Getting Started With DIY Solar Power

Thinking about cutting costs by installing solar panels yourself? Find out what you can tackle on your own and what you should leave to the pros, plus learn about new “plug-and-play” solar systems that are currently in development.
DIY Solar Panel Installation

DIY Solar Panel Installation

Photo by: Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems

Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems

The Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems (CSE) is developing plug-and-play PV systems to dramatically reduce the soft costs of residential PV installations.

By: Laura Fisher Kaiser

Preppers, survivalists and off-gridders have been cobbling together their own photovoltaic panels and set-ups from scratch for years, but as prices for factory-made PV panels have dropped and technology has improved, pre-configured arrays and kits are enabling less intrepid homeowners to install and maintain their own solar power systems and save considerable money in the process. 

Thanks to a growing number of kits and online tutorials, as well as “plug-in” systems in development, homeowners who are handy can cut the cost of going solar by almost half by configuring and installing solar panels, inverters, and safety disconnects themselves. However, have an electrician do the wiring and metering to the house. 

Start by figuring out what size and kind of system suits your budget and needs. Looking at past electrical bills and counting up all the appliances in your household, use an online calculator or worksheet to evaluate your load. 

Next, choose your components. Ask LOTS of questions. A typical grid-tied system includes solar panels, inverters, mounting equipment (module grounding, racks and clamps), a power optimizer (to compensate for shading issues) and cables. Optional accessories range from roof flashing and emergency back-up batteries to wireless monitors and surge suppressors. Even skilled DIYers can benefit from having a knowledgeable sales representative’s help to design the proper system and making sure all the components are compatible with each other.

Of the various configurations — grid-tied, grid-assisted and off-grid — offered by Wholesale Solar, based in Shasta, Calif., the most popular and least expensive are grid-tied that allow you to route excess power into the electric grid for compensation from the utility company. A simple 10-panel grid-tied system that produces 353kWh a month costs about $5,400. At the other end of the scale, an 80-panel system that produces 3,091 kWh a month cost about $43,000. (Note: These are ballpark costs before subtracting up to 30% for the Federal Tax Credit, state rebates or other financial incentives.) 

Wholesale Solar’s scalable off-grid systems range from a $1,000 “Cabin” starter kit, which produces up to 43kWh/month using two to four solar panels, to a $37,000 “Ranch” system that produces up to 2,087 kWh using 45 to 54 solar panels, and which “allows you to be your own electric company,” according to their website. A mid-range “Homestead” system capable of generating enough power to run a typical American household’s worth of lights and appliances costs between $7,000 and $10,000. (Again, before tax credits and rebates.) 

Coming Soon: Plug-and-Play Solar

DIY Solar Panel Installation

DIY Solar Panel Installation

Photo by: Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems

Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems

New plug-and-play PV systems would enable consumers to purchase a preconfigured array from a home-improvement store or distributor and then attach the panels to their roofs using adhesives.

If all that seems too complicated, stay tuned for the next wave of DIY solar: plug and play.

The nonprofit Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems (CSE), based in Boston, is piloting a turnkey system, which they hope to make available commercially in 2017. Their goal is to dramatically reduce soft costs such as permitting, installation and interconnection, which make up more than half the total cost of residential rooftop solar energy systems. By simplifying the process, they intend to bring down the cost of PV installation to $1.50/watt by 2020 from the current average of $4/watt. 

The vision of the project is to make PV systems similar to an appliance, something that can be installed quickly, easily and safely, even by someone with no prior PV installation experience.
Jacquie Ashmore, CSE engineering program manager

CSE’s plug and play PV innovation would enable consumers to purchase a preconfigured array from a home-improvement store or distributor and then attach the panels to their roofs using an adhesive roof mounting system, eliminating the need for conventional racking. Once the lightweight solar panels are in place, the system then self-tests for proper installation and communicates with the local utility to request permission to connect and operate. The system won’t energize until the utility company remotely grants permission to connect to the electric grid, increasing the safety of self-installation. If all goes well, a weekend warrior might be able to complete installation in a little over an hour — at least, that’s the goal. 

“The vision of the project is to make PV systems similar to an appliance, something that can be installed quickly, easily and safely, even by someone with no prior PV installation experience,” says Jacquie Ashmore, CSE engineering program manager. “If you buy a washing machine, you don’t buy 18 different components and assemble it yourself. You buy one big appliance and have it installed by a contractor or hook it up yourself.” 

One key innovation will be a meter collar that connects behind the exterior electric meter and requires no rewiring or punching through walls to tie into the breaker box. While a qualified electrician must install the collar, everything else, Ashmore says, “can be done by anyone comfortable on a roof top.”

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