How to Own a Solar Roof—8 Key Things to Consider

If you have been considering installing a solar roof, there is plenty of good news for you. It was a little under a decade ago, when U.S. Statesman Ken Salazar cheekily proclaimed, “I think the future of solar energy is bright”. His words have turned out to be astonishingly prophetic, not just for the United States, but all around the globe.

How to Own a Solar Roof? 8 Key Things to Consider

Introduction: The future is indeed bright for solar power

A brief overview of solar power across the globe

By the end of 2018, global cumulative installed solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity reached about 512 gigawatts (GW), and global PV installations for the year 2019 reached about 121 GW. These are massive figures by any standard, and the numbers only continue to rise exponentially every year. Here, countries like China, the U.S., and India continue to lead the pack, as they deploy systems to generate solar power, not just for residential and commercial buildings, but also for widespread solar farms, using distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) technology. These are large enough to power state-wide landscapes.

For the future, experts proclaim that these impressive numbers will more than double over the next four years, to a whopping 700+ gigawatts of solar power, as more countries commit to making the most of clean, renewable sources of energy. In fact, they even predict that solar PV and wind power will account for 70% of the total global power expansion projected over the next five years, with a large chunk coming from distributed solar PV.

Solar power in the U.S.: Why YOU should consider a solar power roof

The scenario is even more upbeat in the United States, as generation of solar power continues to enjoy incentives, sponsored by both the federal government and various state governments. Coupled with lowering solar roof installation costs, both residential property owners and commercial business owners are increasingly tempted to switch to solar power for their basic energy requirements. The solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) first introduced in 2006, and Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) goals of individual U.S. States, are particularly noteworthy in this regard.

Here is a quick summary of how solar power deployment has transformed in the U.S. in the past few years.

  • Installations to generate solar power have consistently seen an annual growth of over 50% since 2006.
  • Costs continue to decline at a rapid pace, with a 70% reduction over the past decade.
  • An increasing number of states are re-iterating their commitment to renewable sources of energy, with solid goals like generating 80%–100% of energy by 2040–2050. Here, solar continues to be the leader in renewable energy sources.

The solar boom is not just about energy.

  • Almost 250,000 Americans are employed in the solar industry. That is a significant percentage of the U.S. workforce.
  • In 2018—the best year yet for solar energy deployments in the U.S., the industry boosted the U.S. economy with a whopping 17 billion dollars worth investment.

In summary, the industry expects to see another surge of solar power deployments over the next 2 years. This is more so across residential buildings, as the federal government gently tapers off tax credits by 2022. But of course, this can only mean that state governments will then take on the sole responsibility of providing incentives, in order to keep their residents happy and aligned to solar power.

California’s Solar-Powered Roofs View Towards Palo Alto, Before the Launch of Title 24 Standard

Note: If you live in the state of California, you may no longer have a choice about including solar energy to power your building. This year, California becomes the first U.S. state to mandate solar power as a source of energy. As per this, all new buildings under 3 stories tall will need to include a solar PV system to generate solar energy to power their building.

The mandate became effective as of 1st January 2020. Experts consider this a path-breaking development in the U.S. renewable energy landscape, as more states are soon expected to follow suit.

Options for residential property owners to get on the solar power wagon

If you own a residential property in the U.S., there are several reasons you should consider investing in solar-powered energy.

  • Lowering installation costs.
  • Federal tax rebates (expected to continue until 2022), and state-sponsored incentives.
  • Long term economic benefits, including higher energy efficiency and lower utility bills.
  • Good karma, as you clearly contribute to building a cleaner, greener, carbon-free environment!

At present, residential property owners have 2 choices to go the solar route with their homes.

  1. Solar roof systems.
  2. Installation of solar PV technology on the ground—this typically includes installing solar panels in backyards.

Here, solar power roofs continue to remain the popular choice, largely due to their higher efficiency in generating solar energy. They are also considered more versatile in terms of installation and aesthetic dynamics, and thus garner easy finance options to lower the burden of initial installation and solar roof cost. Basically, solar panels installed on the ground need to be connected to the grid, making them redundant if you are planning to stay off the grid.

For all these reasons, the rest of this primer will focus solely on solar roof options to make the most of solar power in residential buildings.

Is your roof good for solar?

This may be shocking to some, but not all roofs are suitable for solar. For instance, if you live in a gated community, its housing development society may have its own rules and regulations, including limitations contributing to the aesthetics of the roof. Also, if an integrated solar roof is a possibility for your residence, there may still be limitations on the number of panels you are allowed to install on your roof. Similar constraints may apply if you rent/lease (and not own) your residence.

