Are You Considering Solar? Do this first

Dan Hunter

April 25, 2021

If you haven't optimized your power consumption, you're not ready to install a solar array. I say 'optimized', not just reduced, because you may decide that some of your uses of power are a priority, and this is all about putting you in control. Others are hidden power hogs that make sense to change. Here are some steps to understand your home's power draw prior to deciding on the size of solar array you will need. As they say, a watt saved is a watt you don't need to pay for, and is by far your cheapest option for energy optimization.

Step 1: Look at your electricity bills for your historical power usage: You can generally get 12 months of historical data on the kWh used per month. It's good to know your typical summer and winter months. Mine is average at about 900 kWh/month.  

  • If you're a numbers nerd like me, put your monthly usage in an excel spreadsheet as a "baseline" in the first column, and then you can track future month's consumption as you make your desired changes, starting with a few suggestions below, prior to your switch to solar.

Step 2:  Switch your lights from incandescent bulbs to LEDs and CFLs.  This means everything, from lamps to potlights. These bulbs use roughly 15% of the electricity compared to their incandescent counterparts.  

  • The upfront investment is a lot, but their long life and energy saving pays off in the long run. I've found that there are sales and rebates offered every year around the Fall at places like Canadian Tire and Home Depot. So, watch for these Fall discounts advertised in flyers and plan for a big purchase during this time.

Step 3:  Invest in programmable Outlet Timers to automatically shut down, and use power bars to turn off appliances, electronics or lamps when not in use. You'll be surprised but the Natural Resources Defense Council states that about 25% of residential energy use is used on devices in idle power mode.  And if you haven't already, it's time to invest in a programmable smart thermostat.

  • We like the Ecobee as a Canadian made option, and have used the Nest thermostat in the past. By programming by day of week and day-part, Ecobee claims you can save 23% on your annual heating bill, easily paying for the cost of the unit.

Step 4:  Get a Kill-A-Watt, an electricity usage monitor to measure your energy hogs: Your fridges, AC unit, freezers. And it's not just your large appliances, you may be surprised by some of your small appliances' energy usage:  Electric kettles, toasters, coffee makers are part-time energy hogs. You may want to bite the bullet and change to newer, more energy efficient models. Just like checking the label for the calories or fat of the food that you eat, you need to check the energy usage label on the appliances that you buy.

The EnerGuide label

  • I was amazed at the difference of a two-stage, high efficiency forced air gas furnace versus our old model, where even the blower motor was a huge energy draw. We saw the difference in our monthly bill when we switched.
  • We also bought an insulation blanket for our hot water heater to reduce the power loss during stand-by.

Step 5:  Look at the habits and uses of big energy draws and ask yourself where you can reduce and compromise, and just as importantly, where you choose not to change.  

  • We have in-floor heating in some rooms that is a big electricity usage, but the wife likes warm floors and radiant heat in the winter, so its a keeper - I've learned that a watt fought over is not worth it, either.  Our compromise is to set the timer for key periods during the day, like wake up and off to bed times. I also find our furnace isn't turning on as much, so there are some trade offs.  

Remember, this is about optimizing your energy usage for the lifestyle and comfort you choose, while being energy conscious. Now that you are on track to save all the electricity usage that you can, keep tracking those hydro bills and re-assess your energy usage as you make these changes to becoming energy aware, putting you in control.

And lastly, don't forget about your future needs. New baby on the way, older parent coming to live with you, or what about that hot tub you always wanted ? And don't forget about that electric vehicle you'll convert to in 3-7 years (like most Canadians), that you'll now be plugging in for its source of power. A smart solar plan should take these into account - having some excess capacity in your solar set up above your needs today, is not a bad way to go.

Now you're ready to assess the solar array that best meets your needs.