December 11, 2018

How to make the switch to solar power

A few years ago, the only people in my neighborhood with solar power systems were serious environmentalists on the cutting edge of technology. Fast-forward to today, and my neighbors on both sides of my home have equipped their homes with solar power. And they’re not techies — they’re senior citizens. Solar power is going mainstream.

According to GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the first three months of 2015 was the best quarter for residential solar installations ever, growing the industry by more than 76 percent over the same period last year. But while solar use is booming, the business is still relatively nascent. In California, the state with the largest number of solar households, less than 3 percent of households have tapped into the sun for their energy needs. 

One reason more people haven’t made the jump to solar is the lack of education about the subject. “A lot of people aren’t aware that there’s an alternative to the utility company,” said Jonathan Bass, spokesman for SolarCity, the largest residential solar provider in the United States. “They don’t realize that solar is more affordable and easier to use than even four or five years ago.”

It’s understandable if the process can seem intimidating. If you’re considering solar power, you are more than likely a first-time buyer. You have a lot of questions, but don’t know where to go for answers. How do you start? How long does it take? How much is it going to cost? Is it worth it?

To help you understand solar power systems a little better, here is a basic primer that should help you make a decision and arm you with some knowledge before you contact a solar provider.

The right home for solar

The first thing to consider is whether your house is even right for solar. An ideal home for solar power should have an unshaded roof that faces south, west or east. Fortunately, we get plenty of sunshine in Los Angeles, so many homes are good candidates for solar.

How solar works

With residential solar systems, solar panels are installed on your roof. These panels absorb sunlight and generate an electrical current. An inverter converts that direct current into the alternating current that powers your lights and appliances. When your solar power system produces more power than you need, it feeds the power back into the electricity grid.

The timeline

When you contact a solar provider, someone will come to your home for a formal site survey, taking a look at your roof and making sure there are no trees blocking sunlight. After a decision is made about your solar system, building permits must be obtained from the city. The solar panels are then installed, and the work must be inspected by both the city’s building department as well as your utility company. The entire process takes around three months to complete from the time you sign up, depending on where you live.

The price tag

Let’s talk turkey. How much is this going to cost you? Depending upon the size of your system, which is dictated by the size of your roof and your energy needs, the average cost is anywhere from $8,000 to $40,000. Although that might seem a big upfront cost, in actuality most people do not end up paying the full amount because they lease their systems. In the past year, three out of four solar systems were financed with lease- or power-purchase agreements. (The terms are used interchangeably, however, there are subtle differences.)

Buy or lease

If more people are leasing their solar systems, is that the right choice for you? Those who buy their systems pay all the costs upfront, and as a result are eligible for a 30 percent federal tax credit that reduces the cost. After several years of saving on the electric portion of their utility bills, they can recoup their initial investment. So in the long run, owning can be the most cost-effective way to go. However, with a lease, homeowners pay nothing up front and their monthly bill is usually less than the old utility bill. This way, the solar panel provider receives the government subsidies, which are factored into the lease payments to make them more affordable. With no upfront costs and immediately reduced monthly energy bills, it is no wonder leasing has become so popular. 

Selling your home

What happens to your solar system if you sell your home? If you bought the system, then the new buyer owns it. If you’re leasing the system, you can transfer the lease to the new homeowner. The bottom line is that having solar makes your home more desirable to buyers. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that homes with solar systems sold for 17 percent more and 20 percent faster.

Getting started

The best way to know whether solar can work for you is to contact some suppliers. Ask for recommendations from friends and neighbors who have installed solar, or visit for listings and reviews of suppliers in your area. You will be amazed how easy it is to get a comprehensive estimate over the phone or online. For example, if you contact SolarCity, all you need to provide is your address and a current utility bill. With that information, they will look online at a satellite image of your roof so they can evaluate the square footage available to accommodate solar panels. Your utility bill gives them an idea of what your energy usage is and how large a system you will need. From there, they can estimate what your energy costs — and savings — would be.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at