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How to install solar panels in 7 steps

Let’s say, you’ve already purchased all the necessary supplies for a PV system. Now you might be wondering, what’s next? The solar panel installation process has many hidden details which are easy to miss, especially if you do it for the first time. In this article, we’ll introduce you to all the parts of a solar system and guide you through the task of making them work together.

DIY installation: Disclaimer

Homeowners normally don’t install panels themselves. In most states you need a permit from authorities to put PV modules on your roof. In some of them the installation can be performed only by certified contractors. If you are not a qualified technician, we highly recommend you to call professionals in order to be sure of the total safeness and effectiveness of your installation process. You can use this guide to be aware of the whole process and to make sure that the installers you’ve hired do the job right.

DIY installation of solar panels is more appropriate for smaller projects, such as powering your RV or boat. It's a great way to reduce the costs if you are sure of your skills. Don’t forget, however, that some incentives and rebates are only available for the PV systems that have been mounted by certified contractors. DIY installation can also void the warranties for your solar panels.

Installation is about 10% of your system cost

How long does it take to install a solar panel? When it’s done by contractors, the process generally lasts two-three weeks. It starts with scheduling the inspections for your roof and getting permits. Putting panels in place is the final stage and only takes several days. Experienced installers usually don’t interfere with your daily house life too much, but you should be prepared for occasional power shutdowns.

The price for an installation depends on a set of factors:

  • system size
  • type of equipment you want to have
  • geographical location
  • incentives and benefits available in your area
  • professional installers or DIY.

Today the average price of a full home PV system is anywhere between $15,000 to $25,000. So how much is it to install a solar panel system? Average labor charges are usually 10% of the total price. Don’t forget that the Federal Solar Tax Credit allows you to deduct up to 30% of your system’s cost from taxes, including labor expenses as well.

Now let’s look closely at the installation process that we broke down to 7 steps.

Step 1: Find the sunniest spot for your solar panels

Your main goal is to provide maximum solar exposure for your panels throughout the day. If you install solar panels on the roof, choose the southern side or the one which faces south-east or south-west. Ground installations are more flexible in this respect, but are rarely an option for residential systems – not everybody has a backyard big enough to accomodate 20 solar panels or so.

Make sure the spot you have chosen does not get shaded. Check the location in the morning, afternoon and evening – is it more or less equally exposed to sunlight throughout the day? Solar panels in shade may produce 75% less power than their rated output, so it is an important thing to think about in advance.

Step 2: Build and set up a mounting platform

Now it’s time to build the base of your solar installation to ensure that the panels stay in place during any weather and season. Use metal or aluminum rails to build the platform, regarding the length and width of your solar panels. The type of mounting base depends on what kind of roof you have. While designing and constructing, do your best to provide the most comfortable way for conduits to the interior control panels to avoid any connection troubles.

Step 3: Mount solar panels to the platform

Use brackets, bolts, or clamps to mount panels to the platform. Make sure to tighten up all mounting details so that they stay stable and firm. Properly fix down your panels in order to make them tolerate winds and extreme weather conditions. If you install your panels on the roof, be extremely careful and provide all safety conditions to yourself and the people who work with you.

Step 4: Wire all solar modules together

Before starting, check every module’s wires on insulation to avoid power leakage and accidents in the future. Check the connectors – you are likely to find MC4 or MC4-compatible ones. If some of the connectors are different, you will need to replace them.

Wire the modules in series by joining the positive (+) lead of one module to the negative (-) lead of the next. Then, wire series-strings in parallel by connecting the extra positive leads of the strings together, as well as negative ones.

Step 5: Ground the panels and the mounting platform

Grounding solar panels and the platform is essential because they consist of metal. By doing so, you protect all your equipment from damage which could be caused by lightning and power surges. You also protect yourself and others from electric shock.

1. Connect the installation by copper wire to the grounding rod tapped into the earth near the construction
2. Leave the long copper rod extending above the ground about 6"
3. Ground the control panel if there is no earthing network already in place

Step 6: Install solar inverter and other equipment

A solar inverter should be part of any PV system, regardless of its type. It is needed to convert DC electricity made by solar panels to AC power to run your home appliances. An inverter is installed near the main panel, typically indoors, in a cool, dry, ventilated place. It can be installed outdoors as well, if the manufacturer says so in the specification sheet.

An off-grid system also requires a charge controller and batteries for electricity storage. Choose the same type of room as for the inverter to avoid overheating and dust collection.

Step 7: Connect the inverter to the consumer unit

The inverter should be connected to the consumer unit to generate electricity. A generation meter should also be connected to monitor the amount of electricity the solar panels produce. You can use your computer or other device to check your solar system’s performance. For example, you can check how much electricity you generate at different times and decide what time is best for using your washing machine or other utilities.

The main rule is to connect positive wires to “plus” and negative to “minus”. If you have even a percent of doubt in your skills – it’s recommended to get an electrician’s help. To connect your solar system to the grid, contact a utility provider in your area for additional information. Only a utility specialist can connect your system to the grid.

It’s time for a test run!

Make sure to check that your whole system is safely secured and connected before initializing a test run - your system should be grounded and all your equipment, including the wires, should not have any defects and be plugged right in order to work properly. Now you can switch the power on and test the whole system.

Study all equipment’ guides and attentively check all possible aspects and indicators before saying goodbye to your installers. If everything works as it has to - congratulations! Now it’s time to dive into the huge number of benefits and incentives green power will open for you!

Maintenance is the key to keep your panels healthy

Regular care and upkeep on your solar panels will significantly prolong their life and increase effectiveness. Always check your panels for different defects like dirt, electrical issues, and even bird’s nests. Don’t be surprised, birds would really like to use your solar panels as a nice and comfortable cover from the sun and wind. As with the installation, you can call professionals to do the job for you, or do it by yourself with our maintenance tips, but always make sure to shut off your entire solar system before starting any job associated with cleaning or fixing solar panels to ensure your safety.
Illustrations – Natalya Absalyamova

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