Installing a Solar Power System for Your Home

4 of 7 in Series: The Essentials of Planning Your Solar Power System

Installing a solar system to power your home is an involved process. Even though you'll be hiring a professional, it helps to understand what's going on. Expect the entire process of installing a full-scale photovoltaic (PV) system to take 90 days or more.

The following list outlines all the things you need to do:

  1. Perform an energy audit.

    Some states require an energy audit before you can buy a solar system or before you can collect any available rebates.

  2. Review the physical installation options.

    How much roof space will a system take up? Do you have a suitable roof, facing approximately south? If not, you may have to ground mount, which is more expensive, plus visually questionable for the neighbors. What condition is your roof in? If you need a new roof, you should probably take care of that first because the roof job will be a lot more expensive if you have to have the PV panels removed (the roofers will certainly not do it) by a solar contractor and then replaced at the end of the job.

  3. Decide how much to invest and how to finance it.

    During the course of your energy audit, you collect a lot of financial information regarding energy costs and how they accrue in your household. You must also collect cost and performance estimates for PV systems, including costs, lifetimes, expansion potentials, warranty, and so on.

  4. Locate contractors and go out for formal bids.

    Talk to as many contractors as you can. Get them to come to your house and look at your situation in some detail.

  5. Choose the best contractor and write the contract.

    At this point, you'll probably have to write a check for a down payment.

    It's illegal, in most locales, for a contractor to charge for work that has not yet been finished. You should not have to pay a contractor in advance, which means that progress payments should be well defined and should match the work that has been done (not the work that's going to be done).

  6. Wait for equipment to arrive (it's rarely stock), approvals for building permits, subsidies, tax breaks and so on.

    Expect this to take up to six weeks or more.

  7. Allow for installation and inspections by the county and utility company.

    Installations typically take a couple of days (ground mounts take a week or more). The county inspectors will look at your system and certify it.

  8. Wait for the utility to put in a new meter and connect to the grid.

    When everything is ready, the utility company installs a new power meter and officially hooks you up. Now you're in the power generating business. Woohoo!

  9. Get a tutorial on how to operate your system.

    Your contractor needs to walk you through the entire system and explain the hazards and proper operation. You should be aware of potential problems and how to identify them.

  10. Submit any paperwork to utilities, states, and so on for final rebate payments.

    Rebates aren't payable until the system is in place and working properly. If your contractor is receiving the rebate directly, you don't need to do anything. If you're receiving it, you want to get it as fast as you can.

  11. Change your household habits to optimize system payback.

    If you're on a tiered rate structure, or a TOU rate structure, you probably need to change some of your consumption habits in order to capitalize. Talk to your contractor about the things you can do, and if the system is not producing the way it was projected, why that may be the case.

  12. Maintain and repair the system.

    Unlike most other financial investments, PV system problems are entirely yours to solve. Even if you're under warranty, you have to call the contractor and notify him; he has no idea of knowing when your system is broken.

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The Essentials of Planning Your Solar Power System

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