How long does it take to install solar panels?

If you’re thinking of hiring a solar installer, here’s the project timeline you can expect.

Illustration of watches.

So, you’re thinking of getting solar panels for your house. Nice! But you’re wondering: How long will it take?

If you’re really eager could you, say, have solar panels installed by this weekend? Probably not, unless you live in San Luis Obispo County, which recently implemented instant solar permitting.

On average, you can expect it to take a couple of months from start to finish to get solar panels installed on your house. The actual physical work of installing solar panels on your roof actually only takes a day or two in most cases, but the work of interviewing contractors, permitting, and inspections mean that the whole process will usually take a couple months. There’s waiting. Quite a lot of waiting.

Here are the general steps you can expect to happen with a home solar installation project:

  • Selecting contractors
  • Reviewing proposals
  • Technical site visit by the installer
  • Contract signing
  • Apply for local and utility incentives
  • Apply for utility interconnection and local permits
  • Structural or geotechnical inspection
  • Solar system installation
  • Utility meter installation
  • Local and utility inspections
  • System activation!
  • Post install: apply for tax credits and other incentives.

Whew! That seems like a really long list! Thankfully, most of the work is handled by your solar installer. There’s only a couple things that you’ll be actively involved in.

This is also a general list, and not all of them will apply to everyone. It depends on what your utility and local government require. Here’s a breakdown on each of them. Note: the “time needed” doesn’t necessariily mean your actual time, but refers to time elapsed. Much of the project will simply be waiting for things to happen.

Select your contractors

Time needed: days, or about a minute if you use The Solar Nerd.

Like with any major home improvement project, it’s a good idea to compare quotes from multiple contractors. If you do this yourself, you should find out what your state’s licensing requirements for solar installers are. Often states allow you to search licenses and check for past violations online. After doing that, it’s a good idea to look over any online reviews, especially the Better Business Bureau. You want companies with a strong track record and a lot o experience, but it’s a good idea to avoid the largest national installers who tend to use pushy sales tactics and often want you to rent your solar panels rather than buy them.

If you do this research yourself, you’ll probably spend a few days on it. Or you can fill out our form to get quotes from up to three solar installers. We’ve done all that research work for you, and will only connect you with what we believe to be the highest quality companies in your area.

If you’d rather do all of this yourself, here are some tips on selecting an installer.

Reviewing proposals

Time needed: days.

Once you’ve identified the contactors you want to interview, the next significant work to do is review their project proposals. A proposal will contain a schematic of where the solar panels will be installed on the property, a basic diagram of where the inverter, meter, and wiring will go, an equipment list, and a price.

This proposal step can happen with an in-person visit, but often a company will put together a proposal without a site visit by using satelite images. Sometimes they’ll even fly a drone over your house to take photos. That kind of hands-off approach is fine, but eventually an onsite visit will be required.

In any case, this is the time to carefully review the quotes from the different contractors and ask about things like warranties and equipment choices, and weigh different options such as batteries and ground mounted panels. We have some tips for this too.

Just remember that price, while important, isn’t always the most important consideration.

Technical visit by the installer

Time needed: days.

At some point near the beginning of the project, a technical site visit will be required by the installer that you’ve selected. This is to find problems that can’t be identified by satellite or drone photos, such as electrical panel upgrades that need to be made, or issues with your underlying roof structure.

With some contractors, this step will happen only after contract signing. That’s fine, but if you haven’t had a technical visit before you’re given the contract, make absolutely sure there’s a clause that allows you to back out of the contract without penalty if issues are found that cause the invoice price to change. Hidden issues might mean that significant and expensive upgrades need to be done before installation can happen, so you want to make sure that you don’t get stuck with paying a much higher price than you bargained for.

For this step, there’s nothing you need to do except to be home to answer the door. But if you have questions about anything, this is also a good time to ask while you have this person standing in your kitchen.

The time needed for this step is listed as days, because you and the company will need to find a time on the calendar that works for both of you. The actual visit to your home will probably take an hour or less.

Contract signing

Time needed: days.

Before you sign the contract, be sure to read it carefully and have all of your questions answered, especially when it comes to things like warranty coverages. Any back-and-forth discussion can take a little time, especially over email. Unscrupulous companies will use pressure tactics to get you to sign a contract quickly. Don’t fall for that. Better yet, drop that company like a hot potato, because that kind of sales tactic is a big red flag. Always take your time when it comes to reviewing any contract.

Apply for local and utility incentives

Time needed: days or weeks.

