Posted by Steve Graham | May 09, 2011

3 Affordable Solar Options

If going fully solar is above your budget, here are 3 ways to incorporate solar power into your home for less.

porah/stock.xchngWhen many homeowners think of solar power, they envision total energy independence — getting enough solar panels to unplug from the electric grid and power everything in the home. When they realize such a bold plan is above their budget, they write off solar power. However, there are more affordable ways to harness solar power. Here is a brief explanation of three realistic options for harnessing solar, without a full solar array.

1. Simple solar swimming pool heater

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that solar pool heaters are the most cost-effective use of solar power. They are more durable than gas pool heaters or electric heat pump pool heaters, and the costs are comparable. The DOE estimates that an initial investment of less than $4,000 will be paid back in two to seven years.  DIY resource:

Solar pool heaters pump pool water through a filter, then through solar thermal panels that heat the water (or cool the water at night in hot climates). The cheapest heaters are basically thick rubber or plastic treated to reduce UV damage. These heaters lack the expensive glass and metal parts of more complex solar panels, so they are particularly cheap. They typically aren’t powerful enough for use in freezing temperatures, and could be damaged in severe weather. Still, that leaves several months of pool heating and comfort in most climates.

2. Simple solar water heaters

Another inexpensive solar option for mild climates is a batch, or integral collector-storage solar water heater. These systems simply use black tubes to heat water before it flows into the conventional water heater, reducing the amount of gas or electric heat needed to heat water. Again, these systems could freeze in harsh weather. However, this experimental do-it-yourself batch solar water heater provides 94 percent of a modest home’s hot water needs through the cold Montana winter.

The system cost about $1,000 in materials, and is saving the homeowner an estimated $300 in annual energy costs. He provides free construction plans on his site. DIY resource:

3. Simple solar electric financing

There are affordable options for solar electric, as well as the aforementioned solar thermal projects. Instead of paying thousands of dollars upfront for solar photovoltaic panels, you may be able to just buy the solar power you use.

Through Payment per Power Agreements (PPAs), the solar installer owns the panels and sells you the solar electricity you generate and use in your home. According to SunRun, the company that first developed PPAs, their average customer saves 10 to 15 percent on electric costs even though they are now typically paying two electric bills — to the local utility and to SunRun. The savings should also increase over time. While utility rates increase 6 percent per year on average, PPA customers lock in their rate for the term of the agreement. PPA payments also cover upkeep, which simplifies ownership of solar systems, which have complex and expensive parts.

However, PPAs are not available everywhere. Visit SunRun for more information on PPAs.

If these three options still seem daunting, consider starting small with outdoor solar lights or  home solar gadgets.

Of course, the costs of solar vary widely depending on your site, sun resources and, perhaps most importantly, local and state incentives. Click here for more information and for help calculating your solar costs.

Steve Graham is a writer.  Read more articles like this one or get help with your home project on

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