You Want Solar Panels? This Mapping Website Will Tell You if They're a Good Fit

You're looking at an aerial view of San Francisco that Mapdwell developed. Roofs that are bright yellow pose the best candidates for solar panel placement. Mapdwell

Let's say you're a homeowner and you're considering investing in solar panels for your house. Before you dish out the money to purchase and install the panels, you'll want to answer a few questions. Will you save money over the lifetime of the purchase? Does your house receive enough sunlight to generate sufficient electricity? A company called Mapdwell hopes to help you answer those questions.

Created by engineers from MIT, this spinoff company uses sophisticated equipment to analyze communities and determine which roofs are good candidates for solar panels. In some cases, the benefit is clear — you could pay off the installation and purchase price of the solar panels through energy savings over just a few years. But for other buildings it may not make sense.

Mapdwell pulls data from lidar-equipped aircraft. The lidar device shoots out a laser, which reflects off the tops of buildings. Mapdwell combines this information with geographical and weather data to determine the suitability of each individual building. Then, Mapdwell creates a special aerial-view map of the area, shading the tops of buildings to let you know if solar panels would be a good option.

Recognize that city? It's a rooftop view of Washington, D.C., that Mapdwell created.

A bright yellow spot on a map indicates prime real estate for solar panels — the spot gets good, reliable sun exposure. Orange means it may be more of a coin-flip situation and a darker brown color tells you that solar power won't save you money in the long run. You can use the maps to place panels in strategic locations to get the most solar bang for your buck.

In addition to sun exposure info, Mapdwell also analyzes the return on investment costs associated with the price of materials and installation, the local cost of electricity and any tax benefits your local government provides. In other words, the company can tell you how long it will take for that investment to pay off — if the building in question is a suitable candidate, that is.

At the moment, eight U.S. cities and communities (plus two Chilean locations) have been mapped, including New York City and San Francisco. But the company hopes to map out all major U.S. cities by the end of 2016.