Solar Panel Installation: A Complete Guide [2021]

By Scott Laskey

By

Last Updated on January 25, 2021 by Scott Laskey
Dec 09

Solar energy is more in-demand than ever. In the last ten years, the solar industry has grown at an average rate of 49%. Federal policies, like the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), have served to decrease costs for consumers and increase demand.

As a result, there are currently more than 85 gigawatts of solar capacity installed throughout the country – enough to power more than 16 million homes.

If you’re considering installing solar power, you probably have many questions about the process.

Typically, homeowners will meet with a solar consultant (or “solar salesperson”) to evaluate the costs and benefits of going solar. An experienced solar consultant will discuss your future energy needs, evaluate your electric usage, briefly survey your roof and your home’s electrical connection to the grid, and assess a number of other factors to determine how many solar panels you’ll need to produce a specific amount of energy.

We’ll cover “How to Shop for Solar” in a separate blog post, but people often ask, “What happens after we sign up for solarduring the solar panel installation process? What can we expect from your installation team? And how long will it take?”

We’ve compiled all the answers to your questions in this complete guide.

How To Install Solar Panels: 5 Essential Steps

When you work with a professional solar panel installation company like Sandbar Solar & Electric, the team will follow five main steps to install your system:

  1. Design & Engineering
  2. Permitting
  3. Installation
  4. Inspections
  5. Energize System

Designing and building even a small residential solar system requires a careful process and a permit from your local Building Department. Because of this, you can expect your panel installation to take about 3-4 months from the time you sign an agreement with your chosen solar installer.

To help you understand what each step of the process entails, here’s a detailed breakdown:

Step One: Engineering the System

Each home is unique, and there’s no one-size-fits-all rule for solar power systems. To make sure your panels suit your individual needs, the first step your solar installer will take is to send an engineer or site technician to evaluate your home.

Generally, this evaluation will happen shortly after you select your solar installer and sign your Solar Agreement. During the engineering site visit, the engineer or technician’s primary goal is to survey where solar modules will be installed and your residence’s current electrical configuration.

Specifically, the engineer will look at the following things:

  • The condition of your roof. The engineer will evaluate the roof’s structural soundness and ensure it’s in good enough condition to sustain the weight of solar panels. If your roof requires any repair prior to your solar installation, recommendations will be discussed with you at or shortly after the engineer’s assessment. In general, if your roof has more than 5 years of life left, it’s advisable to install solar on your existing roof, but if your roof has less than 5 years of life, it’s a good idea to handle the re-roof prior to solar going up.
  • Your home’s existing electrical panel. The engineer will evaluate the electrical panel to see if it needs to be upgraded to remain code compliant and to support the amps of current required by your new PV panels.

Step Two: Obtaining all Permits, Documents, and Parts

Installing a residential solar panel system requires a lot of paperwork. Luckily, reputable solar installers will handle all the heavy lifting related to permits and paperwork.

Once the team has evaluated your property, the design team will get to work on your permit drawings to obtain your solar permit through the local Building Department. These permits are location-specific and meant to regulate the size, shape, and orientation of new solar systems.

It’s important to be patient as the time between your engineering site audit and permit approval can be 4-8 weeks in some cases. This timeframe is out of your solar installer’s hands, but a good solar company will stay on top of those permits as they move through the local Building Department.

While your drawings are being prepared and reviewed by the Building Department, your solar installer will begin ordering parts and system components.

Broadly speaking, the two essential components of a solar system are inverters and solar panels. Your salesperson will likely discuss various equipment options & brands of each.

In some cases, your installer may recommend a back-up brand/option as it is common for the major solar manufacturers to have periods of time where selected modules are out of stock or delayed. You’ll then have a chance to consider each based on factors like efficiency, price, lifespan, and aesthetics.

If you have questions about the equipment, talk with your solar consultant or salesperson. They’ll help you understand the differences between brands and what each component does.

Once your permit is issued and your equipment procured, your project will be scheduled for installation.

Step Three: Installation

solar installers on roof

All the parts have arrived, and it’s time for your installer to get to work. When the team arrives, they’ll begin by preparing the roof for installation. Next, they’ll place all the electrical wiring needed to connect your panels to the grid.

