Invest in solar panels and/or wood stove now or wait?

Joined
Jul 23, 2021
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PA
I just purchased a house and am strongly considering two possible sources of alternate energy for myself, profit, and self sufficiency. But am trying to work the assessments to see if it makes "sense" economically. My time horizon here is probably 5-10 years, realistically.

I have electric appliances and aged gas furnace. My electric is probably around $50/mo., and probably similar for gas heat. I have a brick wood burning fire place. I have a 1600 s/f house that will also need updated insulation and windows so I'll be looking for any tax credits for same.

Right now there's a ~25% tax rebate for solar panels and ~25% tax rebate for wood stove.
Solar panels: It's very sunny here and I could probably eliminate my electric bill, and maybe even feed back to the grid for a source of revenue but I'm not sure how that works. Seems the "break even" point might be about 5-10 years. My major hesitation is that electronics seem to get twice as good and 1/2 as expensive (for the same/better performance) every couple years. So I don't want to buy panels now for $10k when better cheaper panels are available next year for $7k.

Wood stove is very attractive, in that it could heat my house with inexpensive or easily sourced wood, as primary or secondary heat source, and can be used as a backup source for cooking. I know they are a lot of work, and do take up floor space. Still debating. Break even point on this is probably 7 years depending on how much I use it but my goal would be as primary source of heat, also extending the life of my aging furnace. I could do a insert in my wood fire place, or I have a secondary chimney from the original wood stove (removed) that I could probably tap into.

With rising costs and inflation, it's very enticing to try getting these items now as a immediate and future hedge against rising costs and shortages.

Feedback and experience thoughts?
Feedback, thoughts?
 
Joined
Jan 9, 2010
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Los Gatos, CA
You need to run the numbers. I am familiar with solar in California. I have no idea about Pennsylvania. Where I live is a natural for solar with high energy costs, a lotta sun and a lotta solar companies competiting for your hard earned dollars. I have to say, $50 per month will take a long time to get to break even point. You have a electric company monthly fee to use their grid. My PG&E fee is $15, but there are offsetting credits so I usually pay about $9. Get all the numbers you can to minimize surprises!
Perhaps talk to Costco Sunrun; they were very helpful to me, even though I did not end up contracting with them. Get references!
You need to understand the tax benefit. There is a tax credit; make sure your tax burden exceeds the credit dollar for dollar.
I was able to do a "Solar Project" which allowed for the tax benefit to include a new roof. That was hard to pass up. I may have been able to add the dedicated line to the garage to charge our EV.

Is your service panel able to accomodate the solar equipment?

Talk to numerous companies. One thing, you need to understand what system you are buying; the equipment and the output.
Apples to apples. There are a lotta people who go with the lower price and end up with a yearly true up because they bought too small a system.

I believe people like @OVERKILL can review the proposed system and provide valuable guidance.
Solar was a slam dunk for me; you need to see if it works for you.

Good luck.
 
Joined
Mar 4, 2017
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...
Nothing like a good wood stove for heat. Get one with a flat top so you can cook on it in a emergency.

Besides solar panels look into passive solar. A good example would be hot water heaters that use the sun to heat water. These can be rooftop or wherever you have good exposure.
 
Joined
Feb 15, 2003
Messages
12,601
Location
Jupiter, Florida
No question, get a good wood stove, regardless of any other choices.

Solar is tricky in PA due to lower solar insolation. Not to mention the gloomy overcast that is so prevalent. In the winter when you need more energy, solar won't do much for you. In the summer, you are likely to have a number of good solar days. Your utility may not allow summer electrical production to offset wintertime use. Either financially or by KWh. Make sure to understand what the utility offers.

This map shows total solar irradiance. What it does not show is that at Northern latitudes, to achieve that level of power will probably require tracking panels due to the large arc the sun traces through the sky. Take a look at the pic below, and notice how the sun rises and sets behind East and West, this is especially true up North. A fixed solar panel won't be able to take advantage of all the sun you receive, as it will be behind the panel at times!!!

