How to Install Solar Panels: DIY or Hire a Pro?

By Tara Sebolt

Homeowners are looking for ways to reduce energy bills with renewable energy sources. According to the Department of Energy, the U.S. is the third-largest solar market in the world.

Grid-tied solar power allows you to connect your existing electrical system to save on energy costs. You can also install solar panels to collect backup energy for when the power goes out.

Regardless of your reasons for going solar, there are things you need to know about installing a solar energy system. First, you must decide whether you can install the solar panels yourself or if you should hire a professional. Read through our step-by-step solar installation guide to learn how to install solar panels, including how to determine if you should go solar and what to expect from professional solar installation.

Man installing solar panels on rooftop

Choosing between DIY and professional solar installation

When you’re researching how to go solar, you might consider installing the solar energy system yourself. However, many homeowners find that the technical knowledge needed for installing solar panels is more trouble than it’s worth. Our instructions below will clue you in and help you decide.

If you’re unsure of your abilities with electricity or don’t have time to research the technical aspects of installing solar panels, a professional company may be right for you. You’ll be able to enjoy the benefits of solar power, as well as the peace of mind that the installation was done correctly and safely.

You may decide to install solar panels yourself to save on professional installation costs. While you’ll be dealing with technical equipment and electricity, you don’t need a construction background to install solar panels. As long as you plan properly, follow the instructions carefully, and are willing to work, you should be able to install solar panels on your home.

No matter what you decide, know that the planning phase is perhaps the most important part of going solar. Before you purchase panels, you’ll want to do your research on how to go solar. Everything from permitting laws to leasing panels instead of buying should be considered.

Questions to ask before going solar

In recent years, solar technology has expanded to make it possible in all 50 states. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that every home is a good fit for a solar energy system. Before you get started researching solar inverters, ask yourself these important questions.

  • Does your home receive enough sun to make solar economically worthwhile? Use this solar energy potential map.
  • How old is your roof, and what’s its condition?
  • What type of roofing do you have? Solar is easiest to install on asphalt shingles or metal roofs. Wooden shingles or shakes are not recommended, as they pose a fire hazard.
  • Which way does your roof slant, and what’s the angle? Solar does best on south-facing roofs with pitches between zero to 45 degrees.
  • Do you plan to move in the next five to seven years? Initial solar investments generally don’t see returns until after this period, though it may be considered another desired feature for homebuyers.
  • Is your south-facing roof clear from trees, bushes, or other buildings that create shade?
  • Do you have frequent storms, especially hail or lightning?
Solar Panels on Roof of Home

Planning your solar permits

It may be surprising to hear that installing solar panels requires permits and inspections from your local government. Your utility company will also have to give permission for you to tie into the grid. Permitting is considered one of the biggest soft costs of installing solar power. Although there are laws in place to protect homeowners’ right to access solar, you may have local restrictions.

You should have a master plan in place for your solar energy system. Include diagrams of exactly where your panels will be, as well as the energy you plan to produce. You may need to have an initial inspection to receive your permits.

Some homeowners associations place restrictions on the size and type of solar panels being installed. Additionally, you will want to check with your insurance company to make sure solar panels aren’t excluded from your homeowner’s policy. Most utility companies require proof of insurance before they allow your solar power to tie into their grid.

Calculating the cost of solar installation

To get an accurate cost estimate for your solar power system, you need to determine how much power you need. If you plan to power your home mostly using solar, you’ll have larger energy requirements than if you want to store solar power for outages. You can use the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s solar energy calculator to estimate your solar panels’ production.

The average size of a residential solar power grid is 5 kilowatts in size or 20 250 Watt panels. You’ll need about 500 square feet of roof space for most panels. Check out the cost of popular solar panels:

Brand Cost Per Panel*
Renogy 400 Watt Solar Starter Kit (4 100W Panels) $651.49 (for 4 panels)
Holarose 100W Solar Panel $109.99
Newpowa 100 Watt Solar Panel $89.50

*Prices from Amazon.com as of May 2019

Choosing to install solar panels yourself can save you thousands on the cost of installing solar on your home. The increased demand for affordable solar panels makes it easy to find panels online or in home improvement stores. Overall, the total cost for a DIY solar installation is about 10–20% less expensive than a professional installation.

Safety tips for DIY solar panel installation

As you prepare to install your solar panels, remember that you’ll be working with electricity and at height on your roof. This means you need to take proper safety precautions to protect yourself during installation.

Follow these safety tips while installing solar panels:

  • Inspect your solar panels for damage such as chips or cracks.
  • Use a safety harness or roof fence to avoid falls when working on your roof.
  • Always have a spotter on the ground.
  • Wear a hardhat, shoes with grip, work gloves, and safety goggles when installing your panels.
  • Make sure electrical switches are off and wires are disconnected from the power source.

