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One of the most common questions we get from prospective customers is “can I just purchase solar panels and install them myself?” The answer to this question depends on a number of factors, chief among them being the amount of time, effort, and energy that a person is willing to devote to the project. A lot of people who are considering doing the installation themselves think the process is as simple as installing some rails on their roof, mounting the panels, and running a few wires into their breaker panel. However designing and installing any photovoltaic (PV) system is vastly more complicated than that. So let’s examine everything that actually goes into properly designing and installing a solar array!
The first step is to select the type of modules, invert(s), and racking to be used for the system. Additionally there are dozens of other components that will need to be purchased and properly configured with one another, from panel clamps, to grounding lugs, to a laundry list of electrical components. All of these products range greatly in terms of price, quality, size, warranty coverage, and compatibility with one another. However once these items have been selected, the installation is still a long way from beginning. Before any of the materials are ordered, three things are needed: an engineer’s stamped letter, a building permit from your local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), and approval from your utility company (assuming the system will be grid tied). In order to obtain any of these three things a set of detailed design specs must be submitted. These designs must show: the proposed location, tilt and orientation of the array, string size, wire size, inverter size, breaker size, proper grounding, wire configuration, voltage drop calculations, and production calculations, just to name a few. When it comes to configuring a PV system an immense amount of knowledge is required not only to remain code compliant, but also to ensure the highest level of production from the system. If any one component is not properly sized or configured you could not only be losing power production, but could also be creating a potential fire hazard.
Once all the design work has been completed, the building permit issued, and approval from the utility company received, it is now time to begin the installation. If the system is being installed on a roof the person performing the installation will need to be confident that they are able to make anywhere from 50 to over 300 roof attachment points (depending on the size of the system) without creating any leaks. Hopefully the chosen racking system utilizes flashings and rubber gaskets to ensure water tightness. If quality solar panels have been selected, they should be warrantied for 25 years. Therefore it is very important that whatever style of roof attachment is being used will be capable of remaining water tight for a minimum of 25 years. If the system is installed on the ground, heavy machinery will be required to secure the racking firmly and properly in place. Remember all work being done must be completed in accordance with designs approved by a licensed engineer, and will be inspected by the building department.
Once the racking is taken care of, the solar panels must be mounted. This is a fairly simple process, although wire management is vitally important. If wires running form the solar panels to the inverter(s) are not properly protected and secured the system may not pass inspection, and could potentially create a fire or electric shock hazard. If the system is installed on the roof there are very specific provisions in the National Electric Code (NEC) pertaining to wires carrying direct current (DC). Again if any of these provisions are not met, the system will not pass inspection and may need to be entirely redesigned.
The next step is to install the inverter(s). Assuming a string inverter has been selected, all the DC wires from the solar panels need to be properly terminated in the inverter. Whoever is performing this work will be dealing with live wires producing up to 600V in direct current. If these wires are not properly tested and terminated, they could potentially ruin an inverter worth several thousand dollars. If microinverters have been selected, the procedures for setting panels and performing wire management are completely different than they are for installing a system utilizing a string inverter. Once again proper: grounding, circuit size, wire size, conduit size, wire splicing and etc. are all paramount. The importance of attention to these details cannot be overemphasized. Not only is the overall production of the system at stake, but safety and code compliance are major concerns as well.
Next the inverter will need to be wired on the AC side. According to the NEC this phase of the installation can only be performed by a licensed master electrician. For anyone considering installing solar themselves, it is imperative that they factor in the cost of hiring an electrician to perform this work. It is also imperative that prior to reaching this phase of the installation, careful consideration has been given to where and how the PV system will be connected to the grid. Again there are dozens of potentially limiting factors that should have been addressed in the design phase of the installation. Complex upgrades to the service panel are not uncommon in terms of making the panel ready to accept solar backfeed. If this is the case, this work will also need to be performed by a licensed master electrician.