Even here in sunny South Florida, our solar power is 4.7hours per day, annualized. It takes one heck of an array to offset electrical use. The good news here is that our summer season has lots of sun and high energy use (AC heavily used in summer)

In your case, expect a monthly average of about 2.4 hours of usable sun (solar insolation) per day in the winter. That won't do much to offset your wintertime energy use unless you have a huge solar farm.

solar-annual-ghi-2018-usa-scale-01.jpg

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Joined
Sep 23, 2008
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10,654
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Ontario, Canada
How picky about a constant temperature are your family members? If its too hard to put on, or take off a cardigan, then wood probably isn't for you.
We do 95% of our heating with a wood stove but we have nearly a perfect house for it, a well insulated open concept house, with a concrete main floor of about 16 tons of thermal mass, so our house temperature moves pretty slowly with the fire going full tilt, or with it down to coals with 0F outside.
Anyways with a good setup wood heating is pretty painless, with an OK setup its good to have as a backup but if its a lot of work and the thermostat is right there... it may not get used alot.
 
Joined
Apr 15, 2010
Messages
7,894
Location
Atlanta,GA
You'll save a a lot by spending money on air sealing your house first. Windows, Doors, ceiling, can lights, etc etc. Then perhaps add some more insulation in the attic which is also cheap. Sometimes your local power company or state will have a program to do it cheaply.

Then look at things such as solar and wood stove. I don't like wood stoves because they require a drafty house or dedicated supply to burn well. Items like fireplaces are a huge energy suck. Maybe consider sealing it.

My two cents.
 

OVERKILL

$100 Site Donor 2021
Joined
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Ontario, Canada
You can play around with this calculator to get an idea of how much solar irradiance is available:

For example, with panels pointed dead-east, here's San Francisco:
Screen Shot 2022-04-12 at 4.14.41 PM.jpg


Vs Pittsburg:
Screen Shot 2022-04-12 at 4.15.47 PM.jpg


Pretty big difference there.

You also have cheap electricity, which, as Jeff pointed out, makes for a much longer payback period. If what's available is NEM (FIT's are getting rare now, thankfully) then every kWh credited back to you is also less valuable than it is in California. There are also typically grid connection fees, and you may also be charged a delivery fee.
 
Joined
Jul 9, 2008
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Location
British Columbia, Canada
I have a wood stove and have almost not used it since we installed a heat pump. Hauling and splitting wood gets old really fast. But it is a good backup should we happen to have an electricity failure lasting for 36 hours (as happened a few years ago).

The other thing is that firewood is not free, so unless you're going to cut and haul your own, you have to figure in that cost.

Your best bang for the buck is probably insulation and weather stripping. And think about doing something with that fireplace. You can probably see the dollar bills floating skyward. My friend put an acrylic cover over the face of his. I put a carved foam plug in the chimney (and yes you have to remember to take it out before you light a fire).
 
Joined
Jul 9, 2008
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British Columbia, Canada
I should mention that friends in Saskatchewan got into serious home heating using firewood. They lived on a large farm so I suppose they cut their own wood. They had a furnace located some distance from the house with (probably) glycol piping to transfer the heat into the house. They did all that to reduce the risk of burning down their house.

I'm not prepared to get into all that.

When I was a kid, chimney fires were very common, and occasionally lead to a house fire. When we moved into this house we had the chimney cleaned and the chimney sweep said there had been a chimney fire at some point.
 
Joined
Jan 1, 2003
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2,261
Location
Daytona Beach
Forget solar panels. All of the SUNNY states (started by California and now happening if Florida) are cutting back on the amount you get back via NET METERING. They found out the utilities were losing money! (DUH)
Nobody will install a stand alone (off the grid) system with battery backup, you couldn't afford it anyway.
You would be trusting your financial fate to the electric companies, and we all know how that will work out. They only want the free real estate (your roof) to begin with.
PA is not the best location for solar, as was already mentioned.
A HEAT PUMP WATER HEATER is worth 7 solar panels, but PA is not a good location for those either.
 
