Going Solar 101

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Solar energy is more available and affordable than ever before–but what exactly do you need to know if you’d like to install solar panels yourself? Learn how the average homeowner can prepare for solar panel installation and even install the panels on their own. 

When it comes to going solar, BuildDirect can help you every step of the way. From choosing the correct type and quantity of panels to installation wiring and housing regulations, or even just learning what going solar really means. Our products are clearly labeled with enough information to help even a novice DIYer navigate the transition to solar.

Furthermore, the BuildDirect Clean Energy Guide can answer nearly every question the responsible homeowner will have before taking the leap to clean energy. All that said, maybe you’re not even sure what to ask yet? Continue reading to find out about not only the benefits of going green, but also what one should consider as they take their first steps toward going solar.

Why Go Solar?

Solar Panel Costs Are Going Down

solar panel budget

As of 2015, the cost of solar energy installation for the average residential home hovered around $3 per watt (W). A few years ago, ambitious market predictions set pricing at less than 50 cents per watt by 2017, but a more reasonable number from Green Tech Media is $1 per watt by 2020. This new figure is based on what we know about increased competition among solar panel manufacturers.

Overall, the cost of solar panel hardware has decreased by 60 percent since 2010. One area that has not seen as much of a decrease are the hidden soft costs, such as permits and installation. These costs can comprise up to 64 percent of the total bill when installing a new solar setup.

Uncle Sam Can Also Help

For the 2016 tax year and through 2019, you can take advantage of the Solar Investment Tax Credit, which allows you to write off 30 percent of the total cost of solar system installation. Additionally, some states offer incentives, rebates, and tax exemptions on top of the federal tax credit. Check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency to find programs and incentives in your area.

What to Consider When Going Solar

On or Off the Grid?


Most residential homes remain “on the grid,” which means the homeowner has the option to consume backup power from their local utility company if energy use in their home outstrips solar panel output–this basically means that if something goes wrong with your system, you have the option of tapping into your city’s energy source. A grid-connected home also has the luxury of net metering, which allows you to sell excess electricity produced by your solar panels back to the utility company at retail price.

The alternative system, naturally, is called an off-grid system. The biggest benefit to having this type of system is that if the power goes out in your neighborhood, you won’t be affected.

What Is Needed?


A grid-connected system consists of the following:

  • Solar modules or photovoltaic (PV) panels: These collect energy from sun and convert it to direct current (DC)
  • Power inverter: Converts DC from the panels to alternating current (AC) used by your appliances
  • Disconnect box: Allows you to safely cut off power to work on the system without the danger of electric shock
  • Home breaker box: This is where the converted AC connects to your home
  • Net meter: The meter box connects your home to the grid. It measures the amount of power used as well as any excess power produced and routed back to the grid
  • Battery: You might want to consider purchasing a back-up battery even if you are choosing the conventional grid-connected set up. The battery allows you to store energy in case of a blackout or other problem with the utility grid manufacturers.

Calculating Energy Usage


The first step to determining how many panels you need and how much solar energy you should ideally produce is finding out how much energy you consume on average. A typical home uses around 900 kilowatt-hours (kWh) every month, but this can vary.

Secondly, find out the peak sun hours in your area. For example, the west coast receives about six to seven hours of sun while the east coast receives about four to five hours depending on the weather and time of year.

As an example, consider the amount of power used as 900 kWh per month. With that, you are using 30 kWh every day. Now divide this number by daily peak sun hours. If you use 30 kWh per day, and you receive five hours of sun, then you need 6 kWh worth of panels to match the total usage.

Choosing the Panels

There are two kinds of panels: crystalline and thin-film. Find out which type is best for your home and how the choice will affect the installation process.

Crystalline panels are the big, blue panels we usually think of when talking about solar power. Advantages include efficiency and durability; they have a 40-year lifespan. The main disadvantage is the installation. It requires an elaborate racking system. Costs for set up can go as high as $17,000 or more. You might need about 25 panels, each providing 240W. Each 240W panel costs about $200 to $400 prior to racking.

Thin-film is a roll of flexible material. Although crystalline panels are popular, these thin-film rolls are gaining a foothold in the market since they are easier to install and use, but they haven’t yet been widely adopted for residential homes. Advantages of thin-film are convenience of installation. You just roll the panel onto a smooth surface. A big disadvantage is durability; it lasts only around 25 years. Efficiency is higher in the dark, but overall it’s less efficient than crystalline. Cost to set up a 6kW thin-film system can total $20,000 to $25,000. Each thin-film panel costs about $450 to $500 but provides an output of only 136W compared to an average of 240W for crystalline panels.

Solar Inverters

The first thing to consider when shopping for an inverter, is what type of system you have. If you’ve opted for an on-the-grid system, ensure you are purchasing a grid-connect inverter, instead of an off-grid type. And of course, if you’ve decided on an off-the-grid connection, be sure to shop for an off-grid inverter.

Another decision you’ll have to make, is whether you want to you use several micro-inverters (one for each panel you have), or a single inverter. Both are viable options, but opting for the micro-inverter system does mean a slightly lower risk of a system-wide shutdown if an unforeseen circumstance were to occur. The reason being, if one of your panels gets damaged (whether by storm or a rogue rock that shoots out from your lawn mower one afternoon) it will only affect that individual panel, rather than shut down your whole system.

That said, single inverters have their advantages as well: they’re less work to install because there’s only one product (vs several micro-inverters), and that could potentially offer a lower labor cost if you’re hiring an electrician to install the system for you. Also, those with only one inverter are afforded the advantage of single point monitoring, which means you only have to read one inverter display to monitor your energy useage, rather than having to do the rounds and read the display of several micro-inverters.

Finally, you’ll want to consider the wattage rating to be certain it can handle the energy produced by the solar panels. All inverters available through BuildDirect are clearly labeled with this information.

The BuildDirect Advantage

When you work with BuildDirect to select and install your solar panels, you are getting impartial advice on the best fit for your home. We offer a number of panel manufacturers including Sunspark Technology, AIMS Power, Canadian-Solar, WAGAN, and Xterra Solar. Our online guide will help you decide on the ideal type and quantity of panels for your home. Visit our Clean Energy page to get started.




















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