Solar PV FAQs

Your Solar Installation:

Q: How will I know if solar energy can work for me?

A: Solar PV works on just about any home, as long as the site doesn't receive shade. If your roof is shaded, solar PV can be installed on a ground mount system, on a pole mount system, or on a garage, shed or adjacent building. Solar can be mounted on almost any roof type. In most cases, solar will be feasible and the contractor will help you to figure out the best solution for you and your energy goals.

Solar panels work best when they are installed facing south or west. If you have a large area of roof that faces either south or west and does not receive significant amounts of shading, your home is probably suitable for rooftop solar panels. East facing panels can sometimes outperform west facing ones, so check with your solar installer to see if this is an option. East facing systems may not be able to take advantage of state tax incentives, however.

Fire codes mandate that there is a minimum distance between solar panels and the edge of your roof for safety purposes - so you can not cover 100% of your roof space with solar panels. If you have a flat roof or a very steep roof, or you do not have optimal roof space due to shading issues, you will either need to mount the solar panels on an angled rack or use a ground- or pole- mounted system located on an auxiliary structure (like a garage), or in a sunny part of your yard. There are extra costs associated with these systems, but your UCS contractor will let you know about those costs when they visit your home.

Q: What benefits does solar provide?

A: Solar is a fuel-free energy resource, which means it is an infinite and inexhaustible resource with no volatile fuel costs.  Solar is also a pollution-free energy resource; the more solar energy we use, the cleaner our air and water.  After the up-front initial cost, solar provides immediate energy savings and greater energy stability.  Solar also reduces line losses on the grid and provides energy to the grid during the daytime, when energy is most expensive and in high demand.

Q:What size solar system do I need?

A:The size of your system will depend on your current energy usage, your available usable roof space, your budget and financing options, and the percentage of your energy consumption you want to offset with solar. It is recommended that you first take steps to make your home as efficient as possible before (or in conjunction with) making your solar investment. Get some simple tips to help conserve energy and make your home more energy efficient. You can use the Solar Simplified calculator (a project of Utah Clean Energy) to estimate what size solar system will work best for you.

Q: How much electricity will my solar system generate?

A: The output of your solar energy system will depend on the amount of sunlight the panel receives, the tilt of the panel, and the type of panel you use. You can use the Solar Simplified calculator (a project of Utah Clean Energy) to roughly calculate how much electricity a given system will produce. The average Utahn uses around 9,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, and a 6.2 kilowatt system would cover 100% of that usage. 

Q: What are solar PV panels made of?

A: The majority of solar PV panels are made from crystalline silicon.  Silicon is the second most common element in Earth’s crust (after oxygen) and, by mass, is the eighth most common element in the universe.  In addition to crystalline silicon cells, solar panels can be made of cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium selenide, gallium arsenide multijunction, thin film silicon, and other materials.

Q: How long do solar panels last?

A: Solar panels have an expected lifespan of 25 years or more, and they are typically warranted for 25 years.  They are generally made with tempered glass that is rated to withstand a direct vertical impact of a one-inch diameter hail stone traveling 50 miles per hour.  

Q: Why do solar panels need to go on south or west facing roof?

A: There are a number of factors related to your roof that can drastically affect the suitability of solar on the roof of your home. Some of these include: orientation (north, east, south, west), pitch, shading, and others. Living in the northern hemisphere, it's ideal to have a roof that faces due south, isn't very steep or flat, and is free of shading from things like trees and chimneys. It's important to understand these unique characteristics before installing solar panels on your home. Of course, a solar contractor can help determine the suitability of solar on your home.
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Q: What kind of maintenance is required for solar panels?

A: There aren’t any moving parts in a solar panel, so maintenance is minimal.  Solar panels should be sprayed down periodically (usually in the spring or summer) with warm water to prevent dust and pollen build-up (the thin film of dust cuts out a little bit of light from hitting panels, reducing the amount of electricity they make. Ensuring that your solar panels are free of debris will help them operate and their maximum potential). 

Q: Do solar panels work in the winter? And what about snow removal?

A: Solar panels operate perfectly well in the winter, especially if you have good sun exposure and many sunny days a year (which Utah does!!). Winter weather actually offers some advantages. Photovoltaic panels, like other electronics, work best in the cold.Too much heat actually reduces the output of silicon solar panels. Winter means fewer hours of daylight, but most homes use much less electricity in the winter (i.e. no cooling needs). As for snow removal, you will want to speak with the contractor about any recommended solutions for removing snow, depending on where your system is located and how steep your roof is. One viable solution is a “roof rake” to get rid of some of the snow. With some of the panels exposed, current will start to flow, creating some heat on the panels' surface that should melt the snow. On many days, the heat of the sun and the panels themselves will take care of any snow.

Q: If I move, can I take my solar panels with me?

A: Solar panels and equipment belong to the homeowner, so you may do what you like with them. It is possible to have solar panels reinstalled, but there is an additional cost to do so. It usually does not make sense to uninstall and reinstall because it will require replacing parts and roof repair to the old installation area.


About Solar Energy:

Q: What is a kilowatt (kW)?

A: A kilowatt is a measure of electrical power that is equivalent to 1,000 watts. A watt is a unit of power that measures the rate of energy transfer; it is defined as one joule per second. Your electrical bill charges you for electricity in terms of kilowatt-hours (kWh). One kilowatt-hour is a unit of energy that is equivalent to one kilowatt of power expended for one hour of time. For example, an appliance, such as a hair dryer, that is rated at 1,000 watts (1 kW) and operates for one hour will use one kilowatt-hour of energy. If you have a 1 kilowatt solar system and 5 peak sun hours per day (an approximate average for Utah), then your 1 kilowatt solar system will produce 5 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day (a certain amount of energy is lost as sunlight is converted to DC, then AC, power, so an average 1 kW solar PV system in northern Utah will generate, on average, 1,400 kilowatt-hours a year).

