Can I Do It Myself?

So you’ve been thinking about solar power or battery backup and wondering, “Can I do it myself?”  Well, let’s stop for a moment if you really meant, “May I do it myself?”  Those are two different things and I’ll talk about both, separately, but I wanted to point out both considerations.  Without any more information, I’d say, “Maybe” to both. 

Can you?  Let’s talk about the physical requirements.  I’m 65 years old, am 30 pounds too heavy, have too much blood pressure and all the bendy parts don’t bend like they used to.  I know two other guys my age doing solar and one 75 year old.  If you aren’t much worse off than that, you have potential.  

This is my current project, in Phase 3.  I call it my Solar Shed, with 11KW on the roof.

 Can you pick up a 65 pound solar panel or battery?  Lift the panel over your head?  Somebody’s going to have to do it and it won’t climb up on the roof or rack by itself.  There will be heavy stuff.

Are you clever enough to come up with some apparatus or con a buddy to help you lift a 200 pound inverter in place to bolt to the wall?  Sometimes a good idea works better than brute force. Ratchet straps can raise a heavy inverter.

Do you have the tools?  In addition to the usual hand tools, you may need big cutters, crimpers, soldering supplies, a basic volt/ohmmeter, ladder, screw gun and maybe more. 

Do your tools have a lot of blood on them? None means you aren’t using them or are good at cleaning up.   A little is inevitable, but too much may be a message to hire a pro. 

Do you get gifts of tools at birthday and Christmas?  If so, you may be ok.  If not, why not?  Do people think you are dangerous with a tool?  Do family members run to call 911 when they see you with a power tool?  Some people are just not meant to use tools. 

Can you successfully, rewire a lamp, assemble a kid’s swing set or Ikea furniture or install a car stereo?  If so, you may be ok. Courtney, 64,  puts in the last screws in an arched solar pergola over his BBQ.  Yeah, we bent them.

Do you have the knowledge of how solar power systems are connected and regulations for connecting them?  If you don’t, there is a lot of free information on the Internet, diagrams of sample systems are available and folks like Sun Electronics offer kits and pre-fab hardware that requires minimal connection. 

Those are very convenient and can save money over a la carte.  You can get loads of ideas by downloading free back issues of Home Power Magazine at https://archive.org/details/home_power_magazine . 

Tom is 75 and he’s doing his own 10KW solar

 There are a couple of things I want to warn you about that may not be obvious to a newcomer.  Most solar panels put out a modest voltage of 18-40 volts.  That might give you a little tingle if wires were on a sweaty arm, but individually solar modules are pretty safe.  HOWEVER, if you are using an MPPT type charge controller on a battery system (and you should for efficiency), you might have several panels wired in series for maybe 120-150 volts going into the charge controller.  That much is going to do you harm if you touch it.  Your panels normally use MC3, MC4 or Tyco connectors that won’t let you touch the harmful voltage, but you will use bare wire to connect to disconnects, fuse holders and the charge controller.  I make a point of doing the bare wire work before plugging in the last panel connector and I’ve not been bitten yet.  In my early days as a broadcast engineer I routinely worked with radio transmitters with 10,000 volt power supplies.  My boss told me to always keep one hand in my pocket so that I couldn’t make a circuit through my heart if I slipped up.  I never wore rings or a watch to work, either.  Insulated gloves are a good idea, too. 

64 year old Stan is upgrading the solar at his hunting camp.

Now if you think 150 volts is worrisome, and it is, consider that if you are connecting a grid tie system,  you may be dealing with 600 volts!!!  Now, aside from my advice to “DON’T TOUCH”, there is a characteristic of DC power of which you might not be aware.  It arcs.  If you try to unplug one of your MC4 cables while the system is charging or grid-tied, there is a good chance that the current will try to continue to flowing in the form of an arc.  This can vaporize a connector, which will have to be replaced.  Do your unplugging at night or when the system is shut down. 

Did the last two paragraphs frighten you or did you just store that info away?  If it scares you, you might start on something simpler or just call in a knowledgeable friend or a pro.  If not, and you aren’t any older or feebler than I am, go for it!  The hardest part may just be deciding what you want to do. 

I take my solar power on adventures….or it takes me…thousands of miles.

 One last thing, if you want to get some construction experience, working with laying out the structure, framing, roofing and wiring,—maybe even solar— consider volunteering with Habitat for Humanity or one of these groups that builds houses for disabled vets.  You will learn skills, build confidence and find out if you are made for this sort of thing. —Neal