Home Solar Panel Installation – A Complete Guide
The cost of energy is on the rise and it’s only going to get more expensive. Additionally, we’re increasingly faced with the realities of climate change, from floods to fires. As a result, many people are thinking of installing solar panels on their homes to lower their electricity bills and reduce their carbon footprint. If you’re considering installing solar panels on your house, the following guide will help you get started. This guide will focus on the solar installation process itself. If you’re researching solar panels and systems, or curious about the costs and incentives of going solar please see:
Here’s what we’ll cover in this guide – feel free to jump to the section you’re interested in
- Choosing a Solar Company
- Getting Solar Bids
- Sizing and Designing the Solar System
- Preparing Your Roof for Solar Installation
- Permitting and Inspections for Solar Installations
- How Long Does It Take to Install Solar?
Choosing a Solar Company
The first (and one of the most important) steps in getting solar on your home, is choosing the right company to work with. The solar company will do everything from assessing your property for solar potential, discussing equipment options with you, designing the system, securing necessary permits, installing the equipment, and helping with rebates and tax incentives. Given the breadth of work the solar company will do, finding an experienced, local, and reputable solar company is a critical early step.
Types of Solar Companies
First off, there are many different types of solar companies you will likely encounter in your search. Here’s a breakdown of how to identify these:
Solar Panel Installation Companies
Solar installation companies are the most common option. These companies purchase the equipment from a variety of manufacturers that they have accounts with. Working with a solar installation company gives you more options of products and brands and their teams of experts can guide you through these decisions. Solar installation companies can be found at the local or enterprise level depending on your area.
Solar Panel Manufacturers
These are companies that actually produce the equipment that will be installed on your home. Going direct to the manufacturer can be a good idea if you’re sure their product is a good fit for your job. Some manufacturers have their own in-house solar design team and can help provide preliminary quotes for an installation using their products. Others will pass on your information to their partnered solar installer network to reach out to you and follow up with questions and preliminary quotes.
Solar Lead Generation Companies
These companies are sales engines for other solar installers. They have varying levels of involvement from just sending a customer to the installer website, to actually putting together appointments and even contracts.
Solar Financing Companies
Solar financing companies focus exclusively on helping consumers pay for their systems. They typically work with a variety of solar dealers and installers. For customers in Washington state, the leading solar financing company is Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union. They have years of experience providing solar financing and are able to quickly provide rates and terms for your home solar project.
Solar Panel Dealers
These companies have been vetted by the manufacturers and have permission to sell their products. Some dealers have in-house installation teams whereas others contract with outside companies.
Full-Service Solar Dealers
Full-service providers do everything (outside of producing the equipment) needed to get solar installed on your house. From system design to installation and financing these companies are a one-stop-shop.
Getting Solar Bids
Making sure you’re accounting for the important consideration and getting a competitive price for your solar installation requires getting multiple bids. Getting a bid will typically involve a company representative visiting your home for a site visit. Although, since the pandemic, most solar contractors can provide preliminary solar quotes using remote solar design software within hours of receiving your request for a proposal. During a site visit, the representative will assess your roof’s structure and condition, gather details of your electrical infrastructure and location and discuss their offering and approach. During this meeting, try to assess the reliability and reputation of the company by asking questions such as:
- Are they NABCEP-certified?
- Are they licensed and bonded (ask for license number)?
- How long have they been in business and how many installations have they done?
- Can they share references of 3 past customers?
- Do they subcontract out the work, and if so how do they ensure quality workmanship from subcontractors?
- What brands of equipment do they have access to?
- What is their availability to do the installation?
- Do they offer a warranty on the labor, and what are the details?
If you did not receive a bid before the site visit, you will likely get a bid back from the solar company in a few days after the site visit. The bid will include a system size, cost per system size if options are offered, and how quickly each system will pay for themselves. When reviewing the bid, these are items you should see included:
- System size (in kW)
- Number of Panels
- Type Make and Model of Panels
- Type, Make, and Model of Inverter or Microinverter
- Estimated annual electricity generation (in kWh)
- Specific production (in kWh/kW); this measures the efficiency of your entire system
- Expected annual savings in energy costs
- Detailed information about incentives and rebates
- Total system cost before and after incentives
- If permits are included in the cost of the system
- Financing options – including upfront and monthly payments
- Return on investment if you go cash upfront or with financing
- Warranty information for both equipment and labor
Once you have collected several bids it’s time to decide which company to work with. ZWELL has created a spreadsheet that you can use to enter details from the various bids to see them all in one place for easy comparison. Feel free to copy or download the spreadsheet and adjust if you have additional considerations. ZWELL Solar Bid Comparison Spreadsheet
Sizing & Designing the Solar System
Once you’ve selected a solar company to work with, the next step will be to finalize the design of your system around your energy goals, budget, roof and electrical characteristics.
