DIY or Pro?: Page 3 of 5

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

Tooling Up

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.

Installation Experience 

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.

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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