Here's What to Expect During Your Solar Panel Installation

From shopping to generating electricity, the process of getting solar can take months. Here's what'll happen on installation day (and how to prep for it).

Person walking on a roof with a solar panel on their shoulder.

A solar installer puts panels on a roof.

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Going solar to save some money could be a good decision for a lot of people. Installing solar yourself to save a bit more, however, probably isn't a great idea. Solar panels already cost a decent chunk of change, and screwing up an installation will cost you valuable time and money.

Most people will need to find an installer to help them design a system, acquire the right permits and get permission to connect to the grid.

Even if you have the expertise to drill holes through your roof, wire up potentially dangerous equipment, adhere to the relevant local laws and then connect it all to the public power grid or a bank of batteries, installing a solar panel system is a complicated process that's that you may want to leave up to a professional. 

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Whether you go it alone or require an installer's help, there's quite a bit to consider before installation day. Here's what you can expect from the rooftop solar installation process, start to finish.

How to install solar panels

Although homeowners can technically handle the installation of a solar panel system themselves, they'll need to adhere to laws and municipal ordinances that govern access to the municipal power grid, according to Brandon Boudreaux, the owner of Avvio Solar, an Arizona solar installation company. Not following these regulations could introduce electrocution risks and safety concerns that could jeopardize your well-being and your neighbors' safety. Due to these risks, many local governments have limited the ability of unlicensed individuals to make significant modifications to their properties' electrical systems. 

Watch this: New Solar Shingles You May Not Even Notice

In most cases, the process of installing residential rooftop solar panels involves a fair amount of research by the homeowner on the front end, followed by conversations with the professionals, some waiting and then overseeing installation and setup. Here's the typical flow.

The purchase process

Before installation day, here's what you'll need to do.

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  1. Do your research and due diligence before selecting a local or national solar installer. Be sure to receive and compare multiple quotes before choosing the best one for your needs.
  2. Facilitate a site visit with your installer where they should inspect your roof and premises to make sure they're suitable for solar.
  3. Decide on the equipment that will be installed on your home and sign a contract. A deposit or down payment may be required.
  4. Wait while your installer finalizes plans and secures the necessary permits to begin. Once these are obtained, an installation date will be set.
  5. Installers will complete the installation, usually within a day or two.

The installation itself

The vast majority of people will let an installer do all the technical and manual labor or the actual installation. Here's a quick overview of what needs to be done once all the equipment has arrived at your home.

1. Map out wiring routes and the best places to install all components. This may hinge on accessibility to a utility meter and breaker box as well as locating an area with adequate space for a battery bank and the appropriate location for an EV charger if either are to be included in the system. 

2. Determine how to best ground the system and where to mount the panels.

3. Place permanent racks, typically on the roof or on poles set in concrete on the ground. 

4. Install photovoltaic panels and micro inverters on the racks and run wiring from the panels into your house or your breaker box, meter or both. Or instead of microinverters, install a string inverter somewhere accessible. 

5. Install battery storage or EV chargers, at ground level, possibly in your garage, if you're including them in your system. Install charge controllers in designated areas. Installers may also prepare to connect to a grid-tie interface. 

6. Once everything is installed, have an inspector sign off on the work. 

7. Get final approval from your utility. 

8. When final approval is obtained, the system is activated. 

9. Download any available apps from your installer or inverter manufacturer to see your system producing energy.

The installation process can take three to six months to complete. While it may be possible to complete it sooner, it's better to set realistic expectations to avoid frustration.

When should I install solar panels?

There is no special time to install a solar system, although weather is an obvious consideration. Installers will want to avoid working on a surface that is snow-covered, wet or icy. If holes need to be dug for a ground-mounted system, it may be ideal to wait for the ground to thaw in colder locations. 

What to consider before installing solar panels

Today's solar technology makes a renewable energy system viable even in locations that can be overcast for weeks at a time. That said, there are certain things to consider to ensure you get maximum production from your system.

"You want to have good southern exposure from your roof or a separate rack that will hold some modules for you," said John Burke, director of the Maine Solar Energy Association. "In the summer, you want to have eight hours of sun directly on the modules. Every minute that you don't have southern exposure, you're losing that amount of energy." 

Many solar installations also incorporate east or west-facing solar panels, which can provide more solar energy in the morning or evening. Here are some other things you should consider.

Do I need a professional solar installer? 

It used to be more common for a solar system to be a DIY project. Today, the vast majority of solar installations are done by companies with dedicated professionals and certified electricians. 

Mike Murphy, owner of Utah-based PrepSOS, said the company used to sell a lot more DIY solar equipment. 

"Seems like (today), most people just go to a solar company even though it costs more," he said.

There are still plenty of do-it-yourselfers out there who manage to set up their own systems every year. If you do opt to try it yourself, be sure to check local codes and regulations, as well as your confidence in your own skills when it comes to working with electricity, which is dangerous. Poorly installed equipment can also be a fire risk.

There's also some risk of voiding equipment warranties if installation is done by someone other than a certified professional, so be sure to read the fine print there. 

If you're not sure the project is right for you, another option is to recruit a friend with more DIY experience to supervise or assist.

Frequently asked questions

Can I install solar panels myself?

Solar panels can be a DIY project, but be sure of your skills and check with all codes, regulations and equipment warranties before starting. 

Is it cheaper to install solar myself?

Unless a poor DIY installation leads to some sort of damage and costly repairs, probably. Installation typically adds thousands of dollars to the cost of a solar system. 

Article updated on February 11, 2024 at 10:40 AM PST

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Written by 
Eric Mack
Chi Odogwu
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Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Expertise Solar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects, and CNET's "Living off the Grid" series Credentials
  • Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Chi Odogwu Contributor
Chi Odogwu is a digital consultant, professor, and writer with over a decade of experience in finance and management consulting. He has a strong background in the private equity sector, having worked as a consultant at PwC and a research analyst at Renaissance Capital. Additionally, he has bylines in well-known publications, including Entrepreneur, Forbes, NextAdvisor, and CNET. He has also leveraged his writing talent to create educational email courses for his clients and ghostwritten op-eds published in top-tier publications such as Forbes, CoinDesk, CoinTelegraph, Insider, Decrypt, and Blockworks. In addition to his writing, education, and business pursuits, Chi hosts the top-rated Bulletproof Entrepreneur Podcast. Through this podcast, he engages in insightful conversations with talented individuals from various fields, allowing him to share a wealth of knowledge and inspiration with his listeners.
Expertise Energy | Personal Finance | Decentralized Finance | Online Entrepreneurship
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