A Guide to Solar Panel Installation

Female construction worker installing solar panels on a residential roof.

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Installing your own rooftop solar panels can save you thousands of dollars, but it's beyond the technical know-how of most people interested in putting solar on their roof. The physical work involved in attaching the panels to the roof is challenging, and the electrical work hooking the panels up to your power supply is inherently dangerous. Most people leave the installation up to the professionals. Still, knowing what an installer does will help you to determine if adding solar is right for you, and also help you to not get caught off-guard by what it entails.

How to Install Solar Panels

The actual installation can be done by a professional team in one to three days, according to EnergySage. What takes longer (on average three months) is the planning, permitting, and connection processes. This guide is an overview on what is involved in a solar installation project. Every installation is different and depends on your energy needs, your roof layout, the number, size, and type of solar panels, and many other factors, but the process is generally the same in most cases. 

Planning Tip

Your solar panels will be on your roof for a long time—20 years or more. A shingle or tile roof can last roughly the same amount of time, so if you anticipate having to replace your roof in the next decade, it may be worth doing so before installing the solar panels.

Finding an Installer

As with any major purchase, it pays to shop around. There are numerous nationwide solar installing companies that can do the job for you, but most installations (62%) are done by small, regional, or local installers. Your state may have a state energy program or department that can provide support for finding (and paying) local solar installers. A local, certified installer will likely have more experience working in your area, but, lacking the economies of scale that national companies have, may have higher costs.

Creating a Plan for Your Solar System

The first thing a potential installer will do is assess how many solar panels you will need. They will ask you to estimate your annual electricity usage based on your utility bills. (The average American household uses approximately 11,000 kWh/year.) Depending on how much energy you consume, an installer will then assess your property to see if it is suitable for solar panels. Above all, this involves estimating how much sunlight reaches your roof throughout the course of the year. Before you contact an installer, you can get a sense of your sun exposure by using the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) PVWatts Calculator or Google's Project Sunroof.

At the end of the assessment, it may turn out that your rooftop doesn't receive enough sunlight to produce the amount of electricity to support your energy needs—or to make your investment worth it. If you are still interested in bringing solar energy into your home, you may have the option of joining a community solar farm in your area. Should your property be suited for solar, the potential installer will then draw up an installation plan, including how many solar panels you will need and a schematic of how they will be arranged on your roof—and, of course, an estimate of what it will cost, which will be discussed below. 

What's in the Plan?

Solar cell system diagram
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A solar system generally includes racking materials, solar panels, wiring, and various electrical and mechanical hardware. There are different types of solar panels, of different sizes, made of different materials, and with different levels of efficiency. You may also consider including a battery system to store the excess energy you produce.

Solar panels aren't installed directly on your roof (which would pose a fire hazard). Rather, they are mounted on a racking system, which is bolted into the framing of your roof and sealed to prevent water leakage into the house. Other hardware will include wiring, junction boxes to contain the wiring, an exterior emergency shutoff panel, and an inverter.

Inverters are necessary to convert the direct current (DC) electricity your solar panels will generate to the alternating current (AC) electricity that your home and the electricity grid use. Micro-inverters can be attached to each solar panel, which makes the system more modular and allows solar production to keep working even if one of the micro-inverters fails. However, if you are considering installing battery storage, your installer may advise a single inverter. Since batteries store electricity in DC, it's more energy-efficient to make the conversion from DC to AC after storing any electricity in the battery but before sending the electricity into your home or out to the grid.

Diagram of a solar panel system with battery backup.
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Inspections and Permits

Like other home improvements, adding rooftop solar involves inspections and permits. Among the “soft costs” of your installer's estimate are the cost of obtaining permits, arranging for electrical inspections, and working with the local utility company to interconnect your system to the grid. (See the California Solar Permitting Guidebook for an overview of the process in that state.) The interconnection process may involve installing a new electricity meter. In most states, net metering programs will give you credit for any excess electricity that you send into the grid. Net metering can save you money and accelerate the payback time on your solar investment.

How Much Does It Cost to Install Solar Panels?

Solar panel investment calculator
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While the cost of solar panels declined 85% between 2010 and 2019, the total soft costs (labor, permitting, system design, and other business costs) of an installation represent roughly two-thirds (65%) of the total cost of a rooftop solar system. NREL has estimated that for the average 7-kilowatt (kW) residential solar system, solar panels cost $0.41 per watt, while an inverter cost $0.14 per watt. Including all other costs, an installed rooftop solar system cost $2.71 per watt—or $18,970.

