Integrating solar power into your home can be as simple as installing a single panel and battery system or as robust as having a full array of panels powering your entire home.
There are pros and cons for any solar setup, but the upfront costs of a big system can be a major deterrent — a fully functioning 5-kilowatt system could cost upwards of $15,000.
But homeowners can lower costs for a solar system by installing components themselves, saving thousands of dollars on installation fees.
Keep reading to learn more about DIY solar projects.
The Challenges of Home Solar Panel Installation
Once you have evaluated your power needs, using a cost calculator
will help estimate some of the upfront costs and savings of a solar system.
Generally, the average U.S. home uses just under 900 kilowatt-hours of energy per month, so you’ll want a system that can cover that use.
Installing the panels is one of the easier parts of the process, though connecting the system requires experience with high-voltage electrical systems. Certain states, such as Florida, require a licensed technician to legally install solar setups.
DIYers interested in solar arrays should have experience with outdoor electrical wiring before attempting an installation, as poor wiring can be damaged by the elements and may create electrical hazards. DIYers who accept the risks associated with such a project should proceed with caution.
Mounting the panels at the optimal angle to absorb as much sun as possible is critical. Roof installations are the most common, but stand-alone arrays may do a better job, depending on your location.
Getting Started with Solar
As a DIY project, a home solar setup is quite involved. A good compromise for DIY homeowners is to buy the equipment, mount the panels, then call in a certified solar technician to connect it all.
Smaller projects, such as powering a low-energy workspace that runs laptops or fans, can benefit from all-in-one kits that require only basic setups and little to no complicated electrical wiring.
However, for those competent in electrical work, a complete DIY installation is a fun and worthwhile project that can save money in the long run.
What You’ll Need
As energy surges to Earth from the sun, it takes an efficient system to use as much of that power as possible. A standard solar power system consists of four main components: solar panels, batteries, a controller, and a power inverter. Note that certain kits and systems may offer these components (minus the panels) as a single device.
Here’s more information about each piece of equipment.
● Solar panels come in a variety of materials and costs. Solar technology is advancing yearly, so it’s worth researching the latest trends in solar panels before starting any project. As of this writing, crystalline panels are popular for home and commercial installations. Monocrystalline panels have an efficiency max around 20 percent and can last from 25 to 40 years, but they tend to be more expensive. Polycrystalline panels are a bit less efficient than monocrystalline, maxing out at about 15 percent, but they are cheaper and are projected to last between 20 and 30 years. Thin-film panels max out at about 10 percent efficiency, but they are less expensive than crystalline panels and take up less space — though they are often not as durable. How many panels you’ll need will depend on what material panel you use as well as your available space and energy needs. You’ll also need to invest in a racking system to hold the panels, regardless of where you install them.
● Batteries are a critical element of your system. Lithium-ion batteries are the most popular in-home systems. Lead-acid batteries are cheaper than lithium-ion but tend to have shorter lifespan cycles. Solar storage is advancing as rapidly as solar panels, so look for technology such as flow batteries to develop in the future.
● Controllers are devices that protect your batteries from energy surges and safely ensure the flow of solar energy from your panels.
● Inverters work to convert stored energy into standard voltages that can be used in the home.
Experienced electrical workers can use galvanized electrical conduit to connect the various components, along with a copper grounding post to ground the system. If your area is set up for net metering and you want to connect your solar system to the energy grid, you may need to install a net metering component to measure energy fed back into the grid. This is used in parallel to a standard grid install for hybrid energy systems where homeowners can get kickbacks for contributing energy into the grid.
Depending on your rack system, setup and wiring usually only takes between 1 and 3 days to complete. If you’re custom building a stand-alone racking system, the duration of the install can take a bit longer. Permitting and inspection can be another story, depending on your state. Expect 3-4 weeks to get your system fully inspected and approved.
Permits, Credits, and Other Details
Each state has different solar regulations, and it’s up to the home DIYer to research the legal requirements for larger installs.
Many smaller, kit-based installations don’t require oversight approval. Additionally, each state has its own policy
for credits and other incentives for solar and renewable energy.
Solar panel installation requires some legal legwork and a solid understanding of electrical systems, and the savings over a professional installation may be somewhat marginal relative to the cost of the whole installation. But if you’re looking to establish an off-the-grid power setup, it’s a rewarding project that produces clean energy.
With technology improving at a rapid pace, DIY solar projects are likely to get even easier, safer, and more affordable in the years to come.