When most people think about solar, they picture it installed on a roof but that isn’t always what happens. If you have a little bit of land, chances are you have the space for ground mounted solar. This could be the better choice, especially if you are a do-it-yourselfer. Ground mount solar installation is typically easier and safer than roof mounting and here are some tips to help make that DIY solar ground mount project go a little smoother.
First, when planning your project, make sure you know the location of your property lines and the required setbacks. Most cities and counties require permanent structures like the solar ground mount rack to be at least 5’ from the property lines but sometimes they can require as much as 30’ setback if there is a road there or you are in a rural area prone to wildfires. You might also want to inquire about a flood zone like a water wash area that runs through your property where you may not be allowed to build. Even if the local authority doesn’t enforce it, you should think twice about installing the solar ground mount in an area that you know might flood during heavy rains or spring thaws.
Doing a ground mount means that you don’t have to haul all the solar panels up to the roof but it still may not be the best idea to get solar panels that are very large in size. Some solar panels are almost 7’ long and can weigh up to 75 pounds each. Even though you don’t have to lug the panels up a ladder, you will still have to move them around and lift them up pretty high to install them on the back end of the ground mount rack. At the end of the day, that last solar panel you have to lift is going to feel much heavier than the first one you picked up in the morning.
Another note on choosing equipment is to use pre-designed solar racking. Some of them include all the pieces and others have hardware designed to work with galvanized steel water pipes. Either one of these options will be easier to get permitted and install than if you attempt to design your own racking system. You might be able to do it a little cheaper with parts you have on hand, but you will pay for it in headaches at the building department and potential unforeseen structural issues.
Also be careful about what tilt angle you commit to if the ground is flat. The ideal tilt angle in the southern U.S. is 30 degrees and it is 40 degrees in the northern states but if you have a larger solar project, those angles could make for a very tall back end on the rack which makes for an awkward installation. Changing that to a 15 degree angle makes for a much easier install and will only make about a 5% to 10% difference in the power production. You can also break the system up into multiple smaller ground racks or install it on a south-facing hill if you are lucky enough to have one on your property.
When you pull your permit with the city or county, make sure you ask about what inspections will be required. Building departments often require a “Footings Inspection” when you are planning to install concrete footings. What this means is that you will need to dig the holes for the concrete footings and have those holes inspected before you pour the concrete. This is done to ensure that the holes are the proper depth and width before they get permanently filled. If this extra inspection will be required check the weather before you schedule it. A good rain will put a lot of extra dirt in the holes you dug which cause you to fail this inspection and set your project back a day or two.
If you are installing your system on a hillside there are a few tricks the pros use to make life easier. One thing you can do is cut stairs down the hill on one or both sides of your array to make it a little easier to get tools, equipment and solar panels where you need them. If you have some extra railroad ties, they work great as stair steps. If you find your feet sliding too much in the loose dirt, try wearing baseball or golf cleats to give you a little extra traction. If the hill is really steep and has something dangerous like a cliff or a road at the bottom of it, get a harness and rope to tie yourself off just in case. You can also use the rope to help get back up the hill when your legs get tired.
Ground mounts tend to have long conduit runs, but if you plan it out carefully, pulling the wire can be a breeze. When installing the PVC conduit in the trench make sure all the bells for the junctions open towards the overall uphill direction. Once the conduit is all in place, tie a light string to a grocery bag and stick it in the uphill end of the conduit. Use a shop vac at the downhill end of the conduit to pull the bag and string through. Then tie a stronger rope to the string and use the string to pull that uphill. Then tape your wire to that rope and pull it downhill. Pulling downhill is much easier and your wire won’t get snagged on the ends of the conduit stuck in the bells because you faced the bells the right direction. It is also a good idea to put in conduit that is one size larger than what is required by code just to make the pull wire that much easier.
The final tip, and this is a big one, make sure you buy your equipment from a company like GoGreenSolar.com that offers technical support as part of their package. Having that lifeline that can make all the difference in your DIY solar installation experience.