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22 comments

Will Solar Ever be DIY?

Posted September 08, 2011 7:05 AM

Solar photovoltaic installations are rapidly becoming commonplace in many communities. The installation companies often have financial plans to help the homeowners seal the deal. Do you think solar components such as photovoltaic cells and associated electronics are on a track to be installed by the average homeowner, or will solar systems always require specialty contractors? If installing solar was more like plugging in a refrigerator, how much faster could the technology be adopted?

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#1

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/08/2011 8:13 AM

Yes.

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#2

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/08/2011 9:19 AM

It already is!

First, there is already a budding DIY community out there and has been out there for decades. All one need to do is search the internet.

Second, all the components are available, again, on the internet. Just do a search.

Third, it is not rocket science. There are plenty DIY articles (yup, you guessed it - on the internet) available for anyone to read as well as many books.

A person can do as much or as little of it as they feel comfortable.

Right now the industry is going to go through a price revolution in a few years, so once that happens you should see more homes using solar either as photovoltaic or passive hot water or both.

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#3

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/08/2011 1:51 PM

Whoever wrote the lead in must be a lit major

Depends on what is meant by DIY -

1) Make your own panels - requires very good DIY skills and most of the population should not do it regardless of the scam sites that claim how easy it is. Soldering is a learned skill - not something that comes automatically when you pickup the iron. Sealing a DIY panel is very difficult to do in a manner that will last for a few years - let alone 25 years.

2) Buy all the equipment and self install - requires DIY skills still - not everyone is smart to make holes in their roof or to be walking around on a roof.

All electric work should be done to code - both NEC and local as apply. As most who are not electricians have no idea of what the code is to follow. Electrical connections poorly made are a source of a problem

3) To access federal and most state incentives/subsidies UL (or equivalent) certification of all electrical components is required. DIY need not apply.

4) Homeowners insurance requires UL approved equipment in order to be valid - a person may get by this or may not. If your home burns down the insurance company would love to have an easy way out.

5) Utilities have to accept the installation prior to any grid connections. They require UL certified equipment. Making a grid connection without approval by the utility is asking to have one's electric connection cut.

6) The plug & play POS you see advertised on the internet are not legal in the civilized world. That is where you plug the inverter outlet into a wall socket.

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#4
In reply to #3

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/08/2011 3:05 PM

Well, the point is, everything a person needs to DIY a system is all there and can be legally purchased and installed (either by a contractor or oneself), at least in the USA.

Knowledge to do that is also available. Skill is something you can learn. So, solar DIY is just accessible to do as any other DIY home project.

However, there is no solar hat that you can buy and slap on your head that will make you a competent genius. But then again, that cap doesn't exist for any other DIY project.

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#5
In reply to #4

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/08/2011 3:15 PM

Legally install a DIY panel in a grid connect system for example?

No way Jose.

The questions that come up on solar forums about solar PV equipment, systems and especially DIY show that the great majority should hire a contractor.

Some of the DIY bunch are really loony. Others are quite good at DIY but they are in the minority.

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#6
In reply to #5

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/08/2011 3:39 PM

I'll bet you can, but the caveat is that you need to have someone licensed to inspect it.

I have done plenty of electrical work for myself and all I need to do to make it official is to call the building inspector out to see the work and sign off on it.

The last big project required inspection before I installed the drywall, but that is the way they do every house. That is, inspect it in phases.

If you are not comfortable with making that live line connection, then just wire everything up to the box, but don't make the connection. Call an electrician and pay for one hour of his time and have him sign off for the work.

Every building inspector I have worked with has always been helpful with achieving my end goals.

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#7
In reply to #6

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/08/2011 3:57 PM

Have it your way but the guys that know what they are talking about say very different. Actually you are wrong - unless you are in some backwoods place where anything goes. Some of the south and rural areas are 'no mans land' as far as code goes.

It doesn't make much difference here as members are engineers (or pretending to be) and should be able to determine what to do but for the general public making unknowing and loose statements can be dangerous for fools that follow them.

Anyone building DIY grid connect panels (high voltage DC) is begging for trouble from poor connections. That is both not legal most places and not safe anywhere.

Like I noted - there are two different scenarios requiring different skill sets 1) DIY panel building and 2) DIY installation of factory made equipment. The second is much safer and much more likely to be legal.

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#8
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Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/08/2011 4:20 PM

I guess I am not clear.

1. Most every place I know of (actually, everywhere I have been) will allow the homeowner to DIY whatever they want. The only requirement is that it pass code (where applicable).

Either a county inspector reviews your work or you will be required to have a licensed professional sign off for the work.

