Should I Install My Own Solar Panels?
No: Solar Panels are Not a Phone App
Everyone loves saving money. And especially in America, there’s also a certain pride in the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach to fixing and improving things in your life. Especially mechanical things. It’s the guy who can change his own oil verses the guy who takes his car to Jiffy Lube. Or being able to fix your own computer rather than calling in a repair technician.
So it’s not surprising that solar panel installation has found its own little DIY market. People love to believe they can do it themselves.
But before beginning any project, it’s wise to ask yourself a few basic questions, such as:
- What is my goal, my main reason for doing this?
- What technical skills or knowledge will I need?
- Do I have the tools and the ability to use them?
- Will anyone else care that I’m doing this (like the government, or the power company)?
- How long will it take?
- Will I know what to do if I mess up?
- How much money will I save, and is it worth the extra time I’ll have to invest?
That last question is a big one. Sure, the person who can change their own oil saves money. But they also get really dirty, spend a lot more time to do it, and have to deal with the used oil. You weigh that against the pride you get from doing it yourself, and you decide what’s more valuable.
DIY Solar Installation Is Not Like Changing Oil
With solar panels, if you do any investigation at all, you’ll quickly discover that DIY solar isn’t quite like changing your oil. Solar panels are not software. You don’t just install them and click “start.”
“Okay,” you might be thinking, “It’s complicated. I get it. But that’s not a reason not to do something.”
True. So let’s take a look at the answers to those seven questions presented above. If after reading these answers you still think installing your own solar panels is a good idea, send us an email after you complete your project. We’d love to hear how it goes.
A1: Why You Want to Install Your Own Solar Panels
For most people, the answer to this usually comes down to saving money. If you look at any of the major DIY solar kits out there, saving money is pretty much their only sales pitch. They do cost comparisons, and make it seem like installing your own panels will save you thousands, depending on the size of your system.
However, money may not be your only reason.
Maybe you really love learning how to do things, and how things work. In that case, you don’t really care about money or the extra time it will take. You just want the skills, knowledge, and experience.
Or, your reasoning could be simply so you can tell everyone you installed your own solar system, and see if it impresses them.
Whatever the reason – know why you want to do this yourself. Because that’s what you have to measure against everything else you’re about to read.
A2: What Skills and Knowledge Will I Need To Install My Panels?
Right here is where most people will run into trouble. Why? Because you need a lot of knowledge and skill to do this. Let’s look at a few of the biggest hurdles:
1. Electricity – Do you know how electricity works in residential systems? Most people don’t. Crossing wires, connecting leads, testing voltage (is high voltage good or bad?) – there’s a reason electricians go through long apprenticeship programs and then get paid pretty high wages to do what they do.
And electricity isn’t something to mess around with if you don’t know anything about it. You can get killed. You can overload lines and burn your house down. Yes, you can.
Here’s a simple test to find out if you know anything about electricity:
Do you know what it means to “ground” something?
If that question made you think of coffee, then you shouldn’t install your own solar panels. Grounding is an electrical term. When you install panels, you have to ground them, and there are certain approved methods you have to choose from to do this. (And no, it doesn’t mean the panels are on the ground).
You’ll have to research those methods, figure out which one seems best for your situation, learn how to do it, and then do it properly. Here’s a great article that talks about what electricians do for solar installations.
2. Permits and regulations – Grounding regulations are just one type of approval you’ll have to get. You’re going to have to learn a lot about the various regulations and permits from all sorts of government agencies and your utility that come into play when connecting your solar system to the grid. Yes, you could install an off-grid system, but that usually costs more and has its own drawbacks (compare on-grid to off-grid solar here). Remember – if your goal is to save money, pay attention in this article to how many things you’ll have to spend extra money on to do this yourself.
Once you learn about all these permits and regulations and fees, you’ll then have to pay for them.
3. Solar panel installation – the number one area of missing knowledge. This isn’t just about connecting hookups or even installing your inverter and connecting it to your electrical panel. It’s about positioning your panels.
If you read this article about 9 questions anyone should ask before going solar, you’ll encounter a number of new concepts, such as tilt, orientation, and positioning on the roof. What are these?
Some DIY solar articles talk about how “easy” it is to install your own panels. But when you start reading the details, you realize how much there is to learn. For example, any honest DIY article has to talk about “sun charts” or something of that nature.
Tilt and orientation and positioning address the biggest problem we have with the sun: It moves. It doesn’t stay in the same position. And not just each day, but each season. In winter, it’s more to the southern portion of the sky. In summer, it’s more northern. This matters, because the angle of optimal sunlight changes by season and time of day.
The positioning and tilt angle of your panels, and how close they are to each other, has a huge impact on the amount of energy your system will produce. This is the number one reason not to install your own solar panels:
If you do it wrong, you will miss out on thousands of dollars in long terms savings.
Remember how the goal is to save money?
There’s a reason that, just like electricians, solar installation experts also have certification programs, and these take a long time to complete. The primary one is the NABCEP certification for PV installations.
Anytime you’re doing something yourself that professionals spend months or years learning how to do – you have to ask yourself why those training programs exist, and if it’s really wise to figure you can just bypass all of it. For example:
- Do you know how to assess the space on your roof, and which parts of it aren’t suitable for solar panels?
- Do you know how to position the panels for maximum space utilization as well as maximum power generation?
- Do you know how to determine what tilt and panel orientation are best for your specific house, for which way your roof faces? Should it be the same for all the panels?
- Do you know how close to put the panels next to each other?
- Do you know whether a ground installation might be better than a roof one?
- Do you know how to deal with potential shading from nearby trees or buildings?