Now that the racking and modules have all been set, the wires run, the inverter installed, and the system connected to the grid, the system must be inspected. Depending on the stipulations set forth by the local AHJ, multiple inspections may be required both during and after the installation is complete. Additionally many inverters (string inverters and microinverters) come equipped with monitoring software. If this is the case, the monitoring system will need to be installed and configured with the home’s Wi-Fi network. Once this is complete and the utility company has installed a meter capable of reading the system’s power production (usually called a “Net Meter”) the installation is complete!
But wait! One thing often overlooked by do-it-yourselfers (and even some solar installers) is that utility companies often offer rebates and incentives to customers who install solar on their grid. Many utilities have different requirements for qualification, but in most cases a simple application is all that is required. If any rebates or incentives are overlooked, the system owner might be throwing away thousands of dollars in free money over the life of their system. Additionally there are important tax documents that need to be filed with the IRS for the system owner to receive their 30% federal tax credit.
So to answer the question of “can you install solar yourself?” the answer is yes – if you are willing to devote a large amount of time and effort to the project. The average person will need to do a tremendous amount of research before they are ready to begin the installation. Additionally they will need to be comfortable working on the roof (in the case of roof mount) or with heavy machinery (in the case of ground mount). They will need a basic to mid-range knowledge of construction, wiring, and electricity (as they pertain to solar). They will need to be willing to invest money in special tools, equipment rental, and hiring an electrician. Furthermore they will need at least one person who is willing to help them, as most phases of the project will require a minimum of two competent workers. So ultimately what the decision boils down to is a question of how much your time is worth to you. And are you willing to spend that time researching, planning, and installing all the components that go into a PV system? The final consideration is how confident you are in your ability to perform the installation at the same level of safety and quality that a professional solar contractor should be able to achieve. Ultimately, whatever you decide, you are making a great decision both financially and for the environment! So feel good… because you are doing the right thing!
Please check out our website at www.altewindandsolar.com and our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Alt-E-Wind-Solar-Ltd-196202797091314/ or give us a call at 970-482-SOLAR(7652)
“Going Solar” is such an exciting decision! You already know you’re making a great financial investment decision as well as being a friend to the environment. So now you find yourself at the point where you contact different solar installers to get bids. A good installer should be able to give you a solid ball park price estimate over the phone if you provide them with your annual kilowatt usage and your address so they can look at a satellite image of you property on Google Earth. But to get an exact price quote, they will definitely have to make a site visit. So suppose you’ve received several quotes yet one is substantially lower than the others….how can this be?
This is where you have to be careful. It is tempting to go with the lowest bid, assuming that it will save you money. The old adage “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” definitely rings true here. It’s also true in this industry that you get what you pay for! Unfortunately there are companies out there who will provide you with erroneous or misleading information just to get your business; or will use shoddy product and cut corners on the installation… those companies likely won’t be around in the future should something go wrong with your system and you need help.
One of the most common ploys to be aware of is “Our solar panels are more efficient than others so they will produce more power.” This is very misleading. The efficiency of a solar panel has little to do with its power output. For example, a 300 watt solar panel is a 300 watt solar panel… it is only going to output 300 watts of power. Therefore 2 solar panels of the same size (wattage) exposed to sunlight for the same amount of time are generally going to produce the same amount of power (kilowatt hours). The efficiency has much more to do with the physical size of the solar panel itself… NOT how much power it will produce. If one 300 watt solar panel is more efficient than another 300 watt solar panel, that simply means it is smaller in physical size than the less efficient one. There are however some very small differences in solar panels that may contribute to one solar panel generating more or less power than another solar panel of the same wattage (i.e. – temperature coefficient) but these are small differences and will not greatly impact the power production, contrary to what many solar installers imply. The most important thing to remember here is that wattage is the most important consideration… a 10kW array is a 10kW array and one will not produce more than the other, regardless of solar panel efficiency. It is also important to ensure, that the installer is using Premium Grade solar panels from a Tier 1 manufacturer that offers a 25 year linear power production warranty. Also, ensure the solar panels have “re-insurance” to back up the warranty in case the manufacturer is not around if a warranty claim arises.
