DIY solar panels for home: 11-step guide
On this page:
- Pros and cons of DIY solar
- Complete guide to DIY solar
There are many reasons why people choose to go solar. Some want to switch to clean and renewable energy. Others like the idea of reducing their reliance on the electricity grid.
The #1 motivating factor, however, is money. 96% of people say the reason they have installed or will install solar is to save money on electric bills, according to a recent Pew survey. Given the challenging economic climate we suddenly find ourselves, solar’s ability to deliver high financial savings is now surely even more compelling.
If you too are also considering solar for the financial returns, you may be giving thought to a DIY installation. After all, most home improvement projects are much cheaper when you do them yourself instead of hiring an external company.
And since solar installations are expensive endeavors — they typically cost between $10,000 and $20,000 — the potential cost savings from installing solar yourself can run into the thousands of dollars.
It all sounds great. But how does one go from knowing little or nothing about solar, to successfully installing a DIY solar system on their roof?
A DIY solar installation is the cheapest way to go solar — but it comes with risks. Image source: ABC
Well, as you might have guessed, the secret to conquering DIY solar — to any large project, really — is to divide it down into smaller, more manageable chunks. That’s exactly what I’ve done with this blog: broken a DIY solar panel installation into 11 steps.
This guide is designed to give you a high-level overview of the process and a realistic perspective of what to expect if you go down the DIY path.
What are the pros and cons of DIY solar panels?
Before we jump into the 11 steps for a DIY solar panel installation, I think it’s worth going over the pros and cons.
After all, a DIY solar is a big and costly commitment. It’s best to figure out whether or not DIY solar is right for you before you’re too heavily invested in the process!
Pro: Cost savings
At the risk of stating the obvious, the biggest reason people opt for a DIY solar panel installation is to save money on the upfront installation cost.
Solar panel systems have dropped in price — by over 70% in the last decade alone — but they still represent a significant financial investment for most homeowners.
Right now, the average cost of solar panel installation by a professional solar company is around $3.00 per watt. For a typical 5 kW (5,000 watt) solar panel system, that works out to $15,000.
On the other hand, you should be able to buy a 5 kW DIY solar panel kit for under $2.00 per watt. Assuming you perform all of the work by yourself (i.e. no contractors for any of the tasks), the total cost of the 5 kW DIY solar project would cost no more than $10,000.
That works out to a potential savings of over $5,000 by choosing DIY over a professional solar installation.
Of course, the exact cost difference between the two is affected by many variables. Factors that can affect costs include system size, your location, your choice of brands, your roof layout, your state and local incentives, and more. And you'd also want to take into account 26% solar tax credit would apply for both a professional installation and a DIY job, reducing the cost and thus the price differential between the two methods of going solar.
That said, there is without question a substantial price difference between buying a DIY solar panel kit, and hiring a solar company to complete the installation for you.
Pro: DIY satisfaction
If you’re someone who really enjoys a big and challenging DIY project, then a solar installation might be what you’re looking for.
You will have to draw on many different skill sets, such as the ability to negotiate municipal processes, financial planning, proficiency with power tools, electrical work, and even tax accounting.
And there are many stages to the solar installation — researching, planning, shopping, permitting, installation, electric wiring, and monitoring.
This is a project that will keep you busy for a while.
Con: It’s a lot of time and effort
I know, in the point immediately above this one I framed the challenging nature of a solar installation as a positive. Yes, it can be rewarding — but only if you’re actively seeking a difficult and time-consuming DIY challenge.
If, however, your idea of a DIY project doesn’t expand far beyond assembling some Scandinavian flatpack furniture, then you might want to steer clear of taking on solar. It is a very time-consuming project. From conception to commissioning, a DIY solar installation for a home usually takes between one to four months.
Con: Risk of roof damage or leaks
This is perhaps the biggest financial risk when it comes to a DIY solar installation.
Unless you have a flat roof, your solar installation will involve drilling a large number of holes into your roof. Drilling into the wrong spot on the roof can cause structural damage, while incorrect sealing and flashing can cause a roof leakage and/or mold issues.
Another factor to keep in mind is that a DIY solar installation is likely to void the warranty of your roof, so you’ll have to foot the bill for any repairs that may be needed.
Con: Physical danger
Heights and high voltage electricity. If you’re doing a DIY solar installation from start to finish, there’s no avoiding these two risks.
Falls are a hazard in DIY solar panel installation. Image source: Twitter
And the physical risks can continue after the installation. If your panels aren’t performing as they should, you may need to get back on the roof to troubleshoot the issue.
Worst of all, if you haven’t connected the wiring properly, your rooftop system could catch fire!
Con: Inability to claim some incentives
Many states offer incentives and rebates that dramatically reduce the cost of going solar.
Some incentives, however, are only available when the installation is completed by a certified solar company.
