Solar photovoltaic systems have proven to be a viable investment in both homes and businesses, and are capable of saving hundreds or thousands of dollars per year, depending on their installed capacity. On top of that, solar power is a zero-carbon energy source, which means that it helps save the environment while reducing your energy expenses.
If you live in the USA, installing a solar PV system for your home or business may also make you eligible for great incentives such as rebates from utility companies or tax breaks from the government. Some states have such a favorable combination of benefits that solar PV systems achieve payback periods of less than five years!
However, before you can reap the benefits of solar power, you have to install and configure your photovoltaic array correctly. Fortunately, there are now various web resources such as www.solar-nation.org, where you can get in touch with the best solar contractors near you and get installation quotes for residential PV systems.
Alternatively, you can follow the “do-it-yourself” approach, but keep in mind that you must possess the right technical skills and must know exactly what you are doing. Solar panels themselves are just the tip of the iceberg, and actually they’re the simplest component of a functioning solar power system. When an array of solar panels is installed, there are many other steps to follow before you can get a usable supply of energy:
• A racking system is required for support, regardless of whether the solar array will be installed on a rooftop or on the ground.
• Solar panels must be wired in strings and balanced into circuits, which are then connected to an inverter. The modules must also be positioned in such a way that shading from nearby objects is minimal.
• The inverter is a key component that turns DC power into AC power, making the energy output from solar modules suitable for home appliances and grid interconnection.
• Electrical codes require protection devices and manual disconnect switches to be installed at many points in the system.
• If you want energy storage, you also have to add a charge controller and a battery bank. If you’re not an engineer or electrician, but like DIY home improvement projects, consider the installation of solar power kits. These devices typically come factory wired and configured, and their power output is much less than that of a rooftop grid-tied PV system, making them much safer to handle.
Hiring a Solar Installer for PV System Installation
Hiring a solar installer increases the costs of going solar, but the safety, performance and workmanship benefits far outweigh the extra price paid. Also, for warranty and insurance purposes, installation by a qualified contractor is mandatory in most cases. Installation by a professional contractor may also be necessary to apply for incentives from utility companies and governments.
Safety is perhaps the top benefit of hiring a qualified contractor to install your solar photovoltaic system. With a qualified contractor, you can rest assured that your solar power system will be free from electrical faults and will not pose a hazard for your family and your property. The benefit of safety applies during both installation and operation:
• You don’t have to deal with dangerous voltages during installation.
• Electrical protections can be trusted during operation because a professional contractor installed them.
Hiring a qualified solar installer also allows you to achieve higher performance. There are several factors that influence solar panel performance, which are not evident at first:
• There may be areas of your rooftop that are free from shades 100% of the time and offer the best possible conditions for solar power. However, shades move during the day due to Earth’s rotation, and a location that seems suitable in the morning may be completely shaded in the afternoon.
• Even if your entire rooftop is free from shades, some areas may have a more suitable orientation for solar panels.
Determining the optimal orientation for solar panels can be a complex procedure, but a solar contractor can easily analyze these factors, making sure you get maximum energy output from your investment. A 3-kilowatt solar PV system installed under direct sunlight is much more productive than one of the same size shaded by trees or by a neighboring building, but both have the same upfront cost!
Warranties and insurance are another strong reason to hire a contractor to install your residential PV system.
• Some manufacturers may require their products to be installed by a certified contractor, or otherwise their warranty may be voided.
• Contractors also offer a warranty on their labor, and if any issue arises during the warranty period they will fix it for free.
Although warranties and insurance only apply in case there is an issue, they’re a great way to safeguard your investment. If your PV system is crippled by a fault before you recover your investment, and there are no warranties covering it, you will have lost some serious cash.
Another reason to hire a solar installer is saving time. Even if you have the professional qualifications to install a residential PV system, you will have to figure out the process on your own if you’ve never done it before. On top of that, you may need to purchase tools and equipment that you will probably never use again. On the other hand, solar installers are specialized in their trade and can install a PV system in a breeze, typically taking only three or four days. You can also save a lot of time by avoiding paperwork: the process of getting a permit to connect your PV system can be long and complex, but experienced contractors know the quickest way through.
Finally, hiring a qualified contractor allows you to meet the interconnection requirements of local utility companies. Keep in mind that this may vary from state to state: some states have standards that make solar PV system interconnection as simple as possible, and plugging in your residential PV system is very straightforward; on the other hand, there are states where interconnection is not regulated and local utilities may have a sizeable list of requirements before they allow you to connect your PV system to the grid. Even if your utility company is more benevolent and offers incentives for solar power, you can be sure there will be minimum requirements to meet.
