As technology becomes more efficient and cheaper, solar energy becomes more affordable every year. However, powering your home from the sun can still be an expensive renovation, and many homeowners try to offset those costs by designing and installing the solar panel system themselves. While this is certainly doable, depending on where you live and what you’re trying to build, there are many variables to consider and understand before getting started.
Do you have the necessary skills, experience and insight?
Installing a solar panel system can be a complex affair. There are many consequences of an incorrect installation, such as a simple power failure, a leak in your roof or even an electrical fire. You need a clear understanding of both electrical systems and how to physically install a large, heavy structure on your roof or on the ground.
Before you go too far down the path of installing a solar panel system yourself, be honest about whether you have the skills required and the willingness and time to learn how. Or hire a professional who will. After all, it’s usually more expensive to bring someone in to solve a project than it is to bring them in to get it right the first time.
Research the specific requirements for your type of system
Depending on the type of solar panel system you install and where you live, there are different regulations, permits and inspection requirements. In many areas, installing solar on a home that remains connected to the grid has strict rules for both plan and installation, including coordination with your utility company.
If you’re installing an off-grid system, such as an outhouse, cabin, or RV, the requirements are likely to be much less demanding, although you’ll likely still need permits and inspections. Before diving into the detailed planning of your project, contact your local building department and find out exactly what requirements your type of system must meet.
Not all solar panels are created equal
When you look at the hardware itself, it can be tempting to save money with the cheapest panels available. However, the purchase price does not always tell the whole story in terms of affordability. First of all, think about the durability of the panels. Does the company have a reputation for sustainable systems and do they have a guarantee to back that reputation? If you have to replace the system after 10 years when a slightly more expensive system would last 25 years, you have not saved any money.
The second consideration is the efficiency of the panels. The more efficient, the more power you generate and the more of your electricity costs you will offset. These costs increase over the life of the system. A 10% lower installation price can be negated by the increased energy production associated with higher quality panels.
Be aware of hidden costs
Don’t forget the costs beyond the panels, rails, wires and batteries involved in installing a solar panel system. For example, if you are installing a new solar panel system on the roof, you may need to reinforce the underlying structure. Before you begin, make sure the shingles are relatively new, or plan to remove the system to install a new roof in a few years.
Another consideration is making sure your system is in as much sunlight as possible during the day. This may mean cutting down some trees, which can cost thousands of dollars if you have to hire a professional. Other additional costs include upgrading your electrical panel, keeping it clear of snow during the winter, and repairing any potential damage.
Consider battery storage
Solar panels only generate electricity when the sun is shining. When installed in your home, a dip in sunlight usually isn’t a problem when you’re plugged in, and you can simply take advantage of that power at night or on dark, cloudy winter days. However, if you’re using solar power in an off-grid installation, such as a cabin in the woods, you’ll need to figure out how to get power when the sun isn’t shining.
A simple solution is a petrol generator. However, there are also plenty of battery storage options. The solar panels charge the batteries during the day with the excess generated power, and then you can draw from those batteries at night. Battery systems are a great addition to a solar installation, but can come with installation complexity and a specific set of regulations and building codes.
When in doubt, call a professional to help
Sometimes you can’t do every step of the process yourself – and indeed there are certain situations where you are legally not allowed to do all the work yourself. You don’t need to hire a company to take on the entire project or do it yourself. Many professionals can drop by at several steps to help you plan, install, or navigate the regulatory and code framework. If any part of the process seems too far outside your wheelhouse, contact a professional for assistance.
After all, you won’t save money if you install a solar panel system that never works.
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Prices were correct at the time this article was published, but may change over time.