Con: No support for faults or warranty claims
You are on your own if there is ever a fault with the equipment.
Of course, you can still contact the manufacturer directly, but it can be difficult to prove a warranty claim. Furthermore, if you perform an improper installation, you can actually void the warranty.
The 11 steps for DIY solar panels
Let’s now dive into the 11 steps needed to take your DIY solar panel project from conception to completion.
1. Decide on your goals
If you haven’t already, you first need to decide what your goal is for going solar.
The goal you’re shooting for will determine the best system type for you, how complex the installation will be, and how much the project will cost.
Homeowners usually choose between the following goals.
- Financial savings
- Backup power
- Energy self sufficiency (independence from the electrical grid)
We strongly recommend that you decide on your goal right at the outset. There is an almost infinite number of options and permutations when it comes to DIY solar, so you need to be clear on what decisions you make, and why.
2. Choose the right solar system type
The next decision is to choose the right solar power system type to match your goal.
There are three main types of solar installations:
- Grid-tied solar panel system
- Hybrid solar panel system (aka grid-tied with battery storage)
- Off-grid solar system
All of these system types have many features in common: they all involve solar panels, inverters, mounts, and wiring. There are, however, some crucial differences, and they can impact the project’s cost and complexity. Here’s a brief summary of each.
Grid-tied solar panel system
A grid-tied solar panel system is a solar setup that is connected to the grid and uses it as a battery through net metering. Grid-tied solar panel systems are usually smaller than the other types and have the lowest upfront cost.
Best for: Maximum financial savings
Pros: Lowest cost, simple design and installation
Cons: The system will shut off during a grid outage. Your system will need to pass inspection before it can be connected to the grid.
This video shows how a grid-tied solar system works for a typical home:
Hybrid solar panel system (aka grid-tied with battery storage)
A hybrid solar panel system is also connected to the grid; the key difference here is the inclusion of a battery storage solution.
As with a regular grid-tied system, a hybrid solar system can import and export power from the grid as needed. But a hybrid solar system can use the battery system for two additional uses: for backup power during a grid failure, and to take advantage of Time of Use (TOU) arbitrage.
However, solar batteries — the most famous example of which is the Tesla Powerwall — are still an expensive option, so adding one to a solar system nearly always lowers the return on investment for the homeowner. In other words, the increased cost of adding a battery typically does not lead to an equivalent increase in savings.
Best for: Backup power
Pros: Emergency power supply during grid outages
Cons: Requires a battery backup solution, and unfortunately batteries are still expensive to buy. Your system will also need to pass inspection before it can be connected to the grid.
As the name suggests, an off-grid solar system operates independently of the grid.
Since there’s no grid to fall back on, the solar system needs to be very large so that it can meet the home’s power needs 24/7, 365 days a year — even during winter and/or long stretches of overcast weather.
To achieve this, off-grid solar systems require a large number of solar panels as well as a large battery bank.
Best for: Energy self sufficiency
Pros: Zero reliance on the electricity grid and no interaction with the utility company, and no inspections.
Cons: Very expensive, and lots of space required for the large number of solar panels and accompanying battery storage.
3. Check solar rules and regulations
There is a wide range of rules governing solar installations. They can vary greatly between states, and even between local jurisdictions.
You will usually need a building permit and a utility permit before you start your installation. This usually involves an on-site inspection by either a structural engineer or a licensed electrician. You will need to pass another round of inspections before your system can be activated and connected to the grid.
Some states don’t allow a solar system to be connected to the grid unless the installation was performed by a licensed contractor. If this is the case where you live, you won't be able to install a DIY grid-tied or hybrid solar system.
It is important to know these rules beforehand so you can judge if a DIY solar panel installation is possible where you live; and if it is possible, if it's still a worthwhile option to pursue.
4. Design a system
This is one of the most complicated parts of the DIY solar panel process. You want your system to take into account all of the following factors:
- Your energy usage
- Climate and the number of sun hours you’ll see each month
- Solar panel orientation
- Solar panel angle
- Natural efficiency drop
- Conversion losses
- Battery size and charging (for hybrid and off-grid systems)
The PVWatts Calculator from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is a well-known tool that takes into account the above points to show you total system output over each month of the year.
We also recommend you try out our solar panel calculator. It builds on the data provided by PVWatts to recommend a system size for your specific home, and even shows you which section of your roof you should use for maximum exposure to sunlight.
If you’re adding batteries for a hybrid or off-grid system, you’ll need to take care to size your battery correctly. If your battery is too small, you may run out of backup power just when you need it. On the flip side, if your battery is too big, you’ll wind up spending too much, and might quickly diminish battery capacity by failing to charge it sufficiently.
For more information about batteries, check out this handy guide on battery sizing.
