solar panel installation

Going solar can feel like a complex process, with what seems like a lot going on behind the scenes once you commit to getting panels. EnergySage and our team of advisors can help you navigate every step along the way, but it may help your peace of mind to learn about the steps. 

Even before you purchase or install anything, you’ll need to determine if your home is a good fit for solar. When you’re ready to move forward, it’s time to find a solar panel installer who can help you through the planning, engineering, permitting, installation, and final approval and interconnection. That’s a lot to unpack, so we've put together this guide to help you navigate the preliminary research and the solar installation process.

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Key takeaways

  • Evaluate your energy needs, decide if your home is suitable for solar, explore incentives near you, and compare quotes from qualified installers before you sign a solar installation contract. 

  • The five main steps to installing a solar panel system include an engineering site visit, permits and documentation, ordering equipment, the solar panel installation, and approval and interconnection.

  • The entire process usually takes one to three months before your solar panels start generating electricity. 

  • The actual installation work generally takes one to three days.

  • We don't recommend installing solar panels yourself without professional experience.

Before you install solar panels, you should understand if your home is a good fit for solar, as well as have some sense of your energy needs. That will help you determine the size of your system, its overall cost, and how much it will save you each month.

1. Understand your electric bill

The higher your electric bill, the more money you can save by going solar. To understand your current electricity usage, look for a measurement of your annual kilowatt hours (kWh) rating on your bill or on your account page on your utility's website. In addition to the environmental benefits, installing solar panels can offset or even eliminate your electricity bill from your monthly expenses. 

The less energy your home needs, the less demand you put on the electric grid. Before you size a solar panel system to fit your energy needs, consider undergoing a home energy audit to uncover anything that makes your home less efficient. Switching to energy efficient lighting and appliances or weatherizing your home may help to lessen your electricity expenses.

2. Determine if your home is structured for solar

A solar panel system comes with significant upfront costs, but when done right, it’ll pay in the end. To get the most out of your system, ensure your home can accommodate solar panels before installing them on your roof. 

Your roof's shading, its orientation and angle towards the sun, and its age all contribute to its potential to generate solar energy. In a perfect world, your panels will face south and tilt between 15 and 40 degrees. You can still have a productive solar panel system if your roof falls outside of those parameters, but it's important to understand how your home’s specifications may impact a solar installation. A variety of tools online can help you identify the details of your home.

Not a good fit for home solar? You can still benefit from solar without installing anything on your property with community solar.

3. Explore incentives and rebates

Incentives and state and federal tax rebates can substantially cut your overall costs to install solar. The Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) alone can save you 30% on the upfront costs for solar, with state and local rebates knocking the price down even more depending on where you live. Given initial costs nationwide average over $30,000, it's extremely worth your while to look into any discounts you can apply. Our Energy Advisors can help you track down incentives, and you can also read through our state-based research to find savings on your own. 

4. Compare quotes and choose an installer

Once you've identified your energy needs, your home's potential, and the incentives in your area, it's time to find a qualified solar professional to handle your install. Using the EnergySage Marketplace, you can find solar providers in your area and compare quotes to choose the best installer based on your unique needs.

Learn more about how to pick a solar installer.

Once you decide on a solar company and system, the installation process begins. The time it takes to get your solar panels up and running depends on a handful of factors. Generally, you can expect to wait a few months before your solar panels produce energy for your home. In that time, your solar company should follow these five main steps:

1. Engineering site visit

The first step to installing your solar system is an engineer site visit. After you sign a solar contract, an engineer will come by your property to evaluate the electrical status of your home and ensure everything is compatible with your incoming solar installation. During their visit, the engineer will evaluate the condition of your roof and your electrical panel (the gray box in your basement) to confirm your home can support a solar panel system. 

An engineer will typically visit your home themselves, although sometimes installers take photos and measurements of the property and have the engineer sign off without doing their visit. 

An engineer visit differs from a general site visit. Before any contract is signed, an installer will conduct a general site visit to evaluate your property to create your system design based on your roof type, roof angle, and shading. The engineer comes in after contracts are signed to confirm it’s safe to go ahead with your installer’s plans. 

2. Permits and documents

Installing solar panels involves a lot of paperwork. Your installer should deal with most of this, but it's always a good idea to know what's happening behind the scenes. The main things to be aware of include:

  • State and federal incentive application: You’ll need to apply for things like the federal solar tax credit and solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs). Your installer should be aware of the incentives you qualify for and help you file this paperwork. 

