The Truth About Home Built Solar Panels

Home Built Solar Panels

Ads selling home built solar panel plans and e-books seem to blanket the internet lately. Click on an ad for one of these packages and you will likely see slick websites promising to help you short circuit the expensive solar power equation. Build your own solar electric system and take a chunk out of your utility bill.

The truth is that home built solar can be a really bad idea for a whole host of safety and legal reasons.

The promise of building your own grid-tied solar array is awfully attractive. According to the promises made by any number of internet how-to products and ebooks, the dedicated tinkerer is supposed to be able to order a few hard-to-find parts online, get a few more miscellaneous bits from the local home center, then spend a few enjoyable evenings at home soldering together their path to solar power savings.

I suppose it might be possible. Some of the materials from these programs does look fairly well put together. In reality, though, few will ever actually assemble a solar panel using an online ebook or plans set, and thankfully so.

There is a reason that people with engineering degrees work for solar equipment manufacturers. At the risk of bursting the bubble of many tinkerers, when it comes to longevity, legality, safety, and economics, do-it-yourself grid-tied home built solar power systems make no sense at all.

To be completely clear, I am a big fan of small-scale solar. Powering a home or business (even partially) with clean, quiet, non-polluting photovoltaic systems is a win for absolutely everyone.

According to Honeywell, a leading solar manufacturer, a relatively small 3kW residential solar system has an expected useful life of 25 years. Over that 25 year lifespan the installation can have some pretty significant environmental effects:

In 25 Years, a 3 kW Solar Photovoltaic System:

  • Prevents over 90,000 lbs of coal from being burned
  • Prevents the release of 180,000 lbs of CO2
  • Removes 600 lbs of NOx
  • Removes 500 lbs of SO2
  • Offsets 300,000 Miles Driven in an average car
  • Is the equivalent to planting 1.5 Acres of Trees

(Source: Honeywell)

When the prospect of running your residential electric meter backward is added to the mix, solar starts to look like a no-brainer for a lot of people.

Solar America

The problem with residential PV is the initial cost of the equipment.

A lot of people would love to have solar equipment on their roof, but have a hard time wrapping their heads around the tens of thousands in initial expenditures required to purchase and install a grid-tied solar power system.

Home Built Solar Panels to the Rescue (or not)

The idea of getting all the financial and environmental benefits of a photovoltaic installation without the upfront expense has a lot of people ready to whip out their credit card to buy any number of ebooks and internet sold plan sets. Many internet publishers have realized this and tapped the ready market with a long list of products. Unfortunately, the hype does not tell the full story.

Consider these points when deciding whether a home built solar power system is a project that you are ready to take on:

  • A home built solar power system is likely not eligible for the 30% Federal Investment Tax Credit.

If you install a certified grid-tied photovoltaic system, you could get the federal government to help pay the initial cost, but only if it is a certified system.

  • A home built solar power system is likely not eligible for state tax credits.

Your state may have an incentive program that will pay a percentage of the initial purchase cost for solar, but many of these programs specify the certifications that the system must have in order to qualify. A system that you build yourself will not have the UL or other ratings required for these programs.

  • A solar array that you build will likely not be eligible for local utility grants, loans, or other incentives.

Your local utility may have initial purchase price grants available for solar, but only approved equipment is eligible.

  • Most utility companies will not allow non-certified generating systems to be tied to their equipment.

Utilities are very protective of their system and concerned about the safety of their people. They want to know that any generating equipment that feeds into their system is going to be on-spec, and behave in a safe manner. As an example, utilities want to be certain that your generating equipment will shut down or self-isolate in the event of a power outage. Not doing so may injure or kill an electric lineman. In all fairness, few people would attempt to build their own power inverter, but would probably buy an approved inverter to use with their home made solar panels. Even this situation would probably be unacceptable for most utilities.

  • Home built solar may not be safe.

Of course, you will be careful, but grid-tied solar systems deal with quite a bit of energy. Many grid-tie inverters have DC inputs of 600 volts, necessitating that your solar cells be wired in long series chains. As you can imagine, 600 volts is more than adequate to provide an electric shock. These energies are also more than adequate to start fires.

  • A property with a home built solar array may not be saleable.

You may find it pretty tough to find a home inspector who will sign off on a photovoltaic system without all of the appropriate documentation, ratings, and placards. At the least solar panels which look like they were created in the garage are likely to worry most potential home buyers.

  • Commercially built solar will likely be more efficient than anything built in a garage.

All those engineers working for photovoltaic manufacturers really do earn their living. The design of modern solar arrays have a number of improvements that create higher efficiencies than seen in systems built just a few years ago. In addition, these systems use electronic componentry of higher quality than you are likely to find on internet electronics retail sites or on eBay.

The Bottom Line on Home Built Solar--

If running a substantial portion of your home on solar generated electricity is your goal, stick with commercially built and professionally designed PV systems. You will likely save money and frustration in the long run, particularly when you consider that a 2010 Solar Energy Industries Association report states that solar equipment costs have fallen by 40% in a year. Going the fully tested, commercially available equipment route also means that you will not run into the legal headaches associated with connecting unapproved and unproven generation equipment to a public utility.

A Viable Home Built Solar Project

If you still want to dabble in creating photovoltaic equipment (hey, I do) there is always the possibility of creating an off the grid system. Essentially, an off the grid solar project would take the form of a solar battery charger, deep cycle batteries, a commercial charge controller, and a commercial off the grid inverter. Such a setup is relatively inexpensive, uses safer DC voltage levels (around 12 volts), and have none of the home resale and legal issues of a larger home grown grid-tied system.

Suitable for portable power, remote outdoor lighting, running power gate openers, or perhaps providing power to a remote shed or greenhouse, small-scale home built solar power systems may be perfect for satisfying your inner mad scientist, and saving a little money in the process.

Here, Dan Rojos of demonstrates the process of hand-tabbing solar cells, which is the primary skill that most of those ebook products on the Internet will teach. Dan even uses a non-grid solar system to power the lights in his home office. The difference is that the circuit is not hooked to the regular grid-tied electric system of the house. The video is actually pretty entertaining.


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