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Turnkey, DIY or Independent Contractor: What’s the best way to install your solar system?

Man on roof installing solar panels, by Jon Callas

Editor’s note:
Many years ago, we at Solar Power Rocks wrote an article called “Don’t DIY: Why Installing Solar Panels Yourself Can Cost You More.” It’s a humorous (but mostly accurate) take on the idea that getting up on your roof with a bunch of wires and 45-lb. solar panels wasn’t something the average homeowner can take on by themselves.

Fast-forward to 2018, and there are much better solutions on the market for people who have a little time and mechanical aptitude. There’s also the option of designing your own system and sourcing all the equipment, enlisting help from professionals to complete the hard parts.

So in order to make up for leaving our “Don’t DIY” post up for over half a decade without an update, we invited our friend Phil Taylor-Parker, from Wholesale Solar, to write up a blog post about the reasons you might consider going the DIY route.

Take it away, Phil!

Guest blog by Phil Taylor-Parker of Wholesale Solar

Quick disclosure before we start: like Ben said, I work for Wholesale Solar, a company that (not surprisingly) distributes solar equipment. Since we sell directly to consumers, we’re natural proponents of the DIY route.

Each approach to installation has its pros and cons, and I’ve tried to remain neutral when examining them here. But we do have a bit of natural bias involved, which is worth getting out in the open. Just keep that in mind as you consider your options.

That said, let’s walk through the pros and cons of each installation option: turnkey, DIY or hiring a local contractor.

Here’s the quick summary:

Turnkey providers design your system, sell you the parts and take care of the installation. They offer a full-service solution at a premium price point. Great for busy people with a large enough budget to hand the project off to someone else.

DIY (do-it-yourself) installations place the entire project in your hands. It’s the least expensive option, but requires significant research and involvement in the process. When you go to install the system, construction experience is nice to have, but not necessary.

Buy direct and hire a contractor for a balance between budget and convenience. Local contractors will charge you less than a turnkey installer to build your system. But they can still touch base with the distributor on your behalf to handle aspects of the job you’d rather not handle, like permitting, design, and/or the installation itself. The homeowner handles the parts of the project they are comfortable with, and passes the rest off to specialized contractors (electrician, roofer, etc.).

How much does each method of solar installation cost?

Let’s establish some baseline numbers to give you an idea of how much a solar installation costs.

DIY Installation Cost

I’m going to use this 6.6 kilowatt system as an example, because the price is right around $10,000, and that’s a nice round number to help us do some napkin math. It’s also a reasonably sized system to cover an “average” household’s energy needs (though your needs will vary based on usage).

A typical roof mount installation may take a team of three people a full 8-hour day to complete. As a DIYer, your labor doesn’t cost you any money (although your time has value, and you’ll be spending a lot of it on this project – a consideration that can’t be ignored).

However, you may spend about $500 for conduit, A/C wiring, breakers, electrical fittings and other hardware. You’ll also spend a chunk of money filing for a building permit. That cost changes with your local jurisdiction, but let’s estimate $200 to pull a permit.

In total, your cost to install is $10,700 before the federal tax credit, which gives you 30% back on your taxes if you build a system before 2020. After the credit, the total installed cost of this system is around $7,490.

(This tax credit is being phased out: it will shrink to 26% and then 22% over the following two years, until it disappears completely in 2022).

That’s if you take the DIY approach, buying the equipment direct from a distributor and installing it yourself. How does that change if you get someone to handle the installation for you?

Independent Contractor Installation Costs

Another option is to buy the equipment, then turn around and hire a local contractor to handle the installation.

You don’t need a “solar certified” installer. Any general contractor, electrician or roofer who is comfortable taking on solar projects can get it done.

Contractors start around 75 cents to $1 per watt to install solar systems. The sample system above is 6600 watts, so it would be reasonable for a local contractor to charge $6600 for installation.

$10,000 + $6,600 = $16,600, and after the 30% tax credit, the final installed cost of this system would be around $11,620.

These costs will be highly variable. The final cost really depends on what percentage of the work you contract out.

It’s quite common for someone to install most of the system, then pay an electrician to wire their inverter into the main panel. That would typically only cost a few hundred dollars.

You might also bring in a roofing company to install flashings on your roof. Their rate will vary based on the slope and material of the roof (some materials, like tile, are harder to work with).

It can be challenging to find one contractor who can do the entire job. The more common choice is to do as much of the project as possible by yourself, then hire a few specialists (like a roofer and an electrician) to finish the job.

Turnkey Installation Costs

What about turnkey solutions? Plenty of companies will take the reins and sell you the complete package: design, equipment and installation. It’s the most hassle-free way to go solar, but they will charge you a premium to provide a full-service solution.

Some of the major players in this space are Tesla, Vivint Solar and Sunrun.

Turnkey providers charge 100-200% of the equipment cost for installation. So for the same $10,000 system, you can expect an additional $10,000-$20,000 in installation charges. It’s a wide range, but we’ve seen real quotes that cover the whole spectrum.

To pin down a number for the sake of comparison, let’s say it costs $3.50 per watt to install solar with a turnkey provider (equipment costs included). That number is consistent with historical pricing studies published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Energy, and it falls right in the middle of the range referenced above.

