Given how many solar installations there are throughout the country, you might already be able to picture what a good fit for solar looks like; a single-family, stand-alone home that you own, with a southern-facing roof that's in good condition and receives minimal shading during the day. If you read that and think, "Hey, that sounds like me!" what are you waiting for? Sign up for the EnergySage Marketplace to get custom solar quotes from local installers today! 

And even if you read that and think, "Hmm, that is not quite my situation," don't worry! Those are just a few factors influencing whether you're a good fit for solar. Here are five key elements to help you determine whether solar panels are a good fit for you and your home. And keep in mind, even if you can't put panels on your property, you may still be able to benefit from solar by participating in a community solar project.

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Key takeaways

  • Solar panels are a great way to save money on your electricity bill and reduce your environmental impact, but only some homes are a good fit for a home solar system.

  • Your home's current energy efficiency and roof structure will impact panel production. 

  • The cost of solar and available incentives should be weighed against the potential savings on energy bills over time.

  • You can shop for solar, receive quotes from solar installers, and talk to expert Energy Advisors using the EnergySage Marketplace.

In general, it's easiest to install a rooftop solar PV system on a single-family detached house, especially if it's outside of a homeowners association (HOA) and where you're the primary occupant.

It's more challenging for condo owners, and especially renters, to buy or lease solar panels. But some viable options are beginning to pop up.

If you can't find a viable workaround for a self-owned system, then a community solar farm membership can be a great way to save some money and help the environment.

Suppose you want to maximize your solar savings. In that case, it's not a bad idea to consider an energy audit before the start of the project (or, if this is a new construction project, working with the building to make your home as energy efficient as possible.)

While a home energy audit isn't necessary before going solar, it can identify opportunities to reduce your energy use, which can reduce the size of the solar panel system you need to cover 100% of your electricity use. As a result, you'll save on the upfront cost of installing a solar panel system. Some steps auditors may suggest include installing LEDs for your lighting needs, insulating your attic, and sealing ducts. 

If you have a refrigerator, dishwasher, or washing machine over 20 years old, consider replacing them soon. Each new appliance can save you hundreds of kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.

Another option to save you energy—and money in the long term—is to electrify your home entirely. This step will let you power everything (or at least as much as your roof allows) with solar panels rather than powering some appliances with electricity and some with fossil fuels. 

The most significant savings can come from replacing fossil-fuel heating and hot water systems with air-source heat pumps and heat pumps or hybrid water heaters. An electric vehicle almost always costs less than a gas-powered car—especially if you can keep it charged with solar power. If you have a gas-powered clothes dryer, consider swapping it for an electric dryer. Swapping out a gas stove for an electric induction stove won't save much energy, but it might have some health benefits. 

It can be tricky to pinpoint precisely how much electricity you'll use in the place of gasoline, natural gas, heating oil, or propane. But experts in the field can help you make an educated guess and recommend a corresponding number of rooftop solar panels. You might not be able to fit all the panels you'd need to offset your electricity use completely, but the closer you get, the more you'll save.

If you have an older electrical system, a solar installer might recommend an electric panel upgrade before installation. In some cases, local building codes might even require an upgrade. 

Your solar system's inverter connects to your electrical breaker box, and depending on the size of the inverter and your solar panel system, you might need extra electrical capacity (measured in amps) for safety reasons. 

There's no "one size fits all" solution, but a 200 amp service will be sufficient for almost every situation, and some homes can get away with a 100 amp service. (That said, it can be tough to do a total home electrification on just 100 amps). 

If your panel and service need an upgrade, expect to pay a couple of thousand dollars for the work. Your solar company might be able to do the upgrade for you or subcontract it out, maybe at a slightly better price than you'd get if you hired an electrician independently.

The more electricity you use, and the more you pay for it, the more that you can save by going solar. The benefits are most significant if your utility company offers full net metering—accumulating full credit for all the solar-generated electricity you send to the grid rather than directly consuming it at home (or storing it in a battery).

You can save with solar even if you use relatively little electricity, pay low electricity rates, or only qualify for partial solar energy credits (aka net billing). But generally, the benefits are most significant if your electric bill is already higher than $100 or $150 per month. Any legitimate solar installer can calculate a payback period based on your current energy use, roof layout, and incentive eligibility.

A handful of factors affect how whether solar makes sense for your roof. They include age, material, space, shading, tilt, and orientation.

How old is your roof?

Solar panel systems can last for 25-35 years, so you'll want to ensure that your roof is in good shape and won't need to be replaced soon. If your roof is near the end of its lifetime, it's worth waiting to go solar until it needs a replacement. (Or you could roll the roof replacement into your installation.) If your roof is already in good condition, great! Solar panels can help extend the life of the portion of your roof that they cover.

What is your roof made of?

