The solar installation process for homes: 6 steps you need to know
If you've decided to install solar panels on your house, here are the steps to expect along the way.
For nearly everybody who is thinking of getting solar panels installed on their house, it’s their first time going through the process.
Most people have an idea of how to buy everyday things like a car or dishwasher, but the process of getting solar panels installed is entirely new to most people.
It’s really not that hard! A good installer will take care of most of the nitty gritty details, leaving you with the key task of interviewing contractors and hiring the best one. Then, you wait. Here are the main things you can expect:
- Work out your payment strategy
- Select a solar installer
- Apply for any contractor and local incentives
- Inspections and permits
- System activation and monitoring
Step 1: Work out your payment strategy
Even if you plan to pay cash for your system, it’s a good idea to understand the different financing options, especially leases and power purchase agreements (PPAs).
This is because some companies, especially the large national installers, often push hard on customers to choose one of these financing plans. This is because they generate long term, recurring revenue for the installer. It’s rarely the best option for the customer. Read our article on leases and PPAs to learn more about this.
Make sure you understand these leasing options in case the installer offers them to you.
The other type of financing you can obtain is a more conventional loan. Quite often, solar installers have a relationship with a financing company that can offer you loan terms. Installers do this mostly for customer convenience: solar contractors usually don’t make much money, if any, by offering loans. Instead, offering loan options can help them close the solar installation deal.
You can always go to your own bank or any reputable online lender to get your own loan deal in place before you reach out to solar installers.
Whatever the case, make sure that you know how you plan to pay for solar before you reach out to solar installers. Hint: you can use The Solar Nerd calculator to get a ballpark estimate of how much cash you’ll need.
Step 2: Select a solar installer
Even after incentives, a home solar installation will cost several thousand dollars. Any time you spend that much money on a house project, whether it’s getting your bathroom renovated or roof replaced, it’s always a good idea to get more than one quote.
Some people go a little overboard in this department and get a lot of quotes - 6, 7, or even more. Don’t bother with that. You’ll waste your time and drive yourself crazy by talking to that many contractors and comparing all those different equipment options and prices.
Instead, just get a few quotes from high quality installers. The Solar Nerd tries to make this process a little easier by weeding out bad companies and getting you quotes from up to three high quality installers. We also have 10 tips for things to look for when selecting a solar installer.
Once you’ve contacted an installer, they’ll present you with an initial proposal and energy production estimate. Quite often, they can do this using high resolution satellite images of your property. With these images, its actually possible to derive the slope and orientation of your roof, and estimate the shading from nearby trees and buildings.
With this information and climate data, they’ll predict how much electricity you can generate. (Tip: very similiar software is used behind the scenes for The Solar Nerd calculator.) The report will contain an estimate for your payback period (ie. how long it will take for the value of the electricity generated to pay back the initial investment) and a price.
This initial proposal may only contain high level details. Once you express firm interest, the installer will go back and generate a more detailed contract. They should also make a site visit before finalizing the contract, because lurking problems can’t been seen on a satellite image.
Once you’ve compared the quotes and asked all the questions you should, it’s time to pick an installer and sign the contract.
Step 3: Apply for any contractor and local incentives
Many state and local governments, non-governmental organizations, and utility companies offer solar rebates that you apply for before the installation is completed.
To qualify for these rebates, it’s often required for both the contractor and the proposed equipment to be approved by the agency. This means that you should ask the contractor about the rebates and the qualification process before you sign the contract.
Unlike federal and state tax credits, it’s usually the responsibility of the contractor to handle the application process because the entity giving the rebate wants to know the technical details of the project before they’ll sign off. For you the homeowner, the main job is to follow up and make sure that the contractor is on top of the paperwork.
With this type of incentive, you receive the money upfront, but sometimes it’s given to the contractor. For example, with the NY-Sun incentive from New York’s NYSERDA, the contractor applies for and receives the rebate money, but they pass it directly onto you by deducting the rebate money directly from the invoice price.
To find out what rebates are available to you, check with your installer, your local government and utility company, or use The Solar Nerd calculator.
Step 4: Inspections and permits
This step involves a lot of paperwork that will be handled by your installer, but they’re things that you will need to be aware of. Often, you’ll need to be home for an inspection visit.
What needs to happen? It depends on your utility company and municipality. For example, it’s often required to have a report from a structural engineer for a rooftop installation or from a geotechnical engineer for a ground-mounted installation.
For grid interconnection you need approval from the utility company, and most cities require permits as well.
All these permits require hours of time by the installer and add a significant amount to the “soft costs” of a project, which is why the industry is trying to move to instant permitting.
Until that happens, permits will continue to be part of the process. Fortunately, for you the homeowner, there usually isn’t much to do, except to be home to answer the door for the inspectors.
Step 5: Installation
Once everything is approved, the next part is the actual solar installation. A crew will come to your home to install the racking and solar panels, run conduit down from the roof, install the inverters and cutoff switch, and wire everything up to your electrical panel.
That seems like a lot, but companies do their best to make this process as efficient as possible and will try to complete the work in just one day. This is because projects that require more than one day involve twice as much driving (or more) or even a hotel stay if their home base is far away. This adds to the cost, and in an industry that’s as competitive as home solar, small differences in cost can make or break a project.
In addition to the solar equipment, you will typically need a new utility meter. You’ll either get a new meter that is bidirectional - that is, it can record both the electricity that you take and send into the grid - or a second meter that records only the electricity that you send into the grid. This is installed by the utility company, so it will usually happen on a different day from the solar installation. You’ll need to be home for that visit.
For the solar installation, there’s nothing you need to do except to be home, but here’s a tip: high quality companies work cleanly and carefully, but sloppy contractors, in their rush to complete the project quickly, can make a mess of things. Look out for damage to your yard or landscaping, or things like screws scattered on your property, and don’t be afraid to call them out on it before they leave for the day.
Step 6: System activation and monitoring
The final step is usually a final round of electrical inspections from the utility and your local permitting office. Your system won’t be activatated until these inspections are completed.
Once they are, your system can go live, which involves a literal flip of the switch (the system cutoff switch that’s required to be installed). As soon as that happens, your solar panels will start generating electricity. If they generate more electricity than your house is using at any point in time, you’ll see the electric meter “spinning” backward (it may be digital and not literally spin). Pretty cool!
Now is the time to check your monitoring system and make sure that you know how to see the status of your system in real time. Most likely, you’ll have a smartphone app for this. Be sure to work with your solar installer to get the details of how it all works.
These monitoring systems require an internet connection to the monitoring hardward. This will either require a Wi-Fi connection or an Ethernet cable. If you’re not seeing the status of your system properly, a flakey internet connection is the most likely cause.
It’s really not that bad
Home solar might seem daunting, but once you understand a few basics you’ll see that it’s not that bad. Be sure to read our guide to buying solar to learn some of the other concepts you should know and tips on how to make good decisions during the buying process.