Today environmental consciousness is becoming more of a priority in residential architecture and design, as consumers realize the seriousness of climate change in our world. Extreme weather conditions such as the recent frigid winter in the Midwestern part of the United States, water shortages due to a drought on the West coast, and increased weather events such as tornadoes and hurricanes are causing concern. These facts combined with rising costs for warming and cooling our homes has spurred engineers, architects, and builders to explore the best methods for generating electricity as well as incorporating natural cooling and heating. The economic motivation for solar electricity and passive design and engineering is becoming more significant.
Each year more and more homeowners are entertaining the idea of making the switch to solar energy for their homes, with many even making it a must-have requirement for new homes. Thanks to many advancements in solar technology and new government financial programs, solar electric power has never been more inviting to homeowners. In fact, for many homeowners now is a great time to consider making the switch or incorporating solar energy into an existing or new home.
Here’s everything you need to know about solar energy to help you understand why it makes sense and determine what are the best options for you.
Stunning tall windows allow plenty of natural sunlight inside this 2-story, 3-bedroom contemporary style vacation home, but it’s the large expanse of roof structure (facing the correct direction) that makes this a good candidate for solar electric panels (Plan #158-1255).
But First: What Exactly is Home Solar Electric Power?
Simply put, solar electric energy systems allow you to install special panels that gather sunlight (in the form of tiny particles called photons) and convert them to electrical energy so that you can power your home. The panels collect the sunlight during the day, powering your home immediately and sending the excess power either to batteries stored at the home or sending it back into the power grid as part of an exchange program with local utilities. Many homes are being built with passive solar energy systems already installed, though the process of adding these panels to an existing home is relatively straightforward.
What are the Benefits of Switching to Solar Power?
There is a plethora of benefits you can experience by switching to solar energy, including:
1. Major Financial Savings
Installing solar panels in your home can save you thousands of dollars on your energy bills in the long run, often through net metering. Here, excess energy is fed back into the power grid so that you can receive a credit from your local utilities for essentially “selling” the power to them.
2. Great for the Environment
Solar energy is one of the cleanest and least damaging sources of energy available, as it results in little to no pollution and causes virtually no harm to the environment.
3. Sustainable and Renewable
As the power comes from the sun and not any finite natural resources (such as coal or oil), there is no worry about depleting the energy source. This also means that there is no fear of unexpected price increases or shortages.
Why This May Be the Perfect Time to Switch to Solar Electric
After learning about some of the benefits of solar energy, you’ve probably got more than a few questions about the practical aspects of installing solar panels in your home. The fact of the matter is that there has never been a better time to switch to solar energy than now, thanks to some significant improvements across the board.
Eye-catching and energy-efficient: A 1-story home in Sacramento, California, is not just an amazing sight, it also makes a statement with its use of solar energy. In addition to the solar panels that capture sunlight, the house features lots of glass windows that allow natural light into the home (photo credit: Gus Ruballo on Unsplash).
4.Major Advancements in the Technology
Solar panels are now more efficient and resilient than previous models, meaning that you can collect more sunlight to create more energy with less effort. Today’s solar panels are also much stronger than older models, meaning you will only need to clean them a few times a year and aren’t going to have to worry about much maintenance. The size of panels for a given power output is also decreasing, making them more feasible for smaller homes that have less available roof space.
The multi-tiered rooflines of this beautifully quaint two-story home still allows enough room for strategically placed solar panels (photo credit: Riley McNeal on Unsplash).
5. Large Network of Retailers and Professional Installers
Even as recently as a few years ago, if you wanted to install solar panels in your home you would have to track down a specialty company and pay them a premium to even conduct a home inspection. Now, many of the major home-improvement chains offer in-store experts that are ready and willing to walk you through the entire process at your convenience. These retailers can not only help you purchase panels and all the necessary equipment for an installation, but help you connect with licensed solar power experts who can complete the process for you.
6. Government Subsidies and Programs Available to You
In case you were afraid that converting your home to solar energy was too expensive, there are dozens of programs in place nationwide to help reduce the upfront costs. Some states also offer special subsidies to help you save on the entire process, while others offer special loans specifically designed to help you purchase solar panels. You can find more details about your state’s policies through the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency website.
What Are the Installation Requirements?
