Will DIY Solar Panels Become the Next Trend in Renewable Energy?

The new cool thing is DIY solar panels

Futurists have long seen the sun as the cleanest and most convenient solution to humanity's skyrocketing energy needs. Building something like a Dyson Sphere may be beyond our reach for another thousand years, but the advent of flexible and even printable solar panels means that soon nearly any surface could become an instrument for harnessing solar energy.

In the meantime, residential and commercial solar installations continue to grow more popular and accessible — and that means consumers have a choice. Do I buy and install my own solar panels, or do I get a professional to design the system and carry out all the work?

What are the advantages of DIY solar?

The primary advantage of choosing the DIY route for "going solar" is that it's the most cost-effective option out there. These savings come from eliminating the cost of professional labor and electrical work.

Your mileage may vary, but depending on the size of the property you're looking to power, DIY solar could save you between $3,000 and $5,000 compared with hiring a professional installation company. There are some caveats, however:

  • You're responsible for designing your own solar installation and performing the necessary research.
  • Any mistakes during installation may void the warranties for the products you've chosen.
  • There is a serious risk of personal injury if you don't have relevant experience working at height and with electrical hookups.
  • Some tax credits and other incentives require professional installation for full eligibility.

If you're not ready to make the leap to a full DIY solar project, there's another option that may help you "feel out" your comfort level. DIYers often tackle more modest installations — such as placing panels on a shed or another outbuilding, heating a pool or wiring their yard for solar-powered lights. For folks who have contracting and construction experience, and who don't mind learning new skills as they go, this is an attractive, realistic and cost-effective way to "dip your toes" in the DIY "waters."

Beyond the cost savings, there's also the attractive notion of retaining total control over every choice, from sourcing equipment to fine-tuning its placement. But this level of control comes with some potential pitfalls of its own.

Disadvantages of DIY Solar

Years ago, as the DIY solar panel market took off, researchers noticed a trend: more cost-cutting measures and greater rates of defects and failures as equipment manufacturers raced each other to the bottom of the pricing spectrum. It's entirely possible that, even if you find and hire a contractor to design and deploy your whole installation for you, they'll push you toward lower-quality equipment.

But that's where the advantage of obtaining multiple bids comes in. No matter which option you end up with, having two or three professionals visit your property and soliciting their advice on equipment manufacturers will go a long way toward helping you feel more prepared for eventually buying and installing them yourself. Without face time with solar professionals, you're at the mercy of online solar panel reviews — and online reviews, in general, have practically reached the point of uselessness.

As mentioned, keeping your equipment within warranty depends upon how competently it's installed. But what about warranties for the labor itself? Not surprisingly, DIY efforts lie outside the purview of labor warranties. With professional installation, you'll get far greater peace of mind with the added protection from defects in the installation itself — including altering the structure of your roof, preventing leaks, correctly wiring everything, and drilling holes to fasten the panels in place. If you are the remotest bit uncomfortable doing this work effectively yourself, then a DIY installation is not for you.

There's a middle-ground that may interest home and business owners, however. There's a nascent but swiftly growing solar wholesale market, which means solar enthusiasts everywhere can simply buy the equipment they need and then have a professional install it for them on their property. This eliminates the biggest problems discussed above: the time and expertise required to get the panels in place and connected to the grid. It erases some of the cost advantages of going the DIY route, however, because you must pay the contracting company for their time and labor.

Taking the longer view

In the (probably near) future, the form and function of solar technology will have progressed to the point where DIY installations are the rule rather than the exception. As mentioned above, solar technology is constantly evolving behind the scenes in the name of greater affordability, efficiency, and mobility. For example — it's not ready for mass production and deployment yet, but scientists already have the means to produce a solar cell small enough that it can take a ride on a soap bubble without causing it to burst.

It's research like this that make widespread DIY solar look more and more like a foregone conclusion. With technology sufficiently small enough, diyers won't just be hoisting panels onto their roofs — they'll be sewing them into clothing, applying solar film to their windows, and driving around in cars retrofit with solar panels. When it comes to do-it-yourself culture, it doesn't get much more exciting than that.

Image credit: Moss Community Energy Launch; courtesy Flickr

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