Joined
Aug 23, 2010
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3,712
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pa
being in Pa as i am have you considered COAL!! no experience with wood except for garage heat, it heats fast + burns fast in my small pot belly stove where my Harman hand fired in my house requires less attention + coal heat is always on + very comfy IMO. check out coalpale.com or wood forums for input from many users. any alternative heat is an investment for sure as i MUST shut down my oil burner i use in moderate weather as mixing fuels in the same chimney can go BOOM. i haul my own coal + local street dept takes my ashes, there are automatic options as well + you can get an optional water heater in some stoves but i use an on demand 220V electric water heater when coal is on. lots of options so search + read + learn what you think will be best for YOU!!
 
Joined
Aug 22, 2009
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5,640
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Pittsburgh,PA U.S.A.
The numbers do not add up favorably for solar in PA. On average there are too few solar hours per day. And solar panels blocked by snow do not produce even if the sun is shining in the winter.

And as has already been pointed out, this far North you require tracking to optimize solar.

It takes a more expensive inverter to produce an output that can sink the frequency and phase with the grid and push power back into the grid. So, unless your electric company compensates well for that and you have a large array, forget about doing that.

Add to that, that solar panels produce less power for the same amount of sun as they age.

So, in Pennsylvania unless you are getting an extreme tax break return, or just have money to throw away at a novelty project with no real return, forget about solar.

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Backup heat is a nice thing to have in the winter. Even if you do not use it for many years, it still gives you peace of mind knowing that you and yours are safe from the winter cold if the normally used heating system is not working. And the money and aggravations it saves you by not having pipes freeze and break and dump water randomly in your house is realistic savings few realize they are saving with backup heating.

Be aware of requirements for proper lightning protection if you add a wood stove with metal chimney. The properly installed lightning protection can cost more than the stove and prepping the floor and chimney. Using an existing chimney might save you a small fortune on this one.

Clean burning coal is a great option to store fuel for a stove instead of wood, and Pennsylvania has a good supply of clean coal. Do not overlook coal. It is a better and easier to work with fuel than wood, unless your wood is free to you.

Be sure any stove you get has variable combustion air inlet that allows you to adjust how fast the fuel burns, so you can back off the heat if it is putting out too much heat or increase the rate of burn to make more heat if it is needed. This is a must have. Do not even look at any stove that does not have it.

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Proper insulation is a big thing, including the windows. There are a lot of junk windows on the market, and may people fall for them because they are cheaper. And then for years they curse at themselves for buying such junk.
 
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Joined
Feb 15, 2003
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Jupiter, Florida
CiC, I neglected to mention I go between my main home in Jupiter, FL and my place in Milford, PA. So I understand the PA thing quite well. I do enjoy the wood burning stove, and watching the flames. I even put my bed downstairs in the room with the wood burning stove. It was glorious during the winter as my feet were always warm.
 
Joined
Jul 19, 2017
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Southwest CA, USA
Even in Southern California it’s like 10 years before you break even on Solar and that’s assuming the power companies don’t find a new way to rip you off. I passed on them. As far as I’m concerned they should be paid for by the power company, that’s their job, to generate power.
 
Joined
Sep 30, 2013
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14,894
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Indiana
Funny this came up. We are going to look at wood stoves this weekend. Our house came with one, but it was cheap. It also doesn’t have a clean out pan so I have to shovel ashes. Makes a huge mess.

I didn’t burn as much wood as I did last year, but it was a more mild winter this year too. We have a 1000 gallon tank, but only used 350 gallons. Last year, we only used 150 gallons, but I burned about 2-3x the wood and actually had to cut more when it was -10*F. Lol.

I don’t know much about solar, but it does interest me. We hooked up one at work (minus the utility’s meter) and it was just some #2 aluminum wire (300’ or so) to a disconnect and then into the house’s main panel and was basically just wired like a 240v appliance. The solar panel had its own sub panel with 3 20 amp breakers.
 