Another issue to be extremely aware of, if you are getting a roof mount system, is the type of racking that will be used to attach the solar panels to your roof. Many installers cut corners here in order provide you with a cheaper bid and win your business, but it is to your detriment. Roof mounted solar systems generally require attachments that penetrate the roofing material and attach to the roof joists or trusses in your attic. A reputable installer will use “flashing” which is a thin metal plate covering the roof attachment point, tucked under the shingle and further secured with bead of roofing tar AND silicon rubber gaskets to ensure no leaks ever occur at the penetration point for the full life of the system. A less reputable installer will just use something called an “L Foot” without flashing which is an L shaped bracket set and drilled into the trusses from the top of the shingle, leaving an opportunity for the roof to leak at every penetration point. Most will at least use a dab of silicon on top of the lag bolt that penetrates the roof, BUT… your solar panels have a 25 year warranty and I certainly wouldn’t want to rely on a dab of silicon on top of a bolt to protect my roof from leaking for 25 years or longer… would you? An installers cost for an attachment bracket WITH FLASHING and hardware is around $12 each versus an L Foot bracket at $2 each. Therefore, if you take a 10kW roof mount system, for example, it would require approximately 100 roof attachment points and 200 lag bolt penetrations into the roof (each roof attachment requires 2 lag bolts, if the installer is not cutting corners or using a low quality product). That means the cost to the installer is $1200 for the flashed attachment or $200 for the L Feet. It also is much less labor intensive to install an L Foot than it is to properly install a flashed attachment bracket. That one little trick right there allows the less reputable installer to knock approximately $1500 off your bid (parts & labor) with you being none the wiser……until your roof leaks.
Another trick commonly used by shoddy installers is to under size the inverter. It is really important to use an inverter that is large enough for your system to run at maximum efficiency. The inverter should not be sized less than 90% of the total size of the array (in kilowatts). The inverter can be slightly smaller than your array size because there are some system losses that occur (i.e. – panel soiling, wire/connection losses, etc.) but an inverter that is too small will “clip power” on a sunny day when the sun is over head. For example, if 10kW’s of solar panels are outputting 9kW’s of power but the system only has an 8kW inverter, then your system will only output 8kW’s because 8kW’s is the maximum output of the inverter. In this situation, your solar panels are producing 1kW (1000 watts) more power than the inverter can handle so the inverter “clips” the excess power (to avoid damage to the inverter), thereby wasting 1000 watts of electricity at that time. Obviously, the smaller the inverter is the less expensive it is so the installer can quote you a lower price and still tell you that you have a 10kW solar array, because you do in fact have 10kW’s of solar panels… even though it will not produce as much power as it should if the inverter were properly sized.
One final thing to be aware of… ask your installer to justify their power production calculations and make sure that all the quotes you receive use the exact same “system loss” calculations. Many installers will misrepresent the system losses, which produces the illusion that their solar array will produce more power than the other more reputable installers. I’ve even seen several installers say “because our system produces more power than our competitors (for whatever bogus reason), we can build a smaller system for you, which in turn saves you money on the installation cost.” Again, total hogwash! Bottom line is… a 10kW array is generally going produce the same amount of power as another 10kW array, if it’s properly designed and installed! So make sure they not only provide you with the power production calculations but ALSO with their “system loss” calculations so you can verify that all installers are using the same accurate calculations and that someone is not misleading you here.