In the absence of these limitations, here are other key factors that will determine the type of solar roof technology best suited for your roof.

Your monthly electricity bill

Despite all the benefits provided by a solar roof installation (including higher energy efficiency and lower energy bills), there is no denying the financial setback posed by the initial installation cost. (However, these can be addressed by various finance options with no upfront cost to you.) Based on present industry dynamics, experts claim that this cost is offset over a period of 2–5 years. Furthermore, it may take (at least) a similar amount of time for you to completely offset the cost of the solar roof (panels, tiles or photovoltaic shingles).

For this to be economically viable for your residence based on your energy requirements, you should have a monthly energy bill upwards of $70–$75 in order to get financial savings from a solar roof installation.

Type of roof

The type and material of your roof can directly impact the type of roofing and solar technology you use. For instance, solar panels are best suited to strong roofing materials (such as cement, asphalt) with an even surface in order to efficiently generate solar energy. Or else, you may want to consider Tesla roof shingles or solar roof tiles.

Geographical and topographical placement of your roof

The geography of your location and its local climate will determine the amount of sunlight you receive around the year. In turn, this will directly impact the number of solar roof panels you require in order to comfortably meet your monthly energy requirements.

The design and elevation of your roof, combined with its surrounding topography, will impact the amount of shade you receive during the day. For instance, the right side of your roof may be close to an empty street with tall trees, thus receiving more shade than other portions of the roof. Accordingly, certified solar energy contractors can determine the best design for your solar power roof. They can also increase the amount of sunlight received by altering the angle at which each solar panel is installed on your roof.

Possibility of short-term roof replacement

Based on the age and condition of your roof, if you foresee a roof replacement in the short term (like 5–10 years), it may be more financially viable to take this up along with your solar roof installation. For instance, high-quality solar roof tiles can have a lifespan of up to 40 years. Hence if you hold off on re-roofing after solar roof installation, there is a possibility for the panels to be damaged when the actual re-roofing happens in the future.

Another possibility is to use solar roof PV technology—like Tesla solar roof shingles—as your primary roofing material. This will further reduce the total cost (re-roofing + solar roof installation).

How to determine the capacity of your solar roof

The capacity of a solar roof is determined by:

Your total budget

This is often the primary determining factor to impact the amount of solar energy you can generate through your solar roof system. How much are you willing to spend upfront, either through cash or through finance options, on a solar roof system (installation + solar roof cost included)?

Here, keep in mind that there are 2 types of tax rebates offered by the government, to lower this burden.

a) The ITC (income tax credit) offered by the federal government

At present, this is at 26% of your total installation cost (available until 2022), for new buildings/installations, and can be availed as a deduction in your income tax over a 2-year period.

b) Individual state-sponsored tax rebates, based on their REC goals

Again, this is not a cash credit and varies across US states. Here, REC goals are state-specific, and determine the amount of energy to be generated/imported/exported by the state for the yearly period. Based on the situation every year, your state may choose to offer renewable energy incentives to residents, in the form of additional tax credits or rebates on your electricity bill (based on the total solar energy you generate).

House Owner Calculating His Budget for Solar-Powered Roof Investment

Finally, there is also the possibility of “selling” extra (unused) solar energy generated by your roof to your electric company on a monthly basis, provided you are connected to the grid and have net metering enabled. In this case, the electric company may again choose to “pay” for this energy, either through cash or through a specified wattage or electric energy you can use when there is no solar energy available. This too can be used to offset your initial set up cost, over a period of time.

The monthly savings you expect from your solar roof

The monthly savings you expect and your total solar roofing capacity have a direct relation with each other. Depending on which item you choose to keep constant, the other item can be accordingly altered.

In fact, certified solar roof contractors can even provide a yearly projection of the savings you can expect, along with expected cost, spanning the entire duration of the solar roof material’s lifetime. Make sure to ask for this along with the initial quote, as this can be a key determining factor in your choice of roofing technology/contractor.

The total area (in square footage) available to install a solar PV system

If you are installing a solar roof on top of an existing building/roof, then a portion of your roof may be sufficient to generate the monthly savings you expect. This is particularly useful for solar roof panels, or even solar roof tiles/Tesla solar shingles (when used as secondary roofing material). In this case, a proficient contractor can help determine the premium area in your roof (based on the amount of sunlight/shade received during the day), in order to generate maximum savings for minimum cost.

