4 Things to Know Before You Take the Solar Energy Plunge

I believe solar energy is a huge part of what we need to be about as a nation. My wife and I have a vacation place at the beach in Florida that is a near-net-zero-energy home. We've put in the compact fluorescent light bulbs, the efficient HVAC, and even a solar system.

Over the course of a year, we sell more power than we buy from the power company in Florida, just like Steve. So we have no utility bills. And that's saying something, because even though we're not there all the time, we have to run the AC all year round; otherwise we'll have mold growing in the high-humidity climate.

To give you an example, a few months ago our power bill at the beach was $4.15. The bill after that was negative $26; the power company owed me instead of the other way around, because of what I generated and sold down the line.

If you're considering solar energy at home, here are some pointers to keep in mind as you prepare for the quote:

1. Get ready.

The process starts by going online to a solar company's website and putting in your street address. This will allow the company to use a satellite map to pinpoint your home and assess your solar potential. Have your past year's electric bills handy, because you'll be asked about your energy usage.

Your property will also need a fairly clear shot of the southern sky. Don't worry if your roof is too shaded. You can still have ground-mount panels installed in a sunny spot on your property.

Some of the more popular solar companies include SolarCity.com, Sungevity.com, SunRun.com and Us.SunPowerCorp.com. Know that it is an unstable field, so there will be casualties as some companies go out of business and others start up.

2. Consider a lease.

Most people put solar on their home through a lease agreement. With a lease, there are no upfront installation costs for you. You just pay a flat monthly fee or rate for the equipment and the energy you generate. The solar company typically handles necessary permits and takes any tax breaks or renewable energy credits -- not the homeowner. They're also the ones who handle ongoing maintenance and repair.

3. Explore your alternatives.

You might want to consider solar shingles if you live in a restrictive covenant community that prohibits traditional panels. The solar shingles are small, and they look just like the traditional asphalt ones you're used to. They even get nailed to your roof in the same way! You just need an electrician to hook them up to your home's electrical system.

Solar shingles are not as efficient as traditional solar panels, but The New York Times reports that they can offset your bill by 40 to 80 percent, and they're typically 15-percent cheaper than a solar panel system. Visit DowPowerHouse.com for more details.

4. Go green to get more green at resale.

The longstanding assumption in the real estate market is that buyers don't really value energy-saving stuff like putting in solar panels. But that turns out to be wrong.

In 2011, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory released the results of a nearly decade-long study of home resale values in California. The study found the typical home with whole-house solar sold for $17,000 more than a home that didn't have it in the state. That can recoup virtually all, if not all, of any installation costs.

In a similar vein, green-certified homes can command 9-percent more in offers when it's time to resell. That's according to a 2012 study out of UCLA that looked at sales of more than 1 million California homes between 2007 and early 2012.

For more money-saving tips, visit ClarkHoward.com. Money in Your Pocket. Advice You Can Trust.