Joined
Dec 31, 2017
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SE British Columbia, Canada
Modern air tight wood stoves with a outside air intake are miles ahead of old wood fireplaces. Their efficiency can approach 70%. You can calculate the price of firewood. Just get a quote for a cord of wood, delivered. In my area, taking into account efficiencies, an electric heat pump is the cheapest on a per GJ basis, followed by the wood stove, and then propane and electrical resistance heating ( which in my are are equal this year due to the high price of propane.)
Personally, I believe anyone who lives in a rural area where it can freeze, should have a airtight wood stove for occurrences when the power goes out.
 
Joined
Oct 23, 2017
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898
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VA
Get a used wood stove during the coming Summer months.

Grid-tie solar isn't going to do anything for your self-sufficiency requirement, if the grid goes down you don't have any power.
 
Joined
Dec 31, 2017
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SE British Columbia, Canada
Here is one of the many solar energy price charts. Apparently the price reduction decrease on a per Watt basis is a lot less since 2012. Of course this has to happen. Does anyone feel a crew will come out and install a system for free? I checked this against a 14,000 watt system that was recently installed at our community hall. It was quite close to what this curve suggests. Any other comparisons out there?

59252B66-8B48-47E0-A635-F26138F7BF1A.png
 
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Joined
Sep 23, 2008
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Ontario, Canada
I should mention that friends in Saskatchewan got into serious home heating using firewood. They lived on a large farm so I suppose they cut their own wood. They had a furnace located some distance from the house with (probably) glycol piping to transfer the heat into the house. They did all that to reduce the risk of burning down their house.

I'm not prepared to get into all that.

When I was a kid, chimney fires were very common, and occasionally lead to a house fire. When we moved into this house we had the chimney cleaned and the chimney sweep said there had been a chimney fire at some point.
Outdoor furnaces are OK in certain circumstances but for a single house with neighbors within a 1/4 mile, I'd recommend something else. To expensive, often way to smoky and therefore use 2 or 3 times as much wood as a woodstove. And because they are burning so much wood, people tend to start burning all sort of junk wood, and other stuff that fits in the door.... Also some are just stupidly designed.
I used to drive by one in the morning, so poorly run it literally made a 1/4 mile squared fog of pollution after a still night. I was tempted to shoot a hole it in just as a random act of kindness for their dozen neighbors in the fog of smoke....
For a place in the with a couple heated buildings and enough heat load to run the furnace hard most of the time, and a source of free clean wood, and some one around to feed it and process free wood, they can work pretty well.
Single houses aren't it, especially if someone keeps the thing smoldering all summer for hot water...

A modern indoor woodstove ,run well, burns most of the smoke so creosote build up is much much less, and chimney pipe is insulated keeping most of that smoke from condensing, and preventing fire spread from a chimney fire if you manage to start one.
 
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Joined
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British Columbia, Canada
A modern indoor woodstove ,run well, burns most of the smoke so creosote build up is much much less, and chimney pipe is insulated keeping most of that smoke from condensing, and preventing fire spread from a chimney fire if you manage to start one.
All good points but the previous owner of our house managed to have a chimney fire using a modern (and pretty good) woodstove and dry firewood as their main source of heat. Though obviously they didn't burn the house down.

I'm not a fan of chimney fires. There is the characteristic roar and the smell of creosote burning, followed (in the old days) by someone throwing salt or fire extinguisher powder in the stove, and if that didn't work, climbing onto the roof to quench it from on top. The whole neighbourhood came out to watch the sparks (and sometimes flames) of course. Though none of that was any fun for the homeowner.

My wife just reminded me that there was the annual taking down and cleaning of stovepipes (with some soot inevitably escaping) followed by washing and painting the walls. Modern woodstoves are much better than that, but heating with wood is still a messy and time consuming business.

I'm happy to use our heat pump as our regular source of heat and keep the woodstove (with its now spotless chimney) as the emergency back up.
 
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