On the other hand, if you are installing a solar roof as part of new construction or a re-roofing project, then you have the option of using solar tiles/best solar shingles as the primary roofing material. In this case, the entire roof will be able to generate solar energy. (There may be variation among the solar energy generated by individual tiles/shingles, based on their placement on the roof.) The total cost of re-roofing + solar roof installation can be offset with this choice.

Solar roof options: 3 major solar roof technologies

At present, there are 3 solar PV technologies available for a solar roof system.

  1. Solar roof panels
  2. Solar roof tiles
  3. Solar roof shingles
Installl Solar Panels on Existing Roof Using Mounting/Racking Systems
Install solar panels on existing roof using mounting/Racking systems.

Solar roof panels remain the most popular, simply because of their higher efficiency in generating solar energy from sunlight. They come in dark-blue/black color choices, intentionally designed to absorb the maximum amount of sunlight. They can be installed on an existing roof (or even on the ground, like a terrace), using mounting and racking systems.

While newer technologies attempt to mount/rack them as close to the roof as possible, they are considered less aesthetically appealing than other options. On top of this, they can also be installed on a part of your roof that receives the maximum sunlight during the day, in order to reduce costs without impacting efficiency.

Pros of solar roof panels:

  • Technology evolved over time and hence stable.
  • Durable technology guaranteed to last up to 40 years.
  • Cost based on wattage/number of panels installed.
  • Part roof install possible, to gain maximum savings and minimum cost.
  • Portable—can be uninstalled and taken to your new residence when you sell your current residence.

Cons of solar roof panels:

  • Less visually appealing as they are typically not mounted/stacked flush on the roof. Can also disturb visual uniformity of the roof.
  • Requires an existing roof made from strong roofing material. Hence additional cost for new construction.
Illustration of Roof With Solar Tiles
Illustration of roof with solar tiles.

Solar roof tiles are individual solar tiles, that can either be used as primary roofing material, or installed over an existing roof. In this sense, they are more versatile, as they also double up as a roof.

Pros of solar roof tiles:

  • Versatility—Can either be installed as a part roof on an existing roof, or as entire roof.
  • The second option can also be used to keep visual uniformity of the roof and reduce costs in a fresh construction/reroofing project.
  • Cost based on area covered.

Cons of solar tiles:

  • Newer technology, hence quality or lifespan yet to be tested.
UAV Drone Inspecting the Installation of Solar Roof Shingles
UAV drone inspecting the installation of solar roof shingles.

Solar roof shingles are similar to solar roof tiles, in terms of their installation as part or full roof. However, they are sleeker in design, as they are an evolved technology. In fact, Tesla roof shingles—also known as Tesla solar roof—was introduced by Elon Musk’s company in 2018, and may soon turn out to be the most popular among the three. Although it has limited installations as of date, is touted to be a pathbreaker in roofing and solar projects for the future.

Pros of solar roof shingles:

  • Versatility—Can either be installed as a part roof on an existing roof, or as entire roof.
  • Aesthetics—Maximum visual appeal and uniformity of the roof.
  • Touted to be cost and energy effective based on lifetime guaranteed.

Cons of solar shingles:

  • Newer technology, hence quality or lifespan yet to be tested.

How much does a solar roof cost: 4 finance options

The cost for a solar roof depends on the total wattage required for your monthly energy needs and is hence reflected as dollar per watt ($/watt). Based on your budget, you may choose to generate your entire energy through solar power, or use it to offset a portion of your monthly utility bill. Either way, the three technologies (panels/shingles/tiles) are fairly competitive in terms of dollar per watt pricing. Here is an example for solar roof installation in the U.S..

A small solar roof system can generate 4 kilowatts of power, and costs about $15,000/-. This is typically enough to power a small house (less than 900 square feet in size). A larger system, generating double that wattage can cost $29,000/- and able to power a 2,000 square feet home. The average household system will fall somewhere in between the two (needing 6 kilowatts of solar power generation).

When you break down the total solar roof cost, it will come down as follows:

  1. 15–20% for operation and maintenance, including ordinary repairs from time to time.
  2. 35–40% for installation and permits. This is a large chunk of change to go to your solar contractor, so choose wisely!
  3. 45–50% for the actual equipment. A certified contractor can help you garner top-quality equipment bound by solid guarantees to support its lifespan.

The cost of the equipment will differ based on the type and size of the equipment. Here are some notes.

