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 common 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 take a pushy sales approach to get customers to choose one of these financing plans. These deals generate long term, recurring revenue for the installer but are rarely the best option for the customer. Read our article on leases and PPAs to learn more about this.
If your installer offers you a lease or PPA, make sure you understand the contract, especially the fact that you will be renting rather than owning the system and that you won’t be getting any of the tax credits.
The other type of financing you can obtain is a 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, providing loan options is a way for the installer to increase their chance of cinching your business.
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 to have a plan on how to pay for your system 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 and get a LOT of quotes - 6, 7, or even more. Don’t bother. You’ll waste your time and drive yourself crazy by talking to that many contractors and comparing all the different equipment options and prices. Plus, you might fall into the trap of going with a contractor only because they’re the cheapest.
Instead, spend your time identifying a few installers that will do high quality work at a reasonable price. (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.)
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 calculate 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 basic details, such as how much electricity you can expect to generate, what the system will cost, and how many years it will take for the system to pay back the investment. It often won’t list specific equipment choices.
Once you express firm interest, the installer will go back and generate a more detailed contract. If you are interested in the details of the equipment that will be installed (and you should!) now is the time to ask.
They may or may not make an onsite visit to inspect things like your electrical system and roof condition before finalizing the contract price. It’s fine if they don’t, but make sure the contract specifies that you can back out penalty-free if the project cost goes up because of hidden issues, such as an electrical panel that needs to be upgraded.
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 utility and local incentives
Many state and local governments, non-governmental organizations, and utility companies offer rebates that you apply for before your solar installation is completed.
The entity issuing the rebate will often require both the contractor and the proposed project to be approved first. 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.
Applying for federal and state tax credits are your responsibility, and happen at tax time.
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 should be aware of. You’ll often need to be home for inspection visits.
What needs to happen? It depends on your utility company and municipality. For example, you may need an inspection from a structural engineer for a rooftop installation or 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 time by the installer and add a significant amount to the “soft costs” of a project, which is why the industry would like 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.
Installation crews will usually try to access your roof with minimal equipment (such as ladders) but depending on your home, they may need to bring a bucket truck. These are heavy and have the potential to damage your yard, so if you are concerned about your landscaping, be sure to ask about this.
That seems like a lot for a crew to do in one day, but companies do their best to make this process as efficient as possible. 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 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 may be installed by the utility company on a different day from the solar installation. If it’s inside, 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. (Taking photos of the damage is a good idea.)
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.
After that your system can go live, which involves a literal flip of the switch (the red cutoff switch that’s required with your system). 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. You’ll most likely have a smartphone app for this. Be sure to work with your solar installer to get the details on how it all works.
These monitoring systems require an internet connection, either through Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cable. If you’re not seeing the status of your system properly, a flakey internet connection may be the 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.