Even when power is shut off, remember that power flows to your home’s panel from the grid.

Installing mounts for solar panels on roof

Installing mounts for solar panels

Step-by-step panel solar installation instructions

1. Ready your site, panels, and tools

You’ve determined your home is a good fit for solar energy and gotten the necessary permits. Now you can start to install your photovoltaic (PV) system. Your first step is to collect all the tools you may need and ready your worksite.

Spread your panels, mounts, racking, and hardware into organized piles, so each is easy to find when you need it. Ensure your roof shingles are in good condition and secure. Have your plan for how to go solar in front of you, so you know exactly where each panel should go. Read, and then reread, the instruction manual and solar panel installation guide for your panels.

2. Install mounts, conduit, and racking

Before you can install your solar panels, you need to place the bases where they’ll sit. Start by installing the racking, or rails, to create a grid. These rails will hold your solar panels. You’ll then install the panel mounts onto the racking. Take care to angle the mounts to achieve the ideal pitch for maximizing sun exposure in relation to your roof pitch.

Finally, you’ll need to run conduit from the base of the solar panel grid to your home’s electrical panel. This will allow your home to receive and process solar energy into electricity.

3. Mount the panels

Now you can mount your solar panels onto the rails and mounts. Most systems use angle brackets to attach the panels to the mounts. Again, keep an eye on the angle of your panels, so they can receive the right amount of sunlight.

4. Electrical components

Each panel will need to be wired together and then down to your electrical panel, so energy can flow back to your home. This is the most technical and dangerous aspect of installing solar panels yourself. If you are uncomfortable working with wiring, you may find that hiring an electrician to complete the electrical process is the best choice.

Use the wiring diagram to properly install the wires for your particular panels. Most DIY panels will have a CAD drawing included to make the wiring process easier. Although each system will be slightly different, the process is generally the same. You will connect the wiring between panels and down to your breaker box and a solar inverter.

5. Flip the switch

Once your solar panels are installed, it’s time for a test run. Give your system a close visual inspection before starting it. To maintain safety, work your way from the electrical wiring farthest from the power source first. Use a multimeter to check the voltage at each wiring connection as you connect them.

When your electrical connections are completed, you are ready to contact your local government. They’ll send out an inspector to make sure everything is up to code and safety standards. An electrical inspector will also do an inspection to verify the wiring is correct. Your utility company may also require an inspection.

After you receive the OK from all of the necessary agencies and inspectors, you can connect your home’s solar panel system to the grid. Sit back and enjoy the energy efficiencies and potential tax breaks for going solar.

Back view of young technician in helmet connecting solar photo voltaic panel to metal platform using electrical screwdriver on shiny surface background. Stand-alone solar panel system installation.

Professional solar panel installation

You probably noticed how technical, dangerous, and time-consuming it is to install solar panels on your own. Though a DIY solar energy system can save you money on installation costs, it may not always be the best choice. Professional solar installation allows you to enjoy the cost-saving and energy benefits of solar without the dangers of a DIY installation.

What to expect from the professional solar installation process

Hiring a professional for solar installation saves you time and gives you access to an expert on solar energy. A professional solar technician will have a similar installation process as the DIY version.

The typical timeline for installing solar panels using a professional is approximately one to three months from the day you sign your contract. This mostly allows time for planning, inspections, and permitting. The actual installation should only take a day or two.

Professional solar panel installation timeline:

  1. Site visit to determine the home’s solar potential, check roof structure, and inspect the wiring
  2. Applying for local permits
  3. Choosing your solar equipment and payment option— leasing, leasing to own, or buying outright
  4. Panel installation
  5. Final inspection and approval by government and utility company inspectors

Benefits of a professional solar installation

Before you tackle the job of installing solar panels yourself, consider the benefits of hiring a professional solar company.

  • Certified technicians: If you hire a reputable contractor, your solar technicians will be certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. This certification requires passing a written test and completing solar installation training.
  • DIY may not be allowed: Some states, local governments, and HOAs may not allow DIY solar panels to be tied into the grid and require installation by a professional technician who is trained in how to install solar panels.
  • Safer than DIY: Unless you have experience working with electricity, inverters, and wiring, professional installation is much safer. Improper wiring of a solar energy system can spark fires and will likely void your solar panel warranty.
  • Expert advice: Working with a solar company gives you access to expert advice on choosing a location, picking out the best panels for your home, and troubleshooting after the installation is complete.
  • Higher quality materials: Most solar companies will have multiple panel options in several price ranges. Solar panels installed by professionals often come with extensive warranties, so you’re protected if anything malfunctions.

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