During this time of rising energy costs and decreasing air quality, consumers are exploring solar alternatives to conventional power.

During this time of rising energy costs and decreasing air quality, consumers are exploring solar alternatives to conventional power.

Installing the system is the easy part, says Geoff Dawson of Alternative Energy Systems in Ashland. It usually takes about two days. Education and preparation is the lengthy part of the process. Before committing, he says, consumers should really do their research.

First, have realistic expectations. He says the primary reason to go solar is to reduce your environmental impact. "A lot of people think it will reduce their energy bill, and it does in the long run, but the number one benefit is a reduced reliance on fossil fuels," he says.

The average installation would replace 10 to 25 percent of used energy with solar power. For most people the goal isn't to power all their electricity, just some of it — basically what they can afford to do at the time of installation. Tim Dawson of Solar Collection Inc. in Talent says it is rare to talk about doing things 100 percent solar. Reducing the amount of power consumption is still vital to the process.

Here are five major solar alternatives that homeowners in Jackson County are doing and can do if they are looking to make green additions to their homes:

1.) Solar pool heating
If you have a swimming pool, then installing a solar heating system provides the best economic payback, says Tim Dawson. "It extends your swimming season and makes your whole swimming season more comfortable." Making the switch from a conventional heating system to solar also saves a lot of wasted energy. "It would be like leaving your car idling," he says. "You can't heat it up fast enough to use it, so you have to keep it warm all the time."

2.) Solar hot water
For those without a swimming pool, this is the next logical solar step, as it is the most economically friendly thing to do. "Everybody uses hot water," says Geoff Dawson, "so everybody could use solar hot water." Solar water-heating systems include storage tanks and solar collectors. This process is called solar thermal. It is where the system heats and moves water and then stores it. Like many solar-powered systems, backup methods may be necessary — especially in the winter months when the sun is scarce.

3.) Solar electric
Once a solar hot-water system is in place, solar electric is the next step. Everybody could use help on their electricity bill, but Geoff Dawson says, "It's still an expensive alternative to conventional energy." However, there are state and federal incentives to help offset the costs. Tim Dawson says that most residential systems have about a 50 percent rebate rate. Also, if you produce more power than you use, you can sell it back to the power company and get a better return on your investment.

4.) Solar space heating
For those still looking to make solar additions to their homes, solar space heating is another option. Both Geoff Dawson and Tim Dawson agree that this shouldn't be the first solar step. The cost is fairly high and it can be difficult to find space for the panels on the roof — solar requires the right sun exposure and home design to work. Also, it only really needs to be used half of the year — when it's cold out. It would just be sitting idle in the summer when the sun is most readily available. "You still need a backup heating system because in the winter there isn't enough sun to provide power all through the season," says Tim Dawson.

5.) Miscellaneous solar products:
For those looking to go solar on a smaller scale, many chain stores provide solar-powered accessories like gate openers, cell phone chargers, outdoor lights and electric fences that are easy to install and use and are relatively inexpensive. "Those are some ways that people can get plugged into solar," says Tim Dawson.

Do the research, understand the system's limitations and then choose the best solar option for you and your family. The earth will thank you for it.