doing it yourself
Solar energy systems are not beyond the
skills of many do-it-yourselfers. However, the set of skills you
need to be successful are quite different depending upon whether or
not you are trying to implement a solar photovoltaic (PV) solution or
a solar thermal solution. Solar PV projects require fairly
minimal mechanical skill, a good bit of electrical understanding and a
willingness to climb up on your roof. On the other hand solar
thermal projects require plumbing and construction skills and less
Solar PV Projects
Overall, we have found that it is often difficult for homeowners to
pull off PV projects entirely by themselves. It is not that
solar PV projects are all that much harder to do than thermal solar
projects but in many states and counties there are regulatory
restrictions that hinder doing the entire PV project yourself. Many
counties and municipalities require that any electrical work on a home
be done by a certified electrician licensed through the state or the
county, sometimes both. What is even more important is that failure to
use certified PV installers or electricians can often prevent you from
qualifying for state tax incentives and rebates for solar PV.
Since solar PV has a very significant up-front cost this can often be
enough to break the business case for doing the project in the first
place. In addition, electric utility operators in some states require
that either they or a certified electrician do the hookup to your
Another thing to consider is that, depending upon the scope of what
you are trying to do, a PV object can sometimes require a fairly deep
understand of both DC and AC electrical systems.
Sometimes local electrical contractors have to get support from other
contractors who specialize in solar before installing a system. Solar
contractors have often been specifically trained by the manufacturer
in the installation of particular brands of solar panels or inverter
systems which gives them a unique advantage.
If you want to try and tackle a PV project yourself it is important
to begin by checking with whoever provides building permits in your
municipality or county. In some municipalities the whole project must
be done by a certified electrician but in other counties only the
final hookup between the home electrical panel and the electric meter
must be done by an electrician (or someone from the utility company).
If the latter is the case then one approach is to put up the solar
panels on the roof yourself and then just use an electrician for the
final hookup. If you are feeling a bit unsure of yourself one option
you might wish to consider is taking a course from a solar panel
manufacturer or distributor. Many solar panel distributors
provide free or low cost training on how to install their panels.
Solar Thermal Projects
We have found that solar thermal projects are often an excellent
place for do-it-yourselfers to start. Solar thermal projects
will probably also require permits depending upon where you live, but
having talked to many DIY'rs, our sense is that most find the
regulatory hurdle to be far less than for PV. Another reason for
looking into solar thermal as a starting point for DIY projects is
that these projects tend to have much less up front costs and much
quicker pay back periods. Many solar thermal projects can be
done for a few thousand dollars and can address both solar water
heating and solar space heating.
If you are interested in a solar thermal DIY project then a site
you should definitely check out is
This site provides extensive background on solar thermal technology
along with sample project plans and review of lots of solar thermal
One option you may want to consider if you are planning on doing it
yourself is to purchase one of the many pre-packaged solar kits now
available, There are kits available for both solar PV and solar
thermal projects and include all of the components of a complete system. These systems take
away much of the guesswork of mixing and matching components and
ensure that the components you pick will go together effectively.
There are a lot of great resources and war stories available
written by homeowners who have installed their own systems which can
be invaluable in helping you avoid pitfalls in doing it yourself.
Look in the EB Resources sections for books and magazines which
provide just this type of information.