You can install solar panels on nearly any type of roof, but certain materials are easier to work with than others. Due to their brittle nature, slate, and wood are two of the more difficult roofing materials to install solar on. You'll likely need a specialty installer to install solar on those surfaces. 

Otherwise, solar goes onto the following types of roofs pretty smoothly

Metal standing seam: The "standing seams" on many metal roofs make it easy to install solar panels. In most cases, you can add solar panels without making any holes by using mounting systems that clamp onto the seams. Metal roofs are also good insulators and very energy efficient, making homes with metal roofs great candidates for solar.

Asphalt: Solar installers can work on asphalt shingle roofs easily without worrying about damage. Standard penetrating mounts are the norm here.

Standard clay and Spanish tile: Solar installers can easily work on clay tile roofs with standard penetrating mounts. Some companies also produce solar panel mounts that integrate into a clay or Spanish tile to make installation easier.

EPDM rubber: Flat roofs often use ethylene propylene diene terpolymer (EPDM) rubber, and solar installers can work with it. They'll use a weighted mounting system (known as a ballast system), so they don't typically have to make holes in the roof. For this reason, EPDM installations are usually less expensive than rooftop systems with mounts that penetrate the roof material.

TPO and PVC: Like EPDM roofs, thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) roofs are usually flat and use ballast systems to mount the solar panels. TPO and PVC installations are relatively inexpensive.

How big is your roof?

It's easiest to install panels on a large, squared-off roof. But even if you have limited space, you can look into installing a smaller number of high-efficiency panels to produce as much power as possible with the area you do have available.

A general rule of thumb is that for each Kw of your system size, you will need about 100 square feet of roof space. Remember that dormers, turrets, plumbing vents, chimneys, and skylights will affect the available space.

Is your roof too shady?

You could have the biggest roof in the world, but if you live next to tall buildings or trees that shade your roof all day, it's not a good fit for solar panels. An experienced installer can figure out what makes sense for your house just by looking at satellite images taken from Google Maps.

Don't worry about a bit of shading throughout the day: your home doesn't need to be perfectly sunny all of the time to benefit from a solar panel system. But you could consider trimming or removing trees.

What is the angle of your roof?

Generally, between 30 to 45 degrees is the optimal tilt (also referred to as roof angle or azimuth) for most solar panel systems. Thankfully, that's the angle of most standard roofs in the United States. Solar panels on a steep roof generally produce less electricity and are more challenging to install. Installing solar panels on a flat roof typically requires more space and makes more sense for larger installations where it's practical to add racks that create optimal panel tilt (like on top of factories). 

What direction does your roof face?

Your roof's orientation, or the direction your roof faces, impacts how much electricity your solar panel system will produce. Ideally, you want your solar panels to face south to receive the most exposure to sunlight.

Solar panels are most effective on a broad, south-facing roof (in the Northern Hemisphere). Google Maps makes it easy to figure this out. Ideally, the roof should face True South, a slightly different direction from the magnetic South you would find with a compass. But Southeast and Southwest-facing panels will also work well. 

If you can't manage a southern exposure on your roof, East and West exposures are still possible, depending on shading. Even when solar panels aren't facing directly south, they can still produce significant amounts of electricity, even in locations that don't receive abundant sunlight. 

Also, if your roof orientation isn't the best, you can still mount your panels on the ground or another building, like a shed or garage.

The US government and many states, utilities, and even municipalities offer financial incentives for going solar. These can make it a really sweet deal to go solar.

The best financial incentive for solar is the Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC). Importantly: the ITC, which returns more than 30 percent of what you pay for solar directly to your pocket as a tax credit, is only accessible to people with enough tax liability. In other words, if you are retired, you likely won't be able to take full advantage of the ITC.

Solar is more expensive to install in some parts of the country due to labor, permitting costs, equipment availability, and more. The amount you pay to install solar panels significantly impacts your payback period, i.e., how quickly you break even on your investment by not paying a regular electricity bill.

If solar looks like a good investment, but you can't come up with all the money for an installation up front, tons of financing options are available, often at favorable rates through clean-energy incentive programs.

Wait! What if, after answering all of the questions above, it seems like you aren't a good fit for solar? Virtual net metering can help! Virtual net metering is the policy that allows you to receive the benefits of solar by participating in a community solar project. If your state allows virtual net metering, you can benefit from solar located elsewhere, meaning you don't have to be a good fit for solar to still benefit from it.

The EnergySage Marketplace is the nation's online solar marketplace: When you sign up for a free account, we connect you with solar companies in your area who compete for your business with custom solar quotes tailored to your needs. Over 10 million people visit EnergySage annually to learn about, shop for and invest in solar. Sign up today to see how much solar can save you.

Find out what solar panels cost in your area in 2024
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  • Unbiased Energy Advisors ready to help
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