This step will probably be handled by your solar installer, but be sure to know what local incentives are available to you. The Solar Nerd calculator will tell you about most local incentives, but ask your installer too.

Often with utility company or local city incentives, there are requirements on the equipment or installer company that you use. Because of this, you often need to apply for the incentive before the project starts.

After you (or the installer) submits the paperwork, you wait. This step can take some time, but often other work can proceed while you and the installer are waiting.

Apply for utility interconnection and local permits

Time needed: days or weeks.

Before a solar system can be interconnected to the electricity grid, you need permission from the utility company.

In addition, your local municipality will probably require some permits. An electrical permit will also certainly be required, but a structural permit for rooftop installed panels or permits for the foundation for ground-mounted solar panels may be required too. It depends on your local regulations. If you’re lucky and live in a place like San Luis Obispo that has instant permitting, but most people will have to wait for their local government office to churn on the paperwork.

Your solar installer will handle this process, but it’s possible that you’ll need to be home to answer the door for inspectors.

This step can also take some time, but installation can’t proceed until it’s completed.

Structural or geotechnical inspection

Time needed: days or weeks.

Depending on your local regulations, a structural engineer may need to come to your home to take a peek at your roof. If you’re going with ground-mounted solar panels, you may need to have a geotechnical engineer poke at the soil in your yard to determine what type of foundation will be required.

This is another step that doesn’t require much actual time from you, but usually you will need to be home to answer the door. Scheduling this can take several days or more out of the calendar.

Solar system installation

Time needed: a couple days.

Woo hoo! Now we’re cooking. A solar panel installation can happen really fast - just a few hours, even. For rooftop solar, they’ll bring a bucket truck and quite quickly bolt all of the equipment onto your roof. At the same time, another part of the crew might be running conduit and installing the inverter, cutoff switch, and wiring into the panel.

Experienced solar installers have this process down to an art form, so you might be surprised by how quickly all of this comes together. Often they’ll finish in a day, but sometimes the work will span a couple days.

Utility meter installation

Time needed: a couple days or weeks.

Depending on whether you have net metering, net billing, a feed-in tariff, or some other interconnection scheme with your utility company, you will need a new meter that credits you for the electricity that you sell into the grid. Depending on your utility company, they might send their own worker to install the meter, or allow the solar installer to do the work.

Either way, this doesn’t require any time on your part except to possibly answer the door if your meter is inside the home. If the utility company does the work, it will add some time to the project because of scheduling.

Local and utility inspections

Time needed: a couple days or weeks.

Once you’re at this point, you’re almost done! But in many cases you can’t switch on your solar system until there is a final inspection done by the utility company, your city’s inspector, or both.

This could be quick, or you could have sloth-like people working at your local permitting office. It just depends. At most, your personal time will involve answering the door.

System activation!

Time needed: about a minute, plus celebration time.

Once the final inspections are done, all that’s needed to do is turn on the system! Your system will have an emergency cutoff switch. It’s big and red, and will be near your utility meter. Turning on the system involves throwing the switch.

You might come home from work to find that it’s already on, or you’ll be given the go-ahead to throw the switch yourself.

If it’s the latter, feel free to pour yourself a little drink first, and then throw the switch. Congrats! You’re now generating solar electricity. Take a look at your utility meter, and you might notice that it’s suddenly spinning backyards. Pretty cool.

Post install: apply for tax credits and other incentives.

Until 2022, homeowners at a minimum will have the federal tax credit available. In addition, many states such as Hawaii, Iowa, and New York have state tax credits. Keep your invoice and other documentation, and bring it to your tax preparer or fill out the forms yourself.

Most often the form for the credit is very simple - just one page to fill out.

Bottom line: plan for a couple of months

As you can see there are a lot of steps, but most of them are handled by your solar installer. The most critical things for you to do - selecting your contractor, and reviewing the proposal and contract - don’t take that much time out of the overall project. Much of the process is simply waiting: waiting for paperwork from the city, waiting on approvals from the utility company, waiting for a time on the schedule when a structural engineer can visit, waiting for approval on an incentive.

Fortunately much of this happens behind the scenes, and the only part you may need to be actively involved in is being home to let someone into your home.

Every municipality and utility company have different regulations, so some of the steps above may not apply to you, or you might even have other issues you need to deal with, such as financing. However, if you add up the time on the steps above, you should plan for your solar installation to take a couple months from start to finish.

And again, if you use The Solar Nerd to find qualified contractors, you can remove one of the big headaches right upfront.



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