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Does Solar-Powered Air Conditioning Really Work?
One of the biggest hurdles for homeowners to overcome when thinking about installing solar-powered AC in their homes is the risk of it not working as well as traditional air conditioning. No one wants to be uncomfortable in their own home, so making the leap to relatively new technology that could potentially leave you in a constant state of sweating in your home is challenging.
I can tell you from personal experience that solar-powered AC does, in fact, work just as well as standard AC most of the time. It’s possible to run your air conditioning equipment solely on solar power and never notice a difference, but your experience depends on a few factors. I’ll discuss those factors later, but for now, be aware that there are some potential downsides to going solar.
I have a friend who worked for a solar panel company for many years and swapped his home over to solar AC. He’s the kind of guy who lives and breathes new technology, and he’s super passionate about sustainable energy sources. So…it’s no surprise that he jumped on the solar-powered AC bandwagon.
He does this thing when he has people over now where he doesn’t say anything about the conversion on hot days, and then, as if he can no longer wait for the big reveal, he lets his guest in on his secret.
Honestly…that was the first thing that convinced me that dependable solar AC was even possible, and his method of waiting to reveal that we were being cooled by the sun in his house sold me on the idea. I would never have been able to tell that he didn’t have his standard HVAC unit running, and it was over 90 degrees that day!
So, it works, or at least it can work. But…
How Does Solar Powered AC Work?
That same friend I mentioned calls solar-powered AC “thermogenic judo” because it works by harnessing the power of the sun, which heats your house, to cool your home. Basically, you have solar panels that collect sunlight, convert the energy to electricity, and then use that electricity to run your air conditioning system.
Inside your solar panels are photovoltaic cells, which collect light energy. That energy is used directly by your home’s electrical system, which usually has equipment to pull energy from the sun when available — like during the day — and swap partially or wholly to your grid connection when solar energy is unavailable — like at night.
Other systems utilize a powerful energy bank to store light energy from the sun collected at times when your power demands are negligible. For example, if you have all lights, appliances, and HVAC equipment turned off while you’re at work at 1pm on a sunny day, the light energy collected by solar panels isn’t used.
Instead of charging solar batteries, some systems deliver the energy to your electric company for you, and you receive some type of energy credit from them if you produce more than you use in a given billing period.
These different strategies for collecting and using energy will influence if and when your solar AC will work all the time.
Do Solar ACs Work On Cloudy Days?
A good example of when certain solar-powered air conditioners might not work is on cloudy days. Since photovoltaic (PV) cells harness light energy, they won’t deliver nearly as much power when most of the sun’s light is blocked by cloud coverage.
Now, this doesn’t mean that solar AC will just leave you boiling in your home on cloudy days! Regardless of your setup, some power will be produced even under cloud coverage. However, since HVAC systems generally consume massive amounts of energy, it’s unlikely that your home will be as cool as you’d like on cloudy days.
That is, of course, unless you have sufficient power banks that store energy for you. If your home is equipped with enough solar panels to cover in excess of what you use each day, then a cloudy day or two won’t be a problem. Your solar-powered ACs will run as usual, and you’ll just need to bank on a sunny day to refill your power banks.
Does Solar-Powered AC Work At Night?
An excellent question! How could a solar-powered AC that uses light energy run when there’s no light?
Again, if you have a sufficient power bank to store any excess power you harness, then running your ACs through the night and staying comfortable while you sleep will usually be no issue at all.
That same friend I mentioned before must be part polar bear because he sleeps with his ACs running at 62 degrees — I know this because he couldn’t stop bragging that his solar-powered ACs could handle maintaining this temperature through the night.
So, the answer is: yes, solar-powered ACs can work at night, but you need a good power storage option, like a Tesla wall.
If you don’t mind not being entirely solar, you can opt for a hybrid system, which uses solar power when it’s available but maintains your connection to the grid to swap to traditional electricity when your solar panels aren’t getting sufficient light.
Don’t worry: I’ll go over the benefits and downsides of each type of solar-powered AC system later.
Benefits of Solar Powered AC
The benefits of swapping over to solar power to run your air conditioning are probably pretty obvious, and if they aren’t, they’re reiterated on countless websites. As such, I don’t want to harp on them too much, but I do think it’s important to discuss them briefly.
Most importantly, you’ll reduce your carbon footprint. If you care about the environment and contributing to the creation of a world that will persist long after you’re gone, swapping over to solar power for your AC system is a no-brainer.
Even if you aren’t too keen on going green for the environment, swapping to solar AC can also save you a little green. Even if you get a hybrid system and just use solar for a portion of your energy consumption, you’ll enjoy lower electric bills. How much lower? Glad you asked! I’ll include a full breakdown of upfront cost vs. cost savings of solar-powered AC down below.
Why Solar AC Might Not Be Right for You
Regardless of your reason for swapping to solar-powered air conditioning, converting is a big decision, and it’s not for everyone. There are a few things you need to keep in mind when considering this change.
