Tapping into the sun’s free energy isn’t cheap; it requires a significant up-front investment in equipment and expertise to install your system, upgrade your circuit box for a grid tie-in, or establish a battery back-up system. “Free” solar panels for your home sounds great — who doesn’t love free stuff? But offers and advertising for free panels are generally too good to be true. You can get a good deal on your home’s solar system, and maybe even a great deal — if you’re willing to do the research, pick the right time and do the work yourself.
Read on to learn strategies to get the best deal on solar power for your home, where to find the them, the questions you need to ask, and how much to budget.
Decoding “Free” in the Solar Sales Pitch
“Get solar panels for free!”
Did that get your attention? Of course it did. Companies use advertising like this to entice you into signing a lease or power-purchase agreement. While leases and PPAs might seem like a good deal initiall, the devil always lies in the fine print of the agreement. it’s important to know up front what you’re getting.
In a lease or PPA, you sign a contract with a company, which allows them to install panels on your roof. This usually requires a small down payment, sometimes even none at all. In return, you enjoy lower utility bills for the lifetime of the agreement (often 20 years).
However, the panels are not given to you free, because you do not own them — or any other part of the system installed on your home for that matter. The leasing or PPA company does, thus they receive any tax credits or financial incentives that come with the system. The company is also responsible for all repair and maintenance of the system during the life of the contract — added peace of mind for you. If you’re unable to shell out the up-front costs of installing a solar system on your home, a lease or PPA might be a good deal, and will likely save you money. Just make sure you understand contract before you sign.
If you’re willing to do the research and are a true do-it-yourselfer (in other words, you enjoy fixing stuff, problem-solving, don’t need a warranty, and you can tolerate uncertainty about how long equipment will last), then there are several ways you get the absolute best deal on solar panels in order to reduce your impact on the planet — and your project’s impact on your wallet.
1Cruise the classified ads
Deals are out there, but you’re going to have to find them. Search your favorite local classified sites long enough, and you’ll eventually find someone who’s giving away old solar panels, or selling them cheap. But this isn’t going to happen often, because solar panels, when properly cared for, can last 25 years or longer — they’re just not flooding the market. If this is what you want, it will require diligence and patience, as it might be some time before you find what you need.
Are there local businesses with solar panels that have been there for a while? Call the company’s facilities or operations manager, and ask if there’s a plan to replace them anytime soon. You never know, you might catch them on the cusp of an upgrade. While you’re on the phone, ask if they know of other individuals or companies getting ready to replace their panels.
2Shop for surplus
Markets fluctuate. Sometimes there’s a glut of panels in the marketplace, or maybe a company needs to reduce its inventory or is going out of business. Other companies purchase surplus or old-model panels from manufacturers and resell them to homeowners. These panels have never been used, yet they could have been sitting around for several years. Given how quickly solar panel technology is improving, their efficiency and/or technical specifications might not be up to modern standards. The U.S. Government hosts surplus sales and auctions where solar panels are sometimes up for bid.
3Test the equipment
When purchasing your used or super-cheap panels, it’s important to test the panels’ output and compare it to the manufacturer’s original output rating. Lower output doesn’t mean the panel is worthless – many can be fixed easily – but it’s important to know this before investing.
4Know how to fix damaged panels
Damaged solar panels range from being easily fixable to unsalvageable. Small chips or cracks in the panel and simple wiring problems can typically be repaired cheaply with common tools. For example, if wiring connections on the back of the panel have loosened or disconnected over time, they can be repaired or replaced. This may require removing the back panel and using a soldering gun to connect the wires and restore voltage output.
If you’re willing and able to perform these types of repairs on your own, your work on the front end can mean greater savings in the long run.
This also requires knowledge and experience working with electricity. Do not attempt if you’re not experienced. Faulty wiring can lead to injury or death of you, a fellow worker, or one of your loved ones at home. It can also lead to devastating fires.
5Are you really prepared to install the solar system yourself?
While it’s certainly possible to install a solar system, the majority of experts in the field will advise against this option. Without the same tools and production capabilities as a solar panel manufacturer or professional installer, you might struggle to get a good seal on them, resulting in condensation or leakage within the panel. Your wiring might also be substandard in quality or efficiency, creating a dangerous situation or the need for more panels.
“Unless you are purchasing a tiny system from Home Depot to charge a battery for a light in your shed, I would strongly advise against DIY installation,” says Pearson from Revolve Solar. “You probably wouldn’t want to replace your own electric service panel, because you know electrical safety is important. DC (direct current) electricity from solar panels is especially dangerous, and there are enough volts flowing through just a few panels connected on your roof to kill you. No joke.”
