Can solar panels be installed on a mobile home?
In many cases, there's no difference between a mobile home and a traditional home when it comes to installing solar panels. Here's the basics you need to know.
Mobile homes, also known as manufactured homes, are a popular housing choice in the United States. According to recent data from the US Census, over 100,000 new manufactured homes are sold every year.
Add this annual new stock to the existing stock of manufactured homes, and you have a large inventory of houses that are potentially great candidates for solar. However, many people might assume that manufactured (also known as mobile) homes are not suitable for solar installation.
In many cases, there’s no difference between a manufactured home and a traditionally-constructed home when it comes to being able to support a rooftop solar system. In fact, if a mobile home has a metal roof (as many do), it can be a superior candidate for solar compared to a traditional home with a shingle or tile roof.
One obstacle is that a manufactured home will usually need its own utility meter, which is often not the case in a mobile home park. If a home does have its own meter, a home solar installation will often not be a problem.
If you have a manufactured home or you’re thinking of purchasing one, this article will explain some of the considerations involved in installing solar panels.
What's the difference between a mobile home and manufactured home?
First of all, let’s get some terminology out of the way. A mobile home and a manufactured home are the same thing. While “mobile home” is often the more common term, in industry lingo they are called manufactured homes. A manufactured home, by definition, is a home that can be transported.
According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, a manufactured home is a dwelling that is at least 320 square feet in size and is constructed with a permanent chassis that allows the home to be safely transported. Any manufactured home built in the US after June 15, 1976 must have a certification label that assures the home was constructed to HUD’s body and frame requirements, thermal protection, plumbing, electrical, fire safety, and other standards.
Manufactured homes are constructed in a factory, and because of this they are sometimes referred to as prefabricated or “prefab” homes. This term is used in marketing to perhaps avoid the stereotype that manufactured homes are low budget and low quality dwellings. In fact, it is often more cost effective to build a house in a factory, where environmental conditions can be controlled and manufacturing processes can have tighter tolerances compared to constructing a building onsite. Because of these reasons, mobile or manufactured homes are often higher quality than a similar one built onsite.
Just check out this article on net zero homes, which includes examples of prefabricated homes. A net zero home is one that meets all of its energy needs with solar panels. To be able to do this, a net zero home must be highly insulated and tightly constructed to minimize air leaks. This is easier done in a climate-controlled factory than it is onsite.
How are solar panels installed on a mobile home?
According to Berkeley Lab, only about 2% of residential solar installations use solar panels that are installed on ground-mounted racks. The remaining 98% are mounted on the roof of the home.
One issue with some mobile homes is that the roof might be small. The average solar panel is between about 65 and 75 inches long, so as long as a mobile home has a roof that can accommodate that size without the panels hanging over the edge of the roof, it should have enough space for at least a few panels. (Of course, whether that’s enough to meet your electricity needs is a different matter.)
Another installation detail is that the other components of the solar array, such as the cutoff switch and inverter, will need to be mounted next to the utility meter. The location of the meter differs: in some states, like California, they are mounted on the outside of the house. In other cases, the meter could be in a garage or basement. This affects where the electrical conduit that carries electricity from the solar panels to the electrical panel and meter is located. These details are something that you’ll need to take note of for your mobile home.
Roof strength ratings for mobile homes
As with conventional homes, the roof of a mobile home is required by code to meet a certain strength rating. This rating, measured as pounds per square foot (psf), is influenced by environmental factors such as the need to deal with strong winds or snow loads.
You can check out this map by the Manufactured Housing Institute that shows the required roof strength rating by state. The map shows that Maine - which is a very snowy state - has the highest requirement of 40 psf. Other snowy states have a 30 psf requirement, while mobile homes in rest of the country can get by with 20 psf.
These are just minimums. Local codes can enforce stricter requirements, such as Florida’s High Velocity Hurricane Zone.
Once you’ve signed a contract with a solar installer, in most localities there will need to be a structural inspection of your roof to certify that it meets the requirements needed for a solar installation.
After the inspection of my own roof, I received the following letter from the engineer:
The letter summarizes the “live load” of the roof, which is the load that the roof can be expected to carry (such as the weight of a roofing crew). For me, in Buffalo, that includes snow. As you can see from the report, a key factor in determining the load capacity of the roof is size and spacing of the rafters.
If you are purchasing a mobile home and plan to install solar panels, knowing these construction details of the roof can help you determine if a solar installation is feasible.
The Code of Federal Regulations website has the nitty gritty details of the building codes for manufactured home construction, which you can check out if this is something you want to investigate yourself.
Grid-connected mobile homes require their own utility meter
The most common reason that some mobile homes can’t go solar is because they don’t have their own utility meter. This is common in mobile home parks where the park is the utility customer, and individual mobile homes may be on submeters. Unfortunately, net metering typically does not work with submetering because the interconnection agreement needs to be on the master meter. Unless you can convince the mobile home park owner to go solar, this will limit your ability to install solar panels on your mobile home.
On the other hand, mobile homes where the homeowner is the utility customer should have no problem with interconnection.
Small mobile homes might be able to go completely off-the-grid
If you’re in a situation where your mobile home can’t have an interconnection agreement with the utility company, one option is to install your solar panels off the-grid. This doesn’t mean that your entire home needs to be off-the-grid: you could have an electrical system where just some circuits are supplied by solar. Another option is to have the solar system act as a backup, and a transfer switch is used to switch between grid power and solar.
Whatever the case, installing solar off-the-grid means that you need batteries. This gets expensive if you need enough battery storage to power an entire home, which is why nearly all solar homes retain a connection to the grid.
That said, if your mobile home is small enough (perhaps tiny home sized), you might be able to consider such a system. A good starting point is to look into RV solar kits, which share some things in common with tiny homes.
Summary: mobile homes can be solar homes
Unless it’s situated in a mobile home park with shared utilities, there’s usually no reason why a mobile home can’t have solar panels installed. Manufactured homes must meet building codes, and it’s these codes that ensure that the roof of a mobile home can support the additional weight of a solar array.
Another benefit that many mobile homes have is a metal roof, which is often the best type of roof for mounting solar panels.