Q: I'm thinking of getting solar panels for my house, but I'm totally clueless about where to start. Can you give me some pointers?
A:Wasn't long ago that living off the grid implied your home was made of logs and situated in some remote wooded location. Now even concrete dwellers can unplug from the nuke/coal grid with a few solar panels strapped to the roof of a semi-detached, and maybe a wind turbine or two. Sure, summer's winding down and you're thinking, "How much power can I get from the the sun come winter?" (Ugh, did I say winter?) The truth is, while they do generate less power in the darker months, any savings are good savings. Plus, the cooler months are exactly when the wind picks up and turbines come into play. If you're thinking of venturing beyond solar-powered garden lanterns and want to harness the sun's rays to power your home, you need to do a little homework. Typical panels are actually photovoltaic systems - they convert sunlight directly into electricity. You can buy basic PV modules from places like Canadian Tire ($699/80W) or Viva Solar on Sheppard East ($400/75W, www.vivasolar.com, 416-646-7586). But you have to install them yourself - not something we'd recommend, since it can get kind of complicated. You have to put in an extra two-way hydro meter (it costs several hundred dollars) and power cut-off switch (which prevents you from killing the people working on power lines on your street), and call in an electrician for a final stamp of approval.
Unless you're qualified to compete on The Apprentice: Bob Vila Edition, you might want to call someone to do it for you. Phantom Electron in Whitby (www.phantomelectron.com, 905-430-6512) and G.E.T. Solar on Earlsdale (www.getsolar.ca, 416-806-7316) will do all the work.
Costs are all very dependent on how much of your home you want to power. "Autonomous systems" are completely independent from the grid. It's impossible to estimate price without knowing how much energy you suck back daily. Phantom says you can do a small, very efficient home for about $60,000, but the bigger and more wasteful your household is, the more you'd have to cough up.
"Hybrid systems" are also off-grid but combine solar with wind or some sort of generator. The most common and financially palatable sytem for urbanites is "grid-connected," meaning you still fuel your home with some regular nuke- and coal-fired power while reducing your overall reliance on dirty energy. You can get more or fewer panels depending on your budget, but G.E.T. Solar says solar generally averages out to about $12/watt fully installed. Phantom says it'll cost 10 grand to fire up a third to half your household needs.
If you're not ready to commit to the whole-roof concept, consider a solar-heated hot water system or "thermal solar heating." Since a quarter of your home's energy goes to keeping your showers steamy and your clothes and dishes clean, it can really make a dent in your energy bills. You can get one pretty cheap from Free Breeze (www.freebreeze.com, 519-885-9021) in Waterloo (they deliver) for about $4,000 all installed. But for $8,000 you can buy G.E.T. Solar 's vacuum tube model that's four to five times more efficient at capturing heat energy in the winter. They also install solar-powered water heaters for pool owners (from $3,000).
Leashing wind energy can be a little trickier. The regs around turbines in Toronto are kind of foggy. In fact, there's no specific bylaw governing them. You could face height restrictions and definitely need a permit from the building department. Again, a pro can sort this out for you. A small 1,000-watt turbine itself will cost about $2,800, plus the tower, more parts and installation (bringing you to a whopping seven or eight grand, according to Phantom).
Whatever you decide, you'll first have to do an energy load assessment of your home to figure out how many kilowatts you use on average (see www.nspower.ca/YourHome/EnergyCalculator/). And before you buy panels or turbine, most companies stress that you should make your abode as energy-efficient as it can be (find out how at www.smartliving.ca) and invest in energy-efficient Energy Star appliances.
Don't forget you can get the PST back on any turbine, panel or green energy device you buy until November 2007. (Call 1-888-285-7815 for more info). Businesses can write them off completely, lucky bastards.
If you're buying a home, you can always factor green energy renos into your mortgage and spread out your costs. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp now offers a 10 per cent refund on its mortgage loan insurance premiums to folks buying energy-efficient houses (see www.chmc-schl.gc.ca/en for details).
Some cities even give you cash back if your home energy op makes more power than you use, but don't hold your wallet open if you live in T.O. As of yet, Toronto Hydro has no such policy.
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