Installing solar panels can help you reduce your long-term energy costs and reduce your carbon footprint. It's no wonder then that every year more and more Americans are transitioning towards renewable energy and embracing the benefits of solar power. If you want to start using solar power at your home or on your vehicle, the first step is to install solar panels.
But how do you go about a solar panel installation, and can you install solar power yourself?
When you're just getting started with solar power, there are so many questions, but one we get asked frequently is: should you do a DIY solar panel installation or hire a professional?
If you're working on an off-grid lifestyle project, like a van conversion, you're probably doing a lot of the work yourself. It's possible to install solar power systems in vans, RVs, cabins, and tiny home solar by yourself.
There's a sense of accomplishment that comes with achieving any DIY project, one that's especially sweet when it comes with long-term benefits like solar power does. But like any form of electricity, working with solar power comes with some safety concerns.
In this article, we'll cover everything you need to know about solar panel installation and the pros and cons of completing the installation yourself.
DIY Solar Installation Process
The design stage is an integral part of the process when you're getting started with solar power. This phase will help you identify any challenges or barriers you may face switching to solar power. The last thing you should do is rush in and buy any old solar kit without adequately researching and planning your solar setup.
Before installing solar panels, you will need to design and size your system based on energy needs and available space. If you're installing panels onto a roof of a cabin, van, or RV, you will have a finite amount of space that dictates how many solar panels you can have and how much energy you can produce.
You'll need to do your research in the design phase to see if your roof has the space to produce the amount of power you need. You'll also want to be clear on your energy usage goals and make sure you can achieve them.
What do you want from your system? Are you looking for a backup power source to subsidize your grid electricity, save money on your power bill, or gain complete Independence from the grid?
The weather and amount of sunlight hours in your location is also an essential factor in your design process. How much sun you get determines how much energy you can produce. The sun's direction determines your solar panel orientation, angle, and which section of the roof or property will be most efficient.
You should also determine how many appliances and devices you plan to run and what their energy usage is. The Renogy Solar Panel Calculator will help you work out how much energy you consume than how much you can generate.
If you want to store solar energy, you'll need to add batteries or a battery bank for a hybrid or off-grid system. If you're going to have a storage system, you will need a plan to store the batteries, so consider how much space you have for a bank.
Lastly, you'll need to create an electrical diagram. These diagrams are a required part of solar permit applications and serve as a blueprint when installing your panels.
Your end goals and available space will determine the ideal system for you, how complex the installation will be, and how much it's going to cost. The design phase is often the trickiest step in the whole installation process, especially if you don't have any electrical experience or prior experience working with energy systems.
Once you've designed your solar setup, it's time to choose the right solar power system type to match your goal. There are three types of solar energy systems, and the design phase will have determined which is best for your purposes. The type of solar panel set-up you choose will determine which equipment you need to buy.
Grid-tied solar panel system
Grid-tied or on-grid solar is the most popular type of home solar power installation.
A grid-tied home solar system remains connected to the electrical grid. These systems will generate power for the home and feed any excess energy back into the grid. You will be given credit towards your power bill by the utility company for the value of any solar power they provided to the electrical grid. Many states offer other financial or tax incentives for installing this type of setup.
Hybrid solar panel system
Hybrid solar systems generate solar power in the same way as a grid-tie solar system. However, they also use special hybrid inverters and batteries so you can store energy for later. The batteries enable hybrid systems to also operate as a backup power supply for emergency blackouts.
Off-grid solar system
If you live in an off-grid location or are installing your panels on a moving vehicle, you will need an off-grid solar system. Off-grid solar systems have no connection to the utility grid. Your solar system must be capable of making all the electricity necessary to power your home. Off-grid solar systems will operate with a battery pack that enables you to store energy.