Even with all of the benefits of solar energy there are still a few important requirements that your home must meet before you can install a home solar electric system.
Photovoltaic panels can go on any roof, even tile roofs like this one. Just make sure the panels face primarily in a southerly direction for maximum solar exposure - like this cabin in the deep in the countryside (photo credit: Alex Bierwagen on Unsplash).
• Available Solar Resource at Your Home
Because your home is going to draw its energy from the sun, you must make sure that you have a large, unobstructed view of the sun for the majority of the day. Roofs blocked or covered by large trees – or homes in areas that are overcast and cloudy for much of the year – may not be able to receive enough light to actually generate the necessary power for your home.
• Check for Local Permits and Restrictions
As with any home-improvement project, you will also need to apply for and receive the appropriate permits for installing solar panels. This may include passing a building inspection to ensure that your electrical system can sustain power from solar energy or ensuring that you live in an area that can connect solar panels to the local power grid.
• Appropriate Home Size for Panels
Along with having enough access to sunlight, your home needs to be big enough for the solar panels to fit on the roof safely. Small homes may not have enough open roof space for solar panels, or they might not be able to withstand the weight of the panels. The ideal homes have large areas of open roofing that is not broken up by gables or dormers, such as ranch style houses. While it may be possible to make modifications to your home to qualify for solar panels, these changes can end up costing more than you would potentially save in the long run.
Welcome, solar energy: The roof of this 3-bedroom, 2-bath Ranch style home plan has the perfect open space for solar panels to fit safely (Plan #176-1012).
Other Strategies: Passive Solar
What is now known as the Passive House Standard is an environmentally friendly concept that was originally developed by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, a German physicist, who are credited with building the first passive house in Germany in 1990.
In the United States, the first accredited passive house is located just outside of Salt Lake City. The Breezeway House is a 2,800 sq. foot modern, three bedroom house built with solar passive design that provides about 75 percent of the home’s energy requirements. This includes super tight insulation, a solar system on the roof and natural, “non-mechanical” ventilation.
Passive solar building house designs feature walls, floors, and windows that are made to collect, store and distribute solar energy – rejecting heat in the summer and distributing solar energy in the form of heat during colder winter months. Passive solar design is also known as climatic and does not the use any electrical or mechanical devices.
One of the keys to passive solar architecture is for the architect to effectively design by taking advantage of the local climate. Design elements such as window placement and the type of glazing used; shaded ventilation, and enabling the movement of air and water.
Passive cooling, in conjunction with architecture, refers to a naturally cooled building that does not use any energy-consuming technology or devices – no air conditioners - for maintaining a comfortable inside temperature. Some of the more common ways to passively cool a house include using ventilation from natural breezes, sheltering from the sun, and the implementation of a water source, all of which help cool the air and loser the temperature.
Talk to a Pro
Consumers who are interested in building their new home with passive solar design techniques should consult an architect, because it can typically be applied most new structures, and many existing homes can be adapted or "retrofitted" for passive solar design. Builders use tools like thermography and digital thermal imaging cameras for an energy audit of a home, charting architectural areas of poor thermal performance during warm or cold weather. Another tool often used by architects is called a heliodon, which is a traditional movable light device helping to model the effects of sun pathways.
Passive solar energy designs feature house plans that are built with carefully arranged rooms situating any living areas facing solar noon, while bedrooms are placed on the opposite side of the home.
3D Printing Can Help Your Solar Design
Now 3D computer graphics are capable of visually stimulating this type of information and data so as to be able to calculate performance predictions.
The Plan Collection has introduced its new 3D Printing of house plans, enabling customers to print out a physical 3D home model. The 3D printing technology uses software files to effectively convert computer-aided-design (CAD) blueprints into an actual physical model of a home. This process allows home builders and owners to get physical 360-degree views of their house plan from both external and internal perspectives and offers better details of the actual home than renderings or blueprint images.
Customers can locate a floor plan package, and then order a 3D file, ready for printing, which they would take to a local printer. Home builders can use 3D printing to print out a 3D model of the house plans.
The advances in technology – plus the lower costs today – make now a great time to look into solar energy for your home. Have you added solar electric power, heating, or passive cooling to your home already? We’d love to hear about your experience!
Footnote: The lead image in this article is shows workers installing solar panels on the roof of a home (photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy, Public Domain).