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How to install solar panels

More than a million homes already have solar in the U.S., and many more homeowners are considering installing solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. If you’re in the market for a clean energy solution like solar, you probably want to know what actually happens during a solar panel installation or even how to install solar panels yourself. There are several key steps that need to happen between deciding to go solar, signing your contract, and powering your home with solar electricity – and most of this happens behind the scenes. To show you what you can expect, we’ve outlined a simple guide for how to set up a home solar power system.

Key takeaways

  1. Before you sign a solar installation contract, it’s important to evaluate your energy needs, decide if your home is suitable for solar, explore incentives near you, and compare quotes from qualified installers.

  2. The five main steps to installing a solar panel system include: an engineering site visit, permits and documentation, ordering equipment, the solar panel installation, and approval and interconnection.

  3. Your installation will follow these five main steps whether you choose to finance your system with a lease, loan, or cash purchase.

  4. The actual installation of your system will generally take one to three days.

  5. Solar shoppers should use the EnergySage Marketplace to compare quotes from our network of pre-screened installers.

What’s in this article?

Planning to go solar: five steps

Before you make the decision to actually install solar panels, it’s important to understand your own energy needs and determine if your home is a good fit for solar.

1. Evaluate your electric bill

For many people, the primary reason they want to go solar is due to high energy bills. Especially if you’re unable to reduce the amount of energy you’re consuming, installing solar panels will significantly reduce what you’re spending each month on your utility bills. In addition to providing environmental benefits, solar panels will offset (or even eliminate) your electricity bill – the higher your bill, the more you could benefit from going solar.

2. Determine your home’s efficiency

A home energy audit will uncover issues that make your home less efficient. By correcting those problem areas, you can reduce energy demands and make your home more energy efficient. Switching to energy-efficient lighting and appliances, as well as weatherizing your home, may be necessary.

3. Decide if your home’s a good fit for solar

Once you understand your home’s efficiency, the next step should be to decide if solar energy will work for your home and ultimately if your home can accommodate solar panels. There are lots of tools available that can help you estimate your home’s potential to generate solar energy. Some important considerations include: your roof’s shading, your roof’s orientation and angle, any homeowner’s association restrictions, and the age of your roof

4. Explore available incentives

Once you’ve evaluated your home and your energy needs, the next step before installing solar panels is to find what kind of incentives are available in your area. In recent years, the federal and many state governments have made it easier than ever to install solar panels and invest in clean energy through tax breaks. The federal solar tax credit allows you to deduct 30 percent of the cost of installing a solar energy system from your federal taxes. Depending on where you live, there also may be state-level incentives available that could reduce your upfront costs.

5. Compare and choose an installer

Once you’ve evaluated your own needs, your home’s potential and the incentives in your area, you’ll want to find a qualified solar professional to install your solar array. By using the EnergySage Marketplace, you can find solar providers in your area and compare quotes to choose the best installer based on your unique needs.

What are the different types of solar installations?

There are a few different types of solar installations, and they’re all installed in different ways. Learn more about the key categories of solar installations you should know about, including residential, commercial, utility-scale, and community solar installations, by reading our article.

Solar panel installation guide: five main steps

Installing solar panels doesn’t happen overnight – there’s a process that needs to happen before you can start generating clean electricity right at home. Overall, from the day you sign your contract with your solar company, it will typically take between one and three months before your solar panels are grid-connected and producing energy for your home.

There are five major steps to a solar installation that your chosen solar company will generally follow:

1. Engineering site visit: the first step to installing your solar system

After you sign your solar contract (whether it be a lease, loan, cash purchase or power purchase agreement), an engineer will come by your property to evaluate the electrical status of your home and ensure everything is compatible with your new PV system. This engineer will typically work directly for your installer, but could also be an independent provider contracted by your solar company. You can expect the engineering site visit to occur soon after signing with your installer.

