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Hire a contractor or D.I.Y.?

Today I went down to the city planning office to submit my application for a permit to install the solar system on our roof.  I was more than a little surprised when they commented “Gee, you’re the first person to get an owner/builder (D.I.Y. without a licensed contractor) permit for a solar installation.”   Really?  I live in a pretty large city (150,000 residents here in Santa Rosa) and I see plenty of solar panels on neighboring rooftops.  It seems like there are one or two houses on every block with a PV installation.  Since you can’t install a solar power system without a permit (if you hook it up to the grid it has to be inspected by both the city and the utility) that means the hundreds of nearby installations were all done by contractors.

Is it really that difficult?

Well, yes and no.  There are a number of skills required to install a rooftop solar system but we’re not talking about rocket science here.  The rewards can be high if you do the job on your own.  Besides the pride in doing the task yourself you’ll also save yourself quite a bit of money in the process.  Here are some factors that you need to consider:

Home repair skills – If you’ve done other improvement projects around the house, regularly watch the D.I.Y. channel or HGTV and if you know you way around a couple of basic power tools, you probably have the skills to do most of the work yourself.  While some of the wiring is best left to a licensed electrician, the bulk of the work requires nothing more sophisticated than a power drill and a ladder.

Project management skills - This job is going to require planning and paperwork.  Lots and lots (and lots) of paperwork.  Many cities are working to encourage renewable energy installations by cutting fees and permit requirements but you’re still going to need rudimentary drafting skills and you’re going to need to submit plenty of documentation about the installation to both the city and the utility.

Research skills – Unless you’re already a solar installer there’s a lot to learn about putting a bunch of panels up on your roof and plugging them into your power meter.  From product selection to building codes you’ll end up doing a lot of homework before you ever climb a ladder.  Fortunately there are plenty of helpful resources and I’ll be showing you where to find them.

Safety issues – More than likely you’ll be putting the solar panels on your roof.  How steeply sloped is the ‘pitch’ of your roof?  How high off the ground is the roof?  If you’re working on a one story building with a gentle slope then you’re in luck.  If you’re working on a multi-story building with a steeply sloped roof, unless you’re a mountain goat you may want to think about  leaving the job to professionals.

Financing the project – Many contractors can also arrange financing for the project.   If you can’t pay for the system out of pocket and if you don’t want to set up the financing yourself, hiring a contractor could still be an option.  Believe it or not, there are now some companies that will actually lease your rooftop and install a solar system for free  – the savings are much lower but there’s zero up front cost.

I’d describe a do it yourself solar setup as “straightforward but complicated.”  When you break things down into individual parts, each step of the project will be pretty easy.  When you put it all together there sure are a lot of individual pieces to figure out and keep track of.   Knowing what the steps are and learning how to do them correctly is the name of the game here.

If you’ve made it this far through the article you’re probably still thinking of doing the job by yourself – good for you!  This may be the most rewarding home improvement project you ever get involved in.   You’ll be feeling good when you see how you’re helping the environment by installing a renewable source of energy and you’ll really feel good when you open up that electric bill and the utility company says “Hey!  We owe you money this month!”