When we purchase a home I would like to upgrade to solar. What does it take and how much does it cost?

Asked by Sonya Watkins
Jasper, IN

When we purchase a home this is something I would like to upgrade to.


Evan Little

Answered by Evan Little

Newport Beach, CA

Surterre Properties Inc

July 26, 2010

I get asked this question a lot, Sonya!

Unfortunately, the correct answer is the popular and often times misleading "it depends." A solar installer can give you a basic quote of how much it will cost and you may even be able to lease the entire system with little to no money down, but what I've included below will serve you much better!

Unless you already have an electric vehicle or plan on having one soon that you'd like to be charged by your own solar system, I wouldn't put much focus on solar before you purchase a home. You don't know how much energy you'll use when you move in and how much you can learn from living there after a year and increase the home's efficiency.

The most important features to watch for when house hunting are:

  • orientation of the home itself so you're able to maximize passive solar,
  • are there trees providing needed shade or are they blocking needed heat from the sun,
  • are the mechanical & supporting system in good working condition or will you need to replace them immediately,
  • is the home structurally sound because if the home has a fatal problem, who cares about efficiency what so ever.

I've sold homes and managed rental property with PV solar power systems and the greatest factor in determining how much solar is needed and how much it will cost is the occupants of the home and their habits. Habits are hands down, without questions the number one item to address 1st.

Quick example is a LEED Silver Certified home I leased to 3 male college students. Due to their poor habits and stereotypical big screen TVs and gismos, leaving the door between the garage and living space open regularly during the summer with the thermostat set to 62 degrees. The boys hit the top tier rate consistently even with the brand new 2.3kW PV system in a brand new LEED Silver home!

Another very important thing to understand is that Solar Photovoltaic has a poor return on investment compared to smaller, less sexy improvements which can be made first. Sealing air gaps, replacing windows, adding insulation will not impress your neighbors much, but you'll drastically cut down how much solar you need to buy, which will save you money.

Assuming you've tackled the low hanging fruit and followed the USGBC's REGREEN tips and case studies to make yours an energy efficient home before purchasing solar, you'll now want to familiarize yourself with your State's, County's or even City's solar incentives and learn how your electricity provider charges you.

  • According to your City's web-site ( your electricity provider is the City itself and not a private company and is generated by coal so you'll have more emotional incentive to produce all of your own electricity since coal is more harmful than most fossil fuels.
  • If you're being charged a flat rate regardless of your consumption it's less important, but if you're being charged in an ascending tiered rate system, then you'll want to sit down and size your system more precisely.
  • Here in Southern California we have a 5 tier rate system where the cost per Kilo Watt nearly doubles from tier 2 to tier 3. So it's popular for home owners to size their system to avoid the more expensive rate tiers instead of trying to wipe out your demand completely. Because our bottom rate tiers are cheap, it's a much longer return on investment if you purchase solar to offset your entire electricity demand.

Do not expect to recoup the cost of your solar system if you sell your home within the next few years. The real estate sales industry and the majority of buyers are still very much oblivious to solar and especially now a buyer's greatest interest is in purchase price. So don't buy into any cheesy pitch from a solar installer about how your home will instantly be worth more with a solar system on the roof.

I don't believe that until the Federal Government steps in and requires an energy rating like the HERS Index ( to be included in the sales information of every home in America like Miles Per Gallon for cars will we see the real value of green homes.

Hire a real estate agent who has an interest in efficiency themselves. There are several green real estate agents based out of Bloomington, IN that are listed on the Green Home Guide who may be able to help you or at least point you in the right direction. You can also check for National Association of Realtors GREEN certified agents or EcoBrokers.

So to sum it all up!

  • Worry about the things you can NOT easily change like which direction your home faces first.
  • Before you spend money on solar, spend money on low hanging fruit improvements like caulking air gaps, replacing windows, insulation, increase ventilation, etc.
  • Reach out to your local USGBC Chapter in Indiana for more education and support.

Good luck!

Tagged In: green cost, incentives

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