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DIY solar panel pros and cons: Should you install solar panels yourself?

CNET logo CNET 11/15/2021 AJ Dellinger
DIY solar panels: Good idea? Bad idea? urbazon/Getty Images © Provided by CNET DIY solar panels: Good idea? Bad idea? urbazon/Getty Images

If you're a homeowner, it's not hard to see the appeal of solar panels. Whether you are conscious of your carbon emissions or your budget (or both!), installing DIY solar panels can shrink your impact on the planet and lower the monthly energy bill

But while the DIY solar panels can be an elegant and eco-friendly option in some situations, they aren't a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone's energy-related issues. Below, we'll walk you through the pros and cons of undergoing the DIY project of installing your own solar panels. And we'll help you decide if you want to take on the task or pursue another option like a solar power purchase agreement or having solar panels installed professionally. 

© Getty Images/urbazon

Costs

One of the primary appeals of any DIY project, other than the satisfaction of a job well done, is saving money. When you choose to install solar panels on your property yourself, it means that you won't have to pay for anyone else's expertise or labor, which typically adds a considerable amount of cost to the project. 

According to research conducted by the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, labor typically accounts for about 10% of the total price tag for installing solar panels. Given the average cost for installing solar panels is $18,500, that means a savings of nearly $2,000. That's a significant amount of money to keep in your bank account.

However, there is a trade-off. If you aren't paying someone else to do the work of installation, it means you are doing it yourself. That means a significant amount of manual labor and time spent to set up the system, which you'll be doing on your own. You also may not be able to claim certain incentives offered to homeowners who install solar panels. Some of the tax rebates that states offer for going green require a certified company to do the installation for you. To make sure you're actually saving money, it's worth checking into these incentives and how much they will save you.

Installation

It is possible to do the process of installing solar panels on your own. There are solar systems designed specifically for DIYers that, while sometimes time-consuming, should be more than doable. 

It's worth noting, though, that many DIY solar panels are not designed to hook up to the traditional energy grid. They are designed more for off-grid purposes, like powering RVs or other spaces that are not typically served by a standard utility. If you are only looking to supplement your traditional energy source, DIY solar panels can get the job done. If you are looking to power your entire home with solar power, it might be better to trust an expert.

Installing a full solar energy system requires at least some knowledge of electrician work so you can properly handle the wiring and other technical aspects. You will likely have to work in relatively dangerous settings, including doing work on your roof and working with buried wires. The stakes are high for a mishap; crossed wires can result in malfunction and even electrical fires. It also may be illegal for you to do this work without a professional's help, depending on your municipality's zoning laws.

As always, consult a qualified professional if you have any questions about your home install project. 

Use

As mentioned, most DIY solar panel projects are not meant to replace traditional energy sources. They offer the ability to supplement power from the grid or power smaller spaces like an RV or a tiny home. But for a full-size home, a professionally installed solar system is likely best.

There are some settings that are ideal for a DIY solar project. If you have a garage or shed that requires electricity, you can go off the grid and keep it powered with solar panels. DIY solar panels often offer a bit more flexibility in size and placement, so they can be set up in an alignment that works best for you in these settings. DIY solar panels are also useful as a backup option if you were to lose power for the electrical grid, as long as you have a functional solar battery to store the generated power.

Maintenance

Solar panels typically last about 25 years, but that doesn't mean there won't be issues along the way. DIY solar panels in particular can be subject to requiring maintenance because the quality is not guaranteed. 

Perhaps you tried to save in your up-front costs and purchased cheaper panels that are more susceptible to wear and tear. Unfortunately, you can end up being on your own in replacing them. Unless a failure falls under the warranty of the manufacturer, you may have to replace the panel on your own. It's much easier to accidentally void the warranty if you're installing the panels yourself, as well.

Oftentimes, professionally installed panels come with some sort of warranty from the company that does the installation. They will be able to service any issue that you may be experiencing, and may even cover the cost.

Decide what is best for your home

DIY solar panels can make for a fun project and a functional feature for your home, offering additional electricity from a renewable energy source. However, these panels are better served for smaller spaces like sheds or tiny homes. If you are looking to ditch the grid entirely and power your whole home with solar energy, consider a professional installation. It may cost more upfront, but the additional benefits of an expert installation, support in case of future failure, and access to full tax incentives may end up paying for itself over time.

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