Here's is a brief list of the components you'll need for your solar setup:
- Solar panels
- Solar inverter
- Wiring and electrical supplies
- Mounting and racking equipment
- Battery system for hybrid and off-grid systems
- Charge controller for some battery systems
It's often easier to buy a kit rather than researching and purchasing all these components separately. Home solar panel kits can reduce the headache of solar panel integration. Renogy has ready-made solar panel kits available, including starter kits, premium kits, RV, van or marine kits, and home or cabin kits.
Renogy solar panel kits include solar panel(s), a charge controller, cables, and mounting hardware. If you are going off-grid or using a hybrid system, you'll need to purchase batteries separately to add storage.
Once you've got your solar equipment and received all the necessary permits and approvals, it's time to install your panels. The exact installation process will vary slightly between roof and ground installations and off-grid, hybrid, and grid-tied setups. If you're doing your grid-tied system install yourself, then the necessary steps are:
- You or your solar installer should start by prepping your roof and ensure any shingles or tiles are correctly attached.
- Install solar panel racking and mounting for your solar panels on a roof or in your garden.
- When the racking or mounting is level and attached, place the solar panels onto the racking.
- Your inverter is then connected to the solar panels to convert direct current (DC) energy into alternating current (AC) energy.
- Final inspection.
- Connect to your main electrical board.
- CIf applicable, notify the local utility and request permission to turn on and connect to the grid.
The final phase of solar panel installation is the final inspection and interconnection to the grid. This phase is only necessary if you're installing a grid-tied or hybrid system.
You have to schedule an inspection of your solar set up with the local Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). The inspector will assess your system to see if it's compliant with local ordinances. They will also check whether the final design matches those laid out in your plans, so don't make changes to your plans mid-way through your install.
The solar system will then need to pass an electrical inspection to ensure that it is up to code. Once you've passed these inspections, you can apply for a connection with the utility grid.
Your utility provider will install a second meter or replace your existing meter with a net (or bi-directional) meter. The net meter can record how much power your property exports to the grid so that you can receive an appropriate number of credits on your power bill.
How Much Does It Cost to Install Solar Panels in General?
There are two types of typical solar system installations: roof mounts or ground mounts. Roof mounts are typically less expensive to install because the roof is a ready-made structure, so they require less labor. Ground mounts, however, require a structure to be constructed to which you can attach your panels.
According to research from the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, the average cost of installing solar energy is $16,860. Design and installation labor costs will contribute about 10% of your total bill. These average costs are calculated before applying incentives and rebates, which can have considerable savings.
Solar systems qualify for several rebates, tax credits, and incentives across different states. These incentives can significantly reduce the final costs of installing a solar energy system.
Remember that solar is a long-term investment that more than pays off over time. It's worth spending the money upfront on quality equipment and installation to see the return on investment later.
DIY Solar Pros
Whether you go for DIY or professional installation, going solar always has significant benefits, both financially and for the environment. But there are also benefits that come with installing your panels yourself.
Is it cheaper to build your own solar panels? Yes, DIY is usually the more affordable option when it comes to any renovation project. Installing solar panels yourself will save you money in hiring a professional.
But remember, it's only more affordable if you do it right the first time and don't end up paying a professional to come to fix your substandard work. You'll want to be aware of your own skills, level of knowledge, and capabilities before attempting to tackle a DIY solar project.
Great for small projects
Small off-grid solar projects are easier to install yourself. Most home solar kits are suitable for off-grid use, which is less regulated. Small solar panel kits can be an excellent DIY solution if you're not trying to power an entire home. Smaller, mobile installations such as RVs, boats, and even tiny houses and cabins are all opportunities to try out do-it-yourself solar installations.
A small off-grid kit is also suitable for powering an outlying structure on your property, like a barn, tool shed, or outdoor lighting. Your electricity demands for these use cases will be relatively low so that a small home solar kit will be sufficient, and installing it yourself will be easier.
DIY Solar Cons
Unsurprisingly, doing a DIY solar setup requires much more work for the homeowner, and not everyone is up for the challenge. If you’re not sure you’re ready to tackle this project, you can ask yourself these 10 questions before getting started. Solar installation is fraught with regulations and can be complicated.
