When Suzanne and Derek Gibbs considered buying a three-bedroom house in east Napa, what sold them on it was its country setting, swimming pool for the kids and expansive windows with views of the distant hills.

Then they saw the utilities bill: $600 in the summer — and that didn’t include heating the pool. When the weather began to cool, the bill shot up to $800.

“A solar company was the first call we made,” Suzanne Gibbs recalled.

   Turning to solar power was a philosophical as well as practical action for this environmentally committed, Prius-driving family. In the two years that they have lived in the house, they also groomed an area for an organic garden and installed a floor in the living room and bedroom made from a fallen redwood tree.

   To install a system the Gibbs turned to Rick Turley, general manager of Advanced Alternative Energy Solutions.

   Turley, a founding member of the Renewable Energy Alliance Systems, has been installing solar systems in Northern California for 24 years. Now, as interest in solar systems is exploding, said, “a lot of people are fearful to make the phone call. They think solar is cost-prohibitive.”

   While installing solar is an investment, Turley said he tells clients it’s like buying a Mercedes, except it doesn’t depreciate. “Really, systems can range from $15,000 up, before rebates” from PG&E and the federal government. Turley tells clients it usually takes eight to 10 years to recoup the cost of installing a solar system.

   Advanced Alternative Energy Solutions came up with plans for installing 48 solar panels in an open space near the Gibbs’ house.

   The company also assesses the energy consumption of each house it works with. “We want to cut your use,” Turley said. In the Gibbs’ case, the company recommended adding fans and a solar tube in the kitchen ceiling that funnels a beam of sunlight down onto the kitchen island — it’s so bright, the unknowing often search for a light switch, Gibbs said.

   The final bill for the Gibbs was $78,000 before rebates — about half of the estimated cost it would have been to run gas lines out to the house. Turley noted, “We give a 10 year warranty, and service and repair systems. Right now, with government rebates and federal money to revamp old systems, it’s putting solar power within reach of homeowners.

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A typical project takes about two weeks, he said, but in the Gibbs’ case, weather interfered and the fact that they were drilling through solid rock also added to the installation time. The panels were up an running in a month; and the Gibbs’ bill dropped to $4.77 a month. “That’s for generating the bill and staying connected to the grid,” Gibbs explained.

During the day the Gibbs are selling energy to PG&E, building up credits for what they use at night.

   At first the meter had a dial, which spun backwards during the day as they were generating energy for others, rather than using it. Gibbs said she was a little sorry when the company switched to digital dials. “It was so fun watching the meter zip backwards.”

   With Derek Gibbs’ decision to return to school, they’ve put the house on the market, and the solar system is one of the major selling points for the house, according to Heli Sairanen, the Napa Coldwell Banker Realtor who is listing house. “From a Realtor’s perspective, it’s a real compound saving,” she said. “A lot of people don’t look at operating costs (when considering if they can afford to buy a house).” In addition, she added, it “converts an outright expense to a deductible expense.”

Going solar is “not as intimidating as you think,” Suzanne Gibbs said. “I know that no matter where we lived, we’ll do it again.”

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