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Our step-by-step guide to going solar

Avatar for Ben Zientara
Published on 03/22/2017 in
Updated 04/24/2020
Stairs leading up to the sun

Going solar is much easier now that it used to be. There are big solar companies with offices across the USA that have streamlined the process as much as possible in the name of efficiency. You’ll get the same service and quality from a solar estimator in Providence, Rhode Island as you will in Prescott, Arizona.

That said, some states don’t have great solar policies, which makes solar less of a financial sure-thing and more of a niche product for people concerned about the environment. The big solar companies avoid those states because they can’t make the kind of money they can in states where policies are better.

Smaller solar companies exist in all 50 states, so your best bet is always to find local solar experts through our partner form, and see if we know someone who installs solar in your area.

Now, for the steps to getting solar panels installed and pumping out sun juice:

Step 1: Deciding whether solar is right for you

Are you a homeowner? Do you have cash, equity, great credit, or a willingness to sign a long-term contract for solar panels on your roof? Do you want to make some money and reduce your carbon footprint at the same time?

If you answered “yes” to all of those questions, getting solar panels could be great for you. But to really make it work, you have to live in the right state, in the right house.

Here are some specifics about what a great home for solar looks like:

  • Roof type: Asphalt shingles
    • Tile, rubber membrane and metal are acceptable, but it may cost you more for installation. Roofs that are pitched too steeply cost more as well.
  • Roof age: No more that 5-10 years old
    • Replacing a roof with solar panels on top will cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 more, because taking panels down (and putting them back) to work around them takes time and labor from a roofing crew and electrician.
  • Roof orientation: Due south is best, anywhere between east-southeast and west is doable
    • Actually, west can be better, if you pay for electricity under a time-of-use rate plan, where peak electricity is more expensive during the late afternoon hours when the sun is shining from the west. Panels can be tilted to work on east-facing roofs, but north-facing roofs are right out.
  • Roof shade: None at all, or very, very little.
    • Shade kills the output of solar panels. In traditionally wired systems, shade on even a small portion of one panel can reduce the output of a whole string of them, rendering them useless for generating electricity.

    Here’s an image with a comparison of two nearby homes:

    Comparing two roofs for solar, one good, one bad

    As you can see, the home on the left has an unshaded south-facing roof, while the home on the right has an east/west roof and a large tree to its south.

    Step 2: Getting quotes

    This step seems deceptively easy. You get a quote by connecting with a local installer and giving them a little information about your home, then you wait for the numbers to come in. But how do you decide what makes a good quote different from a bad quote, and how much should you expect to pay?

    Well, that all depends on what state you’re in, and whether your home is ideal for solar. Like we said above, panels can be installed on almost any roof type, in almost any direction, but the more scrupulous installers out there will be straight with you when giving you an estimate.

    Here’s what a good quote should include:

    • A roof assessment – The installer should use their assessment tool to produce an image like the one below, which will tell you the area you have available for panels and how much sun they’ll get on an average basis.
      solar roof assessment results
    • A production estimate – The numbers for your roof will be used to draw up an estimate of how much power the panels should produce per year in kilowatt-hours
    • The make and model of equipment – A solar installation is made up of panels, racks to attach them to your roof, and an inverter to change DC power from the panels into AC that will run your appliances. The quote should include the make, model, and number used for each of these components.
    • The cost – Solar installation cost is quoted in dollars-per-watt. Average price in the U.S. are between $2.50 and $4.50 per watt, depending on your state, the size of the installation, your roof, and other factors. The installation size is measured in kilowatts (kW), meaning a 5-kW system at $3/watt quote would have a total cost of $15,000.
    • Available incentives – Here’s the good stuff. The quote should include estimates of the state and federal incentives you can expect, based on your unique financial situation. These vary widely by state, but at the very least, you should see the effect of the federal solar tax credit, which will reduce your tax bill by 30% of the system cost (if you have any tax to reduce).
    • Payback estimate – Your installer should be able to use the production estimate, incentives, and estimated electricity savings to tell you when your initial investment will be repaid, and how much you’ll save over the life of the panels. Or, in the case of a lease or Power Purchase Agreement, how much you’ll save over the contract.

    Also, be sure to ask about the age of your roof, and how much the assessor thinks it will cost to take the panels off if you replace the shingles within the next 10-15 years.
    Finally, check out our pages about how much solar should cost, and what to look for in an installer.

    Step 3: Design and Permitting

    designing solar system in software

    This should be 100% taken care-of by your installer. Once a site assessment has been completed and you’ve agreed on a system size and price, the installer will work with their engineering team to design a system that will meet your needs.

    At the same time, the installer will get permits for construction from the city, and apply for any incentives available directly from the utility company. In general, rebates from the utility can be paid directly to the installer, and go toward reducing your up-front cost.

    Your responsibility during this time is to set up a billing arrangement with the utility company. Some utilities require solar owners to sign up for special rates or time-of-use plans that are specifically designed to record energy both consumed and exported. Your installer should be able to walk you through this process as well, but you’ll need to work with the utility to get it done.

    Step 4: Installation

    Two workers install solar panels on a roof

    In the past, solar installers bragged about putting in a rooftop system in under a week. These days, with modern equipment and well-trained installation teams, it should take about 4 hours. Once you’ve approved the design and chosen an installation day, you should be ready to have a team on your roof for a day or so.

    The team will consist of installers and an electrician, who will work together to ensure your system is structurally sound and ready to send electricity to the inverter.

    Step 5: Commissioning and Interconnection

    meters for solar panels on the side of a house

    At this point in the process, you will want desperately to just turn the darn thing on and start running your home on solar, but it isn’t quite that simple. Depending on your state and utility company, waiting to get the system connected to the grid can be a tedious process.

    Thankfully, most places have developed streamlined interconnection processes that reduce the time it takes to get a home solar system assessed and connected down to just a few days or weeks.

    Basically, an assessment specialist from the utility company needs to come look at your system, verify the presence of any necessary hardware (some interconnection standards require a special disconnect switch in case of fire or downed power lines), and make sure that all wiring was done properly.

    Finally, you’ll be able to turn your panels on and begin your new life as a solar owner!

Last modified: April 24, 2020

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