Going solar at last

The discreet solar panels on the roof, reflecting the sky
The loft conversion's new flat roof was the perfect time to fit solar panels. We don’t have a south-facing roof (for maximum sun), so popping panels on the flat roof and tilting them up to face south was the way to go. The big decision was between photovoltaic (PV) panels for generating electricity and solar thermal panels for heating water.

Want to find out which we chose, how it went and how much money we’ll save? Click on read more…

Experts advised that our roof wasn’t ideal for PV panels. There wasn’t enough space and they’re best suited to south-facing, sloping roofs. This is a shame because PV panels are a good deal right now. The government’s Feed In Tariffs (FITs) mean homeowners are guaranteed generous payments for the electricity that they generate. So much so that you could easily double your money over the 25-year lifespan of PV panels.

But solar thermal was well suited to our small roof. Two linked panels would heat all our hot water for free in the summer and take the edge off gas bills in the winter. Installation would be simple, although we would need a new hot water storage tank. But again, this was good timing because rejigging the house for the loft conversion meant that we needed a new water tank anyway. It felt like a plan coming together!

We found a very affordable system from MyPlanet (around £3,000 for a two-panel installation including the new cylinder). Fitting took just a couple of days and the installers worked well with our builders to ensure that we weren’t disrupted or without hot water for long. We did have teething troubles with pressure being lost on a daily basis, and were terrified that we had a leak in the system, but it turned out to be a failsafe being overzealous. A bit of fiddling around (with a bike pump, believe it or not) and the installer had it all behaving again.

When shopping around for affordable solar panels, beware because not all systems and installers are equal. Crucially, if you want to apply for FITs, or the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI, the equivalent government payback scheme for solar thermal panels), they must be registered with an industry body called MCS.

Thankfully MyPlanet panels and installers are MCS registered. That means that when the RHI starts in April 2011 we should receive payments. No-one knows exactly how much these payments will be because the government hasn't announced the full details yet. But I’ve had expert estimates that we will save around £70 a year on our gas bill and then receive around £380 a year under the RHI. A tidy saving of £450 a year in total then. Because solar thermal panels are relatively cheap, this means we will recoup their cost in around seven years… and then start making a profit on them!