Most importantly for some, installing solar-powered air conditioning can be very expensive and even cost-prohibitive. Most homeowners spend between $15,000 and $20,000 installing whole-home solar panels, and while this isn’t a requirement to run solar-powered AC, it’s the most popular and cost-effective option.
You can opt for solar panel installation just for your ACs. They’ll be significantly cheaper, but they won’t be as powerful, and they won’t supply energy for appliances, lights, or electronic devices.
When we bid jobs for solar AC installation, our estimates usually come to $2,000-3,000 for the AC equipment plus $5,000 to $7,000 for the panels. Even with standalone solar ACs, you’re still looking at $7,500-10,000 for the installation.
As I’ll discuss below, the lower running cost of solar-powered AC usually makes up for the upfront cost, but these systems probably aren’t right for you if you’re looking to keep upfront costs low.
Of course, solar panels need sunlight to harness energy and produce electricity, so your solar ACs might not work to cool your home sufficiently on cloudy days, at night, or if you have too much tree coverage.
As I mentioned already, some systems can run with little or even no sunlight, but they’re more costly. For a fully reliable solar AC system that you can use to keep your room at 62 degrees through the summer nights, you’ll likely pay over $25,000. More affordable systems may either stop cooling your home or require a connection to the grid for supplementation.
They Might Not Reduce Your Energy Bills Much
Solar power is very alluring to most people…imagine just not paying an electric bill? That’s the dream!
Unfortunately, that isn’t always the reality. Some homeowners we’ve serviced in the past who spend thousands to install dedicated solar-powered ACs are disappointed to find that their energy bill dips just $20-50 per month. At that rate, it would take over ten years to break even.
How much you’ll save will depend on your system, location, and typical energy usage. I’ll dive more into cost analysis below.
A New System Could Soon Be Obsolete
The world of solar energy systems is rapidly evolving as the demand to convert to sustainable energy sources increases by the day. This is great for the solar industry and the environment, but it also means that a system you install today could be outdated and inefficient in just a few years (read: before you break even on cost!).
Tesla — the creator of the PowerWall for storing excess solar energy — is constantly making improvements to their units’ capacity and efficiency, just like they do with their cars. Tesla’s solar roofing options are relatively new and already increasing in efficiency as well.
Other companies, like Ubiquitous Energy, are not only improving how much light energy their PV cells convert but also where they’re placed. They’ve teased at windows with solar panels installed in them, which would not only increase the surface area for your panels but would also reduce the heat exchanged from the outside to the inside of your home through the glass.
With improvements like these to solar tech in the past few years, I can only imagine what will be available in 5-10 more.
Different Solar Powered Air Conditioner Options
If you’ve weighed all of the pros and cons and decided that solar-powered AC is suitable for you, you’re not out of the woods yet! You still need to determine which type is best for your needs, expectations, and budget. There are three types of solar AC available: DC, AC, and hybrid systems.
DC Powered Solar ACs
DC-powered solar ACs are the real deal. Without getting into the complicated industry jargon, ACs that run on DC power pull electricity from battery systems.
Basically, the energy from sunlight is absorbed by PV cells in the solar panels, which then convert that energy to electricity. The electricity produced is then immediately moved to your power bank, which stores any excess solar power. The electricity in your solar panels is DC (direct current), which cannot be used by traditional HVAC equipment.
Solar ACs can, however, use DC energy. They pull the direct current electricity from the solar battery to run just like standard ACs would.
DC-powered solar ACs are usually the most expensive to install, but they also save you the most money on your electric bill.
Most of the time when we install DC-powered solar air conditioners, the homeowner already has a complete system of solar panels set up on their home. The total for full panel coverage averages around $17,000 if you don’t already have them. If you do have panels, we typically quote around $8,000-10,000 for the equipment and ductwork, or closer to $6,000 if you already have ductwork.
That means your total for solar panels and a DC HVAC system with ducts installed will be $25,000 or more.
This might seem like a lot, but many homeowners with these systems — including my solar friend I mentioned before — reduce their electric bills close to $0. At an average of $250 per month, the system could pay for itself in less than 10 years. Keep in mind that this doesn’t happen for everyone, but it is possible!
A significant potential downside to this type of system is that you have to have a sufficient battery system to power your ACs entirely. You can’t fall back on the grid if your ACs aren’t cooling your home enough on cloudy days or at night when sunlight is in low supply. With sufficient storage, you should be fine, but you need to plan for long stretches of bad weather and other potential issues.
AC Powered Solar ACs
As the name suggests, AC-powered solar AC systems use AC (alternating current) electricity, which is what most appliances and pieces of home equipment use. AC power is what is delivered from your electric company and runs through your outlets.
These systems are more popular than DC options, probably because they are more familiar and are generally cheaper to install.
The cost savings comes from the air conditioners themselves. Instead of installing new HVAC equipment, you can use your existing system and just hook it up to a new solar power system. When a solar company installs panels and an inverter, it will instantly allow your ACs to run on solar power.
Basically, you’ll pay for panels, and that’s about it. A whole-home solar panel system averages around $17,000, but you could opt for dedicated panels for your ACs, which generally cost closer to $5,000 — a bit cheaper than the $25,000 upfront cost for a DC system!
