You will need a wide range of construction and electrical tools to install your PV system (see “Tools of the Solar-Electric Trade” in HP105). The basic construction tool list for a batteryless, roof-mounted, grid-tied system includes: drills (cordless and AC) with various attachments, including drill bits, hex bits, Phillips bits, and hole saws; a reciprocating saw; socket wrenches; a hammer; a level; and an assortment of screwdrivers and open-end wrenches (the ratcheting kind are great). Required electrician’s tools include wire strippers, cutters, and crimpers; needle nose and lineman’s pliers; a hole-punch kit; a conduit bender; and a fish tape.
The list grows if you are installing a battery-based system, as you will likely be dealing with constructing a battery box, and needing to cut and connect large battery cables and lugs. If the system is ground- or pole-mounted, you will need equipment for digging trenches and post holes (i.e., shovels and a post-hole digger, or access to a power auger and trencher).
Additional tools include a torque wrench to properly tighten wire terminations, and a digital multimeter for verifying voltage and polarity during installation and for ongoing system maintenance. A DC clamp-on amp-meter is also a handy tool for checking the output of individual array strings or circuits. Specific safety equipment is also required (see the “Safety, Safety, Safety” section).
You’ll also need access to solar-specific tools for both site analysis and installation. While there are some wide-open solar sites where array shading is not a concern, the majority of sites, especially in residential areas, will have trees and buildings—so shade analysis will be necessary. Shading specifics impact component selection and array layout, and can influence the availability of some financial incentives. Excessive shading will have potentially crippling impacts on system output and your return on investment over the PV system’s life. Tools such as the Solar Pathfinder ($269) and the Solmetric SunEye ($1,995) are used by the pros to determine shade factor, and/or compare the solar access of different array locations. The price of these shade analysis tools will likely put them out of reach of a homeowner working on a one-time installation. For iPhone users, Solmetric offers the Solmetric iPV app ($29.99). While it is not as accurate or quick as the SunEye, it offers users a simple shade analysis at an inexpensive price. Shade analysis tools have also recently been developed for Android-based smart phones and tablets.
If you’re not already tooled up for significant home improvement projects, including electrical work, the cost of acquiring all of the necessary equipment could easily offset any savings you may be expecting from installing your own system. If you do have a good selection of tools in the shop, additional purchases may be minor, but should still be considered prior to embarking on a self-installed PV project.
The skills you’ll need to install your PV system will depend on the system’s complexity. Overall, you will be doing conceptual, mathematical, mechanical, and electrical work. In some respects, the conceptual work may be the hardest. You’ll need to understand your energy needs, your solar resource, the equipment available, and how the gear fits together into a full system. If you blow it here, no amount of mechanical and electrical savvy will rescue you from poor function. Plan to spend much more time studying, planning, and designing than you spend implementing. Professional installers get used to doing the same tasks over and over. You won’t already have the benefits of learning from the inevitable mistakes.
Those who are used to undertaking major home-improvement projects will likely be the most prepared to pursue a DIY PV system. When it comes to the mechanical work, you’ll need to know how to use tools and fasteners properly to make roof- or pole-mount attachments; install roof flashing; secure heavy electrical components to the wall; etc. Battery banks and enclosures require another level of mechanical work, involving security, hazard protection, and dealing with heavy weight.
The electrical work is more hazardous and more detail-oriented—and can be more crucial than the mechanical work. Note that licensed electricians study for years to gain the skills to bend conduit, pull wire, and make secure connections—all while meeting the strict requirements of the NEC. Consider your skills and experience carefully before jumping in. Having a mentor on the job or nearby may be your wisest decision. Once again, you are only doing this job once—electricians have the benefit of long experience and training. They have tricks and techniques that make the job go quickly and smoothly. Consider taking a basic wiring class at your local community or technical college, so you’ll have some practice time on someone else’s wire, and another source of mentorship.