Is solar power right for you? Google helps you find out

If you've ever thought about how much money you'd save on your electricity bill by installing solar power, but didn't want to go through the hassle of getting an estimate, here's an easy solution to find out on your own.

RoofRay has a beta program that uses Google Maps to let homeowners figure out the solar power potential of their homes.

I tried it out and while I question the cost of the solar panels that the site's calculator came up with, it's an easy way to determine in 60 seconds or less how much roof space you have available for solar panels and how much savings they'll give you over what you're paying now in electricity bills.

You start by typing in your address, and once you find your home on Google Maps, you can draw a few fake solar panels on your roof and tell the program how much of pitch your roof has and what direction it is facing. Pretty simple.

From there you give your current electricity costs, and a quick financial analysis shows how much money you'll save with solar and how long the return on investment is. My quick calculation showed it would take 15 years to break even.

Lastly, it asks if you want a free estimate.

That's the kicker. I've written here before about solar companies trying to make their products more affordable, since price is usually the biggest obstacle consumers cite when declining to get solar power. Instead of paying all of the upfront costs of buying, there are products that you can lease, buy at group discounts, or have a company sell you cheap solar power coming from solar panels it pays for and installs on your roof.

And an in-person estimate may differ from what you'll come up with on the Internet. Along with being more exact in measuring the pitch and direction of your roof, a solar estimator will also go over any roof obstacles and natural obstacles -- such as trees providing too much shade for the panels to collect enough direct sunlight.

But at least RoofRay's online analysis is free, and should give you a good idea within a minute if it's something you want to pay for.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at
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