Going solar is a smart investment, for you, your family, and the planet. But how do you go solar at home and what are your options if you don’t own your rooftop or can’t finance the investment in solar panels?
Table of Contents
Below, we offer a step-by-step guide to solar installation. After, we look at the cost of solar. Specifically, we ask how much solar energy costs, per Watt, to buy in the U.S., and how much it costs the average homeowner to install a rooftop array.
What You’ll Learn in This Section
Step-by-step guide to solar installation
Curious about how a home solar installation works? Here’s a step-by-step guide to a typical solar installation process. As you’ll see, several of the steps can occur at the same time, with most of the process taken care of by your contractor. Note, too, that some steps are necessary in some regions but not in others (another reason why it’s good to choose a local solar installer, knowledgeable about local permitting and rules!).
How to go solar – step by step
|Action||Who does it|
|1 – Research contractors and compare bids.||Customer|
|2 – Design your system – including a site visit and energy use assessment to determine array size.||Potential solar installers / Contractors|
|2.a – If needed, get approval for your desired system from your Homeowners’ Association (HOA).||Customer|
|3 – Choose your installer and system and sign contract.||Customer|
|3.a – If applying for financing, do that in tandem with choosing a contractor. Some contractors work with specific solar loan companies, or your contractor may need to be approved by your financial institution before a loan can be disbursed.||Customer / Contractor|
|4 – Apply to your utility for interconnection and net metering (if available).||Contractor|
|5 – Apply to city or county agency for building permit.||Contractor|
|6 – Once permitted, install the home solar array.||Contractor|
|7 – System inspection by city/county/utility – receive ‘permission to operate’ from utility.||Contractor|
|8 – Onsite inspection of interconnection and meters.||Utility|
|9 – Once approved by the utility, switch on your system!||Customer (sometimes with utility/contractor present)|
|9.a – Once you’re satisfied your system is working properly, pay your contractor or sign any necessary paperwork for your contractor to get paid by your loan company or another financer.||Customer|
|10 – Watch your meter roll backward and receive your first utility bill with energy credits.||Customer|
The steps above represent a smooth home solar installation. To help increase your chances of everything going to plan, make sure to discuss each step with your chosen contractor before signing the contractor. This will help make sure you understand who is responsible for each action and how long you can expect each step to take.
Take note that almost every home solar installation will require a building or electrical permit from your local authority’s planning and safety department. This has to happen before you start any onsite work, even if you’re installing home solar yourself. Some local governments offer streamlined, fast-tracked permitting for home renewable energy projects such as solar. If you work with a local installer, they’re more likely to know the process inside and out. This can help avoid missing paperwork and expedite permitting.
Once all the permits are in hand, your contractor can go ahead and install your home solar energy system. Depending on the size of your array and its design, this can take as little as a day. If you’re also getting roofing work done or having a solar roof installed, the process will take longer – sometimes a couple of weeks or more.
During installation, expect to have at least two installers onsite. For bigger projects, expect more workers scrambling about on your roof. Be aware that many tradespeople insist on being the only contractors on site at any given time, for liability reasons. So, don’t plan to have a roofer, solar installer, landscaper, plumbers, or other trades all on site simultaneously.
Find a Solar Energy partner near you.
Once your new solar energy system is installed, you’ll need to have it inspected by the local planning and safety office. In most cases, your utility will also perform an onsite inspection to ensure proper interconnection with the grid. Don’t turn your system on until your utility has granted a permission to operate (PTO) order. This is for your safety, the safety of any utility workers, and to reduce the risk of damage to your property from an improperly installed or dysfunctional system.
If you are paying for your solar installation with a loan, you’ll usually need proof of satisfactory inspections and a PTO order before your solar loan company will disburse funds to your contractor. Many loan companies will also require you to sign paperwork to say you’re satisfied with the installation. If you’re not satisfied, don’t sign the paperwork!
How much does home solar cost in the U.S.?
