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While DIY installation of solar panels is possible and would save a building owner thousands of dollars in labor costs, it is a dangerous process that requires technical knowledge. Instead, most people opt to work with a solar company that handles the permitting, installation, and maintenance of the system.
In any case, knowing how a solar panel system works and how they are installed will help a building owner vet solar panel companies and work with engineers.
The process of installing a system varies from state to state and municipality to municipality. In most cases, though, the same steps can be followed.
The Basics: Permitting, Planning and Essential Components
The installation process typically begins with a solar company sending an engineer to the home or building where the panels will be installed. They will review the wiring and electrical system and then determine what solar system it can support.
The engineer will also inspect the building’s roof, ensuring it is structurally sound and can support the right number of panels.
Before installation can begin, the building owner must secure permitting for the new solar panels. The installers will typically file permits on the owner’s behalf. At the same time, they will also fill out the forms necessary to apply for federal or state incentives.
Permit processing time often takes much longer than the installation process itself. Some installers recommend people prepare to wait several weeks before permits are secured.
Actual installation time will vary, depending on the location and size of the array. EnergySage estimates that the entire process of securing permits and installing the panels can take anywhere from a few weeks to half a year, but the installation process typically takes just one to three days.
Once the solar company has secured permits for the new installation, the building owner will order equipment and prepare to install the panels.
Installing the Solar System
Every solar system has the same major components — the panels, a racking system that secures them, an inverter or inverters, wiring and other electrical components that bring everything together. Some buildings also have large battery systems that store excess energy for later use. These systems can keep the lights on for a few hours, even when the grid is knocked offline.
Complete solar panel installation DIY kits exist for those wanting to buy the equipment themselves. Most solar companies will also work with the building owner to determine the best type of solar panel, inverter and battery for the structure and source this equipment on their behalf.
The most significant decision will be choosing what type of panels to use. Three types of solar panels are currently available for consumers: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin-film panels. Monocrystalline panels are the most energy-efficient but expensive, while thin-film panels are cheaper but less efficient. Polycrystalline panels offer a middle ground between these two versions.
Building owners must also decide what type of inverter to use. Solar panels produce direct current (DC), which must be inverted to the alternating current (AC) that buildings, home appliances and the energy grid use.
Some systems use one large inverter, installed where the panels connect to the grid, or many micro-inverters on each solar panel. These micro-inverters distribute risk across the system — if one micro-inverter fails, the rest of the panels will still capture and deliver energy. The system can stay online while the building owner schedules the repair or replacement of the failed inverter.
However, choosing micro-inverters means building owners need another inverter if they also install a home battery system. Batteries store electricity in DC — though some solar batteries, like the Tesla Powerwall, have a built-in inverter, allowing them to act like an AC battery.
Once the equipment has arrived, the solar company will dispatch an installation team to rack the panels in place and connect the system to the grid. After an inspection from local government officials and a utility company representative, the property owner can activate the system.
Maintenance, Upkeep and System Expansion
Once the solar panels are installed, they’ll need regular upkeep. Otherwise, they could become less efficient or stop functioning altogether.
Suppose someone opts to maintain the system themselves. In that case, they’ll also need to think about keeping tools necessary for solar panel installation and maintenance — like multimeters, power drills and hacksaws — in good working condition. Owners may need to remove rust from hand tools that were exposed to moisture or ensure electric ones are still functional.
The exact maintenance schedule needed for a solar panel system varies from installation to installation. Some maintenance tasks will almost always be necessary. Manufacturers often recommend that building owners inspect the panels and site four times a year, clearing away dust and trimming trees that may block light.
Once a year, building owners may also need to schedule a visual inspection for defects, cracks, and normal wear and tear. They may need a solar panel engineer to inspect component conduits, cabling insulation, and mounting structures every five years.
DIY maintenance can pose significant safety risks. Even when the system is disconnected from the grid, it can remain energized — making electrocution a real possibility.
Often, the solar company that installed the panel will be able to recommend a specific maintenance schedule for an installation, including information on upkeep the building owner could perform on their own. They may also offer services that can be scheduled in advance.
The good news is that some of these maintenance costs will likely be offset by the power generated by the solar system. The average home can save $10,000-$30,000 over the lifetime of its installation.
Keep This in Mind When Installing Solar Panels
DIY solar panel installation is possible, but the complexity and potential for danger that comes with the work encourage most building owners to hire a professional installer. These companies will handle permitting, selecting equipment and installing the panels. They may also assist with maintenance after the panels are installed.
No matter who installs a solar panel, they’ll still provide the same benefits, helping the owner reduce their power bill and minimize their carbon footprint.
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, a magazine exploring how innovations change our world. She has over 3 years experience writing articles in the industrial and tech sectors.
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