2. The knowledge to do all of this is available. It is not like you are building a stealth fighter (in which case you will probably have to buy the information from China). The information is available for you to learn. It is your responsibility to learn what you need.

3. Nobody said this was easy, but I said it is do-able.

4. You can build your own panels and circuit boards if you want to. No law prevents you. You can start your own company if you want!

However, you may need to design, test, and demonstrate compliance to industry standards. As an individual that can be done, too! You can get your equipment U.L. certified if you need it. It ain't easy or quick! However, it can be done!

I know because I used to work for a company where I was required to get the U.L. certification and I know exactly what the drill is. It is not something that 99.999% of us would want to do, but there are no laws stopping you if that is your dream.

For that reason most people will buy the components off the internet and by-pass the requirement of visiting U.L., CSA, or whatever. As long as the components are certified and you get installation passes inspection you are good to go.

No one guarantees that the whole process is simple or easy. However, it can be done if you have the resolve, minimal capacity to learn, and money. At least it is a lot easier than building your own fission nuclear plant. ;-)

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#9
In reply to #8

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/09/2011 2:06 AM

I appreciate the spirit of your approach, but the two times I ran at this the power company spec'd exactly the conversion and isolation equipment down to vendor and part number. So you *could* screw the parts together, but you certainly weren't going to be building your own components. So I suppose the question goes what depth we take DIY.

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#10
In reply to #8

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/09/2011 2:11 AM

Common sense. Actually, as foreign visitor I U.L'ed some instruments and in your home state, I must say, I had a lot of cooperation from the technical inspection departments, implementing non conform (but better) building code adaptations on houses, where my signature as non- US licensed engineer, plus my manifest was added and accepted.

The quality of the code is illustrated when a hurricane has passed through. GA. D

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#13
In reply to #5

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/09/2011 11:16 AM

I totally agree with Russ. Some small PV projects might be DIY for people with the right backgrounds, but large projects (such as powering a home) are better left to professionals. PV projects produce power, not use it, so they need to be treated differently. We're not just re-wiring a lamp or replacing an outlet, we're interfacing an active system to a large and potentially lethal active system. I might feel comfortable with the average public installing a low voltage stand-alone system for low power use (such as a PV powered water pump to irrigate a garden) but installing a system that supplies tens or hundreds of kilowatts needs specialists.

Guys, please keep the skill level of the average consumer in mind here. This forum caters to mostly above-average trained and experienced people who are more capable of installing PV projects than most other people. While you may be completely capable, please consider the Average Joe that the original question addresses.

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#11

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/09/2011 2:50 AM

I don't see how you would be able to legally connect any solar equipment to a current code residential electric system without a permanently installed control of some sort. This means as a minimum a simple manual transfer switch like used for emergency generators. If the solar system is going to feed the "house" at the same time as the power company (the most commpon case) then a more sophisticated control is needed.

I haven't been through that myself so I'm not too conversant with the specifics of that equipment. But it sounds every bit as complex as the automatic transfer switch I have on my present emergency generator installation. To me it cries for a new NEMA standard for residential beaker panels that allows an easy plug in of a controller module if and when a solar installation is done on the residence. Such a module would have simple waterproof connectors for the lines from the solar array inverters, which ideally should be built into the panels. "Solar Ready" electrical panels ought to be a code requirement on all new construction for single or two family detached residences in areas where solar panels are economically feasible.

I think a final approval inspection by a building inspector or a power company rep ought to be required but with simple standardized mass produced electrical equipment this process should be relatively quick and low in cost.

The other factors to consider for the DIY type is that the installation should be rain, snow, wind, earthquake and theft resistant. A "plug and play" panel design and its mountings should be thought out pretty well so that no special engineering is needed for most applications. The hookup lines should include simple methods of "daisy chaining" panels together. And have a connector scheme for the main feed line to the panel that facilitates easy routing and installation through either external or internal building pathways leading to the control panel, i.e. no $500 crimp tools required.

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#12
In reply to #11

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/09/2011 3:17 AM

Grid tie inverters do what you described - they prevent feeding of the grid in the event the grid is down. Power can flow either way depending on the home demand.

Plug and play connectors are now provided with many panels - no 500$ crimp tool.

UL equipment is required in most cases and almost certainly for grid tie. For man individual to get UL approval (or equivalent agency) for their own DIY panels is a joke.

The utility controls all connections to their grid - end of story. They will insist on UL approved equipment.

Some people do their own installations and do it well. Most have no business doing so.

