It’s been two years since I installed solar panels on my home in the Boston area. How’s it been going? Let’s take a look at how much it cost, how much it’s saved, how it’s been holding up and what type of maintenance it’s taken.
You might not think that Boston would do well for solar production, especially since we’re better known for our Nor’easters than sunshine, but you’d be surprised. I started looking into getting solar panels years before I actually got them installed on my home. They were still far too expensive and not efficient enough to make them worthwhile for my house when I started looking. But thankfully the prices kept dropping and the efficiencies kept getting better.
I’ve run through a lot of the details on my system in my previous videos about this, but here’s what’s installed on my house. I’ve got 26 LG 365 watt panels that come with a 25 year warranty, which guarantees at least 88.4% of it’s original power output. They’re hooked up to 26 Enphase IQ6 Plus micro inverters and are monitored by the Enphase Enlighten system. I’ll get into that in a bit though. The total cost of the 9.49kW system, before state and Federal incentives, was $29,609. When I got it installed the 30% Federal Tax Incentive was still active, so I ended up getting an $8,882 credit applied to my taxes the year we had this done.
There’s actually a lot of misunderstanding about how the federal tax credit works. It’s not a rebate check that you get cut from some kind of fund, it’s a credit that you can use to reduce your tax burden in a given year. And if you aren’t able to apply the full amount in one year, you can roll a portion of it over into a second year. Because most of us have our taxes automatically withheld from our paychecks that means you’ll have overpaid your taxes by tax time and will get a nice refund check for the difference … but it all depends on how much you paid in taxes.
The current program is winding down now and is currently at a 26% credit. In 2021 it goes down to 22% and in 2022 it will disappear for homeowners completely, but for commercial installations it will remain at 10% forever.
In the end the system cost us $20,727 out of pocket, or about $2.18 per watt for the installation. As I explored in a recent video, Tesla’s current per-watt pricing is much lower than that now in the US, which is about $1.49 per Watt. We’re still lagging behind other areas of the world for our per-watt pricing, like Australia and Europe, but that’s where we’re at right now.
This isn’t a small chunk of change I spent on the system, so why even do it? Well, my goals were pretty simple. I wanted to reduce my dependence on the grid as much as possible, try to get as much of my energy coming from renewable sources as possible, and to do so in a way that would be financially responsible. Energy independence, or as much as I could get, was very enticing. If you’re goal is make a buck and that’s all you care about, this isn’t going to be what you want to do … and that’s something I’ve heard a lot in the comments on my previous videos. But the people that wrote that I should have just invested this money clearly didn’t listen to the goals I had for my system.
So how’s it been performing? How much energy has it actually made and saved? The system got turned on at the beginning of October in 2018, which was a little anticlimactic because winter is the lowest production time of year. That meant a monthly savings of about $25-50 a month, or about 100 – 200 kWh produced per month. Nothing to write home about, but when you look at my system over the course of a year timescale, it’s hit exactly where my solar installer predicted.
The pattern you’ll most likely see on most systems will look like a sine wave over the course of the year. For me my peak happens between June and July, and the lowest point is December and January. Over the course of the year that’s worked out to 6,665 kWh for year 1 and 7,193 kWh for year 2. Both years are above the guaranteed amount my installer predicted.
My house is a less than ideal setup with my small roof sloped east and west. Having a southwestern facing roof in the northern hemisphere is far better to capture as much of the sun’s path as possible. For me I opted to put panels on both sides to capture as much of the morning and afternoon sun as possible. On top of that my neighbors have some very tall trees on the western side that cause shading in the late afternoon, so my production slopes off pretty quickly by about 4:00pm. I’m not sure my neighbors would like it if I went and cut down their trees … not that I’ve dreamt about that. Like I said, less than ideal, but even with living in the northeast of the US and contending with a very small roof facing the wrong direction, and shade, I’m covering about 60% of my energy use through my solar production. I have friends in my area that are able to cover nearly 100% of their yearly energy use, which is why I always tell people that the only person that can determine if solar is right for you … is you.
So how did I figure that out myself and how does it look in practice? Well, you need to look at your energy use per year, how much you pay per kWh, and then compare that against how much a solar panel system is estimated to produce for your home and for what cost. It gets a bit more complicated when you layer in different net metering systems, time of use rates, different incentive programs, loans, etc. What I did was to figure out our average monthly energy use costs and then start getting quotes and recommendations for different solar panel systems. I ended up using EnergySage to get quotes for myself. If you’re interested in going solar, I strongly recommend checking out EnergySage for research and articles. It’s a completely free service that has great write-ups and reviews of different solar panels, inverters, and solar tech that can be useful no matter where you live.
Full disclosure, I am one of their partners … I jumped into their partner program after my great experience using them. If you live in the U.S. and are interested in going solar, you can get quotes from installers by using my EnergySage portal. You can plug in your information and request quotes from solar installers, which all get funneled into your EnergySage account, where you can review them, rather than flooding you directly with phone calls or spam. It makes it easy to compare installers, cost estimates and energy production quotes in one place … it’s a nice apples-to-apples comparison between installers. But even without EnergySage, if you want to break down things in an apples-to-apples way, be sure to calculate the cost per Watt of each quote you get. Just take the total out of pocket cost (I’d recommend the cost after incentives) and divide that by the watt system size. So if you’re having a 5KW system installed for $7,500 after incentives, then your per Watt installation price is $1.50. That’s how I ended up with the $2.18 per Watt pricing for my system in 2018 after subtracting the tax credit.
