DIY or Pro?

Practical Advice for Homeowners
Intermediate

Inside this Article

DIY Homeowner and Solar Professional
Batteryless grid-tied PV system.
Batteryless grid-tied PV systems may be the simplest conceptually, but they still require good design, mechanical and electrical skills, adherence to codes, and safety. Are you adequately prepared?
Solar Site Assessment Tools
The Solar Pathfinder (left) and the Solmetric SunEye (right) are professional-quality solar site assessment tools that provide valuable information for your system’s design.
Specialty PV Installation Tools
While many of the necessary tools are common to the well-equipped homeowner, some specialty PV installation tools are either necessary or a great convenience. The cost of tooling up can negate the savings of doing the work yourself.
High-Voltage DC Hazard
Electrocution from high-voltage DC electricity and falls from roofs are two of the hazards of PV system installation. For DIYers and professionals alike, safety must come first.
Rooftop Working Hazard
Electrocution from high-voltage DC electricity and falls from roofs are two of the hazards of PV system installation. For DIYers and professionals alike, safety must come first.
DIY Homeowner and Solar Professional
Batteryless grid-tied PV system.
Solar Site Assessment Tools
Specialty PV Installation Tools
High-Voltage DC Hazard
Rooftop Working Hazard

The installation of most residential PV systems is usually better left to the pros, but if you have the right set of skills and expectations, installing your own system can be a realistic goal.

Is it common for homeowners to design and install their own solar-electric systems? Should I install my system or hire a licensed professional to do the work? What skills and tools do I need to tackle a home-scale PV project? How much will I save if I install the system myself? 

We frequently get questions like these from Home Power  readers. Rather than defaulting to the obvious answer, “it depends,” we explore a long list of variables you should thoughtfully consider before tackling the design and installation of your PV system. 

Owner installation is definitely not for everyone. Like any home improvement project, it’s important to realistically assess your skills, and weigh the benefits and potential pitfalls. Installing a PV system certainly isn’t rocket science, but doing it well and safely requires experience working with electrical systems, some serious research, and plenty of sound advice.

System Scale and Type

First, it’s important to consider the size of the PV system you want to design and install. There’s a huge difference in the cost and complexity of a 12-volt PV system with a few modules, designed to power some tunes and a couple of lights, compared to a multikilowatt, roof-mounted, grid-connected system operating at up to 600 VDC

The former small system can be a great DIY undertaking for most handy individuals. Unless you are working alongside a willing professional, however, the latter should not be tackled unless you have significant experience working with high-voltage wiring, a firm understanding of the National Electrical Code (NEC), and access to the required safety equipment.

System type is also a consideration. Battery-based and batteryless grid-tied solar-electric systems are quite different, and require different levels of preparation and involvement. You need to understand the system type you want to install, and then assess your abilities and interest to determine if you can handle the job.

Grid-tied systems can be batteryless or battery-based. Batteryless systems are the most common, and are also the simplest, most cost-effective, and most environmentally friendly. You can find examples of this system type in Home Power, in supplier catalogs, and around your community. Batteryless PV systems can be bought as packages from suppliers and, with the proper support, can be almost color-by-number. These systems can employ one or more central string inverters or microinverters, where each module is paired to its own small inverter. Microinverter-based arrays operate at 240 VAC rather than at high-voltage DC, making electrical wiring a little safer to work with. Whether you are using microinverters or central inverters, you’ll still need electrical skills, tools, and savvy, but batteryless grid-tied systems are actually quite straightforward, consisting primarily of racks, modules, disconnects, inverter(s), and wiring.

A grid-tied battery-based system is another matter. Introducing batteries involves more complication in planning, implementation, and operation. To start, you’ll need to know how much battery storage you want or require, which means you’ll need to know your backup load profile and how long a utility outage you want to protect against. Though you can buy some or even most parts of a battery-based power center pre-wired, you will still need to configure and wire your battery bank, tie it and your PV array into your power center, and then connect the system to your backed-up subpanel and the grid. Most will need someone assisting in person or on the phone as you plan and install the system. Operation of a battery-based system is more complex than a batteryless system, and the batteries will require varying levels of maintenance, as well as periodic replacement.

Going off-grid requires a commitment to providing all electricity to all of your loads, all of the time. The design phase is crucial—you’ll need to understand your load profile, your resource, and the equipment capabilities. While many off-grid systems have been built by DIYers over the history of the RE industry, designing and installing a code-compliant system for a modern off-grid home is not a job to take lightly. All of the system users in the household will need to be involved from the beginning if you want a system that doesn’t disappoint.

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Comments (2)

Jim and Elaine Stack's picture

The pros get good prices and do all the paperwork and form and you get the best incentives. It helps employ local companies so always go with a pro. If they are NABCEP certified it's the best of the best.

I's also only go with Sunpower panels. They have the highest efficiency, run coolest and have the longest warranty.

Disclaimer- I don't sell or work in the solar industry, I just live the solar dream every Sunny day.

Mike Swift's picture

“While you can still take the 30% federal tax credit, in some cases, you may not qualify for state, local, or utility rebates if you install the system yourself.” Contractor associations, and labor unions have spent many millions of dollars lobbying legislators to get these “incentives” into law, and they hate with a passion for scabs and home owners stealing their just rewards. The mandate that “qualified”, or “approved” installers do the work is placed in the legislation by lobbyists, “for the safety of the children”, and to guarantee the lobbyists employers lots of work of course. In many cases all of the homeowners “incentives” are eaten up by the mandated labor practices.

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