As part of your system design, you’ll want to create an electrical diagram. This will be useful as a blueprint when it’s time to install your panels; it will also be required when you’re applying for permits.
5. Do the math
By this point, you should have a clear idea of what kind of system you want, as well as what’s allowed (and what isn’t) under the rules and regulations governing solar in your area.
Now you’ll want to move on to specifics and work the numbers, i.e. your estimated costs and savings.
Make a solar costs and savings projection covering the guaranteed life of your panels (typically 25 years). Image source: Freepik
Based on your system design, you should be able to search online and find the costs for the equipment you require. The simplest way to do this is to look for a complete, all-in-one DIY solar kit that matches your needs.
Next, you want to work out your utility bill savings. Using the system size you worked out in your design in Step #4, it’s relatively easy to calculate the annual output of your system. Based on that, you can figure out and total up avoided utility costs. When projecting ahead, be sure to account for inflation in utility costs.
Some homeowners may be constrained by limited roof space; in that case, they should calculate the maximum number of solar panels that can fit on their roof, and then figure out costs and savings from there.
Now, with the cost and savings figure in hand, you can calculate what the return on your DIY solar panel project will be, and if it’s worth going ahead with from a financial perspective.
6. Stop and reevaluate
Assuming you’ve already completed Steps 1-4, you should have a clear idea about whether a DIY solar panel installation is feasible or not. Specifically, this is what you should know by now:
- If a DIY solar panel system is allowed where you live
- The permitting and approval process
- The solar panel system size you want, and whether you have the space for it
- The estimated cost of the installation
- The electricity bills savings you will receive
- If the financial equation is right for you
- All of the risks associated with a DIY solar panel installation (refer to the 'Cons' section earlier on this blog)
If you’re still unclear on any of the points, step back and continue your research.
If you do have all this information, then I recommend you pause and reevaluate.
Is solar right for you? And if it is, here are the three options you can choose to make it a reality.
DIY solar panel installation
You’ve done your research and are clear on what DIY solar installation entails. You’re confident in your ability to perform all the necessary tasks yourself, and have a plan to avoid or mitigate all the risks. Congratulations, you’re ready to get started and get your hands dirty.
Outsource part of the installation
You may decide that you’re better off outsourcing part of the installation. This is often a good idea if there’s a specific section that you don’t feel comfortable with. For instance, many solar DIY-ers decide to hire an external contractor to perform the electrical installation.
Get a professional solar company to perform the entire installation
While this is the most expensive in terms of cost, it’s the cheapest option when it comes to time, effort and peace of mind. The solar company will design the system for you, source all materials, and deal with all permitting requirements. Furthermore, if there are any issues with panels or workmanship down the line, they will be there to handle them for you.
I encourage you to check out this option. To do so, simply use our solar panel calculator to request no-obligation quotes from licensed solar installers in your area.
If you’re still not sure which is the best way forward, here is a solar decision matrix to help you out.
|Financial costs||Time costs||Roof leakage risk||Permitting requirements||Ease||Personal safety|
|DIY solar install||++||-||-||-||-||-|
|Outsource part of the installation||+||+||+||-||+||+|
|Professional solar install||-||++||++||++||++||++|
7. Start permitting process
You’re ready to get your hands dirty and install some solar panels! But wait — remember the rules and regulations you researched back at Step #3?
If you haven’t already, list out all permit processes required by the state, your utility, and your authority having jurisdiction (AHJ).
There’s a good chance that you’re going to have to apply for a building and utility permit before you start any work. This will often involve an inspection by either an electrician or a structural engineer, or both.
It’s important to follow all the steps required to ensure that your installation is code-compliant and legal.
8. Choose supplier and buy equipment
Here’s is a brief list of all the equipment you’ll need for you solar setup:
- Solar panels
- Solar inverter
- Mounting and racking equipment
- Wiring and general electrical supplies
- Battery system (for hybrid and off-grid system)
- Charge controller (required for some battery systems)
Ideally, you’ll find a complete DIY solar panel kit that includes everything you need for your solar installation. That’ll save you time that you would otherwise spend searching for individual components and then figuring out whether each part can work together.
When you’re comparing kits, we encourage you to check product reviews on SolarReviews to make sure that you’re buying from reputable brands that homeowners are happy with.
When it comes to picking a supplier, you want to choose one that offers great warranty and after-sales support. I would prioritize both these factors over price — unless you’ve performed a solar installation before, you’re going to have to talk to the vendor many times during the installation, and maybe even after.
9. Install the solar panel system
At this point, you should have successfully applied for all necessary permits and approvals, and accepted delivery of your solar equipment. It’s now time to install the panels!
The actual specifics of the installation will depend on what system type and equipment you’ve decided upon.
The process I’m describing below is for a grid-tied system that uses microinverters for the DC to AC power conversion.
