Solar is a great idea. But is it a great idea to install it yourself? That depends on your skills.
The first set of skills that should be discussed are safety skills. There is a reason why solar contractors pay some of the highest workers’ compensation insurance rates in the construction industry. You will be working on the roof. Be sure to wear a fall protection safety harness to protect you from slipping off the roof! You will need to transport all your tools and materials to the roof (including the 3.5’ x 5.5’ solar panels that weigh 45 pounds each), which can be tricky if the roof isn’t flat. Plus there is live DC electricity and power tools involved. If you know and understand all the safety requirements of these things, you are past the first hurdle.
Next, some roofing skills would come in handy for a do-it-yourself solar installer. In order to install solar panels on a typical residential roof, you will be drilling a lot of holes in it. Knowing the basic construction of your roof and how to seal those holes is a key factor in a successful solar installation.
Electrician skills are needed if you want to do the whole job by yourself. EMT conduit is commonly used for solar in most parts of the country so you will need to bend that conduit as it goes over the roof ridge or routes around the eave. For most residential jobs the conduit will only be ¾”, maybe 1” if the system is fairly large or you want the wire pull to be very easy.
If conduit bending is not a skill you currently have, the key to learning it is practice. So, buy a few more sticks of conduit than you think you need and learn as you go. Most stores also carry conduit bends ready-made with the perfect radius. You can use pull boxes or LBs to get around the corners without being a master conduit bender.
Wiring is other electrician skill you will need. Having experience pulling wires through conduit is very useful. Knowledge of details like marking the wires before you pull them through the conduit, making sure all the strands of the wire are in the terminal and how to properly torque the terminal so those wires stay put would also be essential.
The more important part of the electrician skills is understanding basic electrical safety. You can do things to make it safer like turning off your main service breaker when you are installing the PV breaker, but you also need to know that the wires from the meter to the main service breaker are still live when you do that.
Another bit of live power you will need to understand is the DC power from the solar panels which is always live. Any amount of light, even moonlight, may be enough for the panels to have some voltage so you always have to work with them carefully.
Understanding this DC power is especially important if you are installing a system with a string inverter. You want to make sure the connection to the string of solar panels is the last thing you do so the wires are not live while you are routing them through conduit or connecting them to other equipment.
Systems with microinverters or DC optimizers are much safer to install. Once you connect the solar panel to the microinverter or optimizer, the DC power from the solar panel is safely isolated and the lines going down to the remaining equipment will not be live until you power up the whole system.
If you aren’t comfortable with the electrical work, a lot of do it yourselfers install the solar panels and racking and hire an electrician for the rest. This will cost some, but not nearly as much as having a contractor do the whole job for you.
There are other general construction skills that will make your solar install go smoother like being able to find rafters and wall studs. The roof attachments for the solar racking will need to be firmly in the rafters. If you don’t have an expensive stud finder, you can use a hammer or rubber mallet (which is “kinder” to the roof). It will sound different when the hammer hits the rafter versus the roof decking so you know where to drill. Finding wall studs for hanging inverters or solar load centers is easier than dealing with the rafters. A less expensive stud finder or just knocking with your knuckles is all it takes.
Skill with power tools should also be on this list. The tools used most in solar are drills for pilot holes on the roof attachments as well as tightening all the bolts on the solar racking. It is also helpful to be handy with a saw so you can cut the solar rails to the size you need.
General planning and measuring are also skills you will need so get out the tape measure, level and square. Be ready to make straight chalk lines on the roof, plan your conduit run and make a good detailed list before going to the hardware store to avoid extra trips.
Do-it-yourself solar is a task that requires skill, but it isn’t rocket science. If you have construction experience and basic safety knowledge, you can strap on your tool belt and save yourself thousands of dollars.