What is a solar home?

A house that is mostly powered by solar energy

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SunPower
house with solar panels on the roof

Solar homes create the majority of their energy from any combination of solar technologies (e.g., solar panels, solar tubes and solar windows). Most solar homes rely primarily on photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, which work by absorbing natural light into PV cells and converting it into electricity for your home.

Reducing your utility bills by converting your home to solar may seem like a win-win situation for homeowners, but do solar homes live up to their promise? We’ve compiled the best research from government agencies and trade organizations to help you decide if a solar-powered home is right for you.


Key insights

  • Solar homes have high upfront costs, but these are often offset by long-term savings.
  • Solar-powered technology doesn’t require much maintenance and tends to have a long life span.
  • Even a partially solar home can still offer up to 40% in energy cost savings.
  • The greatest obstacle to an efficient solar home is tree coverage — have a professional look at your home to see if you receive adequate sunlight.

Types of solar-powered homes

Homes can make use of energy from the sun in several different ways. Below are some important concepts to be familiar with when determining how to incorporate solar energy into your home.

Passive solar homes

If you’re building a home or doing a significant remodel, you might consider passive solar design. The designers of passive solar homes consider the home’s natural light and climate and maximize energy efficiency in their designs. Rather than relying on solar technology to convert sunlight into usable energy, passive solar homes optimize design elements to lower your energy needs.

» MORE: How to save energy at home

Solar-plus-storage systems

Solar-plus-storage systems can be used with solar panels to power your home even when the sun isn’t out. While solar panels work even in cloudy weather, they don’t produce as much energy on gray days, meaning certain times may experience power deficits.

Solar-plus-storage systems take the electricity produced by solar panels and store it for later use, usually in lithium batteries. This means you can still access solar energy, even when it’s not sunny enough to fully power your home.

Fully powered solar homes

Ben McInerney, a renewable energy enthusiast and founder of GoSolarQuotes, told us, “If you have the means and live in a sunny location, solar energy experts typically recommend opting for a fully solar-powered home.” For a home to be fully solar-powered, it needs to produce as much or more energy than it uses.

Three ways a home can become fully solar-powered:

  • Have enough solar panels to generate excess energy year-round: To fully power the average 2,000-square-foot home, you would need about 19 solar panels. This option can work if you have enough financing and plenty of unshaded space for the panels.
  • Use a solar-plus-storage system: This stores unused solar energy for use when it’s not as sunny.
  • Net metering: Some utility companies buy excess energy from homeowners’ solar panels (called net metering). This lets some homeowners make enough money when it’s sunny to offset energy costs during the darker months.
If you have the means and live in a sunny location, solar energy experts typically recommend opting for a fully solar-powered home.
Ben McInerney, founder of GoSolarQuotes

Partially powered solar homes

Partially powered solar homes get some of their power from solar technology, dipping into the power grid only when solar panels can’t produce enough energy to power the home.

If you’re put off by the high cost of a fully solar-powered home, McInerney recommends considering a partial one: “But, if you don't have the means to pay a higher upfront investment, go for the partial solar-powered home. There are still benefits to be had either way.”

THE MORE YOU KNOW: Partially powered solar homes get at least 40% of their energy needs from solar energy, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

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Solar powered homes pros and cons

Going solar might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth thorough consideration — it’s not for everyone.

Pros

  • Lowers (or eliminates) energy bills
  • Reduces energy dependence
  • Clean energy credits/incentives
  • Low maintenance
  • Long life span
  • Increases home value

Cons

  • High upfront costs
  • Dependent on location
  • Home design affects performance
  • Less efficient in cloudy/shady areas
  • Sometimes banned by HOAs

Pros of a solar home

When it comes to environmental impact, there are many benefits to solar homes, including reducing greenhouse emissions. Solar energy lowers (and, in the case of fully solar-powered homes, eliminates) energy costs. Anthony, a SunPower reviewer on our site participating in net metering, no longer has an electricity bill: “I’m actually putting power back to the grid,” they said. “I’m in the black, even [in the winter] in the Northeast.”

Solar homes also reduce dependence on non-renewable energy, giving fully solar-powered homeowners the option of going “off the grid” completely. Because of its positive environmental impact, tax breaks and incentives are available at federal, state, and even local levels in some cases.

I’m actually putting power back to the grid. I’m in the black, even [in the winter] in the Northeast.
Anthony, a SunPower reviewer on ConsumerAffairs

Solar energy also gives homes more curb appeal; a 2019 study by Zillow suggested solar panels increased the value of a home by 4.1%, which means a $500,000 house sold for an additional $20,500 at that time.

