Guy standing in front of home with solar panels

Doing it yourself has become more than a trend for many adventurous homeowners - it's a way of life. One of the latest projects to interest novice and experienced DIYers is making the change to solar power by building their own system. Of course, this isn't your typical weekend home improvement project. Without a great deal of planning, research, and some specialized skills, this can become more expensive than purchasing a full service solar system from a solar company that will do everything for you.

Countless websites insist that building your own system and powering your entire home can be done for less than $1,000. As with any worthwhile project, it's important to weigh the pros and cons of solar kits, the real costs in terms of money, safety factors and required skills, and the real benefits of getting professional help.

Is it possible to build your own solar panels?

Even when working with expert directions, many homemade solar panels fail after months due to moisture entering the panels, high temperature arcing, or total panel failure.

But if you're willing to put in the time, try building a small panel as a way of "getting your feet wet" while learning the technology. You'll also build skills you'll need if you plan to continue and build a whole system. Research reputable websites for information and comprehensive directions. Often, this kind of information will not come for free. Some things to remember if you choose to build your own panels are:

  • Homemade solar panels made incorrectly can cause a fire from intense heat build up on hot, sunny days

  • Sites like eBay often sell factory seconds, rejected, or damaged solar cells, which is a recipe for disaster

  • Professionally made solar panels are highly technical equipment designed to withstand weather and temperature variations

  • Homemade systems often violate electrical codes - you must understand local codes and enforcement

  • Homemade panels are not eligible for incentives or rebates

Solar panels are made by soldering together solar cells into strings, joining these strings together and connecting to a junction box and then sealing the active parts of the solar panel with a waterproof backing of some sort and sealing the front with a transparent solar glass or other transparent waterproof product that is both inert and long lasting. A frame and silicon is then used to seal the panel around the edges.

It is not technically difficult to make a single solar panel (its mainly soldering) or a small batch but the best materials such as solar glass and solar backing sheet material are not usually available to the public and building a solar panels using the wrong equipment can be dangerous.

Are you skilled enough to build your own solar panels?

A solar panel is a precisely crafted piece of technology that's designed to survive for decades under the worst weather conditions and temperatures imaginable. They're manufactured under strict environmental conditions using highly specialized components, following the highest quality standards. The glass cells alone are tempered to a specific ratio to optimize light penetration while withstanding extreme temperature changes.

Building a panel requires a willingness to research, make mistakes and gain experience in electrical wiring skills and soldering techniques.

Where do you get materials to build your own solar panels or whole solar system?

The solar cells offered on websites are usually seconds that didn't make it past quality control. They can be chipped, blemished, or otherwise damaged. Due to their fragility, they're easily broken while in transit and while handling. Some DIYers prefer sourcing the solar equipment materials you'll need for your project. With no contractor's markup, this method will save you money while also cutting down on installation and wiring expenses.

Given that the wholesale cost of solar panels are now often below $1.00 per watt it is just now economic to build your own solar panels. If you really want to as a project for fun, then by all means have a go but be careful and I would not suggest using the panel in a position where there is a risk of fire.

How do you build your own solar panel system?

What most people mean when they say they want to build their own solar system is that they want to purchase the equipment and then install their system themselves.

If you decide to DIY your own system, stay cautious. As with any purchased items or services, you'll get what you pay for. In addition to finding reliable instructions, you must purchase all the tools, mounts or racks, connectors, wiring, solar inverter, and other necessary materials. Most people looking to do a DIY installation will purchase a pre-configured solar kit.

What are the advantages of a pre-configured solar kit?

The main advantage of buying a packaged solar kit is that the equipment you buy should work together electrically. Certain solar panels and certain inverters can only work with each other within defined electrical specifications. The sizing of solar panels into appropriate strings is crucial when using string inverters although it is more straightforward with micro inverters from companies like Enphase.

Unless you're determined to build a system from the ground up, a solar panel kit may be less expensive and confusing.

What are the different types of solar panel kits?

Solar panel kits are generally defined by the size of the kit in kW and the brand of the panel and inverter in the kit. For example, a kit might be referred to as a 6kW SolarWorld kit with an SMA inverter, or another kit might be referred to as an 8kW kit with LG solar panels and SolarEdge optimizers.

Generally speaking, all solar panel kits will all have the solar panels and the inverter or inverters in the case of kits using micro inverters or optimizers. However, there are a number of other parts that may or may not be included in a particular solar panel kit that are essential to successfully install that kit. It is important that you explore whether each of these parts is or isn't included when comparing two different solar panel kits. These include:

  • Racking and mountings to suit your roof type;

  • Disconnect switches;

  • DC cables;

  • Waterproof junction boxes for AC/DC disconnect;

  • Conduit;

  • Sub panel (if required);

  • An electrical plan to help you create your permits.