At $3.50 per watt, a turnkey provider would quote the same system at $23,100. That shakes out to a final cost of $16,170 after you claim your federal tax credit.

Here’s a graph for the sake of comparison. The final cost to install the same system:

A chart showing the after-tax credit cost of installing solar if you DIY, get a contractor, or choose turnkey installation

Other Considerations

We talked about budget first because it’s the most important factor (if not the only factor) a lot of people consider when they buy a solar system. For many, decisions start and end with the goal of squeezing the most value possible out of their array.

But if budget is flexible, there are other motivators driving the decision. They fall into two general categories:

  • Whether you have the time / energy to be involved in the project (due to family, work, etc.)
  • Whether you have the desire to be involved in the project (curiosity, desire to be familiar with the inner workings of your system, pride of doing a DIY project)

Turnkey Solar Installations

Consider a turnkey installer if: Time is more valuable to you than money.

Maybe you care most about spending time with your family, or commit long hours to a demanding job. Whatever it is that makes you tick, you’d rather enjoy your life than work on a construction project if you can help it.

If you have the room in your budget, it can be a huge relief to connect with a turnkey provider and let them take the wheel on your project. They’ll handle all the details you don’t have time to worry about:

  • Design the system (calculate inefficiencies, account for shade / local climate, etc.)
  • Source the parts
  • Obtain permits
  • Install to local building codes
  • Assist filing for incentives

One other note: certain solar brands have exclusive distribution and installation partnerships. For example, if you love Tesla (who doesn’t?) and want to install a Powerwall and a Solar Roof, you have to go straight to Tesla. No other company in the world is allowed to sell or install their products.

If you’re married to a particular brand, like Tesla, you may have no other choice but to go with them as your turnkey provider.

The verdict: Turnkey is the way to go if you don’t need to be involved in your project, and just want to ensure it’s professionally installed without any issues. This is the most hands-off, hassle-free installation option. It costs more than the alternatives, but the convenience is well worth it if you have the room to fit it in your budget.

If you’re interested in a turnkey solar installation, get quotes from Solar Power Rocks partners near you.

DIY Solar Installations

Consider a DIY solar installation if: Saving money and maximizing your investment is your primary concern, and/or you enjoy hands-on projects.

Do you take pride in building things yourself? Do you have experience with hands-on projects (or are you willing to do your research and learn the ropes)?

DIYers will be involved in the project every step of the way. You’ll choose your parts, design the system layout, track down permits, and assemble the system with your own hands.

There are no shortage of DIY solar resources to guide you through installation, and the whole process is much simpler than a lot of people think. The system comes with a wiring diagram to label the connections, so every part has a clearly defined place to go.

Certain parts need to be screwed and bolted down, and the wiring can be tricky (most people spend a few hundred bucks for an electrician to hook the wires into the junction box). But in general, a project like this is well within reach, even for people without formal construction experience.

Not only is it the least expensive option, installing your own system is the best way to become familiar with its inner workings. You’ll have a much better idea of how your system is connected, and what each part does, if you put the thing together yourself.

And when it comes time to replace something (like the inverter, which typically needs to be swapped out halfway through the life of the system), you’ll know exactly how it’s hooked up and what you need to do to replace it.

The verdict: DIY solar is the least expensive installation option. If you’re willing to source the equipment yourself and feel comfortable with hands-on projects, the payoff is well worth it. Nothing beats the sense of pride when you flip on your personal power plant that you assembled with your own hands.

Independent Contractor Installation

Consider hiring an independent contractor if: you want a nice middle ground between budget and convenience.

You get to play designer, pick the parts you love, and build a custom system to call your own. That’s the fun part, and most everyone who goes solar wants some level of involvement in the decision-making process.

Meanwhile, the installer serves as an extra point of contact to handle all the tedious stuff. They are often familiar with local regulations and building codes. They may even know the right people in the permitting office and be able to fast track your application. (Waiting a few weeks to get a call back from the permitting office is a common frustration in this industry.)

Local contractors provide an extra layer of expertise to guide you through your project. They’ll talk to the distributor about any technical details that fly over your head.

Of course, they also perform the labor when it comes time to install the system. This is the part that’s most appealing to a lot of people: passing off the grunt work to a third party.

The nice thing about this approach is you can have as much or as little involvement in the process you like. Some people order the parts and then pass off the entire installation to a construction team.

But most people assemble the bulk of the system themselves, only handing off the more challenging aspects of the project (like electrical hookups or roofing work) to the specialists.

We call this option “DIY with help” as the customer does most of the research, and maybe some of the labor, before handing the project off for completion.

If you are willing to do the legwork to source the parts, an independent contractor’s rates will beat any quote from a turnkey installer by a landslide.

The verdict: Go this route if you want to play a part in the design process, but prefer to sit back and relax while someone else does the heavy lifting on the installation.

You’ll save thousands of dollars vs. a turnkey installation, but you still have an expert on your side when you get stuck.

-Phil Taylor-Parker
http://www.wholesalesolar.com

Last modified: August 22, 2018

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