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I am starting the planning for my first home, and I know that I want to install solar panels. What should I know before starting?

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Jan 04, 2012 02:14 AM
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by last modified Feb 21, 2011

I live in middle Tennessee, and the land that I own is a farm of 104 acres. We are also looking into geothermal heating and maybe even adding a greenhouse attached to the kitchen. Is this reasonable for a residential home?



First of all, let me congratulate you on taking on these considerations early.

So many people start thinking about energy savings after they have started building, and the best way to save energy is to situate your home to take advantage of the natural warmth of the sun and cooling of the breeze. Ideally, we can completely passively heat and cool our houses and reduce the electrical load using the principles of passive design through heat transfer, superinsulation, ventilation and moisture control, daylighting, and energy efficient lighting and appliances.

Each site and climate must be studied carefully to address the specific characteristics of heating degree days, cooling days, humidity, and exposure to sun and breeze and the hindrances your particular site may have in the way of trees, mountains and other obstructions. By planning your house paying attention to these principles, you can reduce the need for whatever heating and electrical package you decide on, save on your bills, and help the environment in the process.

Because these are design issues, they require experts in their area, so you are spending money upfront on professionals instead of spending money on the latest bells and whistles. Of course, you may spend money on those too, but even if you don’t, you may end up with a much better performing house than if you only spent money on the bells and whistles.

Here’s the thing: solar panels may help you generate electricity, but it does no good if your load is a lot greater than the panels can handle. Buying an excess of solar panels to meet your excessive load may make any energy savings unlikely when the cost of the panels are considered. Likewise, the very best heating system won’t save you much if your house is poorly oriented and insulated.

I have a client who bought solar panels for his house and complained to the manufacturer about not getting much lower energy bills. When I suggested he change all his light bulbs to LED and fluorescent, suddenly he was raving about his solar panels. Here’s why: solar panels cost him so much they were much more important to rave about, because the light bulb changing was soooo mundane!

I’m not knocking solar panels here; I have them and think they make a big difference, but only if you do the design that supports the elements you install. That being said, here are some things to help you get started on your way to an excellent net-zero house:

  • Find an architect who is an advocate of passive home design.
  • Have a mechanical engineer who is also able to model home performance.
  • If you are a total “do it yourself” person and don’t really want to hire anyone, study information by organizations such as the American Institute of Architects, Passive House Institute, Net Zero Energy Certified, Geothermal Energy Association, Solar Electric Power Association, and of course right here at Green Home Guide there is a lot of data to help you.
  • Another great resource is often your local utility company, who may have solar calculators online and specific energy saving ideas for your area. (In your case, since your home is new, you will have to use the data from an electric bill similar to the home you are building to use the calculator.)

Finally, to answer your question, solar panels and geothermal are both completely appropriate in residential homes and are in fact done all the time. The question of whether they are common in your area is another thing. You want to do things where you have a pool of experienced professionals to choose from to do your work. Learning on the job isn’t always good for the homeowner.

Good luck and have fun!




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