The installer I ended up with not only gave me a very accurate estimate of yearly production, but also guaranteed the production for the first 10 years and offered a 20 year workmanship warranty. Where I live we pay between $0.22 – $0.24 per kWh and don’t have time of use rates available to us, but we do have full net metering. So every kWh of overproduction that we feed into the grid is credited a full kWh off our bill. Not all states or utilities do it this way, so you may only get partial credit … unfortunately. Some areas will only credit the production kWh cost and not the delivery cost. You’ll need to find out what your area offers as far as net metering and rates to calculate the final value of going solar.
Since my net metering is 1:1, it makes the grid act like a giant battery for us, dollar-wise. If you average out our monthly production and dollar value over the year, it comes out to 556 kWh produced per month. Our average electric bill went from $212.40 per month to $90.23 per month after solar. That’s a 58% savings.
We also are participating in a solar renewable energy credit program (SREC). Here in Massachusetts it’s now known as the SMART program, but my rates were locked in under the previous system for 10 years. We get $126.22 per month for the energy we’re producing, which works out to $15,146.40 over the course of the program. When you combine our electricity savings with the SRECs, we’re saving a total of $248.66 a month for the first 10 years of the system. After that it drops down to just the energy savings value.
We got a solar loan to pay for the system, so we also need to factor in the interest costs to our final tally. After the tax credit, our total system cost us $20,727, but at the rate we’ve been paying off the loan the final cost including interest will be around $23,250 … but might be a bit lower. It depends on how quickly we pay it off in the remaining months. But, that means the system will have paid for itself by 2026 or 7 years after installation, which falls right in line with our projections before installation.
If we didn’t have the SREC $126 monthly credit and only had the energy savings, it would pay itself off by 2034 … 15 years after installation. The interest we paid on the loan added about 2 years to our payback time.
Clearly, this is a long-term decision we made, and all the numbers I cited for myself will vary depending on your home’s specific situation. I have friends in my area that had a payback period in under 4 years. My brother-in-law just had solar installed on his home in Texas and it’s incredible the amount of energy his system is producing. He’s most likely going to cover 100% of his energy needs throughout the year, so he’ll never have an electric bill again. But Texas also has cheap electricity already and no real solar incentives, so his payback time may not be that different from what mine would be without SRECs. You have to evaluate solar for your specific goals and situation.
But what about maintenance? This is another question I’ve heard a lot … like a lot a lot. There are only a few things that I’ve had to do for my solar panels over the past couple of years. Within the first 6 months we had two short periods where our panels stopped working for a few days. It turned out to be a faulty emergency shut off switch for the system, so the installer swapped that part out and it’s been humming along ever since. This cost us nothing to fix. It’s one of the reasons our first year of production was slightly lower than our second year.
The two other things I’ve done are, first, sweeping snow off the panels after heavy snow storms in the winter, which isn’t really necessary. Snow tends to melt more quickly on the panels than it does on the rest of the roof. It’s funny to see it in my neighborhood because every house with solar is usually clear of snow within a day or two of a heavy storm, while everyone else has snow on their roof for weeks. But if it’s anything over a few inches, I try to clear it off with a foam roof rake to give me panels a little extra help. And to also help control the avalanche of snow that happens when it slides off on its own. It’s kind of funny … and a little scary. Like I said, not necessary, but if you want to maximize your production it’s not too hard to do.
And then, second, using the same roof rake, but with a cleaning attachment, I’ve washed off the panels in the summer a couple of times. Again, in my area it’s not super necessary since we get a fair amount of rain that washes off the dirt, but during dry periods you can sometimes see the pollen and dirt build up. I haven’t noticed a dramatic difference in production, but it can cause lower production if you let them get too dirty.
Overall, I’ve had zero maintenance costs in the first two years and expect that to continue. Both the inverters and panels have 25 year manufacturer warranties, and my installers workmanship warranty has me covered for 20 years. Based on that, plus everyone I know personally that’s had solar for years, this trend is going to continue for quite a while. The only upcoming cost, that I’ve accounted for but haven’t really discussed on previous videos, is putting on a new roof. My roof still had a good amount of life left when we installed the panels, but I’m expecting to have to replace all, or a portion of the tiles, in 10-15 years. For that you typically would hire a solar installer to remove, store, and then reinstall the panels when the roof work was done. The cost can vary wildly, but according to EnergySage it can range between $1,500 – $6,000 depending on the size of the system and whether or not the mounting hardware has to be removed. From the people I’ve talked to in my area, I’d expect it to be somewhere around $3,000 for me, which means losing about 1 two 2 years worth of the solar panel yearly savings. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a drop in the bucket for the total savings of the system over 30 years … which should be over $30,000.
And before anyone asks about battery storage, I didn’t have batteries installed as part of the system originally. It didn’t make sense financially with the cost and the fact I had full net metering. But since then I earned a founders edition Tesla Powerwall from the Tesla referral program. I’ve been waiting for it to get installed and will be publishing a full video on that experience and what I think of the system later, so be sure to subscribe and hit the notification bell to not miss that. And I recently just published a video about home batteries in general; costs, benefits, and different incentive programs that are popping up. Depending on where you live, the math for battery storage is starting to make a lot more sense, so be sure to check out that one, too.