  • Solar panels cost between $2.67 to $3.43 per watt.
  • Solar tiles and solar shingles cost between %5 to $7 per watt. As they are on the higher side, they are most recommended as a combined roof + solar power option.

In comparison, a premium Tesla solar roof for the average 6-kilowatt household can cost up to $44,000/-. This may seem superlatively expensive on its own. But if you consider the cost of roofing (up to $60,000/-) + solar, it suddenly appears temptingly economical!

Financing for solar roof: Do you have to pay cash upfront?

The sunny (pun intended) news is that there are several financing options to consider, so you do not have to shell out cash upfront. This includes:

  1. Extend your home mortgage to finance the cost.
  2. Take a solar loan—much like a home improvement loan and hence with a higher rate of interest—to cover the cost. This is generally feasible if the monthly savings you garner from the solar roof system is more than the loan interest incurred per month.
  3. Pay for the system outright, using your savings or a personal loan from a well-wisher (low or no rate of interest) or from a bank (higher rate of interest). If you own your solar roof system, only then are you eligible for government-sponsored incentives. Hence this system is feasible in the long term, provided you are equipped to take a short term dent in your savings.
  4. Solar lease, where the installation is owned by a third-party company (TPA). Here, you offer a small deposit (it may even be 0% for some TPAs), and then pay a monthly amount to lease the system for its lifespan. Again, this makes financial sense provided the savings you garner in utility bills is higher than the amount you pay the TPA.

How to install a solar roof: 6 main steps

You may be surprised, but the first step in installing a solar roof begins not with a contractor, but with YOU! Yes, you will first need to understand the energy requirements of your house, before you even make the first call. Here are the steps to get your solar roofing project completed, quickly, and easily.

Step 1: Use a solar calculator, to determine your energy requirements.

A solar calculator can be easily downloaded online, and a good one will link you to at least a couple of local, accredited contractors to take on the job. Here, Google is indeed your best bet, since it will scout for solar calculators sponsored by certified contractors within your geographical location.

The solar calculator will help you understand your monthly energy requirements—including the typical number of electrical equipment connected in your house (such as microwave, fridge, lighting equipment, etc.)—and thus calculate the total wattage you will require to power your house on a daily basis. A smart solar calculator may even list out the total number of solar panels you will need on your roof, in order to meet your daily wattage requirements. A magnificent solar calculator will lead you to at least one certified contractor within driving distance of your house.

Here, consider using the rule of 3 to scout out the very best. Work with 2–3 solar calculators (as may consider different options), to find at least 3 competitive contractors within your community.

Step 2: First call with solar contractor/installer

Once you have a better understanding of your energy requirements, prepare to call the solar contractor. He or she will want to know more about the following, before they schedule the first visit to your house.

  1. your budget
  2. your daily monthly energy requirements
  3. your roof type/location

In turn, make sure you find out more about the following, so you have some ideas of your total expenses/output.

  1. The incentives offered by the government(s) based on your projected initial cost. This includes the 26% tax credit by the federal government, and any state-sponsored incentives.
  2. If they are certified (but of course), and the type of certification awarded to the contractor. You can further research these to ascertain their credibility.
  3. How long they have been in the business, and the type of solar roofing technologies they specialize in. Here, the more roofing technologies they are familiar with, the bigger their expertise. On the other hand, they may also choose to go the niche route, and stick with the popular solar roof tiles. Also, an increasing number of contractors are signing up with Tesla to offer exclusive deals on Tesla solar power roof and Tesla solar roof tile options.
  4. Total time taken for installation. This includes not just the time taken to install the solar roofing material, but also to connect your solar roof system to the energy grid. Depending on how solar-friendly your state is, this can take from 1 to 3 months.
  5. Possibility and cost of inverters and solar batteries. If you choose to have net metering—which allows you to stay connected to the grid and make money off any extra (unused) solar energy you generate, you will need an adequate solar battery. Your contractor can help you better understand if the additional cost is worth it in the long term.
  6. Affiliations, including state-certified engineers for initial inspection, and building engineers for final inspection. In the end, the signature of your contractor should ensure that your solar roof installation goes without hassles, and you are able to easily avail the incentives offered by the government.
  7. A yearly savings projection along with the quote, so you can determine the total savings offered by the solar roof over its lifetime.
  8. Finance options available—this is perhaps the determining factor as solar roof installation costs can be significant (upwards of $15,000/-). Certified contractors/solar roof companies often tie up with banks and financing companies to offer the best options to their clients.
  9. Confirm all maintenance, guarantees/warranties provided by the contractor over the lifespan of the solar roof.
  10. Confirm what processes you will be responsible for (like initial building inspection), and what processes they will be responsible for (like final building inspection), so there is no confusion mid-way through the project.

