DIY Solar Panels: What You Need to Know

While many homeowners are switching to solar power to help reduce or even eliminate their month-to-month utility costs, there’s no arguing that startup costs of solar panels can be high. One way to save money upfront is with a DIY solar panel installation, but is the challenge of building your own system worth what you save on labor?

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the pros and cons of DIY solar panel installation, including safety factors, permitting and how much money it saves in the long run.

If you’re looking to compare DIY costs to the cost of hiring a professional, you can use this tool or fill out the form below to start getting quotes from solar companies in your area.

DIY Solar: Considering the Cost Savings

Let’s talk dollars and cents. The cost of solar you’ll find in most research reflects more than just the solar panels themselves. It also takes into account other costs, including wiring, inverters, racking, administrative fees (permits and inspections) and labor.

The average cost of solar, when installed by a top solar company, can range from $10,000 to $20,000 — and that’s after tax credits, incentives and rebates are applied. Homeowners trying to save money might consider eliminating the labor associated with system design and installation, which can make up 10-25% of total costs.

Here in Louisiana, our market research shows the cost of solar averages around $2.57 per watt. A 5-kW system would cost me around $12,000 before the tax credit, so a DIY solar installation could save me over $2,000.

On the flip side, professional installers buy solar panels, solar inverters and solar batteries from wholesale distributors in bulk, accessing a wider range of products for lower prices than what’s available to the general public. This price difference likely won’t offset the savings on labor, however.

Consider the longevity of your system as well. How much value can you expect in the long run? Do you trust your own installation to last 25 to 30 years, matching the lifespan of the best solar panels installed professionally? Solar is a long-term investment, so before you set off on your DIY project, make sure your handiwork can stand the test of time.

Pros and Cons of DIY Solar Panel Installation

Beyond price, there are a number of pros and cons to weigh before attempting to install your own solar panel system.

Advantages of DIY Solar Panels

Here are a few of the major benefits of DIY solar:

Cost savings: The most obvious advantage of installing your own solar panels is the cost savings. If you go for a DIY project, you’ll be racking up the savings — both on your electric bill and solar system installation. By eliminating the need for design and labor help, you can save a decent chunk of change on your residential solar energy system. DIY system design: Installing your own system lets you keep complete control of your design and aesthetic. So, if you’re an amateur solar enthusiast, electrician or DIYer and have a very specific vision for how you want your solar array to be assembled, going the do-it-yourself route can give you free rein to do as you please.Easing into solar: DIY solar panels can also be a smart option for those who are looking to start small, with a more modest home solar project. For example, maybe you’re not looking to offset 100% of your energy use but want to try out a couple of panels to see how much they offset your energy costs. The DIY route can be very cost-effective, especially if you have low energy needs.

Disadvantages of DIY Solar Panels

While there are notable perks to the DIY solar approach, there are also some drawbacks worth noting:

Product availability: Installing DIY solar panels limits the range of products available to you. As mentioned, professional installers have direct access to the most efficient solar panels from leading distributors, and at better prices. As a consumer, your options are going to be more restricted. Being able to purchase the best solar panels can increase system efficiency, reliability and durability significantly, providing more savings on the back end.Potential safety hazards: DIY solar installations are complex. To do it right, you need to be pretty knowledgeable about electrical systems and how solar panels work. Without that know-how, you run the risk of loose connections and other wiring problems. These issues can be real fire hazards, jeopardizing the safety of yourself, your home and your family.Efficiency issues: Professional solar installers have the knowledge needed to design a solar system that helps you maximize your energy use. An installer can recommend the exact types of solar panels, roof mounts, inverters and battery banks you need, as well as the proper placement of those components. Without their expertise, you may wind up with a solar system that isn’t as efficient as it could be.Legality: In some municipalities, DIY solar panels may actually be illegal. You should always check with your local zoning board to ensure that you’re even permitted to do a DIY solar installation, especially if you’re planning a completely off-grid system. If you plan to feed excess energy back to the grid, you’ll need to apply for interconnection with your local utility. Navigating savings opportunities: Professional installers have years of experience claiming all of the rebates and tax incentives in their operating areas. Identifying and securing these opportunities on your own is doable, but it will be time-consuming, and getting the details right will be important.

The bottom line: Installing your own residential solar system can yield some notable advantages, including cost savings, but that doesn’t always mean it’s the best option.

Without the proper expertise, the savings on the front end of your installation may not offset the long-term benefits of a well-designed, efficient and durable system. Due to the safety hazards, limited product options and lack of real solar expertise, many homeowners decide that a DIY solar system installation just isn’t worth it.

Starting A DIY Solar Project

If you do decide to go with DIY solar panels, make sure to check local zoning ordinances to be certain you can legally install your own system. Keep in mind you’ll have to apply for all permitting and interconnection, including fees and inspections. From there, start researching different solar panels, batteries and inverters, while also ensuring you have the right baseline knowledge regarding electrical work.

One thing to keep in mind is that many solar installers offer no-obligation estimates. Even if you’re leaning toward a DIY solar system, there’s no harm in considering your options and learning a bit more about the solar installation process. Many top companies will even complete a free home consultation and send you a proposal with their recommended system design.

If you’re interested in a little bit of free professional help, you can connect with a certified installer near you using this tool or by filling out the following form.

Installing Your Own Solar Panels

Once you’ve weighed the pros and cons of solar and feel you’re qualified to undertake a DIY solar project, here’s a brief outline of the steps to take:

Size your system based on the energy use of your home and available roof space. Some zoning requirements require spacing of at least a foot between the solar panels and the edge of your roof. (Again, a free solar consultation can help with this.)Purchase your solar equipment (solar panels, inverters, wiring, racking, etc.)Install your racking or build a secure platform for the solar panels.Mount and secure the solar panels on the racking.Wire the solar panels.Connect your solar array to your home’s control panel.Obtain permission to operate from your local utility company (if applicable) before turning the system on.

FAQ: DIY Solar Panels

Can I install my own solar panels?

You can install your own solar panels to save on labor and design costs. However, there are a few disadvantages to consider: Professional solar companies have access to wholesale prices of a wider range of solar equipment, and improper installation can lead to severe safety concerns or inefficient systems.

Is it illegal to install your own solar panels?

It is not typically illegal to install your own solar panels, but this will depend on your area. You should always check with your local zoning board to ensure that you’re even permitted to do a DIY solar installation, especially if you’re planning a completely off-grid system. If you plan to feed excess energy back to the central power grid, you’ll need to apply for interconnection with your local utility company.

Is it cheaper to install your own solar panels?

It can be cheaper to install your own solar panels, as you’ll save money on upfront costs like labor, design, transportation and more. However, by purchasing your panels online or directly from a distributor, you may not have access to the best solar panels or as wide a product selection as you might like.

Karsten Neumeister is a writer and renewable energy specialist with a background in writing and the humanities. Before joining EcoWatch, Karsten worked in the energy sector of New Orleans, focusing on renewable energy policy and technology. A lover of music and the outdoors, Karsten might be found rock climbing, canoeing or writing songs when away from the workplace.
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