DIY solar panels: the pros and cons

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Going solar has major financial benefits: it reduces your monthly electricity costs and can even increase the value of your home. Incentives like the federal tax credit for solar can reduce your net cost by 26 percent, but solar is still a big investment, and the price tag can result in sticker shock. To save money, it’s no surprise that many homeowners are considering DIY. In this article, we’ll break down the top pros and cons that you need to know about do-it-yourself solar panel systems before making a decision.

Find out what solar panels cost in your area in 2021

Key takeaways about DIY solar


  • Installing a DIY system is possible and usually comes at a lower cost than hiring a solar installer
  • Going with a DIY setup requires much more work on the homeowner’s end
  • You can compare competitive, complete solar quotes from installers on the EnergySage Marketplace

The 5 step process to DIY solar panels: how to install solar panels

  1. Design and size your system based on energy needs
  2. Purchase your solar equipment (solar panels, inverters, racking)
  3. Install the racking or mounts for the panels
  4. Connect the solar panels to your racking equipment
  5. Install a solar inverter

Do it yourself solar panel installation can be less expensive, but your options are limited

According to data from the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, the average gross cost of going solar for homeowners (meaning your costs before incentives and rebates are applied) is $16,860. Of that amount, design and installation labor costs contribute about ten percent of the total bill – this ten percent is what homemade solar panels will save you in essence, since you’ll still have to buy the equipment yourself. Regardless, it’s still tempting to look into building your own solar panel installation to save money and be in full control of your project.

Your solar energy system should continue to generate electricity for 25 to 35 years, so it’s crucial that you consider both the upfront costs and the relative financial benefits for all of your solar options. If you buy a home solar kit like the ones for sale at Costco or Home Depot, it may be less expensive per watt, but you aren’t getting the same quality equipment that solar installers are able to offer you. For the most part, solar installers buy from equipment distributors that don’t sell to the general public – and they’re often getting lower prices because they’re able to buy in bulk.

Pro: Build your own solar works for small off-grid projects

Most home solar kits are designed for off-grid use, which means you can’t use them and remain connected to your utility. If you’re an average homeowner, going off-grid is probably not in your best interest – being able to access utility-generated electricity is important if your solar energy system doesn’t produce enough electricity to meet your needs at all times of the day throughout the year.

However, home solar kits can be a good solution if you’re not trying to power your entire home. RVs, boats, and the increasingly popular tiny houses are all opportunities to explore do it yourself solar, because they are already off-grid and mobile.

On a related subject, DIY solar projects can be useful if you have a large property and want to power an outlying area, like a barn or tool shed, or want to easily install outdoor lights. In those cases, your electricity demands will be relatively low, so purchasing a small home solar kit and installing it yourself is feasible.

If you want to install a DIY solar project, compare several options beforehand. Grape Solar is a major manufacturer (among a few others), and offers a few different DIY products for both grid-tied and off-grid systems, which you can find more information on below.

DIY solar options

ProductSystem size (watts)System costDollars per wattRetailer link
Grape Solar grid-tied solar PV system5,300$10,942$2.06Home Depot
Grape Solar grid-tied solar PV system3,180$6,909$2.17Home Depot
Grape Solar grid-tied solar PV system2,300$9,238$4.02Amazon
Renogy Solar Premium Kit800$2,300$2.88Amazon
WindyNation Off-Grid Solar Panel Kit400$1,600$4.00Amazon
ECO-WORTHY Grid Tie Solar Panel Kit1,200$1,992$1.66Amazon

Con: Installing solar is complicated, homemade solar energy requires training and experience

When you decide to DIY your solar panels, remember that you get what you pay for. A home solar kit may be less expensive, but solar installers offer tremendous value for relatively little additional cost (remember that ten percent figure?). When it comes to installing an expensive electrical system on your property, finding someone who knows what they’re doing can actually save you both time and money in the long run.

Some of the best solar installers have been in the business for decades – experience that no amount of online research or DIY guides can replicate. Every state requires that installers are licensed and qualified to install solar, and independent certifications like the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners’ (NABCEP’s) Solar PV Installation Professional Certification ensure that the company you choose to work with has an intimate understanding of the process.

Your solar installer will also help you complete and file the permits and applications that you need to submit to get your solar energy system up and running. This is particularly important because your utility won’t let you connect your system to the grid without sign-off from a certified electrician.

Because of your solar installer’s experience, they’ll also have a strong understanding of the financial incentives for solar available in your area, and might even be able to help you save more money by finding an incentive that you may have missed. Lastly, it is important to note that many equipment manufacturers will only honor their warranties if a qualified installer installed their equipment. Many installers will also offer an additional warranty on their own work too.

There are other (better) ways to save money on your solar installation

Of course, when making such a big decision for your home, you’ll want to find the solar option that has the greatest financial benefit for you. However, DIY solar energy isn’t the only way to save money when going solar.

Three Tips for Solar Shoppers

1. Homeowners who get multiple quotes save 10% or more

As with any big-ticket purchase, shopping for a solar panel installation takes a lot of research and consideration, including a thorough review of the companies in your area. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recommended that consumers compare as many solar options as possible to avoid paying inflated prices offered by the large installers in the solar industry.

To find the smaller contractors that typically offer lower prices, you’ll need to use an installer network like EnergySage. You can receive free quotes from vetted installers local to you when you register your property on our Solar Marketplace – homeowners who get 3 or more quotes can expect to save $5,000 to $10,000 on their solar panel installation.

2. The biggest installers typically don’t offer the best price

The bigger isn’t always better mantra is one of the main reasons we strongly encourage homeowners to consider all of their solar options, not just the brands large enough to pay for the most advertising. A recent report by the U.S. government found that large installers are $2,000 to $5,000 more expensive than small solar companies. If you have offers from some of the big installers in solar, make sure you compare those bids with quotes from local installers to ensure you don’t overpay for solar.

