Many people consider purchasing solar panels and have dreams of powering their whole property with them, but then realize they don’t know anything about solar panel installation! At first glance it can seem like a pretty daunting task. Figuring out what tools you need, where to place it on your property, any potential dangers and the list goes on. The installation of your solar panels is incredibly important, and must be done correctly to avoid any future problems.
Besides safety and potential damage to your solar panels, proper installation will avoid placing your solar panel somewhere that is obstructed by trees, blocking sunlight and reducing your potential savings. Below, we’ll help you figure out everything you need to know about how to install solar panels safely, effectively, and as easy as possible.
First Things to Consider
When you’re installing your solar panels it’s important to do everything in the correct order. Probably the first thing to consider is where you’re installing your solar panels. If you’ve purchased some truly massive solar panels you may not be able to easily install solar panels on the roof, and might be better suited to an open field or yard. However most of the more reasonably sized solar panels are pretty lightweight and should be reasonably easy to install on your roof or anywhere else. Smaller solar panels can be installed on a roof easily, but you’re better off using them to power more remote devices not connected to your grid already. Consider asking a family member or friend to help you if you plan on installing the panels on your roof, especially if you’ve never installed something on a roof before.
When deciding where to place your solar panels, consider how much sunlight that area gets. An area with obstructed sunlight is generally a very bad place for a solar panel because you want the most efficiency possible. Another thing to keep in mind is pollen producing and sap producing trees. These will rain pollen and sap on your solar panels further reducing efficiency over time, leading to more cleaning and maintenance needed. Also, be sure your solar panels are rated to produce enough electricity for your needs before you install them. You’re going to be using them for a long time, so you want to be sure it’s done right the first time.
Finally, the last step in diy solar is considering how you’re going to wire and connect your solar panels to your home’s grid power. Imagine how you’re going to run the wires beforehand so you don’t run into any problems after the fact. Some things to consider are wires going across walkways, wires exposed to falling branches or other damage, or even wires that intersect other separate wiring systems. Also, remember to check your manufacturers instructions and gather any tools you’ll require so you’ll be ready to go. When setting up your solar system safety should be your number one concern, especially during the wiring phase.
Solar System Components Needed
If you’re going to be using solar power, its best to familiarize yourself with the components that make up the system. First, you have the solar panels themselves (which you can buy or contstruct out of DIY solar kits) which contain solar modules, or solar cells otherwise known as photovoltaic cells. These cells take in sunlight and are the most important part of any solar system. Next, you have a shutoff switch between all panels, which ensures you can shut down the system if you need to do any maintenance or repairs. Next, you have the solar inverter which is responsible for turning the DC current from the panels into AC current your home and devices can use. The power then proceeds to your households breaker box where it is sent to everything that needs power. Additionally you can request a power meter from your utility company which will allow you to generate excess electricity potentially negating your electric bill.
Now that you’ve determined where you’re going to install your solar panels (portable solar panels or otherwise) and what you’ll need to do so, next comes the actual setup process. This is probably the most time consuming part of solar panel installation but is also the most important. If done correctly the first time you can save yourself a lot of problems later on. First we’re going to examine the setup process for a solar panel sitting on the ground.
For ground based solar panels you’re going to need to make a stand for your solar array. Some solar panels come with their own stand, and if yours does ignore this. But for those of you who will be building a stand for your solar array you’re going to want to consider materials used. The standard DIY solar build is wood with a cement base. However, there are solar panel racks on the market which are more secure, made of metal, and a whole lot less work. These solar panel racks also have pivoting and adjustable tilt models which allow you to aim them at the sunlight on your property better. Whichever one you choose, you’ll need to secure it to the ground somehow. Either by placing the feet of the rack into cement poured holes, or by weighing it with some other method. Then, just mount the solar panels to the racks using large screws and a drill. There are dangers you need to consider when choosing ground based installation. Be cautious if you live in an area that gets extreme wind, and if it does make sure your solar panel racks can withstand the wind.