During their visit, the engineer will evaluate the condition of your roof to ensure that it’s structurally sound. They’ll also look at your electrical panel – the gray box in your basement – to see if you’ll need an electrician to upgrade it. If you hear from an installer that they need to upgrade the electrical panel, that means that your new solar panels will require more amps of current, so the ampere capacity of your electrical box will need to increase – your electrical panel also may simply be too old.

This engineer visit is different from a general site visit in which an installer evaluates your property to create your system design based on your roof type, angle of roof, shading, etc. before any contract is signed. Additionally, though an engineer will typically come by, in some cases the installer can take photos of the property and conduct their own measurements of the roof and the engineer will be okay with signing off without doing their own visit.

2. Permits and documents: the logistical paperwork required for your solar panel installation

As with any big financial decision, installing solar panels involves a lot of paperwork. Luckily, most of this paperwork is dealt with by the installer – regardless, it’s always a good idea to know what’s going on behind the scenes of your solar installation. One of the main things you’ll be applying for will be state and federal solar incentives such as the federal ITC and local solar programs like government rebates and solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs). There are also multiple financing options available when you go solar – if you choose to use a solar loan or a lease, you’ll need to work with your installer to fill out this paperwork as well.

In addition to applying for incentives, you’ll need to apply for building permits during the solar panel installation process – these permits are specific to where you live. For example, certain states require that a roof has three feet of clear space surrounding the solar panels, whereas other areas of the U.S. will allow you to install panels across the entire surface of your roof. Your installer will know the restrictions and requirements of the states in which they operate, and can help you figure out which permits you need – in many cases, the installer will fill out this paperwork for you.

The time frame for this step is mainly dependent on how long it takes your installer to get it all finished and submitted. If you’re eager to get your panel system up and running as soon as possible, just make sure to follow up with your installer to check on the progress of your paperwork.

3. Ordering equipment: choosing the panels and inverters and getting your installation scheduled

Now that you’re set up with the proper paperwork, your installer will be ready to place an equipment order through their primary distributor. At this point, you’ll have already decided on the equipment your system will include, which occurs before the contract sign that details the total costs.

However, if you’re looking for advice on equipment selection, the two primary components you’ll need to evaluate for your clean energy system are solar panels and inverters. Your installer will likely recommend a particular brand for each, and offer a few alternatives. Durability, efficiency, warranty, and aesthetics are the primary factors most homeowners will use to compare the various brands (other than price).

To be certain that you’ve chosen the right equipment for your system, spend some time researching the different types of inverters and look into the best solar panels available on the market. Evaluating your equipment options can help you feel prepared for the ordering and shipment stage of the installation process.

Once the equipment ordering process is complete, your property is added to your installer’s queue. Your equipment (panels and inverters) will likely arrive on the day of your installation, which can happen whenever your paperwork is approved (typically within one to three months). Time until install also depends on how many projects your installer has in their queue. If possible, try to get your solar installation completed in the winter when solar companies aren’t as busy.

4. Solar installation: the big day

The actual installation is an exciting day for every solar homeowner who wants to rely on renewable energy as opposed to a utility company. The timeline for the installation will range from one to three days, completely dependent on the size of your system and the complexity of your roof. One additional factor that can add time to your installation process is putting in a power meter for net metering: if your installer needs to add a power meter, this will add a few hours to your solar panel installation.

How are solar panels installed on a roof?

There are five main steps to actually installing solar panels on a roof:

  1. Your solar installer will start by prepping your roof and making sure the shingles or tiles are properly attached.

  2. Then, they put in electrical wiring that will connect your electrical panel and general power system.

  3. After the electrical wiring is complete, they’ll install racking to support your panels (this is the only piece of equipment that will actually be attached to your roof).

  4. Once the racking is level and safely attached, the panels are attached to the racking.

  5. Finally, your inverter(s) are connected to the panels to convert direct current (DC) energy into the alternating current (AC) energy used in homes and on the electric grid.