“Homeowners may also find that solar panel and inverter warranties are invalid if the system is not installed by a registered professional,” says Pearson. “You might also struggle to get the relevant electrical or solar permit from your local authority. No permit would also likely cause an issue if you going to sell your property in the future. Lastly, you may not be able to access rebates from utility companies unless you use an installer recognized on their rebate program.
Overall, it’s safer, cheaper, easier, and more legal to get the system installed professionally.
6Are you missing the best deal by trying to get the best deal?
Often, the biggest cost incentives for installing solar panels are the rebates available from your state, the federal government, and/or your local utility. Yet many of these are invalid if the solar panels aren’t new or aren’t installed by a state-licensed electrical contractor. Do your research, and read the fine print before assuming your do-it-yourself system will qualify for one of these rebates.
For example, the federal government offers a 30 percent tax credit for solar panel systems installed in new or existing homes before the end of 2016, provided they meet applicable fire and electrical code requirements. Although these are state-specific, many states have stringent regulations about the types of panels used and how they are installed.
On the flip side, your used or surplus solar system could start out being cheaper than a new system, canceling out the rebate. Do your math before you buy, and consider other factors, such as warranties, performance and longevity.
“With warranties, buyers stand a far better chance of the manufacturer standing behind their promise,” says Pearson. “You also have the benefit of the U.S. legal system behind you in the unlikely event that it’s needed. Because solar energy is a medium-to-long investment, it’s really important that you don’t scrimp on the front end for the sake of quality and assurance. You know what they say: buy cheap, buy twice.”
7You aren’t planning to tie to the grid, which generally requires new solar systems only.
In a grid-connected panel system, users are able to funnel excess energy back into the utility company and receive a rebate on their bill when the sun isn’t providing (at night, during storms, and in winter, when days are shorter and often grayer). This process, known as net metering, is heavily monitored by utility companies.
Because these systems feed directly into the main electricity system, every solar panel connected to the grid must meet specific requirements that self-built, damaged or previously used panels often cannot pass. Homeowners interested in connecting to their local grid should confirm their utility provider’s requirements before purchasing any panels.
Lucky you! Your hard work paid off and you found solar panels for free or really cheap. Before you shell-out your heard-earned dollars to buy them, push the pause button and ask the following questions. This is a buyer-beware situation, and making the wrong decision now could cost you a lot of time, money, frustration, and even danger if you’re not careful.
What’s the reason behind this great deal? Few people give good stuff away for free. Find out before you end up losing your money or taking on more risk, work, or frustration than you’re willing to accept.
Are they damaged? How, and how are you going to find out? Are you capable of fixing them?
Are these panels compatible with your needs? How much power will they provide for your home?
Will you need to buy more panels to make up for their decreased efficiency, thus eliminating your deal?
Are you considering mixing and matching the few panels you got here with some other panels you found over there? Are they compatible? Will your inverters or other parts of your system be able to accommodate these differences?
Are these surplus panels lemons? Do they have flaws that led to their rejection or low-ranking by the manufacturer?
Did they “fall off the back of a truck” (were they stolen)? Are you willing to be accessory to a crime?
Do they meet the electrical codes required in your community?
If you’re not willing/able to do the work, will a contractor be willing to install them?
Will your utility accept them as part of your grid tie-in system?
Do they have a warranty? If not, are you prepared to fix or replace them when they go down?
Ask these questions before you buy. Be particularly cautious if you cannot inspect the panels in person. Get documentation from the seller. Know your local standards and codes. Make sure to get documentation from the seller before you commit. If you’re satisfied with the information you find, and if their efficiency is up to your needs, then you just might have found yourself a deal.
Lower Electric Bills with Cool Roofs
If rebates, tax incentives, or installing used or DIY solar systems aren’t enough to make solar power possible given your current situation, your rooftop can still help reduce monthly utility bills and help the environment. Enter cool roofs.
Cool roofs, as defined by the Department of Energy, are more effective than traditional roofs, because they reflect away more sunlight while taking on less heat. This type of roof is especially beneficial in parts of the country that experience long, hot summers. As an added benefit, many exciting roofs can be made cooler by adding a special reflective coating. More information about cool roofs can be found via the Department of Energy, and for more on creating an energy efficient home, see our guide on the subject.