While living in Idaho, for years I wanted to add solar panels to my roof but didn’t have the financial resources to do so.
Selling that house and moving to Vermont improved my financial situation.
Living through my first Vermont winter with less-than-ideal heating options in my new house lit a fire under my butt to make sure my second Vermont winter would be better.
Actually, I had hoped to have a heat pump installed in the autumn of 2021, but demand was high and I was told I would have to wait until spring of 2022. In February 2022 I received an email saying the company I had selected was going out of business. I called them immediately and asked if they could refer me to another. They did, and to my immense relief, that new company was able to add me to their schedule for spring of 2022, as soon as snow melt allowed.
And, as fate would have it, they also specialized in installing residential solar panels. In fact, they said, it was best to install both upgrades together. “We want to get your panels up as early as possible so you can start banking energy all summer long.” I was in good hands.
In for a penny, in for a pound, as the saying goes. The heat pump cost just under $5,000, and the solar panels around $22,000. A huge investment, for sure. The state of Vermont offers rebates and tax credits for both heat pumps and solar, and the feds offer tax credits.
I don’t earn enough annual income to benefit from federal tax credits. As they say, I’m “house rich but cash poor.” But, when I started crunching numbers and took into account recent volatility of the stock market (where my limited retirement savings reside), it made sense to use a significant chunk of those savings to pay for the heat pump and solar panels. The amount I’ll save on monthly electricity and seasonal heating bills exceeds the return on a safe investment (and certainly beats investment losses). Even better, I would no longer have to rely on a wood-burning stove in my main living area. Stacking four cords of wood last fall, hauling fire wood up a flight of stairs all winter, crouching low to stuff the stove with that wood every two-to-three hours, left me with an injured sacroiliac joint and horrible nerve pain in one leg that I’m still struggling with. I’d pay any amount to not endure that horror again.
The crew took roughly three days to install the heat pump and solar panels. They were great.
In simple terms, using electricity, heat pumps draw outside air over coils that heat it before blowing it into a structure. It’s an energy-efficient heating system. Inside my house, the single unit – my main living space is open, so I elected to go with a single unit to save money – is whisper quiet. I really don’t notice it. Nor do I hear the outside unit unless I’m out in the yard, and even then, it’s just a low hum. And – big bonus – the heat pump also works as an air conditioner in summer, cooling hot air before blowing it into the house as cold air. I took advantage of that option for a few hours on several days this summer. The system is operated by a remote control, and can be programmed to turn on/off at certain times. I can also use a phone app to control it when I’m away from the house.
I did have to pay my power company to upgrade the transformer atop a power pole on the road connecting my house to the grid. That added $1,400 to the overall cost. On the plus side, though, my power company gave me a rebate of $800 for the heat pump. And, they offer net metering for the solar, which means they will credit me a certain amount for any excess power I send into the grid over what I use. The amount they use to calculate my kWh credit is slightly less than what they charge per kWh (if I’m reading my statement correctly, I earn a credit of sixteen-and-a-half cents per kWh I send to the grid; if I take from the grid, I’m charged seventeen-and-a-half cents per kWh), but that’s okay. So far, I’m using far less electricity than I’m generating with my solar panels, and the excess/credits accumulate and carry forward for a year. That means that all the credits I’m racking up this summer will carry over through the less-sunny winter months.
Net metering doesn’t cover taxes and fees on the electric bill, so I’ll always have about $20/month in electric power costs. But the rest is FREE, thanks to those solar panels. Last winter I had electric bills as high as $160/month, and all the fire wood cost me over $1,000.
For the geeks reading this, here are some screenshots from my system’s monitoring website.
It’s not just the financial aspect of solar that’s cool. There’s something more, something I hadn’t anticipated: the emotional “feel good” factor and sense of freedom it provides.
Not only do I get to feel good about using clean energy to heat the main portion of my house (via the solar panels creating more than enough energy to power the heat pump and all the other appliances and lights in my house), but I no longer worry about using too much electricity. Before, not only was I conscious of the cost of electricity on my budget (especially in Vermont where it’s more costly per kWh than in the west/Idaho), but I was also conscious of the environmental cost. Especially here in the Northeast, where so much electricity is still powered by fossil fuels. I, at least, am no longer contributing to that.
Plus, this winter, I won’t be spewing a bunch of wood smoke into the atmosphere to heat my house. On the coldest days of winter, I may build a fire to help the heat pump along, but it’s rated to work in temperatures of minus 30F, so I don’t anticipate having to build many fires. (You’re welcome, Low Spine.)
And, the value of my home has increased because of the upgraded heating and solar systems.
And, my solar panels generate enough power that when my gas-powered vehicle with 160,000 miles finally dies (which may be a while, given how little I drive these days), I can buy a fully electric vehicle and charge it at home because, (a) I have the capacity, and (b) once again, the state of Vermont and my power company offer great incentives to add home vehicle charging stations, making them virtually cost-free.
Sadly, the older, original portion of my house is heated by an oil-burning furnace. That’s an upgrade problem to tackle next year if finances allow. For now, in winter I will treat it like a giant mud/storage room, only heating it enough to keep the pipes from freezing. But even that is horribly expensive when heating oil costs $5-6 a gallon. A stupid way to heat a house, if you ask me, but it’s unfortunately quite common in the Northeast.
Maybe you’ve been wondering about adding a heat pump and/or solar panels to your home, weighing the pros and cons. You can start by asking a solar company to audit your house’s location (for sun exposure) and your past electric bills to see if it makes financial sense. In my case, I was assured that even with the heat pump drawing electricity, I would still generate more power than I used. Not every house is ideally situated, like mine is. But if yours gets plenty of sun, it’s worth investigating and perhaps even taking the plunge.
Even beyond the financial aspects, it’s the right thing to do for the planet if you can afford it.
Feature photo: the newly-installed solar panels on the roof of the newer portion of my house, May 18, 2022.