By now, most of us have seen solar roofing or panels installed on homes. They are either photovoltaic (PV) panels that generate electricity, hot water panels that heat domestic water, or heat absorbing panels that are used to heat a thermal mass (like water, or a layer of rock). The type we are most accustomed to seeing are the PV panels. Although still expensive, they are a lot more affordable and the technology has come a long way. We will focus on solar electricity here, since it is the subject of most subsidy programs from the government and utilities.
Solar Roofing Basics
For brevity, let's summarize the magic of photovoltaics and fast-forward to its ability to generate electricity from sunlight. When sun light hits the cells, electrons are excited and create electrical current. In traditional roof-mounted solar PV, flat, rigid, photovoltaic solar panels are attached to the southern exposed roofs via metal frames and roof penetrations. Panels can be quite heavy, so the the roof needs to be evaluated for strength, and structural integrity.
The panels can generally be installed on asphalt shingles, rubber and metal roofs. Slate and clay are very challenging and concrete is impossible (there is no way to pass the wire connections through to the house). If you have asphalt shingles on your roof, you will eventually need to replace them. Remember that the solar panels will need to be dismantled leading to expense and time.
Other Solar Roof Options: Thin Film
Thin-film laminates come with self-adhesive backing and can be attached most easily to smoother surfaces such as standing seam metal roofs. The advantage of this setup is that there are no roof penetrations.
With flexible PV panels, one can literally install them anywhere; you can run them in irregular patterns along vertical southern walls, along the chimney, etc. It opens up a whole lot of possibilities for overcoming roofing challenges. However, there is not a lot of track record on their performance or longevity, nor how they weather, or respond to heavy winds and rains.
Watch this how-to video below to see the ease and creativity with which some roof-integrated PV panels can be installed:
To Grid or Not to Grid - THAT is the Question
Consider the following when deciding which path to take. If you are looking to put up a building or house that is not close to the power lines, it may cost you a lot more to bring in utility power than to put up an independent solar roofing system.
If your system ties into the utility grid, most states offer net-metering, where you can dump surplus electricity back into the grid from your system, and have your meter "run backward", or get a credit on your utility bill. Read more about energy rebates.
You can also lease a solar system, often with no money down, and pay a flat fee every month, which is usually a bit cheaper than the current utility rate, and is locked in for the duration.
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