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Are Solar Panels On Your House Worth It?

This summer, on our trip to Lake Tahoe, we spent a night at my father-in-law’s childhood friend’s house. They had a pool that was heated using a series of black tubes put on top of their lattice patio cover. The tubes gave the patio shade from the sun, the sun heated the tubes, and the water inside the tubes went into the pool to give it a nice bath water temperature. The all powerful sun was used to heat the pool in a most novel of ways (only to me, I’m sure plenty of pools are heated this way, especially in California).

That made me wonder about solar panels and I quickly learned that they were expensive, a pain to keep clean (and maintain their efficiency), and generally more hassle than they were worth. I’m more of a long term planner than a short term one, I’m OK with it taking several years to pay off, so I wanted to calculate how long it would take to pay off the panels.

Solar Breakeven

The math is simple – take the cost of the panels and their installation and subtract any government grants or subsidies (taxes included), that’s how much fixed costs you need to overcome. Now calculate how much energy you anticipate you’ll get out of the panel over the year and divide by the cost of electricity in your area, that’ll give you the “profitability” of your panels. Finally, divide fixed costs by annual profits and you have the number of years you’ll need to break even.

The big question mark in all of this is in how much energy you expect the panel to generate. Fortunately, all it takes is a quick look at the solar calculator [3], created by solar power advocates and the Department of Energy, to realize that you probably won’t save any money with solar. Like a Prius, it’s an emotionally motivated decision, not a financial one.

I put in my specs and my breakeven point is 24.80 years. I’m a long term planner but nearly 25 years is way too long to recoup an investment of this size (just to breakeven!) and by then new technology will have made my panels badly obsolete. It’s like when today’s more powerful satellites pass those launched twenty years ago in the depths of space.

Solar Water Panels

Another options is to install solar water panels, which are similar to the black tubes used to heat my father-in-law’s friend’s pool. They’re sometimes called solar thermal panels or solar water heaters but they’re usually cheaper to install because the technology is more basic (no electrical connections), but it’s not something we’ve looked into.

Have you considered installing solar panels? What about the ones that just heat water (rather than generate electricity)? It appears to be all the rage in the UK [4] where more generous benefits are provided to those who install them.

(Photo: waynenf [5])