Solar saves you money. Installing it yourself is a great way to save even more money. But that only works if you don’t end up with an emergency room bill because you weren’t careful. There is a reason that solar contractors pay higher workers’ compensation rates than any other construction trade. So let’s talk about the dangers and how to avoid them.
First, let’s tackle the most obvious hazard which is falling. If you are installing your solar panels on a ground mount, you can skip this part but most solar installations are on a roof and therein lies the danger.
Before you get onto the roof, you should be aware of ladder safety. The angle of the ladder is important, too steep of an angle and you can go over backwards when you are at the top of the ladder, too shallow of an angle and the ladder can slide out from under you. The way to get the right angle it to make sure the distance between the wall and the bottom of your ladder is 1/4 the height of the surface you are climbing to. For example, if the edge of your roof is 12 feet high, the bottom of your ladder should be 3 feet out from the wall. If the edge of your roof is 20 feet high, the ladder should be 5 feet from the wall.
Once you have the ladder in the right place, the first time you climb it you should tie it off. If there isn’t already something to anchor it to, a big eye hook screwed firmly into a rafter in the eave will do it. Generally gutters aren’t sturdy enough so using them to hold the ladder will only give you a false sense of security which could be more dangerous than no tie off at all.
Okay, now that we have you safely on the roof the best way to mitigate the risk of falling is a harness, rope and anchor set up. These can be a bit pricey, but your life is worth it.
There are also safety concerns to address for getting things besides yourself on the roof. Climbing the ladder while carrying things is not the best idea, so let’s look at other options. Tools and smaller racking parts can be hoisted up to the roof with a bucket and rope. The solar panels are a little trickier but there are safe options like a ladder lift. They make very simple rope and pulley models or you can get fancy motorized model that has the added bonus of showing off to the neighbors. If the roof is not very tall, you can lift the solar panels up, but to avoid potential back injuries it should be two people on the ground lifting the solar panel up to two people on the roof.
Finally, never try to install solar panels when it is windy and/or raining. Carrying a solar panel is like walking around with a sail that the wind can grab to pull you off the roof and the solar panel isn’t going to act as a parachute either, Mythbusters tried that with a sheet of plywood and it didn’t work. Rain just makes the ladder and roof surface slick. While it is a less exciting hazard, it still should be avoided.
Now that you know how not to fall, we can talk about how not to get electrocuted. If you don’t know basic electrical safety, don’t attempt this part of the install. You can still save money doing all the mechanical installation of the racking and solar panels then hire an electrician to wire things up.
Solar is particularly dangerous electricity in that solar panels are always live. Even moonlight can be enough light for the solar power to hurt you. This is especially important when installing a string inverter. The connection to the string of solar panels is the last thing you do so your wires are not live while you are routing them through conduit or connecting them to other equipment.
Installing microinverters or DC optimizer system is much safer. the DC power from the solar panel is safely isolated once it is connected to the microinverter or optimizer. The lines going down to the remaining equipment will not be live until you power up the whole system.
The other thing to keep in mind is that working in the main service panel is dangerous. When the main breaker is off, the lines or busbars supplying it are still live and require extreme caution. If the main breaker needs to be de-rated or the service panel needs to be upgraded, you will have to coordinate with the utility company to shut off the power going to the house so you can work safely. Again, hiring an electrician for the scary parts is okay.
Other precautions you should take would apply to any DIY project like be careful with your power tools. Wear proper footwear (they do make electrical hazard rated boots with compression resistant toes) and gloves (to avoid minor cuts and scrapes as well as burning your hands on metal parts that you left out in the sun). Safety glasses are recommended when cutting solar rails with a power saw. A respirator should be worn if your going to be in the attic. Last but not least, keep a basic first aid kit handy.
So now that you know how to safely install your solar you can get out there and start saving money confident that you will be around to enjoy the lifetime of savings.