A guide to switching to solar energy

As the cost of heating our homes using fossil fuels is rising, solar energy systems provide an easy solution to cutting both our carbon emission and our energy bills. After a one-off cost of buying the system and getting it installed, solar panels are cheap, easy to maintain, clean, efficient and quiet. Now seems the ideal opportunity to make the change to a renewable energy source, with the government extanding the Feed-in Tarrifs for solar panel owners.

What is solar energy equipment? How does it work?

  • Panels are fitted on the roof of a house at an angle. This increases the amount of radiation received from the sun – it is more efficient than if the panel were on a flat surface. These double glazed panels heat up with the suns energy.
  • An electronic device monitors the temperature of the solar collector, or panel, and the water in a cylinder. Older systems use conventionally-generated electricity to run this electronic monitor, but newer equipment now uses solar power throughout the system, making it more energy efficient.
  • Older systems would mix antifreeze with the water it pumped through the pipes. Advances in solar technology now mean that freeze-tolerant systems are available, which pump the heated water to your existing water cylinder, rather than replacing it with a new cylinder. This means there is less disruption during installation.
  • Once the monitor detects the right temperature has been reached, water (or water and anti-freeze, depending on the system) is pumped to the cylinder. The hot water sits on the top of any cooler water already in the cylinder, where it is stored until used.
  • Newer solar systems use pumps which reduce the rate of pumping when there is not as much sunlight. As a result, this provides roughly the same water level increase all the time, regardless of whether it is sunny or cloudy.

What are the advantages of solar equipment over conventional energy services?

For a brief period in 2017, it was reported that over 70% of the UK's electrical energy came from renewable sources such as solar panels. The government has pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 57% by 2030. Having solar panels fitted is a very effective way of cutting your own emissions, as well as avoiding the rising energy costs associated with fossil fuel and reducing your energy bill. The systems themselves are efficient, clean and easy to maintain.

Some companies, including Chester-based firm Solar Twin, offer a complete carbon-free service. From advertising, manufacturing, installation and the running of the solar system, no carbon is used, making it even more eco-friendly. Solar Twin provides the new type of system, mentioned above, which is freeze-tolerant and uses your existing water cylinder.

How much does it cost to have solar energy equipment installed?

Prices vary depending on the company you use. As a rough guide, Solar Twin provides full solar installation from £3,699. Other systems can cost anywhere between £4,000 and £8,000, depending on the size of the house, how much energy is required and what time of panels opted for.

What will happen to my energy bills?

Your energy bills are likely to be lower if you have solar panels installed. This is because it is the sun which heats the water you use for baths, showers and heating, which means you do not need to heat water using an emersion heater. It is also worth remembering that energy prices are likely to continue to rise over the years – so now may be the time to invest in an alternative source.

In the summer, you could save around 70% of the energy needed to heat your hot water. In winter months, the saving is likely to be approximately 50%. On sunny days, water can be heated to a temperature of 70 to 85 degrees.

Is solar energy equipment reliant on the weather?

Solar equipment still works on cloudy days. The panels work during daylight hours, whether it is sunny or grey. In the United Kingdom, daylight hours are guaranteed, whereas an alternative energy source such as wind is not so reliable.

The panels are most efficient when they face south or south east, but they can be used facing any direction. Reputable companies will test their panels to ensure they are weather-resistant.

What does installation involve?

The panels are specially designed to look like a roof window – usually a black sheet of metal in a double glazed box. This means they are not an aesthetic problem and can usually be installed in conservation areas because of this. As a rule, planning permission is not needed, although it may be best to check in your area.

A panel can be fitted in a flat roof, but a frame will be built to position the panel at a 20-50 degree angle.

The installation of older water heating solar systems used to mean ripping out existing plumbing to replace it with a new system which included anti-freeze, to prevent the system from freezing. This problem has been solved by advances in technology and the installation can now be very simple if a new system is used, and does not involve replacing the existing plumbing system.

The fitting itself is not complex – Do It Yourself kits are available from some companies. For those with the know-how, Solar Twin sells the DIY kits for £2,500, and claim it is “as easy to plumb in as a washing machine”.

Is maintenance difficult or expensive?

Solar energy service companies should offer a warranty with their products, usually for five years. This will cover any problems during this time. Stuart Lovett, a technical surveyor from Solar Twin, explains that new developments in technology mean that the upkeep of water heating solar panels is easy.

“If there is a problem,” says Stuart, “it is usually the boiler. As with any mechanical products, a boiler does not last forever and may need replacing.” This can be done quickly and easily by a professional.

Don’t forget…

  • To apply for your government grant.
  • To consider which type of solar system is best for you - bearing in mind disruption caused during installation.
  • To phone around different companies for the best quote.
  • To ensure the system is weather-proof and covered by a warranty.
  • To contact the Solar Trade Association with any questions, or for general advice on solar energy equipment.

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