although both east- and west-facing houses also do well. Ideally, the slope of the roof should be between 15 degrees and 40 degrees.1
Solar panels typically last about 25 to 30 years, and most roofs have a similar life span.2 If your roof is getting old, consider replacing it before installing solar panels. It can be costly to have the solar panels removed and then reinstalled after a roof renovation. Also, roof contractors and solar panel installers often coordinate their efforts, providing a possible opportunity for you to save money.
Understand how solar works
Most residences use a photovoltaic (PV) system, also known as solar electric. These systems use two components to generate electricity: panels and inverters. While the panels are designed to convert sunlight to electricity, the inverter plays an important role by converting direct current to alternating current so it can be used in your home.
When sunlight hits the array of panels, the energy is converted into consumable electricity. Batteries are used to store the energy and release it when needed. Because the array of panels is connected to the local grid, you will also receive electricity during times when the panels aren’t producing enough.3
Find a qualified installer
Look for a company with experience that will be around for a long time. Steer clear of companies that use a third party to install the solar panels, because they hire contractors who may not take responsibility for quality or performance.1
Much like you would when hiring any contractor, obtain multiple estimates, ask plenty of questions and look for accreditation from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) and/or the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).1 It’s important to also verify the contractor’s liability and workers’ compensation coverage along with certifications and state and local licensing.
Assess your solar situation
The solar rooftop potential of your home is based on where you live, how much sun hits your roof, the amount of shade around your home and the system you choose. While these are important considerations, you might also want to conduct a home energy audit to determine whether any energy-saving improvements may be necessary before you get started.
Your utility bill will indicate how much electricity you use in kilowatt-hours and how much you pay for that electricity. You can share that information with the solar company to ensure that the system you select is appropriate for your needs.
Choose a financial option
Consumers can choose to purchase or lease a solar system. When you purchase a system, you own it outright and can benefit from the electricity it produces. You will be responsible for the maintenance, but depending on where you live, you may also receive some tax credits or other incentives. If you decide to lease a system, the solar company owns the system and is responsible for the maintenance, but you can use the electricity it produces. There may be an option to purchase the system outright after a certain time period.
A third option is to enter into a power purchase agreement (PPA), a situation that allows you to pay for the electricity generated from the system rather than leasing for a monthly fee. The solar company owns the system, and you agree to purchase the electricity it generates at a specified rate.3
Keep in mind that you may be able to receive compensation for any excess electricity your system generates. This is known as net metering, and it allows you to send any electricity you don’t use back to the grid for compensation at the same rate you would be charged for electricity usage on the grid. While this is not widely available, it’s important to find out if your state has other programs that will compensate you for excess electricity.3
Select your panels carefully
Solar panels vary based on their level of efficiency, or how much sunlight they can convert into energy. While high-efficiency, monocrystalline panels are more expensive, they are capable of producing more electricity during their lifetime, and they decrease the amount of time until you realize a payoff on your investment. You may also want to choose higher-efficiency panels if you don’t have much roof space or if you simply want fewer panels on your roof.4
On the other hand, polycrystalline panels are less expensive but have a lower level of efficiency. That means you need more panels to achieve a similar output of power. While both monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels can produce a return on your investment, both types have advantages and disadvantages that will vary based on your situation. A trusted installer can help guide you through the process.4
Understand your warranties
Solar panels typically come with product, performance and labor warranties. While a product warranty covers any equipment defects and a labor warranty covers the installer’s work, a performance warranty guarantees that the panels will deliver a certain percentage of production, or capacity, each year for a stated number of years. It’s normal for panels to degrade over time, but the degradation is minor. Most panels retain 80% to 90% of their efficiency over a 25-year period.1
Solar panel maintenance
The good news here is that solar panels don’t require much maintenance, and some warranties cover cleaning and maintenance services. Solar panels are made with tempered glass and can generally stand up to strong winds and hail. Because they are installed at an angle, rain and snow naturally slide off and act as a cleaning mechanism in the process.5
Depending on where you live, however, some regular maintenance may be required to remove dirt and debris from the panels, perhaps resulting from a storm. If you live in an area where smog, dust and dirt are a problem, or along the coast where ocean mist could leave salt deposits that create damage, regular cleanings may be necessary to ensure the expected life span of your system and maximum energy production.
If cleaning is necessary, you can either hire a professional or do it yourself. In most instances, this will be necessary only once or twice a year. Keep in mind the dangers associated with climbing a ladder and working on your roof. Here’s what you should know:
- Shut off your solar panels
- Use a leaf blower or a quick rinse with a low pressure hose to remove dust and dirt buildup
- Scrub with a soft brush if necessary5
- Avoid using hot water on cold panels
- Refrain from using Rain-X, car wax or rock salt; they can damage the panels and electrical elements6
- Watch out for squirrels, which can chew the wires on your system
- Consider hiring a professional to conduct an annual inspection to ensure that the panels, inverter and battery are all working properly7
 “What you need to know about installing solar panels on your home,” Laura Daily, washingtonpost.com/home/2021/10/03/installing-solar-panels-on-your-home (Oct. 3, 2021).
 “Replacing Your Roof? It’s a Great Time to Add Solar,” Becca Jones-Albertus, energy.gov/eere/solar/articles/replacing-your-roof-its-great-time-add-solar (July 28, 2021).
 “Residential Consumer Guide to Solar Power,” Solar Energy Industries Association, seia.org/research-resources/residential-consumer-guide-solar-power (March 2022).
 “Monocrystalline vs. Polycrystalline Solar Panels: What’s Best?” ecowatch.com/solar/monocrystalline-vs-polycrystalline (accessed June 23, 2022).
 “Solar panel maintenance,” news.energysage.com/solar-panel-maintenance-overview (accessed June 23, 2022).
 “Solar Panel Maintenance: Everything You Need to Know,” Solar Learning Center, solar.com/learn/solar-panel-maintenance (accessed June 23, 2022).
 "Solar panel maintenance guide: How to clean and repair solar panels,” Erin Gobler, cnet.com/home/energy-and-utilities/solar-panel-maintenance-guide-how-to-clean-and-repair-solarpanels (Nov. 28, 2021).