It is so important to have an excellent installer when it comes to your new solar system. The best way to find them is to ask questions. An installer worth his/her salt should take plenty of time to answer any question you have down to the very last detail…..as you can see, details are important. Also, ask for references! These customers can give you feedback on the installation process, the efficiency of their system and if any problems arose, how they were dealt with. They are the best way to make sure the installation company has stood the test of time. Many companies can slap together a cheap installation but the few really good ones will provide an excellent product, outstanding service and be there for you down the road when and if you need them. Going with a reputable installer may cost a little more up front but is surely worth your peace of mind.
Please check out our website at www.altewindandsolar.com and our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Alt-E-Wind-Solar-Ltd/196202797091314 or give us a call at 970.482.SOLAR (7652).
NOW THAT I HAVE DECIDED TO GO SOLAR, IS IT BETTER TO BUY OR LEASE?
Have you recently made the decision to harness the clean energy of the sun and “go solar?” If so, congratulations, it’s a wonderful decision that is great for the environment, the economy and your pocket-book. One of the very next questions you will face is whether to buy a system or lease one.
Many residential solar installation companies like to push leasing. Some will offer “no money down’ or they will charge $1,000 to $3,000 (depending on the size of the system) up front to install the solar panels, and then lock the homeowner into a 20 year contract, where they will have to pay rent every single month for 20 years. For example, if a homeowner has a monthly electric bill of $250, he or she might pay the solar company $125 a month to rent the solar panels and the homeowner’s electric bill would drop to around $100. All in all, he or she would be saving around $25 a month by renting solar panels. This is an example using a system that only partially offsets the homeowner’s electric bill. A large enough system could eliminate the entire electric bill but the monthly rent would be larger and the savings to the homeowner still minimal. Also, it’s important to be aware that solar leases include an approximate 3% annual increase causing the homeowner’s rent payment to increase every single year over the 20 year contract period. These leasing companies also emphasize that they will install the system, monitor and take care of all maintenance. All you have to do is sit back, feel good about the environmental benefits, save money and leave the rest to them. Sounds pretty good, huh? Well there is a whole lot more to the story.
It’s very important to understand the dynamics of actually purchasing a system (remember the solar company is the purchaser when you lease) before making your final decision. A solar system will not only pay for itself in as little as 5 to 10 years, but will continue to make you money over its 35 to 40 year expected life span. Remember, after the system has paid for itself the owner has no electric bill or one that is much lower so the savings grow and grow each year as energy costs rise. This is one of the primary reasons why residential solar leasing companies want you to let them use your roof or your property. Huge utility company rebates are available in many states, some as high as $2,000.00 per kilowatt. With a solar lease you won’t receive a rebate because you are not buying the system. The leasing company will get the rebate because they will own the system that you’ll be making payments on for the next 20 years. This is another reason why residential solar lease companies want you to let them use your roof or your property. The Federal government is offering a 30% tax credit that’s currently available for the installation of a solar electric system on your home. With a solar lease you won’t receive the 30% federal tax credit either because you are not buying the system. The leasing company will get the tax credit because they will own the system that you’ll be making payments on for the next 20 years. Yep, you guessed it; this is another reason why residential solar lease companies want you to let them use your roof or your property. A properly installed solar system requires almost no maintenance, by the way, other than a good rinsing upon occasion to remove dust and debris. Solar modules are covered under a 25 year factory warranty and inverters are covered by a 10 to 25 year factory warranty. Also, purchasing a solar system substantially increases the value of your property whereas a lease is a liability in the eyes of someone looking to purchase your home.
All in all it is easy to see that the owner, whether it is you or a leasing/installation company, is the one who gets the risk free annual return on investment of 10-20%! Why not let it be you? If the concept of little or no money down is attractive to you, do the math and it will become clear that financing the purchase of your solar system with little or no money down makes a whole lot more financial sense than leasing. It sure would be great to change over to clean, renewable energy and put a nice amount of money in your pocket at the same time!
Please check out our website at www.altewindandsolar.com and our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Alt-E-Wind-Solar-Ltd/196202797091314 or give us a call at 970.482.SOLAR (7652).