Q: How do solar panels work?

A: Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels are composed of solar cells that convert sunlight into direct current (DC) electricity. The DC electrical charge is then converted into alternating current (AC) electricity by a power inverter so that it can be used for your household electricity needs. Many cells are assembled to create a module (also called a panel), and many modules can be linked together to form a solar array.

Q: What's the difference between solar photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal (hot water) systems?

A: Solar PV systems convert sunlight directly into electricity using semiconductor technology. Solar thermal systems, also known as solar hot water, use the sun's light to directly heat water and/or space for homes and businesses. There are several solar-thermal system configurations which employ the sun's energy to heat water; the most appropriate for Utah's climate, where freezing temperatures are common, is a closed-loop, active, solar hot water system. Closed-loop solar thermal systems use the sun to heat a heat-transfer fluid in the collector. Heated fluid is pumped from the collector in the bottom of the solar storage tank into a heat exchanger where heat energy is transferred from the fluid to potable water. Heated water is then held in the storage tank ready for use, with a conventional system providing additional heating as necessary. 


Connecting to the Grid:

Q: What is a grid-tied system??

A: Grid-tied systems are the most common type of solar PV system. Grid-tied systems are connected to the electrical grid, and allow residents of a building to use solar energy as well as electricity from the grid. Grid-tied systems do not need to produce 100% of the electricty demand for a home or business. When there is no demand for energy, the solar panels send excess electricity back out into the grid for use elsewhere. When a home or business is using energy, but the solar panels aren't producing enough energy (at night, or on a stormy day), electricity from the grid supplements or replaces electricity from the panels. Living with a grid-tied solar PV system is no different than living with utility electricity, except that some or all of the electricity you use comes from the sun. An off-grid solar system does not connect to the utility grid at all. As such, the solar PV system must be sized to cover the entirety of a homeowner’s electricity usage. Almost all off-grid systems require a backup energy source for times of high energy use or low solar production.

Q: What happens if the utility power goes out?

A: Unless it is specially configured, a grid-tied solar power system will not provide power during a power outage. When an outage occurs, utility workers may be picking up downed lines or handling electric cables. When the power is out, they are generally safe to handle, as there should be no electrical current running through them. If the system on your roof is still generating electricity, however, it could create a safety hazard. When the grid goes down, your utility company will temporarily turn your system off until the grid comes back online. A 2008 study done by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory indicates that in the Mountain West region, there is a total of less than two hours (117 minutes) in an entire year that customers experience interruptions to their electrical service. There are more than 8,760 hours in a year, which means that power outages only result in a loss of grid connectivity for 0.0002% of the time. Additionally, less than 1% of these outages last more than 10 minutes.

Q: Can I install a battery to back up my grid-tied system?

A: It is possible to have your house stay powered during blackouts, just as it is possible to take your house completely off of the grid. Systems with battery backups allow you to continue using the energy generated by your solar panels during a blackout, but they are more costly than a simpler system. Battery backups are made up of banks of deep-cycle batteries that are charged by both the panels on your roof and by the grid. Battery backups decrease the efficiency of your solar system overall because some of the power you generate must be diverted to charge and maintain the batteries. Batteries also must be maintained and replaced periodically, adding costs to the system. They add significant complexity to the installation of the system, and therefore add significant cost increases, but they are an option for those who are interested.


Financing & Incentives:

Q: I'd like to install solar, but I don't have the extra money right now. What can I do?

A: There are many financing options available to help defray the initial upfront costs of residential solar. U Community Solar will host a financing workshop after the official project launch to answer all your questions about solar financing. You may also be interested in energy efficiency as an initial first step and smart investment for your home (that will save you money and energy). Energy efficiency investments also help make your home more solar-ready, which means you may not need as large of a solar PV system to meet your energy needs.

Q: What rebates or incentives are available for solar PV systems in Utah?

A: Currently, the following incentives are available for residential solar PV. Your solar installer will help you determine your eligibility and complete the necessary paperwork to apply.  

  • State Tax Credit: 25% of total costs up to $2,000

  • Federal Tax Credit: 30% with no cap (expires  December 2016)

  • Utility Incentives: inquire with the solar contractor about availability


Q: What is the return on investment for solar?

A: Unfortunately, this figure will vary widely: the time it takes you to recover your investment will depend on the technology you select, your energy efficiency and usage habits, your current and future electricity rates, the system size and configuration, and available incentives. Depending on your usage and the size system you put in, you could see a return of 3-7% on your investment in the first year – a very good rate. Overall, your return on investment varies depending on how much electricity you use and what size system you install. However, with current solar system costs, assuming you undersize your solar system and can take tax credits, most homeowners will recoup their upfront investment well before the 25 year life expectancy of the panel is reached. Solar is one of the few things consumers can purchase that does provide a financial return on your investment; imagine what the ROI would be for your car that you fill with gas every week! One of the biggest benefits of solar is the fact that it is an inexhaustible, clean, and price stable resource that will last well over 20 years. Investing in solar today helps you mitigate the future risks, fuel volatility, and uncertainty, while also improving your self-reliance and energy independence. Use the Solar Simplified calculator (a project of Utah Clean Energy) to learn more about your particular situation.