How much does building your own solar panel system or solar panel kits cost?

When deciding to either try and build your own solar power system from parts (crazy) or to buy a solar kit and install it yourself (for most people also crazy) the competing choice is between the cost of that option as the cost of a full service solar installation from a local solar company where they supply the products, install them, obtain all your permits and warrant the installation.

The average cost of a solar panel kit without permitting or installation in America in 2018 is around $1.56 per watt based on average kit prices on sites like WholesaleSolar, AlteStore and GoGreenSolar. Be warned though some of the kits use very low-quality equipment and some are even unbranded. Some of the kits do use good solar panels and inverters though. You can see the reputation of each brand on SolarReviews.

So this is $9,360 for a 6kW solar kit. But to make a fair comparison with buying a fully managed installation form a solar company you also need to add on the cost of permitting and inspections and installation. One of the above leading solar panel kit sites suggests that you allow $1 per watt for installation meaning the installation cost for a 6kW kit would be $6,000. Whilst I think you should be able to get a system of this size installed cheaper but if this site is correct then the total cost of a 6kW DIY solar system would be $15,360 before the 30% tax credit and $10,752 after the tax credit. 

How much do you save by doing a DIY solar project rather than contracting a full service solar company?

The average cost of residential solar panel installation in America in 2018 from a reputable and licenses solar company is $3.08 per watt or $18,480 for a standard sized 6kW system. After the 30% solar tax credit this becomes $12,936.

So all up you save a net amount by doing it yourself of $2,144. However, you then face the next 25 years without any support should you ever want to try and make a warranty claim. The solar kit vendor doesn't have installation staff that can look at your system if it is not working properly and the person that installed it is not liable for the equipment. This lack of ongoing support is why I would never do a DIY solar project because ultimately if you go DIY then you are responsible for whether or not your system works and nobody other than you will care if it does or does not work.

The average cost of professionally installed panels isn't devastating, especially when you consider that each usually includes a warranty of at least twenty five years and a lifespan of up to 35 years. There are also many more financing offers available for professionally managed installations because financiers have much more confidence in these systems.

Are there types of solar systems that are better suited to DIY projects?

This is why small-scale systems that will operate off-grid are good DIY projects.

These can be larger off grid solar system that will be used to power a vacation cabin or tiny home, or they can be smaller off grid system such as a solar power system for camping, for an RV or a boat. These smaller solar panel projects are probably better suited to someone making up their own solar system and connecting the parts themselves, especially for beginners.

However, even in these cases there are inherent dangers in dealing with DC electricity both in terms of the work to install the system being dangerous and the ongoing fire or electrical risk from poorly terminated connections or other installation faults.

Solar panel installer versus DIY solar systems - which is better?

DIY solar projects can be great skill-builders if your property has one or more outbuildings or if you want a ground-mounted solar array for outdoor lighting purposes. Both projects will keep power demands low, which makes installation manageable.

For someone with little to no experience in solar equipment, it can be dangerous to build and install a system large enough to power your home. Additionally, every state requires professional installers are fully trained, qualified and licensed to install every type of solar array on the market.

What are the pros and cons of DIY solar panels and solar systems?

Most DIY projects have their pros and cons, but solar systems deliver electricity to your home and outbuildings. Very often such projects come down to cost vs. security and safety.

Pros:

  • Plans and instructions are readily available online at little to no cost.

  • Manufacturing your own solar panels for small off-grid projects can be a great learning experience.

Cons:

  • Warranties on any parts will be invalidated by using them on a homemade solar panel or system.

  • Federal and state tax credits and rebates are not available for homemade solar panels or systems.

  • The actual amount of money saved in building your own solar panels will be negligible compared to purchasing pre-made panels.

What incentives can help you get a professional installation?

Solar systems and installation costs are very expensive investments and some of the best installers have decades of hands-on experience – something no amount of research or instructions can duplicate.

Industry organizations such as the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners' (NABCEP's) issue Solar PV Installation Professional Certifications to ensure the installers you choose are completely qualified.

In 2015, the U.S. Congress reinstated the solar Investment Tax Credit, one of the most important federal policies supporting the solar industry and those homeowners and businesses interested in it. The ITC incentive offers homeowners a tax credit of up to 30 percent of the cost of the purchase and installation of a solar power system through 2019.

Going solar offers homeowners many benefits beyond reducing your electrical utility bills. You're helping to care for the environment by relying on one of nature's resources. Whether you do it on your own or with professional help is up to you.