  • Building permits: Local solar permits are specific to where you live; some states require a roof with three feet of clear space surrounding the solar panels, whereas others allow you to install panels across the entire surface of your roof. Your solar company should know the restrictions and requirements of your state and handle this paperwork.

  • Solar loans or leases: If you use a solar loan or a lease, you'll need to work with your installer to complete this paperwork. 

The timing of this step depends on how long it takes your installer to fill out and submit everything. Don't be afraid to follow up with your solar company to check on the progress of your paperwork.

3. Ordering your solar panels, inverters, and other equipment

You’ll likely decide on equipment and costs before you sign a contract. Once you complete the necessary paperwork, your installer can order your equipment. If you're willing to do some homework before this step, you'll feel more knowledgeable and confident in the equipment you've chosen.

The two primary components of a solar energy system are the solar panels and the inverters that convert energy from the panel into usable electricity for your home. Your installer will likely recommend a particular brand for each piece, but it’s always best to do your own research. Consider the following factors when evaluating your options: 

  • Price: The average cost of solar is around $30,000 before incentives. 

  • Durability: Your solar panel system should withstand your local weather and climate during its 25+ year lifetime. When comparing your solar panel options on EnergySage, refer to the “Resiliency” section to understand the elements (snow, wind, hail, fire, etc.) your panels are certified to combat.

  • Efficiency: The more efficient your equipment is, the more electricity you’ll get from your solar panel system. Higher-efficiency solar panels tend to be more expensive. For reference, the most efficient solar panel on EnergySage has an efficiency rating of 22.8%. You can find a panel’s efficiency rating on its datasheet under “module efficiency”. 

  • Warranty: Your solar panels should come with product and performance warranties that last around 25 years. Product warranties cover solar panel damage, and performance warranties guarantee a certain amount of solar production every year. Inverters should also be covered by a warranty of at least 10-12 years. Most solar panel manufacturers post their warranty details on their websites. You can usually find the annual degradation rate (part of the performance warranty) included in a solar panel’s datasheet.

  • Aesthetics: If you’re concerned with the look of a solar panel system, consider the design of your options. 

The timeline of your solar panel installation depends on how busy your installer is, the local permitting process, and supply chain constraints. If you’re interested in a speedier process, try to complete your solar installation in the winter when solar companies aren't as busy.

Learn more about the best solar panels available.

4. Solar installation: The big day

A solar panel installation usually takes one to three days. Your specific timeline will depend on your system's size, the complexity of your roof, and whether or not you need to add a power meter for net metering

5. Approval and interconnection

Before you can flip the switch and officially begin your home solar energy generation, your town and your utility need to approve your solar panel system. 

A representative from your local government will inspect your solar panel system. They’re there to check your installer’s work and confirm the system meets the local standards and electrical codes. Following this local inspection, your system will be ready to connect to the utility grid.

Next, a representative from your utility company will conduct a final evaluation of the solar panel system. If there are no glaring issues, your panels will go live when they give the okay. It ordinarily takes two weeks to a month for your system to receive approval and officially go live.

You can install solar panels yourself, but doing it alone involves risks. 

Going solar has significant financial benefits: it reduces your monthly electricity costs and can even increase the value of your home. Incentives can lower your overall cost drastically, but solar is still a big investment. To save money, it's no surprise that many homeowners consider a  DIY approach. You can go that route, but we don’t recommend installing solar panels without professional experience. 

A DIY solar panel installation is not the best option if you still rely on utility energy, which most people do. Installing solar panels without the proper expertise can lead to major issues that may cost you more in the long run.

Learn more about DIY solar installation.

To help you better understand the installation process and how to install solar panels, we’ve answered some of the most commonly asked questions:

How much do solar panels cost to install?

According to data from the EnergySage Marketplace, going solar costs between $17,500 and $24,640 after accounting for the federal solar tax credit. This cost will likely drop further once you apply for any rebates from your state, your local government, and your utility.

Can I go off-grid with solar panels?

You can't go off-grid with solar panels alone – you'll also need to install a solar battery. For most homeowners, disconnecting from the grid entirely is not worth the effort and costs.

Choosing between installers can be daunting, but EnergySage is here to help. The average solar shopper on EnergySage offsets approximately 98% of their electricity usage by going solar and will pay off their solar energy system in about eight years. Find out how much you can save by using our Solar Calculator to get a personalized instant estimate based on offers in your area. If you're ready to compare quotes from vetted installers in your area, you can register your property on the EnergySage Marketplace.

Find out what solar panels cost in your area in 2024
Please enter a five-digit zip code.
  • 100% free to use, 100% online
  • Access the lowest prices from installers near you
  • Unbiased Energy Advisors ready to help
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