Perhaps the only disadvantage of hiring a solar contractor to install your residential PV system is the higher upfront cost. However, the benefits in terms of safety, performance, warranty and compliance more than compensate for this.
Another minor disadvantage of hiring a solar installer is that their staff must enter your property and work there for a few days. However, this is risk-free if you’re dealing with professionals; just make sure to do a background check for your contractor of choice, and get at least three quotes to compare them and make sure you’re not paying more than what you should.Typically, a solar PV system should cost between $3000 to $4000 per installed kilowatt before deducting incentives such as rebates and tax credits.
DIY Solar Power
If you decide to follow the do-it-yourself approach, keep in mind one very important factor: if your plan is to install a grid-tied solar PV system with several kilowatts of capacity, you must know exactly what you’re doing. In other words, you must have advanced knowledge on electricity and must have the proper skills and equipment for the project.
Of course, there are simpler and safer solar power projects you can consider if you’re not in the electrical trade but are still interested in a DIY project:
• Solar Powered Outdoor Lights – There are now commercial LED lighting fixtures that don’t require an AC power supply, and instead come with a solar panel and a battery to operate independently. These lamps typically work with very low DC voltages that don’t pose a hazard to humans, so upgrading your outdoor lighting to this technology can be a safe and simple DIY solar power project. Outdoor lighting can represent a considerable energy expense in properties with large backyards, and a project like this one is an effective way to save money with solar power. You can even use photocells to automate the lamps, making sure they activate only during nighttime.
• Portable Solar Panels – Another safe DIY project is to purchase and install a portable solar power system. These systems work with relatively low power and are completely pre-wired,which effectively turns them into a plug-and-play device. If these systems include a 120-volt supply, the inverter and battery bank will typically be factory installed and configured, eliminating a dangerous procedure from the installation process.
Even if you are installing a low-power and low-voltage solar PV system, make sure you read any applicable manuals and specifications thoroughly. Even if an electrical system poses no risk to you, improper use may damage your appliances or even the PV system itself.
The main benefit of a DIY solar power project is saving money, for the simple fact that qualified labor is expensive.A DIY solar power project is also a great opportunity to learn about an emerging technology that offers a lot of business potential.
The main disadvantage of a DIY project is the hazard of electric shock. Keep in mind that solar power systems come in all sizes and configurations:
• If you’re dealing with a small PV system that works with a 12-volt DC supply and is completely independent from the grid, risks to you are minimal.
• On the other hand, a grid-tied solar PV system with multiple kilowatts of capacity may involve dealing with 120-volt and 240-volt AC connections, as well as DC connections of up to 600 volts. The risks for you and your property are considerably higher in a project like this one.
A solar PV system installation also involves physical risks, given that solar modules are large and heavy. In the case of rooftop PV systems, there is also the risk of slipping or falling off during installation.
Another disadvantage of a DIY project is the time commitment. Even if you’re dealing with a low voltage system, you still have to study the technology in order to set it up properly. The project may involve several activities before you even start to build your PV system:
• Researching about all the system components that are needed to build a functional solar power system, and learning how they interact.
• Quoting and ordering all those components on your own, while you make sure they’re compatible.
• Reading through their manuals. Finally, you may miss out on some of the benefits. There are plenty of utility companies that offer excellent rebates and performance payments for solar power, but they may have very high standards for you to be eligible, and some may explicitly request that the job be done by a certified contractor.
Our Best Recommendation
As you can see, when choosing between a DIY project or hiring a contractor, each alternative comes with pros and cons. However, we can give you the following recommendations:
• If you’re not in the electrical trade and would still like to try a DIY solar power project, we strongly recommend you go for a low-voltage, low-power system. Small solar power systems provide less energy, but can run small appliances or LED lighting with no problem.
• For larger PV systems that will be tied to the grid, the DIY approach is only recommended for licensed engineers or electricians due to the knowledge required and the risks involved.
• Hiring a qualified contractor saves a lot of time and complications, while ensuring your PV system is protected by a warranty. On top of that, you are eligible for the top incentives available from the government and utility companies.
Regardless of the approach you follow, solar photovoltaic systems are now a viable technology that can help you reduce your energy expenses. A single solar panel powering two backyard lamps has a much smaller financial and environmental impact than a 10-kilowatt grid-tied system, but at the end of the day both options benefit you and the environment.