A set of two flat plate solar hot water collectors professionally installed on a home in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire
As more and more homeowners discover the benefits of harvesting solar energy, there are growing numbers of solar electric and solar hot water kits appearing on the market.
Most of these are billed towards the adventurous homeowner – those who might think that a project that spans a couple of weekends is worth saving some money over hiring a professional.
While we very much respect the DIY attitude of solar energy enthusiasts (indeed, the whole industry has its roots in the tinkerers who have been building their own systems since the 70s), there is a lot more to consider when installing a solar energy system than the DIY system literature would have you believe.
Bottom line: it may cost you much more than you expect to do it yourself.
1 – The Real Cost of Parts and Labor
The major assumption with going the DIY route is that by eliminating professional labor rates, you’ll drastically reduce the cost of a solar energy system. After all, professionals will charge you $20+/hr, while your own labor is free, right?
Well, it’s not quite so easy.
Equipment costs account for roughly 80% of the cost of a solar energy job, and professional solar companies get considerably better prices on parts. Quite frankly, we’re shocked at some of the prices being asked for the DIY kits.
We found one solar hot water kit, for example, fetching $6,500 (prior to incentives). Compared to a professional installation with better performing parts, the difference is less than $2,000.
We find similar premium prices on solar electric modules. While we can purchase and install solar electricity for roughly $5.25/watt right now, we’ve seen solar panels advertised for $5.5/watt.
Yes, the actual parts – without wiring, inverter, mounting equipment, or labor – are being sold retail for more than the installed cost from us!
Professional labor rates are anything but price gouging – on every system we install, you benefit from the cumulative expertise of engineers from MIT, Dartmouth, and UNH, and practical experience on 2,500 systems. Our installers in the field are professionally licensed plumbers and electricians, and we invest heavily in training so that our standards of excellence are hard to match.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a group that can install a system as efficiently and professionally as our gang!
A schematic for a basic residential solar hot water system that uses an oil boiler for backup.
2 – What it Takes to Get a Rebate
Something that is not usually advertised with off-the-shelf solar kits is that in order to qualify for federal and state rebates, you need a professional plumber or electrician to sign off on the installation.
Wait, what – after saving some money by doing the installation yourself, you’re still expected to have a professional on board?
While it may seem unfair, the federal government and states require a professional sign-off as a safety measure for you.
Poor performing and hacked-together systems were a real problem in the 70s and today’s requirements aim to ante up professionalism in the industry by requiring standards such as SRCC ratings on equipment and credentials (such as NABCEP) from installers.
In some states, such as New Hampshire, the rebate application requires even more paperwork and verification – including panoramic shots the southern exposure, a solar pathfinder photo, and robust parts specifications.
If the amount of labor and expertise it takes to install a solar kit doesn’t scare you off, the paperwork just might!
And without access to state rebates, the cost/benefit of DIY vs. professional solar tilts even further to the side of a professional installation.
3 – Who Do You Call in the Middle of the Night?
Professionally installed Superstor solar hot water storage tank with electric backup
The fact that solar installations should last 20+ years is a big part of the equation of up-front cost vs. return on investment equation.
With a professional installation, you are guaranteed a code-compliant, rebate-ready system. At ReVision, we also back all of our systems with 24/7 service. While nearly all our systems run trouble-free, in the rare occasion you do encounter a problem, you can rely on us to fix it promptly.
If you read the fine print with DIY solar kits, you find a remarkably different approach to service. Not only is there no emergency service to be found, but you may need a professional installation just to get the manufacturer to honor their warranty.
Yes, to repeat – we found one DIY kit that says that unless certain parts of the system are professionally installed, the system is ineligible for warranty coverage.
Contrast this with reputable manufacturers of professional-grade solar equipment, who warranty their products for 25 years (in the case of photovoltaics) or 10-20 years (in the case of most solar hot water equipment).
Even the manufacturers of the DIY systems themselves acknowledge the importance of professional installation!
Invest in the Long Term
If you’re a homeowner who has enough projects on the weekend already (or would rather just enjoy your time off!) it’s really hard to justify putting yourself through a DIY solar installation.
Professional installation will save you money in the short-term, and provide you peace of mind in the long-term – and who can put a price on that?
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