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Going Solar at Home, Step-by-Step

Photo: Gustavo Fring -

We just bought a new home (for us). Actually, the house itself is approaching 15 years old. But it has a brand new roof because of the damage done to the old one in a 2019 hailstorm. The way the roof was designed it has surface exposure in all four directions. We live in Northern Colorado which tourism bureau and real estate industry tout “300 days of sunshine per year.” I cannot go outside to dump the trash, cut the lawn or walk up the street to our neighborhood mailboxes without being accosted by a solar salesperson.

Being pre-disposed to lowering our carbon footprint and conserving electrical energy, over the past few years living in our previous home, we had been receiving a “Home Energy Report” from our City of Fort Collins Utilities. These quarterly reports always indicated that our electrical usage had varied from 7% more electricity, to our most recent report of “17% less energy than ‘efficient’ neighbors.” In every report we used significantly less electricity than our “average neighbors.”

Maybe now was a good time for seriously looking into the feasibility of moving to solar power. My investigation started with researching and understanding some of the industry’s common terminology and coming up with some basic questions.

Solar Power Word Play

What’s a Kilowatt (kW) compared to a Kilowatt Hour (kWh)? How many of those do I need to power all the devices in our home? What’s the difference between AC power and DC power? Why should I care? What’s a “solar inverter?” How do Solar Panels get made and how do they work? Whose are the most reliable and best performing? How many am I likely to need? What’s an Investment Tax Credit for Solar (ITC) and how do I get it? What’s all this likely to cost? Are solar panels worth it? Here are some useful resources:

Photo: skeeze by

Next I thought it might be a good idea to interview a few friends and neighbors who had some experience with rooftop solar. They all told me they felt good about not having to completely rely on the power grid and also being able to contribute to the environment by taking advantage of renewable energy. None told me it was saving them any money. Nerd that I am, a couple showed me their software monitoring application. Everyone made a recommendation of a solar installation company to investigate based on their own experiences

Online Research

Time to do the Google. Just asking a simple question like “What are my solar needs?” returns 43 million results. The first couple of pages return links to all kinds of solar calculators to help me decide what to look for. I quickly found out what system size I needed (13 panels with a system size of 4.5 kW and an annual production of 5,650 kWh), a preliminary estimate of how much it should cost before incentives ($12,500), cost after incentives ($9,293) how quickly it would pay for itself after rebates (10 years, 11 months), monthly electric bill savings ($63) and an estimate of the increased value of my home ($23,000).

Here's a Summary for You...

These online calculators give average results based on previous installations in your zip code. Be prepared to answer questions giving up some personal information: your address, name, phone number, electric utility, average billing over the past year, kWh of electric energy consumed, square footage of your home, etc. First, research your own historical electric costs and consumption pattern from your previous year’s utility bills (that you have neatly organized by date in a manila folder nearby)

Before you can say Shazam, Alikka-Zam, a preliminary solar estimate appears on your digital screen and to no one’s surprise you inherit a bevy of new friends who have your phone number and email address and want to pitch you a solar proposal. Judiciously screen your calls and use this report as a benchmark to compare the work output of your new found friends. Here’s a link or two for you to get started:

You will find that some will not want to talk to you any further after they find out your electric bill averages less than $100 per month. (Their pricing would not be competitive.) Others will overwhelm you with canned boilerplate text and pretty color graphs that show “cumulative net savings at the end of each year for the entire life of the system” prepared for an average someone who has no relation to your own circumstances. (If they are unable or unwilling to do a little work to customize their proposal to your individual conditions, give them the quick brush-off.) Hopefully, as I did, you will find at least one knowledgeable salesperson who patiently takes the time to answer all your questions without snapping suspenders and constantly boasting how their company is the industry’s best, and does the work to customize their company boilerplate to fit your individual needs.

Before evaluating and comparing the proposals you receive, go back to the Google and find out which businesses have been evaluated by a third party as the top solar companies in your geographical area. Read verified customer comments and complaints. Check out solar panel manufacturers and the costs and advantages of various products. Find out about rebates and other financial incentives. What finance opportunities are available? Now you are prepared to evaluate the proposals you receive.

Back to My Experience...

After adequate comparative research before I looked seriously at any company proposal, I set my own objectives. I was looking for enough solar coverage to offset my electric bills 100%, selling back our overproduction in the summer months to our utility to cover the four months we may come up short (November through February) in the late Fall and Winter. My bottom line cost target after discounts, rebates and other incentives was $8,000.00. And my cashflow target was breakeven / payback before 10 years passed (after which cash savings would build from solar power and electric utility bill savings). My wife and I are already seventy-four years old and unlikely to be around to enjoy the benefits of their boilerplate 25-year cash flow model aligned with the useful life of the solar panels

Next, I had a sit-down conversation in our home or via Zoom session with the company representatives from whom I solicited a competitive proposal.

Then, having examined the proposals I received, I prepared two sets of questions to each solar salesperson to be answered by return email: Questions about the design and placement of their panels on our peculiar roof. Questions about the small print in their warranties, e.g., what about hail damage and damage from squirrels or roof rats. Questions about financing programs and when the rebates and incentives they offer take effect.

Before moving forward, I had a face-to-face with the Boss—my spouse. We discussed a summary of my research findings and finance options.

Today I electronically signed a contract with Zach Sterling of Freedom Solar who sources SunPower solar panel systems.

Photo: skeeze from

Our 4.251 kW system will consist of 13 327-Watt panels (7 facing South, 6 West) with a guaranteed annual production of 6,708 kWh for an out-of-pocket cash cost of $13,574 after discounts are applied and a bottom line of $8,025 net after Federal Tax Credits (26% of out-of pocket costs) and $2,020 of rebates. Given our calculated cash flow, our breakeven / payback will occur in March of our 10th year with increasing cash solar savings from our projected utility bills based on an annual increase of 4% (Fort Collins Utilities actual average increase over the past 10 years).

Because only about 40% of the thermal energy in coal is converted to electricity over the course of a year’s time we save our utility the requirement to burn almost three tons of coal on our behalf.

Check-in-Here Later

As time passes I will have to record our installation, solar power production and monitoring experience. I will also have to report on our cash flow projection versus real savings. More to Come. Stay tuned.


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