Here’s how the installation will proceed:

  • The team will build the racking that will support your solar panels.
  • The racking will be attached to your roof and tested for safety and security.
  • The panels will be placed in the racking and attached.
  • The inverter (or inverters) will be connected to the panels.

Depending on the size of your system, the installation process will take about 1-3 days. If you’ve opted to add battery backup equipment to your system, your project may take an additional 2-3 days.

Step Four: Inspections

The system is installed, and it’s almost time to flip the switch/turn it on. Before your installer can energize your panels, however, it will need to pass a series of inspections. 

First, a local Building Inspector will visit your property to inspect the system and provide final approval. In most cases, this inspection is quick and straightforward.

The inspector will double-check the installer’s work and compare your system to a checklist of compliance requirements. For example, they’ll check that all wiring and equipment was installed correctly and that the racking that mounts the system to your roof is attached securely.

If the inspector finds no issues, they will certify that the system meets local codes and provide official approval directly to your solar installer. Next, your solar company’s Interconnection Team will submit the “Inspection Passed” certification to your local utility.

The final step then happens where your utility receives the local building department certification and issues a “Permission To Operate” (PTO) letter to your solar installer, signaling that it’s safe to energize your Solar Energy system.

All in, between the local inspection and the utility receiving certification and issuing their PTO letter, you can expect to wait between 2-4 weeks.

Step Five: Energize the System

Once your system is granted PTO by your utility, you can expect to hear from your solar company that it’s time to flip the switch and energize your PV system! After all the anticipation, this part can be very exciting. Congratulations! Your project is complete, and your home is now being powered by clean, green renewable solar energy.

Let the savings begin!

Are Solar Panels Worth it?

solar panels on home

The solar panel installation process is a lengthy one, but is it worth it? The short answer is yes. There are dozens of benefits of installing a residential solar panel system, including the following:

  • Increased predictability and stability. Regardless of what happens in the political or fossil fuel environment, your solar equipment will not be impacted. Even if a future administration loosens coal regulations, the high cost of fossil fuels will keep the industry stagnant. Meanwhile, solar panels allow homeowners to recoup the cost of the install and save money on their power bills in the long-term.
  • Increased energy security. Power outages are on the rise in California. In 2019 alone, there were 25,281 blackout events in the state. If you rely solely on the grid, there’s little you can do but endure these outages. By installing a solar panel + battery backup system, though, you can afford additional energy security for your family and ensure that your household will keep running – even when the grid goes down. (Note: installing a grid-tied solar energy system without a battery backup system will not keep your home powered up during a grid-down event).
  • Cost savings. For most homeowners, solar panel systems allow you to enjoy lower monthly utility bills. Your actual savings will depend on the size of your home and solar panel system, your local electricity rates, and your daily electricity consumption.
  • Increased home value. Solar panels are a significant upgrade to a home, and they can make the property more attractive to prospective buyers. According to recent studies, buyers are willing to pay a premium for solar power. Research by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed that solar panel systems increase a home’s value by an average of $15,000.
  • Environmental factors. Each kWh of solar power generated reduces greenhouse gas emissions and other dangerous pollutants, leading to a cleaner environment and lower carbon footprint.

Thinking of Going Solar in California? We’re Here to Help!

Installing residential solar panels is an exciting milestone, and you deserve a solar installer who can help you understand the solar panel installation process from start to finish. Here at Sandbar Solar & Electric, our team specializes in creating customized, highly efficient solar panel systems for homeowners and businesses throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and Central Coast.

When you work with us, we provide unbeatable visibility into our progress. For example, once your system is installed and energized, you will have access to streamlined online monitoring of your system.

You’ll also get a 10-year Workmanship Warranty with us, as well as the 25-year performance and product warranty offered by the premium solar module and inverter companies we work with.

Ready to learn more or to schedule your solar installation? Contact us today.

About the Author

Scott is the founder of Sandbar Solar & Electric. With a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from UC San Diego, Scott has an NABCEP certification, and has lectured on and taught many high-tech construction practices and solar PV technical concepts to education institutions, including Stanford University and state-recognized electrician apprenticeship programs. Scott enjoys sharing his knowledge of the evolving renewable energy space and making a difference in his community.