There are three steps to designing a solar system:
Step one: Calculate your energy use. Your kilowatt-hour use will be on your utility bill. Be sure to look at usage throughout the year as it will likely fluctuate between seasons – such as higher in the summer if you run air conditioning. Providing a copy of your monthly electricity bill will help the solar contractor to size a system to offset your usage. The more bills you provide the more accurate your quote will be.
Step two: Get an estimate for what size system you need and how many panels you’ll need. Depending on your budget and goals your solar company should present you with several options to consider. These options will account for the percentage of your energy usage you want to cover with solar. They will also account for the characteristics of your roof including shade from trees and roof vents, chimneys, and dormers. If your viable roof space is limited, your solar company may recommend options that include panels with higher efficiencies. Please see the Zwell Guide to Solar Panel Types (link) for more information.
Step three: Determine which type of panels will work best for your situation and budget. Be sure to consider the financing options, incentives, and increase to your home value when deciding on your system. Please see the Zwell Guide to Solar Panel Costs, Tax Credits, Incentives, and Rebates for more information.
Preparing Your Roof for Solar Installation
Is your roof in need of some attention? Most solar panels are designed to work for over 25 years, and the roof will need to last that long as well. Your solar company or a roofing company can assist in determining any needed repairs, the remaining lifespan of your roof, and whether or not a new roof may be needed before installing solar. If you do need to replace your roof, be sure to ask about solar roof options that have the solar cells built into the roofing material itself and can save you money on the total cost of replacing your roof and including solar. There are occasions where solar panels need to be taken off and reinstalled for reroofing or repairs due to age, storms, or water damage; the cost of reinstalling a system is usually 10% of the original cost of your solar energy system before incentives, learn more in our partners blog here. If you do need to replace your roof, you may want to consider built-in photovoltaics such as the Tesla Solar Roof. Solar roofs combine the roof structure and energy producing solar cells into one. This solar option is becoming more popular as some homeowners are sensitive to the aesthetics of solar panels or need to reroof and want to combine both solar and roofing projects into one. Learn more about Tesla Solar Roof through one of Washington’s leading solar roof installers Northwest Electric and Solar.
You may also need to trim trees that overhang your roof. These trees may make it difficult for the solar array to harness sunlight and may cause damage to the panels if they blowdown. Contact a professional for any branches or tree removal if needed.
Finally, your solar company will check for roof fittings, vents, antenna, or satellite dishes that could be in the way of the proposed solar array, and relocate them if possible. Building codes may require that certain vent relocations be performed by a licensed plumbing contractor.
Permitting and Inspections for Solar Installations
Solar is an amazing option, but as it requires construction and electrical work and installation does require permitting. Your solar company will likely need to file for an electrical permit, a structural or building permit, and/or a dedicated solar photovoltaic (PV) permit before installation. The permitting office may ask you for specifications about your proposed equipment and system as part of your permit applications.
Solar installation requirements and permits depend on both your state and town. For example, some local fire departments will require a set clearance area around your solar array. Your solar company should be well versed in navigating local requirements and securing permits.
You may also need to do some research to see if your neighborhood homeowners association has any requirements for solar. The good news is that in many states it is not permitted for HOAs to restrict solar installations, but it’s worth at least notifying the HOA of your plans. In Washington, HOAs cannot stop you from installing solar on your property but they may restrict the type of solar panel aesthetics that may be installed; such as black frame and black cell panels. Or not having street facing arrays, sometimes the street facing roof faces are the only viable sections for solar on your roof so that may need to be discussed in more detail with your HOA.
Finally, inspections are typically required both before and after installation. In Washington State, some jurisdictions will have cover inspections at the start or during the installation. This reviews that the materials on site matches what was submitted on the permit request and ensures the installers are working safely and have the appropriate ratio for electrical journeyman to apprentices. At the start of your project, an inspection is necessary to ensure the electrical system can handle the addition of solar, and the roof is structurally sound. After this system is installed, your local government will need to inspect whether the system meets the necessary building codes and safety regulations. Finally, most utilities require an inspection before connecting your solar system to the electrical grid. Your solar company will schedule an inspection with your local utility company as the job nears completion. This will be the last step before you receive permission to operate (PTO), meaning you can finally turn on your solar energy system!
How Long Does It Take to Install Solar?
It typically takes between 90 and 120 days to install solar panels from the initial meeting with your solar company to generating clean, renewable power. But, the process could be as short as 30 – 45 days depending on your town and state’s permit process. The general timeframes for the various steps of the solar installation process are:
Design & Engineering (30-45 days)
Permits & Materials (30-40 days)
Solar Panel Installation (1-5 days)
Inspections & Commissioning (7-15 days)
Finding a Solar Contractor
Finding the right contractor can be the key to having solar panels and systems installed correctly and safely, and is certainly easier than doing it yourself. Beyond word-of-mouth recommendations, local building inspectors or trade groups may have a list of licensed contractors in your area. Remember that owning a solar energy system is a long term investment, cutting costs and going with a cheaper bid may cost you more money down the road when the system needs to be repaired, replaced, or serviced. Going with local contractors that operate in your area can help ensure that they will provide the best customer service during the entirety of your system lifespan.