- Do you know how to assess the quality of your roof, if it’s in good condition to install panels?
Getting the picture?
Solar installation professionals know and consider all of this and more when they plan out your installation. You can’t learn all this in a couple weeks. No one can. So you’ll either spend months and months on it, or you’ll just “wing” it and hope for the best (but you won’t save any money).
A3: What Tools Do I Need to Install My Own Panels?
No need to get too technical here. But if you’ve never done anything with electricity, then you’ll have to spend some money on the tools they use. Like voltmeters. And you’ll have to learn how to use them too. That means some science and practical physics, as well as how that applies to the various devices.
Then there’s the mounting rails for roof installations, or posts if you’re doing a ground installation. One DIY article talking about how “easy” this is went on to say they poured concrete foundations for the posts that their ground-based solar panels would sit on.
Do you know how to pour concrete? Do you know how deep to make the hole, how to set it, or when to put the post in before it hardens? How do you know if it’s straight or slightly tilted? Once the concrete is hard, you’re done, so you better get it right the first time!
For roof installations, you have to bolt all the rails into your roof. Do you know how to do that without causing leaks in your roof? Just like electricity, messing with a roof is serious business. Mess it up, and you get leaks in the winter. Now you have to take off the panels, fix the leak, and put them back on. Are we still saving money?
A4: The Government and the Utility Company Come Knocking
We already touched on this earlier, but you have to abide by the regulations of the federal, state, and local governments.
You’re going to have to wade into some deep waters here and try not to drown in all the red tape, permits, fees, and codes you have to follow. You have to learn all this yourself.
According to Energy Sage, “Your utility won’t let you connect your system to the grid without sign-off from a certified electrician.”
So all that electricity knowledge you had to spend time and money to learn? The utility doesn’t care. They want a certified electrician to approve your system before they’ll connect you. Still saving money?
This is not an attempt to exaggerate. There really are a lot of regulations and permits associated with solar, because you’re messing with the electric grid. And that affects everyone.
A5: How Long Will Installing My Own Panels Take?
No one should ever believe that a DIY project will take less time than paying someone. That’s one reason people pay, even for oil changes. It’s just faster.
Installing your own panels is no different. What takes the pros a few days to a few weeks (for really large systems) to complete will take you many times longer than that. And that’s including all the learning you’ll have to do.
The actual installation work itself may only take a few extra days, if you’re lucky and don’t have any problems. But all the time you’ll spend before, when you’re learning and preparing, and after, when you’re maintaining and fine-tuning without any help – that’s time you’d save if you paid a pro.
This will consume a large portion of your life if you try to install your own solar panels.
A6: Mistakes Are VERY Costly
What if you mess up during the installation? There are two layers to this question. First, there are immediate mistakes, and those are costly.
Dropping a panel and damaging the components, for example. Now it’s busted, and you have to buy a new one. Messing up the electrical installation and frying something. That’s also going to cost you (in time and money).
But some mistakes, you won’t even know you’ve made until it’s too late.
Like, what if you install your panels at the wrong angle, and find out only a year later that you’ve been missing out on 50 kWh of solar energy per month because of it?
Again, this is real money you’ll be losing, that the pros would have saved you. Think about the math. Suppose you install your panels at a non-optimal angle and tilt, and end up missing out on just $10 per month of energy savings you would have made with a professional installation. Ten bucks isn’t that much, right?
Over a 20 year period of time, that comes to $2400 in lost savings. And DIY is about saving money, right?
A7: But I Will Still Save Money on DIY Solar, Right?
If you get lucky, maybe. But frankly, we doubt it. The great number of ways you can make costly mistakes is far too large to list them all here. You’ve read about a few of them. But with solar, you have to think long term. Small mistakes lead to lost savings over 10, 20, possibly even 40 year periods of time.
When dealing with decades of potential savings, you want to maximize every cent of energy savings with your installation. You simply don’t have the training or expertise to accomplish this. You will miss something, and you’ll lose out on the savings that go with it.
And those missed savings will add up, every month, and negate whatever few thousand dollars you might have saved on the actual installation by doing it yourself.
Other ways you’ll miss out on savings:
- Tax incentives. Some government incentives only kick in when the installation is done by a certified technician. That’s big money you might miss out on. And that alone will more than make up for any extra installation costs
- Professionally installed panels come with 25 year warrantees. So if something goes wrong on your DIY solar installation, you’re out the money – and the time – as you figure out how to fix it. For most companies, the warranty is included at no extra cost.
- DIY systems are too small. One DIY solar kit charges $2900 for a 1kW system, and $5000 for a 2kW system. A typical home residence wanting to have a real impact on their power bill usually needs at least a 4kW system, often more. So you’ll spend well over $10,000 on these kits if you really want to accomplish anything. And that doesn’t include all the tools and equipment and training manuals you’ll need. Compared to professional installation and all the time you’ll save, the cost differential isn’t as big as the DIY people make it out to be. And that again assumes you don’t make any costly mistakes.
DIY Solar? Not If You Want to Save Money Long Term
Quite simply, solar is just too complicated to do yourself. Yes, you can do the tasks. But you can’t do them as well as a certified technician. And with solar, small mistakes add up to thousands in lost savings over the life of your panels.
Those losses, combined with the uncertainty of having no warranty, lost tax incentives, having to fix any errors yourself, having to learn about regulations, electricity, roof assessment, and even astronomy (the sun’s ever-changing position) – you are climbing a very steep hill when you choose to install your own solar panels.
The chances of climbing that hill and still saving money long term are slim to none. And you’ll have spent gobs of time that you’ll never get back.