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5 ways to go solar on the cheap

Thinking of going solar?

If the price tag of a whole-house photovoltaic, or PV, panel system makes getting off the grid a green dream you can't quite bankroll yet, consider starting smaller when you switch to sun power.

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"People are craving solar," says Michael Strong, vice president of Brothers Strong Inc. remodeling company and GreenHaus Builders in Houston. "There is just a huge amount of interest in it. But for the most part, people have an overinflated sense of how much of that utility bill it's going to cover."

For example, Strong says a "baseline" PV system in Texas would cost $25,000 to $35,000, depending on the installation costs and the location and orientation of the house, and it would generate about three kilowatts of electricity.

"In a very well-built 3,000-square-foot home, let's say, that type of power capacity will produce anywhere from 10 (percent) to 20 percent of their electricity," Strong says.

5 ways to save with solar
1. Tubular skylights
2. Solar outdoor lights
3. Unglazed solar pool collectors
4. Solar-powered attic fans
5. Solar-powered chargers

In light of that reality check, here are five less ambitious -- and much more modestly priced -- solar power devices to try.

1. Tubular skylights
Tubular skylights -- also known as solar tubes and tubular daylighting devices -- are ideal for lighting small spaces. They typically come in 10- and 12-inch diameter models, with prices ranging from about $150 to more than $600, according to the National Association of Home Builders', or NAHB, ToolBase Services site.

Tubular skylights must be installed in areas that get several hours of direct sunlight per day. Installation is a fairly clear-cut DIY project, unless your home has a metal or tiled roof, making cutting the hole a trickier prospect that may require calling in the pros.

A light collector is mounted on the roof, allowing sunlight to pass through a reflective tube into a diffuser lens that is mounted on the ceiling. Unlike conventional skylights, tubular skylights don't require additional framing, and they look like regular light fixtures from the inside.

Three years ago, John Avenson installed three tubular skylights in a Westminster, Colo., house already outfitted with PV panels. He put one in the "deep end" of his home office that had no windows, one as a replacement for an old bathroom light and fan fixture, and one to swap out a ceiling fixture in the hallway near his bedroom. Adding a few optional features and using the manufacturer's buy-two-get-one-free deal, he estimates he spent about $1,500 for the whole package.

2. Solar outdoor lights
For another inexpensive path to solar, how about using sun power to light up your garden at night or make your entryways more secure? You can find solar path lights for less than $10 apiece. Accent lights, such as hanging lanterns and post lights, start at less than $100 each. Solar floodlight kits start at around $20.

"Rather than having to hire an electrician and, in some cases, do major construction to dig a trench and lay electrical wires down ... you can avoid those significant installation costs by just powering your lights from the sun," says Neal Lurie, marketing director for the American Solar Energy Society.

 
 
Next: "... a heated pool without paying for extra electricity."
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