You Can Install Solar Panels
Have you ever considered a DIY solar panel installation?
Many people think that they need to hire a professional to install solar panels onto their roof. However, you can install solar panels and save yourself thousands of dollars.
Don’t eliminate yourself as a potential installer. Solar installation is not just for people with electrical experience and a passion for everything DIY. It’s not just for those who have Home Depot set as “Home” in their navigation app or for those who sleep with a DeWalt cordless drill just in case they are struck with home-improvement inspiration in the middle of the night.
I’m also talking to you.
Even if you’re a little fuzzy on how to change a tire, even if you avoid IKEA furniture, even if the word “installation” makes your palms a bit sweaty and your heart a bit heavy with feelings of inadequacy, you are not disqualified from becoming a DIY solar installation champ.
With the right preparation, guidance, and support, a do-it-yourself installation can be a great choice for all kinds of people in the market for solar.
In this article, we’re going to explore this DIY possibility so that you can better understand the basic processes of a solar installation.
Admittedly, this is not a complete guide or tutorial—you will not be ready to jump on the roof and start pounding and drilling just because you have skimmed this article.
When you choose Project Solar’s DIY installation option, you receive a full installation guide which is a complete and detailed outline of the process, and it highlights all the equipment and key tips needed for a successful solar install.
Naturally, the solar installation process takes some time, effort, and know-how, but truthfully, it’s a job that is a lot more doable than you may think.
DIY installation also becomes a much more attractive option when you look at how significantly it lowers your system’s overall price (by $10,000 to $20,000) and increases your return on investment (ROI).
You can have the satisfaction of learning something new, putting something together with your own two hands, and saving thousands.
Getting a DIY Install Started
An install consists of two parts: system design and physical labor.
Fortunately, Project Solar can take charge of your system’s design. You don't need to have a complex understanding of volts, amps, watts, circuits, photovoltaic sun potential, inner workings of the hardware and electrical components, wiring, etc., to successfully install a PV system.
Project Solar can design your system within 24 hours and maximize your system design for efficiency of panel placement, aesthetics, and ROI. The company's solar calculator can give you an idea of an ideal system size for your home and electrical usage.
Since Project Solar takes care of the system design, the installation's physical labor will fall on your shoulders. You’ll be the muscles of the operation, but the great news is that you don’t even have to be particularly muscular.
If you can comfortably carry about 45 pounds, use a power drill to drive lags and run wires through your attic (no electrical background needed), and you feel okay moving around on your roof, then you got this!
Next, we’ll cover the basics of the following 7 steps:
1. Getting a Safety Protection System
2. Prepping the Rooftop
3. Installing Anchors
4. Fastening Rails/Racking
5. Installing Microinverters and SolaDeck
6. Installing Panels
7. Running the Wires
Getting a Safety Protection System
If you’re someone who expertly strings up Christmas lights and is unfazed by heights, you may have rolled your eyes and zoned out after reading this heading. Well, zone back in! This applies to you as well.
While we have full confidence in your installation abilities and physical agility, you will need to get a fall protection system before working on your roof if there is a 6-foot fall hazard or greater. If the professionals are using protection systems for these kinds of jobs, then you definitely should.
You can purchase a safety protection system from your local hardware store and then follow its installation instructions.
Throughout the solar installation process, you will be handling expensive equipment and materials, and your body is also valuable.
Safety first, amazing solar panel installation second.
Prepping the Rooftop
In the first steps of the solar installation process, it is important to keep some of Benjamin Franklin’s wise words in mind: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Just as the builders of your home carefully measured and made markings before they started digging, pouring, and constructing, you should prepare with precision. You don’t want to eyeball your panel placement.
You will start by marking your roof’s fire lanes (as determined by your local code) with chalk. Then, you will measure the placement of your panels according to your provided plans and mark the corners of each array and each panel’s anchor zone.
Next, you will need to find your roof’s studs/trusses before you install your anchors. You can accomplish this by either using a rubber mallet to strike the rooftop, getting in the attic and measuring from a fixed point, guessing and checking with some exploratory drilling, or using an electronic stud finder.
When you work through Project Solar, the company can lend you the Bosch D-Tect 150 (an electronic stud finder) to help you with your project. To use the tool, you have to pay a deposit, but you can receive that back in full when the tool is returned.
After you have located the center of a truss, you can typically measure 24 inches from that point to find and mark the next.
After you have marked truss locations, you can start to install the anchors’ flashings. Flashings are what ground the anchors, and the anchors will eventually ground the panels’ racking.
Anchors are the waterproof attachment fixtures that the rails are mounted on. To attach anchors, you first need to pre-drill anchor holes and then line up the anchors’ flashings with those holes.
To do this, you will need to slide the flashing under the surrounding shingles (or interlock with tiles, depending on the roof), and a lag bolt will hold it in place.
After you do this for every anchor position as outlined by your engineering plans, the hardest part of the solar install will be done!
Something to Keep in Mind
So far, you’ve probably noticed that the installation process requires a lot of drilling.
After reading about so many drilled holes, you may be feeling less enthusiastic about your money-saving panels and more concerned that you’ll have to hire someone to fix your punctured, leaky mess of a roof.
Intentionally drilling holes in your roof may sound strange and alarming, but don’t panic.
When working on installation or repair jobs, roofers put thousands of holes in your roof. In terms of leak prevention, it is more important to ensure that your roof is conducive to proper water flow rather than a completely unpenetrated surface.
For example, your SolaDeck (or control box) requires you to drill an oversized hole to allow wires to be woven through the roof to the attic space. When you attach the box to your roof, you will apply sealant in a “U” shape above the hole so that it is impossible for water running down the roof to leak into your attic.