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#14
In reply to #12

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/09/2011 12:41 PM

Thanks, Russ -- Looks like all that is needed is for the residential breaker box to be designed to mechanically "plug and play". No punching holes in the steel box and connecting and reconnecting wires and grounds like you have to do to install a transfer switch. This is where standardization comes in. Actual connection to the power grid ought to be able to be made so that only the agent of the power company can activate the connection with a "key" of some kind. The simpler the installation the better. Any skilled labor done at the site other than inspection and activation should be eliminated. It should be like a kitchen appliance installation. Annd there should be no reason for the local municipal government to get their sticky fingers in the act.

If we really want to get residential and small commercial solar power going big time the installation costs must be driven toward zero.

Ed Weldon

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#15
In reply to #14

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/09/2011 1:33 PM

One problem faced by people is that every state, city, county etc can have their own version of electrical code plus the inspector has the final call. It can get messy.

Fees and permits vary greatly in complexity and cost - again a local problem. Try to make a uniform national requirement and the states rights bunch would freak out.

Many areas have different methods of handling the portion of power returned to the grid - net metering, FITs, TOU billing etc. Some pay high prices for what is generated thereby making everyone else pay for the homeowners system. Total confusion here.

With a conventional grid tie inverter, the voltages from the panels to the inverter can run on up to 600 volts DC. Connections do need to be made properly.

Grounding the system is another area where people get confused and mess up.

The biggest problem of all is still cost - PV panels are coming down very much but the balance of system has stayed more or less the same.

Kind of funny but solar hot water and solar air heat are generally better deals - just not declared as sexy by Al Gore and the greens.

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#16
In reply to #15

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/09/2011 7:05 PM

You wrote, "Kind of funny but solar hot water and solar air heat are generally better deals - just not declared as sexy by Al Gore and the greens."

Absolutely!

This is something that when you crank the numbers you realize why there are all these attractive financing options and the US has huge tax credits for home owners.

The issue is even when you get all those rebates the PV system can take 10 to 20 years to pay for itself!!!

Residential hot water is another story. Payback is closer to 3 to 5 years because the overall system cost is much smaller and it efficiently captures solar energy.

If you DIY your hot water system the cost savings get even better, but you may lose some tax advantages.

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#17
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Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/10/2011 12:02 AM

The payback on solar PV can be better in locations with 1) high electricity cost (California), 2) Net metering or a FIT and 3) generous subsidies (meaning everyone else helps pay for your system).

Here there are no incentives, subsidies or such - you pay the full cost. You see many solar water heaters and zero solar PV installations.

Solar thermal can be in the range of 50% efficiency or possibly a little better compared to solar PV which is around 15% efficient.

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#18
In reply to #17

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/10/2011 7:41 AM

Been there, done that. Had a company out to do the dog and pony show. Did my homework on the net.

It's the tax subsidies and the financing that make it attractive to people, but even then the payback time is horrible for photovoltaic.

And therein lies the rub. Many people buy into it, but it is such a poor investment that there are better places to put one's money.

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#19
In reply to #18

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/11/2011 10:45 AM

surely , yes
it have been adopted

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#20
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Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/11/2011 11:11 AM

Just because people buy the sales pitch does not make it a good deal.

A crude example would be a PV system completely installed costs $20,000 US. Let's say you get a 3% rate on that loan. Your 60 month total out of pocket payment is $21,540.

Lets say state and federal tax savings is 50% of your $20,000 investment. The following tax year (April 15th) you get a check for $10,000.

Now, the electricity you generate and save amounts to about $500 per year for a typical home.

At that rate it takes you 20 years to repay your original investment!

That doesn't count your loan interest. On the plus side if your electric rates go up over time that total length of time goes down, but you would need a pretty steep rate increase to offset your investment.

Yeah, people buy into this stuff because the sales pitch sounds really good when they tell you the government will give you nearly half of the money you spend back.

The truth is that everyone (i.e., the tax payers) are subsidizing everyone else's solar system. Also, the fact that nearly 50% needs to be slashed off the price tells you that it is too expensive right there.

If this was such a great deal people would be buying it at full price, but frankly, the savings just does not justify the cost.

The exception to that would be for special needs. Some remote locations just don't have electricity, or have frequent sustained outages (i.e., hurricanes), or you DIY the system at a substantial savings.

The latter really doesn't exist because you lose your federal and state rebates (I think).

So, as a rebuttal to your argument, surely not because people have simply adopted it. They just bought the hype (in most cases).

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#21
In reply to #20

Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/11/2011 11:27 AM

Federal rebates are gone with DIY

States may vary but in many DIY is not acceptable for rebates/incentives

Grid connect possibility is gone with DIY

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#22
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Re: Will Solar Ever be DIY?

09/11/2011 11:41 AM

Which makes it a worse investment, yet.

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