Many homeowners are beginning to realize that a solar energy system isn’t just for rich tech enthusiasts and ardent environmentalists or off-gridders. In fact, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) estimates that the cost of home solar has dropped by more than 60% in the last decade or so. Back in 2011, a typical 6 kW array would have cost upwards of $50,000. In 2021, the same sized system cost just $16,000 to $21,000.
Rooftop solar has never been more affordable or accessible. There are also numerous grants, rebates, and tax incentives available across the country, helping more families go solar at home. We crunch the numbers to find out the cost of a home solar energy system. And unlike most online solar calculators, we take care to show our work. This means you can plug in your own numbers to get a better sense of how much your home solar project might cost.
What if you don’t want to install solar at home but do want to use solar power? Though some utility companies charge a premium for customers signing up for ‘green energy’ programs, a look at the data shows that solar is very competitive as a source of electricity. In fact, it easily rivals the cost of electricity generated by natural gas and coal.
What’s more, solar power doesn’t have the same negative effects on health or the environment as burning fossil fuels, meaning it’s associated with far fewer indirect costs for government and utilities. This makes solar power much more cost-effective for taxpayers, energy customers, and society as a whole.
How to pay for solar
Once you have an idea of the cost of installing solar on your roof, it’s time to figure out how to pay for it. Our solar financing 101 can help you do just that. We take a look at the different ways to pay for home solar and some of the grants and subsidized loans you might be able to access.
We also compare different types of solar loans and other ways to cover the costs of a residential solar energy system.
Check out our top picks for solar loan providers.
For folks who like the idea of solar at home but don’t want to own an entire array, a power purchase agreement or lease is another way to go solar. Our guide to financing solar explains the difference between leases and PPAs and the pros and cons of these versus outright ownership.
With a PPA or solar lease, you still have an array on your roof. What if a home solar array isn’t quite what you want, though?
Find a Solar Energy partner near you.
Say hello to community solar. With programs springing up across the U.S., community solar is a great way to enjoy many of the benefits of solar power even if you don’t own a rooftop or have the money or desire to install an array yourself. The basic idea is that you purchase or subscribe to a share of a solar array located in your community but not on your rooftop. For that share or subscription, you get reduced energy costs and help support renewable energy and a move away from fossil fuels.
If community solar sounds like the right fit for you, take a look at our top picks for community solar programs in the U.S.
Choosing solar equipment
We looked at the different types of solar energy systems in our Solar 101 guide, but now we really dig in with a look at how to choose solar equipment.
Clearly, the kind of solar panels you install will have a big impact on the productivity of your rooftop array. Different types of panels are a good fit for different climates and levels of sun exposure. We take a look at the various types of solar panels available for residential arrays and offer our recommendations for the best brands for solar panels.
A home solar array isn’t just about the solar panels, though. You also need to consider inverters, battery storage, and charge controllers, as well as mounting hardware and racking, depending on how your system is designed. Scrimping on these parts of your home energy system can seriously affect productivity, safety, and durability. We walk you through choosing your solar equipment to make the most of the sun shining on your roof.
If you’re thinking of installing a battery as part of your solar energy system, you’ll also want to check out our guide to solar storage.
There’s a lot to think about when it comes to home solar set-ups. And panels aren’t the only way to go solar at home.
Solar roofs and solar shingles
If you don’t like the look of solar panels, or you need a new roof, a solar roof or solar shingles might be just the ticket. We explain how solar roof technology works and the pros and cons of this newer type of home solar energy system.
The Tesla Solar Roof tends to steal the spotlight, but several other companies also make solar roofs and solar shingles. We look at the best solar roof options and ask, “Should you install a solar roof?”
Finding a solar installer you can trust
Once you’re ready to get started on your home solar adventure, you’re going to need a home solar installer you can trust. With dozens of new rooftop solar companies popping up across the U.S., it’s hard to tell the fly-by-night operations from installers who will be around to honor workmanship warranties if anything goes wrong.
Learn how to find a reputable solar installer and which solar certifications to look for. Then, take a look at our top picks for solar installers, both nationwide and locally. We’ll also be adding to the guide more in-depth reviews of the top solar installers in the U.S.