Since rates of labor vary from state to state, the average cost of a residential social system in the United States can more broadly range between $15,000 and $25,000, before federal and state incentives. Including a 26% federal tax credit, that total system cost would be between $11,100.00 and $18,500.00. State and utility company incentives may lower the cost even further. To make the purchase of solar panels more affordable, there are various low-interest solar loans available. Finding the best financial arrangement can cut the time it takes for the solar system to pay for itself nearly in half.

Can I Install My Own Solar Panels?

DIY at Your Own Risk

Working around electricity can be fatal if not done properly. Working on a roof entails risk of life and limb as well. Attempt a DIY installation at your own risk.

Installing your own rooftop solar panels can save you thousands of dollars. The mechanical work can be physically challenging, but the process is not difficult and can be done with a few common tools. At its most basic, installing your own rooftop solar system amounts to installing: roof rack mounts; roof racks on their mounts; solar panels on the roof racks; an inverter; and a safety shutoff box; then wiring them all together into your the breaker panel in your house. With one or two handy people assisting you, the installation can be completed in a weekend.

To make it easier, you may be able to purchase a kit which contains solar panels, wiring, racking materials, mounting hardware, and an installation plan custom-made for your roof. To make it safer, you could install the panels yourself but leave the wiring to a licensed electrician.

Back-of-the-napkin math using national average prices for solar installations can give you a sense of how much you can save by installing your own solar panels. Of the $2.71 per watt cost of a residential solar system, only $0.55 went to solar panels and an inverter. A DIY installer will still incur other costs, such as permitting, inspection, and interconnection costs, as well as sales tax, delivery charges, and other hardware costs. Assuming, however, that installation costs represent 65% of the total cost of a rooftop solar system, subtract those costs from the estimated total system cost, and the cost for a DIY installation, before federal and state incentives, would be between $5,250.00 and $8,750.00. Applying the federal tax credit of 26%, and DIY costs would be between $3,885.00 and $6,475.00. The total cost savings for installing your own panels could be between $7,215.00 and $12,025.00.

Potential Price Savings for DIY Solar Installation
Price Range Minimum Maximum
Parts and Labor $15,000.00 $25,000.00
With Tax Credit $11,100.00 $18,500.00
Parts Only $5,250.00 $8,750.00
With Tax Credit $3,885.00 $6,475.00
Savings Before Tax Credit $9,750.00 $16,250.00
Savings With Tax Credit $7,215.00 $12,025.00

Being the largest portion of the expense, upfront installation costs are still one of the main obstacles to the widespread of rooftop solar. If you have the know-how and ambition, installing them yourself can make putting solar panels on your roof within your reach. The good news, however, is that you don't have to install the solar panels yourself in order to reduce your energy bills in the long run.

Living on Sunshine

The upfront costs of installing a rooftop solar system are not insignificant, but consider this: once your system is paid off, your electricity bills are essentially zero. Purchase an electric heat pump to heat your house, and your heating bills are also zero. Purchase an electric car and your fuel bills are zero as well. Electrification is one key to sustainable living. Unlocking solar energy opens the door.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How much does professional solar panel installation cost?

    The cost of solar installation varies greatly—from $5,000 all the way up to $40,000 or more—depending on the size of your system and which company you purchase it from. On average, the cost of the system, including installation, is about $12,000.

  • Is it cheaper to install solar panels yourself?

    Installing solar panels yourself can save you thousands, but there are risks involved. You'll need electrical experience to pull off a project like this, and without professional help, you'll have to navigate the complex world of planning permissions by yourself. You could always hire local laborers to help with the installation itself.

  • How long does solar panel installation take?

    Professional solar panel installation can take anywhere between one and three days, but the planning usually takes more than a month. DIY installation can take that or longer, depending on your expertise.

  • What do you need to know before installing solar panels on your home?

    Ask yourself whether your roof will need repairing or replacing in the next decade. If there's a chance it will, it would be wise to do that at the same time as installing solar. Other considerations include the direction the solar panels are pointing—south is best—how much weight your roof can handle, where rainwater will drain, and whether you have insurance that will cover potential damage caused by installation.

View Article Sources
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  2. Feldman, David, et al. "U.S. Solar Photovoltaic System and Energy Storage Cost Benchmark: Q1 2020." National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2021.

  3. Use of Energy Explained.U.S. Energy Information Administration.

  4. Solar Soft Costs.” Solar Energy Industries Association.

  5. "How Much Does a Typical Residential Solar Electric System Cost?" Center for Sustainable Energy.

  6. "Working Safely With Electricity." Occupational Safety and Health Administration.