Installing solar panels requires electrical and construction work. With this type of work comes safety concerns, and as such, your local government and utility company need to ensure that your solar energy system meets specific electrical and building codes before it goes live.
The solar permitting and inspection process is a bureaucratic yet necessary step towards going solar. Fortunately, your solar installer will likely handle the logistics regarding both as a part of their service. In this article, we’ll discuss what to expect when it comes to solar permits and inspections, as well as the costs associated with both.
Solar permitting requirements
Prior to installing solar, you’ll need to obtain permits from your local government for permission to install. Generally, you should expect to have to file for an electrical permit, a structural or building permit, and/or a dedicated solar photovoltaic (PV) permit. To obtain these, you’ll often need to provide specifications about your proposed solar equipment and system design.
The required solar permits before will vary by your location and the type and size of your solar energy system.
Permitting requirements vary by both your state and town, and depend on their respective codes, zoning laws, and other legislation regarding solar installations. As an example, you may have to obtain an electrical permit to ensure your solar installation meets a state-mandated code, while some local fire departments will require a set clearance area around your solar array so that they can have easy access to your roof in the event of a fire.
Your solar permitting requirements may even differ from a neighbor’s in the same town. For example, if you live in a historical area, you may need approval from your local historical commission to install solar panels. Additionally, if you’re part of a homeowners association (HOA), you’ll likely need their permission to put panels on your property.
Size and type of installation
Your solar permitting requirements are also going to depend on the size and type of solar installation. If you’re installing a large, commercial solar panel system, you likely need to obtain extra permits compared to those needed for a small, residential solar panel system. The process of obtaining permits for utility-scale solar installations is often the most time-intensive and costly due to additional regulations – because these types of installations take up the most space and handle large amounts of power, there are often additional rules and processes that require more paperwork and a longer approval cycle.
Permit requirements can also vary between rooftop and ground-mounted installations. If you’re installing a large ground-mounted solar installation, you may need to participate in a land use review, but may not be subject to building or structural permits required for rooftop installations. Zoning laws in your area may also set different regulations for ground-mounted installations that can impact the permitting process, such as setback distances from neighboring properties and the height of the ground-mounted array.
Solar inspection process
You’ll likely need a solar inspection both prior to and post-installation of your solar energy system. An inspection before installation is necessary to ensure that your property’s electrical system can handle the addition of solar. If you’re installing a rooftop solar panel system, an engineer will also need to inspect your roof’s structure to make sure it can withstand the additional weight of the solar panels and racking equipment.
After your system is installed, a representative from your local government’s building department will need to conduct a final inspection before granting approval. They’ll look to make sure the system meets the necessary building codes and safety regulations. This inspection needs to occur before you turn on your solar panel system, as most utility companies will require documentation of local government inspection before solar interconnection to the grid.
As a final step of the solar interconnection process, your utility company will also likely come to your property to check the system. Once their own inspection is complete, you’ll receive permission to operate (PTO), allowing you to turn your solar energy system on.
Costs of solar permits and inspections
Because the permit requirements vary, so do the costs. Fortunately, most people installing a residential solar panel system won’t need to pay more than a couple hundred dollars for the permitting and inspection process. In fact, some states have regulations in place to cap on what governments can charge for permitting fees – Colorado caps permitting costs at $500 for residential solar projects and $1,000 for commercial projects. Similarly, California has the same cap for commercial projects but limits residential permitting costs to $450.
In some cases, you may not even see these costs as you’re going solar; when solar companies charge a turnkey price for your solar installation, they typically include the cost of labor, equipment, interconnection, permitting and inspections. If this is the case, you can always ask what portion of your total costs are for permitting and inspections. Alternatively, you can check with your local government to confirm the fees due for both.
Streamlining the solar permitting and inspection process
The solar permitting and inspection process takes time, and time is money. To make the process of obtaining permits for solar as easy as possible (thus lowering the overall cost of a solar installation), the Solar Energy Industries Association and the Solar Foundation launched a new initiative called Solar Automated Permit Processing (SolarApp).
The SolarApp proposal envisions a number of elements key to streamlining these processes, including greater use of online permitting systems, automated permit approvals for certified installers of smaller solar projects, and establishing clear and readily available equipment standards for PV systems. If the SolarApp program is successful in creating this streamlined process, the Solar Foundation and SEIA predict that it will help save $2.2 billion in taxpayer money over five years.
Find experienced solar installers to help you through these steps
As you’re deciding on which installer to move forward with, it’s a good idea to ask them about their experience installing in your area. Solar companies that have capable project managers with plenty of experience should be well versed in the permit and inspection requirements given your system, local government, and state.
By joining the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, you can receive up to seven custom solar quotes from pre-screened, vetted installers. These quotes will include information about each installation company, such as their distance from you, how long they’ve been in business, and reviews so that you can choose an installer that will get you through the permitting and inspection process as quick and easy as possible.