It’s important to note that a number of reputable solar companies go through these steps without issue, but less reputable installers may provide lackluster service and skip important steps in your install. This is why we rigorously vet our partners; the next and final stage of solar panel installation involves an inspection and final approval, which can reveal if your installer cut corners.

5. Approval and interconnection

The final step of going solar is “flipping the switch,” so to speak, and officially commencing your home solar energy generation. Before you can connect your solar panels to the electric grid, a representative from your town government will need to inspect the system and give approval. During this inspection, the representative will essentially be double-checking your installer’s work: he or she will verify that the electrical wiring was done correctly, the mounting was safely and sturdily attached, and the overall install meets standard roof setback and electrical codes.

Following this local inspection, you’ll be ready for official grid interconnection. A representative from your utility company will come by to do their own final evaluation of the solar panel system. As long as there are no glaring issues, your panels will go live the moment they “give the okay” and connect your system to the grid. You can expect to wait two weeks to a month for the town approval and utility approval to occur and interconnection to go live.

How to find a solar installer in your area

You’ve decided you’re ready for the solar installation process – so now what? Choosing between different installers can be a daunting task, but EnergySage is here to help. We thoroughly vet the installers in our Marketplace, present installer-specific differentiators in the quotes you receive on EnergySage, and show you our installer-tiering badge system, helping you find the top solar installers in your area. Learn more about how to pick a solar installer.

Can you install solar panels yourself?

Going solar has major financial benefits: it reduces your monthly electricity costs and can even increase the value of your home. Incentives like the federal tax credit can reduce your net cost by 30 percent, but solar is still a big investment, and the price tag can result in sticker shock. To save money, it’s no surprise that many homeowners are considering DIY and asking themselves “can you install solar panels yourself?” Simply put, yes you can – but, there are some advantages and disadvantages of doing it alone. For instance, it may not be the best route to take if you still need to rely on some utility energy, and installation can be very complicated without professional experience.

If you’re interested in a DIY solar panel installation, check out our article on the DIY solar installation process.

Commonly asked questions about solar panel installations

To better understand the installation process and how to install solar panels, check out a few of answers to homeowners’ most frequently asked questions:

How much do solar panels cost to install?

On average, solar panel installation costs range between $16,870 and $23,170 after accounting for the ITC. However, as solar deployment continues to grow, this cost will likely drop further. For more information, learn about how much the average solar panel system costs in the U.S.

Can I install solar panels myself?

Yes, technically you can install a DIY solar panel system yourself. However, when it comes to installing a costly electrical system on your property, we recommend relying on the professionals who can help fill out permits, file important paperwork, and handle potentially dangerous electrical issues that may arise. Read our article to learn more about the pros and cons of DIY solar panels.

How long do solar panels take to install?

On average, it will typically take between one and three months before your solar panels are grid-connected and producing energy for your home.

Can I go off-grid with solar panels?

You can’t go off-grid with solar panels alone – you’ll need to install a solar battery as well. Keep in mind that for most homeowners, it’s not worth the effort and costs to disconnect from the grid entirely. Learn more in our article about off-grid solar energy systems.

What do I need to know before installing solar panels?

First and foremost, it’s important to realize that no two solar installations are the same. While you can certainly do a cursory review of your own electrical system and roof, ultimately it will need to be evaluated by professionals to find the best solar energy setup. Knowing that, and that certain areas and situations require different equipment, can help you make informed decisions about your solar energy service and needs.

Install solar panels now and start saving money

Why go through the one to three-month process of installing solar on your home? Nowadays, the average solar shopper on EnergySage offsets approximately 98 percent of their electricity usage by going solar, and will pay off their solar energy system in about eight years. Find out just how much you can save by using our Solar Calculator to get a personalized instant estimate based on offers in your area. If you’re ready to start comparing quotes from pre-screened installers in your area, you can register your property on the EnergySage Marketplace.

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