The popularity of solar power has grown in recent years, thanks to plummeting equipment costs, climbing electricity rates, and the looming climate crisis. And with thousands of do-it-yourself guides and videos online, the DIY culture continues to attract more people. So, it’s no surprise that DIY solar power systems are garnering a lot of interest.
As with any DIY project, DIY solar is appealing for two main reasons: cost savings, and the satisfaction of completing a complex task. But before you look for your toolkit, there are two important questions to ask: Are you allowed to install solar power systems yourself, and is it a good idea to do so? Let’s begin with the first question.
Can You Legally Install Your Own Solar Panels?
Solar power systems comprise a number of components — solar voltaic panels, inverters, wiring, connectors, and more. Naturally, installing a solar system is far more complex than assembling, say, Ikea furniture. Additionally, these systems are usually designed for interconnection with the local power grid. An unsafe system connected to the grid can be a major safety hazard, especially for linesmen working in the neighborhood.
So it’s no surprise that many governing authorities worldwide prohibit people from connecting self-installed solar panels to the grid. In the U.S., there is no federal law regulating DIY solar projects, but each state has its own regulation.
For instance, anyone installing solar panels in Texas is required to have a Texas Electrical Contractor’s License (TECL). But in California, you might be able to install a system yourself and get approval for grid connection. Some states require solar installers to be certified by organizations such as North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) or Solar Rating Certification Corporation (SRCC).
Most states in the U.S. have licensing requirements for solar installers for safety reasons. You can check each state’s law in IREC’s solar licensing database.
So, does this mean you cannot legally build your own solar power system? Well, in most places, it is somewhat difficult, legally, to install a full-fledged rooftop or ground-mounted solar system without any license or certifications. However, you can hire an electrician or solar installer for parts of the installation where it’s legally required. For instance, in Colorado, all electrical work on the AC side of the system must be done by a licensed electrician.
Another excellent option is to work on a smaller and safer DIY solar project that is not connected to the grid. Several websites offer DIY kits that include a small number of solar panels, an inverter, a battery, and miscellaneous equipment. These kits may include installation guides to help you assemble the system.
Should You Install a Solar Power System Yourself?
Let’s say you live in a state where the law allows designing and installing your own solar system. Is it a wise thing to do? The best way to answer this question is by looking at the advantages and disadvantages of DIY solar.
Advantages of DIY Solar Power Systems
As is usually the case in the U.S., labor costs can make up a significant portion of the total cost of any project. This is true for solar too. Whenever you receive a quote from a solar installer, labor accounts for about 10% or more of that cost.
By going the DIY route, you can save on this cost, which can amount to a few thousand dollars.
Any DIY enthusiast will attest to the fact that DIY projects do more than just save money — they provide the satisfaction of having done something new. Installing your system can be a fulfilling endeavor, regardless of its other benefits.
No Nasty Surprises
No matter how highly rated your installer is or how good the contract looks, when you are spending tens of thousands of dollars, it is natural to be uneasy about whether you are getting your money’s worth. Despite equipment warranties, customers often worry about the quality of the components and workmanship. When you do the work yourself, you know the quality you’re getting, making DIY solar a frequently explored option.
Disadvantages of DIY Solar Power Systems
As discussed previously, the major obstacle in installing a DIY system is the legal side of it. Completed systems undergo an inspection by the local utility company, which can also demand to see your installer’s license or certification.
Can Be Difficult and/or Dangerous
At first glance, installing solar may seem easy. But the actual installation can be difficult and highly technical. It makes more sense to hire an installer for grid-connected systems that require you to work on your roof, with electrical panels, or with buried wires. Moreover, DC current flowing from a string of solar panels can be extremely dangerous if you are not well-versed with electrical work.
May Not Be Worth the Money Saved
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), labor typically accounts for about 10% of a system’s cost. Considering the average cost of $15,000 to $25,000 for a solar energy system, the savings would run between $1,500 to $2,500 or slightly more. If you take into account the complexity and the time required in doing it yourself, it might not be worth the money you save.
Permits and Other Legal Hassles
Installing a solar PV system requires more than just purchasing and installing equipment. You need to apply for permits, rebates, and credits, as well as pass inspections. A registered solar installer has completed these steps dozens of times, and can likely do it more quickly and efficiently than you can.
Your state may allow you to install a system yourself, but you may not be able to claim certain incentives offered to homeowners who use a professional to install their solar power system. While you may be eligible for the federal solar tax credit, you may not be eligible for some local rebates.
Many banks also offer low-interest, “green loans” for going solar. In most cases, these banks require a quote/purchase agreement from a certified installer.
Missed Workmanship Warranty
Professionally installed panels come with a workmanship warranty that protects you against any defects in installation. Some companies, like SunPower, offer a 25-year warranty. You may be able to save around between $1,500 to $2,500 by doing it all yourself, but that means missing out on a valuable warranty like this.
Installing your own solar power system sounds enticing to many DIY enthusiasts who anticipate saving money and completing a satisfying project. But unlike other, simpler DIY projects, installing solar panels can be complicated, dangerous, and even sometimes tedious. State laws often prohibit installing solar if you don’t have the right credentials.
Thankfully, you can still install a smaller, off-grid system that powers an outbuilding or remote cabin. If your system is not connected to the grid, you can enjoy building a smaller, safer system using a handful of components — often available as a kit.