Getting Started with Solar Electricity

Hands-on solar-electric training.
Hands-on training programs are a great first step towards getting into the solar biz.
Professional solar installer and DIY homeowner.
The more you understand about your PV system’s design and operation, the better, whether you choose to go it alone, enlist the help of a pro at some level, or sit back and let the masters take care of things.
Hands-on solar-electric training.
Professional solar installer and DIY homeowner.

Getting Started with Solar Electricity

With grid-tied PV systems becoming more and more popular, it is important for RE professionals and system owners alike to have realistic expectations of their systems’ performance. Solar-electric power production can be affected by several factors. Orientation, array tilt, seasonal adjustments, and array siting can all affect the bottom line. Proper planning and smart design will help you get the most out of your PV system and improve your rate of return. Installing modules in a sunny, shade-free spot and pointing them toward the sun could be considered common sense to many, but properly orienting and tilting your array for optimal performance is not as intuitive. A PV array’s output is proportional to the direct sunlight it receives. Even though PV modules produce some energy in a shady location or without ideal orientation, system costs are high enough that most will want to maximize energy yield. Regardless of how well a system is designed, improper installation can result in poor performance. PV systems should operate for decades, and the materials and methods to install them should be selected accordingly.

Should you install your system or hire a licensed professional to do the work? What skills and tools do you need to tackle a home-scale PV project? How much will you save if you install the system yourself? 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. 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.

Often, folks who want to install their own system are the same people who are pondering a career shift into the PV industry.  Despite the challenging economic climate, there are jobs to be had in this growing market, and with government funds and decreasing component costs fueling new projects and green job training, the time is right to make your move. With a little know-how, the right training, and a sunny disposition, you can be on a new, green career path. Depending on your background and existing skill set, attending a workshop or two may get your foot in the door with a solar company, but you’ll likely need to pursue some level of certification or additional credentials if you’re serious about making a career in the industry. While you can obtain a lot of system design knowledge from online and classroom presentations, when it comes to installation specifics, nothing beats hands-on training. These courses are not short—nor inexpensive—and are usually geared toward individuals wanting to become professional installers. Training followed by a home installation can be a great progression if you’re considering entering the PV industry. The value of living with a PV system, for both homeowners and up-and-coming professionals, is priceless.

Comments (10)

Edward-Dijeau's picture

In 2018, you can buy a 100 watt, 18 volt solar panel for $89.00 each and they work well on off-grid systems, but, are not approved for on grid applications even theough they are approved for series wireing up to 600 volts for MPPT Charge control systems. With deep cycle, 100 amp hour, lead acid batteries, going for about $80.00 and 20 amp charge controlers for $12.00 each, you could build an off grid system, including the copper wire, lugs and fuses, in 2018, for about $2.50 per watt, not including DC to AC inverters. When I started biulding "off-Grid" systems in 2007, they cost about $8.00 per watt for parts, panels, controlers and batteries, not including the DC to AC inverters. With the Federal Tax Credit going Away soon, and parts may not be getting much cheaper, the next two years will be a window to get the fastest pay back and vote with your dollars that you do believe in global climate change and want to make a differance.

Kevin Traina's picture

I have seen 300 watt panels for 150 $ per 100 ordered. Anybody hear of someone using these Chinese panels ?

Kevin Traina's picture

Has anyone here purchased a system from china ? Would like to compare the cost benefit of a DIY compared to the free leased ones available here in MA !

John Foster's picture

A crazy thought: Now, with the development of high output LEDs with low wattage and with the legalization
of marijuana cultivation in some states, the payback time
of solar arrays could be greatly reduced by using them to grow marijuana in your basement.

Ben Root's picture

I think the truly environmentally sound, energy efficient, and cost effective way to grow marijuana, or any plant, is outdoors in real sunshine. While I agree that burning coal to get high (or whatever you're using it for) is morally despicable, using PV is only slightly more benign. Why not grow plants in the sunshine like they are supposed to grow, and where there are no efficiency losses or polluting residuals at all? My hope for the recent legalizations is that it will bring pot out of the closet and into the sun where it belongs.

John Foster's picture

Ahh yes, sunshine. Of course that's the best heat, light, and wind maker. But in January it's a scarce
commodity. While I can't grow tomatoes outdoors in January here in Minnesota, I can still grow them
indoors under led lights powered by PV. And have you looked at the price of greenhouse grown
tomatoes. A few hundred pounds might just pay for a small system.

Lisa's picture

Thank you for posting the basics. There is a lot to consider when you are doing things yourself but this article and the one you posted for Claire are very helpful. I am so glad that someone sent me your link!

Scott Russell's picture

We're glad to hear it, Lisa. Thanks for saying so and we hope you find lots more help throughout the site.

Richard Costa's picture

In this day and age of "prepping" and it's increasing popularity I'd like to see an article on a basic, basic, PV system. Something that could work for the average homeowner with limited skills that could provide electricity for a couple lights, and a radio or TV. With more natural disasters and the slow response of power companies it would be great to have a basic PV panel, controller, and battery hookup with converter that one could wheel into the yard or have available for standby power. Anyone with an available boat battery and a power converter, which includes a lot of folks by the coast, are already half way there. Show them how to use their resources.

Claire Anderson's picture

Hi Richard ~ Check out this article on portable power, which covers everything from backpack solar chargers to PV "generators"—

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