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>> Improve your household efficiency first
Before you begin researching the perfect solar system for your home, make your home as energy efficient as possible. Cutting your minimum household usage will mean a smaller and cheaper solar system that covers more of your power usage.
>> Suss out your home’s suitability
For maximum power output, solar panels require an unshaded, north-facing roof. Don’t believe anyone who says that solar panels will produce plenty of power in full shade. In Australia, the right tilt is usually equivalent to the latitude of your location, plus or minus five degrees. Most houses have a roof pitch of
20–30 degrees, which is usually ideal. Although the number of sunlight hours and temperature varies by location and seasonal changes, full sunlight from 9am–3pm with an average ambient temperature of up to 25°C is recommended. Don’t fret if this doesn’t sound like your home, there are alternative installation options you can chat about with your installer.
>> Go for good panels
Monocrystalline cells, while being the most expensive, are the most efficient. Polycrystalline cells (the blue ones) have typically been the most popular for a good balance of performance and economy. But even if you have a large roof space, it’s important to maximise the power output of your space – that way you can easily add more panels at a later date. Thin film cells are the least efficient, and can be applied as a layer to glass, plastic and roof tiles, but they can take up to double the surface area compared to crystalline cells. Because thin film cells cope better at higher temperatures they’re a good choice for very hot climates.
>> Number crunch for efficiency
With the average Australian household consuming about 18 kilowatt hours (kWh) per day, a 1.5 kW system would cover around 30 per cent of your usage and need about 12 square roof metres. Allow approximately 8 m² of roof area for each 1 kW of solar panels. Most solar panels are priced according to dollars per watt, which relates to its energy output; for example, a 200 watt panel will generate 200 watts of energy per hour. Remember that you get what you pay for with solar, so don’t choose panels based solely on cost. Take into consideration the size (in watts), the physical size, the period of warranty (at least 25 years means it’ll last long enough to pay itself off and make a profit), and qualifications for a government rebate.
>> Suitable systems management
Most home solar panel systems, particularly in urban and suburban areas, are grid connected. This system guarantees your energy needs will be met by supplying additional power from the grid when your solar cells are not generating enough power, including at night. Also important is choosing an efficient inverter (the device that converts the solar panels to electricity) to reduce the amount of time it takes for a system to pay
>> Choose an accredited installer
The essential resource to help you choose an installer is the Clean Energy Council. Visit www.cleanenergycouncil.org.au for list of accredited installers and products, and a consumer guide, which includes a full list of questions to ask your installer. To be eligible for solar credits, your installer, panels and inverter must be accredited. Ideally you should also look for an accredited company that’s been in the business for a while and has an established track record. Previous customer’s experiences can be invaluable, and you can find these at www.ata.org.au/forums and www.forums.energymatters.com.au.
>> Know your costs
The Australian Alternative Technology Association (ATA) estimates the average cost of a 1.5kW grid connected system is $4,000 to $5,000. However, government incentives have recently been reduced, which impacts how long it will take for your solar system to pay itself off. The ATA estimates a new solar system will now take between 5–20 years or more to pay for itself, depending on location, electricity usage, rebates and especially state feed-in tariffs. Visit your state government website for more information on rebates and tariffs that apply to you.