Installing home solar panels can cut your electric bill and shrink your carbon footprint. But the upfront costs of buying and installing a system can be considerable, even with government rebates. Here are tips on going solar:
Roof sun exposure. You're best off if you have a section of your roof that faces south with few obstructions, such as tall buildings or trees. If your home is in Los Angeles County, you can check the quality of your sun exposure at your address at solarmap.lacounty.gov, but not all structures are included.
Check the numbers. Once you get an estimate for how big a system you'll need, you can use an online calculator at http://www.consumerenergycenter.org/renewables/estimator to help determine costs and how long it will take to make back your investment. The calculator takes into consideration equipment costs, loan interest rates, tax savings and more.
Rebates and incentives. Government programs can provide significant financial breaks on your system, but these offers frequently change. The http://www.dsireusa.org site has information on what's currently available in your area. Also, check with your local utility company.
Buy or lease. An average home solar-panel installation can cost $20,000 or more, even after incentives, according to the Department of Energy. An alternative is to have a leasing company, such as SolarCity, install the system at no cost to you, and bill you monthly. In many cases your electricity cost will be lower, but you won't own the system.
Beware of unlicensed contractors. Rebates and other incentives are generally available only if you use a licensed contractor or do the job yourself. When hiring a contractor (a self-install is too daunting for most of us), ensure his or her state license is valid by doing an "instant license check" at http://www.cslb.ca.gov.