AC systems have the benefit of being able to use solar power when it’s available and swap to the grid when it’s not. This gives homeowners peace of mind that their AC will work even on cloudy days and at night, although they’ll be spending money on electricity doing this.
The most significant downside to this type of system is that your energy bill likely won’t be reduced much. You’ll still be using electricity from your power company during peak hours most of the time, so your savings will be limited.
Hybrid systems connect special HVAC equipment to the grid as a backup, but they can also use AC power directly from solar panels and DC power from solar batteries.
These systems are generally a bit more expensive than DC-only air conditioners, which is their biggest downside. We usually quote around $10,000-12,000 for the HVAC equipment and inverter, which doesn’t include the standard $17,000 for whole-home solar panels.
You can always count on hybrid ACs to work because they’ll always have a power source, whether it’s cloudy or totally dark outside. You never have to worry about your solar batteries running out in the middle of the night because the system will just swap to energy from the grid if required. Hybrid systems are the most expensive, but they’re the most customizable and often save you significant amounts of money on your electric bills.
I worked with a homeowner who wanted us to install a hybrid solar AC in his home. The total came out to just over $30,000 because he also needed solar panels installed. He maximized his ongoing savings by using solar power from his batteries during peak hours when energy was most expensive and swapped over to the grid when the cost per kWh was lowest. With this strategy, he actually earned a bit of money on his electric bill each month.
Again, this is definitely not the norm, but a hybrid system can be customized to get maximum savings.
Cost of Solar-Powered Air Conditioning
Every homeowner considering converting to solar-powered AC — even those more concerned with reducing their carbon footprint — wants to know how much the conversion will cost them. There are two things to keep in mind when installing a solar-powered AC system: upfront costs and your ongoing cost to run the equipment, if any. I’ll discuss these separately below.
Your upfront costs, including the actual equipment and installation fees, will depend on the type of system you want and the size of your home. Generally speaking, you can enjoy the lowest upfront costs by installing a small air conditioner that runs DC power provided by solar panels.
This is the least efficient option, but we typically quote around $2,000-3,000 for the equipment, excluding the panels. Panels for a single unit will run around $5,000, making your total for one unit about $7,500, on average.
Installing a DC-powered solar AC will usually cost about $6,000 for the unit alone or $10,000 for the unit and ductwork. Add in your panel costs of around $5,000, and your total ranges between $11,000 and $15,000, depending on whether or not you need ducts installed as well. If you’re linking your DC-powered AC system to whole-house solar panels, your cost will be around $6,000 if you have panels or $23,000 if you don’t.
A hybrid system will cost just a touch more than a DC-powered AC system. The equipment is a little more expensive at $9,000, on average, so you’re looking at $9,000 for just the equipment, $13,000 for the HVAC system plus ductwork, or $30,000 for a whole-home solar panel system plus the HVAC equipment and duct installation.
Cost to Run
It’s very challenging to estimate what your system will cost to run because it depends on the local cost per kWh, tree coverage on your property, the weather in your area, and many, many more factors. It will be easier to estimate the break-even point, which is when the upfront cost of your equipment is paid for by the energy savings you enjoy.
Generally speaking, DC systems will cost nothing to run because you’re always banking on solar power and never need energy from the grid. AC-powered systems will cost the most, and hybrid systems cost somewhere in the middle unless you take the time to optimize your equipment for ultimate savings. You can get paid to run your hybrid system if you know what you’re doing, but figuring out how is like a part-time job, so I’ll assume you won’t be producing more in energy costs than you’re spending.
For ease of comparison, I’ll be discussing the break-even point of these systems, assuming you already have ductwork but no solar panels installed.
On average, an AC-powered system will take around 20 years to save you the amount it costs to install with panels. A highly efficient DC-powered air conditioning system with something like a Tesla PowerWall acting as the solar battery will take around 10 years to break even. A hybrid system, which is the most expensive, takes approximately 11-12 years to break even, but it’s possible to break even in under 6-8 years if you spend the time to optimize the flow of energy.
Even if you’re not concerned so much about the money, the reduced running costs ultimately mean you’re using less electricity, which means your carbon footprint is reduced. Solar AC is a healthy option for the environment, using the sun’s energy against itself to cool your home and keep it protected from the sun’s heat. As my friend put it, you’re using thermogenic judo to reduce your impact on the environment and maintain a comfortable living space.
Wrapping Up: Is Solar-Powered AC Worth It?
Ultimately, you’ll have to answer this question for yourself. Solar-powered air conditioning is cutting-edge technology in the world of solar that changes and advances on a monthly basis. Installing a solar AC system averages around $10,000 but can range anywhere from $2,000 to over $30,000 depending on the equipment you choose, the type of system you want, and whether you already have ducts and solar panels on your home.
Converting to solar AC is an excellent option for many homeowners that pays for itself in as little as a ten-year period. It reduces your carbon footprint and your energy bills while still promising to keep you cool and comfortable through those hot summer days.