3. Comparing all your equipment options is just as important

National-scale installers don’t just offer higher prices – they also tend to have fewer solar equipment options, which can have a significant impact on your system’s electricity production. By collecting a diverse array of solar bids, you can compare costs and savings based on the different equipment packages available to you.

There are multiple variables to consider when seeking out the best solar panels on the market. While certain panels will have higher efficiency ratings than others, investing in top-of-the-line solar equipment doesn’t always result in higher savings. The only way to find the “sweet spot” for your property is to evaluate quotes with varying equipment and financing offers.

For any homeowner in the early stage of shopping for solar that would just like a ballpark estimate for an installation, try our Solar Calculator that offers upfront cost and long-term savings estimates based on your location and roof type. For those looking to get quotes from local contractors today, check out our quote comparison platform.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. We only link to products that we think are great.

This post originally appeared on Mother Earth News.

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60 thoughts on “DIY solar panels: the pros and cons

  1. Jeremy

    Matt, I would like to learn what all I need and is required for me to do my own as well. I have a background in electrical work, just not solar. Can you offer any tips or instructions?

    Reply
  2. Clinton Lovelace

    I live outside of the city limits. Yes we have water and electrical from the near by city but with electrical rates constantly going up and the add on charges for delivery, meter reading charge, and etc. drove me crazy. I actually hired a solar company to install my solar system. Yes, it looks out of place in my pasture there in my pasture but once it was up and operating I am actually saving a lot of money on power. Remember there is no easy way to store electricity, so you really need to stay on the grid. Any power your system generates over what you use, by Federal Law can be sold by you to the electrical supplier in your area. Normally in even in the summer time time I get a credit on my bill or I pay a very small amount. In the winter I use more for heating.

    Reply
  3. Matt

    This isn’t close to what I found. I did a 13KW system for about 35% of what I was quoted. I didn’t buy a kit or anything, just separate parts and put it together. I’m adding 7 more KW for even less.

    Reply
  4. Armel

    I worked as a project manager for small residential installation company and eventually installed most of my own system. In order for it to be grid tied and accepted into my utility approval process it had to be submitted under my company’s name even though I did 95% of the work (on my own time). I estimate I spent close to 100 labor hours between designing, seeking independent financing, creating construction plans, managing the utility approval process, coordinating materials, installing (everything except electrical equipment and system tie-in), inspections, and final commissioning. Because I only spent money on materials and some skilled labor, for my system size I spent about 1/4 of what I would have paid to a large turn-key company, or about 1/3 if I were purchasing my system in cash through a small installer like my company. For me this was the right solution and I saved a lot of money, but I also spent many months to develop the skills and relationships necessary, put my career on the line, and I took liability for any mistakes that I made with my project. Honestly I think it would be difficult for anyone to just approach a local contractor to use their name for utility interconnection approval, which is why most DIY solar installs are in off grid applications. I do think it’s possible with the right motivation and patience.

    Solar project expenses are higher than often one would imagine. You may have a handful of installers at $15-25/hour onsite for 8-24 labor hours, but remember that electricians are $40-70/hour, and many states require a minimum number onsite at any given time. In addition to the field labor you have to also take into account project overhead such as: equipment, material storage, project management (utility approval can take months sometimes with lots of red tape), permits, inspections, license fees, insurance, etc. On installations where we partnered with 3rd party companies that sold the projects we made much less than our own organic sales. Sometimes if the salesperson was inexperienced they underbid the project and we barely broke even or risked losing the customer. On our organic installations it was more difficult to find homeowners because we didn’t offer as convenient financing packages, but in the end the homeowner paid less and we made a good profit. Not all homeowners have the upfront capital or cant take on an aggressive loan so for them a larger company with convenient financing is right for them. It all depends on the individual situation.

    After going the extra mile to install my own system I have a unique appreciation for the work that it takes and I am happy with my decision. However I am passionate about renewable energy and I shaped my career around it. Many homeowners are too busy for a DIY project of this complexity and still want to save money while making an impact. For them it’s best to go with a turn-key company, cash purchase, or seek independent financing with better rates. Even if they are saving money less over the lifetime of their system, it may be more advantageous to just have a lower monthly bill and invest the rest of their capital versus spending it all on a cash purchase or change their career direction to learn the skills and develop the industry connections.

    Reply
    1. Matt

      Hi Armel! Thanks for your detailed post. I’m glad you were able to install your system and navigate the complexities of doing so. Obviously, your professional background was a key factor.

      Converting my home to run on solar (I have all electric appliances, HVAC, etc.) interests me greatly. I have neither the experience (I’m a geologist) nor the time (run a company, single father) to design and install as system myself. What is the best way for me to save on cost in terns of hiring a contractor? Small company or large? Paying for the design and install is not a challenge; I have the savings to fund the project or can qualify for financing.

      Separately, I am considering a addition to expand my home (1500 sf to ~2200 sf) and will need to factor that into the design. My home is one story, south facing, on a hill with no large vegetation in front in the Piedmont of North Carolina so the conditions seem well suited to solar power.

      Any perspective you can offer is appreciated. Thanks!

      Reply
    2. Mark

      I’m interested in this as well, Armel. I had one of the 3rd party companies give me their pitch and try to get me to sign a bunch of forms when I was not at all in a position to contract with them, and I was frankly put off by their “it cost you nothing” pitch which required a lease of some kind that was equal to my monthly electric bill (which is why they said it “cost nothing”) for an extended period of time and committed me to them and their services during the lease period. I just want to install a reasonable system and be done with it, i.e., no obligation to anyone after the contractor leaves….

      Reply

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