Here are some of the other cons that come with trying to do an installation yourself.
There is a wide range of regulations that govern solar installations. These restrictions can vary significantly between states and local jurisdictions. Rules are stringent if you plan to attach your system to the grid. Many states will now allow a grid-tied or hybrid installation unless a licensed contractor performs it.
Even if DIY is allowed, you will often need building and utility permits before starting your project. Gaining a permit may require an onsite inspection by either a licensed electrician or structural engineer.
Even after you've cleared these hurdles, you'll need to pass another round of inspections. Without completing these inspections, your system can't be activated and connected to the grid.
Most solar products come with warranties. Solar systems can easily last 25-30 years, so the warranty is a big selling point when choosing your solar kit or components. DIY work can invalidate many warranties if you don't have proof of installation by a qualified licensed solar or electrical contractor. Warranties protect your solar investment.
No solar financial incentives
Additionally, to be eligible for many financial incentive programs, your solar equipment and installation must be protected under minimum warranties. Solar systems receiving incentives under different state programs are usually required to have at least a 10-year equipment warranty.
Complicated and requires experience
Solar panel installation is a complex electric setup. The cost of solar power is all up-front in the materials and installation. You'll need to understand and figure out exactly where panels should be placed and tilted to optimize your solar panels' power performance. If done incorrectly, you'll be reducing the panel's ability to generate power.
When installing an expensive electrical system, you need someone who knows what they're doing. If you install the system incorrectly, you won't reap the financial rewards or get the best return from a system that works efficiently in the future. So, if you don't have the electric experience yourself, using a professional will save you both time and money in the long run.
Solar installers are required to undergo rigorous health and safety training. This process trains them to work safely at heights and on roofs using standards that prevent injury to themselves or others. These installers must use approved fall protection equipment.
A professional will also help you file the necessary permits and applications required to get your solar energy system up and running. Your utility provider won't let you connect your solar system to the grid without it being signed off by a certified electrician, so you will have to hire one at the final stage anyway.
Solar power is a form of electricity and therefore comes with the same safety issues as other forms of electricity. Safety should be a primary consideration if you decide to attempt to do a DIY installation. Solar systems produce high voltage DC electricity, if electricity is mishandled, there is a severe risk of electrocution that can cause death.
DIY Solar Tips
Do your research
Research is essential in the design, purchase, and installation phases. You'll need to thoroughly research the type of setup you need, the best solar equipment or kit, and the location regulations for installation. If you have no prior electrical experience you probably shouldn’t attempt to install your own solar panel system. But if you’re determined to tackle this project anyway be sure to do all your research.
Get multiple quotes from different installers
With any major purchase, you'll want to shop around for a good deal. Electricity isn't something you should cut corners on, but you can still find good quality labor at a reasonable price.
Even if you’re considering doing the labor yourself, it’s worth getting a quote so you can make an informed choice. It never hurts to get a bid first and find out how much it’s going to cost. You may find that you’re not saving as much by doing it yourself as you think you will. To work out how much you might save, you’ll need to know how much it would cost a professional to do the work.
Installation costs can vary significantly across different providers. A report by the US government found large installers were often $2,000 to $5,000 more expensive than small solar companies. It's often a good idea to get at least three different quotes before making a final decision. If your neighbors use solar panels, you can also ask around for recommendations.
Switching to solar power is a highly rewarding process, even if you don't install it yourself. Solar panels reduce both your carbon emission and your electric bills. Switching to solar provides a pathway to increase your energy independence or go completely off-grid and live a nomadic lifestyle of adventure.
If you have the skills and time to tackle a DIY solar installation, all power to you. But if a DIY solar installation seems overwhelming, there are many reputable and reasonably priced solar installation companies that can do the work for you.
A properly installed solar power system will pay off for decades to come, whether you decide to go down the do-it-yourself route or hire a professional.