Additionally, sealant can easily fill in misplaced holes and create a strong seal for the pre-drilled holes that will be used to screw in the equipment. These are quick and cheap solutions that can help you feel confident in water-tightness of your roof.
Fastening the Racking
Next you will need to attach the rails/racking. They will support your panels and hold them steady through wind and snow.
Depending on the length of your array(s), some rails may need to be extended. You can accomplish this by inserting and drilling a bonding splice between the two rails.
The plans you receive from Project Solar will specify how long each piece of racking needs to be, and you can cut and size the pieces on the ground or on the roof. If you cut them on the roof, you’ll need to wait until they are well secured.
The racking can be attached to the anchors easily by sliding mounting screws into the racking, placing those screws on the anchors, and then tightening.
This step should only take about 45 minutes.
Installing Microinverters and the SolaDeck
After you have the racking installed, you will need to attach the Enphase microinverters. The trunk cable connects all the microinverters together and terminates into a junction box that transitions into the roof.
Microinverters can be put on either the high or low rail, whichever allows the trunk cable to reach; just make sure they can be covered by the panels and that panel edges will not directly lay on microinverters.
Enphase has an app called Enlighten that will give you directions on how to map out your system by scanning the barcode of each microinverter.
Project Solar uses a junction box called SolaDeck, which is a roof-mounted combiner and enclosure used for the installation and pre-wiring of solar panels. Each array on your roof will need a SolaDeck.
You need to position the SolaDeck under or next to the last panel where your trunk cable ends. For the sake of aesthetics, many people prefer to place the SolaDeck under an array, but that placement could make future maintenance difficult.
Once you’ve chosen where you want to place the SolaDeck, trace the box’s lid with chalk onto the shingles. You will cut the outline out of the shingles and remove any nails that would interfere with the SolaDeck flashing.
Next, you will place the SolaDeck on the roof and mark the various holes that will need to be screwed in through the deck.
You will need to drill an oversized hole underneath the tracing of the SolaDeck so that a cord grip can fit through the roof later. Then you’ll waterproof the SolaDeck with sealant in a “U” shape as described earlier.
You will screw the SolaDeck into place and then adhere shingles to the top of the flashing with sealant.
Getting the panels on your roof is one of the most satisfying parts of the install, and it’s relatively quick depending on the help you have (or rooftop delivery).
To cater to DIY-ers, Project Solar offers rooftop delivery for all your equipment (including panels) in select states for a flat fee of $0.05/watt.
If you decide not to opt for rooftop delivery, you can get the panels onto your roof, one at a time, by holding it steady with one arm and holding onto the ladder with the other.
Panels weigh about 45 pounds, which is manageable for most, but it is important to be working with someone else at this stage so that you can safely maneuver the bulky equipment. If there are harsh weather conditions, wait for a clear day to carry the panels up onto the roof.
Once on the roof, stand the solar panel up on the edge of the rail that is furthest from your SolaDeck. Plug the panel wires into its corresponding microinverter (they clip in pretty easily).
Next you will slide the panel onto the rail without tightening it. You'll need to make sure that the panel is straight and seated correctly on the rail so that you have space left for fire lanes according to your plans.
To ensure that the panels are straight, you'll use the top rail as a point of reference by measuring the distance between the top rail and the top of the panel. Then, you will slide the panel up or down on the opposite side until it measures the same distance between the top of the rail and the top of the panel.
After everything is lined up, you can secure and lock the panels into place.
Running the Wires
Wiring can be intimidating, but Project Solar arranges for a local electrician to do the final hook up of your system to the main service panel, and their installation guide offers an in-depth, step-by-step guide to walk you through what you’ll be expected to do.
Here, we’ll just go through the basics to give you a general idea of what's required.
Each solar array will have its own SolaDeck where the trunk cable connects to the Romex (orange/yellow wire).
You’ll need to run Romex through your attic to converge in the final SolaDeck before forming the “homerun”—the group of wires from your last SolaDeck to your main panel.
The homerun is made up of THWN wires (one pair of black/white wires for every string of panels) and one ground (green) wire for your whole system. So, if you are installing 2 panel arrays, you’ll have 5 wires: a pair of black/white wires for each string and a green wire to ground the whole system.
(Pro tip: THWN is harder to strip than Romex, so you’ll want to practice on excess wire. That way, you won't nick the copper wire and decrease your system’s capacity load and efficiency.)
You will need to thread the Romex through the oversized hole underneath the SolaDeck. The end of the Romex wire will need to be unsheathed and the white (positive) and black (negative) wires will need to be separated and placed on their respective terminals in the SolaDeck.
Before you close the box, there shouldn’t be any protruding wires.
Next, in the attic, someone will need to secure the wire using electrical staples without hammering them in too tightly (this can pinch and potentially damage the wires).
After running the wires through the attic, they need to exit the side of your house above the main service panel so that a local electrician can access them easily and complete the final system hook up.
Project Solar's Services
As you can see, a lot goes into a solar install. We hope that you now have a better idea of what a DIY solar install entails.
Although this installation option is labeled "do-it-yourself," Project Solar won't leave you hanging. When you work with Project Solar, we hold your hand through the entire process.
Project Solar will be there to design and engineer your system; look into city and utility permitting, paperwork, and logistics; and answer any questions that come up.
On install day(s), professional installers will be available for remote assistance through text, calls, and/or video chat.
From system design to power on, we are with you the entire way. You can enjoy all the satisfaction that comes from a DIY project and all the confidence that comes from working with a solid solar company.