Task 1: Install solar panel racking and mounting
Use a chalk line to measure and mark out exactly where on your roof the racking system will be installed.
Next, look for solid bits of the roof to drill into for the installation of lag bolts. You should consider using a stud finder with AC current detection to ensure you’re not drilling through a power line.
Caulk the holes and install flashing to create a waterproof seal before you screw the lag bolts in. Once the lag bolts are all ready, you can install L-feet and then lock the rails on to them.
Task 2: Connect microinverters
Onto the microinverters. These are little boxes that will modulate the output of each panel. You’ll connect them to the rails using the provided bolts. Each box will have a positive and negative wire coming out of it, which you will connect together to form a series connection for each array.
Microinverters attached to a rail. Later, each solar panel will be connected to one before it is mounted. Image source: Enphase
Task 3: Connect grounding wire
Connect copper wire of an appropriate gauge across the rails as grounding. This is an important safety precaution and will help dissipate any anomalies caused by a lightning strike or a fault.
Task 4: Install roof junction box
You’ll need to drill a hole in the roof to install a junction box. If you have more than one solar array, you will run the trunk cable from each into the junction box. This will allow you to channel the power from the solar panels to your house.
Task 5: Install the solar panels
It’s now time to haul the panels onto the roof. Each module is about 65 inches by 39 inches, which can be an awkward size for one person to handle on their own. Consider getting someone to assist you with this part, especially if your roof is steep. I also strongly recommend that you use a harness while you’re up there.
It’s now time to attach the solar panels to the mounting rail. Before laying them down flat, first get the wiring in order. Each solar panel will have a negative and positive DC wire attached. You don’t want the wires to touch the roof, so you clip or zip-tie them to the panel. You can then connect the wires into the microinverters you’ve already attached to the railings.
Next, insert the provided mid-clamps into the railing to hold the solar panel in place from each side. For the solar panels that lie on each end of the rail, use end-clamps to keep them in place and present a more aesthetically pleasing look.
Task 6: Home run connection
With the solar panels ready, it's time to connect them to the house. For this you will need to install:
- A conduit
- An external junction box
- An emergency disconnect box
The conduit will carry the wires from the roof junction box down to the external junction box.
The junction box will in turn connect to an emergency disconnect. This is a safety feature that allows you to quickly shut off your solar panel system, and is a required feature in many jurisdictions.
From the emergency disconnect, the wires are passed through to the home’s main electrical panel. The external junction box and emergency disconnect box should be weatherproof and installed in an area that is easily accessible and allows easy connection to the home’s main electrical panel.
Your solar panel system is now ready, but unfortunately there’s still a couple of more hoops to jump before you can actually switch it on.
10. Final inspection and interconnection with the grid
Once your installation is complete, you’ll have to schedule an inspection with the local AHJ. The inspector will come out and inspect your system to ensure that it’s compliant with local ordinances, and that the design matches those laid out in your plans.
The system will also need to pass an electrical inspection to ensure that it is code-compliant.
Once the inspection is done, you will need to apply for interconnection with the grid. The utility will either install a second meter, or replace your existing one with a bi-directional (or net) meter. The bi-directional meter can record your home’s power exports the grid so that you can receive credits on your power bill.
11. Switch on your system
Assuming your system has now met all state, local and utility requirements, you can now commission it.
These days, most inverters offer solar monitoring app that allow you to check your system performance online from wherever you are. Use this to make sure that your solar system is performing as expected.
It was hard work, but you can now benefit from a solar panel system that produces clean energy, lowers your electricity bill, and improves the value of your home. Congratulations!
DIY or not, solar power is highly rewarding
If you’ve read through this very lengthy blog post, kudos - you are definitely serious about going solar! You are now on a journey that I’m sure you’ll find highly rewarding.
Here are some of the best things about having solar panels:
- The satisfaction of receiving a much lower utility bill - and thinking of all the things you can do with the money you’ll be saving over the years
- Monitoring your solar panel production and usage from day to day
- Pride in producing clean energy and doing your part in combating climate change
If you have a lot of time on your hands and the skills to pull it off, you can achieve all these benefits at the minimum possible cost.
However, if you’ve read through this guide and feel that a DIY solar installation is just too much work, then fret not: you can still get all the benefits by getting a professional solar company to do the work for you.
Either way, we encourage you to check out our solar calculator. It will recommend a system for you that offers 100% offset of your utility bills, and can show you what the panels will actually look like on your roof.
Best of luck on your solar journey!
Author: Zeeshan Hyder | SolarReviews Blog Author
Zeeshan is passionate about promoting renewable energy and tackling climate change. He developed these interests while studying at beautiful Middlebury College, Vermont, which has a strong focus on sustainability. He has previously worked in the humanitarian sector — for Doctors Without Borders — and in communications and journalism.