Roof mounted installation (like with these solar shingles) isn’t a whole lot different but there are some more things to consider. First, is safety. Be aware you’ll have to get the solar panels up to the roof so be sure you’re physically fit enough, and have the proper tools and equipment to do this. First, you’ll need to mount the racks base to the roof itself using some large screws and a drill. Be sure you know what’s on the other side of what you’re drilling before you start. After the racks base is mounted place the rack itself on the base and drill it into place as well. Then you’ll need to hoist the solar panels to the roof and onto the racks and these will be screwed into the rack as well.
Now we come to the wiring. This can seem like a scary aspect of DIY solar installation, but if you do your research and pay attention it should be easy. First, you’ll require a solar panel, a solar inverter which converts sunlight to usable AC power, and a power meter to monitor how much energy you’re taking in. We won’t go too in depth with the technical aspects of the entire setup process, but we will give you some setup ideas and wiring plans. A simple wiring setup for those of you using more than one solar panel is a series circuit. In simple terms, you take the positive connection from one solar panel and hook it into the negative of the next one. Next is a parallel circuit, which means all the positive connections are wired together, and all the negative connections are wired together.
The difference between these setups is that in the series circuit you add volts, and amps stay the same. But in the parallel circuit you add amps, but volts stay the same. However you decide to wire your solar panels, make sure you try to use all the same model of solar panels if they’re going to be wired together. In rare instances using slightly different panels wired together can start a fire due to differences in resistance paths. Also, be sure to tighten all connections very well, and while doing maintenance make sure they stay fastened. Loose connections can easily cause a fire, so this should be double checked when you’re done.
Now that we’ve covered wiring, let’s move on to the positioning and angling of the solar panels themselves. The first obvious thing to consider is sunlight. An area that never gets direct sunlight is clearly a bad choice. Somewhere that gets partial sunlight will still work, but you’re not going to get the most out of your solar panels. The best choices are an open, tree free yard or a roof. If you’re going with the yard option there are a few options for racking. We’ve covered building your own rack earlier in the article, and covered some of your options, but here we’re going to focus on automatic solar trackers. This is a rack type that will automatically orient your solar panels to best absorb sunlight during the day. It does this using a GPS module and a magnetometer which work anywhere on the planet without any external setup. These racks also send data to your PC which you can use to track your savings or monitor your solar panels efficiency. If you’re going to install solar panels on the roof your best option is still going to be a slanted rack for your solar panels, but when considering positioning be sure you check which side of your roof gets more sunlight during the day.
Besides sunlight you should consider any plants or wildlife that may cause dirt, pollen, sap dust or other debris to collect on the panels. This will increase solar panel degradation and just generally cause more maintenance needed more often. Some obvious trees to avoid are dogwood and pine trees as they can drip sap, and pollen onto the panels directly. Also, you should check for dangers to the panels themselves such as loose branches or dying trees nearby. If these fall onto the panels they will be severely damaged and possibly destroyed.
We’ve covered basic installation, wiring, and any potential dangers but you might be wondering, how much does it cost to install solar panels? First, check if your utility company allows for net metering, which is a special meter that will measure electricity supplied as well as used, meaning your annual bill can potentially be zero. If not, you can still benefit from solar power. If you were going to get it installed by a company, you can expect solar panel installation to cost anywhere from 7$ to 9$ a watt. This means a 5kW solar panel system would cost somewhere between $25,000 to $35,000 which is quite a large bill, far more than some households can afford. Some people have also been investing in solar roof shingles, as opposed to the more traditional slant mounted solar panels, but the cost is much more at up to 11$ a watt. The average home uses electricity at a rate of one kilowatt per hour, otherwise known as kWh. If you consider there are around 730 hours in each month, and the average price of a kWh is $0.10 then the average bill is 73$ a month if you use 730 kWh of electricity.
Be aware, if you’re in an area of the country that gets extremely cold winters, or extremely hot summers you’re going to be using more electricity during those months running air conditioners and solar pool heaters. Generally, solar panels generate electricity at 10 watts/sq. Ft. This equates to every kW you use, you’d need about 100 sq. ft of solar panels. At 12 hours of sunlight, 200 sq. ft. of solar panels would be able to power the average home. (Learn how to become a solar panel installer here!)