This step is usually covered over the phone/ email.

Step 3: First Inspection by Contractor

At this point, you might have already zeroed in on a contractor. Accordingly, he or she makes the first visit to ascertain the state of your roof, your electrical panel and wiring, and thus determine the best roofing option for you. At this point, you may also require an additional visit from a building inspector to sign off that your existing building is up to quote, and solar roof installation can begin. In some cases, the solar contractor/installer may have his or her own engineer to address this.

What you can expect from this:

  • Sign off from engineer that your building is up to code and solar roof installation can begin.
  • This is also where you are made aware of any alterations required prior to the solar roofing project—like reroofing or upgrade of electrical panel/wiring—so you can address the same on time.

Step 4: Solar roof design and permit process initiation

This is where the certified solar contractor comes up with the final solar panel design. This includes:

  • The type of solar roof installed (solar tiles/panels/shingles)
  • Total wattage that can be generated from the roof
  • Approximate location on the roof
  • Any additional equipment like batteries, inverters, etc.
  • Total cost, including rebates. Also outline of financial options and any approvals required thereof.
  • Process for obtaining building permit to kick-start solar roof project. (In some cases, this is in lieu of the building inspection covered in step 3).

Step 5: Ordering and installation

The permit process can take anywhere from a couple of days, to a couple of months. During this time, your contractor can also choose to order any material, depending on how confident he is of obtaining the permit. Once these are complete, the roof is ready for final installation. This can take 1–3 days, and includes roof preparation, re-wiring, and upgrade or electrical (as required), installation, and final connection to the power panel.

Solar Engineers Installing Solar Panels on Existing Roof

Step 6: Interconnection to the Grid

The installation may indeed be over, but you still need a city-certified engineer to connect your solar roof to the grid. Unless you are living completely off the grid, your solar panels can be useful only when they are connected to the grid. For this, the engineer will complete a final safety and code inspection, before flipping the switch that connects you, finally, to the local power grid.

Again, the time for this process is variable (1 week to 3 months) based on your state.

Hurray, as you are finally done with the successful installation of your brand new, cost-saving solar roof! You may want to partner with your contractor for up to a year, so they make monthly/bi-monthly to check the efficiency of your solar roof. This will ensure that you are indeed getting the monthly savings you expect and deserve, as they take care of any tweaks to ensure the same. Congratulations!

Key takeaways and FAQ

Q1. Which is more economical, both in short and long term—solar roof or solar panels on ground?

Solar roof panels are more economical than panels installed on the ground, since they will most likely receive more sunlight on top (unhindered by trees). In addition, they can also work off the grid, which is uncommon for solar panels installed on the ground. Finally, if you are considering new construction or a re-roofing project, installation of solar tiles/solar shingles can reduce the total cost of a reroofing + solar project. So basically, solar roofs are preferred over solar panels on the ground, since they also take up less space apart from the actual building.

Q2. Is my roof suitable for solar?

With evolving technology, almost any roof is suitable for solar, barring any constraints laid upon by your building/community. It is a question of which solar technology suits your building best, and not if solar technology suits.

Q3. Can I install solar tiles/shingles on an existing roof?

Yes. You can install all 3 types—panels, tiles, and shingles on an existing roof. For a new roof, you may want to lower costs by choosing solar tiles/ shingles as your primary roofing material. This is a bonus!

Q4. Will solar panels damage my expensive roof?

Not if they are installed properly, by a certified contractor. Also, solar panels are installed at a distance above the roof, in order to avoid scratching and gain maximum sunlight. Moreover, they can be cleaned easily, further protecting your actual roof.

Q5. Do solar roofs generate solar power during rain?

Yes, provided there is daylight. In fact, you will find a significant number of solar roof installations working mighty effectively in Seattle—the rainiest city in the U.S.!

Key Takeaway

In closing, the best time to invest in solar roof power is NOW, especially considering that federal rebates are likely to go away in the next two years. Also, we are at a time where solar technology has been tested, and is therefore a stable yet constantly evolving science.

With the U.S. government’s increasing commitment to generation of energy through renewable sources—at individual state level if not at the federal level—home owners can be assured of government-sponsored rebates and incentives to offset initial costs and make long-term solar power a financially tempting option.

All in all, Ken Salazar was right because the future of solar energy in the U.S. continues to be exceptionally bright! comment

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