» MORE: Do solar panels increase home value?

Cons of solar homes

The upfront cost is by far the biggest drawback to a solar home. Another drawback is that your home might not be a good fit for solar technology. Although solar technology does work in cloudy areas — in fact, certain types of cloud coverage may increase the amount of light your panels get — how much light your panels get will determine how efficient they are.

Solar panels perform best on south-facing roofs that are tilted at 15 to 40 degrees and unobstructed by trees. This means if your home is in a heavily wooded area, you may have to choose between clearing out trees or paying for regular tree trimming, both of which are costly. Your roof may be too small to hold the minimum number of panels needed. If your roof is unsuitable for solar panels, you will need enough open land for a ground-mounted solar panel.

» MORE: Are solar panels worth it?

How much does it cost to solar power your home?

Despite the 30% federal tax credit for solar installations, the average solar installation cost is $17,430 to $23,870. The steep upfront cost means most homeowners have to wait 10 years to see a full return on investment (ROI) with the federal tax credit and 13 years without it.

Even though the upfront costs are high, it’s a good idea to see how far your solar investment dollars will go in your state — pricing can vary greatly by location. For example, the upfront cost of solar panels in Kentucky is $6,500 lower than in Hawaii. On top of that, every U.S. state and some cities have solar incentives with the potential to lower upfront costs.

If you’re on the fence about whether solar energy is worth the price, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has developed a PVWatts Calculator to help you get an idea of how solar panels will perform on your home.

» MORE: How much do solar panels cost?

FAQ

What is the life span of a solar energy system?

Solar roofs are long-lasting, with a life span of 25 to 30 years. This is about how often traditional roofs need to be replaced.

How much maintenance is required for a solar-powered home?

Solar homes require little maintenance. Periodic cleanings can increase the performance of panels by up to 7%, but a good rain or a windy day is often enough to whisk away dust and pollen.

Can a solar-powered home go off the grid completely?

Yes, but the difficulty with a truly solar home is that the upfront cost often outweighs any potential savings. To be fully solar and “off the grid” usually requires some sort of storage. The cost of a solar battery for a residential home is incredibly high, with a battery costing $12,000 to $22,000.

How does the location of my home affect the efficiency of solar power?

Solar panels perform best on roofs that face south. They can work in areas that get little sun, but PV technology produces less energy on cloudy days. If you live in a low-light area, like Alaska or Washington, ask your utility company if they participate in net metering to offset energy costs during the darker months.

Are there any specific building requirements or regulations for solar homes?

Yes, there are regulations for solar homes, though they vary by location. The best way to ensure your solar technology meets the requirements in your area is to hire professionals who have been certified through the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP), which handles training and certification for solar installers.


Article sources
ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
  1. DSIRE, “ Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency® .” Accessed June 24, 2023.
  2. Energy Policy Initiatives Center, “ California’s Solar Rights Act .” Accessed June 24, 2023.
  3. Federal Trade Commission, “ Solar Power for Your Home .” Accessed June 25, 2023.
  4. NOAA SciJinks, “ Solar Energy and Clouds .” Accessed June 23, 2023.
  5. NREL, “ Scientists Studying Solar Try Solving a Dusty Problem .” Accessed June 25, 2023.
  6. NREL, “ Solar Installed System Cost Analysis .” June 24, 2023.
  7. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “ Dealing with South-Facing Windows in the Summer .” Accessed June 25, 2023.
  8. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “ Homeowner’s Guide to the Federal Tax Credit for Solar Photovoltaics .” Accessed June 23, 2023.
  9. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “ Homeowner’s Guide to Going Solar .” Accessed June 23, 2023.
  10. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “ Local Government Guide to Going Solar .” Accessed June 23, 2023.
  11. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “ Replacing Your Roof? It’s a Great Time to Add Solar .” Accessed June 23, 2023.
  12. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “ Solar Energy, Wildlife, and the Environment .” Accessed June 25, 2023.
  13. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “ Solar-Plus-Storage 101 .” Accessed June 25, 2023.
  14. Pew Research Center, “ Home solar panel adoption continues to rise in the U.S .” Accessed June 24, 2023.
  15. Solar Energies Industry Association, “ Net Metering .” Accessed June 23, 2023.
  16. Washington State Legislature, “ Governing documents—Solar panels .” Accessed June 25, 2023.
  17. Zillow, “ Homes With Solar Panels Sell for 4.1% More .” Accessed June 27, 2023.
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